Sunday, July 31, 2005

Progati - The tale of Progress (Part VIII)

I was so taken aback at the blunt tone that she had used, that all I did for a few moments was gape at her. She coolly picked her coffee mug and sipped the steaming brew.

"Hmmm, less sugar", she said and emptied the two sugar pouches lying nearby into the mug. And then, as if nothing had happened, went on to enquire about my kids.
"They are fine, but why wouldn't you do the article on tribal women?"
"The answer is simple my dear, nobody wants to read it!"
"What? Nobody wants to read it? What sort of an answer is that?"
"Honest and simple"
"Honest and simple?"
"Yes, I'm not pretending I can't do it, I'm not giving you excuses like I don't have the time. I'm telling you that I can do it, I have the time, but I don't have the inclination. And that, is the plain and simple truth Saira.",
her voice was steady, no emotion betrayed.
"Ok, I appreciate the honesty, but I don't understand it. Why do you not have the inclination?", as opposed to her cool demeanor, I struggled to maintain control.
"Who do you think wants to read about these illiterate grannies at twenty-nine? Is there an audience for such a work?"
"People don't know about these people, we are trying to spread awareness about their plight. We have to create the audience." My own words surprised me here. I had considered an easy option. I will talk to Rewa and she would agree to work with Mrs. Ahuja. There, my work was done. And now here I was, across the table from Rewa, talking passionately about this project.
"It doesn't work that way Saira. Creating audiences is easier said than done.", again a crisp business like tone.
"Do you always write for established audiences?"
"Yes?, but all that stuff you wrote about in school and college. About independence of women, about liberation from an age-old culture, what was that?"
"That was exactly what the people wanted to read at that time."
I was gaping at her with my mouth hanging open. This was not the Rewa I'd admired. This was not the Rewa who was my inspiration. This was not the Rewa whom I had mentioned in my speech. But then, this was not Rewa. Rewa was dead. This was Progati.
"I was surprised when you mentioned my name in the acceptance speech. Becoming an inspiration to people was never on the agenda. I was merely writing what they wanted to read. My writings have always been driven by need. The audiences' need and my need- the audiences' need of reading seemingly progressive writing and my need of Progati, of progress."
"Rewa …"
"Progati. Not Rewa. Progati. Rewa died the day I married Nabin. The day I progressed. It's a long story. The tale of my progress",
the crisp business-like tone was gone, replaced by an emotional weary voice. And as if to reflect her sudden change of mood, the plreasant breeze started howling at the windows.
"Tell me", I was intrigued, not just by the prospect of hearing her story, but also by the sudden change in her voice.
"It all began with my parent's accident. The day my sister Rachna and were orphaned. Rachna was very young then. Just a toddler, but I was old enough to understand things. None of our relatives wanted to take us in. At least not the both of us together. They were debating and trying to decide who would be a better fare - the stubborn Rewa or the toddler Rachna. Obviously, they were trying to decide which one of us would be less troublesome. It looked like we were bound to be separated, till I ran to my Ajji, my mother's mother and told her I did not want to leave Rachna. She was moved by my tearful pleas, and asked her son, my uncle to take us both in. His wife, my mami was strictly against that. She had two daughters of her own already, and to her, rearing us was akin to rearing unwanted pets. But they had to bow down to Ajji's wishes, and take us in. They did, and that's when all my troubles began"

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Progati - The tale of Progress (Part VII)

"Rewa is dead"
"What?", I asked.
"Yes, Rewa is dead. I'm Progati", her tone was icy as she uttered these words and her hand which still held mine seemed to have lost all its warmth in an instance.

For a full minute, all four of us looked at one another, not speaking a word. Finally, it was Nabin who recovered and said, "Rewa was christened Progati by my late mother on our wedding day. Ever since, she likes to be called Progati and not Rewa."
"Nice try Nabin!",
I thought, " but your explanation does not cover up for the intensity in Rewa's voice, nor for her sudden rigidity."

We chatted on for a while then, the way people who've met after ages would - where do you live now, where do you work, do you have kids, how old, what are they doing etc. After about five minutes of re-familiarization, we ran out of topics and stood looking around, somewhat awkwardly. Rewa's behavior had killed the host of questions in my mind about the last twelve years. Where had she been? What had she done? And most importantly, why had she married Nabin? Why did she go from being Rewa to Progati? Why did being addressed as Rewa upset her so much?

My cell phone buzzed. Aftaab had arrived with Abbu and the kids, and I excused myself from the group.
"Don't forget the Gosht-a-la-Saira Bashir!", said Neel.
"I won't" , I smiled at him and turned to leave.
"Saira", Rewa had called out to me.
I turned and looked up at her questioningly. She asked for my cell number. We exchanged the numbers and set out to meet my family, leaving behind the thoughts and memories of the past one-hour at the entrance of the hall.

The drudgery and pace of routine life pushed Rewa to the back of my mind, and I really didn't think much of her till last week. When my colleague Mrs. Aarti Ahuja approached me for an endorsement, the first person I thought of was Rewa. Mrs. Ahuja was all of 55 kgs, had graying hair and looked like a complete push-over. That had been my first impression about her. But true to the saying, her looks proved deceptive. She was the HoD of the humanities department of our college and involved with a host of charity organizations and NGOs. She had recently undertaken a fifteen day tour of the tribal areas in MP and had returned with a steely will to do something for the women back there. Her plan was to spread awareness about the appalling conditions of those women and then campaign for their improvement. And to spread awareness, she wanted people to pitch in. Getting acclaimed writers to do articles in newspapers and magazines seemed like a good idea to start, but I didn't consider she was going to ask me to write an article. When she did, immediately thought of Rewa.
"I know someone who would be more suited for this job, Mrs. Ahuja"
"Heard of Progati?"
"Progati, the same one who wrote Sudha?"
"Yes, the same one"
"Oh, that will be great. If she endorses this cause, we will surely get some positive results"

I smiled at Mrs. Ahuja's child like enthusiasm. It was almost as if the old lady was transformed into a little girl. Later that evening, I rang Rewa. She sounded dull, I wondered why. But, I didn't ask and she didn't tell. We decided to meet the next afternoon, in a swanky cafe close to my college. I wondered what my students would say when they see me walk into their regular joint!

I chuckled at the thought next afternoon, walking down to the cafe. It was a cloudy day, and the pleasant breeze ruffled my hair. A few youngsters did turn their heads when they saw me enter the place, but they went back to their chattering almost immediately. I spotted Rewa sitting in a corner and took the chair facing her.

"Hi", she made the beginning.

"So what was the important thing you wanted to discuss with me?", she came straight to the point. A thing that suited me for I was hoping to reach home sooner that day. The kids loved it when I unexpectedly arrived home early.
"A colleague of mine has surveyed tribal areas in MP and I've seen some of the reports. The women there live in a pathetic state. Can you believe it, some of them are grandmothers at the age of twenty-nine!", I was surprised the amount of passion in my own voice.
"So?", her tone was cool. No emotion betrayed.
"I wanted you to endorse the cause of those tribal women in MP"
"Sorry Saira, I can't do that!"

Friday, July 08, 2005

Progati - The tale of Progress (Part VI)

Three shocks in succession - finding Rewa, learning that she was Progati and that she was married to Nabin. The third more so. Neel had been looking at me and expecting some sort of a remark, an exclamations of awe maybe. After all, Kaymes Industries was among the top ten business groups in the country and though it had been affected by family feuds over the past decade, it had held together. And now, under Nabin Mukherjee's flagship, it was on a fast flight to the number one spot. Nabin had had a glorious career, and I had followed it not just out of professional interest, but also because Nabin had once been a college mate. Neel certainly expected me to be impressed, and the shocked expression on my face confused him. Dazed, I allowed myself to be led by Neel and introduced to the couple.

"Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Mukherjee"
"Hello Mr. Survekar. How do you do?"
"Very well. Very well indeed. Meet Dr. Bashir. She is one of the two women to have received an award this afternoon"
"Of course. That was expected. Wasn't it? The common man's economy is a splendid book Dr. Bashir", said Nabin, addressing me, "your ideas have made people sit up and notice of India economy."
"Thanks", I said, "I didn't know that even the uncommon man read my book"
"Oh, then you under estimate yourself Dr. Bashir. I must say you need to develop more confidence in yourself and your achievements"
I didn't know what to say to that, and before I could mutter something incomprehensive, Rewa took over.
"Still the same timid girl. Don't let him intimidate you Saira, he is a big bully", she laughed, took my hand and continued, "You haven't changed one bit. Still look absolutely the same"
"But you have changed a lot. And by a lot, I really mean a lot. I just couldn't recognize you when I first saw you sitting in the front row."
"Yes I've put on a little weight", she laughed. But it was not the same merry carefree laughter I'd heard as a child. It was wistful. There was something to it that I couldn't put a finger on. I didn't dwell on it much, because the look on Neel and Nabin's faces distracted me. Both looked utterly puzzled and Neel even had his mouth hanging slightly open. Rewa was visibly enjoying herself. She hadn't let go of my hand yet - a fact that I found strange.
"You two know each other?", Nabin finally asked.
"Yes, we are childhood chums", said Rewa "we lived in the same locality."
"I didn't know that!", said Neel.
"Yes, we even went to the same school and then the same college.", I ventured. "So you can say that me and Rewa know each other."
"Rewa is dead."