They Still Call This Music

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I usually emerge at Hauz Khas Metro Station drained and hungry. The day has been long – though I guess a case could be made for my reduced vitality – and the metro ride has been nothing short of a lesson in survival. As each day passes by, I get increasingly more adept at holding on to the hand-rests, manoeuvering my way to the door and attending to important calls/messages without risking damage to my phone. When I travel home from the station – a trip that takes a good half an hour at best – I turn to FM Radio to let music exercise its healing powers. Not an altogether wise decision, as I proceed to tell you.

The good political leaders of our country usually start off my de-stressing exercise, prosecuting their predecessors and promising the moon in their reign. I visualize a country free of corruption and crime, poverty and hunger. In the battlefield of sorts I hear, one campaign after the other filling up air time, this visualization gives me more stress than I had attempted to alleviate. I switch channels.

Gandi baat, he claims. Gandi gandi gandi baat, she reiterates. Oh, they probably mean some of those particularly absurd campaigns I was referring to. I have had enough of those anyway so I switch channels again. The traffic around makes a huge row; people beep their vehicle horns like there’s no tomorrow. I attempt to tune the noise out and focus on the music. Main tera amplifier, someone sings in an unnatural accent. Who said I needed one? Amplifier – fier, he insists. Like I failed to get him the last time around, the patronizing fool. This time when I switch channels, I am less hopeful.

In the next series of attempts, I encounter someone who explains to me the merits of matching saris and their “fauls”, someone who teaches me primary school environmental science by claiming water (“paani”) is blue and some out-of-hand, already shameless kids pressing demands to continue being besharam all night. My frustration with “music” climbs unparalleled heights and I become more aware of how drained and hungry I had emerged at the metro station. When, as a last-ditch measure, I switch channels again, a disgruntled, poorly mechanized voice claims he takes in chaar bottle vodka every day. 

Really, all those who advocate listening to music to de-stress should add a disclaimer. Carry your music around (read MP3s of tracks you have handpicked as per your taste) or listen at your own risk.

The Search Mission

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Summer in my locality has subtle indicators. The birds make a beeline for the bowl of water on the terrace; so do the housecats. The flowers in Khushboo Flower Shop droop a wee bit earlier than they did in good old winter. But among the most conspicuous indicators are the men, often in groups of two, who frequent the houses in our lane. They arrive out of the blue; they almost apparate. More often than not, they carry a little notebook under their arms and a smartphone somewhere on their person. The phone rings incessantly, you see.

“What is it you want?” I say from the balcony.

The two men look up at me, their faces serious. “We are on a search mission.” They say solemnly, their white uniforms slightly shabby from the day’s toil.

“Search for what?” I demand at once. With the number of people searching for truth and communal harmony ever rising, I don’t want our locality to be the next spot for activism of any sort.

“Look, just let us come up the stairs. We wouldn’t take long.”

Yeah, that sounds about right. Just let two strange men come up one quiet summer afternoon. They are probably salesmen, I gather. “We don’t want to buy anything.”

They seem to be getting impatient. One of them stares into a nearby potted plant, the other glares at the air conditioner as if it were a monster. “Look, they say. If you are hiding anything, please let us know. It is for your own good.”

By now the proceedings have become so weird that I look blank. “Where exactly are you from?”

The men give me a hassled, you-are-the-reason-India-is-still-a-developing-nation look. “Obviously, we mean mosquitoes.”

Mosquitoes. Mosquitoes! Those annoying creatures I remember drawing the parts of in high school Biology. Those creatures who can make sleep disturbed and scratchy. This time round, these creatures apparently warranted a summer afternoon’s “search mission” and the searched party’s total confusion.

“We don’t use coolers any more. And the air conditioner is serviced, really.” I say in one breath. A tiny mug of water sneaks out from a corner. Granny must have been watering plants again and forgotten to drain the mug. I push it further behind in a sly movement of the foot.

They don’t seem too convinced. “Are you quite sure?”

Oh gosh. With the whole backlane replete with construction material and I am sure there would be some puddles of water too, all these men could do was bug me. That gives me an idea.

“Why don’t you try the backlane? I am sure your mission will reap better results there.” I lower my voice for effect. “There could even be water puddles.”

It works. The two men nod and are off before I can say goodbye.

As soon as they are gone, I clean the mug. I double check the air conditioner and audit the house with scrutinizing eyes. I make a mental note to keep all inlets for mosquitoes closed, especially during their favourite buzzing time – evening. I don’t want those slimy monsters to bring anyone down with disease.

Really, these men on a mosquito-search mission bring in summer like no one does. They make me miss the cleanliness of winter all the more; Delhi’s chill is usually sufficient to destroy all err, bugs. But they also tell me that mosquitoes or no mosquitoes, Granddad will soon bring home mangoes and watermelons and twilight will extend for several hours before the stars come out.

When I survey the freshly cleaned house, now drained of all – however remote – mosquito breeding grounds, I am glad the search mission is a yearly feature.

When Baai says Bye

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“The baai’s daughter is getting married. She is off to her village!”

The above piece of news fell upon our quiet, South Delhi household like a rumble of fast approaching thunder. The baai (housemaid) in question has been employed with us for over a year and apart from a generous quota of casual and sick leaves, has been fairly reliable. The daughter isn’t really of ‘marriageable age’, by today’s more liberal standards, but there is a history behind rushing her to marriage. It seems marriage is the best option to brush off unnecessary affairs with less-than-suitable suitors. Anyhow, the point is, our baai will be on earned leave for at least a month and a half and that leaves our household in a state of utter disarray.

Don’t get me wrong; none of us at home have a single lazy bone. My Granny is among the most industrious ladies you can come across. She singlehandedly managed cooking for the family for decades till Grandpa forced her to hire a cook. Even now, she will not let the cook prepare chicken curry for that is a sacrosanct. No one can cook the said curry like Granny does and that remains true no matter what credentials the cook may boast of. But I digress. Even with the combined efforts of my little family, there are several chores almost impossible to fulfill given a working week and other challenges. When baai doesn’t turn up, the front courtyard has to do without a wash, the pile of utensils in the kitchen too much of a bother to constantly clean. With baai here, the air is resplendent with the aroma of freshly laundered clothes. Occasionally, the menagerie of soft toys gets a bath. Life is beautiful.

The jobs market for temporary baais isn’t bright for recruiters. There aren’t many willing to take up the job. “You will tell me to go when she is back.”, “Do you agree to pay me three months salary in advance?” and “Will I have to do both the clothes and the utensils?” are some of the interview highlights. Needless to say, we eventually chucked the interviews altogether.

Not that our baai didn’t try to help us out here. One fine day, she brought along a pretty young girl, with her hair done up in a neat ponytail. “She will fill in for me until I return.” our baai announced. The pretty girl scanned the house from top to bottom, nodded to all that was said and refused pointblank to work at the salary we were offering her. This, of course, after our baai left for the day.

As things stand, we are without a baai starting tomorrow. If we are lucky, the one and a half months of leave should end at the two months mark. The hunt for a substitute is on, though things don’t look too promising. Really, the very thought of a dusty sofa, unwashed plates and greasy floors make me squirm. Suddenly, they seem much more important than fiddling about with my keyboard, working on whatever story. Sigh! This will be one long summer.

Baais should never say bye. Err, excuse me.

NOTE: Any noble soul who can give me leads in recruiting a new employee receives a special treat! :)

P&P Comes to Delhi

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 Pune

Pune is going through an especially scorching and unusually early summer. The mercury has been soaring; the cold-drink vendors have been doing roaring trade. The sun is beating down on the city like never before and if not for the calendar, you wouldn’t believe April only started. It is this city of her many wonders that I left behind yesterday. Yes, all over again.

It seems only the other day when I loaded my umpteen bags on a trip back to Delhi. P&P transformed into Saddi Delhi and jumped headfirst into the capital’s madness. Delhi’s lip-smacking food notwithstanding, when life somersaulted back to Pune, I could be heard shouting from the rooftops. I happily shuffled between two worlds, dissolving into Pune’s tease of a winter and Delhi’s frostbite-inducing chill all at once.

Yesterday, as I drove past the streets all too familiar, I realized how it may be several months till I see them again. It will be a long while till I order tangdi kabab at Good Luck Cafe or gobble the panipuri outside Crossword in SB Road. I won’t get to walk past my first apartment or marvel at how the furry white dog who lives nearby continues to be as sleepy as ever. The fragrance of freshly cooked pau bhaji will be replaced with that of Delhi’s evening smog. When I get home, I will not be able to gaze into the hills in the distance or ring up Mom to tell her how my day was. It seems overwhelming to leave behind all that has mattered to me so much these past years and if I could bottle everything up to preserve in formaldehyde, I would.

P&P is getting ready to be Saddi Delhi again – he has been spending time choosing his dress robes. To him, as also to me, Pune is home too. Yesterday, when I bid Pune goodbye, I looked out from the window and whispered to the winds. Perhaps, time will eventually mount a Quidditch broomstick and fly straight to the next time I am back. Even though I will then be a tourist, I am sure Pune will be as welcoming as ever. Her skies will be a bright blue, all my favourite memories competing to be relived first.

Saddi Delhi will be ready in her full splendour very soon. She has plans – spicy and mysterious – and she has promised to unroll them shortly.

I hope to see you in Delhi!

The Pretty Frock

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He hadn’t had breakfast today. It was possibly still lying on the old stone floor. The wife had been in a rage over something. Sunil wasn’t sure about the something though he had an idea.

“Is this the time to report to work, Sir?” the manager at Pune Delight mall jeered as he saw Sunil arrive. Standing at the main gate with his hands on his hips, he looked the epitome of a perfect predator for unsuspecting latecomers. In his brown shirt and even browner skin, the manager resembled the devil in uncanny ways.

Mumbling a meek apology, Sunil rushed to the elevator and pressed the third floor button. “Women’s ethnic and western wear” was the section he handled, along with another guy and a woman.

Both were already on duty. The woman, rather bedraggled in her yellowing uniform, was wandering between rows of clothing. The guy was arranging different coloured denim-skirts in a corner. He was a young bloke, still in his late teens. There was even a light song on his lips.

At only twenty-five years of age, Sunil’s hairline was already receding. He couldn’t remember the last time he had woken up excited about the day. Sunil almost envied the guy his cheer.

But then, he surmised, that guy wasn’t married.

Lately, Sunil had been feeling frustrated with his job. It entailed endless hours of listening to women of all ages discussing colours and sizes with rabid enthusiasm. Moreover, the ones who were the most enthusiastic were often the ones who left empty-handed.

He had always worked as a shopping assistant. He liked the term, euphemism though it was. “Assistant” sounded highbrow and official. His former job had been at a store in southern Pune and had paid better. But they shut shop and rendered him jobless till he landed one at Delight.

How would the wife react to a visit to the mall? The last time he had gifted her a dress was on her birthday three years back. Oh the birthday came every year of course but he hadn’t been able to afford a gift for the previous two.

“What do I wear it with Bhaiya?” a woman in her early twenties enquired. She was holding a pretty frock in hand, bejewelled with little stones. “Do you have some earrings that match?”

The frock was exquisite, thought Sunil. He wondered if the dark-skinned, rather plump girl could do it justice.

“We have some in that area Madam.” he pointed to an enclosure toward the right. Now his wife would have been another ball game. Even in her sweaty brows and faded saris, she looked beautiful…

“Do you think I should buy it?” the girl turned to her companion with a pair of earrings in hand. 

The companion – a man who was probably her beau – was stifling a yawn, positively disinterested in the proceedings. “Totally sweetheart.” he announced presently. “You’ll look lovely in it.”

The girl beamed, clearly pleased with the praise. She checked the colour contrast in the full-length mirror on the side, placing the frock and the jewellery next to her skin.

Women look divine when they smile, noted Sunil. If only he had praised the wife a little in the morning. “I loved the pau darling,” he could have said, “never mind the bhaji was burnt.”

The couple was moving toward the cash counter. Sunil smoothed out his tidy pants as he saw them go. Though the uniform was last year’s, the wife ensured it got the best benefit of the detergent.

Monday morning at twelve wasn’t peak business hours. Barring the two attendants, the couple and the cash counter guy, there was no else on the floor.

“Excuse me madam.” Sunil called out to the girl with the frock.

She turned around, an eyebrow raised.

“I forgot to show you the new violet colour that’s arrived for that dress. Won’t you have a look?”

The beau looked indignant. The girl looked happy. Concealing a smile, Sunil held the black frock as she searched for a violet one.

Sunil glanced around the mall and deftly walked away from public sight. Quickly stuffing the dress into a polybag he scampered to the back-door elevator.

When It Snows

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Teddy Bear

The view outside her window was magnificent. Snow came down silently, glittering in the light of the streetlamp. Inside, a rich aroma rose from the dinner table and she could hear her husband urgently fidgeting around.

“What are you up to?” she enquired, giggling as he dropped one filled glass after the other, the water pouring out unabashed. “Butter fingers you’ve always had!”

“Don’t rub it in.” His face dropped comically as he mopped the floor and washed his hands. “Let’s dig into my delicious dinner fare. At least I hope it’s delicious.”

She laughed and ruffled his hair. He had always been a good cook, a huge point in his favour when they were still in the lets-persuade-our-parents phase. While her Dad had said ho and hum, secretly very pleased, her Mom had been more vocal and openly proclaimed how a son-in-law who could cook had always been her dream. They had got married one fine winter night, snowless of course, as it always was in Delhi. The stars overhead had nodded in delight, the house she had grown up in decked up in lights bright enough to be stars.

Her husband had grown to like Delhi as well, the big foodie that he was. On weekends, they would dig into the city’s several gastronomic delights: spicy panipuri, aloo ke paranthe and chicken biryani. That aside, her Mom would outdo herself each time they visited. Fresh flowers from the shop across the street, a table full of Bengali delicacies and the furry lions and tigers she had grown up with newly bathed and spring-cleaned.

“Did they shower in the washing machine, Mom?” her husband would remark, his face serious. “Are you sure they managed to condition their hair?”

“Oh, no sweat there. I had arranged for the best bathing accessories in town.” Mom would wink. She would tuck gift wrapped packets in their hands before they left, embellished with bright ribbons. Her packet would have an assortment of books – even titles she had casually slipped in conversation – while the contents of her husband’s packet varied. A beautiful violin in a velvet case continued to be his prized possession, right up there in his list of best birthday gifts.

“I am still not good enough to play that, you know.” He remarked as he caught her gazing at the violin, lost in thought. “But one day I will be. I will then play a tune just for her…maybe right out of her favourite Tagore collection.”

“She will love that. She always was partial towards you anyway.”

When they moved to London, several things changed. The flowers in their little balcony garden were now frost-resistant, the roads their window oversaw always neat. Christmas took on even more gusto than usual while Durga Puja became a splendid opportunity to meet other Indians in the vicinity. However, the more essential things remained much the same. The two of them continued their weekend food extravaganzas, sleeping in late on Sundays cuddled in the morning sunlight. Her Mom continued to send across gifts wrapped in bright ribbons, now by courier. She would share updates on the housecats through Skype and her husband would email violin recordings to her. “I am getting better, ain’t I?” “Of course you are.”

“How did Granny like my painting?” her daughter would demand over breakfast. “She loved it darling. She asked you to send her more.” The child would squeal in delight, claiming it was only Granny who appreciated the true worth of her art. Today, away in Australia with her husband, she continued to paint. Every now and then, her daughter’s work would be a part of art exhibitions, much to her Granny’s delight.

They had aged, she realized with a quick start. Her hair was more brittle than before; her husband had to be coaxed into his glass of milk. She stared at the moon, clouded over by the still falling snow and wondered what Mom would be up to. Possibly, she would be busy arranging the wardrobe and dusting the shelves, organization freak that she was.

She turned to switch off the bed light. On the side table, lay an envelope. Inside were two tickets to Delhi, her address scrawled alongside in pen. She stared open mouthed at her husband.

“I am growing older, I think. And though you don’t look it,” he entwined his hand in hers, “so are you. We could both do with some gifts and ribbons, don’t you think?” He paused as she looked at him in amazement. “Let’s go stay in Mom’s town.”

Entwining her hand in her husband’s, she smiled at Mom’s photo on the mantlepiece, garlanded in seasonal blooms. Much like the snow still glittering outside, her Mom smiled back. The room lit up in colours of splendour and love – never too far, forever close.

BA

*Written as a part of British Airways’ Go Further to Get Closer initiative. Find this post in Indiblogger here

Have a Go Further to Get Closer moment to share? Tweet using #MrAndMrs

Veteran Speak: The Delhi Metro

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Now that my romance with the Delhi Metro has resumed, it is only noble that I share my learnings over the ages. It was summer last year when I would travel by the Metro throughout the week, arriving home each evening to the aroma of food and starlight. For who knows, there may be someone out there getting cold feet about boarding the train tomorrow morning. I can relate with you completely, my dear. The Delhi Metro can be unnerving at its very best, especially when you are out in the rush hours. Read on for some respite:

1. Never be late in accepting a seat if a generous soul happens to offer you the same. If you don’t, someone else will. If you don’t, you will end up swaying at every stop, falling on the people standing at a nose’s distance from you and come summer, take in all the body odour that the air conditioning can’t suppress.

2. Ensure your Metro Pass is in order. To be specific, ensure there’s enough money and that it is in condition good enough for the card reader to acknowledge. The people in the queue behind will show no mercy in bombarding you with menacing stares, squeals and threats to complain about your holding up the city.

3. Insert your headphones in their designated socket before you board the train. It helps to have a set playlist. If you were planning on customizing your music to the station or bringing your fancy iPads or other devices to use, well, I have warned you. Fret not when your headphones and devices are stamped upon by a multitude of people in the coach.

4. Choose a strategic location to stand. The good ones include: underneath the plugs you can hold on to, beside a row of seats, by a pillar in the coach and by the door (left/right, based on where your destination is going to be). Standing right is far superior a choice to jostling with stout passengers on your way out.

5. Finally, develop your observation skills. Few avenues provide opportunities rich enough as the Delhi Metro to hone the same. There are people from varied backgrounds, with accents natural and put on, with destinations cozy and tense. As the train hurries past the Delhi landscape of tall buildings, harried people and dusty trees, thoughts arrive nineteen to a dozen. While some of these are greased over by the drudgery of the day, several remain in fair condition on your way back.

By now, you must have figured how I am quite the go-to person when it comes to a Delhi Metro hack. That aside, I am more that content with the dreamy hours this Sunday has remaining…the dreamy hours with no trains to catch and no workstations in sight. Mom remarks how no laptops would be a welcome addition to the dream. Until later then.

The Neighbourhood Monkey

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Monkey

*pictures from blogs.westword.com

I am often out for a walk in this neighbourhood. Nice, sprawling backyard the houses have. It is dirty at times – I can’t deny that – and the grass is hidden under piles of bricks and other construction material, not to forget rickety old tyres and dog excreta. I don’t know what is it with these dogs or their owners for that matter. Their ability to pick the neatest section of the backyard to err, do their business is directly related to their owners’ discretion at not being heard/seen. Anyhow, other than these occasional eyesores, the neighbourhood is a perfect place for a stroll.

When I am there in the mornings, I can hear Moms preparing breakfast. Since the area is predominantly Bengali, this is often luchis, aloo ki sabji and lately, paranthas. I don’t understand this food for the most part. In my opinion, kids today are deprived of the delights of a good, golden yellow banana. I usually jump to a terrace or two, taking in the morning sunshine. It was different when my partner was with me; she was an expert at windowsills, no matter how narrow the seating space be. She would tag me along to several of these and when the lady of the house wasn’t looking, we would tug at a few eggs. Junior had got a thing for these – haven’t a clue where he picked that up. Now, however, things are different. Alone, I am content with my backyard and only occasionally hop over to these asbestos sheets people have over their storerooms.

One of these houses has far too many cats. Little menaces, in my opinion. One particularly long black and white tabby cat mews at the sight of me, baring her teeth. Really, the cheek of these creatures, facing up to a full grown monkey. It seems the group of cats is well fed and loved for I often see pitchers of milk and bowls of fish/meat bones in their makeshift dining room. The house next to this one has two unfriendly dogs. They scream and screech all the time I am there and I usually go when they start.

Life isn’t the same as it used to be before. I miss my partner chuckling away beside me, Junior jumping on my back. We would go exploring every weekend; my day job didn’t allow me much time during the workdays. Sometimes I wish we had police stations where we could file an FIR. Would they go looking for my little family, say if I paid the men there with my savings?

Days go by as they once did, the sun setting on the town every evening and bringing rest and slumber to the Bengali neighbourhood. The Moms fix their families a dinner of fish and rice, with pickles for flavour. The cats retire to their box bed and the dogs yap and wag their tails when their masters return. For me, all on my own, there is little charm left in the world. I sometimes wander all night, under the silver moonlight, waiting for the first glimpse of dawn. Maybe, one fine day, when the sun rises over the Bengali neighbourhood, it will bring to me all that I have lost. 

Ready, Set, Go!

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Hogwarts Express

Delhi is still caught up in the winter chill. Winter this year has been especially trying. She came early in November and even now, when two months of the new year have already rushed past, she refuses to pack her bags. Sadly, P&P has also been caught in the chill. This morning, I woke up to find him struggling with a vacuum cleaner, trying to brush off the dust on his back.

It is time for yet another move from Pune. Ever since I first went there, life has been a bittersweet melange of highs and lows. There have been splendid moments of happiness, when my family of five has wandered around the quaint little town. We have sat in restaurants with delectable food on the table and sparkles of shooting stars on the skies above. There have also been long nights, when the most pleasant of Pune’s winds haven’t been able to rouse me from the blues. Come March-end and I will be off for yet another round of packing. Mom has been going crazy with excitement over all the fun things we will accomplish on that trip. Shopping in FC road, watching Farhan Akhtar unleash magic in his latest film, eating panipuri from the vendor outside Crossword  – these are just a few.

As I stood on the balcony the other evening, I watched people rush by. There was a girl about my age, babbling away on her cell-phone. There was a rather stout man in gym clothes, his large hands posing a danger to all around him. Delhi’s few million cars also rushed by, in varied speeds and with varied horns. In the last two years in Pune, away on a err, hill, I was deprived of these very normal sightings. I missed watching twilight replace the glaring summer sunshine, all from the comforts of my place by the windowsill. I also missed watching Mom hustle and bustle about, fixing me a big glass of cold coffee or arranging in a bowl a packet-full of crisps.

Sometimes, I wish I had a magic wand or a spell that could bring back lost time. Maybe a Platform Nine and Three Quarters I could take to a world away from ours, a world where your loved ones never left you and where you could hop on to a broomstick and travel to the times you loved best. Mom says I have been spending too much time with Harry Potter. Let home sink in Mom, I say.

Anyhow, the point is, P&P is now vacuum-cleaned. He is all set to weave new stories and listen to those of yours. The engine’s all set, the whistle’s been blown. We are raring to go!

Savera Shuts Shop

“They only serve in the mornings.” R would chuckle as we walked along Savera, F.C. Road.

I would make a face and pretend to be very engrossed with my mobile phone. There would be a colleague or so by my side. We would be on our way to have a chocolate sandwich. This was several years ago, when we first came to Pune. I would steal a glance at R when I thought he wasn’t looking. Back then, he would often sport his favourite blue shirt. The one that today exists only in my memories.

Savera would serve my Mom’s best cherished South Indian dish – dosas. She would have one for breakfast whenever she dropped by to visit me. Ditto for my grandparents. We would sit indoors and marvel at the host of old men sitting around drinking tea. From the look of it, they were freshly returned from morning strolls and sported nice, athletic T-shirts and pants. “I am sure their tea tastes delicious.” Grandpa would say. “It is untouched by your Granny’s morning complaints about how much time I take to get ready.” Granny would look victimized while the rest of us giggled.

In the evenings, I remember hurrying past to get an auto-rickshaw. The rickshaws wait in clumps right across the street, looking welcoming and warm. Never mind the kind of figures some of the drivers quote. R and I have often hopped on to a rickshaw from that stand of sorts, arguing about how owning a vehicle need not succeed owning a house. Savera would teem with people then, sitting around with dinner and drinks, talking about good old Pune.

I haven’t walked past Savera in some time. When I do, I will hunt for the conversations, some half-completed, hanging around in the air. I will also hunt for the warm, fuzzy familiarity of the eatery once so frequented, replete with moments so close to the heart. Sadly, like so much else in life, the hunt will be futile. For the little place has shut shop. All I will find now is an empty space with fond days and nights buried in its breast.

Savera, you will be missed. Walking by that lane will never be the same again.

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