THOSE WERE THE DAYS MY FRIEND

Where shall I begin? Let’s begin at the beginning. The first things a child falls in love with are toys and games. In my case, dolls too.

Lovely Couple, aren’t they?

I loved my Barbie, and my brother loved his G.I. Joe. I must have married my Barbie to his He-Man every summer. Sadly, it always ended in an instant divorce because I wanted my doll back.

He even used to mimic their catch phrases. It was scary.

Then came the Hot wheels car we used to get free with packets of Maggie. It couldn’t get any better than this. I still remember my brother forcing me to play with his WWF cards till I fell in love with Undertaker and Hulk Hogan. He used to have a bag to keep all his beautiful array of stickers. I remember stealing a whole strip of his Mickey Mouse sticker set and getting bashed by him later.

I miss that stationary box I had. It contained all my cool stationery. My most prized possession was a glass pen with a peacock head. There were sharpeners, erasers, and key chains in cute and lovely shapes. I guarded that box better than the government guards their gold reserve. I have beaten a younger cousin over that box.

I loved buying the Masks of Lord Ram At Diwali and my bro loved the Sword.
He used to cheat when he was Mr X
Imagine we used to be so happy after having four kids in the game. Sampoorna Parivaar!!!

Playing Solitaire, Free-cell and all the games Savio mentioned in my Papa’s PC, breaking my score repeatedly. And the summer vacations with days full of Scotland Yard and Game Of Life with my brother. I remember hanging with my brother on the gate from evening 5 PM in the wait for the ice cream truck and vendors who sold Tikkis, Matra and Mot—looking out for the balloon peddler who would bring fake cameras, sunglasses and magic eggs, begging my Baba(Grandfather) for money to buy goodies.

I used to play Snakes with Papa’s Nokia till my fingers went numb, and I pleaded with everyone not to kill me in a game of Ludo. Making the team with my father to play a card game called Hearts was like swearing allegiance to my Lord Commander.

The Aloo Parantha never tasted so good ever again after school, when I used to hide somewhere in my classroom and eat it, saving it from my friends’ loot. It was such a privileged feeling when you had a huge Milton water bottle. A classmate would ask, “Please ek sip de de (Please let me borrow some water)”, it was a thug life moment when I said with some fake arrogance, “Nahi Mera khatam ho jayega (No, mine would get finished)”, but when my best friend was thirsty, I would go all like, “Mere paas water bottle paani doon? (I have water bottle, you want some?)”

Exchanging movie postcards and posters with a friend and arguing with them about SRK looks hotter in which one. It was less of an exchange and more of smuggling under the keen eyes of teachers. Sharing a book was like sharing a sacred bond. And that feeling on top of the world when you had 20rs with you to treat your friend to a Coke in the lunch break.

Today we have blogs to write our hearts out, but in the 90s I used to have a diary with a lock shaped like a heart that used to hold all my thoughts and secrets. And the last page of the notebook was our very own Twitter. From trying different signatures to signing huge cheques and giving autographs when I got famous and writing taboo stuff was like surfing the net in incognito mode.

I miss so much from the ’90s. Now that I am writing, nostalgia is hitting me harder. How many of you remember that song, “Mile sur mera tumhara“? It was such a feel-good song about the unity through the diversity of India.

And the advertisements, I used to watch TV for the ads. They were comforting, a sense of familiarity through continuity. I loved the ads for Bajaj, Titan, Nirma, Liril and Amul, and many other products like Pan Parag and Vicco Turmeric. Seriously, do you remember that Dhara advertisement, “Ghar mein to mummy ne Jalebi banayi hai“? Sitting with the whole family and watching them was a different experience altogether.

I was so bad at understanding English movies back then. My cousin watched F.R.I.E.N.D.S and tried to be as cool as her and couldn’t get a single word. But I turned my energy to all the remix songs starting from ‘Kaliyon ka Chaman’ to Bombay Vikings, Bally Sagoo and ‘Kaanta Laga’. A moment of silence for that version of me.

My grandfather was in TOI, so we used to have so many magazines at home. From Filmfare and Femina to Champak and Sarita. I loved flipping the pages while lying on my parents’ bed. The most coveted day was when Mom cleaned her Godrej Almirah. Oh, it was like a treasure trove opening. All the precious things and keepsakes were in there. I can still see my mother telling me to go elsewhere and play, but I would sit there and touch everything.

And every Diwali, the house used to get painted. Oh, the fun! The furniture would shift, the bed boxes would be opened, the food would be cooked on a makeshift table, and nothing was out of our reach. What an adventure it used to be.

In winters, my mother, in fact, all mothers, would sit together in the sun and knit colourful sweaters for us. I used to say, “Mujhe bhi do naa (I too wanna do this).” and she would give me the ball of wool and tell me to feed her the line.

One day, out of sheer nostalgia, I bought a handful of Eclairs, Coffee Bite, Mango Bite, Pan Pasand, Poppins, Gems, Melody and Kissme, but trust me, they missed the taste of adventure. The taste of childhood.

I now sit and think, maybe we don’t miss the worldly things. We miss ourselves. Our childhood and the people in it. We miss the innocence and simple-mindedness. We miss the beautiful ignorance. I still pine for Papa’s smile when he used to give me the new Barbie doll’s dress and my Mom’s sparkling eyes when she showed me her coveted jewels and my Grandpa’s lap while he attended a call with that old phone with a dial on it and a lock hanging by the side. I crave my granny’s love when she gave the money to buy goodies, and my brother’s affection when we played together.

SIRI, BUY GROCERIES VIA BIGBASKET/CORTANA, PAY VIA PAYTM

I remember my first phone. Many of you must remember it as well, CDMA Reliance phone? Yeah? Yeah, the one that we loved because it had an app called M World. Feels weirdly nostalgic.

Since then, my phone has gone from strength to strength. Both in cost, technology and smartness. But what makes our phone so unique? The Apps. 

It feels so easy to do anything, anytime. I think the apps were a helpful tool in surviving the pandemic and lockdowns. Without them, it would be a long haul of loneliness and isolation. But they made us feel connected, rooted, and alive. (Practo was a lifesaver with no doctors around.)

If I am asked about my phone, I have over 50 apps. And I will share a secret with you; I don’t use half of them. They are there, just in case. Some are there because I need them daily: Zomato, Swiggy, Gpay, WhatsApp, 1mg. Some are there because I like to delve into social media: FB, Insta, Messenger, Telegram, Hangout, Twitter. Then are those which are there for the creative person inside me to serve as a muse and inspiration: Canva, Pinterest, YourQuote but, some are there just for panache. 

We all have to let our friends check out our phones once in a while. They should feel we are “trendy”, and for that purpose, I have Zara, Today, TED, NASA, WazirX, Discovery+. I rarely use them, but they must stay to make me seem smarter. 

Now that I think of it, Apps swallowed so much hardware into a small square on our screen. Remember the huge radios, players, drawers full of cassettes and CDs? Not needed anymore; we have Spotify, Gaana, YouTube. I still remember the summer vacation. I used to beg my father to get my cable TV and watch English movies and sitcoms. Now there is no rush to tune in at 9:30 to watch F.R.I.E.N.D.S. Netflix and Prime video are there to tune into. Setting up an alarm for Sunday morning cartoons and waiting one entire week for the next episode was so much fun, but now, Disney Hotstar and Zee5 are there to binge-watch at my fingertips. 

We were taking those bulky Kodak and Canon cameras hanging around our necks with pockets full of Fujifilm rolls. Who needs them with 64-megapixel cameras on our phones where Instagram allows us to add 100’s of filters. And shopping for rare collectibles in the narrow streets of Karol Bagh or the handicraft on Janpath is a waste of time; Myntra and Amazon are always there at my service. I miss cleaning my closets every Diwali because I need more space for my paperback. Thanks to Kindle, I can store a million books but never hold one. It was so risky to carry money around, but now you don’t need cash. We are in a cashless age. But sometimes, I miss holding the cash and counting it twice, getting those pictures in my hands from the Fujifilm outlet, and holding my paperback book in my lap while I snuggle up with my stereo.

I know you must be feeling, “Is she talking Pro or Against the apps?” But this is not a debate. I agree that I am ambiguous and don’t know what my heart relished more. This high-tech, smartphone, smart-app era or that simple bygone era where things were just THINGS and people and feelings and sentiments meant much more to us. 

Apps have made us safer, prudent, wiser, but they have also made us narcissistic, one-directional and miserable. We can find all antisocial elements on social media, and fraudulent scamsters are always looking to trick us. We are secure but more susceptible to hackers and spammers.

In the end, I would say I am pragmatic and love this easy lifestyle, but the old soul in me pines for those times when I could walk out on the street and go to my friends’ place to hang out with her while her dog chased me around. I chat with her, but it is NOT the same. 

I am giving you five apps I love.

Rhymly: It is the only app that gives you rhyming words for Hindi. You gonna love it if you have a streak for Shayari or Poetry.

Clubhouse: It has some excellent rooms, and I can hear some exceptional people talking while quietly sitting in a corner. If I wanna speak, they allow me. 

Elevate A place to exercise my mind and challenge myself to keep getting better. 

Duolingo: Lets me learn any language I wish to learn in a very interactive and fun interface. 

Headspace: It slowly teaches you to meditate and helps you stay on track with a gradual process that leads to placid and tranquil moments. 

I can’t close the chapter without mentioning Pubg.

Alexa. Please bid goodbye to my readers.

Goodbye. Have a fun time.

BANE OR BOON

I sit, and I type
Byte by Byte
My processor is slow
I got nothing to show

My memory is full
I’m trying to pull
Motherboard is outdated
All content is R rated

I empty Drive D
But all I can see
Are files I don’t need
It’s slowing my speed

My head has no space.
Says my Database
I look for the source code
to share some of the load

My heart is a brute
I have to reboot
I run such a risk
of burning my disc

I am run over by Malware.
I wish someone would care
Please unzip my smiles
Add happy chip to my files

If life had a solution
like screen resolution
Just change some setting
and see what you’re getting

I search, and I browse
For my perfect spouse
But this firewall
I should uninstall

The bugs are still here.
The cookies gimme scare
And Captcha onslaught
prove I’m no robot

I need my domain
Plus unique username
A name to standout
on Insta and Hangout

View live in the Zoom
And Friends in chatroom
All smileys no smile
Can’t open this file

Turn to PDF to DOC
And close that CAPSLOCK
No emotions are spared
By emoticon software

This new virtual land
of bandwidth broadband
I wait and watch while life is buffering
Can’t say if its fun or am I suffering

VULNERABILITY GONE WRONG – IX

Shaloween locked her mobile screen, gathered herself and went on ahead to Mr. Sikdar’s chamber. She handed over the data and excused herself out. It was almost lunch time. She dropped a text to her superior and took a half day leave citing health issues and left for home.

Her head was throbbing. She quickly ate the lunch that she had packed on her way and lied down on the couch unable to get the happenings of the last few days out of her mind.

The ring of her mobile startled her. She opened her eyes only to realise that she had dozed off and it was almost evening.

Shaloween picked up her phone, read Shekhar Chandra’s message again and took the bold step of texting back.

“This is downright harassment. I have told you I am not interested in having to do anything with you outside the office. Please leave me alone. You are my officer, and I have to report to you in the office; other than that, I don’t need this from you. Please focus your sexual energy elsewhere.”

She pressed the send button and went to take a late-night stroll in her lane to clear her head. She played with the dog walking along with her and played fetch with him with wood. The dog followed her home, and she placed a bowl of milk and break in front of him in a plastic container. The dog lapped it up, and Shaloween watched him, enjoying the simple pleasures of life.

The dog slept at the foot of her bed and left her around the following day till she boarded the metro to go to work. She laughed at him as he wagged his tail in goodbye and decided to adopt that dog. She named him Bhaskar.

She reached the office and headed straight for her office. At lunch, she saw Chandra eating with Mahem, Singh and Sikdar in the cafeteria as she sipped a Coke with her meal. Chandra gave her a tight-lipped, stoic expression.

She ran her palm on her hair to show she was wearing her hair in a tight bun. The message was clear, ‘She was not interested in his advances and was ready to take a stand.’

Later, as she left the cafeteria, she saw Chandra say something to the other officers, which made the trio look her way with a distasteful expression. Her heart sank as she made her way back to her office.

She knew Chandra would get back to her, but he didn’t know that she was prepared. She took a clean sheet of paper and wrote a letter to the internal complaints committee (ICC) about harassment, abuse of power and a hostile work environment. She worded the letter strongly, signed it and placed it in an envelope, placing it in her bag.

She was resolute, one more inappropriate message, one more instance of office politics or one more incident of power abuse, and she will make Chandra pay.

VULNERABILITY GONE WRONG – V

Five years since she last held his hand, talked to him, argued with him, touched him. He was such a foodie; she learned to cook for him. They used to go for long drives on his motorcycle in the middle of the night. He loved his bike, and the bike ended up killing him.

She was with him for five years, and it has been five years without him. But the love he gave her in their short eternity was enough to last her a lifetime. Today was his birthday. She spent the day doing things he loved in his memory, but she will have to go to the office as the assessment team will expect her, and she can’t afford a leave.

She thought about Shekhar Chandra again. She went over his profile again, on FB, on Twitter, in LinkedIn. She dug deeper this time and realised he was single. Except that there was nothing more on him apart from a few reshares. He looked much younger in a couple of pics on his social media in a stylish tee, running shoes, sans his glasses, suit, and salt and pepper hair.

She picked up her darts and looked at her dartboard. She saw the ugly face of Mr Mahem and chucked one dart; it missed the target. Next, she imagined Mr Singh’s face in the dartboard, another miss. Mr Sikdar followed, and she missed his face by the width of a hair.

She sat up straighter and saw Chandra’s face in the dartboard and let it fly. It was Bull’s Eye. She punched the air, whooping in delight.

She was mulling over and over about what Shekar Chandra said to her in the lift, “YOU LIKE TO JUDGE PEOPLE, DON’T YOU?” What was about the cryptic words he said? She was sure there was a hidden message for her in there, but she couldn’t decipher it. She wasn’t judgemental as far as she knew.

She racked her brains but couldn’t tell when or who, or why she had wronged anybody. She slept for more than a couple of hours before she woke up, got ready and left for her work. But the first thing in the morning she simply distributed Anubhav’s favourite Chocobar ice cream to poor kids on the streets and ate one herself on her way to her office.

She went straight for her desk and got to work when she noticed a rose tucked away in one folder on her desk. She opened it and picked the red rose when a thorn made her finger bleed. She used a tissue to wipe the blood and was sucking her finger to stop the bleeding when she saw a note on the file.

Don’t be sad. What’s gone’s gone. You are not alone. I am here.
Remember, I am watching you.”

She read the note; it was Anubhav’s handwriting. She had goosebumps erupt all over her skin, and she called her mother. “Mom, Mom!!!” she cried. “Avi Mom, Avi…” she said and heard a knock on her door. Shekhar Chandra was standing at her door with an odd sneer on his lips.

She hung up the call and closed the folder with the rose and the note inside it, stood up from her seat and nodded for him to come in.

She turned around and wiped her eyes on a tissue, and composed herself. She didn’t want to seem weak in front of this man. She turned around and saw him sitting in a chair opposite her.

She managed a weak, welcome smile. “Good Morning Sir,” she said.

A perfect morning to you too, Miss Shaloween Duggal. How are you this morning?” he asked, swaying in the chair, left to right to left again, while fiddling with a pen.

Very good, Sir, thank you for asking. How are you, and what brings you to my chamber?” her tone was polite but firm.

He leaned on her desk. “Today is my birthday. You can wish me if you like.” He wasn’t kidding; his tone was solemn.

She swallowed. It felt like someone had just tainted her purest memories with something sinister. The taste in her mouth went bad.

Happy Birthday, Sir,” she said with a pale smile.

Thank You”, he said, and a peon came in with a tray with two coffee mugs on it. He laid it on the table.

I hadn’t ordered coffee, Shiva,” she told the peon who looked at the man sitting in front of her.

I did,” he said, lifting one mug and offering the other one to her. He crossed his right leg over the left one elegantly.

She accepted the coffee, and he dismissed the peon. “I thought I could start my day on a lighter note”, he said, pulling out a packet of Marlboro from his pocket and holding one between his teeth.

Shaloween gave a disapproving look as he clicked his lighter. “Forgive me; I have a very habit of having a smoke with my coffee.”

Anubhav, too, had this irritating habit of having coffee with cigarettes.

What coincidences are these?

VULNERABILITY GONE WRONG – IV

The day started good, went to bad, then worse and ended on a fine note. Shaloween cleared her desk for the day and was leaving for home. She stepped inside the lift, and just as the double doors were smoothly sliding shut, someone jammed a foot in the door. Shaloween looked up with an offensive expression, but her features softened upon seeing Shekhar Chandra.

He stepped inside and gave her half a smile. She smiled back, and he pressed the parking button. Shekhar Chandra stood with his hands deep in his pockets and sighed. Shaloween couldn’t decide if she wanted to thank him or confront him. The silence was awkward.

She cleared her throat. “Thank you for showing faith in me back in there“, she said.

He looked at her as if he just realised he wasn’t alone and blinked. “Oh! Don’t mention it. I rarely form an opinion on someone too soon, unlike some people.” He winked as he emphasised the word ‘some.’

She gave a sheepish smile and tugged a loose hair tendril behind her ear. She didn’t realise, but she was sweating. “It was very unusual what happened today. My work is usually impeccable“, she said, trying to sound modest.

He gave her a beaming smile as he turned to her. “Look at you, eager to earn a cookie point and redeem yourself.” His tone was condescending.

Shaloween was suddenly simpering with anger. What the hell he wants? One moment he is rude, then nice, then rude again. It was getting hard for her to discern him, and that made her mad.

She carefully chose her following words, not knowing if he was a friend or a foe. “I don’t need redemption. The error wasn’t from my end. I took the heat for nothing.” She was breathing fast. “And have we met before?”, she asked, looking straight at his face.

He turned to her, and a corner of his mouth curled. “You really can’t reach a decision about me, and that’s killing you; you like to judge people, don’t you?” his voice was polite, gentlemanly, yet it was cold enough to send a shiver up her calves.

She opened her mouth in protest, but he went on. “And No, we have never met before,” he said.

Shaloween was about to ask about the text he sent her when the lift doors opened, and he stepped out, heading straight for his car, without a word or backward glance towards her.

She went home in a sour mood and kicked her shoes as soon as she was inside her house. Her head was heavy, like a watermelon balanced on her neck. She drank a gallon of water from her fridge and ordered enough food to feed a family.

While waiting for the food, she made some calls. She scolded her brother, Mohit, for not reverting to her, shouted at her maid for not coming for two days, yelled at the Zomato delivery guy for not finding her address and lastly cried out in humiliation and anger.

When the food arrived, she ate ravenously. She ordered much more than she could ever eat and kept it in the fridge for the next day. Night, she lay in her bed and jumped from OTT to OTT to find something suitable to watch. She settled on Arya and forgot her troubles, losing herself in Arya’s troubles.

After crying for Arya when she watched Tej die, she closed the TV and knew sleep would not be coming tonight. She was too listless to sleep. She opened the book she was reading these days, titled ‘Fountainhead‘ by Ayn Rand. She pulled out a picture from the book she used as a bookmark and looked at it for a long minute.

Anubhav smiled at her from the picture. She ran her fingers on the photo, longing for him to hold her hand, just like he used to, pulling her close to him and hugging her tight despite her trying to get away. How many times in one lifetime are you blessed with such unconditional love, she wondered.

MERCI BEAUCOUP MON AMIE!

Dearest Shruti,

Hi. Won’t ask you about your well-being and the quintessential things people ask in a letter; we have smartphones for that. But I would say things that are difficult to speak on the call, but they are simpler to write.

We are school friends and are still going strong, despite the miles spread out between us, you are closer to my heart than most people living near me. I am writing today to thank you for being my friend.

We don’t call each other for months on end, but your welfare and well-being are always on my mind. I know the same goes for you. We belong to the era when we didn’t need FB or Insta or WhatsApp to stay in touch. We used to visit each other.

You have stood by me through my thick and thin. You were always so easy to like, love, be around and me, just the opposite. You are still an outgoing, extrovert, people’s person. I am still the same shy, introvert, loner person. We were poles apart; I think that is what pulled us together like a magnet.

I still remember your dog, Fuzzy. And your wacko but awesome dance at your birthday party. You always kept me close, making me a part of your world. I was so thrilled to have you as my friend that a couple of girls from our school asked me if I had a crush on you.

It sounded indignant at that point of time, but today, I can say, if not crush, at least I had always admired, adored and loved you so much.  Maybe I wanted to be like you, lighting up the entire room with your energy and vibrant aura, pulling everyone in the current of my cyclone, making them a part of your joyride.

You made those years special with your pranks and practical jokes, sassy humour, and bold words. I still laugh at the lizard prank you pulled on me. The week you spent at my place was one of the very best times of my life.

You are a gifted and talented person. Your art always represents the wild child in you. You are such an enigma. Multi-tasking and doing several things at one time. I look up to you, your brushes add colour to every life you touch.

The most beautiful thing about our bond is our mothers. Mine loves you and yours loves me. Your family has always been my extended family, and I miss it all. Whenever I see something bold, colourful and out of the box, I think of you. You are the beautiful mess that gives an order to my chaotic soul.

But the thing I cherish most is your faith in me. You never lost faith in me. Thank you so much, my friend, for always believing in me. Thank you for carrying me in your heart and making me feel special, even it was two days late. :))

Thank You, Sweetheart!

Your Friend,
Saakshi

P.S.: Coffee never tastes the same without you.