Punctuate Life

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The Lure of Books

Growing up in my grandma’s house, where I was the only child, I quickly made friends with books. They soon became my best friends. They were there for me when I was lonely, took me to magical places far, far, away, made me laugh, cry and see things in a completely different light.

Back home in India we didn’t have very good public libraries and every avid reader had to buy their own copies of the latest books. So every birthday all I wanted was books by my current favorite author. One birthday all I got was Anne Rice’s vampire novels. And soon after I got disenchanted with vampires! My favorite genres was fantasy and mystery. I even loved Robin Cook’s medical thrillers.

When I was doing my Masters, I was in a slump. I was just going through the motions. Nothing made sense. I was desperately looking for meaning and something to hold on to. Something solid, safe and comforting. I went to the library looking for some books on journalism. It so happened that these books were in the same aisle as the religion and mysticism books and in a shelf right opposite to them.

Religion was the last thing I needed then so I never bothered to look at those books. But on that particular day, I was just leaving when my eyes fell on a book that was sticking out of the shelf. “Hidden Power” was the title and on the cover sat this half-naked man that I had never seen before. I was magnetically drawn to the book and checked it out. The words in the book were like soothing nectar to my battered soul. I found joy and incredible peace. Everything made sense again. That was the first time a book changed my life.

Now if you have been following my blogs, I mention ‘books that have changed my life’ every once in a while. When I moved to the U.S. I fell in love with the public libraries. Anyone who has lived in a third world country will tell you what a blessing it is to have these treasure troves of books available to everyone. Again books swooped in to save me from loneliness in a foreign country. And then something funny happened.

I kept hearing about this book called “The Secret” from my mother and one fine day I decided to go pick it up from the library. No copies were available and the queue (to place a hold) was incredibly long. This piqued my curiosity. There must be something about this book, if it was so popular and so much in demand. I had to wait a couple of months to get the book. When I read it, it completely blew me away. Until that point in my life I thought everyone was at the mercy of a their predetermined destiny. The idea of being co-creators of our destiny was completely alien to me.

However, I was not happy with my circumstances then and instead of blaming and giving away my power, I decided to take charge and actively improve my life. And what a joy ride that has been. Sometimes things happened so magically that even now I look back in surprise because I can’t believe I pulled it off!

Now it’s all well and good if you lived in a cocoon and didn’t have to deal with the wrong kind of people at all. But the bitter truth is that you cannot escape these people. You have to learn to deal with it all and not get pulled into the drama. I was a drama queen, I admit. Even now you’ll find me over reacting every once in a while. But I have stopped hurting myself and my loved ones through needless drama. And for that I have to thank none other than Eckhart Tolle and his book ” The New Earth”. Five years ago I didn’t know we’d be pioneers of a new age of love, peace and harmony. But I did believe that if every one of us could achieve inner peace then it would contribute to peace on earth. This book helped me see the egoic patterns in myself and others. It helped me detach from that whiny little voice in my head, which was dragging me down.

The most recent addition to my list of “Books that Changed My Life” is a book by Henrietta Anne Klauser. It’s called “Write it Down Make it Happen”. The book talks about all kinds of writing but the one message I took home was writing my prayers down. It’s been a year now since I started writing my prayers in a journal and it has been so rewarding. Every time I feel lost or in despair I reach for my journal and write. First I try to write something that I am thankful for and then I ask for help with whatever is bothering me. I feel much lighter afterwards. I also record any signs, omens, happy events in my journal and give thanks for it. I call it my prayer and gratitude journal.

I am where I am today because I took these books seriously and religiously followed the advice in them. I even recommend them to my friends and I am happy to inform you that I have heard from a few of them telling me that these techniques worked for them. I’m not surprised because most self-help books have techniques that have been tried and tested over the years. Why stumble and fail when you can learn from another person’s life and struggles. Some struggles in life you cannot avoid but most of them can be overcome by learning from another person’s experience or in my case – by opening a book!

 

 

 

 

 


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Short Story 4 – Break Free

Jamal sat quietly in the last bench with his buddies Ganga, Vipul and Ketan. They  all wore  uniforms too large for their skinny frames. They all had books in front of them that did not belong to them. The rest of the class was chatting  happily, oblivious to the four intruders in the last bench.

The bell rang and a great hush fell over the classroom. Chairs were dragged and books and pencils, slates and chalks came tumbling out of bags. Master Madanlal  walked into the room, brandishing a cane in his right hand and a thin book tucked under his arm. Everyone rose.

“Good morning Master,” the class droned in unison and the four boys in the back bench joined in.

Master Madanlal cleared his throat, “Good Morning! Sit down. Sit down.”  He paused, waiting for the children to settle down.

“Before we start our lessons, I have to remind you to be in your best behavior, because some inspectors are coming to see our school.” He turned around to write something on the blackboard.

He turned back and his eyes swept over the class and stopped at the four unfamiliar faces. He hustled up to them. “What are you doing here?”

“Our boss sent us here,” Jamal spoke up. He was the oldest of the four, with bold black eyes and a tuft of brown unruly hair.

“Hmph,” said Master, “how convenient!” He strode back to the front of the class. The kids were all murmuring amongst themselves.

“Silence. Let’s proceed with the lesson…” he said turning to the board and then turning back abruptly.

“Well all right. Let’s get it over with. You want to know why they are here?” He pointed to the backbenchers.

“Yes sir!” came the loud response.

“They work at the glass factory. Their boss will get jailed for hiring them.”

“So they don’t have to go back to work anymore?” asked Madhu.

“No. They are here just for today. Till the labour inspectors leave,” said Madanlal, a certain sadness in his voice.

 

“Why don’t their parents send them to school like our parents do?”  That was Ramu the milkman’s son.

“Why don’t we ask them?” said Master Madanlal walking towards the last bench.

Jamal felt his stomach churn. What do they know? About being poor? About not having food on your plate if you did not get out and earn it yourself! About drunken fathers who squander away money on liquor? About mothers sick from too much work? About 10 mouths to feed?

He stood up. “We’re poor,” he said simply.

“How poor are you?” asked Chinku the shoemaker’s son.

Jamal blinked. So poor that if I didn’t work everyday my family would die of starvation, he thought.

“Poorer than you,” he said.

“My father says you got to have hope. He goes for days without a job and we think we’ll starve to death but he still sends me to school in the hope that I’ll end up better than him and will earn pocket loads of money. Of course we never starve. Some good soul comes along and gives him some work.”

Jamal blinked again. He hated the factory. It was hotter than hell and so smoky that his whole skin burned and his eyes were bloodshot all the time. What he wouldn’t do to be able to come to school everyday and play in its large grounds and sit in its well-lit, airy classrooms.

His mind wandered off to what had happened earlier this morning. His boss Hiralal, looked a mess. He was sweating profusely and his voice trembled with urgency and nervousness. He had hustled them off  saying, “Go  to school and spend the day there. Here are your wages.” Now if only labour officers turned up more often, say every week! The boys could get a day off without losing any wages!

He looked at Master Madanlal. He was busy drawing something on the blackboard. Vipul had fallen asleep on Ketan’s arm, who in turn was trying very hard to keep awake. Ganga was doodling away on the book in front of him. The rest of the class was busy copying whatever it was Madanlal had drawn on the board. Jamal tapped on a shoulder in front of him. “What’s that?” he asked rolling his eyes toward the blackboard.

“A map of Africa,” said the boy turning back to finish off his map.

Madanlal spoke for the rest of the hour about this wonderful place called Africa with a great desert called Sahara and lots of rain forests with  chimpanzees and lions and elephants with big fan like ears. And of tribes who lived in these forests. He spoke about their simple lives and also about something called exploitation. It was something people with lots of money and education did to illiterate, poor people. Somehow it all felt familiar to Jamal.

When the bell rang, everybody jumped out of their seats and ran outdoors to eat lunch in the sun soaked grounds. The four outcasts didn’t have any lunch with them, so they just wandered around looking lost.

“Hey!”  called Ramu from under a tamarind tree.

The boys continued their aimless walk.

“Hey Jamal, Vipul, Ganga, Ketan!” came the call again.

The boys turned and saw Ramu waving to them. They walked slowly toward him unsure of what  to expect.

“Sit,” said Ramu . And the foursome stumbled to the ground without a second thought. One look at the schoolboys was enough to tell them that they would have to pay dearly for arrogance.

The schoolboys pushed their food towards the scraggly, emaciated kids. So accustomed were they to being pushed around and beaten up that it didn’t occur to them that the food was meant for them. They thought the boys were mocking them like Hiralal did. They just sat quietly and stared at the aloo parathas, the dal chawal and kheer in front of them. If they touched it, the boys would surely break their hands.

“Eat,” said the boys kindly. “It’s for you.”

The four boys looked at each other, the food and then at the schoolboys. They meant it! Their eyes had none of that wickedness or guile and their voices were not steeped in sarcasm. The boys dug into the food and devoted the next half hour to polishing the plates clean.

It did not occur to them to thank the schoolboys. And before they knew it, the bell rang and it was time to return to the classroom. Master Madanlal spent the rest of the afternoon asking each student to talk about his or her future.

Jamal sighed and wondered if he would ever grow up. His work at the factory made him sick. He had a horrible cough and sometimes his head hurt so much, he would beg his mother to let him stay home. His older brother used to work in the factory to repay a loan his father had taken from Hiralal. But he had died a year ago and now Jamal had to go to that miserable hell hole which was sure to take his life sometime soon.

“I want to be a computer engineer like my uncle in Mumbai,” Ramu said.

“But your father is a milkman Ramu,” said Lal

“So?” said Ramu turning red.

“But Bapu says I must take up pottery like him or there won’t be any potters in our village,” said Lal.

Master Madanlal laughed. “Nonsense. You can be whatever you want to be. It takes a lot of effort and guts to skirt the beaten path and chalk out your own destiny. But if you do what you love and are good at, it will give you the greatest satisfaction in life.”

The whole class fell silent as if absorbing the purport of their master’s words. The rest of the class spoke of their wild dreams and the foursome hemmed and hawed hoping their turn wouldn’t come. But it did. They all stood up and said, “Glass factory workers.” It’s all they ever knew and all they would ever know for the rest of their lives. It’s hard to change a poor child’s destiny.

That night sleep didn’t come easily to Jamal. He thought of school and what the master had said about chalking your own destiny. But his parents had always said don’t dream big, you can’t fight your own wretched destiny. But what if I ended up like Bhaiya he thought. What if I died puking blood? Jamal shuddered. He didn’t want to die. He didn’t want to go to that stinky factory.

Next morning he got up, drank some watery tea and headed off toward the factory. He passed by the school and the noisy children playing in the grounds. He stopped. His heart skipped a beat. He turned and ran straight to the school.

Ramu spotted him and came running to him. “Jamal, no work today? Labour officers are still here?” he said in a gush.

“No,” said Jamal. “I need to see Master Madanlal.”

Ramu took him to the master’s room. Jamal’s throat was dry. He clutched Ramu with his sweaty hands. “I don’t want to go to the factory. I don’t want to die!” Jamal said.

“You can come to school,” said Ramu.

“But Hiralal and my parents?” said Jamal, wincing at the thought of the hard cane landing on his back fifty times.

“I’m sure Master will find a way. You should talk to him. Tell him all. He can surely help you.”

Jamal mustered up his courage and walked toward the Master. The Master looked up from his newspaper. He looked surprised for a second and then broke into a smile.

“What can I do for you Jamal?” he asked

“I’m scared Master,” said Jamal, big tears welling up in his eyes.

Master walked up to him and squeezed his shoulder. “I’ll help you, if you promise to be brave and turn your back on your past forever.”

Jamal nodded.

“OK then. Let’s go to town and attend to some business, shall we?”  said Madanlal, picking up his bag and books from the table.

Jamal had no idea where they were going or what business they were going to attend to. But he felt he could trust someone for the first time in his life, especially this man with his big honest eyes and gentle voice.

Back in Jamal’s house, Hiralal was visiting, without any notice.

“Where is that boy? Sick again?” he thundered as he burst into the hut.

“No. He went to work this morning as usual. Why? Is he not at the factory?” asked Jamal’s mother.

“If he was, would I come here?” said Hiralal menacingly. “You better send your husband to fill in for him. Debts don’t get cleared if you and your son play games with me all the time.”

“Where could he be then?” said Jamal’s mother, another wrinkle appearing on her already creased forehead.

“Must be lying in some ditch for all I care,” said Hiralal stepping outside. “I’ll expect you or your husband there in ten minutes or no coolie for today!”

Later that evening, Jamal’s mother waited at the door for him but he didn’t return. When his father came home drunk she told him about Jamal.

“Good riddance. Only 9 mouths to feed. Get me my dinner. I’m hungry,” he drawled.

“You horrible man. All you do is drink and eat. While my children and I bear the burden of this family…” sobbed Jamal’s mother, running out of the house to avoid being battered by her drunken husband.

The next morning when Hiralal opened the shutters to his factory he saw Jamal waiting outside.

“You! You think this is your father’s house for you to waltz in and out of as you desire. Let’s see how you’ll keep up your disappearing acts after I’ve flogged you 50 times with this.” Hiralal brandished a prickly cane.

Jamal smiled at Hiralal.  Hiralal stared at the boy. He charged at him intending to knock him to the ground. But before he could, two men appeared from the side of the building.  Hiralal froze and his face lost all its colour. These were the same men he’d seen a couple of days ago. The inspectors.

“Hiralal, you better come with us. Tell your workers to go home. We are shutting down this factory as of today,” said the thin tall inspector with a big moustache.

Jamal watched the two men lead Hiralal away, to their jeep parked behind some mango trees. Jamal ran home. He knew his mother would worry about him. When he got there she was weeping as she kneaded some dough. His little sisters were wailing but she couldn’t hear them. She was weeping the loss of her son. He probably ran away unable to bear the torture at work and the constant bickering at home, she thought. Jamal ran into the hut and put his arms around her neck. She dropped the pot of dough and turned to look at him.

“Jamal, you’re back!” she said, holding his face with her sticky white hands.

Jamal hugged her without saying a word.

His mother pushed him away and said, “You better go to the factory or that Hiralal will skin you. He was here yesterday and he’s very very upset…”

“Ma, I’m not going to the factory. I’m going to school,” said Jamal dancing around his mother. Even his sisters stopped their wailing to listen to him.

“Don’t be foolish Jamal…” started his mother.

“How can I go to the factory if it is closed Ma?” said Jamal, stopping his dance to face his mother and peer into her confused eyes.

“Closed? God be kind to us. But how?” said his mother searching Jamal’s face for an answer.

“It’s a long story Ma. But all you need to know is this. It involves me, Master Madanlal and a few labour inspectors from Lucknow.”

His mother stared.

“Now can I go to school or I’ll be late. Master Madanlal has kept a place for me in the first bench. He says smart kids hold their destinies in their hands!”


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Short Story 3 – A Dress for Dolly

“Your  birthday  is  in  about  a  week,  Angela,” Mom  said. “What  would  you  like?”

“ A  pink  cake,” said  Angela.

“Ok…” said  Mom, raising  her  eyebrows.

“And  it  should  be  round,” said  Angela, making  a  circle  in  the  air  with  her  pointer.

“Ok”

“Not  a  square,” Angela  said, shaking  her  little  head  full  of  tight  black  curls.

“Ok. How  about  a  new  dress?” asked  Mom.

Angela  stopped  shaking  her  head  and  looked  at  Mom.

“Dress?  I  want  a  party  dress. Red  or  pink  party  dress,” she  said.

“Sure  sweetie. We’ll  go  shopping  tomorrow.”

Angela  picked  up  her  baby  doll  and  rocked  her  gently  to  sleep. She  then  laid  her down  on  the  sofa.  She  stared  at  the  doll.

“Mommy?” she  said,  turning  towards  the  kitchen.

“Hmmm?” said  Mom,  through  a  mouthful  of  cereal.

“Can  we  get  Dolly  a  new  dress ?  Please?”

“Can’t  we  just  wash  her  dress  so  it’s  nice  and  clean  for  your  party?”

“No.  I  want  a  new  party  dress  for  Dolly,” said  Angela, hanging on  her  mom’s knee.

“Well.  I  think  I  have  a  few  ideas.  Will  show  you  something  after  I’m  done  with my  breakfast.”

Angela  tripped  around  impatiently  while  her  mom  ate  Rice  Krispies.  She occasionally  peeped  into  the  bowl  to  see  if  Mom  was  done.  When  Mom finally got  up,  Angela  rushed  to  pick  up  Dolly. Dolly had  a  pink  onesie  with  little  flowers  on it.  The  dress  was  dirty  with  clumps  of  grey  fuzz   all  over  it.

Mom  went  to  the  cupboard  and  got  a  little  pink  dress  and  a  silvery  gray  dress.

“Try  these  on  Dolly,” she  said.

Angela  took  the  dresses  and  looked  at  them  closely. “But  this  is  the  other  doll’s  dress,” she said.

“Just  try  them  on  Dolly,” Mom insisted.

“They  don’t  fit,” Angela whined, without trying the dresses on Dolly.

“Ok.  All  right. We’ll  look  for  something  tomorrow.”

Angela  scooted  away  happily.

When  Dad  came  home,  Angela  prattled  away  her  shopping  list  to  him. Dad  pulled  out  some  tiny  candles  from  the  pantry.

“Do  you  know  what  these  are?” he asked Angela, as he lit three tiny candles.

“Candles,” said  Angela.  Dad  let  some  wax  drip  onto  a  glass  mug  he  had  placed upside  down  on  the  dining  table.

“Right,” said  Dad. “Let’s  pretend  this  mug  is  your  cake”

Angela  giggled  and  climbed  onto  a  chair. Dad  stuck  three  candles  to  the  hot wax  on  the  mug.

“Now  it  takes  a  bit  of  practice  to  blow  them  all  out  at  once,” he  said, leaning over  Angela  and  placing  his  hands  on  her  shoulders.

“Ok  are  you  ready?”

“Hmmm,” Angela  said. She  could  hardly  sit  still  in  the  chair.

“One,  two,  three…blow!”

“Pfoo,” Angela  blew  feebly. The  flames  on  the  candles  danced.

“Harder,” said  Dad.

Angela  puffed  harder  but  she couldn’t  blow  out  the  candles.

“Let  me  show  you,” said  Dad. With  a  giant  blow  he  snuffed  out  all  the  candles.

“Here,  try  again,” he  said  lighting  all  the  candles.

Angela  took  a  deep  breath  and  blew  with  all  her  might. She  blew  out  two candles. She  blew  again  and  the  last  one  went  out.

“You  need  to  get  all  of  them  at  once. And  remember  to  make  a  wish.”

—————————————————————————————————–

The  party  was  just  two days  away.  Angela  got  a lovely  pink  dress  with  a  big  purple  flower  on  the  belt.  Daddy  had   ordered  a pink  round  cake. Everything  was  perfect.  Well  almost. What  about  Dolly’s  dress? Mommy couldn’t  find  one  at any of  the  toy stores.

 

On  her  birthday,  Angela  woke  up  and  looked  for  Dolly. She  was  hiding  under  the  comforter.  She  looked  pretty, despite  the old  dress. Angela  picked  her  up  and  thumped  downstairs. Mom  and  Dad  were  up  and  they  rushed  to  pick  up  Angela.

“Happy  Birthday  Angela,” Mom  said.  She  kissed  Angela.

“Happy  Birthday  Angie,” Dad  said,  taking  her  from  Mom.  He  threw  her  up  in the  air.  She  giggled  and  screamed  as  he  caught  her.

 

As  Angela  was  getting  dressed  for  the  party, she  got  an  idea.

“Mommy? Can  you  pull  out  my  box  from  the  attic?”

“Now?” said  Mom  surprised.

“Uh- huh,” said  Angela, a  smile  playing  on  her  lips.

—————————————————————————————

Party  time! Angela  held  Dolly  close  to  her  chest  and  beamed  at  everyone. Dolly was  wearing  a  pretty  pink  frock  with  a  small  rose  in  front. It  was  what Angela wore when she was a teeny baby.

Angela  climbed  onto  a  chair  and  stared  at  the  beautiful  cake  in  front  of  her.

“One,  two  three…blow,” Dad  said.

Angela  blew  as  hard  as  she  could  and  all  three  candles  were  out.  Everybody clapped  and  sang  happy  birthday. When  Mom  was taking  a  picture,  Angela  held Dolly  up. It  was  her  favorite  picture- Angela  and  Dolly  both  pretty  in  pink, eating a  piece  of  round  cake!