Panchhi’s Pipe Dream

Musings Mosaic

“Hurry up, hurry up! You are walking so slow today, have you become a tortoise? Walk fast or we will just be able to get two buckets!” Sushila yelled. Her 12-year old daughter Panchhi was trailing behind as they rushed towards the water pump. It was 5:30 in the morning already, and the water supply would be turned off in merely an hour. Kamla buaji was to come visit later that day along with her family and they would surely stay a few days. She never volunteered any information about when she would leave and Sushila was too polite to ask.

“What calamity would have befallen us if you did not study one single day? Was it necessary to study this early in the morning? Because of you we are late! How will I cook for the guests if I don’t even have water?” her tirade continued as they reached…

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Panchhi’s Pipe Dream

“Hurry up, hurry up! You are walking so slow today, have you become a tortoise? Walk fast or we will just be able to get two buckets!” Sushila yelled. Her 12-year old daughter Panchhi was trailing behind as they rushed towards the water pump. It was 5:30 in the morning already, and the water supply would be turned off in merely an hour. Kamla buaji was to come visit later that day along with her family and they would surely stay a few days. She never volunteered any information about when she would leave and Sushila was too polite to ask.

“What calamity would have befallen us if you did not study one single day? Was it necessary to study this early in the morning? Because of you we are late! How will I cook for the guests if I don’t even have water?” her tirade continued as they reached the line of women awaiting their turn at the pump. Fortunately, only about 7-8 women stood in front of them, but time was ticking by. Sushila fervently began praying to all the Gods she could think of that they managed to fill four buckets at the very least, while simultaneously cursing her luck that she was given a daughter so absorbed in her studies that she was slovenly about household duties.

“But Ma, why can’t you ask Ajay and Suraj bhaiyya to help us also? We can easily get at least 3-4 more buckets!” Panchhi piped up. Ajay was her twin brother and Suraj the eldest, at 19. Ajay was still sleeping and wouldn’t be up until an hour later for school, while Suraj had woken and was watching the highlights of the India-Sri Lanka match the previous night along with their father. They had been unable to watch it the night before as there was a five-hour power outage at the Subhash Nagar chawl where they lived. It was the reason why Panchhi had been unable to study for the upcoming midterm exams and had woken earlier than usual to make up for lost time in the morning. She and her mother usually reached the pump by 5:15 but today she had been so engrossed in geometry practice that Sushila had whacked her in the head to shake her out of the reverie and remind her of water-duties.

“Don’t ask stupid questions and try to misdirect me, girl. If we don’t get enough water today, you’ve had it! I will tell your father to stop sending you to school. Enough is enough. What is the use anyway? School is simply a waste of money. That Padma went to school AND college. What happened then? She is sitting at home, stitching clothes with her mother” Sushila retorted.

Panchhi did not respond as she knew her mother was in a bad mood and arguing would only aggravate her further. Padma was the daughter of the Mishras three doors to their right. She was indeed a college graduate, but had opted for home science despite wanting to pursue law. Her family had balked at that and insisted upon home science, as law wasn’t “a womanly profession”. Padma gave in, completed graduation, did not get a job anywhere she tried, gave up on finding one, and now helped her mother with her tailoring job.

By this time, only four women remained in front of them, one of them their next-door neighbour and Sushila’s close friend Geeta. Geeta knew about the upcoming visit from Kamla buaji and graciously let them take her place in line. They started to fill the water and Panchhi tuned out as Sushila continued her litany of complaints about her. Geeta, however, adored Panchhi and said “Sushila, at least you have a daughter. My Laxman is useless. I don’t know what will become of him, he doesn’t even go to school anymore. Just eats, goes out all day, comes home and sleeps. He is also very rude with me these days. I am at my wit’s end…!” . Sushila consoled her with the oft-repeated “He is still a son, he will take care of you when you are old” as she filled her second bucket.

 

Buckets filled, Panchhi and her mother started to head back home. Sushila had calmed down a little now that they had water and started to discuss the day’s menu with Panchhi. Kamla buaji liked paneer mutter and onion pakoras very much, so that would do for the evening snack and dinner. She debated the choice between aloo paranthas and sabudana khichdi for breakfast while Panchhi ‘hmmed’ in agreement to everything that was said. Soon they reached home and started to prepare the morning and afternoon meals.

 

The men ate first although Panchhi was allowed to have a cup of tea with them. She liked this time of the morning most. Her father Prakash, an autorickshaw driver, was usually of a friendlier disposition early in the morning before he headed out for the day. The city’s traffic, the constant heat, irritable, finicky customers and potholed roads exacted a toll on him daily. When he returned in the evenings, he was usually grouchy and wanted nothing more than to put his feet up with two cups of strong, sugary black tea.

 

He was a good father, Panchhi always thought. He let her go to school beyond class seven despite protests from Kamla buaji and several other relatives. They had thought educating a girl until class seven was quite enough because “I only studied till class three and look at me now, I am doing just fine” in Kamla buaji’s words. However, there was something missing. Something she wanted desperately. Something she was reminded of every single day, when she went to the front window to wave her father goodbye before he left.

 

The men were done with breakfast just as a sleepy Ajay woke up and walked zombie-like towards Sushila, who gave him his cup of tea.

 

“Don’t you have exams, boy? Your sister sleeps late, wakes up early and studies. What about you?” Prakash asked. Ajay was indifferent towards studies though as he was of the stock who could cram a night before exams and still score as good marks as Panchhi did. It was what it was. Panchhi envied this about her brother but she simply did not have that skill. Maybe that was why her father didn’t give her what she wanted so badly.

 

Her father headed out the door and Panchhi went to the window to wave him goodbye. Prakash parked the rickshaw a little distance away from the home and as he revved away, the wheels turning up dust and a few stones, Panchhi sighed. There it was, at the back, on the black hood of her father’s rickshaw. ‘Suraj’ in a curved purple script and ‘Ajay’ in a yellow, cartoonish font which he had insisted upon. The clear plastic oblong in the middle was empty. Panchhi’s biggest desire, her pipe dream one could say, was to have her name up there. Simple. Her father had been a rickshaw driver since about ten years. Before that he worked odd jobs at several factories which routinely shut down. The rickshaw was his pride and joy and by translation, so were his sons—because their names were up there.

 

Panchhi wasn’t the type to make demands. When Prakash got the boys’ names printed, Panchhi just assumed her father did not print hers as he wanted an opinion on what color and font she wanted her name to be in. This was six years ago, a few days before her 6th birthday. She was excited, thought it would be his birthday present to her.

On her 6th birthday, she woke up to find a pretty plastic doll near her head. The doll had fluorescent golden hair, a striped red and green dress, and one bendy leg. It was the first doll she ever owned. She was happy, very happy. Her mother had let her sleep late that day so when she woke up, her father had already left. She waited for him to come home, certain that he would have printed her name by the time he returned.

She watched the clock like a hawk, awaiting 6:30 PM which was usually when he got back. Return he did, and she raced out the moment she saw the rickshaw. She couldn’t even wait for him to round the small bend before he could park it and peered at the back.

The plastic part at the back was still as clear as always. Her father got out, ruffled her hair, said “happy birthday, gudia” and entered their home.

 

Panchhi never asked him why, but the crushing sadness and disappointment she felt that day gave her an iron resolve to impress her father in whatever way she could, so that one day he considered her his pride and joy too. She studied hard, aced most exams at school, helped Sushila in all chores around the house, asked her father if she could massage his feet—which he always asked her mother to do, but did not let her—anything she could think of to make him happy. But he never printed her name. Over the years, her diligent studying, helping her mother and the like became a habit, no more just activities designed to impress her father. However, every morning when her father left home, she prayed for one opportunity, something, ANYTHING she could do to impress him enough to print her name on the small, clear plastic space behind the rickshaw.

 

The day progressed, Panchhi returned from school at 1:30 in the afternoon, washed up, changed, had lunch and opened her History textbook. She did not like History very much, thought it to be a rather pointless subject. She adored Biology, both Botany and Zoology, and wanted to be a doctor when she grew up. She knew that too to be a pipe dream—considering the exorbitant fees in even the most mediocre medical colleges. So she had decided to become a compounder for Dr.Awasthi, who had a small, dingy clinic just outside their chawl. His clinic smelled musty and sterile, a mix of antiseptic, crushed herbs, and mothballs. She often dropped by the clinic during less busy times, just to talk to the doctor and see how he worked, listen to everything he said. Dr. Awasthi always let her as he enjoyed the company—he was a childless widower and the girl had a keen, sharp mind.

 

However, Panchhi’s father—who had studied till class 10—loved History, particularly the period of Emperor Akbar’s reign, and every time she opened the book, she hoped to find something about that particular period which she could discuss with him. She had about an hour to study till she would have to help her mother with the cooking.

 

A couple of hours later Kamla buaji arrived, her daughter Reshma and son Ankit—six and four years old—in tow. Buaji’s sister-in-law Rani had also tagged along, something Sushila was not informed about. Sushila did not like Rani. She was lazy, made too many demands, and had a propensity to taunt her about the most mundane things in a very underhanded, fake-sweet manner. Buaji also wasn’t particularly enjoyable company as she boasted about her travels all the time, boasted about how big her house back in Bareilly was, about how her husband adored her and bought her a new saree, or a purse, or some jewelry every other month.

Ever since she had moved to Mumbai from Azamgarh after marrying Prakash, she hadn’t once stepped foot outside the city. Her mother had died during childbirth and her father had cut all contact after completing the “only responsibility of his life” or marrying her off. In stark contrast, Kamla had visited so many exotic-sounding places like Shimla, Manali, Kullu, Delhi, Nainital, Mussoorie, Amristar, Jammu and even the Vaishnodevi temple—somewhere Sushila always wanted to go—that she felt a quiet, abiding envy for her. Kamla’s husband had a moderately successful business selling unusual light fixtures which afforded her such a lifestyle.

 

But she always tried to be as good a hostess as she could be since her husband adored Kamla buaji. So she welcomed them with big smiles, hugs, remarks about how much the children had grown, how pretty Reshma’s dress was and how smart Ankit’s shoes were. She also commented on Rani’s new hairstyle, a frankly unflattering fringe which completely obscured her small forehead, saying it made her look like a college girl. Rani was 45.

 

Panchhi helped her mother serve tea, pakoras, biscuits for the kids, and then sat with them to hear them talk. Reshma sat next to her and started talking about a popular new cartoon that she loved. Ankit bounced around Ajay, demanding that they play car-racing with the Hotwheels set he said he carried everywhere.

 

“So, Ajay! Your father keeps talking about how you manage to score top marks even despite studying only a day before the exams. How do you do it? Remember I used to read you Chacha Chaudhary stories when you were a little boy? You are our very own Chacha Chaudhary now! You’ll be a doctor when you grow up, or an engineer. We will all be so proud!” buaji said without pausing for breath.

 

“Actually it is Panchhi who wants to be a doctor. I am more interested in architecture, I am fascinated with building things,” Ajay said. Little Ankit then piped up “bhaiyya will you also build Hotwheels sets then? Please build me some, then I will be the only one to have such sets. My friends will all be so jealous!”

 

Everyone laughed at this before buaji said “Panchhi can become a teacher. She is good at explaining things Becoming a doctor is so expensive nowadays! Also it takes too long, five-seven years of studying! Who will marry her then? Becoming a teacher is the best option. You can come home at a reasonable hour and take care of your family then”

 

Panchhi just smiled. She had understood long ago—on her sixth birthday, to be precise—that her brothers were the priority. If ever a time came that one of them had to be taken out of school, it would be her without question. She had even heard her father discuss taking an education loan to fund Suraj’s engineering education with her mother and add that “In a few years, we may have to take another loan for Ajay. Fees may be higher at that time so we need to cut down on our expenses now onwards,”. He had not mentioned her higher education at all.

 

Suddenly, buaji went completely quiet. She seemed to be staring at nothing in a pointed, fixated manner. Sushila seemed not to notice as she was listening intently to Rani, who relayed her with a “better” recipe for onion pakoras. Reshma had joined her brother and Ajay by then, as they tried to get two cars to collide on the winding electric blue Hotwheels track.

Panchhi was instantly alert. Something was amiss. Buaji was staring vacantly ahead and her right hand—the one holding her second cup of tea—was slackening. To Panchhi’s growing alarm, buaji’s right lip started to quiver a little while she continued to stare straight ahead. However, before she could say or do anything, buaji seemed to have recovered and the light started to return to her eyes.

“Taiji, what happened? You aren’t paying attention! I was telling Sushila about the time we went to Kedarnath and you almost fell off the bridge… You want to tell her yourself?” Rani was saying. Buaji gave a very benign smile and said rather feebly “aah Kedarnath…yes, yes.. the bridge…” but she trailed off while the others waited expectantly. But buaji’s eyes had again taken on a glazed, vacant look and she said nothing, her head just slumped. Sushila and Rani both got to their feet and Rani said “Oh, poor thing. She’s probably really tired after the journey. She has been generally tired since a few days. Come taiji, let’s get you to bed. You rest till dinner” and both women helped the old lady to bed. Sushila was secretly surprised at how quickly the energy seemed to have left buaji, but dismissed it as being age-related.

 

However, alarm bells were ringing in Panchhi’s head. Something was definitely wrong. She couldn’t put a finger on what it was, but she felt uneasy. Her mother soon asked her to come to the kitchen and help her wash the teacups and plates. Panchhi decided to keep checking on buaji—who was now resting in her parents’ bedroom. She did an unusually rushed job of washing the plates which annoyed her mother yet again, but she didn’t care this time round. She went to the bedroom to check on buaji who seemed to be deep in sleep. Somewhat relieved, she returned to the living room and returned to her studies. There was no obligation for her to socialise now as Rani had cornered her mother in the kitchen, chattering on about the Kedarnath trip. However, Panchhi was simply unable to concentrate. After 4-5 futile attempts to memorise a long-winded answer about India after Independence, she set the book back down and went to the bedroom. This time, buaji was staring vacantly at the ceiling and barely registered Panchhi’s presence. She went closer and shook buaji’s arm slightly, before her eyes flickered a little and seemed to regain focus.

 

“Are you okay? Do you want me to get you some water?” Panchhi asked? Buaji answered falteringly “no no beta….I am fine. I’m just tired….I will sleep and…and get better”

 

Her speech was slurred. Her eyes seemed to roll back and almost immediately, she seemed to have slipped into deep sleep. Thoroughly alarmed by now, Panchhi rushed to the kitchen. Her mother looked slightly hassled with Rani’s nonstop prattle and seemed relieved to see her. But she grew apprehensive when she saw the look on her daughter’s face. “What is it? You look like you’ve seen a ghost” her mother asked. “Maa, please come. Buaji is not alright. There is something wrong with her. Earlier too she was just staring into the distance and now she just slept off within seconds of talking to me. I think something is wrong and we should take her to the doctor”

However, both women did not take her seriously. Her mother went back to stirring the simmering mutter paneer gravy, while Rani just laughed and said “yes, we know she is tired, right? That is why we took her to the bedroom and made her sleep. It was a long journey, dusty and very hot too. How I wish we got the third AC tickets, but they were all full so we had to come by sleeper class. She is extra tired because of that. We only travel in the AC compartment otherwise….”

Panchhi did not relent and went up to her mother. “Maa, no. I get a feeling that this is not just tiredness. Something is odd. Please come and see, please!”

 

“This girl just won’t let me be in peace! Come, come now. Let’s go and see her” Sushila said, mopping her brow with her saree pallu. The three went to the bedroom, only to see buaji in a calm, untroubled sleep. She was breathing deeply.

However, there was something wrong with her face. The right side of her mouth sloped in an odd, slightly dislocated way. Panchhi instantly remembered where she had seen that look before. A few years earlier, Rao uncle in the next building had suddenly lost his ability to walk, the right side of is body had stiffened up, his mouth had curled in an odd sneer, and even though he was hospitalised, he didn’t quite recover and died in a few months.

“See, she is sleeping. We should get out of here and let the poor woman rest. Now girl, you get back to your studies and stop peeping in here all the time. And if you don’t want to study, come and help me make the rotis,” her mother said in a stern voice, an irritated look etched across her face, filing out of the room.

 

Panchhi made a decision. The moment her mother and Rani returned to the kitchen, she crept up to the door and dashed out of the house without a word. She thought she heard her mother call out to her but she did not care. Running down the cracked stairs lined with cobwebs and tobacco stains, she rushed into the open courtyard of their chawl out onto the main road, crossed it, and shot straight into Dr. Awasthi’s clinic. The doctor, in his early sixties with close-cropped grey hair and a cheerful smile, always made Panchhi think of a jolly grandfather figure.

“Panchhi, girl, you haven’t come to see me in a long time! Studying hard, are you? What are you doing here at this time? Everything alright?” he boomed.

 

Panchhi quickly apprised him of the situation and the doctor’s face grew slightly grim though he took care to school his expressions to a bland mask. He had finished attending to his patients for the day, fortunately, and told Panchhi he would go take a look at buaji.

He made quick work of locking up his clinic and quickly followed Panchhi home. Her mother was waiting by the door and launched into an angry reprisal about her rushing off without informing anyone and regarded the doctor with a forced politeness before letting him in. “The girl is getting more and more rebellious day by day. If this is what she learns at school, she really needs to stop going,” Sushila grumbled to herself, following the doctor inside.

 

Dr. Awasthi examined buaji, who was awake by now. Her eyes, however, were unfocused and her jaw drooped. “Buaji, how are you? Must have been such a long journey from Bareilly. I’ve been there a few times, my nephew lives there with his wife and children. Come, try and sit up so I can examine you better…”

 

Buaji’s eyes flickered ever so slightly, and she tried to sit up but could not. The right side of her body seemed uncooperative. She tried to say something but her speech was slightly slurred. Dr. Awasthi said quietly to Sushila “We need to take her to the hospital. Can you arrange for an ambulance? When does your husband return?”

 

For Sushila this was an unexpected turn of events. She had fully expected the doctor to dismiss Panchhi’s strange fears and tell them buaji was merely tired. But now he wanted to take her to the hospital? Clearly something was wrong here. She started to fumble around for her mobile phone, which she usually kept switched off in the bedroom drawer so that the battery wouldn’t drain needlessly, to call Prakash. Just then the front door opened and he walked in, surprised to see the doctor and alarmed by his wife’s fearful face.

 

About half an hour later, they had admitted buaji to Sushrut Hospital, a super specialty institution about 15 minutes away from their home. Suraj had returned home from college right after his father and both men, with help from Sushila and Rani, put buaji in the autorickshaw Prakash drove everyday and rushed to the hospital.

The doctor, a tall and rather formidable-looking woman in her mid-forties, told them buaji had had a stroke and a delay of even an hour more could have led to irreparable brain damage. Buaji was still critical and would be under observation for a few days, but the doctor thought she would recover with her brain functions intact. There could be some impairment in mobility, she said, but that too could be dealt with by a few weeks of physiotherapy.

“You were really smart to have called the doctor when you did, madam. It is no stretch of the imagination to say you have saved her life” the doctor said, addressing Sushila, who by now had gone completely pale.

“It wasn’t me, doctor. My daughter here…it was her. We didn’t even think anything was wrong, we thought she was tired. But she pestered me and when I didn’t take her seriously, she ran out and brought Dr. Awasthi home. I don’t know… I dread to imagine what would have happened had Panchhi not been alert” and burst into guilty tears.

Prakash did not know about Panchhi’s role in the entire development so far. He had only been shell shocked when he saw buaji unresponsive in bed and then on was only focused on getting her to the hospital. Now that he knew his daughter had actually saved buaji’s life, he could say nothing. He just took Panchhi in his arms and ruffled her hair.

Buaji was discharged from the hospital after three days. She spoke far slower than usual and her right leg dragged a little, but she was coherent and her thoughts seemed lucid. She had been instructed to undergo physiotherapy for a month. But she was fine. Buaji was alright.

 

The evening after buaji was discharged from the hospital, Panchhi was busy catching up with her History studies. The midterm exams were to begin the next day and the frequent trips to the hospital and back had taken a toll on her preparations. She had to study a total of nine chapters and was done with only six thus far. She heard her father’s auto come into their chawl compound vaguely, but her attention was focused on the police-army battle for Kashmir post independence.

Prakash walked in, a few bags in hand. He usually picked up vegetables from the evening market near Chembur station. She got up to help him with the bags like she usually did, but he waved her away and said “there are more bags in the rickshaw’s backseat. Had many things to buy today. Go get them.”

 

Panchhi though nothing of this. It was a Sunday after all, and the Ramanlal Oil Shop and General Stores sold cooking oil cheaper on the day. She headed towards their rickshaw but noticed that her father had parked it with its back slightly towards the building. He usually parked it the other way round. Also something was different…as she got closer she squinted…it couldn’t be……it couldn’t….

But it was. Panchhi just stood rooted to the ground, her arms limply by her side. She couldn’t believe her eyes yet there it was, clear as daylight.

‘Panchhi’, etched in a flowy, elegant script, right across the plastic oblong at the back of the autorickshaw. The font was in light parrot green, her favorite color. She was shocked her father even knew her favorite color. She did not know what to think, what to do but was vaguely aware of her throat constricting to squeeze warm tears down her cheeks….Her lips quivered…then she felt someone standing next to her.

“Gudia, I have never paid much attention to you. Every time I felt some affection for you something in my mind kept reminding me you would leave one day. Reminded me what society says all the time that daughters are not really your own. They will leave someday. I thought it was best to restrain myself from showing you much love openly. It would make the parting easier. But I was wrong. You are my only daughter and you will always be my child no matter where you go. And that day, what you did…I cannot express how I felt. You have made me proud. I thought… I thought this would make you happy… do you like it?”, he looked at her expectantly. Panchhi had never seen that look on her father’s face; a tender vulnerability, seeking a mixture of forgiveness and approval.

 

She said nothing, just hugged him tightly, burying her face in his chest and sobbing. She let the tears soak into his white work shirt, sweaty and lightly stained with dust. He didn’t stop her, just awkwardly ruffled her hair. They stayed that way for a while before he gently turned her towards their home. Sushila stood on the long first floor balcony they shared with five other houses, watching over them. She wiped away a few tears of her own.

“Never again. Never again will I threaten to take my daughter out of school. I will let her study for as long as she wants to. If I have to sell everything I own, I will do it. But my daughter will want for nothing. Never again” she promised herself.

 

Spanish Sojourn

One of the happiest times in a person’s life is when a certain choice turns out to be among the best things that ever happened to them. I made one such choice back in May, 2016. My sister and I were to go on a trip to Europe, visiting our cousins living in Basel, Switzerland. After all the hassles with getting a Schengen Visa (a story for another time!), we were extremely excited about the two-week trip sponsored by our mother as well as our aunt and uncle living in Basel.

The choice I am talking about, however, wasn’t about visiting Europe. That was but a blessing. The choice was about the places we would visit. Basel was to be our home base, but we would also be travelling to other countries, taking in as much as we could.

My aunt gave us about five choices, we had to pick two. The choices were Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, Barcelona and Venice. Now Paris was a given, simply because of the classic “Arey Europe ghoome aur Paris nahi dekha?” question we expected people to ask the moment we returned. About Venice, my aunt said the canals smelled a lot like gutter water and Amsterdam was something the elders in general were a little sceptical about (for obvious reasons). Ever since Barcelona had been suggested, I felt a deep yearning, right down to my bones. I Googled pictures of the city and was fascinated by all the colour, flair, sheer flamboyance and bright Spanish sun I saw. I did have second thoughts as Rome, Amsterdam etc are generally considered the more ‘obvious’ tourist destinations but my sister also approved of Barcelona, though I think it had more to with my enthusiasm over the place than an actual desire to choose it over the others.

Cut to May 18, 2016. Our cousin brothers, my sister and I were flushed with excitement at the Basel Mulhouse Airport before the flight to Barca. Just an aside; European airports have a beautiful charm about them and it is perfectly acceptable to sip a beer while waiting to catch your plane, something we diligently did. Soon after, we were onboard the around three-hour no-frills flight and couldn’t wait to land, especially since it was just us—no elders around!

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We flew over idyllic Swiss villages, snow-capped mountains, rivers, lakes, meadows and then a mostly flat, grassy landscape. I dozed off for a while before my sister shook me awake. She and I had made a pact that one of us would take the window seat while taking off, while the other would take it during the landing. Our brothers, far more experienced travellers, were happy to let us do our thing. And then came upon us the view we were waiting for!

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The stunningly sapphire blue Mediterranean sea completely hogged our fields of vision and our eyes drank it all in, not willing to look away even a second. It seemed for a while that the plane was suspended midair,  prolonging our exposure to the view, letting us look just a bit longer. This may well have been my imagination, but it sure seemed that way. The distant shore—pristine white, almost blindingly so—beckoned in its sunny seductiveness and the city beyond seemed to exude a thrumming, buzzing vibe even from hundreds of feet below us. The excitement was palpable inside the slightly-cramped easyJet plane which seemed to be mostly occupied by tourists like us. The descent began, that mesmerising sea getting closer and closer, making me want to dive right in and stay right there forever. Soon after we flew over the city and we could make out the distinct shapes of many landmarks we saw on Google, The Sagrada Familia prominent among them.

The Barcelona El-Prat Airport seemed far larger than the only other two airports in Europe we had seen up until then; Basel Mulhouse and Zurich. However, it had a very ‘industrial’ quality to it, not the warm, soothing environment of the other two. Nevertheless, the dazzling sun and cool breeze whipping our faces once we stepped outside invigorated immensely. Our uncle had booked an apartment close to the city centre for us to stay at,  called GIR80. We debated commuting by one of the many buses from the airport before deciding that a cab would in fact be more economical, at about 40 euros for the ride, as opposed to the bus because there were four of us traveling. The younger of our brothers, pretty proficient in Spanish, did the negotiating and soon we were in a cab heading speedily downtown. I was struck by just how different Spain was from Switzerland which was but a few hours away and also how similar it was to India. Colorful graffiti, both artistic and clumsy, was prominent, just like in Mumbai. The landscape and the vegetation also seemed familiar, and of course, there was the sun. once we entered the city proper, I noticed that the buildings too reminded me of the Victorian and Art Deco architecture of South Mumbai. The difference was that most of these buildings were actually well maintained.

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We reached Girona, the place our apartment block was located after, a lovely 15-minute drive. The check in was a couple of hours later and there we stood at the pavement, strolley bags in tow. Luckily for us, the city has quaint  roadside cafes at every nook and corner and there was one right outside the apartment. We made ourselves at home while a pretty waitress fussed over us warmly, handed out menus, and left us to choose. It was a beautiful sunny day, the sky was cerulean blue, the breeze was like one would experience at many of the sunset points in Mahabaleshwar or Lonavala. We were in great spirits and the elder of our brothers suggested getting champagne to celebrate the trip, and so we did. We ordered an assortment of dishes, among them paella. This was he first time my sister and I were sampling the dish and we could not wait. ‘Ooohs’ and ‘aahs’ greeted its arrival at our table as it was a veritable visual treat. The champagne was soon uncorked and we tucked in. The flavour was not what we expected, but it was delicious nonetheless; a perfect umami hit, it smacked of the sea because of the plump prawns and their juices. The lemon wedges on top were yet another reminder of India.

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There is an unhurried, relaxed pace to the city, despite it being a busy metropolis, and one can happily while away a few hours at a roadside café chatting, soaking in the Spanish sun (I realise I am talking about the sun a lot, but it was my ideal kind of weather!)

We people-watched, and my oh my, the Spanish men are REALLY handsome!

We noticed a lot of people travel by bicycle. It is easy to do so as there are designated tracks on the well-maintained roads especially for cyclists and people follow traffic rules with absolute diligence. We also saw a lot of high-end motorbikes here and several people whizzed by on the push-along kind of scooters as well. Then I started looking around at the buildings closely. Many homes’ balconies had the flag of Catalonia displayed proudly, and this was quite surprising for me, as a person coming from a country where one certainly cannot display the tricolour as they wish.

After a leisurely lunch lasting over two hours, we were able to check in to the lovely one-bedroom apartment which looked like this:

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Barcelona is full of well-furnished, neat and tidy little apartments like this, and ours even had a balcony facing several other apartment blocks. The kitchen had a 6-point stove, a microwave, several pots, pans, plates, spoons, kitchens, knives, the works. One oddity was the bathroom door which did not have a lockable knob so we had to inform each other every time we had to use it. Barring that, however, the apartment was perfect to live in for a three-day trip.

After freshening up, we consulted a map of the city and marked out which places were must visits and which we could afford to miss. We decided to visit the Arc de Triomf that evening and then go onto the famous La Rambla. Walking was to be our mode of transport, both to save money and also properly soak in the city’s culture; at least as much was possible in the limited time we had there. I am terrible at reading maps (frankly I don’t even try to) , so much so that I only recently learned how to navigate the extremely simple Google Maps. So our brothers did all the guiding while me and my sister were busy looking at every single building, vehicle, person, animal, shop, and object we could feast our eyes open. Pictures were taken at almost every few steps, such was the beauty of the city.

After a walk of about 30 minutes, passing by several tapas places, ‘Tabacs’ or shops selling a huge variety of tobacco products, department stores and the like, we reached the majestic Arc de Triomf.

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The beautiful arch was built by architect Josep Vilaseca i Casanovas as the main access gate for the 1888 Barcelona World Fair, according to Wikipedia. Hundreds of tourists thronged the structure. I tried to let my eyes rest over every visible facet of the archway, to appreciate the spectacular beauty as best as I could. For me, this was even more beautiful than the more famous Arc de Triomphe in Paris which we also visited during the trip. We went on under the archway to explore the stunning gardens beyond. I don’t remember the name of the gardens but I do recall seeing thousands of people there sprawled on the grass, sitting on benches, rollerblading, and generally having a swell time. The gardens were full of lovely statues and fountains; I remember wishing we could actually set up a tent there and camp for the night.

We then headed off to La Rambla, the incredibly popular promenade full of souvenir shops, cafes, restaurants, street artists and thousands of tourists. It is a fairly long promenade and we decided to get dinner at one of the cafes itself after which we had some really delicious ice-cream. The sheer variety of ice-creams available at roadside stalls here is astounding and to say that choosing a flavour was one of the biggest struggles I may have ever faced would not be an understatement.

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                  That’s a heavenly Bubblegum-Nutella combination

 

Sauntering further along, we reached the Port de Barcelona, and my! It was truly a sight to behold with the water shimmering like black plate glass, hundreds of docked boats in various sizes, and a long walkabout from which to admire the view.

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View from the pier

 

The cool night breeze, the all-around pleasant atmosphere, and the absolute beauty of the place were a soothing balm to frazzled nerves and it wasn’t until well past midnight that we started to head back to the apartment.

The next day, after a long, deep sleep, we planned our itinerary again and decided to visit what is arguably the city’s most iconic landmark, found engraved on keychains, printed on bags and T-shirts, and etched onto magnets; the Sagrada Familia. It was a hot sunny day and the walk was a good 20 minutes away but we could see the spires from a long way off, so huge was the still-under construction structure. Soon enough, there it was in all its glory-the great Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece.

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As is often the case, pictures don’t do justice to the magnificence of a mammoth structure like this. Especially so when pictures are taken on a phone and not even a proper camera. The tallest spires are, I think, as tall as a 50-storey building would be. I won’t pretend to know the architectural terms used to describe medieval buildings, suffice to say that we were gobsmacked at the sheer size, the scale to which this was built, and the intricate gargoyles all over it. We chose not to go inside as the queues were about a hundred-people long and we had much more of the city to explore. We walked away after buying a few magnets and postcards for friends back home and some more of the delicious ice-cream from a nearby stall.

About a half hour more of walking around the city and we were ravenous. Yet another street café beckoned invitingly and we settled down to order variety plates of bacon, squid, and chicken with chips along with beers, a strawberry caprioska and a flavoured mojito.

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I wouldn’t say this was the most delicious meal we had here–that honour goes to tubs of Cookie Dough and Chocolate Brownie Ben & Jerry’s eaten in one night—as some of the meats were too chewy and under-seasoned for our liking. Nevertheless, it was all very filling and fuelled us enough to make the long, long walk to Park Guell, another city landmark by the long-dead but omnipresent Gaudi.

I have mentioned before that I am bad with maps so I did not even try to help navigate. However, the walk seemed so long it seemed at times that even our brothers-experienced navigators-seemed a bit lost. It truly seemed like we had covered half the city on foot before we reached the rock garden near (or part of, I’m not sure) Park Guell. The rock garden itself was quite beautiful, though if I must be honest, it does not really hold a candle to the one in Chandigarh, for example. A pleasant mini-trek later we reached the topmost part of the garden where the real action was. Dozens of families and tourists groups frolicked there with their pets, and we saw several greyhounds, pinschers, and Labradors running amok while their owners clicked pictures of the view. And the view…sorry THE VIEW!

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The city and the sea

 

The view was a stunning expanse of the city spread out as far as the eye could see, bordering into that enticing Mediterranean. We tried to pinpoint where our apartment could be—I am sure we were way off the mark, but what was the harm in trying?—and took as many pictures as we could. After a long drawn out session of admiring the view, we headed back downwards.

We did not enter Park Guell proper as the tickets—at 16 euros per head if I remember correctly—seemed a bit much. But we did get to see a good glimpse of the colourful mosaic patterns it is so well known for. Once we got back down to ground level, we explored a bunch of really attractive souvenir shops which stocked myriad magnets, t-shirts, windchimes, pens and pencils, caps, sombrero hats and those frilly fans typical of Flamenco dancers.

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We had a late lunch in a café in one of the winding alleys near Park Guell before trooping back to the apartment. Our legs were crying out for some rest and it was a good few hours before we contemplated going out for the evening; this was mostly to buy groceries and cook delicious meals of sausage-omelettes, noodles, fries, and the like. We also bought cans of juice, some vodka, some Coke and proceeded to create all manner of oddly delicious concoctions and attempt to play Monopoly before we gave in to the exhaustion and slept soundly.

The following day was our last in Barcelona and we had begun to feel sad already; this was such a beautiful city. We had a flight back to Basel in the afternoon and there wasn’t much time to go exploring. We decided we would go to La Rambla once again and time permitting, the Barcelonata Beach. We cleaned up the apartment best as we could, not wanting to leave it unkempt for the housekeeping staff. Heading out of the apartment for the last time, bags in tow, it was decided that we would store them in a city locker near the Place de Catalunya and collect them before heading to the airport. It took us some searching but we finally found the storage place, deposited the bags, and strode off to La Rambla.

Once again, we walked down that beautiful street, so different in the daytime yet just as lovely as in the night. We also spotted a few seemingly drunk youngsters, obviously Barca fans from their jerseys, jeering and hollering outside a Real Madrid football store. After a long walk during which we swilled ‘orange juice’ from a bottle, we sat at yet another of the al-fresco cafes and ordered tapas-FINALLY-along with mains of burgers and pasta and an absolutely delicious sangria for me.

pasta-5332522463450104955After we were done with lunch, we headed to Barcelonata beach which was another very long walk away. As one gets closer to the beach, the buildings got more and more modern looking with glass and chrome-plated exteriors. The cooler breeze promised the sea was nearby but we took quite a while and a few wrong turns to finally get there. Once we did though, it was like the tiredness vanished and I wished I had worn more swim-appropriate clothing. The water was a stunning blue, the sand milky white—all the clichés that go with describing beaches like these. I had never seen sand so white and clean, and water so blindingly blue before—and haven’t until date.

image (4)1We stepped into the surprisingly cold water for a while, splashed around a little, and yet again wished we had worn clothes we could swim in. We also wished we had more time there, much more than we got. However, we had to head back soon, collect our bags and leave for the airport. We prolonged our trip to the beach as much as was possible by walking down the coast, breathing in the salty sea breeze, letting the wind blow our hair into an untidy mess, checking out the beach outfits sported by many of the tanned, athletic looking men and women there. We bought a mojito from a vendor nearby and it remains the most delicious one I have ever tasted; crisp, very lemony, very minty, with just a hint of salt and some spice I could not identify. Soon, we really were getting late and had to rush back to Place de Catalunya, get our bags, and jump into a cab for the airport.

As we were speedily driven out of this beautiful city, we were very quiet. My sister and I especially so. We knew we wouldn’t be able to make a trip here again anytime soon and the sadness that realisation evoked was something we had to process for ourselves, in our own ways.

At the airport, we looked back one last time at the surrounding landscape, taking mental photographs every second, before heading inwards and eventually boarding the flight back. I got the window seat while taking off this time, and as we ascended, I took one last picture atop the clouds.

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Bye bye Barcelona, you beauty. Until the next time…

 

Chronicles of my Bahubali mania

24.06.2017

 

It is a rainy afternoon, typical of late June in Mumbai. I have just returned home after watching a movie and am in high spirits.

 

My sister, lying in bed next to me, hears me rave about how I enjoyed myself watching this movie. I said “I might just watch it again tomorrow. Do you want to come with me?”. I knew what her answer would be before I even asked. She was far more interested in her Snapchat and gave me a syrupy sweet “no, thanks” in reply.

I couldn’t say I blamed her.

We were quiet for sometime and she suddenly asks me, “How many times have you watched it, by the way?”

I bury my head into the pillow and don’t answer. My sister is suddenly very alert and her attention is more focussed on me than her Snapchat. “Tia, tell me? How many times?” in a more assertive tone.

In the meanwhile, I am busy doing my impersonation of an ostrich, head buried in the pillow, believing that if I ignore the question, she will leave me alone. Sadly, I am not so lucky.

“HOW MANY TIMES?” she repeats.

 

“Ten” I mumble and bury my head right back into the pillow, trying to bury my ears in it too, hoping to muffle the sound of her sharp “WHAT?!!” in response.

 

My sister is quite the bulldog in her persistence and does not pick up on my reluctance in pursuing this topic further. She is also very grammatically astute, following the 5Ws and 1H rule quickly, with “HOW?” and “WHEN” and shortly after, loudest of them all, a “WHY???”

 

She does not need to ask me a “WHICH” though, because she knows exactly which movie it was. The movie I am in so much awe of, I get actual dreams of it almost every single night: Bahubali 2.

 

When the first movie of the franchise was released in October 2015, there was a lot of hullabaloo among hordes of movie-goers, with almost everyone speaking of it in reverential tones. “Katappa ne Bahubali ko kyu maara?” was the frenzied refrain, and most of my friends were shocked that I hadn’t watched it. Somehow, I never felt interested and eventually the mania passed.

Cut to May 30, 2016. I was onboard a Swiss Airways flight, returning to Mumbai after a spectacular Europe trip lasting two weeks. I attempted to watch ‘101 Dalmations’ and a few episodes of the ‘Big Bang Theory’ to pass the time, but either the visuals were wonky or the sound quality was bad. Bored, I looked through the Hindi movies on offer for in-flight entertainment. A pretty lacklustre list, for the most part. Then I saw Bahubali: The Beginning. I thought to myself “There are over six hours to go before we reach, and I am bored as hell. Might as well just watch this and get it over with. Everyone I know seems to have watched it. At the very least, I can ogle at Prabhas and Rana” and started the movie.

 

What followed though blew my mind away. Won’t delve deep into this movie as my piece is about the sequel. But barring a few overtly dramatic scenes and of course, the infamous ‘Rape of Avantika’, the movie knocked my socks off.

A little context here. For the longest time, 12 years to be precise, my favorite movie of all time then was Troy. I don’t claim to be an avid moviegoer like some of my friends who have 1 TB hard drives full of them. However, I have watched several movies and for me, Troy—a war movie—was my ultimate favorite. So I love war movies, basically.

 

Bahubali 1 ticked all the boxes for me in that aspect; gripping storyline, well-executed action scenes, memorable characters, and best of all, it ended on a masterful cliffhanger. By the time I finished watching it, I finally understood all the mania. I understood just WHY everyone—barring mostly the highbrow ‘intellectuals’—-had gone absolute bonkers over the movie. “why, why, WHY did Kattappa kill Bahubali, WHYYYY?” I felt like screaming. The question as to why someone would kill a kind, gold-hearted man like Amarendra Bahubali, as also HOW someone could kill a warrior as skilled as he plagued my mind lesser than the question as to why Kattappa, the royal slave warrior who raised him like a son, killed him. Of all people.

 

Suddenly, I simply HAD to share this. My sister was sitting right behind me, and was happily occupied in what some would call a more sensible pastime. She was constantly monitoring what countries we flew over and what altitude we were at. I peeked back and her and said with a palpable urgency in my voice “Watch Bahubali, watch it. It is AMAZING”. I don’t think she was all that keen but she watched it nevertheless as she knew I wouldn’t leave her alone otherwise. In the meanwhile, I started watching the movie all over again. Yes, that’s how I am.

 

Fast forward about two-and-a-half hours, my sister says “what excellent graphics” in a very sarcastic tone. I agree, apart from the ‘Jalparvat’, the graphics could have been much better. But I have always been an optimist, so I chose to completely ignore that and concentrate on the storyline, which for me, was more than enough. My sister was unimpressed. I ignored her, not wishing to argue, as we were soon to land.

 

Fast forward to Apr 28, 2017. D-day had arrived for all Bahubali fans. A few people from the office had booked tickets for an early-morning Telugu show and asked me if I wanted to tag along but I opted out since I don’t understand the language and I wanted to enjoy-nay, SAVOR-the experience fully without language being a barrier. I chose to book tickets for the next day, gritted my teeth and tamped down my envy as the office gang returned and raved about it endlessly.

 

Cut to the next day, a Saturday obviously. I woke up with a terrible headache, having been out with siblings and friends to celebrate a much-coveted promotion. The fact that I had gone a bit, umm, over-the-top with my partying the previous night did not deter me. I was still in bed and opened Bookmyshow to check out the show timings in cinemas nearby. Most shows were fully booked and the ticket prices escalated with each show. I was fully prepared to go alone, the ticket amount did not matter to me one bit. But my sister offered to accompany me, much to my delight. She wasn’t keen on the movie, but the prospect of sitting idle at home did not appeal to her very much so it was more like a ‘oh what the hell, I’ll just go along’ thing with her. We booked a show for the afternoon, tickets at 380 rupees a pop at a cinema which usually charged a maximum of 200 rupees per ticket.

 

When we reached the plex, the first sight that greeted us was the sheer NUMBER of people milling around. It was obvious which movie all the crowd was present for, and it added fuel to my already buzzing adrenaline levels. It was like blood lust. The anticipation was almost too much for me to handle and I physically started to shiver with the excitement.

 

The cinema hall was packed. It was the first time I sat so close to the screen, about 6-7 rows away from it. All the tickets at the back were booked and we had been very lucky to get two seats together, after looking at seating arrangements in at least 5-6 different shows.

 

The credits roll began. Whoever has watched the movie on the big screen will remember just how long the list of sponsors and marketing collaborators was. It was clear that a good deal of money had been splashed out on the film.

 

After the list ended (perhaps after a full two minutes!)came the opening song. And oh my, WHAT an opening song!

 

Shivam/Oka Praanam (in Telugu) was unusual, to the say the least. Unusual and very, very effective when it came to introducing each character of the movie and tying the first to the second, serving as a refresher course of all that had transpired. Life-size, porcelain 3-D statues of primary characters with the lyrics matching each perfectly. The first shot of the song, with Sivagami’s hand holding baby Mahendra above the water, the flesh and bone underneath exposed, burst into screen with the background score of ‘Balidaano, Aahution’ ,translating to sacrifice, offerings (to a sacred fire)—sheer perfection, for sacrifice was what it was. Kala Bhairav’s voice and his father Keeravani’s score—killer combination! The song, credits reel still rolling, continued to play, with defining scenes like Devasena chained in the palace courtyard, Bhalla wrestling the massive bull, Shivu shooting the arrow into the tree trunk atop the ‘Dhivara’ waterfall, dangling midair, Shivu/a grown Mahendra placing his foot on Kattappa’s head, with perfectly-timed lightning and thunder claps complementing the scene perfectly. Shivam ended with the most defining scene of all—Kattappa, head lowered, with his sword thrust deep in Bahubali’s back, prompting an immediate reaction of goosebumps. The song was pure perfection and set the scene for the visual extravaganza that was to follow.

 

The opening sequence does a brilliant job. Not only because it leads up to Prabhas’/Amarendra Bahubali’s introduction, but also as it establishes so many things which connect the movie and serve as delicious plot points. The rakshas-dehen utsav, meaning the festival for killing the demon, requires the daughter-in-law of the royal family to walk a long distance to a temple in the forest, barefoot, without stopping even once, in order to set fire to a demon’s effigy and symbolically rid the kingdom of all evil. Queen Mother Sivagami undertakes the ritual, royal entourage in tow, and her first scene is one wherein she has a pot of hot coals on her head, walking at a determined pace, eyes blazing, even as her feet are bloodied and cracked. This establishes her character as a tough, tenacious woman who will do anything for the benefit of the kingdom, even if it harms her personally; a plot point for what is to transpire much later in the movie.

 

The village crowd is cheering her on and all the clamour has agitated a huge elephant, who—trumpeting loudly—pulls off the mahout on its back and tramples him to the ground before setting off on a rampage. The film starts on a violent note, there is virtually nothing to prepare you for it. A stark contradiction from the first movie, which is based in a tranquil forest village at the foot of a huge waterfall, and is largely peaceful and idyllic for roughly the first half an hour. The contradiction between both movies plays out beautifully as the first begins on a happy, peaceful note and ends with a scene that anguishes everyone, while the second begins with violence and ends with peace. Of course there is happy ending. Everyone loves a happy ending.

 

Anyway, back to the stampeding elephant. Another plot point follows soon after. Sivagami asks the faithful Kattappa, ever by her side, to lead the crowds away to safety. Kattappa is chagrined at first, says he cannot leave her alone. What follows is the terse order “Jo kahaa gaya woh karo, Kattappa” and he obliges immediately. The scene serves the purpose perfectly, even more so than the scene in the first movie where Kattappa is actually introduced in present day, to highlight his unflinching loyalty and obedience to orders given by the royal family of Mahishmati. The very sense of obedience that turns out to be his Achilles’ Heel later on.

 

The elephant, in the meanwhile, has uprooted a mandap and overturned it in its rage, and is now hurtling along towards Sivagami. She is unfazed and continues to walk towards the temple, which is where the elephant originally stood. Just as the beast seems to be within 10-20 yards’ distance from her, a heretofore unseen wooden door is shown crashing open and falling to the ground, and a cloud of dust rises. The dust clears to reveal—of course—our hero Prabhas, holding a huge temple cart and pulling it forward all by himself with his signature tone of ‘Heysa Rudrassa’ in the background. A Google search reveals, in mishmash, that ‘Heysa Rudrassa’ is a war cry in Sanskrit, meaning ‘all hail the God of war, Lightning personified’. This tune is to be his signature background score in every scene that he is doing something exceptionally heroic, usually in times of war, and only once in a scene which is not a war scene but just as iconic, if not more than the others. I will come to it later.

 

Amarendra drags the cart along, just in time to dash it into the elephant and prevent it from trampling Sivagami, and the camera pans to the middle portion of the cart which is hollow, allowing her to pass underneath it without stopping, as is the aim. The crowd cheers like crazy. Bahubali has managed the impossible again. The camera then pans upwards to show a figure of Lord Ganesha on the cart, Prabhas at its feet. Some may say the scene is very massy, the usage of Ganesha is very filmy, as He is the Elephant God and stopped the stampeding elephant. But Ganesha is also the remover of obstacles, and I feel it was entirely apt. Amarendra then pours a pot of turmeric over the elephant’s head, calming down the beast who does not seem to be injured, thankfully, and it sits down, tame as a kitten.

 

Daler Mehendi’s boisterous voice—simply perfect for the song—then bursts forth into the title track, with Amarendra jumping off the cart and grinning at Sivagami who has continued to walk ahead towards the temple. Prabhas does a fabulous job with his expressions here. His face is a mixture of cockiness and an endearing ‘Look what I just did, mom!’. It is after she gives him an approving smile that he turns to look at the elephant, touch it tenderly on the head and commands it to stand. It does so willingly, even offering him its trunk to use as a step for climbing atop after which the crowd cheers again.

 

It’s a riveting opening sequence. It establishes the hero as a powerful man, a creative problem-solver, a loving son and a to-be king loved by the masses. All of these factors either have been or will be important to the plot over both movies.

 

This is followed by the title song; a montage of past and present—the Kalakeya battle and his way of protecting the commoner prisoners-of-war from the first movie, and him riding horseback, picking lotuses from a pond, emerging from the crowds while mother Sivagami distributes clothes to the poor, two kids on his shoulders to present the flowers to her, him striding, brilliantly-sculpted torso shown off to perfection, arms glistening as he engages in sword practice—in the present. It is unabashed Prabhas porn, an ode to someone so larger-than-life yet down-to-earth. And nobody seems to be complaining.

 

Three principal movie characters have been shown so far, each having gotten an introduction for the second time. Notably, in the first movie, Sivagami is introduced as a forceful, magnetic character. She quells any opposition by the sheer force of her personality. In the second, the force of the personality is still there. This time it is far mellower, yet strangely just as powerful.

 

Even the evil Bijjaldeva (Nasser) gets a proper introduction this time. In the first, he is shown first as a prince, seething with anger and envy at having lost the throne to his younger brother, and then as an old man and primary sycophant to the main antagonist, his son Bhallaldeva (Rana). Yet in the second, he gets his chance to shine, in his own way. Destroying the pillar with his non-crippled hand, he is hammy and hackneyed as it can get. However, this too serves as a good introduction scene as it shows the audience just how much anger he still carries in him and how that very rage goes on to destroy the lives of nearly everyone in the film.

Curiously, Bhalla does not get an introduction scene in this movie. It led me to wonder whether this was deliberate on director Rajamouli’s part, to give the antagonists only one introduction. In the first movie of course, there is the bull-taming scene. Rana, incredibly powerful and ruthless, showing off his marvellously-toned back before proceeding to fight head-to-head with a massive bull before killing it with a perfectly-aimed knock which breaks its neck.

 

However, having watched the movie several times ever since, I am inclined to believe that his introduction in movie two is just as powerful as the first.

 

In the first, his physical prowess is highlighted; in the second, his mental acumen. Bijjala is furious, drunk with a potent mix of wine and burning envy. He is expressing his desire to kill Sivagami with his bare hands because she has decided to crown Bahubali the emperor, choosing him over biological son Bhalla while the gang of cronies—the chief priest, a few ministers and the ‘dandanayak’ Setupati—look on in horror. He asks Bhalla if they should kill her. For an awful moment, as Bhalla looks into his father’s eyes, he actually seems to be considering it. We know he is evil and it is possible that he might agree to it. Those who haven’t watched the first movie though might get confused, as he takes a fairly long time to reply. When he does, a simple “ye aapki madira bol rahi hai, pitaji (it is the drink talking)” is all he says before keeping the goblet aside. One may wonder if he has actually reformed. It is only later than one realises what a brilliant strategist he is; biding his time, plotting all along, using his knowledge of everyone’s strengths and weaknesses to serve his end goal. And boy, does it work!

 

The ball is rolling. Sivagami has asked Baahu to undertake a deshyaatan (tour of the kingdom) before his coronation, so as to see the state of affairs and get an idea of the issues he needs to address once crowned. Kattappa is asked to accompany him and they set off touring several villages and bustling marketplaces. They come upon a pond in the midst of a serene meadow and stop to take a break, and everything seems perfect for a while, before we see a dead man’s head bobbing in the water. Soon, about a hundred bodies are shown floating. Kattappa tells Baahu these are victims of a marauding swarm of bandits called the Pindaris who don’t just stop at looting villages, but also kill all the inhabitants and give them a watery grave. I choose not to go too much into detail here for two reasons; one, this is a plot point too, a MAJOR one. And two, my impatience has bubbled to the fore as one of my favorite scenes is upcoming!!

 

Baahu and Kattappa have reached a clearing in the woods which seems like the outskirts of a village/town. There is a well and several villagers milling about, minding their business. Baahu and Kattappa are lounging about when a procession of about two dozen men bearing a palanquin comes along. The procession is led by a pompous-looking nobleman (Subbaraju, excellent!)who brushes Kattappa aside rudely when he tries to ask who they are. The men set the palanquin under a canopied stone structure. Baahu is intrigued, he can see the outline of a pretty woman behind the white veil. The smile on his face is like that of a baby, pure and frank; he likes what he sees and has no qualms making that obvious. Before he can approach or anything else can happen, there are screams and people running helter-skelter. The men in the procession turn out to be armed soldiers, fully prepared for this; a group of bandits is attacking the village and they have to fight them off. A fierce battle ensues but Baahu and Kattappa don’t intervene as the soldiers seem to have the skirmish under control.

 

Four of these bandits, in the meanwhile, are running towards the palanquin. One can presume they are doing so with the intention to abduct the lady inside.

 

We are so used to filmy tropes that most people would expect this to be a classic case of damsel-in-distress rescued by knight-in-shining-armour–or in this case, rough cotton clothes (Baahu has changed out of his royal robes for the deshyatan, obviously)—before they fall in love and live happily ever after.

 

But no! Oh God, no! And here’s why I looooove this scene!

 

The woman in the palanquin has exited it in a trice, taking the veil with her. So fast, we literally cannot even see her for a while. The camera blinks here, unless I am mistaken, to highlight the speed of her action. We are then shown the woman from the back, waving the veil in front of herself to confound the attacking bandits. The manoeuvre works because the bandits are stumped. They cannot see their quarry and come too close, a fatal flaw. The next instant, she has cut her sword through the veil, piercing a bandit right in the heart and twisting in the point, revealing a pair of flashing, beautiful eyes at the same time. The background score for this scene is so damned good, I find it surreal. It is then that the camera shows Baahu, watching on the sidelines, drawing a sharp, deep breath while his jaw drops. The next moment she has cut through another portion of the veil to reveal her lips and then slashes the entire veil itself, in the process cutting down four bandits at once.

 

WHOAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!

 

WHAT an introduction. WHAT an introduction for a FEMALE character in an INDIAN movie!

 

The score at this time, the bloody score! It is so good, I cannot imagine there being a more perfect background score for a scene like this. The pieces of what was once a veil are now fluttering in the air, and a young Devasena (Anushka Shetty) is fully revealed in slow-mo. She is regal, beautiful, majestic, and oh, her face!!! A look of steely determination in her eyes, jaw clenched, long hair flying about. She is dressed in jewel tones of pink, blue and gold. She has worn jewelry too. These details are important.

 

To me, the fact that she does not look like a drab and hardened warrior (Tamannah in the first movie) but fully kitted out like the princess she is speaks volumes. She is a skilled warrior alright, does not need rescuing and is in fact better than most of the men around her when it comes to battle skills. At the same time, she has not sacrificed her ‘feminity’. She still dresses up, she likes looking good. And what’s wrong with that?

 

Devasena proceeds to back-kick a bandit in the face, before delivering a sharp right hook to another in the jaw.

 

What I love about this scene, apart from the FANTASTIC Devasena, is Baahu’s behaviour. He is a warrior par excellence. He could easily pitch in and nullify the attack within minutes. He does not. He continues to gape at Devasena. Gape is the wrong word. He looks transfixed, hypnotised as he watches. He knows she does not need rescuing. He recognises her abilities. This is so unlike most of the film heroes we have seen, growing up.

 

He then hears a rustling in the woods and sees people fleeing from there, screaming. He and Kattappa venture in and see about two dozen bandits prowling. What follows is a very well-executed fight sequence, Baahu and Kattappa working as a team, their movements perfectly in sync with each other and soon the problem has been dealt with, classic Baahu style. The way they fight in perfect tune with each other is yet another plot point, one that comes forth in the second half in a sad, sad scene.

 

I will stop with the scene-by-scene detailing here. I could gladly discuss each and every scene in the movie, examine the nuances and make interpretations. Although this movie may seem very straightforward in the sense that the storyline is the classic good-eventually-triumphs one, close examination reveals the sheer depth of each character, the superb attention to detail, and the many ways of looking at things. Director Rajamouli has done a brilliant job of giving us characters like these.

The symbolism and use of metaphors– not just in dialogues–but also in props and set design is extremely rich and begs to be unravelled in the course of long discussions. I have been part of just such discussions on a fantastic blog called dontcallitbollywood.com. I remember the day I found the blog, it was the same feeling of blood lust I felt before watching the movie. Here were several bright, knowledgeable people discussing the movie I loved so much in beautifully excruciating detail. I happily joined in those discussions and was able to garner good responses to my observations there. I never remembered ENJOYING film critique so much.

 

No, my post will not delve deeper into the film. The reason I stop here is because all the principal characters have now been formally introduced to us, though it takes two full films to do so. My favorite introduction is undoubtedly that of Devasena’s; as a middle-aged lady chained in the palace courtyard in the first, and a beautiful warrior princess in the second. I love her almost as much as I do Amarendra Bahubali. And I love his character very, very, very much. Prabhas is a big-ticket actor down south. He apparently devoted five full years to the movie, not signing any other film along the way, even refusing a Rs. 10-crore endorsement deal offered to him as he wanted to focus on the film. He enjoys tremendous goodwill in the industry and there are reports that many people offered him money for free, just to tide him over in the five years that he worked on these films. He refused, of course. In interviews he has said “In these five years I have been more of Bahubali than myself”.

 

Did it pay off? It rarely happens that a movie character becomes bigger than the actor himself. And here, that is exactly what has happened. This is an ode to a fantastic storyline, a flawless fellow star cast, and several high-octane scenes throughout the movie.

 

This brings me back to the one outlier scene which has the ‘Heysa Rudrassa’ theme as the background score. Like I mentioned, it is only used when Baahu is doing something heroic in heroic context; crashing the door open with a temple cart, riding atop bulls with flaming horns, etc. Barring one instance. The only time ‘Heysa Rudrassa’ is played in a non-fight sequence is when Baahu is striding into the packed courtroom in the second half of the movie, when his then (now?) heavily-pregnant wife Devasena was chained for having chopped off Army Commander Setupati’s fingers for trying to lay a hand on her, after having groped several village women.

 

On the surface, it is a non-fight scene. It is a packed courtroom, king Bhalla is presiding over judicial proceedings, Queen Mother Sivagami is supervising. One wouldn’t ordinarily expect violence to transpire here, yet Baahu has his hand on the hilt of his sword, a look of pure fury on his face at seeing his wife in chains. We know something huge is going to happen. What follows is Baahu’s version of instant justice. Heroic, in its own way. The ‘Heysa Rudrassa’ fits the theme perfectly.

 

To conclude, there are many reasons why people like this film. It gives us characters that are very good (Bahubali father-son duo, Devasena, Kattappa, Avantika), those that are very bad (Bhalla, Bijjala) and those who have shades of grey (Sivagami). In many ways, it is this very ‘grey’ character Sivagami who drives the film. It is very much like the Amar Chitra Katha books of our childhood. A hero dies a wrongful, untimely death, his wife is then held captive for a quarter of a century, his mother is killed but she manages to save his infant heir who then avenges all the wrongdoing that has transpired. The story isn’t new by any means, but the way it is told definitely is. It is no wonder that the movie has raked in pots of money for its makers and catapulted Tollywood stars to national, no, international fame. Prabhas now has his own wax statue. This is telling of what a sheer masterpiece it is.

 

01.07.2017

 

My sister offered to watch the movie with me one last time on the big screen before it was taken off theatres. It enjoyed an over two-month run in cinemas, demolishing several big Bollywood films that released along the way. I took my sister to Viviana in Thane, booked shows in its simply beautiful VIP hall, so as to end things on a high note. For the first time since I made her watch the movie, I saw my sister watching it avidly. She actually paid attention the nuances, the finer details.

 

Three hours later came the verdict I was desperate to hear from her, all those weeks: “I have to admit, this is actually a very good movie. I paid attention this time. It is definitely good”

 

The happiness that coursed through me at the time surprised me. The pride I felt, it was as if I made the movie myself. Like it was personal. Maybe it was. It touched me way too deeply, shook me to the core, a brain fever of a kind. I don’t think the fever will subside anytime soon. Not that I wish to recover anyway.