It Only Happens in Chandigarh

For many of us, Sundays mark freedom from routine and work-related to-do lists. Even so, the lack of routine shouldn’t imply an absence of ritual. It could be simple acts like not bathing until noon, oiling your hair, eating a particular food item for lunch, cleaning your room and the likes.

Since the last two Sundays I have enjoyed soaking the last of the winter sun here in Chandigarh along with a gargantuan reading list – gargantuan, at least for a novice reader such as me.  Newspapers and media portals reserve some of their best features for Sundays, and I aim to read through them – as some of you may know, a short attention span is inversely proportional to an immersive reading session.

Sunday reading lists are a pleasant break from mainstream news of ranting politicians and policy analysis. Mind you though, the attempt to indulge in reading these is not selfless – the aim is to ideate and stumble upon a thought one can build upon and perhaps discuss with peers and family.  

And such thoughts and ideas are always a surprise. I’ll confess that I don’t always start reading a story with the intention of completing it. This morning I stumbled upon one such story on page 13 of The Hindu. This story by Ruchir Joshi is about peculiar acts of the people of a city that when witnessed first hand, give an onlooker a slight idea and a deeper insight “about the people there and their particular environment”. He has beautifully explained what he means by it. I’ll lift an example from his piece to illustrate it to you. This is what the writer witnessed in Calcutta’s local market:

“A bus stops, a middle-class man alights and unhesitatingly walks over to the blue-and-white painted railing and the tree beyond that creates a gap between the stalls. There, in the morning rush hour, people milling around not far away, he relieves himself before walking away. This may happen all over India, but in this exact way it only happens in my city.”

It’s obvious to what I am coming to. Reading the story made me wonder about unique acts undertaken by citizens of Chandigarh. Almost effortlessly I thought about Sukhna lake – the place where young and old, the fit and unfit, the city’s middle-class and well-to-do converge to get their nature fix.

During several evenings when I have visited the lake to attempt a run, I witnessed couples, huddled together in corners receiving the least amount of light. I have never caught anyone doing what they are not supposed to in such an obviously public space, but I have often seen them walking together at a snail’s pace, or sharing silence while looking onto the finite lake waters. Often, I have admired their attention to detail – on more than one occasion I noticed girls dressed up in elaborate outfits, complete with the right pair of shoes. When I pant past them, I often feel out of place – which is an odd feeling, after all, a running/walking track is meant to be run down upon!

I try to refrain from passing judgments on them and other groups of marauding teenagers who seem to be leisurely strolling away their boredom. Chandigarh is a small city, the population is ever growing and places to spend time meaningfully are ever decreasing. It is also not the most progressive and open-minded city in the country – people’s gazes are often brutal and they don’t hesitate from forming an idea about the other, however incomplete. Add to this the fact that many young people live with their parents. Hence, there are few outlets where one can escape being spotted by familiar faces. Therefore, rather ironically, it is in an otherwise bustling public place’s darkest corners that one can hope for privacy and quiet.

You may rightfully point out that love-struck couples in parks are not uncommon in the rest of India. However, in my defence, I’d say, “In this exact way it only happens in my city”.

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The Neighbour

My relationship with wooden panels dates back to college days when I stayed in a paying guest accommodation that had rooms separated by thin cardboard like panels. One could easily hear the girls in the adjacent room talk on the phone, giggle and make small talk with each other or their parents. While it was tolerable in the day, during the nights you could just bang on the panel to let them know that they could be heard. Some wouldn’t stop even then.

The second time I encountered wooden panels, it was 2 years later.

There’s a particular spot in our rented house where I like to write. It’s a comfortable sofa with a puffy to keep one’s foot on, sounds luxurious and it is one luxurious sitting spot too. The cosiest in the house, according to my mother. If there’s a downside to this spot, it has to be it’s close proximity to the dreaded wooden panel. This panel is more solid than the one in my pg in Delhi and connects the other side of the floor through an equally strong wooden door.

My neighbour is a Parsi lady of big built, short salt and pepper hair, wears spectacles, and has a friendly but usually loud voice. She lives up to the image you might have of a Parsi lady in her 50’s. My neighbour lives alone and works at a hospital during the day, takes piano lessons twice or thrice in a week and makes really good tiramisu.

Almost like a ritual, she calls up a woman, whom I will call the lady on the phone, between 8-9 in the evening. The next one hour is followed by my neighbour, gossiping, catching up and sharing trivial details of her life with the lady on the phone.

I mostly saw this as a nuisance since I find it difficult to find interest in what my neighbour ate during the day or what she plans to do after she keeps the phone. I usually didn’t cope with her conversations very well, since it would make me get up from my favourite spot. If you have ever met me at my house between the hour of 8-9, you will know that it’s not the best time to visit.

One such evening, I was sitting with my laptop struggling to come up with something to write for my blog, I had been struggling for days now. Mind you, my blog may not have readers, but publishing on it is good writing practice.

Meanwhile, from the other side of the wooden panel, I could hear a phone ringing. It was my neighbour’s call to the lady on the phone, she had put it on speaker. Before I could roll my eyes again, I started listening intently.

My neighbour went on and on, taking few breathers in between to listen to the lady on the phone. The lady on the phone had rather few inputs to give. my neighbour would start with when she woke up, what she did when she left the house for the office. My neighbour would laugh in between, mimic someone she met during her day dramatically, laugh even more loudly and the lady on the phone would follow up with an equally loud laughter. My neighbour’s peculiar habit, to keep the volume of the receiver very high, so the lady on the phone’s voice was audible, a fair mumble of words and crystal clear laughs.

My neighbour would mention the advice she gave to a person called Nazeer. Often, she would complain about her weight and her inability to lose the fat.

Sometimes, there were detailed comparisons of people’s dressing sense, with detailed comparisons or why she doesn’t use Jet Airways to fly to Bombay.

One evening, there was a bit about how one lady called Rajni has been messing around with Jyoti. I also knew that as part of her preparation for her trip to Mashobra, she had packed her warm Adidas sweater. “Maine toh Kuch Nahi Karna wahan, main Toh Apni saheli se milne ja rahi hun,” she explained, laughing.

My neighbour had met her mother one morning, she started that bit by telling her friend where her mother was sitting. She also appreciated her mother’s spontaneous nature and how she would have agreed to go for a trip to Shimla, on a short notice.

My neighbour has numerous things to say, I wonder if she uses WhatsApp like we do, constantly, to give fragmented snippets of information about our lives to various people. My neighbour, I am assuming fits all those text messages into one long hour of verbal dialogue.

Maybe I will listen again, the wooden panel, me and her unending phone balance.