Rampaging through the cold stillness, the swift tracks of this animal left no marks behind. As the morning mist broke against its face, it charged ahead to its clear-cut destination, with no looking back. Not yet at least.  

As if the NH2 was a bulund darwaza to Delhi’s rural antiquity, the tollbooth darbaans out of uniform. Goats flaunting their 4-packs, their guarding dog off-duty. Sugarcane stalks on their way to meet the footpath ice. And roofs plastered with dung cakes, with a rooster on top!

The most familiar of all though was this, a man ever-so-often with a plastic bottle on his way to finish his morning business. And my face, scrunched up like used aluminium foil. Thank goodness, I wasn’t keeping count. Or was I?

Sitting inside our more than comfortable car, here I was. Chomping on chips and switching radio channels before every un-peppered song could salt me down. The FM at this A.M had no ads. And the sound of music sounded more in taal. 

My mother next to me had her eyes smiling as she promptly recognized each tree down to its cellular level; the fruits, leaves, roots, the stage of photosynthesis. Horticulture. Agriculture. Bacteria culture. She even had a story to what chores may be happening inside that distant shed behind that babool tree. How she knew that was babool from a google maps worth of distance, I didn’t have enough caffeine to comprehend.

Arrey home loans ki kitni chinta hai. Kya hum hamare sapno ka ghar kabhi nahi le payenge?

This wasn’t what my dad said. This was what the FM dad said. The radio ads had started.

And so did my impatience to get to Taj. Okay, Shah Jahan built it. Okay, he cut off the hands of all those workers. Okay, it is one of the wonders of the world. Horn Okay Please. Why did trucks continue to slap that on their bums? 

The highway had ended and now it was one mid-construction flyover followed by another followed by another followed by 10, 11, 12 more. Maybe I should have been keeping count of this one.

Each time the tires swiveled up dust, I coughed inside. Each time we stopped for gas, I took out my sanitizer and poured half the bottle on my hands. And each time someone leered into the window, I became Kangana Ranaut in Once Upon a Time in Mumbai.

What? I was on holiday. I could act however I wanted.

Taj was lost in transit. It was blistering hot outside. Or so I am guessing. I was toh leaning against my push pillow with the AC/DC on, drinking diet coke.

Agra’s Best Panchi Petha. The Best Panchi Petha Of Agra. Panchi Petha, The Best of Agra. Shop board after shop board, the same message to the same audience with the same words. The only difference was that by now I wanted to try some.

If only Taj stopped playing so hard to get.

I am a leaf. I am a leaf let loose in the woodlands of consciousness.

You can wrench your head high because you take young morning walks or meditate ascetically, or because you think you admire trees more than others, which makes you a nature-aficionado. But it doesn’t.
I am cemented in ticking time trying to fracture its walls. But in freedom, I fondle the falling mist and nuzzle with dirt.
Each new green-adventure erases my past green-adventures. This trip to the mountains, I saw that rolling hills are shades of shadows and light, mellow with ripe greens of great ups and lows. I saw that forest fog and clouds come close enough to kiss the vapor off of each other and disperse without a trace. I saw that if you whisper to a horse close enough and caress its neck, you can almost fathom how happy he is to be in the plateaus of home.
I am naïve —even if brown. I befriend the wind, the wood, the water and the wildlife. But perish with effluence. Without saying a word.
Velvety lavenders carpeted both sides of the road and ever-so-often a thread of delicate stream sprung down—whistling a white sonnet. The waterfall they all led to was rightfully its mamma—a roaring force of nature and a dangerously beautiful creation. The frigid waters were a reminder to leave no tracks behind but its gracious summoning came to be powerfully endearing.
I am desperate to be a wing of independence but once I’m on my own, I’m weak enough to trust a foe. I look out at the butterflies and the squirrels and cry inside because I can never survive on my own. Not long enough.
The only sanctity of these woods is that they are largely untouched—the self-sustaining, uninterrupted and breath-taking piece of the planet. The prolific soil and the fruiting trees and the hunting deers needed each other and every time one of them fell short because of external dynamics, the cycle was pricked. So I made sure. I came, I saw and I left no trace.
I am wet and loose and have my sides now gnawed out. But I lived a full live. I saw all seasons, I blossomed and fruited, and I contributed back to nature. Sometimes outside my will. It was only when I was snapped-out from my core, I realized that it was not freedom I seeked.
(Bell rings)

Mom: “aayiye”

Two boys, Suraj and Santosh aged 10 and 12, enter the house carrying loaded schoolbags.

Mom (to Santosh, the older one): “Waah. Tumhara bracelet bahaut achha hai”

Suraj: “Yeh bracelet nahi hai. Kutte ka patta hai”

(Bursts of laughter)

This is the only Hindi they speak.

The boys’ mother is the domestic help in our house, Padma, whose monthly income from all her houses is roughly Rs.4000. Her husband, Dharam Singh, is a watchman earning Rs. 5-6000. The sporadic nature of their jobs means that their incomes are as mercurial. And they have four children to feed.

Mom, a committed coaching evangelist, passionately aspires for every child to be in school and to do her part in educating as many children as she can. She’s been doing it for 32 years. 

She teaches these two boys now, all their subjects: Hindi, English, Math, Science, Social Studies, for two hours every day. Sundays are also a part of that.

It was abstruse getting the boys come and study for two extra hours aside from their school, when they could be crafting their per diem-shenanigans.

Santosh was one of those. A rebellious, mischievous boy who was two years behind in school. It took several months of wheedling, patience and a volume-full of care to get him in for a couple days a week. Now, he never misses a day.

His brother Suraj, a smart, polite and ever-smiling boy always had the study germ within him but never had the opportunity to team with right tutelage. He bristled with excitement when he found out that someone would teach him every day, at a home.

This however, was a coarse-sloped trek. The boys, for their age and class, lacked the basics; of each subject.  For a domain that is seething with text and sensible scribbles, theirs was empty. They had no notebooks, no checking of work done anywhere, no words in their diaries. They had no syllabus to share, date-sheet written, or any checked material from school. This was necessary not just to evaluate where they stood in school but to start.

So my mother went to their school; a Hindi-medium, private school. There was no playground, and a room with handful of books; a make-believe motif for a library, that was unlocked only during the external inspection period—and only to inspectors. The principal, a 60+ man who also owned the school, was a crude, crass gent and most unwelcoming of the thought that my mother wanted to speak with him—an outsider.

Throughout the one hour, requested out of great difficulty, there was plenty of discussion. And all of it was disobliging. 

When my mother informed him that she was teaching these boys every day and wanted to see their test results to understand where they stand, the principal grunted and said,

“Aaj kal free mein kaun padhata hai?”

She reminded him that these boys came from a very poor family and have no educational guidance outside school and through some extra hours, they can perform better. He snapped again.

“Free mein kyun koi kuch karega? Mujhe ek hospital batao, ek neta batao jo free mein kuch karta hai. Toh aap kyun karoge? Agar charity ‘charity’ hoti, municipal schools ki haalat toh kya hoti!”

It was like swallowing paper for my mother. Why was money becoming the agenda here? She then told him that the boys did not have the dates of exams or material of what they were supposed to study and she wanted that information for a better assessment.

“Log hamanre system mein interfere karein, humein pasand nahi”

He proudly added that organizations had approached him to contribute free lectures to students and he refused. She was out of question.

“Time wastage hain yeh sab. Bade bade school mein yeh naatak hota hai”

The principal was operating the school on his own terms. Some of his brazen ideologies included children to not have a games period till class 5. They didn’t need to play!

He was only sceptical throughout the talk, presuming that he was under a sting operation and mom may be a reporter. Threatened and truculent, he advised her to not meddle in his school and leave the kids as they are, because they had no future anyway, being a watchman’s sons.

This was the last thing he said and last thing mother wanted to hear.

From a 40-marks paper, where both the boys were failing earlier, getting 5-6 marks, they now get 20-25 marks studying at our home. Santosh, who hated the sight of books, now can’t wait to do math every day. Suraj is bursting with curiosity and always starved to study more.

Of course, they need to be incentivized. Unlike their previous tuition teacher who asked Santosh to knead her legs and buy her vegetables from the market, the incentives now come to the boys. Treats, gifts, clothes are worth their unsullied smiles.

“Bye! See you tomorrow, Aunty!”

And ten minutes later their mother rings the bell.

As your flight from the Mumbai airport upraises into a crest of comfort, you can sight the adjoining public squalor around the runway. And you cower.

Go to Gurgaon’s swish sky-scrapers’ construction sites and right in the middle of the workers’ racks you see a hulking billboard that says “Book your apartment today!”

It’s few of those ironies that bring a different emotion in each wrinkle of your face.  India is a country that is scraped sore with wounding stories that are part of someone’s every day. You don’t need to be associated with an NGO or a governmental organization to see this. You need to want to see this.

My train passes this every day and it makes me want to padlock my eyes but peek through at the same time. This is what I see within those two seconds of pass. There are tin houses and through the creaks of one, is a mother cooking on charcoal and midst of its asphyxiating fumes are two children getting their garbage bags ready for the day. The third is on a cradle made of the same garbage bag.

The scum once seeping down has desiccated and the pipes leak water through its kelp strands. Trash aligns the peripheries of the square footage and flowerpots inline within. The old—a shapeless contour of bodies barely coated with soiled shirts and ripped slacks, push their vegetable carts with their hands that now look like a papier-mâché of veins and skin. Candy stores of the rich is cotton candy here. Laundry is by the hand-pump. Salons are open-air and so is defecation. And temples every few meters.

I see men playing poker outside and their wives drying clothes on the tracks’ separators and I know that this is where it shelters. The inequity. But that is the last of anyone’s worries.

First is vulnerability.

When you are the lovechild of a theist, deist, agnostic AND an atheist, you can’t blame your genes when you are caught in a state of moral abidance and your morale is rolling with your eyes.

Stones are turned sacred with the swoosh of a red paste. The unemployed drape on orange and they become holy avatars. Elderly frown upon you when you wear clothes 3/4th instead of 7/4th.  But let’s not dive into the religious woes that woo the committed and boo the casual. Freedom to follow prevails but what about freedom to not? Why must all devout expect the respect of all those who swear by other things. Why can’t religion be emancipated?

You take the offering every time you are offered because if you don’t you are disrespectful and if you do but you don’t eat you are disrespectful and if you eat but you don’t like you are disrespectful. While chanting slippers are taboo but while ornamenting the place of worship slippers are all right. All gods are equal but if you are a devotee of only one, that’s all right. You need a yellow flower but you can muster an orange one that’s all right. There are exact requirements but substitutes are all right.

Why can’t others wake up and take in cigarette smoke instead of camphor smoke? Why can’t others have a malt instead of milk after meditation? Why can’t others wear ripped jeans instead of khakhi on festive occasions? If there are rights for gays and rights for education, there should be rights for those who are not religious.  Let’s not turn the unbelieving into profane.

Religion is Pareidolia. The hierophany we create in everything living and non-living makes it so easy. Easily found. Easily followed. Maybe that why we stopped looking for God a long time ago. HE makes it into our food.

In an enigma of faulty reassurances and duplicity of faiths, we assure others and re-assure ourselves that religion is mandatory. Denouncing those who breathe non-incense air as nonsense gives us pleasure. But no, we are not mulish!

We are religious.  
Traveling in the Mumbai local is like shopping at the seasonal bridal dress clearance sale in New York.  Merciless.

Before war, all ladies are poised and peaceful and lady-like.  They saunter with sophistication and sporadically peep up to see which people are peeping back at them. Just when you thought that blue-gold dress looked white, you discover the true colors.

As the train arrives, the women on that other side are pulling their purses over their shoulders —looking at the train — looking at you. This means war. Their face is a whole new QR code. Furrowed brows, pursed eyes, gouged gaze and all leered at you. “I’m going to get that seat, bitch”. “Not before I kill you first”. These are actual thoughts. Trust me.

The experienced ones will broadcast back the same glower of power but if you’re a first-timer, get a doula. It’s a morning workout inside. Aerobics without a routine. Interval training with fewer rest periods. Zumba without zest. You twist like a pretzel, jump hurdles, and flex every muscle that can be flexed. Durations differ. The sweat is the same.

You will never hold anything more passionately than you grab the grab handle; your seatbelt for the train. And with every spasm on the wheels, you vacillate like a purple fountain grass on a squally day and struggle to not sail away into the pastures of perspiration.

Other commuters’ moisture will certainly rub off their destiny (or doom) on you. Their hair will spank you. Their bags will sucker-punch your face. And they will commit all types of fouls, and create all news ones unimaginable. You’ve got to parry before you are pounded.

And by the end of the journey, after all the violent footsies and seat wedgies, when the hormones have returned to the hypothalamus and humans have returned to being human, you exit the platform feeling like a week-old package of complimentary peanuts.

Exactly like that.
The depth of dignity we cascade to our heroes is unfortunately more partisan than preferential. When it comes to looking up to or bowing down for, our senses are skewed in such sketchy proportions that we forget—there in fact, is a difference.

Malala Yousafzai. The red riding 18-year-old, who has been smiling through the storms of suppression; has a story that’s trespassed the tankers of Taliban. She is the new-age hero whose cape is wrapped round her face and who has no alternative identity.

But would Malala be Malala if she hadn’t been shot? Evaluating a fight’s merit with the degree of damage it results to, cannot determine sincerity. We wait for bullet-holes and deathbeds to decide whether to bequeath a wreath on a struggle of self-destruction.

In an oligopoly of awards— institutions are eager to baptize Malala with their pious labels and holy cities are pouring honour from their governance grails. A storm of religious and righteous bestowments begins with each new face. Every NGO, International Organization, Foundation, Magazine, Media, City, State and Country has soaked Malala with such grandiose gestures that it is difficult to function without the support of supremacies.

Yes, we need them. Their reserves, resources and references altogether compose a character certificate for public figures. Nobel Peace Prize makes one statement. Appearance on the Ellen show makes another. Hope is selling by TRPs and trophies. Campaigning of this enormity has camouflaged the cause itself. And this incessant necessity materializes a brand ambassador, When what we need, is a foot soldier.  

Alfred Wegener. Gregor Johann Mendel. Henry David Thoreau. Erudite individuals trying to shine truth through the opacity of society and honoured after death. That was then. We’ve gotten better. We now pounce to pronounce people with titles before their final inhalations.

The plinth of recognition has become the plight of expectation. But instead of constellating the doomed stars of wounded champions, we must first, discriminate the significance of a cause away from its casualty.

After 17 years of playing beer pong with coursework, classes and college, dyeing in Monday blues, indulging in food porn, waking up from caffeine comas, and surviving a day full of banter, sarcasm and capitalist hypocrisy, I learnt one thing.

The entire education journey was one, very long video game. The Assassin’s Creed kind. Absolute judgement, fraudulence, teamwork, atonement, ethics divide was all part of the academic package deal. It was the most exhausting, exhilarating encounter. All the needed culture was absorbed through the Greek yogurt, American holidays, British royal baby news, Italian bag and German cars. News wrap-up summed up in tweets, headlines and keeping with the Kardashians. Food was take-out or order in. Chores were an unpaid internship. Holiday was pre-planned and homework was postponed.

But there were prudent moments. Meeting deadlines at their very dead-end; leaving almost visible skid marks, dealing with narking team members either with putting up or pouting out, experimenting with exam studying styles: the chanting, the coping, the copying. We thought we were done with peer pressure and puberty when the pleasures and pressures of dating drama and dealing douchebags to drama duds came to picture.

The more serious times called for silencing phones and shutting the dorm door. I was always a little extreme. Study till the brink of forgetting again, memorize with every trick in the books, study through the nights and through the weathers and expect the best for this unrest. And I succeeded. At the last session of this video game, being pronounced a distinction holder, an MBA topper and a gold medalist, I asked my father, as a joke, if grades matter. My father—the perceived great grades gamer turned to me, smiled and shook a gentle, clandestine, no. 

When the PM got up at AM to attempt the Guinness, a sundry synthesis of students, soldiers and spectators woke with him to set the records straight. His RSS feeds were delivered over a turquoise yoga mat, paying tribute with the tri-color draped around the yogi doing the yoga. June 21, 2015 was all about mantra, mudra and of course, Modi.

No he wasn’t twisted around like a golden pretzel like Ram Dev and nor was he draped with the yoga toga that seems to have no problem in convincing nervous followers to close their eyes while exercising. Not that elastic Baba is anything but a grandiose Guru. But the glorious nirvana rays were on Narada Modi today.

Today was not about the poses. Or the exotic dance form. Today was about the asanas that the world knew correctly to identify; one more to the added dictionary of Karma. Thankfully there was no sad in the Sadbhavana that Modi preached for. This mass demonstration was a mass celebration that comes at a rare sight; without the violence and protests and screams of incoherent rattle. Instead of the clichéd retired, aged sages were students along the path at Rajpath; for once teaching the elders to practice.

And as the sun finished up its Suryanamaskar, the rains immediately came down for a performance of their own.
For a company every boardroom, at some point during the course of its tenure, has the inescapable tendency to become a boredroom. But like every mandated law of history this one too comes with its perceptible exception.

For a neophyte, the future workplace is made up of some delusions, notions and some rumours: A keyed up floor with more business suits than bodies shouting at scrollers, screens showing an array of charts and graphs with the symbolic red and green arrows with traders earnestly entering triple decimal point figures on systems. This is what the movies and TV shows make all of us visualize, or at least to unacquainted apprentices. But where I did my internship it was forexclusive.

Lets think of the treasury as a business picnic at the most teeming of all green grounds: Bloomberg. Placing a purchases order on the cart and then switching it for a plain vanilla optionworth at least a thousand millions with a rather relaxed option of making balloon payments. But when the bid and ask gets hostile, the nearby volatile Middle Eastern lake ripples with coarse effects of dark pool liquidity with black swan testing and continuous daisy-chain effects all along the brim of the economically-dominating waters. The golden parachute in the near sight lifts the anxiety above ground, at least momentarily. And when the sun starts to yawn and settle into sleep, the Japanese candlestick charting will bring the stars into light. And then its all about how you want to come: long or short, depending on your spread.

Don’t get mistaken though.  Its not anything like a picnic.

In layman’s language, treasury business is unceasing, interminable and needs almost painful amounts of single-mindedness, and while multi-tasking. The magnifier has to be constantly adjusted to track on market rates, economic conditions, political announcements, world scenarios while zooming in to the business needs and agendas. And no matter how much we deny and defy it, emotions always find that minuscule margin and lever up the negotiations.

And while all this happens during successive blinks, the entire work will rollover to the next awaiting period for another sucker’s rally.