Saturday, November 8, 2014

Flights of fancy

That day, the entire Indian cricket team was on the same flight, and he had managed to get autographs from the lot. The most difficult to approach had been Azharuddin. It was early in his career, and the now sulky hero stood in a corner of the security lounge, gawky, his nose buried in a book, but clearly unable to concentrate.
Like any wife who revels in needlecraft, I look forward to these tales of his travels, crafting them into legends as the years go by. And Ajay, who scoffs at jet lag as the ponciest affliction ever defined, obliges every time with tales that would draw appreciative nods from Sinbad and Baron Munchausen. Chance encounters in the ether, with the image of serendipitous threads arcing and intersecting in the sky, are enchanting if not exotic.
The early morning flights between metros held the commuter crowd, which would about-face and head home by the late-night return flight. The Madras-Bombay route was thickly populated with film stars. In those days Sridevi was a regular, yawning politely and rubbing the sleep out of her eyes, and occasionally even the gorgeous Rekha.
Delhi-Calcutta, on the other hand, held mostly the smartly suited community of businessmen. Acquaintances would hail each other happily at the check-in counter, and once on board, wait for the breakfast service to conclude before they got up to stretch their legs and congregate in small groups to chat. Arjun Malhotra was a regular on this hop, and Ajay never failed to marvel at the IT giant’s friendly outlook even to one as insignificant as himself. Today, with Arjun’s TechSpan inching towards the Fortune 500, the vision of him
bending down artlessly to touch the feet of an elderly acquaintance is a precious one.
And once, Ajay was on the same flight as Indira Gandhi. This is not a story of VIP arrogance and delays – quite the contrary. It was 1978, and Mrs Gandhi was as out-of-power as anyone can be. Who could mistake that fabulous profile, or the limited-edition sari? Yet, everyone pointedly faced away, and chattered around the dignified woman (who stood waiting in line like the other mortals), feigning deepest unconcern. When Mrs Gandhi stood in the coach to the aircraft, holding onto the overhead strap, the other passengers milled around, still painstakingly ignoring her.
Was it the most obnoxious in human nature, gloating sneeringly over a dazzling star that had collapsed into the viscous scum of the
gutter? Was it vicious contempt for the excesses of her Emergency? Or was it merely the stereotypical mannerless bumpkin Delhiite? If he had a seat, Ajay would surely have offered it to her. As it was, no one else bothered.
first appeared as a Times of India 'Middle' in December 2001

Sunday, August 19, 2012

You can always find something to laugh about

One of my enduring memories of my father’s illness is of his morning walk. Glancing out of my kitchen window, I would see him shuffling along with an attendant’s support, and my heart would contract. He had been a tea planter, walking ten miles effortlessly in the course of a day. To see him reduced to a doddering, inarticulate wreck decades in advance of his time was not something I ever got used to.
In another haunting memory, my son, then ten or eleven, newly enamoured of the daily newspaper, runs toward me excitedly waving a headline and shouting, “Look, Mumma! New cure for Parkinson’s!” I would sigh and hug him.
We had learnt long before that Parkinson’s does not have a miracle cure. It is a cruel, unpredictable disease that manifests in symptoms as unique to victims as their fingerprints. Tremor, rigidity, and slowness come in varying degrees, compounded by other symptoms.
My father endured long bouts of acupuncture, then Ayurveda, to no effect. ‘Stereotactic’ surgery gave him temporary parallel vision. One eye flopped over. A photograph of him with an eye patch at my cousin’s wedding serves as a permanent reminder to apply caution in the matter of proselytising doctors.
In 2001, I watched in silence as a colleague was seduced by one of those newspaper headlines. He borrowed Rs3 lakh for an operation to cure his father, determined that he wouldn’t suffer what his Parkinsonian uncle and aunt had: falls, broken bones, agonies while bedridden, and premature death. Tissue was implanted. In three months he succumbed to multiple infections and went from bed straight to crematorium. The headline hadn’t clarified that a patient on immunosuppressants would require a sterile environment.
But my dad was surrounded by knowledge and care. One of the first things he did was subscribe to the Parkinson’s Disease Society newsletter. While publishing research results cautiously, it offers advice on coping with dignity while adapting to the clumsy stranger gradually invading your body. His diet, medication, and physiotherapy was monitored by his most devoted attendant, my mother. She was no-nonsense Matron, setting impossibly high quality standards for the ones we hired. She made sure he ate all that we did – as he grew older and his teeth gave way, she would grind each delicacy separately. And my dad knew how to minimise damage when he fell, a poignant reminder of his days as a sportsman. So in twenty-six years, he broke only one bone.
When he lay in hospital, adapting to a synthetic-blended femur ball, my brother and I, our spouses and children, visited, gushing with affection and little treats, to which he responded well, being a man who was easy to please. Fifteen years into the disease, conversation was a chore. By the time he worked up a few words, the other person would have given up. We tried our best, but it was a protracted process.
He passed the time playing chess. To move a piece he’d recruit his opponent’s help, relaying instructions through cryptic signals of eye and head. One day, as a lovely young physiotherapist manipulated his limbs and led him through breathing exercises, another young woman in a white coat peered around the door, scolding: “That’s my patient!”
His face expressionless (another symptom of Parkinson’s), he mouthed, in hoarse, gravelly tones: “Turf wars!”
I guffawed aloud, delighted as much with the joke as with his still-vibrant sense of humour. They turned wary, uncomprehending eyes on me.
Sadly, the stretch in hospital was followed by bed sores, and took months to heal. My mother dusted antiseptic powder and made sure he was turned every half hour. We watched helplessly when he groaned in pain, and she alternated kind caresses with stern orders to behave.
Nursing help, a fledgling industry, presents ludicrous schisms between front-office sales and back-office service. Promising angels of mercy, the bureaus in my city dispatched louts off the street who slouched and scratched their bottoms. They arrived, if at all, long after the night-shift helper – an angel of mercy, a woman – had left. One man arrived just in time to help me through a toilet crisis. He shook his head, muttering repeatedly, “Oh my god, what a nuisance!” and luckily slipped away, without notice, before I slapped him. Even those with hospital experience would collect a tidy lumpsum after a few days and stay home to booze it up. Nilesh, gentle and proficient, lasted a good stretch until one day he tootled off on the mali’s bicycle and never came back. The bureaus are still calling, a year after I don’t need them any more.
My father had been diagnosed at fifty. He was seventy-six when he died last year. We sat with the body, reflecting. He had suffered so much in the last few months that I felt glazed with relief. Only later would I mourn the loss of someone who could feel my pain; whose quiet courage had given me the strength to face the challenges of my own life. There’s no tonic more motivating than a father’s pride, even when the silent glow is barely perceptible behind an impassive, Parkinsonian face. I said, “D’you think he’d have liked us to have an Irish wake?” “What’s that?” asked my daughter. “No idea,” I replied, “I think they stay up all night drinking and dancing.” “Oh,” she said, deadpan, “I thought that was called Friday night.”
It was his genius for spotting the comic heart of a situation that had taught us to take our troubles lightly. We turned to him, anticipating the characteristic half-smile, but he lay still and unresponsive. The current Economist, subscription a thoughtful gift from my brother, remained unopened.
When I was little, my father gave me stylish haircuts and the other plantation wives begged him to do the same for their daughters. “Can’t smack them if they fidget,” he explained, by way of polite refusal. My brother wept copiously when he told us about Oliver Twist, Sohrab and Rustom and others – while I reached for another cutlet, thinking, “Life is tough, get used to it, er, Portia.” He had a tuneful singing voice his grandchildren would never hear. We lived in the house on the hill, and he was lord of all we surveyed. Years later when I visited with my kids, enthusiastically pointing out my old carved rosewood cupboard and an iron stove just like the one we’d seen in the kitchen of Henry VIII’s Hampton Court, people remembered him as the one who rode through the fields with our dog balancing coolly on pillion.
If we ever saw a quivering, dribbling, old man my father would shudder and say, “Poor fellow! I hope I never get that way.” In later years we never pre-empted disease; never made flippant statements about health.
By saying, expansively, “You can be anything you want,” he gave me freedom of choice, appreciation of competence – and permission for situational nonconformity. At boarding school, I once received a letter containing something he’d liked and typed out, with a note saying I should read and pass it on to my brother: “Ten lessons for my sons”. I suppose it was this, compounded by my brother’s unremitting generosity, which had me performing his cremation rites.
As we grew older, and he became more disabled and dependent, he became our role model of dignity and gracious acceptance. We learnt from him that it was possible to be a responsible person and participate in the joy of living even within the narrowest parameters. As his ability to communicate reduced, we learnt that silent dignity carries its own message. Those around him, many who had never known him as we had, full of humour, kindness and vitality – even strangers – continued to respond to him with the same quality of affection and regard that he had always drawn.
My father left me with a room of my own: a position from which, as Virginia Woolf eloquently observed, one’s publishers’ political affiliations are of little consequence. Embroiled recently in a compromising hospital procedure, I drew courage from the memory of his stoic bravery when faced repeatedly with worse. It struck me that his real legacy was the comprehension that disability cannot prevent anyone from living life to the full, with good humour, wit, and dignity.
First appeared as ‘Living with Parkinson’s’ in Open magazine on 5 September 2011

Friday, April 27, 2012

Songbird launches in Bangalore on 30 April

Here are some interviews in the local papers in advance of the event - click the image for a link ...

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

When Jeeves became Jeevan

An article in New Indian Express, Chennai, today
Prashanti Ganesh
Express News Service
Last Updated: 21 Feb 2012 10:32:30 AM IST
CHENNAI: Who can really say 'No' to desi a parody of P G Wodehouse? Especially if the British author's favourite protagonist Jeeves becomes Jeevan!  Saaz Aggarwal, Mumbai-based humour columnist's book The Songbird on my Shoulder, Confessions of an Unrepentant Madam has that and more. The book is a potpourri of short stories, poems and columns that she has accumulated over the years.
When she was recently at Landmark, Citi Centre, to release her book in the city, she did convince that if there were these certain pieces of writing that did make it to the book, there were a ton of others that didn’t. The book is Saaz's take on various incidents that have taken place in and around Mumbai and Pune and also has more personal writing, that dwell upon touchy topics of being a stepmother and being obese, among other things. Discussions about the book were meagre, not counting the unconventional amount of reading from the book that took place (all through which Saaz meticulously rolled her eyes). And finally, even Saaz felt she owed something to the audience who had braved the traffic to pick up a copy of the candy pink-covered book.
“I often write something, see it on the page and I ask myself where it came from. I wrote a poem when I was still a kid and tried to articulate the feeling of where it was coming from. I then realised that it was the songbird,” she explained. The songbird is definitely not her muse, she pointed out.Saaz did put a caricature of sorts of herself on the cover of her book, with red-rimmed glasses, so there's no doubt that she does consider herself to be a ‘madam’ of sorts. “When I was putting the material together, I noticed that I referred to myself as ‘madam’ in a sarcastic way many times. So, I thought it will be funny to play on this aspect of the word and used on the title.”She felt like laughing at the sight of her books on the stands, Saaz admitted. “I can’t believe this is happening. I’m happy that I did the book, but I’m just really waiting to see what happens,” she said.
Photos courtesy Landmark

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Songbird perches at Kala Ghoda

One of the things I enjoyed most about being part of the Kala Ghoda festival in Mumbai was seeing the wonderful display The Songbird on my Shoulder got!
The David Sassoon Library is a magnificent old building and its quaint, leafy garden, surrounded by the architecture of other equally beautiful old Bombay buildings, is the perfect venue for a gathering of people who want to hear about new books and meet their authors!
I was on a panel with three other authors, Kiran Manral, Tishani Doshi and Shital Mehra, moderated by Ayesha Susan Thomas.
Kiran Manral, author of The Reluctant Detective, Saaz reading from The Songbird on my Shoulder, and Ayesha Susan Thomas, moderator of the event.