Arwa Penna, the author, poet, traveler, blogger and serial nut, has died aged 90. According to one of her few surviving friends, her last words were that death had taken its own time.
Work was her life and unspectacular in every way. But on retiring she began to travel, a taste of which she got during a three-year break from work. She trekked the Himalayas and ghats of Western India and travelled well into her 80s, resulting in books on travel, poetry and fiction, almost all of which was vigorously rejected by publishers.
Some of her poetry was published, but not well received. She was, as she said in an interview with the Telegraph, “Over the moon it was published, grateful for the crumbs of fame, and eventually crushed by the rejection and derisive criticism it attracted.”
After being widowed, she embarked, with some surprise, on a series of ‘indiscretions’ with men, all notably younger. As she said of her Syrian Christian self, “When I was young, I was repressed and inhibited. Strangely, in my dotage men seem to find me interesting, which is hugely flattering. What’s the harm in a pleasant distraction.”
The longest such distraction was a pint-sized Tunisian, a financial whiz and already in possession of a wife and a brood of children. The pair met frequently, sometimes in other countries, something Arwa attributed to keeping her on her toes, physically and emotionally.
She was a supporter of equal inheritance and property rights for women and equal rights in the workplace. In the 36 years of her career, she did not get a single promotion. A manager, later a friend, attributed it to her ‘voluble’ and ‘aggressive’ nature. In almost all the companies she worked with, she attempted to join their trade unions, perceived as a threat by their respective managements. One newspaper group, the Bombay Pavwalla, blocked her every application/attempt to join the union. The matter was taken to court and so fiercely fought that it proved to be the company’s undoing. It was eventually liquidated and the case was closed just before Arwa reached retirement at age 58.
Arwa’s constant fights with management, however, stole the shine from her real achievements. She got them to help nearby villages generate electricity, implement organic farming methods and helped create a crude form of co-operative farm insurance.
Arwa’s intense quirkiness came out in her writing and most aspects of her later life. At age 51, she embarked on a hiatus, trekking in the Himalayas, living off herbs, fruits and food offered by kindly villagers, sleeping in the rough, swimming the ice cold rivers and rejoicing the death of her menses.
At age 54, she broke her leg while running down the stairs at Dehradun railway station for a train to Bardhhaman, following which she decided to return to Mumbai. And get a job.
A number of consultancies led to a senior editorial role at an investment bank, where she managed to get a series 16 certification, something that had eluded her for more than 18 years in the industry.
At her retirement, she was gifted a gold-plated ball point pen and a copy of Jeffrey Archer’s Honour Among Thieves, both of which prominently sported price tags. She was not sure if the title was meant to mean anything. The book she had read before. She attributed the price tags and book choice to the careless attitude of modern corporates and the plastics manning them.
Saw this yesterday, on my way back from my walk. Yesterday was another light day where I was able to dash home a tad early and present myself at the walker's park. The eggs on a bicycle is not a common sight in Mumbai, but I have seen these fellows ride their bicycles, swaying dangerously, with larger stacks of eggs. I think this is going to be one of those sights that will disappear soon. I'm trying to catch, among other things, the tempos carrying milk cans and cows strolling the streets. I remember trips to Mumbai where they'd be sleeping in the middle of busy roads. It has not been a common sight for many years, but I think the beef ban in Maharashtra may make them think differently.
After a drought of good movies, some good ones came to Mumbai in a rush. I was lucky to catch one.
The first was Piku. Nicely
done. The anxieties of an ageing parent and the frustrations of a carer. I could empathise. I think the movie's a hit.
And on Saturday I tried to catch 'Playing it cool'. The show was cancelled. So I sadly bought a ticket for Bombay Velvet. I yawned and toyed with the idea of leaving, but had paid Rs300 for the ticket. Stiff. So I dreamt a little, saw popcorn jumping hoops and cold drinks running toward me with arms outstretched.
The guy on my right thought it was boring and rued the waste of Rs300 to a friend on the phone at the interval.
The two kooks on the left couldn't stop commenting. I think they were hoping for racy, but the movie fell short.
After which I was late for a friend's 50th birthday party, which was smashing. Lots of noisy kids, alleviated by a wicked game that involved blowing balloons and bursting them by sitting on them. Harder than one can imagine.
Saw my rickshaw driver staring at this lady getting on to her bike.... and I was hooked too. It's an Enfield Bullet. It is a big, heavy, manly bike and guys generally riding this are making a loud statement. Sort of like the roar the Harley makes. Not many women ride these big birds. I was so impressed. (18 May 2015)
I stared at her too.... till I lost sight of her. Go gurl.
In the last few days I have been tidying my cupboard, looking through old photos, trying to take pictures of old ones of my mom and her friends to post on Facebook.
Some years ago my sister left her photographs with me. She was moving countries and her home had been sold.
And while I always see the torn plastic packet I've stored them in, I rarely look at them. I do look, and then stop. It hurts too much to look at pictures of my parents. Not that I don't want to remember them, it's too hard. I still don't look at pictures of my dad's funeral and I haven't looked at the CD of my mum's.
Last week I opened the steel cupboard to look for something and decided to have a look at the photos.
There were pictures of my parents and of my brothers when they were in their 20s. My nephews as young babies and a lot of blurred ones. Hard to look at but difficult to throw away. You see, I've lost all the negatives -- a series of house moves, thefts at my parents' home. Yes, sometimes thieves like to steal photographs. Especially when they are related to you.
Now more than ever I look at the few pictures I have of my parents as young people and wonder why I can't see them that way -- with dreams, more interesting than any of their children, especially while remembering my dad's stories of his youth, the pranks he played. Each time I look at pictures dating to the 1950s and 1960s I wonder why they got lost and why we haven't got around to 'finding' them. If that makes any sense.
My mum (extreme left). I don't know who the others are. This is probably before she married and when she worked as a nurse in Bahrain. c.1950s. I am in awe of her when I look at this picture. She was intrepid, for sure.
My parents on their wedding day in 1959 in front of my mother's parents' home in Kerala. The old house was recently demolished to make way for a new one.