A Fountain of Joy

This piece was first published in Hindustan Times.

It was through a fountain pen that I recently discovered my moment of peace. The long, sinuous lines it created on paper were pure bliss, carrying none of the boorishness of the ball pen or the detachment of the keyboard. They seemed patient and honest, and utterly, utterly personal.Image

For most friends of my generation, fountain pens incite long-lost memories of school days with inky fingers, smudged notebooks and ruined shirt pockets. But they are also the stuff of good luck at examinations, graduation gifts and among the first signs of turning adults.

Why, my first memory of joining the honorary list of grown-ups at school is directly linked to a fountain pen. “No more pencils, the teacher says we are big enough to use the pen now,” I had announced at home with great pride as I fussed over entering the sixth grade.

Out my father emerged from his room carrying an elegant silver box, and opened it to reveal a sparkling silver-and-black fountain pen. To me, the delicately engraved marvel placed over a lustrous black fabric seemed a piece of art, displayed like jewellery in an adorned case. It was a treasured item, a wedding gift from a dear uncle. My father seemed both proud and apprehensive when handing over the responsibility to me. He would inquire about the pen’s well being several times in the coming months.

Those were the days when a talent to write beautifully attracted admirers. And I was often in demand when a need to elegantly write on cards or invitations arose. Writing with the pen brought me artistic fulfillment and kept a check on my rhythm and consistency. The ritual involved in filling the pens with ink tamed me; it even transported me to a momentary Zen-like state.

Then came a remorseless rival in the form of ballpoint pen that, despite its annoying habit to leave pasty blobs of ink here and there in the text, won hands down for its sheer pace and productivity. For the price at which they came, losing ’em wasn’t a big deal. One couldn’t part with a pricey fountain pen that easily; one had to be careful and responsible.

Just as the fountain pens began to prepare for the technological graveyard, the advent of email and other electronic messaging types ruthlessly shook the very existence of manual writing. Today, doing the little writing on paper forms in government offices gives us a shiver.

But while one may expect that email and the ballpoint pen have killed the fountain pen, they have survived. Transformed from an archaic working to an accessory, a bulky Montblanc or a shining Parker is a treasured item for many.

So, after nearby a decade, as I scribbled away with such as a borrowed treasure, the experience left me nostalgic and calm.

This week has been hectic and, to beat stress, I plan to gift myself a fountain pen.

Why I Do Not Like Asaram

I never liked Asaram (Bapu). Why I would care to like or dislike him, you might wonder. But when nine out of ten families in my colony worshipped him like he was Lord Vishnu’s avatar in Kalyug, I could not ignore him.

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I remember the ladies’ weekly get-togethers to pay tribute to the “great” soul, singing kirtans and chanting “Asaram Chalisa”. To the uninitiated, this Chalisa sings of the Godman’s journey from birth to, well, attaining enlightenment (whatever that means). It recounts miraculous incidents from his life such as how the boy showed early signs of being a divine incarnation because a stranger emerged out of nowhere upon Asaram’s birth and gifted the family a baby palna carved in pure gold. In the great soul’s own words, any wish would come true if a disciple read the Chalisa 108 times.

I have no issues with Godmen/women in general. But with this man, I had differences in particular. The opinion built as I happened to attend a public discourse by him organized in the city. A mini-bus was arranged to ferry scores of men and women from our colony and around to the venue and back.

I was almost forced into listening to him but I never mind experiences. The lecture, in fact, opened me to the knowledge that since crores of men/women were grasping his words as the Gospel truth, the change in Indian mindset wasn’t happening anytime soon. Why, not less than several lakhs were packed in that ground.

He began with extolling all the sacrificial women of our ancient history for purely being sacrificial. Enumerating exemplary faithfulness/chastity/modesty of ancient Hindu females, Asaram emphasized on his point by adding that this was despite the men paying little attention to the marriages as they were busy changing the world.

Next came a list of do’s and don’ts for women. But what got my goat was his casual dismissal of the profession of a telecaller in a call centre.

Sample what he preached:

“My heart pains to see what our bahu-betiyan have to face in these filthy places. They are molested and even raped. I appeal to those women to come to me for help; I’ll suggest better ways of employment,” he said, while I shuddered at the thought that a majority of those keen listeners would reject a call centre job for their daughters/daughters-in-law the first thing they return home.

Now, I am no fan of this profession. But I personally know at least two girls who could bring their life back on the tracks thanks to the quick money these jobs provided even with average academic credentials (definitely without facing what Asaram spoke of). One of them had been forced to substitute her English-medium school education for a Hindi-medium Government-aided one due to the untimely demise of her father. The girl made more than Rs 20000 a month, enough to rent a small flat in Noida and continue her education through distance learning from a management institute. Today, she is the centre manager at a similar call centre.

Listening to this highly damaging sermon, I seethed even as the crowd nodded vigorously, some, I suspected, with tears of guilt for granting too much liberty to their women than they deserve.

‘Bus roko, bus roko…’ I screamed.

While I constantly hear of rapes all around the country, two recent cases  shook me to the core. One was the Delhi rape incident, for the honest reason that I have traversed that route a number of times and done similar late night movie adventures. Second was the recent case of a photojournalist in Mumbai, because I belong to the same profession.

I am not being selfish, only candid. My heart goes out to all the women who have had to deal with a brutality as this, but when misfortune falls on my ilk, I shudder all the more.

My mind wandered to the past, recalling several situations I found myself in during college and job that could well force on me the same fate. But thank God!

Here is one.

I had joined Delhi University’s Miranda House College after school. To ease commuting from my home in Ghaziabad to the college, my father had fixed a car pool arrangement. It was safe, economical and time-saving.

One day, however, the taxi did not come and I had to depend on public transport to reach college and back. I had Physics practical classes that day, which meant I would be in college until 6 pm.

I had tied up with a fellow commuter so we could return home together. She ditched me at the last minute, shamelessly telling me how she was staying over in Delhi with a friend. I did not know the road map to Ghaziabad, but knew that I was supposed to catch a particular bus from a nearby stand that would drop me to the Ghaziabad-Delhi border, also called Seemapuri border, from where I could take a shared auto till home.

The bus arrived not before 7 pm. I was already nervous, as I had not stayed so late in Delhi before. An infamous blue line bus, it was loaded with passengers. Trying to ignore and fight off the lewd glances that men threw, I finally got a seat at Kashmiri Gate stand. Slowly, I observed that more people were leaving the bus than stepping in. I had told the conductor to drop me at the border, but I hardly knew all the landmarks that led to the destination. I blamed myself for not being too attentive in the last few weeks since I had joined college.

By Seelampur, the bus was almost empty, sans the driver and conductor and it was close to 8 pm. I wondered if I should leave the bus too. But auto seemed more dangerous an option and it was beginning to get dark. I did not ask the driver how far is the border, fearing it would give him ideas. But I casually said that the bus has taken more time than usual. “We are almost there. Be patient,” the conductor replied, fixing his gaze at me and checking me out from head to toe.

To my horror, the conductor suddenly stopped talking to the driver and came and seated beside me.

I was trapped. I was numb. My heart was beating so loud I knew the conductor could hear it. I gathered courage and asked him to sit somewhere else. He did.

I got up and went near the door and ordered the driver to stop. He didn’t. “I can’t on the middle of the road. Be patient. We’ll be there in a minute,” he barked. Suddenly, going off the busy road, he took a sharp left turn and into an isolated lane. I must have turned white. I came down to the lowest step, and screamed a faint scream “Bus roko, bus roko…”. He did.

I jumped out, sprained my ankle but ran towards the main road. Thankfully, it was not far but I was very exhausted and panting heavily.

Straight, I went to a petrol pump I saw and asked for directions. I was convinced I was quite far from the border. “Madam, you are standing right there. Cross the road and you can see the many autos lined up towards Ghaziabad.”

I know my poor attention to roads and directions were to blame. But, a small-towner, I had the first taste of the dirty Dilli on that day.