Goodbye Grandfather!

Over the course of several years, a vivacious, youthful, extrovert BP Khemka became increasingly reserved, reticent and reclusive. However, to me, my Nana stayed the same. With me, and this is something I consider both a privilege and a testament to the mutual comfort and confidence we shared; Nanaji remained humorous, fun-loving, childlike, naughty even! And that is precisely how I’d like to reflect on him, and remember him.

My earliest memories of my beloved Nana go back to when I was perhaps around eight or nine years of age. The point from which I actively remember our interactions. He was an extremely indulgent grandparent. Our frequent meetings would be in Delhi, as much as in Calcutta. Through scores of shopping escapades at South Extension in Delhi, to Gulshan Toys below the Defense Colony flyover, I’d take blatant advantage of his generosity as well as of his sheer embarrassment each time I’d throw a public tantrum and he’d promptly instruct my mother to procure for me, whatever it is I was throwing abovementioned tantrum for!

Childhood antics aside, as I grew older, I developed what I perceived to be a unique closeness with him. One that was less headlined by monetary largesse, more defined by a genuine closeness – an undefined kind of mentorship, where he would regale me with countless stories of his years in the village, his business-beginnings, the ways in which he solicited his first few contracts, the tedious tactics of securing his educational degrees, anecdotes of his numerous trips to Neem Ka Thana (which he thought would find special resonance with me since I lived in Jaipur, in Rajasthan). While he was graphic in his descriptions, he was strangely modest about his own personal achievements – an attribute he couldn’t otherwise be accused of!

On several trips to Calcutta over my vacations from school, he would take me along to his office and hold court proudly with Mr.Murari along for the ride, and expound on how and whom all he had mentored, these naïve young, modest students and young entrepreneurs who had subsequently reached the pinnacles of success! The sheer joy on his face was unmistakable and so endearing, even if one took what he was saying with a pinch of salt! And speaking of salt, he loved the opposite. Always up for a quick, or relaxed (if time permitted), cup of coffee and a substantial portion of cake or dessert! I have lost count of the number of coffee shops visited with him, both in India, and throughout various trips abroad that I took with him.

Trips abroad is also the perfect segue to another vital role he played in my life. Most, if not all my travel through my childhood was with him. Australia, Singapore, Japan & Hong Kong, an endless list of excursions that were experiences I hold for a lifetime – exposure that shaped me, taught me, enriched me, broadened my horizons, evolved my world view; this infinite opportunity was all courtesy my Nana. And it made me wiser and dream bigger, thanks to him, quite literally, showing me the world. These holidays taken together too, had their share of Nanaji’s many funny foibles – incidents that serve as nostalgia that I dearly hold on to till today. For instance, on a trip to the Gold Coast in Australia, as a young 16 year old, I was naturally struck by the beautiful women I saw on the beaches. My Nana, sheepishly trying to steal a glance himself, poor guy, would get caught each time by my Nani and be immediately reprimanded, his innocent and harmless schemes shut down forthwith! He even refused to enter the rather large, moat-like winding swimming pool at our resort in Hamilton Island citing some feeble alibi, when he was palpably scared, and was on that instance too, hauled up by my Nani who declared that he was a coward for not entering a pool that was being enjoyed by toddlers!

Another important way in which I suppose he ‘groomed’ me was by introducing me to the Races. Horse Racing was big in Calcutta and he would ensure I was always dressed the part too; giving me many of his own suits including a specific and rather expensive pin-striped YSL double breasted one . He would also regularly take me to a store called Burlington and have formal clothes stitched for me! Many visits to the various clubs in Calcutta, from Saturday club to the Calcutta club, from other Calcutta classics of the time ranging from Skyroom to BlueFox; he took me everywhere! And what an education that was as well.

Many years hence, once I was in college in Delhi, I enjoyed the huge benefit of living in his apartment. And because he would often visit his Delhi office (I suspect increasing the frequency more than required since I was also stationed there now), my Nana and my relationship evolved to yet another stage. He would confide in me about many things, people, goings on. He would also love for us to go out together, and between his three favorite haunts in Delhi (in no particular order), the Hyatt coffee shop, Tai Pan at the Oberoi, and believe it or not, Djinns, the nightclub at the Hyatt again, we had some absolutely amazing times! Imagine a seventy-year-old grandfather and a nineteen-year-old grandson sitting at a nightclub together! I think he inadvertently and rather nonchalantly redefined ‘cool’. Here too, his many guiltless shenanigans continued. I recall vividly, we were once riding the elevator at his Bikaji Kama Place office building and this was circa the dot.com boom; we got talking to a young entrepreneur who had just rented a space in the building. When asked if Nanaji was the same ‘Khemka’ as the NEPC airlines family, he confidently, without batting an eyelid, proclaimed that not only was he connected to NEPC, he also owned half the Beer and Chocolate in Russia and had business interests globally! I later realized that the Khemka bothers seem of often ‘pool in’ their businesses when in such social situations; it was both exceedingly embarrassing yet hilarious at the same time. Another Nanaji classic was regularly witnessed at Tai Pan. Whenever he and I would be there for a Chinese meal, usually at lunchtime, the manager would dutifully come and place a can of Budwiser beer at the table, announcing, “your beer Mr.Khemka.” Nothing extraordinary about that, on its own. But whenever, for the same meal, we’d be accompanied by my Nani, the very same manager would come and religiously place a glass of freshly squeezed juice at the table and announce, “your orange juice Mr.Khemka!”

Many such merry capers took place over the years. Once at a family wedding in Delhi, Nanaji was nowhere to be found. He had simply vanished. Worried, I searched through the hotel for him. I found him, of course, at the Bar, hiding in plain sight. He was so mortified when I caught him that he made some flimsy excuse about how he had bumped into some work-related Russians and was treating them to a drink – a little hard to swallow when there wasn’t a single non-Indian to be seen anywhere!

In the past decade, I noticed that Nanaji had grown increasingly disillusioned. Lots of things seemed to preoccupy and worry him. I dare say I know what constituted most of that list of woes. Even so, the few times I visited him pre-pandemic, he was a picture of vitality and zest, and greeted me with the same enthusiasm as he had always, taking me to office, for meals, and playing with my then toddler-daughter; to see great grandfather and her in his arms, I will be eternally happy that we made that particular trip with Krisha to Calcutta.

Now that he is gone, I so deeply regret not having been to see him more recently. It is one regret I shall take to my own grave. From his office to his private museum at his Ballygunge Place home, and to his various apartments over time in Delhi, I have seen him be his own self, unfettered, unworried, unhinged! That is how I want to remember him. Smiling, laughing, eating, drinking.

This may sound harsh but for once, with his passing, I am NOT sorry for YOUR loss. Because I am profoundly sorry for my own loss. I will miss my grandfather more than any lyrical expression can convey. It is terribly bittersweet for me – that he lived a happy, full, amazing life and was so ceaselessly happy in his own company are all beautiful facts. That I couldn’t say bye to him, that I selfishly don’t have a little more time with him, and that he is leaving my Nani alone, are bitter truths. My dear dear Nanaji. I love you. I always will. And I trust that even up in the good place, you will be relaxing, and in your own immortal words – “having the a la carte!”

TIME

You devoted friend

You deceitful foe

You incredible blessing

You immense blow

You blazing streak

You pregnant pause

You leave us bleak

You have us in awe

You binding chain

You liberating force

You shining light

You dark source

You painful addiction

You unfettered freedom

You constant affliction

You instigator delirium

You memory keeper

You selfless healer

You poignant provoker

You profound teacher!

I

I
Used up all my might
Spent it on banal fights
Wasted it needlessly up through nights
Those truths, they hurt, they bite….
I
Have decided to be happy
Relegate the deplorable past
Events, people, places, to beyond last
Put myself first
Sanity, serenity….
I
Want to love
Want to live
Want to explore
Want to give
Want to please
Want to teach
Want to write
Want to reach
Calm.Quiet.Contentment.

Almost 41!

Almost 41!

When I turned 40, I thought I had seen it all. The ecstatic highs of my wedding to my sweetheart, the birth of our baby girl; the most abysmal lows with the detection of my thyroid cancer and the painful and tumultuous separation from my father. Life however, had other plans. Life, never seized to surprise!

Pained and rather quite fed-up with the negative goings-on of my life, my mother, wife and I succumbed to seeking the advice of an Astrologer. This was a few months after my Cancer treatment, in early 2020. To my horror, he prophesized that it would be two more years until I would settle into some kind of medical as well as psychological calm! Suffice to say, I was shocked and rather heartbroken. Although not prone to blind belief in the proclamations of such people; my mind played tricks on me and firmly implanted the germ of doubt in my subconscious – that I would continue to experience health and other woes, for a few more years to come.

Ever since that fateful day, 2020, and 21, have, until now, been replete with a slew of health niggles. Multiple small and serious ailments, surgeries, low-set depression, fluctuating thyroid levels and consequently yoyoing weight, hypertension – it has been an arduous near 2 years since the discovery of my cancer back in October 2019. There have been frequent spells where I have had to stop my writing and teaching work due to hospital visits and post-operative recovery stints. And there have been countless moments of extreme self-doubt, instances where I have wanted to give up, and entirely succumb.

Somehow, with much drama, and the unwavering and relentless support of my wife & some close friends, and with the quiet motivation my teaching provides, I have managed to go on, carry on, move on, keep forging ahead. Even as I write this piece, days away from my 41st birthday on the 1st of August 2021, I am on a raft of medication for various medical issues, I am battling depression, obesity, mood swings, and a whirlwind of emotional trauma. But, one goes on.

Life, I have realized, will never be easy. It will never be rosy. It will never be cushy. Having said that, life will also never return. Time will never come back. Moments will be gone, forever. And so, with a lot of counselling from my wife Anuja, and a lot of introspection and self-education, I am trying to live in the present. At least that’s what I have decided as of two days ago. I have also made two resolutions that I intend to put into practice right after my birthday. First, that I will fix my diet and my exercise schedule and loose weight. Second, that I will try and address a lot of emotional baggage that I have been carrying as a burden in my heart and mind.

It is an odd feeling to be writing this piece after I wrote ‘the last time I’ll be 39’ just prior to my 40th. I really did believe that the worst was behind me, behind us. Now, today, with so much physical and emotional trauma faced, dealt with, and a continued, everyday fight for survival, I reckon, rather than being bitter, I ought to feel blessed. That the multitude of tests that I have been subjected to, that my wife and I as a family have been put through, have, and will only serve to strengthen us, and make us whole.

Until very recently, I was sullen about my upcoming birthday. Now, I am excited. However, my amazement that I have almost made it to 41, remains! Be that as it may, chin-up Kartik…. Long way to go!

Cancer

I am a survivor
A heroic declaration
An exaggerated proclamation
I realize upon contemplation
The road to recovery
With stones & obstacles it is paved
Niggles, issues, setbacks, barely saved
Two years since the poison, I have braved
A fight to the finish
My nightly prayer
My strength not diminish
My only care
My normal is now new
My normal is a different view
My normal is a constant struggle
My normal, each day, pursued

Covid Positive!

March 2020 transformed the world and life as we had known it, and taken for granted. The Coronavirus Pandemic came like a bolt from the blues and fractured our way of being, threatened and paralyzed our very existence, and all the various everyday activities that we went about rather nonchalantly. Much has been written, spoken and debated, mostly focusing on the trauma and tragedy that this global catastrophe has given rise to; and indeed, it has. Having said that, there are, even in the most trying, worst of scenarios, two sides to the story. As we battle the unprecedented atrocities of the second wave of the coronavirus, amidst all the doom & gloom, why not take a moment to seek out the few ‘positives’ that have also emerged from this pandemic?

Familial Bonds

 Perhaps the most palpable positive outcome of the pandemic has been the growing closeness between families – be it an increase of quality time being spent between children and parents, or connections and bonds being enhanced between various relatives sitting in far-flung parts of the country and/or abroad. This human ‘need’ to reach out during a worldwide crisis has manifested in a slew of creative and fun familial outreach ranging from video-conferencing amongst extended families, to Antakshari, Cards and other games and parties being held virtually. In general, people, families, associates, friends, have been more regularly and sincerely in touch with one another, and that by any means, is a great development. That albeit forced by circumstances, we have reacquainted ourselves with our loved ones, and with our own humanity.

Appreciation & Thoughtfulness

 Pre-covid, an overwhelming majority of us took most aspects of our lives for granted. Stepping out for a meal. Taking the kids to school. Hopping on a flight and traveling. Holidaying. Spending hours shopping. We had become so ‘used’ to these ideas and activities that it rarely crossed our minds how lucky, blessed and privileged we were. The pandemic has dramatically put things into perspective. With the amount of planning that is now required for a simple grocery-run, and with all the numerous dangers that loom large whilst each outing is being undertaken, we have rather suddenly and painfully been forced to become immensely appreciative of our pre-corona lives, and of the smallest little pleasures that we mistook as our birthrights. To be able to develop a genuine sense of gratitude and thankfulness has been a wonderful development and one can only hope it outlives the pandemic.

Professional & Personal Care

 The wretched pandemic has also perpetuated a situation where we are a lot more mindful of our personal and professional lives. On the personal front, we are taking better care of ourselves. Eating better, staying fit and active, because God forbid one takes ill, for obvious reasons, one wants to avoid having to visit a medical facility. Similarly, while millions have lost jobs and suffered grave losses at work and business, it has forced us to become more thoughtful, mindful, sensitive, frugal and careful. We are less wasteful and extravagant. We are more restrained and focused. We understand the value of health of self and of work much more maturely and act accordingly now. To have evolved this level of understanding and wisdom is a clearly positive outcome of the pandemic which we will be wise to carry forward even once this ordeal is done and dusted.

Let us remember that a last few months of restraint will be the key to steering ourselves out of this coronavirus pandemic. That a little more patience, till we develop mass-immunity and/or are vaccinated, will ensure that the few covid ‘positives’ that we have discovered, can become our way of life, permanently.

Language Concepts Column!

From time to time, I write a Column in certain newspapers or publications. In the past, I have written columns on Popular Culture, Communication Skills, Education and more.

Nowadays, I am delighted to share that for the Times of India (Newspaper in Education), both in print (offline) as well as online (on toistudent.com), I have been writing an English Language Column where every fortnight, I take one letter from the Alphabet, and share some facts and significance of an English Concept that begins with that letter. Moving chronologically, we are only at E at the moment but I thought it might be interesting for me to share one column here as a sample.

Haven’t had the time to write a blog-post in a long, long time. So this will be a glimpse of what I’ve recently been up to. Enjoy!

Bliss in the Amber Hills

In a city that is inundated with luring stay options ranging from modest yet authentic home-stays to the most outrageously luxurious palaces; Panna Mahal, nestled among the lush acres of Rashmi & Edward Dickinson’s picturesque slice of Amber estate, Parvat Surya, offers an entirely unique experience.

My wife Anuja, our daughter Krisha and I, were very generously invited by the Dickinsons, at the beginning of August, to stay at Panna Mahal, an outhouse on their property they have recently converted into a self-contained, 2 bedroom guest-house. In fact, this write-up is grossly overdue, prevented from being written because of various health niggles I encountered since that time. Better late than never though!

Back to the beautiful Panna Mahal. Surrounded by dense greenery, ensconced in the caressing embrace of nature, the elements come to life here. Everything that is natural, is amplified. The chirping of birds, the echoing of raindrops, the abandon of the many swings dotted across the property as one takes flight on them, reminiscent of a more fancy-free, simpler time. No television barking. No devices distracting. No neighbors interfering. Nothing. Pure, unabated, natural bliss.

An 8-strong army of the fiercest yet utterly gorgeous Dobermen, led by Toofan, bask, roam, and zealously guard the estate. If you are, and ONLY if you are a genuine animal-lover, they will sense it, and quickly become friends. Else, stay at a safe distance! With us, they instantly gathered around and two in particular – Toofan & Bhookamp, remained our constant companions through our stay, merrily sitting by our side while we were on the swings, as we walked and explored the ample flora and fauna across the estate, and while we sat at our lovely al-fresco table and ate.

On the roof of Panna Mahal, is a wonderful arrangement of a couple of ‘newars’ (a traditional village-style bed) and another small dining table and chairs. While we were there, there was more than a hint of rain and the entire amber area was engulfed in the most mysterious fog. To sit on the roof and take in the breathtaking views was absolutely mesmerizing. Irrespective of the weather conditions, the ample estate and the vistas beyond, including and of course the highlight, the Amber Fort itself; a feast for the eyes and all senses.

Food arrangements are managed by one of two options and one can do a combination. The guest-house has a small yet perfectly appointed kitchenette/pantry where the hosts are happy to stock basic supplies so one can cook oneself, or meals  are masterfully managed by a couple that lives close-by, a Mr. Sanjay Maheswari, who runs Kokum Bistro near Amber (whose number will be provided by the hosts). Mr Maheshwari and his wife cook delectable food, made to order, and bring it by to Panna Mahal for each meal. They are priced fairly, and their food tastes absolutely amazing, light, fresh, and is highly customizable. With my Cancer and my many eating restrictions, they easily accounted for all my needs and still gave us brilliant culinary experiences, breakfast, lunch and dinner!

The entire stay at Panna Mahal and Parvat Surya is punctuated by nature. It is truly ‘far from the madding crowd’. A lot of holiday options claim to offer an ‘escape’ but that is, I’m afraid, a terribly abused word whose meaning and essence have been diluted by making it merely a buzzword. At Panna Mahal, it is the plain truth. You escape not just the city and the rush, you escape within yourself, in your own mind, and submit to the bountiful fruits that the bosom of nature offers.

Perhaps the most admirable facet about the Panna Mahal experience is that Rashmi has decided to ‘gift’ it to the Creative World. The retreat will be a donation to Artists of all kinds – Writers, Poets, Painters & Musicians, to come, stay, be inspired, work, escape, rest, create. To serve as a respite & muse to those who beautify the world, to become a sanctuary to those who imaginatively chronicle truth! I personally can not think of either a more appropriate utilisation of this idyllic spot, or a better service to the arts.

For us, Panna Mahal was two days of complete joy. A quiet sort of euphoria that only natural bliss can provide. Rashmi and Edward, thank you, not just for hosting us but for each endeavour of yours, which is always inextricably intertwined with doing some good in, and for society. We love Panna Mahal and can’t wait to be back!

Art – A Higher Purpose!

‘Guernica’, the bold, questioning, war-critiquing, iconic work of art by Picasso, is one among a galaxy of art-expressions, that goes infinitely deeper than providing ‘luxurious set dressing’. Similarly, popular culture too, even in the melodious and often-times ‘commercial’ strains of its many songs, creates ‘A Bad Dream’ by alternative-rock band Keane, that, once again, in a stark, poignant and haunting way, through its amalgam of music & lyric, examines the futility of war!

Film, Literature, Sculpture, Music, the entire gamut of the Arts, has always, been inextricably socio-political. In India too, within the sometimes constraining and myopic boundaries of the entertainment-arts, we have, strong voices that manifest in films such as Mulk, Article 15, Thappad, Lipstick Under My Burkha. Poetic moving images that do much more than entertain. They stir, instigate, make us uncomfortable, make us ask, delve deeper, search for the right QUESTIONS! Art, as has always been the case, is ‘beyond beauty’. Transcending the superficial. Today, as the world grapples with arguably the most paradigm-shifting event in history, the Coronavirus Pandemic, ART and Artists, have a vital role to play. An absolutely indispensable, multifaceted, set of duties.

RECORD & CHRONICLE

While the world, by way of personal experiences, stories, photographs will capture facets of the pandemic, as will the wider, global media-machinery; it is imperative that artists, through song & lyric, poetry and painting, images and imagination, too, record this momentous event. To have with humanity, until posterity, a moving account of the pandemic recorded through the creative lens of an artist, to my mind, seems one fundamental duty of the artist, and of society.

HOPE, RELIEF, RELEASE

Another crucial role of art and artists at this juncture, is to provide relief. Human beings don’t only need ‘physical rescue’. We need relief for body, mind and soul. Many artists, singers, visual artists are already engaged in this, and though their individual medium of expression, have been providing hope. From singers performing in their apartment balconies in Mumbai on the 1st test-quarantine day, to any number of youtubers, performing artists, making videos and putting them out there for us to watch, listen, be entertained by, and ultimately, feel some semblance of normality!

MIRROR, TRUTH, CRITICISE

Arguably the greatest role of the artist during a period such as the world is witnessing, far more important than entertaining and simply-recording, is to seek the truth and capture it. While governments and organizations sugar-coat statistics and the situation, it is the Artist, along with the Journalist, who is that one, dedicated, unwavering truth-seeker, who will, for instance, find that messy hospital-ward with intermingling covid and non-covid patients and manifest this grim reality in a telling yet touching poem. An artist will find the irony in administrative video-conferencing and unmask the veil that is being strung in the form of public-perception through a satirical painting. And ultimately, it is us, citizens, who will watch, observe, interpret, these myriad expressions of our many artists, and find the courage, conviction, and evidence, to question people, decisions, missteps, and emerge a healthier, more honest, more robust society.

Exposing our inherent societal hypocrisy and placing a painful mirror in front of us has been the essential purpose of art and artists. From Manto to Ghalib, Ray to Ritwik, did precisely that. Alas, we are in a world where even artists are becoming increasingly unsure of taking a stance, expressing their ‘real’ opinions for fear of backlash. As a truth-seeking teacher & writer, I can only urge the art-community to be bold, be involved, be invested. That there is no such thing as Apolitical Art. That we need Art and Artists more than ever. That Art, has A Higher Purpose!

The Inclusive Education Dialogue

Over the past six years, I have been actively involved in Education. Teaching Writing & Communication Skills across the learning-landscape, from junior school, through to college, and to seniors; I have been blessed to have reached out to a truly diverse and growing student-base.

Another area I have tried to make a contribution to Education, is Writing. I have written extensively on Education & Parenting across a slew of Newspapers, Magazines, Publications & Portals, On & Offline.

Despite the above, I had, until recently, begun to feel that I was not doing enough. That there were larger, more pressing issues & challenges related to the Education Sector, that needed Attention, Focus, Dialogue, Discussion & Solutions. This burning urge to play a more catalytic role, to Advocate, and facilitate Advocacy, compelled me to seek a partner, an individual and an organisation with shared Values, Concerns, Passions, Outlooks & Philosophies. From a few earlier interactions, I remembered fondly, and deeply respected Vikram Rajola and his amazing rural-education-augmentation would through his foundation In-Deed (based out of Jodhpur district), and it was like a eureka moment.

My ‘hunch’ that he’d be interested in what I was proposing, was confirmed in one phone-call, a conversation that lasted minutes! We decided that we would jointly initiate an ongoing series of talks on Pressing & Pertinent Issues within the Education Sector. And literally a week ago, The Inclusive Education Dialogue was born!

That we are largely on the same-page, with little or no conflict principally, aided in us instinctively agreeing that our very first Panel Discussion ought to be in view of the impact of Covid 19 (pandemic) on Education, more specifically, focusing on the Millions of Indian Students who DO NOT, or CAN NOT, at this point, continue their education, through Online Learning (as many are doing in urban centres). Our first Panel therefore, titled ‘Reaching The Unconnected Millions’, was formulated.

Earnest endeavours are recognized and rewarded because worthy people happily join you in them. And we are absolutely delighted, humbled and privileged, that an especially eminent panel of experts has joined us to kickstart our talk-series, and to each of them, we are incredibly thankful.

The core idea of The Inclusive Education Dialogue is to keep shining a light on Education Sector Issues that have been sidelined for one reason or another. The word ‘inclusive’ will ALWAYS be elemental to our choice of issues. And through discussions and debates, we seek solutions, perhaps even on-ground actionable pilot programs, that emerge from these intended deliberations.

The Inclusive Education Dialogue may be a modest enterprise; it is fuelled by immense sincerity, zeal, passion, and commitment. Join us as we embark on what will hopefully be a longstanding value-addition to Education. Follow our Talks & Panels, watch them, listen to them, spread the word!

Thank you!