MA

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I still remember the day my professor asked the entire class to write a 5000-word essay on our mothers. The memory is etched in my brain, not because of the fantastic piece I wrote on Ma, but because of the massive blank I drew, not being able to put a single word down on paper. The only thing I did manage to do was type the word MOTHER on a word document and save it on my desktop under the same title. The document glared at me every time I was on my computer, but I was at a loss. This was the BIG assignment and after struggling for a week, I finally gave up.

The reason I couldn’t write was not because of some big fall out with my mother or because we were never close. No. Ma is my best friend, always has been. At the risk of sounding like a fool, I’m still one of those kids (adults) who goes crying to my mother when things are tough, even if it means being mocked by my little brother. I couldn’t write 5000 words on her because I didn’t know where to start. I still don’t. How can you write about someone’s personal life, even if you’ve been a part of it?

The first time I ever stopped talking to Ma was in the 9th grade. The rules were simple. Communicating with your parents was considered extremely uncool at school. Teenagers were supposed to rebel. If your mother and father tried to do anything for your own good, you had to roll your eyes and complain about how misunderstood you were. And if you had a crush on a boy, you had to hide it from your folks. If I were ever to go back and meet my younger self, I’d slap myself. I really would. When I read journal entries from that time, I have no clue who that person is.

Now, my parents, themselves belonged to the cool, rock & roll generation, who believed that parents were parents, but also had to be friends with their children. The house was an open field as far as communication was concerned and my brother and I knew we didn’t have to face any of life’s challenges alone. With dad posted in Kashmir most of the time, however, the task then fell on my mother to tackle all our problems single-handedly.

Therefore, when I chose to rebel and stopped talking to Ma, I was shocked to see her fight to make things normal again. She just wouldn’t accept her teenage daughter keeping things from her and frankly, that was the most miserable time of my life too. When I got over that phase, and thank God I did, she became my chief confidant, a post she holds even today.  

Ma is a fighter. She hasn’t had the easiest life and everyone who knows us, knows how tumultuous it’s been. The more shit she faced, the stronger her resolve to fight it. It irked me, her decision to put family first, even if it meant burying a part of herself and her own happiness. Papa had a massive temper, which my brother and I inherited and she was always at the receiving end of our wrath, whether or not she was the cause of it. But, no matter how big the fight, she still wakes us up with a cup of chai and a smile on her face. According to her, there is nothing a good chat (or screaming match) and tea can’t solve and honestly, even with our enormous egos, it’s difficult to hold a grudge against someone who refuses to take no for an answer.

I have, over the years, come to realise the nature of her sacrifices, mostly hidden in plain sight. There were the big ones, like when she put away her big college degree to bring us up because Papa said that one parent had to always be around. We obviously didn’t think it was a big deal then, but I now realise how difficult it can be, having to give up something you’ve earned. And there are the smaller sacrifices, like when she claimed to LOVE the bony pieces of chicken, just to save the chunky pieces for us. Ask her about all this and she says, what all mothers say, “You will only understand when you have your own kids”.

Being our friend meant being a friend to all our friends. I still don’t understand her ability to draw people to her, especially our friends who would rather confide in her than us. There is so much love and awe for her and it just shows what a wonderful person she is. She even brought in her birthday last night with our friends because my brother and I aren’t around!  

So, Happy Birthday Ma. Thank you for being you. Life doesn’t have the guts to knock you down and never will. I’m sorry this is still not 5000 words, but I’ll get there someday. Love.

The Coolest Place on Earth!

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2). DISTRICT CENTRE, JANAKPURI.

My oldest memory of the District Centre, a.k.a Janak Place, was the lines of workers I’d see, while rushing to catch my school bus every morning. Whether it was the chilling winds of winter or the dreaded summer heat, the workers moved like clock-work, carrying water bottles under their arms, determined to perform their morning bowel duties anywhere they found a spot in the vast white complex that stood abandoned, down the road from our house. It was no wonder then that the complex was referred to as ‘Potty Centre’, which had a few offices at the back, but lay invisible to our peripheral vision for a long time.

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District Centre.

And then came McDonald’s! Before this, pizzas and burgers were still things we only dreamed of, unless an aunt or uncle visited from abroad and these dreams actually came alive. To have a McDonald’s open right next door became the second greatest thing to being alive. The Delhi Development Authority took over and cleaned up the ‘poopy’ mess, the buildings re-painted, the giant, yellow and red ‘M’ logo beckoning every passerby and suddenly, everyone flocked to fancy Janak Place, named after King Janak from the Ramayan, as if all roads led only there. ‘Opposite District Centre’ became THE landmark to my house and I beamed with pride when the kids at school recognised ‘the cool, new place’ in Janakpuri! The Vanilla McSwirl was the greatest attraction, not for its taste, but because it cost 5 bucks and parents didn’t mind buying a scoop to stop their whiny kids from ruining their evenings out. Young school boys and girls sat at McDonald’s for hours and hours over a single burger, blushing and batting their eyelids at each other, too nervous to speak. It was a known thing then, that if a boy ever asked you meet him at McDonald’s, it was absolutely, one hundred percent, a date.

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The death and re-birth of McDonald’s.

The people of Janakpuri, and beyond, took to Janak Place like ants take to food or Apple fans take to the latest I-phone. It didn’t take very long for a Barista to open, followed by Music Land and Wordsworth. Pocket money, Birthday money. Diwali money, Christmas money, ANY money was locked away till you had enough to purchase the latest CD’s or the newest Harry Potter, factors that determined your existence on Earth and friendships at school. You could beg, borrow or steal, but at the end of the day, if someone had read a book before you, rest assured, you’d have to kill yourself to protect yourself from spoilers. There was a new restaurant every corner you turned and the food options blew our little minds! Toy-sellers Gopal Prasad Gupta and Rakesh Suri set up shop on opposite sides of McDonalds, spots they hold even today, 15 years later.

A Crafts Bazaar opened up in the centre of the complex, a local version of Dilli Haat and cheaper and while women shopped for hours, the kids were promptly given 100 rupees to play 10 games of their choice at the gaming arcade, with its colourful, electric mini cars and air-hockey tables. Janak Place soon got its first movie hall in 2004 and metro stations on either end and the world was never the same again.

I remember being floored by Bunty aur Babli, Bollywood’s very own ‘Bonny and Clyde’ and the first movie I watched at Satyam, planning to use similar tactics to take over the world with my brother. Things were moving fast and property rates in Janakpuri sky-rocketed over-night. This was a good time in the history of the locality.

The fantasy that was Janak Place quickly became a horror when it came into the spotlight due to a number of successful suicides, quickly earning the name ‘Suicide Towers’. Rakesh Suri saw four people die in front of him, young boys and girls who climbed to the 6th or 7th floor and jumped off. He remembers trying to save a girl who had jumped off the second floor, with not an injury on her, but died anyway. District Centre was in the news for all the wrong reasons, with people considering it haunted because of the several deaths that took place in a short time. Grills were installed on every floor with immediate effect, but the impact lasted for a couple of years, until the suicides were altogether forgotten. By this time, Janak Place was teeming with street children and their families, who were addicted to sniffing glue and begged for a toke of Korex correction glue over money. If things weren’t looking good, they became worse when Pacific Mall opened in Subhash Nagar, drawing all the crowds and leaving Janak Place an abandoned mess.

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Wordsworth, with it’s shutters down.

In my head, Janak Place is a fighter. When you google it, you’re faced with a ton of bad reviews about the place and I don’t blame the people. The place is a wasteland. Wordsworth, the book shop, was the first to go because, sadly, people don’t read enough and especially not today, when you have access to information and the latest e-books on your phone or computer. This was followed by Music Land, when the owners realised that the latest cassettes and CD’s weren’t flying off shelves anymore. The restaurants are mostly empty owing to food ordering apps. Gopal and Rakesh have resorted to setting up their mats, laden with toys, only in the evening and earn about 150-200 rupees a day. Ambika Pillai took her salon and ran, what seems like, a million years ago. McDonalds was in the midst of a massive lawsuit and had shut its doors on everyone for a while. But, with all of this backlash, the place still sees enough families on a Sunday afternoon, their little kids crowding the chocolate fountain stall or the tinier one’s in their remote operated mini-cars, banging into people on purpose. The most recent addition to the food stalls was the Kolkata puchka guy whose puchka game is on point, but dangerous if you’re brave enough to exceed two plates.

The goods at the Craft Bazaar are still beautiful and cheap, defeating the branded stores that are still holding on, lining the higher floors. The complex still houses a lot of smaller gadget repair shops, Xerox and printing places and trinket shops, tucked away at the back, hidden in plain sight. And you will still find the scores of couples, crouched beside one another on rusting benches, planning their futures. To everyone who lives or has ever lived in Janakpuri, though, District Centre a.k.a Janak Place, its tall, white towers covered in grime, will always be the “coolest place on Earth”.

UNREMARKABLY, REMARKABLE.

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1). COMMUNITY CENTRE, JANAKPURI

This may seem like one of the most unremarkable places on the map of Delhi and in some way, it is. It isn’t steeped in the rich history that the older parts of Delhi are and neither does it have the unique crumbling architecture that takes you back in time. But, for me and the thousands living in Janakpuri (West Delhi), the Community Centre has always been our hub. It was where ALL the banks known to Indian’s were stationed; where our grandparents stood in long lines to update their passbooks, with us in tow. Of course, there had to be incentives – chaat or candy floss or ice cream – to have us stand with them so long! The square was also home to bustling tea shops, lunch stalls, ONE stationery shop that thrilled me beyond measure, the dry-cleaners (who, for a long time, charged for dry-cleaning but conducted regular washes), ROOP-RANG which sold colourful soaps and shampoos and the big pharmacy run by a Sikh gentleman and his two sons.

Bank work was and always has been incredibly boring to me. As an adult, entering a bank still gives me a dull displeasure in my stomach, something I have to fight vehemently because I can’t whine about handling the money I earn (Ugh). The only thing capable of motivating me to embark on this journey is the Satya Prakash chaat stall that has existed and stood in the same place ever since I was a toddler. Managed by different men over the years, I am confident the taste has remained unchanged. I have been so in love with his gol-gappas that I distinctly remember telling my mother in my teens that I was going to marry the owner and spend the rest of my life churning out (and devouring) his exciting treats. This was the only life goal I was actually serious about till I moved for college, my love for gol-gappas was replaced by my love for beer.

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Satya Prakash corner at it’s busiest!

The second place that I loved visiting as a child was the stationery shop managed by a man with a hearing and speech impairment. Apart from items of academic importance, his shop also included greeting cards, shiny, crazy balls (yes, they were called that) and slam books that were a mighty rage back then. He also had an endless supply of Hero fountain pens that broke often and had to be replaced every month and scented erasers in all shapes and sizes. People were often impatient with him, displeased at his disability, but my mother’s big-eyed, angry looks would shut them up and put them in their place. As a result, he was always eager at our arrival and we knew him as the teddy bear like, nameless man with a giant smile on his, otherwise sad face. I still sometimes stand in front of his crumbling shop, his items faded and less shiny, an abysmal, brown discolouration on the walls and I watch him sitting in the corner of his forgotten shop. He stopped bothering about the hordes of customers flocking towards the brand-new stationery shop a long time ago. I buy a pen or a postcard for old time’s sake but I know he’s forgotten me and I’m okay with that. The shop and him stand frozen in the frenzy of development and competition in Janakpuri.

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The Photo studio and the stationery shop (left to right)

The Community Centre is presently steeped in dualities, juxtaposing the old with the new, the colourful hues of modernity with the aged, sepia toned look I mentioned before. There’s a huge, new café in the centre of the square, along which are numerous tandoori stalls that have stood the test of time, producing a variety of tikkas to the drinking public (mostly men after 8 P.M.) sitting in their fancy cars, a stream of loud music blaring from each of them. It’s what the people are used to versus the options they have been presented with and I have come to the firm understanding that people are only momentarily excited by new spaces, but immediately lapse into their old ways when bored. This is the case with Janakpuri and the people residing here. It’s no wonder then that people visit the numerous malls coming up in every nook and corner but also prefer their local, grimy food stalls to the plated delights offered in air-conditioned restaurants. I always find the tea stalls brimming with people, loudly conversing with each other, as opposed to the well-lit but often-empty restaurants that have taken over the area.

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Pishori’s Chicken Corner!

I know all these folks and don’t know them at all. Pishori, the chicken tikka man, recently handed over the responsibility of his stall to his son, once a puny little sardar, who is now taller and bigger built. They always recognize my mother’s voice and broken Hindi, sending the orders directly home without having to note down the address. Needless to say, we always get the soft, succulent chicken pieces, the pick of the lot! The Sobti’s of Sobti Medicos are an energetic bunch, with a vast knowledge of things beyond medicine and occasionally found reprimanding the odd Benadryl addict about his ways. There’s the lady who sells purses and pouches opposite the ATM, who spends more time gossiping with her customers than actually selling her goods. The Fujifilm shop that is perpetually closed and obviously of no use anymore. I tried my luck with them last month, calling and asking if they’d have old film rolls to spare and was laughed at and told to go digital already! The single, thriving liquor shop which has now multiplied into several of them, placed on all four sides of the square, teeming with alcohol enthusiasts (drunks). The chole-kulche stall run by Ram Niwas, who is my mother’s favourite person to this day! And the chai-wala, whose stall I visited earlier today and munched on matri’s with tea with my Ma and I realised that, come what may, Community Centre will always stand out in my memories for not changing like the rest of the city did.