The story of a stone

This is a true story

This is a true story and therefore all names, locations, dates and other details will be withheld. It is to be read and enjoyed for the content it provides!

The occasion: The foundation stone laying ceremony of an important structure.

The place: A prominent state of India, which has corruption built into its DNA.

The players: The top leadership of the state (no less than the Chief Minister) and all the way down to the 4th division clerk and peon of the various departments involved. Various suppliers, vendors, workmen, florists, decorators, caterers etc etc.

The task at hand: Getting a marble slab inscribed with the Chief Minister’s name as the person who laid the foundation stone for the structure.

The story

For days there had been excitement and anticipation about the function at hand. The site had been prepared, the ground levelled and a makeshift road hastily paved for the Chief Minister to be able to drive smoothly without his delicate back muscles and bones getting damaged.

Vendors had been identified to procure the best marble and a creative agency had submitted a beautifully designed template which the carvers and inscribers could use for working on the marble slab. When the order was about to go out, we got a call from the CM’s office, expressing security concerns and telling us that he would do the foundation stone laying ceremony from his home office!

It worked like this – a platform was erected on stage and the stone was mounted on it. A beautiful satin curtain covered it. From where the CM was seated, a few feet away, he would press a button on a remote and lo! The curtains would draw back signalling that the foundation stone was laid.

There was also a catch to this. We were instructed to procure the entire contraption from ‘approved’ vendors who knew how it worked (all the way through). Here, more things are better left unsaid, than said, because it clearly meant the exchange of money at various levels, like it did for the flowers, the food, and even the paper towels used for the buffet lunch!

The vendor approached us with a quotation double the expected cost, and looked down when asked for reasons. He then sheepishly explained he would get only a fraction of what he was charging. We knew silence was a better option at this late stage.

The day of the function dawned. The contraption worked flawlessly. The CM delicately touched a button with his sanitized fingers and the curtains a few feet away slid apart with greased ease and the hall broke into thunderous applause.

The CM then walked away with an imperious air, surrounded by his coterie. People then made a beeline for the food. There was mayhem with each person grabbing four to five portions. We sat and watched tired out by all the shenanigans of the political gurus and divas and the tantrums they had thrown, beginning with which sofa they would sit on and how close they would be to the CM so he would catch their eye and wave to them from the dais.

Then came the moment of reckoning. The vendor approached us with a bill, demanding cash. We said we could not pay cash because the amount was higher than permissible limits for cash transactions. He looked at us, he looked away, he looked for the master of ceremonies who held all the decision making powers in that hallowed space. He was nowhere to be seen.

So he walked to the stage, dismantled the contraption and took away the slab, promising to give it to us when we paid. Months later, we were still haggling because he had overcharged us and we could not pay him that amount when we had lower quotations in writing. Transparency in accounting meant something after all!

This story would have been forgotten had it not been for a team member who happened to pass by the vendor’s place months later and found the stone lying there abandoned. Losing hope of getting it from him, because both of us could not budge on the price, we had got a new stone installed. The stone, which had been unveiled with such fan fare was lying unclaimed and unwanted in his yard. I don’t know what happened to the stone but it certainly didn’t get the respect it had got on the day of the ‘remote-controlled foundation laying” ceremony.

I still don’t know who gained and who lost in this deal! But it certainly gave me insights into how government functions ‘functioned’!

Bharathi Ghanashyam




And then I reached home…

Working to live vs living to work…

During the years that I was learning to live on little and juggling meagre budgets and coaxing them to do more for me, I was also seeing shades of life that enriched me immensely. Through this period, I consider myself fortunate that I ‘worked at jobs’ before I got work that helped me live. Through this work, I saw the world exploding before me in all its richness. I feel blessed to have met the people I have, seen the colours of life I have, and to have done the kind of work that I didn’t know I was capable of.

The kind of job that was ludicrous in its expectations…

First, my experience with ‘working at jobs’. There were the offices, there were the colleagues, there were the bosses and there were the clients. Uniformly monotonous, consistently demanding and unequivocally unappreciative. I have read somewhere that using too many big words in one sentence is characteristic of bad writing. But how do I describe jobs that systematically killed my soul and robbed me of my creative instincts? How do I describe a job that turned me into a person who didn’t think of quality of work? How do I describe a job where I was more worried about reaching office on time so I could press an impersonal computer button that would determine whether it was 9.41 am or 9.41.02 am? That lifeless computer would then compute the number of times when I was one minute or 30 seconds later than the grace time allotted to me. How do I count the times I lost salary worth 4 hours of working time, for the sin of arriving late for 3 cumulative minutes to office over a whole month? How do I describe a job where I was asked by the office odd-jobs person why I should feel hungry at 3 pm when I reached office hungry and tired after a client meeting, and ordered in for a late lunch? I have no qualms about being described as a bad writer describing this kind of job in clumsy, badly crafted sentences. The irony was that it was a respected ad agency – a place that was supposed to nurture creativity!

The job that gave me life

The office where I got a second chance to live my life was actually a big room above a welding shop. It was tucked away in a side alley of a posh locality and verged on a slum. Sparsely furnished with surplus furniture from the Director’s home, spartan was another word for it. It overlooked a tiny laundry owned by a young man who stood for eight hours behind an ironing table and had first hand information on everything, be it HIV/AIDS (which he believed affected only ‘second-hand’ women), or which bus took one from A to B anywhere in Bangalore where I live. He was my morning conversation person when I reached office too early and had to wait for it to be opened.

That office became my home in the five years that I spent there. It had soul; it held life and it held warmth. The kind of warmth that enveloped you as soon as you walked in.  As long as I was there, nothing, not even adversities of the kind I was facing fazed me. Was it because it was an all-woman office, barring two males? I can’t say for sure because it would mean being somewhat unfair to the male species. I’ll just say I got lucky, or maybe this was God’s way of making up with me.

Meeting life in all its colours

My colleagues…

Shangon, Founder and Director

How do I describe her? More friend than boss. She knew when to speak, when to leave people alone and she knew just when I was at my lowest. Those were the evenings, when after office, she laid out the comfort foods like hot vadas from the cart downstairs and the tea – and we spoke. We bared our souls to each other because we knew that each of us could keep confidences. And that the next day we had the maturity to again slip back into our roles of boss (she) and employee (me). If there is one person who put me on the road to recovery without a fractured mind, it is Shangon. She forced me to look into myself and find a person who I didn’t know lived in me.

Ujjwala – my most loved colleague

The day I first saw her is so vivid in my memory. She is fair, very fair and the little black and gold beads of her mangalsutra sparkled like little dots against her fair skin. A feminist to the core, she flaunted this symbol of marriage like a badge of honour. Oxymoronic I thought, but that is Ujjwala. Fiercely, militantly strong about what she believes in – in this case her symbol of matrimony. I sat in the workstation next to her for all the time I was there and drew strength from the very positive vibes she emanated even when she was quiet. We travelled the length and breadth of India together. We could walk into a village living in abject poverty and speak with the women like they were our buddies, or walk into a saree store in Odisha and feast our eyes on the most gorgeous sarees, knowing fully well that between us we didn’t have the money to own even one. We could come out sated after a biriyani meal in a roadside dhaba without worrying about the bacteria I’m sure we were putting in. It was with her I felt safe in little hotels of small towns of India (where we had to stay while on field trips) even when we heard drunks weaving their way around outside in the corridors.

Then there were the little ones – because they were far younger than ‘us three’ – Hema, Vini, Shyamala, Shobha. Edwin and Mahesh the two men, knew how to fade away when we were in our ‘most women’ avatars. It was in that office that we held baby showers, understood that women had pre-menstrual mood swings that made them demons, spoke women things and revelled in femininity, and did some good work. When we were not in the mood to work, it was perfectly alright to gather around the ‘scarred dining table’ in the centre, call a halt to work and gossip.  We had our problems – we sulked over perceived slights and did all the human things, But we overcame and moved on.

Before I knew it, I was living a fuller, rich life and my troubles were seeming smaller and smaller because I was traveling and working with communities who had even less than us. I was meeting battered women who were bravely battling alcoholic husbands, educating their children, bringing in household incomes, learning to deal with micro-credit and walking miles for a mere pot of water and smiling through all of it. Each time I met them, I cringed, for all the times I had grumbled about my own life of perceived poverty.

I didn’t, have not become an angel. I am still human, still capable of being small and greedy and judgmental and am still full of faults. But I do know that I’m richer because I have met people who have given me a new kind of bank balance – knowledge and the ability to understand and feel empathy.

Finally one day, it was time to move on. Like all good things, this too was coming to an end. One day, I had to gather my weapons, which were infinitely stronger by now, and move on to fresh, wider horizons and chart newer, maybe more exciting paths. I didn’t know then, which way providence was taking me. Yet again, decisions were being made by an unknown hand, who was leading me into uncharted territories. I was wise enough by now not to be scared. I set out…

Bharathi Ghanashyam

Our Marie Antoinette moments

Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France before the French Revolution is famously believed to have said, “Let them eat cake,” when she was told that the peasants of her land did not have bread to eat. Whether she really said it or whether the story began as a rumour and gained credence down the years is immaterial to this little story of mine. My story is true and hugely ironical as I look back and remember the circumstances that led to our Marie Antoinette moments.

The slide was swift, painful and endless

Several years into our ordeals, it seemed the slide would never end. Each time we lulled ourselves into thinking the worst had happened, something happened to tell us how wrong our thoughts were. By this time, in a reversal of convention, my husband had taken on the mantle of home-maker and I had stepped out to earn. With my income alone, there was little we could do, save eat decent meals and have a roof over our heads. Everyday brought with it a new crisis and every crisis brought with it further deprivations and struggles. But we still managed to have our little treats. Biriyani made of basmati rice, fresh milk cream (which our daughter could not eat a meal without), and ghee were some of the treats that we never lost sight of! When we had the money, we stocked up on the rice and ghee and zealously guarded and reserved them for special evenings.

But come end of the month, and these very hoarded stocks would provide for our Marie Antoinette moments. On evenings when fragrance of basmati rice cooking hit my nostrils as I returned home from work, an unspoken message came with it, telling me that stocks of the normal rice we ate everyday were finished. Or when my husband lit our pooja lamps with ghee instead of oil, or we had to season our food with ghee instead of oil, it was time to hit the panic button! There were also the moments I had to take an auto to work instead of a bus because the kind auto driver trusted me enough to wait for a day or two for me to pay him.

Maybe life has a way of handing out some sort of natural anesthesia as a package deal with shocks. Because down the years, these moments ceased to scare us. It was like our senses were benumbed and every new situation became ‘just another thing to deal with’. My husband and I, and even our daughter learned to joke about them. Reverse luxury is the term we gave to these moments, because in extreme conditions we were actually indulging in luxury!

I still associate the fragrance of basmati rice with those difficult days. Even today, I pull back from seasoning food with ghee.  I don’t want to live those days again, but I don’t regret them for a moment because I learned to live during those days. Yes, there are easier ways to learn how to live, but we were chosen for this way of life and that must make us special and chosen!

Bharathi Ghanashyam


The (in)equities of grief and loss

The year – Y2K (2000)

This is an excerpt from an article in National Geographic which sheds light on the anxieties that the world was grappling with, in the lead-up to Y2K…

“…A computer flaw, the so-called “Millennium Bug,” led to anxiety and the Y2K (Year 2000) scare. When complex computer programs were first written in the 1960s, engineers used a two-digit code for the year, leaving out the “19.” As the year 2000 approached, many believed that the systems would not interpret the “00” correctly, therefore causing a major glitch in the system…”

My world in the same period

While across the world there was anxiety about what would happen to life post the advent of Y2K, given we were already dependent on computer-based banking and other functions, all the buzz passed by my family and me without even touching us. We were grappling with personal challenges that made the Y2K problem seem like a mere pimple on the nose.

On the last day of the old millennium, my husband had gone to bed early and I had sat up watching TV without really watching, waiting for our daughter to return home after her new year’s party. Our phone had not rung at midnight like it had on previous years, with people wanting to wish us. We had not called anyone either. We had not gone out and not reached out to anyone. No one had reached out to us. It was a very lonely beginning to the new millennium. All I remember of that night is the sinking despondent feeling in the pit of my stomach which somehow indicated that the coming years were to change our lives forever.

Other people, other stories

As I watched TV before and during those first days of the New Year of a brand new millennium, I saw coverage which told me that there were some very high profile families who were also facing the heat of turmoil and disaster. President Clinton of the USA and his family were being hauled over the coals in full public view for his extra-marital indiscretions and inability to check his overactive libido while in office. While there was intense media glare on what the world’s most powerful man was going through professionally, I could only imagine what the family was enduring in private. He was a father and a husband and I’m sure the fabric of his family life  was torn to shreds and it would take a lot to mend it again.

Elsewhere, in Mumbai, one of Bollywood’s biggest stars, Amitabh Bachchan was facing bankruptcy and other fall-outs of some business decisions he had taken. He is on record for having said that the birth of the new millennium brought with it the ignominy of his having to face dozens of creditors from daybreak to dusk. His situation resulted in derision being directed at him by all and sundry – a feature all too common in the society we live in. While his professional problems were being dissected by the media and the industry, his identify as a father and husband too must have taken a beating and his family would have felt stretched trying to cope.

At this same time, ensconced in the comfort of anonymity,  my household help was struggling to bring order into her life. A widow with four daughters, her problems were a vicious circle of debt, creditors, joblessness, unmet needs and fatalistic resignation. There were no ups in her life – there was only a flat line of suffering and struggle.

Common yet not common…

Common to all of us was that regardless of who we were in the pecking order of the world, we all had families that were being affected by our situations; common to all of us was that we were spouses and parents; also common was that we  had to live in communities and face flak, enjoy support or feel isolated. Our decisions made a difference to the people who were bound to us by birth, or in other ways. But the commonalities ended here.

Turmoil, disruption and despair did not mean the same to all of us. We, each of us, got it served to us in different ways. Some were served trouble in sterling silver, some in humble porcelain and yet others had troubles thrown at them like stones at a passing train.

How different were we?

The difference lay in the degree of isolation, humiliation and censure each had to face. Two had to face intense media glare and hasty public conclusions and judgments, regardless of whether they were based on fact or fiction. My household help and I were probably luckier in that we had the luxury of anonymity and the opportunity to lick our wounds in private. The opportunities for recovery available to each of us also varied vastly.

President Clinton, I remember took frequent breaks at Camp David with his family, equipped with every conceivable luxury that a person in his position was entitled to. This probably gave the family the much-needed time to work out things. Amitabh Bachchan had the opportunity to walk into the house of one of Bollywood’s biggest film-makers and request he make a film, which could enable a come back and another chance in life for him. He had friends in high places who it is rumoured helped him during lean days.

We had opportunities too. Of course we had. But they were not quite the same. The road was rough, the journey was hard and recovery was much, much tougher. It very often tested our tolerance to the very limits. I don’t mean to inject melodrama into this narrative. But I have to say that on days when I had to return home from work, drenched to the skin, with a chill rain-laden wind blowing at me from both the open ends of an auto, turning me into a block of ice, I wished I had the comforts of Air Force One, like President Clinton had, to reduce the harshness of what I was enduring! I wished that despite being in trouble, I could sign a few hundred autographs every time I stepped out of home, which I’m sure Amitabh was still doing!

The years rolled by…

The years rolled by… We were recovering a little every passing day. In ways that were invisible, because we did not feel the differences (there was no dramatic recovery), one day I suddenly realized that we had had no nuisance (aka creditor) calls for weeks. That for me was surely a signal that better times were upon us. The grind of a 9-5 was still a part of my life, but I was thankful I had that 9-5. The implications of not having a 9-5 was horrible to even think of. Through all our trials, I found good people who rooted for me, and stood by me. That is the good side of starting to write your life story afresh. You get to know who is capable of standing with you because of YOU and not because of the tags that go with your name. I built a stronger support system because this was what I had built on sheer merit.

Clinton and an ordinary woman - uncommon yet common
President Clinton and a very ordinary woman – uncommon yet common!

Fourteen years make for a very long chronicle but I’m going to cut it short by narrating an incident which proved to me that I had not only survived, but had made a fairly good come back.

Providence brought President Clinton and me face to face a few years ago. As I shook hands with him, I looked into his crinkly, smiling eyes. He looked the same and not any worse for the trials he had gone through. I was also smiling as I spoke to him (two words to be precise). But there was a sombre thought going through my head. He had flown to India in his own aircraft but I had also flown to meet him. I held a senior position in one of India’s most respected organizations that had given me the opportunity to make a come back. My head was held high as I had earned my place on the delegation that was meeting him.

I don’t know how he had negotiated his tough journey, but we both had travelled a very rough path and were still standing! And the commonalities were kicking in again! Whether it is President Clinton, or a very ordinary woman you will pass by on the street tomorrow without giving her a second glance – troubles test all of us and only the toughest survive!

Bharathi Ghanashyam






Of wrist watches, coin purses, handbags and character certificates

Image courtesy: Google images Fearless under the umbrella

Every creaking joint, every aching limb and tired muscle and sinew in my body sings with gratitude and says a daily prayer of thanks to my little army of helpers. I owe a huge debt to the ladies who come home to help me with my household chores, sometimes neglecting their own. They are the ones who very often make my life that much more pleasant and who don’t balk at giving my feet a quick rub if they are aching, or my head a gentle massage occasionally.

They are a group of three – two who are officially on the rolls of my household and the other who comes in to help her sister. Self-assured women, they can teach me a lesson or two in grooming. They troop in to work every morning, wearing impeccably tailored cholis and sarees draped and pinned to perfection,  every hair on their head combed and neatly in place, fresh flowers woven into their braids. They are adept at using, and avoiding use (when they don’t want to be reached) of their mobile phones, which are carried safely stored in small purses bearing names of local stores called Sharada Jewellery Mart or Venkateshwara Gold Palace or something similar. When I need to use a new feature on my phone, I seek their help. I also get their advice when I want lower phone bills because they are adept at using mobile phones at virtually zero cost. They all belong to micro-credit groups, are the main breadwinners of their families and own bank accounts, passbook and all. Sharp as pins when it comes to managing money, they can put professional bankers to shame. These women – Ratna, Ganga and Shivamma are formidable women- empowered and strong. They possess every card required to make life easy – Aadhaar, BPL, APL etc, etc etc. One of them even has an Uber App on her phone!

And yet…

And yet, despite the obvious progress they have made on external fronts, nothing much has changed for them on the home front. This was brought home to me with force in the strangest ways. On one of my travels, I wanted to bring back some gifts for them. So I picked up inexpensive, but very grand looking Chinese wrist watches. Even as I was choosing them, I imagined the joy on their faces. They could wear the watches to weddings, or other community functions I thought. They were happy to receive them too, but the joy I had imagined was somehow missing. They looked apprehensive, scared almost. The reason soon became evident.

The next day two of them came to work looking sad, even crestfallen. Ganga’s husband had given her a severe dressing down when he saw the watch and demanded to know the name of her secret boyfriend who had given her it to her! He had also attempted to hit her. 25-year-old Ratna’s husband had roundly reprimanded her and wanted to know why a mother of two needed to wear such fancy things and attract attention! Shivamma is a widow and her neighbours cautioned her against wearing anything that would attract unwanted attention.

Today Ratna’s husband wears the watch I gave to her, Ganga has given away her watch to her teen-aged daughter and Shivamma’s watch is waiting safely in her cupboard for the son of the house to get married so the new daughter-in-law (a suhagan) can wear it.

I was more careful the next time I travelled. From the bustling markets of Chembur, I bought them little coin purses, which they could tuck away into their blouses, where no one could see them and pass judgment on their character, sexual habits or other grave matters. This time they were happier to receive their gifts, but didn’t use the purses, because their younger relatives took them away.

Not one to give up, I bought them bags with names of the places I had visited on them. These were rejected for fear of people questioning their character or suspecting them of being show-offs. Exasperated, but still determined to buy them something that could be of use to them, the next time around I bought them an umbrella each. This time I had struck gold!!

Now, rain or shine, they flaunt their umbrellas fearlessly because these innocent objects neither cause a further dent in their already tottering marriages, nor result in their character being questioned. They are also able to hide their faces below their open umbrellas, thereby being able to protect their image even further because it’s difficult to say who’s below the umbrella!

Bharathi Ghanashyam

Comic moments in the midst of tragic circumstances – societal anomalies

This post comes close on the heels of my last one as they are connected in a sense. I’d like to begin with a little story.

Amitabh Bachchan has shared somewhere that when he was going through tough times, he had a member of his staff park his car outside his (Amitabh’s home). He did this to give people the impression that he still owned a car when in reality, he didn’t.  Such is the tyranny of society! He had to do it because as Amitabh Bachchan, his image was so important that any dent in it could break him.

Thankfully, I am not Amitabh Bachchan; I am a person who can walk past you on the street without attracting any attention. But notwithstanding our ordinariness, we too got our share of flak from society. Our changed circumstances brought with them changed societal perceptions about us and we too were victims in a sense, of a rigid societal order, which was uncomfortable with anything that rocked it.

For how we coped with it, I speak only for myself , and not the other members of my family. They were fighting their own battles; mine was simpler because I had always been able to manage with very little. Because I did not miss the trappings, I had the mind space and opportunity to view society from a distance as it were. I was learning on the ground everyday…

We were the same, and yet, we weren’t…

When we became poor overnight as it were, we didn’t grown horns, or an extra head or anything like that. Even as I saw our net worth getting steadily eroded, physically we were still the same. There weren’t too many changes in us, barring the fact that we used autos and buses in place of cars. From living in a well-appointed, attractive apartment, we had moved into a little rented cubby hole. I worked at paid jobs now and had to reign in my instincts to be the boss. I had to constantly remind myself to keep my head down as I had a boss whose head was bigger. I was now preoccupied with finding cheaper ways to commute to work, finding money on lean days to reach office and a hundred other details.  I had seen my domestic help juggling meagre budgets and coping with so much with such grace in the past. I didn’t realise how much I had learnt from them. All that came into use now. I also learnt that the world had so many options. If auto charge was hard to come by, I could use a bus; on days I did not have bus fare, I could walk and on days I couldn’t walk, someone was kind enough to offer me a lift – not friends but strangers. We always have options to replace despair.

I could have avoided all this and gone and lived with my parents, family and all. They were waiting with open arms, but would I be where I am today if I had done that? I’m wizened, hardy like a cactus plant, and fearless because I’ve seen the worst and survived. I repeat, I’m talking for myself and not my family because their experiences, their learnings and their decisions were their own. Disaster affects different persons in different ways.

From a distance…

I didn’t have the time to socialise anymore and I suspect no one missed me! Despite this, my biggest learnings came from societal perceptions which slipped out quite innocuously when I met people from my past. I  fielded them in the best way I knew how to – with disdain and detachment. They knew no better and were greater victims entrapped by society I told myself. Sounds like grapes are sour? It isn’t. It worked for me. I grew stronger by the day when I broke the bonds. I reproduce here, some gems which I have etched into my brains, if only to use as quotable quotes!

From a writer friend who invited me for coffee one day after he came to know I had fallen on bad times – the first thing he wanted to know was whether as a working woman I was being sexually exploited. I hadn’t, but wait… A boss of mine once told me he had seen me around Bangalore and had ogled me in the past. Was that to be construed as sexual exploitation? Maybe yes.

My friend also kindly suggested that in time I would have enough material from my own experiences to write a book! Maybe it was a good idea! Maybe I should!

From someone who had been a very, very close friend and who had mysteriously begun avoiding my calls –  I bumped into her once at my club, where I had housed a guest who I went to meet. She looked at me, mouth agape, and kept repeating, “But you’re ok! There’s nothing wrong with you!” Of course I was ok I wanted to tell her! Today I will. Dear friend, all it took was for you to pick up my call when I tried to call you. You would have been spared the wonder on that day!

From a friend who claimed my husband was like his older brother and went ahead and looked the other way when they met somewhere – Dear friend cum younger brother, what happened to us can happen to anyone and if you had fears that your friend would somehow use you, rest your fears today. He wouldn’t have.

I have a whole host of instances and examples, but airing them will be tedious and will sound resentful. I quoted these because I want to give a message through them. It’s not the fault of these people. Society is like that. Rigid and tyrannical! Dare to break rules and live to regret it! It is also true and just that each person looks to protect him/herself first. What if we were really out to exploit them? While we were unwise in reaching the stage we had, they were wise in protecting themselves. I bear them no ill will. I still send out birthday and anniversary wishes and wish them well. They have been great teachers!

Bharathi Ghanashyam





The ‘Subway’ way of life

I wanted to eat a sandwich the other day. In the days before Subway, a sandwich, for a middle-class person in India meant two square slices of bread with butter and jam or some tomatoes or cucumbers in between them. A sandwich was something that was rustled up when time was short and one was really hungry. It was mostly done at home.

Today, there’s Subway. Sandwiches don’t look like sandwiches and don’t even feel like sandwiches anymore. Try ordering for one. It’s first the length – 15 cm? More? Less? Once you’ve got the math around your head, it’s the choice of bread. On one really hungry day, I was confounded just trying to choose from the eight kinds of bread on offer. I settled for honey and oatmeal bread, simply because it ‘sounded healthy’. And then I agonised on toasted cheese or plain or… The stomach was rumbling louder by now.

I scrolled down then to the extra meat and cheese section and decided to pass. Then it was a tussle with the toppings. Choosing three out of the eight on the menu was tough believe me. It was even tougher to settle for a sauce which offered simple choices like mustard and honey and mayonnaise, and some which were tough on the Indian palate. That done, I was reminded say yes or no to the chicken tikka! Phew! And I thought it was just about a humble sandwich.

Is this post about sandwiches and Subway? Obviously no! But it is about choices. The choices in life, which are as confounding as putting together a Subway sandwich.

Cut to alliances vs relationships

Time was when ‘relationships’ was an alien word and ‘alliances’ were better known . Alliance meant that an extended community got together, decided to ‘get’ a boy and a girl married and went about the job methodically, beginning with horoscopes, and finally, white sheets on the wedding night which served as a virginity test. I’ve always wondered but never got a reply on what the girl would suffer if she did not stain the sheets!

There were no other choices. Not even for the boy and girl because they were obliged to marry the partner chosen for them by their parents, aunts, grandparents and assorted other relatives. Some bold ones went out and fell in love and often paid dearly for their guts with their sanity and peace.

And now we have the ‘Subway’ way of life

The Subway way of life give you choices – more choices than you might want to have. I’ve heard of alliances but am now increasingly hearing of relationships. There’s a menu to choose from and couples fall into them quite like fingers sliding into well-fitting gloves – easily, and without too much ado. There’s the live-in, the open, the married but separate, the divorced but still together for the sake of the children, the dating, the seeing each other and the committed and waiting to be married. There’s also the same-sex, bi-sexual, occasional gay or lesbian and several other, yet unexplored ones. Am I confused? Not really. But I’m sympathetic – I sympathize with the ones who need to make these choices. I understand life must be difficult for them, having to face life that now offers so many choices, just like a Subway counter does. And I always wish them well and hope they make the choices that are most appropriate for them.

With choice comes the churning

I invariably finish off a Subway sandwich with regrets, wondering whether the whole wheat instead or oatmeal and honey bread, or the any of the other toppings would have made my sandwich more tasty. Till the next time I feel grubby and face the same dilemmas while ordering a Subway.

Choices in life, without meaning to trivialize them, have brought similar dilemmas with them. In the past few months, I have watched three films which have mirrored these dilemmas and churning in society starkly, and reflected them in all their beauty, ugliness, sensitivities and conflicts. Pink, Dear Zindagi and Lipstick under my Burqa are all commentaries on life and living. They are honest, brutal, sensitive, disturbing and funny in turns. Even when they are funny, they are challenging us to look society in the eye and acknowledge that change is coming. And none of the films are sugar-coated.

It is as disturbing to see a woman verging on senior-citizen, climaxing in a dirty toilet, after having phone sex with a man young enough to be her son. Just showed she had urges that couldn’t be stilled with bhajans and satsangs, and she forced us to look her in the eye and agree that she was entitled to feel the way she did. It was disturbing to watch a woman indulging in a quick sexual encounter with her boyfriend while her fiancee (who she’s being forced to marry), waited for her to make an appearance at their engagement ceremony. But she was asserting herself in the only way she knew how.

When a girl just out of her teens teeters on the brink every time she has to display commitment in a relationship, you cry with her because you know the ghosts that torment her. They tormented you too when you were her age but you did not have the courage to confront them. And when a group of friends (young working women) step out to have a nice evening and are almost raped and do what seems to be the right thing in defence (beat up one of the boys), you cringe when they are repeatedly accused of lacking character because they went out with boys they didn’t know too well.

I am often driven, like many others in society, to the brink of judgemental statements when I hear of or watch women breaking boundaries and paying for their courage or ‘sins’ as society still like to term them. But I hold back, thinking of my encounters with Subway. If it’s so difficult to buy a sandwich, it must be double, treble and multiple difficult to make choices in life that are often inevitable, but avoidable. I would think that there will be mistakes, which will be more costly than my mistakes with Subway. But make them they will. Because change doesn’t happen without mistakes.

I very often remind myself, in the midst of this barrage of messaging that everything old is not good and everything new is not bad or vice versa. Certainly we have to evolve in thought, word and deed; we have to acknowledge realities, however uncomfortable they make us. But do we also have the maturity to respect the humble homemade sandwich as much as the more complex Subway? Do we have the courage to stand up for old fashioned alliances as much as we need to welcome the new evolving relationships and the need for women to be just as liberated as men? Can we not hit at patriarchy and yet be dignified and assertive rather than defiant and screechy all the time? Do we always have to scream that we need need change? Can’t it be more dignified?

Think of it!

Bharathi Ghanashyam

Living in the moment – aane wala pal jaane wala hai

Her fingers were working magic on my scalp. But as she gently tried to massage and tease out the tension in my knotted nerves, I was oblivious to her efforts. My mind was busy fretting. It was getting late for dinner. There were dishes to be washed before my favourite Sunday programme began on television and the husband with his meticulous ways would allow no delays. He would end up doing it all himself and my guilt would not let me relax. The masseur’s fingers toiled on, futilely. All this after I had waited two weeks to book myself for a head massage and was spending a near fortune for this. Suddenly, a switch came on in my mind.

Why had I come here at all if I couldn’t set my life aside for a mere 30 minutes and enjoy the moment? Today, I had the means, the time and the ability to come in to a parlour and pay for a massage. Tomorrow, I might not have all this. And yet, I was frittering away the moments. Dinner could wait, television show could wait – I was going to enjoy this. And I did.

On my way home, I thought of all the moments that I had frittered away in my life, without realizing that the present is all we have. I’ve read dozens of quotations on this and none of them registered, as had the masseur’s fingers, which had tried so hard and succeeded in drumming the message home.

I thought of the costly holidays we had taken, without quite enjoying them because our thoughts all along had been on the jobs that awaited us on our return, or the worry that we had not turned out the gas, or locked the front door, or informed the domestic help. What if she quit because we had not kept her informed? I lost the best moments of our holidays. Now, we’re too busy, or too tired to take any more.

I thought of the times the daughter had called out to me to watch television with her. I had more often than not refused, saying I had an early start the next day and couldn’t go late to work. I could have. I could have sat up with her occasionally and still not lost my job. But anxiety for the future had spoiled the moment for me. Now that she’s all grown-up, call her if I may, she has better things to do. I had lost the moment.

I had lost the moment in a lovely, old souk in Morocco and a market in Mexico when I was fretting about whether I would make my connections back safely, or whether my baggage would be over the free allowance, though my return was two days away!

The beauty and the wondrous sights, the flavours, colours and fragrances of spices in the souk, the lovely cane products, the shoes, the bags, the gorgeous hand-woven rugs, the hand-embroidered linen being sold from the streets didn’t touch me quite as much as they should have. The romance of the antique markets of Mexico was lost on me. I have only photos that a friend took to remember them by. I had lost the moment.

The times that I went to see Dad and he asked me to stay back awhile, and I said that the daughter’s homework had to get done, dogs had to be fed or whatever reason I gave – I had lost the moment. He will never call me again because he is not in this world to do so.

Not anymore. The masseur’s fingers were almost like the shade of a Bodhi tree. They conveyed to me the importance of the moment. I shed my worries and gave in to the magic. And it worked wonders for my nerves.

As I write this, a song comes to mind – it’s in Hindi. Aane wala pal jaane wala hai. Ho sake to isme zindagi bitado – pal ye bhi jaane wala hai! I also salute Bollywood, and particularly Gulzar for giving us such gems.

Yes I will practice living every moment in life. At least I won’t have lost moments that will never come back!

Bharathi Ghanashyam






The Summer of 2004

The summer of 2004

I will never forget the scorching summer of 2004, while my colleague and I were travelling in Orissa (now Odisha). The heat pinned us down even as we attempted get out of bed and temperatures climbed impatiently up to 420C well before noon.

Odisha is a unique state of contrasts. Incredibly beautiful, incredibly divine, incredibly backward, and incredibly poor – divinity emanates from the temples that dot the countryside and the towns, while poverty and under-development co-exist cheek by jowl.

That year, that day

An air of tranquility washed over us as we drove through the state. I remember a feeling of peace even as the extreme discomfort of the heat bore down on me heavily. Our work involved travelling deep into the interiors of rural Odisha to research and write about HIV/AIDS interventions and we were told to start our days early and spend the afternoons indoors in whichever village we found ourselves.

The heat was intense enough to swoop down and tie you up in a steamy tent and make you breathless till you felt that life would swiftly go out of you. As a small concession, we were given an air-conditioned vehicle to travel from one village to another. At one village, I saw a man suffering from sun-stroke being brought out and buckets of water being poured on him to prevent him from being roasted alive. And this where drinking water was scarce. Should I have felt guilty about travelling in comfort when I was there to write about people like him? I silenced my conscience telling myself I hadn’t gone there to die after all.

Midway through our stint, at the end of a day which had been unbearably, stiflingly hot, we came to a village. Entrances to most Indian villages are barely enough for two bullocks joined by a yoke to pass through; this village was no different. This meant we had to stop our vehicle and proceed by foot. Passing the customary temple, we wound our way around the haphazard lanes, avoiding heaps of surface-dried dung and huge, well-fed flies. Scrawny children played in this filth, scarcely affected by the heat. I love Indian villages now, but back then, I remember feeling more than mild discomfort.

The coordinator of the HIV/AIDS project we were there to write about, whispered in my ear, “Ma’am, two AIDS patients live in this village. But we will have to wait till nightfall to meet them. Let’s look around till then.”

So we looked around – at the poverty, the emaciated old people who sat at the entrance to their homes, and at the women who looked strangely alone and worried. We noticed there were no young men in the village and asked about it. The coordinator said, “They all migrate for work in this season, leaving their wives, children and parents behind.”

Ironically, while the men were away, a meeting was being held in the panchayat hall to demonstrate the use of condoms to women. There were no men in the meeting and the women sat shyly, sarees drawn over their faces, as the woman volunteer held a ‘wooden demonstration model’ and nonchalantly drew a condom over it. None of the women even looked up!!

The seed for Journalists against TB is sown

Darkness fell, and we were furtively taken to an empty house outside the village, where three people, a man accompanied by his father, and a young woman had been ‘brought’ to meet us like two exhibits. The man breathed in short painful gasps. Skin-covered ribs stuck out starkly on his chest and his father spoke for him as he hadn’t the energy to respond to our questions.

The woman waited inside the house and looked up as she heard us enter. Very young, probably in her early 20s, she seemed marginally better than the man but we were told she was dying of HIV related TB as well. As I spoke to her, I looked into her eyes. They reflected several emotions – bewilderment that seemed to question why she was dying for no fault of hers. Anxiety because she knew she was dying and was going to leave two little children behind. Her husband had already died after infecting her. I also saw her wince from the pain of the fever and cough that were consuming her.

But most of all I saw her puzzled. She seemed to wonder why we were there. What could we do for her? Her despair got to me. I turned away, ashamed that I was even attempting to ask her irrelevant, impertinent questions about how she contracted HIV, who gave it to her etc. Questions had no place in her life now.  In fact nothing had relevance; she was dying. What could I say? Could I say I would pray for her, giving her the impression that there was nothing else that would work for her? I stumbled out of the house finding it difficult to hold back my tears. The tears came, later in my room. But so did a determination that I would do something, if not for her, at least for people like her.

That day I hated the woman’s husband – a migrant, who had infected her. Today, I don’t. Because I know that he was ignorant. Had he been aware of the dangers he had exposed himself and his wife to, he might have been careful. His choices might have been safer.

For TB, the situation is even worse – because you don’t do anything to get TB. You just breathe. This makes awareness even more vital to protect yourself. My tryst with TB began back then. It wasn’t easy to negotiate media space for TB because it was such non-issue. Back then, other than people from the programme, very few knew about or spoke about TB. At least, with the advent of HIV, it got its place under the sun, albeit merely as a co-infection.

But I persevered and one day, in frustration, after several publications had declined to take a piece I had written on TB, I decided to start my own paper! It was easy because opening one’s own paper simply meant founding a blog and feeding it with news! ‘Journalists against TB’ was born, for what it was worth, and I had kept my promise to the nameless woman in Odisha, who is probably looking down at me from wherever she is. And it was never difficult to find space again to speak about what mattered.

The TB sector welcomed me with open arms. I have seen change happening slowly, but surely and TB getting the attention it deserves. We’re not where we need to be just yet, but there is hope because there are hundreds like me who care about doing something. And they will!

Note: Journalists against TB has never been and will never be funded, in order to stay completely impartial. Travel grants have been accepted from time to time in order to build knowledge for informed writing.

Bharathi Ghanashyam


My imperfect world


Welcome to my imperfect world! The picture says it all. My harum-scarum world that only I understand. The chaotic world where only I can see the flowers – they grow any which way. Even the sky in my world follows its own order. In my world the grass grows the way I want it to – wild, without rules, not in any order – because being in an ordered world is to defy the ‘larger plan’. Being in a world of big plans is to defy and ignore the small ones that make life worth living. And yet, there are some perfect things even in my imperfect world. Like the tree!

The perfection in an imperfect world

The tree is exactly the way I want it to be, and the way I want to be – strong and unshakeable. It gives strength when all else is crumbling. It defies the sky sometimes; it nurtures all the little creatures that grow in its shade. It allows uninvited guests to come and make their homes on its strong branches – and doesn’t voice a whimper when they leave without as much as a bye leaving their untidy nests behind when their little ones have grown up and away. Is the tree something of a ‘doormat’? No, it’s a welcoming host.

It’s the tree that provides shelter against threatening storms and drenching rains. And when the rain is past and the refuge seekers have left, leaving their litter behind, the tree just smiles, forgiving them and waits for the next batch of refuge seekers. Is the tree devoid of self-esteem? No, on the other hand, it’s actually very sure of what its role in the world is.

The tree it is, which gives fruit to the stone-pelters, the free-loaders and the exploiters. It gives fruit without asking pesky questions. What will you do with it? What is my ROI (return on investment)? I need to meet my targets so I’ll crush my neighbouring tree. Is the tree unambitious? No, it’s just self assured.

The tree is not insecure; it doesn’t need constant reassurance about its place on earth. If that were not true, the tree would not live by its own rules, swing to its own music; it would not send fresh shoots up into the very place that the tree-cutter left his destructive trail. That’s because the tree spent years growing roots before it grew into the sky. That’s because it was in no hurry to grow up before it grew from inside – defiant, spunky and unafraid.

In my chaotic, imperfect world I take strength from the tree. There will be order in chaos one day. I am growing inside. Like a tree.

Bharathi Ghanashyam