If I were to recall my earliest memory, it was when I was three, I think, I was part of a fancy dress programme. My mother dressed me up as a kabuliwala. This was in the early eighties. Kabuliwala was a Hindi film based on Rabindra Nath Tagore’s story.
The DTH and cable boom were yet to happen. Those days one usually hired a VCR cassette from a friendly neighbourhood rental guy. Sometimes even the VCR system was hired for not everybody own one. Then the entire family, and neighbours (who were like extended family back then) got together and watched the movie over chai, samosas and bread pakoras.
At our place, kabuliwala was a favourite. It usually left us all teary eyed, especially my mother. So she took inspiration from this beautiful story and dressed me up as the protagonist. At three, thanks to the innumerable screenings at home, I knew the dialogues by heart.
Kabul se aaya hoon
Pista baadam aur kishmish laya hoon
I did not need a formal fancy dress competition to perform, I just needed a ready audience that was available after the screenings. So after almost every screening I got up and went around rattling these lines.
Back then for my mother it was the most obvious character to dress me up as. And as expected I amazed everyone with my performance. Won the judges hearts by offering them pista, kishmish and baadam. I won the first prize.
I don’t have any good memories of academics. All I reminiscine fondly about are the innumerable plays, extempores, debates, dramatics, and soliloquies I performed on stage. The stage gave me a sugar rush. I like to call it a sugar rush because being on stage was the sweetest, most enegergising, and fulfilling experience for me. I loved the attention. I loved the applause. And most of all I loved to talk.
I mostly played a male character in plays since I had a boy cut all through school and college. Of her three daughters, it was I who was chosen to take one thing off my mother’s list of morning chores. When I was five or six, we went out for a wedding and as I scurried through the crowd to get to the ladies someone actually stopped me from using it and directed me to the gents toilet. Now for any child that age, it could be very embarrassing but I found it very amusing and came back and shared it with everyone. I enacted the entire episode and only stopped until everyone was roaring in peals of laughter.
All I ever needed was a story to tell. I didn’t care if the story mocked me or my appearance. As long as it got a few laughs I never stopped shy of sharing it with anyone and everyone.
When I moved out of home for college I found myself lost. Nobody knew me. I was in a big city and I felt very ordinary there. I didn’t know about the latest music bands and the fancy brands of clothing. In a group, I usually had nothing to talk about for I was mostly unaware. And in my free time I found myself desperately googling on clothes, perfume and bag brands, pronunciations of brands, names of international film stars (they all looked the same to me so that was a huge challenge). I was desperate to fit in. And soon enough I did manage to make small talk. But I didn’t like the story I was sharing. It was someone else’s story, that I didn’t even like.
I also convinced myself that the kabuliwala story will be mocked at, if I shared it, so I stopped performing.
I began losing my confidence and the stage that earlier gave me a sugar rush bagan to scare me. And even if I had an opportunity to go on stage, I steered clear of it.
The next milestone was work. I joined the hard core industry of public relations. A thankless client servicing job where we were trained to flatter the client and the media and get brickbats from all ends. The unending media rounds in scorching heat, getting hung up on by journalists for making their lives hell by constantly chasing them, and continuous lectures from team leaders on the importance of ‘follow-ups’ defined my new life.
I should have danced with joy when for the first time I saw my press release printed in a leading national newspaper, verbatim, but it wasn’t so. It was carried with another’s byline. It shattered me. I decided to leave the industry.
Next I went on to join the publishing industry. It was like a dream job. A leading international children’s publishing house. A marketing, publicity and events profile. An opportunity to meet authors, a chance to be surrounded by stories. I jumped at the offer. It was too good to be true.
It was great. As expected I loved it. Made new friends, read so many new books, got introduced to a treasure trove of stories. I was happy but something was amiss. When in a group I still hesitated to share my point of view for fear of being mocked at. I chose my clothes carefully for I had often caught people sniggering at the way people dressed up. There were parts of my day that I absolutely loved and there were parts where I was lost. I rarely visited my childhood memories, I locked them up somewhere deep in my head and bagan to believe they belonged to someone else.
From publishing I moved to the cut-throat corporate world. It was not so much the job profile but the paycheck that drove me there. I made a few international trips as part of work that took care of my parents’ proud talk to their friends and relatives. Of course the job brought with it immense exposure. I was constantly interacting with the who’s who of the world, journalists who had earlier snubbed and hung-up on me were calling me to get through to my bosses. Well that certainly gave me a high but there was so much to do. Work kept me completely snowed under. My day comprised meetings, traffic jams, con calls cum breakfast on the wheel, an energy bar for lunch, hitting the sack without dinner…Little by little the three-year-old kabuliwala went under the covers and I didn’t even bother.
I was a new person, yes I was reading, writing and watching new stories but I was rarely sharing them. Even though I had worked so closely with the publishing industry I never shared even one story I had written with anyone. I didn’t fear the piece getting trashed, I had somehow convinced myself that what they knew and talked about was much above what I wrote and I didn’t want them to tag me a loser.
As part of my corporate experience I was looking after the CSR initiative of the organisation. I took back a lot from the experience. For the first time I too began feeling strongly for a cause. The sensitisation gave me a new outlook. Gradually somehow my lost confidence was finding its way back. This was when I discovered that I was going to be a mother. A whole new phase of life was about to begin.
The first few months of my pregnancy were very rough. I was advised complete bed rest and I moved back to my parent’s place. I spent a good three months at home and the memory box that I had locked up tightly somewhere began to unleash itself. My parents often talked about how I was always performing as a child. I found old photo albums, certificates and trophys I had won in school and college. They all seemed to belong to someone else.
During those few months I had a lot of time to think, which was a luxury for me otherwise. I revisited every turning point of my life and mentally drew out situations where I could have reacted more maturely and instances where I just overreacted unnecessarily. It was a phase of introspection which had a cool cathartic effect. I was finding myself for I needed to – after all I had to introduce myself to my baby.
I went back to work in the second trimester of my pregnancy and it was hard. Needless to say, I was pampered by my boss and colleagues but I couldn’t stop myself from removing the mask I carried to work. I had to get rid of it. I didn’t bother about falling asleep during team meetings, or eating the extra roti during lunch, or not offering my seat to a superior (or anyone) when in a group. My feet were fat and didn’t fit into any shoes, my belly went everywhere before me, and sometimes I just couldn’t hold my farts but I was happy; despite the nausea, morning sickness and crazy barfing, really I was happy being pregnant.
And then Viraaj arrived and so did the question – to work or not to work? Of course the first few days, (no wait) months, just flew past. I couldn’t possibly leave Viraaj at home and go to work. I couldn’t get myself do that. I decided to give up work. But living in a metropolitan city with only one member earning and a new baby at home. We had to find a solution. Plan A was to get back to work. I didn’t want to not work all my life but not just yet. Plan B was to move to Kanpur, my husband’s home town where there was a proper set up, full family support. I didn’t like either of the plans and there wasn’t a Plan C.
Much reluctantly, we decided to go with Plan B. Shifting homes was daunting enough, shifting cities was was traumatic. I hadn’t gone through postpartum depression thankfully, but Kanpur initially was depressing. It was winter time and Viraaj and I were restricted to one room. The place was new, the house was new and the role was new. And I was forever melancholic. Often I would find myself at the threshold looking out of the house. The bars on the glass door completed the imprisoned in jail picture. Which I often think back about now and feel sorry for myself.
At this point I really didn’t question myself about anything. I just decided to go with the flow, Viraaj started growing up and we both found solace in books. I read, read and read. To myself and to him and pretty soon we were ordering books online – all the time. We discovered wonderful authors, beautiful stories and we began stepping out of home as well. In Viraaj I saw glimpses of the child my parents often spoke about. The child who was forever performing – singing, telling stories and mimicking. Viraaj was doing all of that and more and I was loving it. Ever so often I found myself performing for Viraaj and his awe and wonder gave me the fuel to keep going on. He wasn’t judging me, I was his hero.
And then one day I heard something familiar. Someone was calling out. When I listened intently I heard these words:
Kabul se aaya hoon
Pista baadam aur kishmish laya hoon
Of course the kabuliwala had returned.
I decided to reach out to other mums like me and let Viraaj interact with children his age. Sadly I discovered that entertainment for children in this city meant only a trip to the mall. Parents mostly stepped out for social calls minus their kids and there was no book club, library or even a book store. And once again I began experiencing a pressing desire to leave this city. That led to unending arguments, bickering, tear shedding…and one day my husband told me that when leaving here was not an option, at least just yet, then why not do something about it?
It hit me. Real hard. What was stopping me from bringing about a change? I loved children, I loved books, I loved telling stories and yes Viraaj was my first audience foreverything. We were reading all the time and at eight months he understood that papa and daddy meant the same thing and decided to address his father by the latter. I could see what books were doing and I wanted to spead the magic.
My husband found out that a professional course in storytelling was happening in Bangalore. It was a ten day course and required me to be away from home all day. Various questions popped in my head, Who would look after Viraaj when I was away? I had never left him alone before. Perhaps I could do it next year when he is old enough to stay without me. So I just dropped the idea.
But the next day when I woke up, I saw three air tickets to Bangalore on my bedside. And before I could make sense of what was happening, and how, my husband had already enrolled me for the course and the next thing I knew, we were on our way to Lucknow airport to board the flight to Bangalore.
Thanks to the support of my husband’s generous school friend and his wife, we had a fabulous home stay arrangement, with them of course, a car at our disposal (with a car seat for Viraaj), and a weekend getaway trip already planned out for after the completion of my course. What else could have I asked for?
And so began yet another beautiful journey. It was like going to school again. My husband and my son dropped me to the centre in the mornings. My husband babysat all day and I took a bus back home around 7 pm every evening. After putting Viraaj to bed, I had assignments to do and I was enjoying every bit of it. For the performance/presentation day, everyone in the house was involved. My husband made props for me while his friends gave me a patient and encouraging hearing. It was too good to be true.
Upon returning from Bangalore, I invited the few mothers I knew in Kanpur for the first session at home. I was nervous and excited. It was all falling in place bit by bit. Not everyone went back happy but the ratio was in my favour. I was thrilled when most of them decided to continue. This was when we officially rented a space for NutSpace and set it up. Since then there has been no looking back. Seeing how effective storytelling as a tool is, we even set up a trust (Katha Vidya Trust) to take storytelling to the underprivileged children. Before I knew it we were writing and directing a Hindi play for girls at an orphanage.
Everything seems to be going in the right direction and finally moving here makes so much sense. It was always meant to be.
I call myself a storyteller. And I feel thrilled to bits about it for finally I am doing what drives me. Finally I am doing what I am best at. Finally I am doing what I was always meant to do.
And guess who visits me in my dreams every other night?
The three-year-old Kabuliwaala with the cutest black moustache and beard. She has a shimmery brown turban on her head that goes so well with her brown suit. And hey don’t miss that stick in her hand. She is carrying a potli full of baadam and kishmish and singing in a melodious tiny voice.
Kabul se aaya hoon
Pista baadam aur kishmish laya hoon
And believe me – she is here to stay. Forever.