When I was ten, every winter I would try to make a Christmas tree out of a deodar branch in the backyard. And fail at it. I would envisage a beautiful thing with litchi lights. But never go all the way. In a few days, my deodar branch would dry and fall off and I would forget all about it, until next year.

Another wintry activity was feasts. Everyone feasts during December. Our father worked in a near by small town, at that time. The office turned into a makeshift home of sorts for folks who traveled from far off places and went back only on Sundays. The office staff decided to close for Christmas holidays after having a small feast and the children were invited as guests. 

On the day of the feast, we got dressed prim and went to father's office on time. We folded our hands and greeted all of father's colleagues rather obediently. Someone took us to tour the town on foot. The pooja pandal was the cynosure of the market place. Men hung around it drinking tea and smoking bidis. Younger men, who exerted ownership over the pandal, had just been done with their annual repertoire of festivals. Starting with Ganesh Pooja in August, to Durga Pooja in September, Lakshmi in October and finally Kali in November. They were fluxxomed collecting contributions, organizing processions and decorating and discarding. 

Tired after our walk around the town when we returned to the office, it had been shut earlier than usual on account of the feast. We entered through the backdoor. The cooking had begun. The children helped around chopping a cucumber or two for the side salad. But mostly were sitting around and getting bored.

When the time came, banana leaves were rolled out on the floor and sprinkled with water. Steamed rice and spicy hot chicken curry were served to all the  participants of the feast, starting with the children. Fresh coriander leaves were fetched from the kitchen garden meticulously maintained by the folks who stayed over nights at the office. Green chillies for some of the adults. 

I hardly remember what we looked like as children that young. I have no memory of what those colleagues were like. I barely remember what father used to be like back then. But I remember flavors of the curried chicken and how it filled the entire corridor where we sat in rows, against both walls. And the overpowering coriander. The chicken had been cooked in pestle crushed spices, since nobody had no grinder. 

After the feast, we folded our hands again and bid goodbye to all. On the way back, a slight chill had filled the air as we crossed fields of cabbage and cauliflower. Fields of cabbage and cauliflower, ah. Such a sight to behold, flowers sprouting from the ground. When we reached home, we saw mother having her cup of tea on the porch. 

Saturday Night Live

This was a long time ago. I was getting a master's degree. In a hilly wintery town. A friend happened to visit. He was traveling, at random, for touristy reasons, or more. And happened to be in my town. We decided to meet up. It was a Saturday. My schedule was quite hectic. I squeezed out an hour in the afternoon at a coffee house near his hotel. 

Back then, nobody knew what platonic meant. We were all so young and feelings could just crop up. But with this man, I was absolutely sure it was platonic. He was not unattractive. In fact he was quite successful. He spoke lucidly too. But the content suffered from a dearth of humor. He was quite straight and logical. He asked questions as if seeking to gather information, which I eagerly dispersed. But that was that. Things were unemotional. And it was good that way. I didn't even ask if he was seeing anyone. Nor was I interested in finding out. I have never been curious about other people's lives and have respected their privacy. He casually protected his without seeming to even try. We were smooth.

The coffee house was a quaint little one run by a woman and a girl in overalls waited around a half a dozen tables. Things were slow. We ordered our drinks and almost forgot about it. My friend spoke about his work and how he was looking to break out. Probably quit, start out on his own. He asked about my writing. I don't remember what I told him. My mind was fertile then. I wrote prolifically. He read my stories, from what was apparent. That kind of attention makes me feel special and I bask in it, secretly. He also maintained a journal, a travelogue, a collection of his neat experiences in life, unlike my messed up depressed shit. We exchanged notes. 

When the coffees showed up an hour later, the waitress in overalls apologized, it being a Saturday and all, weekends are always crazy. We drank in big gulps and he got the cheque. We were old fashioned that way, and he being the one with a job and me being the one still in school.

Just before we left the coffee house, he startled me by telling me that his evening looked empty and he'd go wherever I was headed. I had plans of stopping by at the Kali temple. I have always been a fan of Kali's badassery. And have been a regular on Saturday evenings for more than half of my life. But I usually go alone, I told him. It's my weekly purge and it's done better alone. But, what the heck.

We hailed a cab to the Kali temple on the river front. After sitting in the temple hallway with eyes closed for a bit, we made a few rounds of the courtyard. He obviously commented on the architecture and lighting and blah. I too shared some stories I had heard about the heritage of the temple, about how the goddess used to be the king's ancestral goddess and beautiful that she is, she's rich too. We laughed, sitting on the river steps and traded stories. 

Visitors dropped coins in the river. There went a belief that coins dropped made wishes come true. Neither of us harboured any wishes, I guess. We didn't drop any coins and made friends with a little kid who fished out some of the coins with a magnet attached to his fishing rod. 


When Nivedita came of age, her mother tried to set her up with a colleague's son. Said colleague had three sons and was in a hurry to get the eldest one married because the second son already had a girlfriend and was in a hurry to settle down. Nivedita didn't understand this hurry to settle down. She sought romantic love. At the behest of her mother she, however agreed to meet the eldest one. The colleague's family had invited Nivedita's parents to a religious ceremony at a temple near their place. Nivedita, awkwardly draped one of her mother's saris and tied her hair back. She surprised herself at how grown she appeared.

In the temple's courtyard, the colleague's family entertained numerous friends and family. Nivedita and the eldest son were introduced quite cordially and they spoke for not more than a few minutes. It didn't feel special, except for the newness of faces and voices, nothing underneath outstood. 

The matter fizzled out. Noone mentioned it again. A few months later, Nivedita heard that the prospect got married. To some nice homely girl. A year later, they had a son. Nivedita, moved on. She changed jobs, she switched cities and faced the obvious and not so obvious nuisances of life. On a quiet ordinary afternoon, she got a call from her mother.

Her mother called almost every afternoon, there was nothing unusual about that. But the conversation that followed chilled her very bones. There had been an accident. The colleague's daughter-in-law had burned herself in a gas leak. She was in the ICU and was battling for her life. Her son was only three years old. Nivedita was shocked beyond words. 

A few days later, she heard that the daughter-in-law had died. Everyone knew she was going to die, the way she had been charred. Nivedita kept thinking about the little motherless boy. The story she heard was that the daughter-in-law turned on the gas in the morning without suspecting a leak and caught fire immediately. The husband tried to save her and sustained some burns. The boy woke up after hearing the screams but they managed to throw him out of the kitchen and he escaped unhurt. 

The little boy was sent to live with his grandparents so that his father could grieve properly. He took a second wife a year later and  continued to live in the same house. The little boy grew up at his grandparents and visited his father and step mother rarely. 

Nivedita's mother made sure she got every step of the story correct. All the happenings in the life of someone whose wife she might have been, were relayed to her religiously and without mercy. Nivedita, however, couldn't handle the shock even after it reached her third or fourth hand. She kept imagining many random things. But mostly, she kept mentally gasping about how narrowly she had escaped death. 

Had she married that man, she would have died a terrible death. So everytime she turned off the gas, she double checked, triple checked, went back to the kitchen and checked again, and then one more time.