ocean to ocean in small steps

A small boat came alongside our ship when we were waiting to enter the Miraflores locks of the Panama canal. A couple of men climbed up the pilot ladder to the deck with mangoes to sell. They didn’t want to be paid in US dollars, they wanted Camay bath soap! So we bartered – three small mangoes for a bar of soap!

Sailing through the Panama canal is one of those experiences you enjoy at different levels, from the practical and cognitive, to the sublime. So many thoughts and reactions crowd into your head and heart all at once.img_5562

The ship’s engines were switched off while mules pulled her into the first chamber of the Miraflores locks. In earlier times real, live mules used to haul barges through canals. The locomotives that have replaced them are called mules too.

Two huge gates – the valves – closed behind us and the gates in front of us opened. The water level gradually rose by gravity to reach the level in the chamber ahead. Then the ship was pulled forward into that chamber. The gates behind us closed. Our ship was raised 85 feet from the Pacific ocean through this system of locks. What a clever idea!

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The ship sailed through the narrow confines of the beautiful Gaillard cut, then through the vast expanse of Gatun lake. It took all day – the Panama canal is 77 km long. Watching from the fo’c’sle it all seemed to happen in slow motion, every operation being done with utmost caution and precision.

From the Gatun lake she was gently lowered 85 feet into the Atlantic, stepping down bit by bit through the Gatun locks. On land, we drive over steel and concrete bridges to cross rivers; here we crossed land by using water as a bridge!

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The first time our ship transited the Panama canal, I was awestruck by the fact that people even came up with such an audacious idea. They used 60 million tonnes of dynamite to blast the Gaillard cut in the land mass of the isthmus! Then, they diverted a river to create a lake to fill it up. I marvelled at the design and engineering skill involved in its execution.

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The beauty of the passage itself was overwhelming. The Gaillard cut passes through virgin forest. The land is green and you can hear the twitter of birds. It is very quiet, very peaceful. There’s even a little waterfall somewhere along the Gaillard cut! Its tranquility filled my heart with gratitude for the Earth and the power that created it. Perfect. It was a deeply spiritual experience, sitting alone on a bitt in the fo’c’sle, absorbing it all.

I read up what was available on board of its fascinating history. It was built by the Americans and the French in the early 1900s with mainly trade in mind. Ferdinand de Lesseps, the man who supervised the digging out of tonnes of sand to create the Suez Canal, was commissioned to create it. They apparently thought his experience at the Suez was adequate to design and build any canal. Dynamiting rock, changing the course of the Chagres river, building dams – so much more was involved in building the Panama canal – that it now seems ridiculous that they gave the responsibility to Lesseps who wasn’t even an engineer! Still, they muddled through it and finally succeeded. Wow!

A ship bound for Rotterdam from Peru – like ours was – would have had to sail south along the coast of Chile, navigate the Magellan straits, then sail north, cross the equator and head for the English Channel, had there been no Panama canal. What a waste of time, effort and fuel! The Panama Canal cuts time, effort and cost to a third of what the long route would need. Very practical.

That human beings have these absolutely wonderful brains, initiative and tenacity to create this! This is progress, with tangible benefits to many and harm to none that I can think of … Hold it! So far, I had been viewing the Panama canal only through the eyes of a sailor. A sailor on a commercial vessel. Seeing a lot of natural beauty is simply an unintended perk of the profession.

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Gatun lake

The builders of the canal had blasted a passage through a rainforest! What about the people, animals and birds that lived there? A dam had been built across the Chagres river to create Gatun lake, as the canal needs lots of water. They must have displaced whole communities when they flooded the river valley? I had noticed the dredging apparatus on Gatun lake and been told the lake was silting up all the time. Why? Deforestation, loose soil flowing into the lake? What about the thousands of people who died of disease or due to accidents during its construction?

The sheen of the Panama canal transit was dulled a little as these thoughts crossed my mind. Sigh… I wish I could be an ostrich about it. On the other hand, I was enjoying the Panama canal nearly eighty years after it was constructed and the terrible circumstances of its construction had passed into history. What I saw was a beautiful canal and a well-run system for the passage of ships. I should probably leave it at that.

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ports of call

Our ship was anchored at the tiny port of Ilo in Peru. We were to load 6,000 tonnes of fish oil bound for Rotterdam.

Loading cargo in South American ports is an unhurried process. People are laidback and will casually tell the captain “la bomba no funciona” or whatever, so loading may be put off by a few hours while the thing is being repaired.

So, we usually get time to go out and explore. Frankly, it’s much more fun than loading or discharging cargo at efficiently-run ports. At least for me, a person who is designated a supernumerary, i.e. an unnecessary additional person, on every list on notice boards all over the ship! Including which life boat I should go on, should something untoward happen. I almost feel guilty about being allotted a space on a life boat despite being a mere supernumerary, not part of the ship’s complement.

Our first morning in Ilo, I went to the market with the chief cook and Capt. Lobo to buy provisions. Ilo is not for tourists, so you get to see real people going about real lives. Nobody tries to sell you souvenirs, nobody tries to entice you to buy bus tickets for conducted tours, the sort of things that make tourist destinations feel like the whole place is a staged show. The vendors at the market were Quechua, with no obvious trace of Spanish genes. Women with babies strapped to their backs with colourful shawls. This is a painting I made of one of them.

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The local agent who dealt with our ship was a man called José. In an excited mix of Spanish and English he told us the history of Peru: Incas, Athahualpa, the conquistadores, Francisco Pizzaro, and all that had happened after the Spanish invasion. So much indignation, so much gesticulation to emphasize important points in the narrative – ¡muy interesante! That is the day I fell in love with Español.

José invited Capt. Lobo, me and my husband for lunch. He ordered dishes of frutas del mar for all of us, and a pisco sour, Peru’s national drink, for himself. There was no stopping him once the pisco sour hit home. He kept us in splits, reeling off jokes like a stand-up comedian. This is what I like about shipping: enjoying the newness of places, meeting people like José, hearing new stories and often laughing a lot. And the best part is that we take our home with us, so there’s no need to pack a suitcase!

From Ilo we sailed up the coast to Callao, a larger port, to load another 16,000 tonnes of fish oil for Rotterdam. Here, too, there was plenty of time to go ashore. We spent half a day at Pachacamac, an Inca ruin 45 mins from Callao.

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I picked up a tiny piece of pottery outside the fenced-off site. It now sits on a shelf along with a figurine of Inti, the Inca sun-god, a lump of pyrita (fools’ gold) I bought there, and a shell I saved from the frutas del mar I had eaten for lunch in Ilo.

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bit of pottery from Pachacamac
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shell from frutas del mar
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pyrita

Another day, my husband and I went to Miraflores, a city not far from Callao. A man passing us on the pavement stopped to ask if we were Indian. “Yeah,” we nodded. He told us there were fifty Indian families in Callao-Lima, all Sindhi. Then he invited us for a wedding that was to take place three days later! We regretfully had to decline as we were sailing out of Callao in two days. Such a pity. It might’ve been fun.

img_5516We had a few hours free again the next day. Capt. Lobo, his wife who had just arrived from India, my husband and I went sightseeing to Lima. A group of six curious seventeen-year-old girls and one boy, Jorge, tagged along with us for the part of the city tour that was en route to their school. Being a native Portuguese speaker, Mrs. Lobo could understand Spanish and translated for us. I especially remember Giovanna, the most outgoing kid of the lot. When we jokingly asked whose boyfriend was Jorge, they giggled, and Giovanna carefully constructed the sentence, “he is a friend of all of us,” and looked mighty pleased with herself for having got it right.

Loading completed, it was time to leave Peru. The saddest moments are when the ship is sailing farther and farther away from port, and you stand on the bridge wing and identify the now-familiar landmarks. It occurs to you that you won’t ever see them again. You pick up the binoculars and look until you can’t see them anymore.

The next morning, with only the ocean for miles around, Peru seemed like an elusive dream that I couldn’t fully recall. A few snapshots flitted through my mind, not the uninterrupted video I wished it was.

pausing for a new story

We got off the bus near Malibu beach in Los Angeles and walked along a rough footpath that ran a few feet above the beach. My husband and I were going up the road to the Getty Villa on the hill to see Paul Getty’s interesting art collection.

When we passed the parking lot for the beach a car drew up and parked. Five or six excited little kids tumbled out. A woman got out of the driver’s side and met our smiles with a ‘Hi’ and a smile. We stopped to chat. Another woman joined us. These two friends, Mairead and Paisley, were spending the day on the beach with all those kids. Soon we were engrossed in an animated conversation about Dublin, Mairead’s hometown. The kids started getting restless, so we decided to meet on the beach while returning from the Getty villa, if they were still there.

They were. We spent only about half an hour with them but it added another little highlight to our LA experience. We talked about so many things, chief among them being Donald Trump, of course! By the way, Mairead is a singer and this is a link to her YouTube channel.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jCK_IrWqvx0

Paisley said, “We Americans go on vacations but don’t talk to the locals at all. Maybe we should.”

Yes, why not? I can think of lots of people we have passed interesting hours or minutes with on different trips.

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San Juan, Puerto Rico

Once my husband, toddler son and I spent an entire evening with a family on their boat in San Juan, Puerto Rico. They had sailed in from Miami for a short vacation. It was the 6th of January, The Three Kings Day holiday in San Juan. We had been in San Juan for a few days as our ship was docked there. Our son joined their two little girls at the fountain and soon the kids were happily playing together. We drifted into conversation with the parents. They invited us to see their boat as they thought my husband, being a sailor, might find it interesting. For our little boy it was a good change from his virtual friends, Barney and the backyard gang, that he watched on video every afternoon.

In San Fernando, Trinidad, a concerned family of four called Bissessar gave us a ride in their car as it was dark and they felt we were not safe where we were waiting to find a taxi. They were of Indian origin. Their forefathers had been brought to Trinidad as indentured labour about a hundred and fifty years ago. They told us a bit about their history and their life in the half hour it took to get to the port. Their name, Bissessar, is a corruption of the common Indian name Vishwanath! Though they spoke regular English with us, they spoke another language among themselves which, they said, is the English they speak at home. It didn’t sound like any English we knew!

On a family vacation in Leh in the Himalayas we met the Hollywood actor Jamie Bartlett with his kid. We had pulled over for a closer look at yaks grazing in a field. They had apparently stopped for the same reason. Then we got news of a landslide up the road. The locals said it would take an hour to clear. So we all sat in a shack eating momos and noodles, shooting the breeze while we waited.

The point is, a place comes alive when you talk to residents and see it through their eyes. You get a glimpse of how it might feel to live there. Or, if it’s a fellow-traveller you’ve got into a conversation with, you get to hear a new story.

‘May God be with you’

It wasn’t even an incident. Thankfully, nothing happened to me on that summer evening in Portugal many, many years ago.

The ship I was sailing on was in dry dock* at Lisnave dock yard in Almada, Portugal. I had walked to the shopping area of Almada to pick up a few things. Walking back, I lost my way. I asked passing pedestrians directions to the ship yard but only got “no comprendo” and a regretful shake of the head. At that time I didn’t even know the little bit of Spanish – which shares similarities with Portuguese – that I know now. I began to feel anxious but told myself that it was summer and it wouldn’t get dark for another hour at least.

Presently I saw two nuns in white habits a little way ahead. Weaving between people thronging the sidewalk I caught up to them. I smiled and said “Excuse me?” Then I started with the simple English that kind of works in some places.

“Help, please?”

“Ship?”

Blank expression. In desperation I tried the two Spanish words I had recently picked up.

–¿El barco?–

–¿Lisnave – puerto?–

One of the nuns asked, “Do you speak English?”

I could’ve wept with relief.

She said, “Wait…I… haven’t spoken English… for ten years…It is…difficult…” I waited. Her eyes sparkled with happiness. She said she was from Canada and told me a little about herself. The other sister was Portuguese. They accompanied me till we reached the road that would lead straight to the ship yard and left me with a solemn blessing, “May God be with you.”

I bought an ice cream cone as my mouth had gone dry with all that anxiety. As I began walking a man fell in step behind me. Hypervigilance is second nature to me when I’m walking alone in an unknown place, or on a poorly-lit road in the dark. I became acutely aware that the road was completely deserted. I quickened my step, but he kept pace. I sneaked a look at him and he grinned and called out something I didn’t understand. After that I resolutely avoided looking back and walked faster for – 5 minutes? 10 minutes? More? I don’t know. He kept up his non-stop gibberish.

The scenarios that played out in my head in those few minutes sent me into a panic. It was like being in a nightmare. I was gasping and my heart thumped away like I was hearing it through a stethoscope. My knees felt like they could buckle any moment. And the man continued to keep pace, insolently tossing out short phrases that sounded like questions. Frightened though I was, I held on to the thought that I was fitter and swifter than this middle-aged man.

Finally the shipyard came into view. Oh, thank God! I guess He had heard the nuns bless me. I chucked the melted ice cream and broke into a run. Some ship yard workers in boilersuits were around, and the footsteps following me ceased.

As I said at the beginning, I was lucky. I wasn’t physically hurt, and for that I was immensely grateful.

*Dry dock:

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Ship is sailed into a tank and carefully placed on blocks. Water is drained out. Repairs and painting are carried out.

earthquake

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Augusta, Sicily

Our ship was docked at Priolo on the eastern coast of Sicily. I was on the bridge looking at the volcano, Mt Etna, through binoculars as it was sending out puffs of smoke. Joško, the second mate, came up to the bridge to make a cup of tea. He had been in these parts before and told me the volcano was nothing to worry about, it wasn’t about to erupt! As he had a couple of hours free we decided to catch the ferry to the town of Augusta ten minutes away.

A strange sight greeted us. People were camped out on every available inch of open space! There had been an earthquake in the next town the previous evening, and tremors had been felt in Augusta. An old church, the Chiesa Madre, had suffered mild damage. People had temporarily vacated their homes as they feared another quake.

We had lunch and sat in the restaurant talking over the last bit of wine. It was December of 1990. Those days Yugoslavia – from where Joško, a Croat, hailed – was on the verge of breaking up into several independent countries. There was a civil war involving the Croats and the Serbs. Joško often said, “There’ll be no Yugoslavia when I go home!” with a touch of gallows humour, but was really worried about his family back home, especially the girl he had married just a few months before.

Suddenly we saw everybody running for the exit. People were crying, shouting and hugging each other. We asked people –¿Qué pasa?– in Spanish, hoping they’d understand, as Joško didn’t know Italian either. People were too numb to bother to answer us. We wandered out and asked a couple more people. Someone answered “Tumulta!” Wow! There had been an earthquake? Joško said, “That wine must’ve been strong. I never felt it either.”

We ran to the ferry boat and made for the ship. It seemed the safest place to be. We casually asked the boatman if he had felt the tremor. He nodded with a troubled expression and told us in English that his daughter was out there somewhere, and he was worried about her safety. We didn’t know what to say. Was this a way of life for these people?

And here we were, excitedly looking around like there was a film shooting going on, and the whole thing was a movie set. We had addressed the boatman in much the same insensitive tone that we find offensive when used by interviewers on television. Although – between us – we claimed the novelty of the experience as an excuse, we felt quite ashamed of ourselves and silently stared out at the shore as we sailed away from Augusta.

We reached the ship and rushed up the gangway to the Cargo Control Room. What a relief to be back home, a home that only rocked in an earthquake and didn’t shake and crumble and collapse! The third mate, Boris, was on duty. We told him about the earthquake. He said it had been just a mild aftershock. Obviously then, the locals had been on tenterhooks and had overreacted. Joško and I were glad to know that we hadn’t been too drunk to notice an earthquake!

ships that pass in the night: near-disaster at sea

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It was a night like any other. Our ship was making her silent passage, bow gently cleaving the waters, propeller leaving a broad wake as she passed. We were on a voyage outbound from the Persian Gulf, thirty nautical miles south of the Straits of Hormuz, in the Gulf of Oman. The ship was carrying a cargo of 300 thousand metric tonnes of crude oil.

It was about half past eight. Capt. Murphy was in his cabin, gazing out at the fo’c’sle through the porthole. The transit through the Persian Gulf had taken 26 hours after sailing out of Ras Tanura. He was exhausted.

The third mate, Alex, was on bridge-watch. This was a routine passage for the ship but the captain had decided to keep a casual watch from his cabin, based purely on gut instinct, as he later told us.

He suddenly sat bolt upright. The Didamar light house on Quoin Island that we had passed a little while before on our starboard side was now on our portside! Experienced navigator that he was, he sized up the situation in a trice. He rushed upstairs to the bridge (wheelhouse), took over from Alex, and asked him to go to his cabin. The phone rang in our cabin for my husband, the chief mate, to join him on the bridge along with the bo’sun. The bo’sun took the wheel and Capt. Murphy snapped out helm orders. The chief mate kept watch for traffic and the vessel’s position on the radar screen. With my toddler son beside me, I watched tensely from the porthole in our cabin as the ship was slowly steered back on course.

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Quoin Islands

This is what had happened. Alex had had a psychotic breakdown, something that had apparently never happened before, as per his medical records. He had turned the ship around, heading back towards the Persian Gulf. And he was in the wrong lane, which would be like driving on the wrong side of the road if it were a street on land! The vessel’s passage plan had been totally abandoned by his addled mind.

Had there been a collision, or if she had run aground on one of the islands, imagine what an ecological disaster that would be. 300 thousand tonnes of thick, viscous crude oil gushing out into the Gulf of Oman! Images of the Exxon Valdez running aground four years before in Prince William Sound, Alaska, were fresh in every seaman’s mind. Mine too, as I had been on another tanker when that happened.

It was only Capt. Murphy’s quick response that averted a major calamity that night. And the good fortune of not having another ship sailing towards us on a collision course during those moments. The other ship would have been fully loaded too, like any ship sailing out of the Persian Gulf. Our ship was moving at 14 knots. It’s incredibly hard to apply brakes on a ship moving at that speed due to momentum. If the ship’s engine had been put in a ‘stop’ position, she would have moved 2500 metres more before coming to a standstill!

There is a lovely, thoughtful poem called ‘The Lights’ by J.J.Bell in an anthology I own. It had never meant anything to me before. That night I vaguely remembered it was about the ‘emerald’ and ‘ruby’ lights that tell you which way a ship is going, and it ended with a prayer for ships passing in the night.

I have often wondered what jogged Capt. Murphy’s gut instinct that evening. Did Alex seem spaced out when he last spoke with him? Did he notice something out of kilter? Or was it just sixth sense?

When I greeted Alex in the alleyway the next morning he looked blankly at me. It was an expression I had seen countless times on the faces of patients in the middle of a psychotic breakdown. So, it was entirely possible that he would have displayed prodromal symptoms  – some oddities in behaviour – the previous day, that might have drawn the attention of anyone interacting with him. But then again, he was from an Eastern European country and nobody knew his language, or him either.

What happened to Alex eventually?

Well, there is a book called the Captain’s Medical Guide that captains consult to treat minor ailments. Common medicines are available on board too. For medical problems beyond the captain’s ken he can talk to a doctor via radio. If a surgical emergency is suspected, for example appendicitis, the ship can be diverted to the nearest port, or a helicopter can land on the ship to take the patient to a hospital.

In Alex’s case, he was given a standard dose of antipsychotic medicine on a daily basis. He was confined to his cabin so he wouldn’t hurt himself, as the medicine was extremely sedating. The captain checked on him twice a day and a steward took his meals up for him. The door to his room was left ajar and a member of the deck crew sat just outside his door to ensure his safety.

He signed off the ship when we reached port after a fortnight. Some of us went to see him off at the gangway. He happened to open his carry-on baggage to put something in. His entire salary in stacks of 100-dollar bills was in there, shoved in carelessly. He looked around vacantly, waving indifferently when we said goodbye. Did he make it home safely with his passport, money, and other valuables intact? I don’t know.

friends you haven’t met yet

“There are no strangers, only friends you haven’t met yet.” So said William Butler Yeats.

We were at the wedding of the daughter of our friends, Tushar and Sunetra, both astrophysicists. A couple and their tween son sat close to the havankund watching the ceremony very attentively. The man and boy were dressed in kurta-pajama, the woman in a blue sari. They seemed to be North Indians.

At lunch my husband and I were seated beside them. We introduced ourselves. They were from Mexico! Armando, Patti and Emilio. Armando is an astrophysicist and has collaborated with Sunetra on several projects – that’s how they knew each other. We chatted about our kids, professions, had they been to Bangalore before, places we had visited in Latin America, things like that. I told Patti about a singer I used to like and before we knew it we were softly singing old Spanish songs together!

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It was 1994. My husband, I and our little son were in a taxi driving along the bridge across Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela. There was music playing in the taxi. I don’t have an ear for music at all, so I was surprised to find myself enjoying these songs – lyrics, guitar, the voice. I asked the driver who the singer was. It was Leo Dan. I bought a couple of cassettes in Maracaibo and listened to them so often that I learnt to sing many of them completely. A few years ago I used the internet to get the lyrics right.

Those were the songs Patti and I sang that day. We had fun doing that, thanks to an Argentinian singer that nobody in India has heard of. ¡Qué raro!

My husband and I had lunch with them the next day and met for coffee another time. It’s strange how you sometimes really hit it off with strangers. The interaction is light and easy as there’s no history, I guess.

We now have an invitation to visit them in Mexico City for a holiday. Maybe we will. Someday. I’ve always had this notion that I’ve spent an earlier lifetime on Earth as a Latina, which explains why I took a fancy to Español although I’m not good at picking up languages, and responded with pleasure to Spanish music despite being tone-deaf!

a boy on a motorcycle

This happened in the eighties.

My moped unexpectedly broke down on a busy road when I was returning home from work. It was late afternoon, about 4 o’ clock. I wheeled it into the yard of a vacant wedding hall, parked it and stood there wondering what to do. Two boys of around my age made a sudden noisy appearance from behind the wedding hall on a motorbike. One of them asked, “You need help?”

All that black leather and menace scared me a bit. Maintaining a neutral expression I said, “My bike came back from servicing only yesterday, so I don’t think the spark-plug or carburettor could be a problem. And I filled petrol today so the tank’s full…”

He said, “I know a mechanic across this road. Let’s go there.” While his silent friend took their bike, the boy who did the talking released my bike from its stand and began wheeling it. We introduced ourselves as we walked. His name was Vinay. From his surname we found out he was related to my maternal cousin on her father’s side!

We reached the garage. He handed my bike over to the mechanic while I leaned against the gate of the house next door. I had started to feel giddy. Being an intern in the Paediatrics department of a busy hospital often meant missed lunches on crowded OPD days. This had been one of those days. A woman came out of the house and asked me what was wrong, as I had started swaying. I asked for a glass of water with a spoon of sugar. She asked me in and insisted on making dosas for me. I complied. I was too hypoglycaemic and close to fainting to resist.

I felt much better after that meal of three dosas and a tumbler of coffee! I thanked her from the bottom of my heart – I mean who does such things? On second thought, my mother might have done the same. Maybe others would have too then, when Bangalore used to be a nice city.

When I came out into the street Vinay and his friend were astride their bike, about to leave. “It’s fixed!” he called out with a big grin and a thumbs-up. I said, “Thanks. How much do I owe him?” With a dismissive wave of his hand and mischief in his green eyes, he said, “What’s ten bucks between friends?!” Still smiling, he took off with a screech of tyres and that awful noise that bikes without a silencer make.

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I bumped into Vinay a couple of times after that. We would just smile and say “Hi, how are you?” and walk on.

I left Bangalore a couple of years later. I had told my cousin about the bike incident so she kind of kept an ear open when his name was mentioned at their family gatherings. In those days of snail-mail my cousin and I didn’t keep in regular touch, only met when I came to Bangalore. On one such visit I asked her about Vinay. She said, “He died!” I was shocked. Apparently he had belonged to a ‘drug gang’ and he and his bike had been set ablaze by a rival gang. I couldn’t reconcile the two: the memory of that smiling, carefree boy and this image of a helpless, terrified boy screaming in pain, battling flames…

Eventually I asked, “So what happened? Police and all?”

She replied, “Oh, nothing. Cops don’t care when such people are murdered.”

Such people…

She realised what I was thinking. “Yeah, I know… You only met his good side…”

I was numb. The whole sequence of events – from the moment my moped broke down to when he cheerfully waved goodbye from his noisy bike – unspooled like a film in my mind. I felt a terrible sadness wash over me.

It fleetingly does so even now when a youngster on a noisy motorcycle passes my car at a reckless speed. Or when I come across news snippets of drug-related murders involving teenagers. And then I catch myself indulging in magical thinking, wishing away the whole supply of street drugs into space, to go orbit in a new ring around Saturn.

A friend’s daughter gets married

It seems like only last year that we attended birthday parties of our friends’ kids, or had parties for ours. Little girls in frilly frocks, and smartly-turned-out little boys, all excited. Happy, noisy affairs. When our daughter was five, we had a cake with the Power Puff Girls beautifully made out of icing, eliciting delighted screeches from all the little girls. At one birthday party we attended, the five-year-old birthday girl had wanted Shah Rukh Khan on her cake, and the parents obliged. But when it came to cutting it, she backed off crying, because she didn’t want to slash Shah Rukh Khan’s face! Yesterday Apoorva, the daughter of our friends Tushar and Sunetra, got married.

There’s the sword in his left hand!

This was a first – attending the wedding of a child of one of our friends. Sitting there trying to reconcile the image of the excited little girl on the roller skates we had given her on one of her birthdays, with that of the demure bride sitting in front of the sacred fire, head solemnly bowed, was hard in a way.

A rite of passage. For us, just a vicarious visit to the threshold of this phase. A quick peek and back. For Tushar and Sunetra, the liminal stage, an actual transition. From now on, society will view them as responsible parents who have secured their daughter’s future, and fulfilled their duty. That slight shift of perception will move them into the social group that’s done with child-raising. They will see themselves differently too. And, of course, they’ll miss their daughter terribly.

They now have a new relative, a son-in-law. The son they never had. And a whole new extended family of Rajasthanis who are excitingly different from their Konkani (Tushar) and Maharashtrian (Sunetra) selves. I mean, Tushar had to gift the bridegroom a sword, which he carried around throughout the ceremony! Peaceful Konkanis and Maharashtrians don’t get married with weapons on their person!

Jyoti

I can’t sleep. I just received a call from my maid’s niece that she has committed suicide. And, in an hour, it will be World Suicide Prevention Day

Our Jyoti always came in with a warm smile, worked as well as she could, never told a lie, adjusted willingly if I needed her to help with something that wasn’t part of her job. Words fail me, the grief I feel is so great at the moment.

Her husband has been jobless for many months now, and has been abusive, trying to humiliate her all the time. A few months ago he quit his job and bought a dry cleaning machine for 32,000 rupees, paid deposit and rent on a space nearby, then didn’t work in it even for a day. He finally – after much begging and many phone calls – got part of the deposit back. He sold the brand new machine for 12,000 rupees. The money she had been squirrelling away for the children’s future also sank with this enterprise.

Two days ago he was hospitalised for severe asthma, precipitated by excessive smoking. She was extremely worried because he was not responding to treatment. Still, she came to work. Four days ago she had to take her daughter to Victoria Hospital to have an infected tooth removed, something which wouldn’t have been necessary if her husband had taken her for follow-up two months ago, when the dentist had asked Jyoti to bring the child in again the following week. He had simply refused to take her. It began to rain heavily so she called from Victoria Hospital to tell me she didn’t want to bring the kid in the rain in an autorickshaw, so she would be late. I told her to take care of her daughter and not come to work, but she came anyway and insisted on doing some work, that’s how conscientious she was.

Last month her brother hanged himself as his wife was having an affair. That was the first time I saw her smile replaced by a sad, perplexed expression. She talked a lot about her brother, and morality, the unfairness of life, how his self-respect must have suffered because of his wife’s infidelity, about the future of his kids, her mother’s feelings about losing her son. She took a week to get over it, at least outwardly.

Her husband was discharged this morning from hospital. He has been yelling at her and her mother all day. She says she understands his frustration at not being able to get a job, but can’t take any more of his insults and put-downs. She came to work this evening and was normal, even relieved that her husband was okay, but very angry with him for being abusive. I had to suddenly leave on an errand, so she couldn’t finish her work. She told me in detail what she planned to do tomorrow, and we left the apartment together and walked towards the lift. That’s the last I saw of her, bemused, asking why the lift had not been working when she had come up an hour before, as she waved ’bye to me and rang the neighbour’s doorbell to collect a bundle of plastic bags for recycling.

I can’t believe I won’t see her again. Only last week she had been excited about getting a new bank account, made possible by the Prime Minister’s new scheme. Only last week I had given her a packet of MTR payasam mix for her family because she said she hadn’t been able to make good payasam on her son’s birthday two weeks ago. She had laughed and said she would make it after Ganesh Chaturthi because there were enough sweets at home right now. I don’t think she had a chance to make it… Yesterday she had complained with an indulgent smile that she slept badly because her little son sleeps on top of her, because he loves her so much. What will that little boy do without his mother? Who will look after her daughter? She used to worry for her safety often, “because she’s a girl.”

I spent more than an hour with Jyoti today, just five hours before it happened. She vented, no more than usual. We had conversations about her husband’s health, her daughter’s dental status, the taps running dry at another place where she worked mornings, and how those people were coping. I was making tea and offered her a cup, but she refused, joking that she didn’t want to become a tea addict like her husband. We chatted as usual. In other words, there was no hint of any thought of suicide.

It’s 1:30 in the morning on World Suicide Prevention Day, and here I am, thinking of Jyoti, feeling unbearably sad. Unsung heroine, wife of an undeserving man, mother of two little children that she nurtured with love if not material comforts, a magician who somehow made 20 rupees stretch to fix a meal for the entire family…and smiled through all of this for the most part.

My son and I had taken Jyoti and her kids to the Planetarium a few months ago. They played in the park while waiting for the show to start. Jyoti was sitting beside me sipping cold Badam milk, very peaceful and happy, watching her little kids having a good time.
My son and I had taken Jyoti and her kids to the Planetarium a few months ago. They played in the park while waiting for the show to start. Jyoti was sitting beside me sipping cold Badam milk, very peaceful and happy, watching her little kids having a good time.