A Sunday in Maximum City

Covid times, else Colaba Causeway would have been chattering with street side bargaining and hustling. It has been years since I needed to go that way. I was in Bombay again and decided to head out to town. From the northern tip of the city to the southern most, it was a drive tracing familiar spots and watching the gobbling up of land by looming buildings and other such development plans along a depleted coast.

C.S.T. (V.T.) Station

The Western Express Highway has been undergoing a long labour of the metro line. It is beginning to take recognisable shape now. Hopefully, once done, it will ease the commute of the city’s dwellers but perhaps the need for it may not be as much as anticipated? It used to be common to spend a couple of hours inching along the highway during prepandemic days. I’d joke that it was faster to travel from Pune to Bombay than from Chembur to Borivili. These days, travel is faster although interrupted by nakabandis. It is good to see structure though with a neat canopy for the police force manning the barricades along with a well lit sign that lets people know the reason for the tardy flow of traffic.

The flyovers built over the years have made it a breeze without the usual density of vehicles. The Bandra Worli Sea Link brought back memories of my first Bombay Marathon. The event was one of dismay as a participant. After having run solitary all along, being corralled with nearly 20,000 people was claustrophobic. The ride on the bridge saw an intense desire to be back near the ocean. The sea is beautiful in all its seasons, its raw violence during the rainy months, the almost placid nature through tropical winter days and choppy waters on moody ones. And just then, there is such a deep longing to be living by the ocean, always with the call of its deepest heart. It is a dangerous beckoning at times, with it almost hynotic welcome. I could walk in and become seafoam.

Bandra Worli Sea Link

The Sea Link ejects into what is South Bombay with its prime real estate and iconic landmarks. The ride had a surreal feel to it with empty roads, empty beaches and downed shutters. The Queen’s Necklace is now the site of rapid work on the coastal project. I can’t help but feel a sense of dread, we’re eating into the sea. She will extract her price.

Marine Lines

I pass by places from long ago wanderings. Churches, art galleries, colleges, old residential buildings and hotels, libraries, heritage structures, large grounds and parks. Metro Cinema, Parsi Dairy, New Yorker, Air India building, Eros, Sterling, University, Kala Ghoda, Sassoon Docks, Afghan Church, US Club and a host of other spots that scream Bombay were part of the day’s meandering. It was a day when I was a tourist in the city of my youth. These were places I roamed on foot as a cash strapped teen, now I watched from the comfort of a car. Covid 19 has taken over the landscape not just in absences but also in the ubiquitous signs on hoardings, buses and even apps like the map. Covid hospital boards, screeching ambulances and vaccine drives make up the balance of the pandemic’s establishment in a cityscape.

Ballard Estate

We return via the bylanes of Bandra, cruising along the promenade. Bandstand, Chumbai, Carter Road, Khar Danda, Juhu with many images of different times. Bombay seems to have shrunk even as she has grown gaunt in the dizzying heights of her skyscrapers. She appears like a fading superstar, glittery yet tired. Maintaining a youthful facade is easy but you feel age in your bones, they become brittle. I see the cracking up of her hillsides, washed down in inelegant landslides that take a week to clear. But life still goes on, regardless of damaged property and lost lives.

The colony I grew up in still has trees, many of them around from my childhood. Just that morning, I watched a tableau play itself out, a squirrel running on a compound wall as a butterfly fluttered about. A crow sat on the gate and sun filtered through the canopy of a pipal tree. The pipal tree itself was slowly becoming sanctified even as multiple images and idols grew around its base. There was a shivling, a Sai Baba and an assortment of Saraswati and Vishnu pictures. Baby mushrooms were beginning to sprout in some of its crevices and the tree had all the potential to become a temple. Most people walked past oblivious to a drama that had so many actors. I love the sense of theatre in these unfoldings, it is almost as though I am the only one in a vast hall.

St Francis Ground, I.C. Colony

Mornings in this bustling suburb are full of birdsong, audible even over the AC’s humming. A pair of crows stop by for breakfast and sometimes return the favour with a piece of rotting fish. Houses in cities as these don’t leave much in terms of privacy and there is a studied ignoring even as every one is aware of activities in neighbouring apartments. Old men and women are efficient as watchers with an eye on the comings and goings of the neighbourhood but the extent of their endeavours extends to just the human species. And almost just as easily, I slip into the shadows, trying to escape those eyes. Vestigial habit.

Driving back home, the highway gave rise to an intense longing to be out on a long road trip. It is almost like walking as the slow changing scenes and almost cruise mode allow for the shifting mindscapes to spread themselves out rather luxuriously. It is strange, the pandemic has seen me pile on the miles more than any other time. I suppose the reason is having access to online classes, the physical ones kept me bound for 11 months a year. Another reason is a curious self realization which took over two decades to be apparent. Solitude is a great place for awakenings.

Mumbai Pune Expressway

Finding home

Lately the walks have been fewer and the ones I do end up carving out of my day have been under old trees. It is a relief after long work days. After a fair bit, I walked on city streets that were bustling with human activity, in a place where I lived in transit for over 2 decades.

But before that there was a long, happy drive on a highway. Those lanes are still not as busy as they were pre-pandemic and it was a pleasure to really zip past a lush and vibrant landscape. Windows down, happy music and the wind on my face. At one time, it was wind in my hair and it struck me that I’ve had short hair, really long hair, really short hair and then this bald pate. Every decade, a different way to wear my hair and the common thread has been convenience.

When the coffee mug met the mask

The drive was pleasant and the city traffic was light. So, I stopped by Amma’s place and had coffee with her. It was a surprise for her and both of us were happy. She’s quite old so it was socially distanced but seeing her felt good. I got chided for the baldness but it’s Amma and she’s always allowed to scold. Another hour or so later and I came to my mother’s house. It is not the same without her and there’s an ache at her not coming back to her home. There was nothing else to do so I went out for a walk on streets I haunted as a teenager. I walked past Sunset salon where I had a haircut the last time I was here (it was an interesting experience), down the pani puri wala’s spot, lukka corner, the lane with fading buildings of the quaint names that await redevelopment, an open-air boxing club at YMCA and back home.

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A few of those old structures have already been replaced by swanky looking new ones and the character of the entire place is changing. Saving these few images here of a time that will soon be erased like the lives it contained. It began a while back as reclaimed land gave rise to tall buildings .Were we meant to live so high up in the air?

I.C. Colony was predominantly a Catholic neighbourhood but there was a largish community of Malayali Syrian Christians too. The community was small and one knew everyone. It also meant a robust gossip culture but that has also withered. Bombay was both home and not home simultaneously. There was always a wanting to get away and the inevitability of coming back to the claustrophobia of cramped spaces. I passed BEST buses packed with damp bodies, trucks with men sprawled over sacks, limbs over sweaty limbs and vacant stares. I remembered local trains where I’d shrink into myself pretending there was an invisible bubble that shielded me from other bodies. It helped to be a whole head taller than the rest. Despite the discomfort, there was also a fondness of familiarity. Years later, it is nostalgia which washes all memories with softer hues. Maybe these are the last few trips to this city, there is very little left to bring me back.

Tomorrow, a sleepy little village by a river beckons. That’s a piece of land where my skin smiles and the heart sings. Maybe it is time to call that ocean kissed place – home.

A little bird sings

A myna’s picture made me wander down halls of R&B with two blind musicians even as the skies kept time with pelting raindrops. It turned a room of light into a space of liquid amber and rich voices from the past behind closed eyelids. And just like that a weekday afternoon transformed into a room textured with late night live music even as long columns of numbers stared out of a screen. Between sheets of data and rain, there was a drenching in memory too, one in particular. A night of good food, great music, sounds of conversation, balmy sea breeze and sun tanned bodies dancing without a care. The evening continues in a private club for one.

All this thanks to technology, that brought a little bird on my screen and flew me back in time, recent and way before…

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Had such a good time that night that I barely took any pictures. I don’t know if this is a replica of Mario Miranda’s art or a copy of his style.

Of friendships and flowers

A couple of evenings ago, a friend came over. We met after a few weeks. I love it when she calls to say, “I’m coming over, will have coffee.” While I prefer a strong shot of black, she prefers filter coffee and I enjoy the slow process of making it happen. The smell of coffee as boiling water is poured into the filter, the clang of tongs and the vessel as they are set down, the sound of milk coming to a boil and the whoosh as it settles down. Finally, the long pouring of coffee into two cups. It’s an incredible sensory experience.

S was the first friend I made in this city and as our tentative acquaintance found common ground, she and her family became mine too. Slowly, the pieces of our lives grew like a comfortable patchwork quilt.

She is an amazing culinary artist, we met over food on a now defunct food platform. It was an idea just a little before its time. I did a feature on her and in the course of our conversations, discovered that we shared a common love for flowers. There’s something about fresh stems which makes any living space light up. The last lot she got had yellow snapdragons, uncommon in the Pune market. Usually, it’s a mix of tuberoses, gladioli, liliums, chrysanthemums and whatever wild flowers are in season. Sometimes, we would toss it up with roses, carnations, orchids etc.

Once a week or fortnight, we’d head out to the market and lose our heads over the gorgeous blooms, always returning with more than we needed. Eventually, we got our quantities down to a pat and still later, we became even more efficient with one person shopping for the two of us. But that efficiency killed the slow mornings and unfolding of our selves. The couple of hours shopping, coming back and sorting the stems over coffee stretched to make space for sharing the travails of raising our kids, relationship challenges and work related issues. It took a backseat in the busyness of our work and chores. I suppose it is the case for almost all relationships, a ticking off check boxes in order to maintain them or appear to do so. Conversations can quickly settle into the nature of updates. People still meet for a meal or coffee but the spending of time doing an activity together has a different flavour.

Those unhurried times helped to strike roots in this city, perhaps not very deep but still strong enough to not have a sense of being in transit. Although there is a lack of attachment to the place, there’s an easy familiarity and love for its flowering trees, quiet stretches and laid back feel although it is a lot noisier and crowded now. Flowers make my heart smile, there’s something so full about them, especially those on trees and plants that have but one day of living but what a glorious day it is!

The most beautiful things in the world are at once simple and profound, like the heart of a flower. Most of my pleasures remain simple and freely available- flowers, birds, bugs, stones, trees, animals, water bodies, clouds and all things in the open. They gladden my heart and senses. Since lockdown, I’ve enjoyed their colours and scents in my little garden as well as the riotous burst on the streets. Summer is always a good time in Pune, the colours rising almost like a Mexican wave- purples, yellows, oranges, reds, whites.

From the garden today and a few lines from a while ago…

in a world without flowers
the world would know no colours
rainbows would grow pale and die

and dreams …
why dreams would be
shades of grey!

It’s been months since we bought flowers.

Power Off

One of the things I took for granted as someone who lived in Bombay for over two decades was 24/7 access to electric power. Pune was different as I discovered when I moved here a few years back. Once a week, usually on Thursdays, there would be an outage from about 10 in the morning to 5 in the evening. And in the monsoons, any time we had rain a little more than a drizzle, it would go off. I never figured out if it was a preventive act or one of a breakdown. It didn’t matter since I had backup which could power up lights and fans and charging points.

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the gulmohurs begin their descent

Yesterday, we had heavy winds and lashing rain and the power went out sometime in the morning. It was restored only post noon today, a little more than 24 hours without electricity. My current place has no backup and all the devices drained out quickly considering they were in use from 6 in the morning for class and work. Half written documents, notes and e-mails sat inside my screen and I shut the lid on them. Afterwards, I lay on my bed and watched the clouds hurtle past, the winds were really strong and it seemed like they were being herded along.

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looking out at the sky before it poured

One of the nice things about my present home is a small terrace balcony attached to my room. It faces a green patch and I wake up to an expanse of sky and treetops. The woods here have many winged creatures, both visiting and resident and it is a delight to watch them. There is a pair of grey hornbills that comes by sometimes and a family of 7 peafowls call it home. Some evenings they fly their bulk to the top branches of the trees as they prepare to rest for the night. This is in addition to a whole host of common birds like drongos, bulbuls, koels, sunbirds, crows, mynas etc.

But in the last few weeks, clouds have caught my fancy. They were always fun to watch but in the mood of these times, they also became a point of contemplation. I’ve been watching them lately and when there’s no distraction, it makes for a fascinating viewing. The white ones were sunbathing companions while the grey ones have been viewed best from my room. The edges diffuse, disintegrate and disappear into the sky, like the cracks between continents as they moved into the shapes we are familiar with today.

It made me think of disintegration. As I clean up the trail, I pick up plastic items in varying stages of decomposition. Plastics, paper, foil, cloth, laminated packs etc. all have a different rate of ageing and decay. It speaks of a passage of time and there’s a sense of measure I get looking at their state. Not so with the glass bottles and fragments. I did manage to salvage a few interesting looking bottles and they now hold greens in my house. The youngling was inspired enough to attempt a second oil painting looking at it one night.

And then I see the death and decomposition of dried leaves and flowers on the forest floor. First the intact dry crunchiness until it disappears into the soil, becoming part of the mud. But it takes time. Relationships also disintegrate- marriages, friendships, familial bonds too. It is just the nature of things, the blossoming, the dropping off, decay and disintegration and final disappearance. Sometimes it happens slowly, at other times fast but eventually if nothing else it disintegrates with the death of one or the other. In a larger context, there is breakdown whether in political or economic power. Old technology gives way for new and the cycle continues.

Rains are welcome after the heat but they are also a more introspective time. It feels like the middle of the monsoons right now with the grey skies and clammy weather. Perfect for adrak waali chai and bhajiyas. Maybe I’ll make some today. Yesterday was for snuggling under a blanket and reading the most delightful book, A man called Ove. I meant to read it after little K did but the book disappeared in the pile of her mad artisty things. It is such an endearing read, so much so that I sat by candle light to devour it until my eyes were tired.

 

Reading in that light reminded me of a few summer holidays at one of my aunt’s homes in Kerala. She lived near the beautiful Periyar river in one of the hillier districts in Kerala. As city children, we were enamoured with the lush green and flowing waters. The section near her house had a rocky river bed and the waters were so clear that we could see our bodies in it when we would bathe in it. In the distance, was a rolling hill and beyond a dense forest where elephants lived. The houses there were the last to receive electricity and as children we were equal parts fascinated and repulsed with the lack of modern conveniences. We were city kids who lived in sterile houses.

Now, I find a little longing for a similar slow existence but would I be able to live like that? One day is novelty but to actively choose such a way of life, I’m not sure I have it in me but then I’m not sure I don’t either. It does simplify life to its bare essentials and provides much time and space to live in rhythm with the day and seasons. There is more opportunity for a living meditation so to speak. Perhaps I might upgrade to such an existence, hopefully sooner rather than later but that’s still in a future and I don’t even know what today will unfurl.

There’s a bit of a cell phone declutter happening yet again and after the first couple of days, I wonder why do I go back after these month long breaks. The world is too much right now and knowing what’s happening doesn’t change anything.  All it does is make one spout updates. What does it add but empty noise to a screaming world? Life still goes on in its messy spirals whether one is relatively insulated from a pandemic and other violence or thrown right into its boiling centre. It is wearying and staying away from the onslaught of information has increased focus and concentration. Maybe this time could be better used to grow inwards and be of assistance in the most basic of ways, by a fuller presence.

Lavender

A fallen jasmine found hues of lavender decay

As a little girl, I would be mesmerized watching my mother getting ready for work or church. She would take her time choosing a saree and the right string of pearls to go with it. She would easily tame the six yards into tidy pleats and pin them up where they would rest obediently until it was time to come undone. Then would come the light dusting of compact powder and a change of jewelry if she felt like it. Last was always perfume. I’d watch her transform into this glamorous woman and gawk artlessly.

Later, when she was away, I’d rummage through the linen bag and wind her saree around myself trying to find her elegance. It never came. I grew into a lanky teenager, all long limbs and gauche, always falling short of the ideal of feminine elegance which remained her image. The first saree I ever wore was a deep purple silk for a school farewell and I remember being extremely self-conscious. One of the tallest in the grade, I stood a head above my classmates and on the fringes. It was both heady and excruciatingly painful grappling with the insecurities of that age.

A few years later, the saree became part of my everyday as a young mother. It was a handy garb especially when feeding a hungry baby, providing enough cover and doubling up as towel and sheet. I wore cottons and that preference has remained a constant. Clean, cool cottons. But once in a while, there is a breaking away to enter the flirtiness of chiffons or whimsy of lace or then the stateliness of silks. But that’s rare. Today is one such day with a lacy number that belonged to my mother. I loved this one over its pale pink twin, never quite imagining that I would one day be wrapped as effortlessly in its fluidity.

My mother turns a year older today and she has been excited about it like a little girl. She was quite harried as a working mother of three and back then it would be hard to see her let her hair down. It’s nice to see her liveliness now. Age and decay catch up and I remain keenly aware of the frailty of human minds and lives. Here today, gone tomorrow. A pandemic, old age and a decline in health are more than enough reasons to wonder if there will be a birthday next year. For now, she feels loved and special with all the wishes from family and friends and I am grateful that she is happy.

Early this morning, she got a little teary eyed when I wished her and I realized that the mother had now become the child. All I could do was to gather her unto myself.

Vintage lavender from about four decades ago

Remembering Forrest

The last couple of days have been a bit of a whirlwind as I got swept into some volunteering work. It got me musing about the ways in which I’ve navigated the decades. Perhaps, the decades have navigated my life instead. I’ve picked up jobs, skills and interests along the way and mostly been a bit of a rolling stone. Today, in between long calls, I found myself wondering how I came to be immersed with a group of people I have never met before and I saw Forrest flash before my eyes.

My first job was probably around the time the movie was released and since then, I’ve seen how living changed for an entire generation. Work, relationships, entertainment, health and through all of it the inevitable thread of technology that now connects all of our lives, individually and collectively. Under the isolation of lock down, there are strangers seeing each other and hearing each other over a screen trying to help other strangers. 25 years ago, we didn’t have mobile phones and now it is possible to conduct business on one. While I ride on its convenience, sometimes there is a desire to unplug and go back to a simpler way of being, one of real breathing connections. You know, the kind where you break bread and share a coffee and drink in the scents and textures of the day.

Forrest Gump has been a beloved movie since the first viewing and not just for Tom Hanks. It’s mostly for an almost unbearable sense of lightness in the quiet stillness of his character. I think he possibly epitomizes maitri, karuna, mudita and upeksha in his simpleton self. Not a mean bone in his body and always the hint of a smile although that seems more like a Tom Hanks trait rather than just that of his character in the film. But maybe I’m biased. 🙂  He runs through the years inevitably in the middle of all the key shifts of the different ages while being removed from it. In the world but not quite of it. Detachment at its best perhaps? Maybe one needs to be a child at heart always for that kind of being.

I love the gentle kindness in the way he relates with the people who weave in and out of his life, the way he cares for the troubled and vulnerable Jenny who finds it so hard to bear the incredible lightness of his love and her own returning love. Theirs is an unlikely friendship and love story, less a juxtaposition of simple and complex and more one of a shared childlike blossoming. The weight of her brokenness is a shard that repeatedly makes her run away until near the end. Love is unequal, I suppose, the lover always loving a little more than the beloved. And Forrest is all the more richer for it in his uncomplicated wholeness.

The movie invariably brings a whiff of nostalgia for my running days, especially the latter ones where the feet were bare and the runs were long. It’s an occasional sweet ache now, the memory of that runner and the road as the seasons rose and fell.  “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get” remains a delightful reminder about the randomness of life and a certain curiosity for its various tastes. Maybe it is time to unwind into the delights of an old favourite as light as the feather that opens and closes the film.

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Barely have any running pictures but think Forrest and it seemed fitting to find one of the rare few that some stranger clicked…

A perfect Thursday in January

One fine day, she rose early. The kitchen woke up under her fingers and she cooked for the day, simple nourishing food for two. Much later, she wrapped herself in cotton sunshine and went to an enchanted garden of old trees and pretty flowers. She found a pretty yellow shevanthi to call her own, a burst of happiness in a happy day.

She drank deeply of nature’s beauty and slowly found her way home. Along the way, a young friend joined her and they watched a movie they had begun a long time ago. They didn’t finish it and have made a date for Monday afternoon, away from the bustle of the city. They’ll sit below a sturdy old tree and finish what should have long been finished.

She went to say good bye and on her way back, stumbled on a delightful little patisserie. She got herself an indulgence, a perfect lemon tart with just the zing to celebrate the coming of spring. It was a perfect Thursday in January.

Tuesday with a shoebox of memories

A Tuesday morning spent in the company of an old shoe box with even older letters and cards.

This was written on a folded piece of paper by a friend who is a star herself. She was one of my early correspondents as I discovered how fragile and difficult adulting can be. Back then, the term didn’t exist but the suffering was real.

She died young but lived a full life of music, art and swimming with the dolphins. India was probably her soul home and she would spend 6 months at a stretch here before heading back to England.

The very last time I saw her was when she stopped by on her way home. She was quite poorly then but wouldn’t miss spending time here. As I type, I can see her bright eyes, freckled face and wisps of blonde hair bleached by the sun. Her arms were tanned and spotted with much sun and she radiated beauty.

Her letters lifted me up on days I struggled and now when I look back, I wonder what did she see in that barely 20 year old?

This particular line is so beautiful and is as true today as it was over 20 years ago. This one is for a new old sister of the heart who completes another trip around the star of our Solar System. Sending you love T, from a star in the skies. .

Forgotten summers

There’s still a summer from long ago in my forgotten lane. It finds a voice in the golawala’s bell that rings loud around noon, the proverbial pied piper’s music and children tumble out from buildings, helpless to the sweet-sour tastes of his golas.

His bottles line one end of the cart, a tantalising world of possibilities of colour and taste and the little humans fall under the spell of the array. Sometimes, they sneak out and at other times, they pester their folks no end till it’s just easier for the hot and bothered adults to say “go”.

My daughter is the same age as his, 11 and she asks if she can go and get a gola. Her need is so great and her suffering so huge that I smile and say ‘Yes’. The little mite gets me one too and we spend a summer afternoon in secret pleasure, our mouths stained the colours of wine and hearts filled with happiness. It’s a pleasure unlike any and brings back memories of sweet summers as a child. The heat doesn’t bother children, it’s just the adults who sweat and swear while the mercury rises. The kids just enjoy the season and make merry with crushed ice.

The other day, I asked the youngling about the golawala and her only important piece of information was that he gave free golas once a year to all the kids. It piqued my interest enough to want to know more about this man who so obviously seemed to love his job. I succumbed to the bell and ran down to catch him and find out who was this magical man. His name is Kailash like the mountain and I thought he couldn’t have had a more appropriate name.

Now, Kailash has been selling golas in the neighbourhood for 18 years. He plans to retire in a couple of years since he says, a man pushing a cart should work for only 20 years. If only, retiring was that easy for the rest of us. He came to the city from Jalgaon and joined his sister-in-law who had a cart. A few years later he branched out on his own. Perhaps, the birth of his son might have necessitated the need for independence and a little more money in the pocket. His son is 18 now and a college dropout. He works in a mall though and Kailash is a little sad that the boy hasn’t chosen to complete his degree. He has high hopes for his little girl and proudly says that he will educate her. “Main tho use padaoonga (I’ll educate her)”.

It’s a harsh life, selling golas in the punishing heat of Pune. There is also the added hardship of having his cart impounded by the municipality and the loss of business until he manages to release it or get another one. He sells anywhere between 50–100 golas a day and has no fixed income. He nets about 200–300 rupees a day and the family’s income is supplemented by his wife who also works. He used to work in a restaurant but prefers the freedom to be his own boss.

He sells golas for 10 months of the year. In the monsoons, he takes a break and sells butta (roasted corn) instead. He makes his own syrup and is proud to say that his concentrate stays as is for a year without getting spoilt. It’s basically a sugar concentrate which is cooked and left to cool before the fruit extract is added and mixed. The crushed ice is packed onto an ice-cream stick and swirled in the liquid before it is served.

I wonder if anyone else was interested in his life and day. He was happy to chat and had a smile even when not smiling. Perhaps, it was the honesty in his heart that shone through. I wonder if he went back home and told his family about a tall, lady in a saree who was mad enough to want to know about Kailash the golawala.

These are the magic people of our lives, the unsung heroes to our little children, the ones who make memories for them that they can turn to as adults. I know many mothers will be aghast at the thought of the unhygienic conditions etc. but none of the kids have fallen sick eating his colourful golas. Not yet.

Summer is gone and the rains are going. He’ll come again with his magical bottles and sunshine smile to create magic with ice and colour and you’ll be helpless and say, “bhaiyya, ek gola de do (Brother, please give me one gola)”