An Owl Reflects

Image Credit: PIXAR
Image Credit: PIXAR

I was born before I was born. All owls are.

True to the species, my fate was chiseled on ancient rocks by comets hurled from alien space. No one could change it after that, not even God. Certainly not father.

And every day before the sun rose in the eastern sky, my father’s pet clock with iridescent eyes and a dial blacker than night, shrieked the arrival of the hours to be dedicated to books. My sisters hated Switzerland with a rare zeal, the nation that begat Favre-Leuba, the watch makers who spun the little contraption – my father’s pride possession – that rained miseries on them in the wee hours, day after day, dawn after dawn.

Not knowing what it meant at the age of two, I joined my sisters in their heavy-lidded communion, of my own volition though I must admit. And this turned out to be the first milestone of a life full of blunders, devastating and chilling like the Arctic thunders. If only I knew what I had let loose!

Father’s happiness knew no bounds when he found his precocious little morning star sparkling brightly.  Believing me to be a blessing of Shiva, he soon slipped me into a river of Sanskrit shlokas. Not many years were needed before I could lisp complicated mantras, fluent like streams of mountain slopes.

“Nrityavasaane Natraajraajau Nanaadadhakkaam Navapanchvaram …!”

(Rapt in his cosmic dance the Lord of the Notorious Platoons
Twirled the damroo fourteen times to emit the primal tunes.)

 As a child, my father was fond of Sanskrit tomes. His father, suspecting a priestly syndrome, starved him of the cherished dream.  The deprivation grew into djinns that could be exorcised only through a male offspring. The girls of the household were quietly ruled out of the endeavour. Stacks of Vedas, Upnishads, Mahakavyas and Kaumudis, acquired in his later life, bid their time quietly, waiting for the day to lodge themselves between my ears. And how can my poor heart forget the vicious book of arithmetic, containing tables of numbers, some as weird as 0.75, 1.5, and 2.5?

And then there was this volume of Julius Caesar, its pages brownish yellow, renounced by its earlier master, a certain ‘Peter Pandey’, or this was what could be deduced from the inscription in pencil on the top right corner of the cover. Giddy from the choppy sea of Sanskrit Grammar, I’d turn to the Roman Tragedy, a placid lake to my parched soul. My imagination tingled with the business of the emperors and the senators, not to speak of the apparition.

Enter the Ghost of Caesar!

I was transfixed. And I was in love too! With apologies to Mr Peter Pandey, I quietly erased his Christian name one day replacing it with my utterly Hindu ‘Uma Shankar’ in a matching script. That indeed doesn’t tell you how bitterly I loathed being ‘Uma Shankar’, but then that is another stretched out story. Given a chance, I would have got myself renamed Mark Antony. I was in absolute awe of this General, this friend of the murdered Caesar:

‘O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to

Now who could speak like that in Sanskrit?

Life is not a bed of roses for anyone, more so for owls! For if I was a precious gem to my father, I had turned into a briar of thorn to the kids of the neighbourhood. I was presented as a touchstone against which they all had to be tested by their parents. Not that they were a bunch of dim-witted trolls, they hated to mug up things the way I would. Worse, my sisters started hating me for the royalty I was made out to be.

Many acts of the drama were played out at my early schools. If the teachers were awed by me, other children hated me for precisely the same reason. There was a secret mission to stealthily nudge me or even kick me on the sly. Yes, I was having both a bad time and a great time but I was never prepared for what would happen to me one day. Like the proverbial sacrificial goat, I was summoned to the Principal’s office where my father was already seated, beaming. After due deliberations, it was decided I was good enough to take the final examination of Grade II. I was made to jump two grades and they told me it was freedom from slugging out for two years. They ante-dated the incident of my birth suitably in the ledgers to cover up the scam –didn’t I tell you, I was born before I was born!

Earning two phantom years to my life was not a bad deal in itself except when it put me in the company of older and more hostile peers, including my elder sister who became my classmate in one swift stroke. Her world crashed as it brought terrible disgrace to her which would stay with her for the following three years till we went our separate ways; she went to an all-girls school and I was admitted to a full-fledged Sanskrit Pathshala.

I am not sure how much I hated father for forcing unrelenting tutors of Sanskrit down my scrawny throat. After all, it was a benign school that never raised an eyebrow when I bunked classes to watch Enter the Dragon. I worshiped Bruce Lee more than the Monkey God my father was fond of in a muted drawn-out revenge! But what hurt most was the fact that my friends went to proper Convent Schools, the naked truth that they tirelessly rubbed into my open wounds. Crestfallen, I would seek feeble refuge in the story of the Roman Emperor, written in lyrical passages I was not forced to cram. And I could recite the funeral speech of Mark Antony much better than the Barn Owl in a famous work by an infamous author, much later. Father was touched, as any father would be and he returned one evening with a brown parcel containing five Shakespearean plays. He was a gracious man, after all!

However, it was father’s weird hatred for the games children played in those days devoid of television, computer games and Facebook that floored us all the hardest. His eyes burned at the sight of a pack of cards or a chessboard or its modern manifestations in Ludos and carom boards. Weren’t they all the avatars of the age-old Shatranj which had brought bottomless doom upon the families of Pandavas and Kauravas?

But rebellion, like clouds, would find a shape in the strangest of lands and winds. We had sprouted a parallel world in the fringes of the idolized childhood screened from the so-called vices.  I was quietly included in the club of players adept in playing in shadows. Come dusk and a Ludo would appear out of the nothingness, as would a lopped set of playing cards, and the unfrequented backyards and terraces shrouded in darkness became hotbeds of insurgency. The games proceeded with missionary zeal in the general lack of light. Those were moments though when we all wished we were owls having night vision.  And over time, it was grudgingly acknowledged that I was the best owl of them all till it was discovered that I had an acute case of myopia! Soon, the optometrist with a benevolent nodding head found a perfect set of spectacles with a rounded frame for my ‘round face’. And it was many, many years before J. K. Rowling dreamt of Harry Potter. What was more readily acknowledged back then was how uncannily like an owl I looked, round glasses and all!

The glasses did earn me better visions and I developed renewed interest in the ‘English’ movies and skipping Sanskrit classes. The ticket sellers and the ushers of the two cinema halls running those shows would get concerned for my health if I didn’t show up often enough. But the glasses earned me a deprecating moniker too. I had become ‘Chashmuddeen’ overnight – an excrement of glasses!

Fortunately for me, when the local optometrist upgraded himself to a contact lens specialist, he gave me a pair too, much to the dismay of the rascals who didn’t have a clue to what had happened. So they switched back to calling me an ‘Owl’ because of the wide-eyed look I had.

Today, as life continues to bedraggle me with recurring hailstorms, I yearn to look straight and deep through the viewfinders of my beloved cameras. And as Time continues to take its toll on the rods and cones of my eyes, how I wish I were indeed an owl who could match the low light capabilities of the new age DSLRs.


  1. Its a treat to read whatever you pen down. Your prose has a breadth and depth to die for. I wonder how you became a banker. I mean how can you play with words and numbers both?
    And UmaShankar is any day better than more contemporary Robert…

    1. Alka, I can never stop thanking you for those kind words., especially coming from an author of your standing. And I hereby confess to you that my job has been extracting more than its fair share of my flesh, but it does take care of the daily bread, nonetheless. I do keep dreaming about the day when I will be just writing….

      And isn’t Robert a name to die for?!

  2. Good to see you write a normal post after an array of book reviews. Excellent post Uma Shankar, straight from the heart.

  3. Spell bound and over whelmed with words is all I can say. I had to think so much to comment on this one. your prose sounds like poetry. I turned off the grinder, dishwasher and put my ph in silent to savour the fragrance of your nostalgic moments expressed so wonderfully. A delightfully stupendous post as my breakfast on this gloomy rainy October morning. Keep writing, more and more in the years to come.

    1. Well, Latha, that is an unforgettable compliment and that may be much more than is due to me! You have bolstered my confidence like a Krishna! I swear I am never going to look back henceforth. A trillion thanks for the patronage.

  4. i would probably never understand how it feels to be a good student, however, i was delighted to see the solitary character in your post i am familiar with – Bruce Lee.

    when you get time to read something, read Uma Shankar Pandey, best writer on web.

    p.s. almost forgot that there is something called a dictionary.

    1. It must be my lucky day when my long lost friend has emerged from his self-exposed exile to buttress my confidence! I am indebted for the resounding stamp of approval, Deb! How is life beyond the petty world of blogs?

  5. Very touching post! It’s amazing how you can write from such an objective perspective when narrating your own childhood experiences!

    1. Thank you, Manju. With your deep understanding of both Sanskrit and English, it ought to have touched you in some way. And I know the story like the back of my palm. I can write it from my sister’s perspective too!

  6. I doubt there is a single family where some sort of conflict of expectations versus desire is not played out.

    Have you seen that that 1938 WB cartoon film “I love to Singa”? It’s about this family of owls. Papa owl and Mama owl are classical music lovers. And to them is born a so who, horror of horror, loves Jazz and finds classical music boring. In front of his parents, the owlet sings “Drink to me with thine eyes” in an irritatingly whiny voice. But when he is alone he sings a foot-tapping rendition of “I love to Singa”. It’s a funny cartoon film, but captures the dilemma of parents’ expectations and children’s desires beautifully.

    Nice post, Umashankar 🙂

  7. That was a wonderful read! I’m left with a greater appreciation for Bogey’s line in Casablanca “if she can take it, so can I. Play it Sam”. Growing up ain’t all fun and games, and your words give us perspective.
    By the way, in case you’ve given Casablanca a miss, I suggest you check it out. And do yourself a favor, don’t watch it alone ;o)

    1. The cryptic, quintessential, Ashok Ghosh!

      A sigh is still a sigh
      The fundamental things apply
      As time goes by.

      Yeah, I will watch Casablanca again. Only I don’t know who you want me to watch it with!

      ps: I do miss you like no other friend. I miss your wit, your irony and the devil-may-care attitude. Thank you for Paul Simon and all those beers you bought me!

      1. I had heard so much about Casablanca that i decided I couldn’t be bothered. I eventually saw Casablanca when I turned 30 so now I keep telling everyone not to pass it by.
        It’s been a very long time indeed; would be great to catch up next I’m in India.

  8. Sanskrit scholar too, huh! Now I am jealous. I love to chant in Sanskrit, but have to stop short of chanting the actual Vedas. Have to fight the purists who are not comfortable with women chanting. 🙂

    1. Not at all! In fact, I cannot proceed beyond the basic constructs. I focused on English movies and literature instead.

      PS: “kamala dalamala komala kanti kala kalitamala bhala tale
      sakala vilasa kala nilaya krama kelicha latkala hamsa kule”

  9. What an amazing post ! It was like running after you, as you deftly changed lanes and gullies, and then breathlessly catching up again , to see what you were up to ….

    USP, you almost wrote about my childhood. So amazingly accurate and full of word pictures. I did it all, almost in the same order, except the glasses. Which came late at 21. Jumped classes, learned special sanskrit at home over and above school, did all those weird tables in maths, almost did civil services . Your posts take me back to scenes of my childhood, and something I remember from long time ago, mentioned here at the end.

    The tough tree
    firmly in charge
    of the branch,
    strengthening ,
    empowering it for the owl.

    Tumbling in the waves
    of resounding shlokas,
    braving the rapids
    of arithmetic
    with nary a lifejacket,
    classic tomes,
    in their waanaprasthashram
    peering from the shelves
    in the yellowing gloom,
    and the big rush
    on to the terrace
    surreptitious on the stairs,
    clutching friends and boards.

    A sudden firm hand ,
    a stare,
    giggling sisters,
    additional eyes,
    the more to search with,
    he thought;
    And found himself
    jumping branches
    as the tree gently helped.

    siding with the gundas
    of the Bard,
    blinking wide
    at the silver screen
    keeping the tree in the dark.

    He sits
    yet again,
    at a desk
    ballistic in arithmetic
    clutching a camera
    trying to capture
    wide eyed apertures
    and low secret lights,
    hearing snatches of old classics
    and suddenly thinks,
    of his young owly days
    on the branch
    a shining childhood,
    sometimes in fun,
    shaking in mirth,
    and how life was really about
    जम्बु फ़लानि पक्वानि , पतत्न्ति विमले दले,
    कपिकम्पित् शाखा ब्योहो
    गुलुगुग् गुलुगुग् गुलु ….

    1. Suranga, I am often not breathing when reading your poems! It thrills me deeply to realise how I seem to have had a childhood similar to yours. I find myself absorbed too in the vistas whenever you offer them in your nostalgic pieces. And as I have said before, my posts are incomplete without the sparkling icing of your comments!

      “जम्बु फ़लानि पक्वानि , पतत्न्ति विमले दले,
      कपिकम्पित् शाखा ब्योहो
      गुलुगुग् गुलुगुग् गुलु ….” Isn’t that the King Bhoj?

  10. I could personally relate to many events of your childhood. I got my spectacles in 1st Standard and hated wearing them. I was called Chashmish — a most annoying name. I was also offered a double promotion but luckily my dad put his foot down. I think it is rather silly to push younger kids to higher classes. I can only imagine the horror of your sister. I had Julius Caesar for 10th and had to really study it from many angles. Though, I was never a fan of core literature. I had a flair for languages but was always a science person. It is strange that in India we juts don’t have the option to study subjects from many streams :(. I would have loved to study languages and even subjects like Psychology further. You made me go down nostalgia lane with your post!

    1. Spectacles, the specter of an uncalled for promotion –wasn’t it the a norm those days– and a belated brush with the Roman emperor…. You seem to have passed through all those passages after all! No wonder you can relate to my experience so well. The trouble with me though was that I was quite a rolling stone. No wonder I have gathered neither moss nor mass in my life. I do seem to have the patronage of friends like you. Thank you, Rachna, for being such a true soul!

  11. Ha! Ha! Ha!

    I like the self-deprecating undertone you have maintained throughout – cocking-a-snook at oneself. Not many can do it with such finesse.

    So you are an Owl, eh? Do you stay up late each night, like I do?

    As a bird-fancier I take special interest in these night-fliers – I shall add you to the list of birds to be observed and followed.

    Uma Shankar, as usual, another interesting feast of words … I love the way you narrated the machinations that were needed to escape from the schemes your dad had dreamt up for you.

    It took me to my childhood days too – all the things we did away from prying eyes. And last but not the least, this one was about eyes too. Owl-like eyes? You are exaggerating, of course – having seen them in person I can vouch for that.

    I would like to argue with you about Shakespeare and Sanskrit – we shall do that in person; but then again its a matter of personal preference. But you would agree that both have their merits and charm.

    I hope the Owl will return to this branch soon to hoot another tale!

    1. Ha ha! I am a sworn night-owl, often hitting the bed late, at times following Dracula’s hours! I thank you from the bottom of my heart for appreciating the piece. One learns to survive in most circumstances.

      No, I do not hate Sanskrit. My disenchantment was more a reaction. I am always moved by Literature. Any literature. I have tried to learn Russian and French in the past (with little success). I have read translated works from Russian, Chinese, French and German –I know it is not the same thing but still.

      You can expect the owl to keep hooting!

  12. owls are the wise ones.. so you are the wise one too Uma sir.. 🙂

    I can relate to it a bit as my dad wanted me to be a doctor, AH HA high hopes he had from a Daffar idiot like me . and dad’s hatred of those childhood games , for some reason he hated if i played Cards or the evergreen Marbles..

    and as you wrote and As i read Rachna’s comment oh yes the first set of spectacle those BIG, black Plastic ones, and what all i was called .. It was not till my first year in college that I got contacts and all those years of being called some name or the other..

    but nevertheless those were the good old days

    1. God bless you Bikram for calling me wise! Now that you remind me, my father hated the marbles too! You are damn right about the black plastic frames and your conclusion equally hits home: those were the good old days indeed!

  13. I am sure when your father brought Shakespeare, you must have shouted:-“Friends, Roman, Countrymen, Lend me your ears! My father has brought home Shakespeare.” This truly shows how much he understood you and your choice. A fatherly deed indeed!
    I think most of the 70’s born or before must have faced such rigid elders. My grandfather also hated Christian/ English medium schools and especially girl’s education.
    I have been reading your blog for quite some time, though not regular, the enormity, sensibility and how eloquently you have highlighted your friend (in giggling gladiator) or ghost or birth of girl child etc. certainly ascertains that you have a vision for low light capabilities of the “new age society”. Your blog has put forward those intricacies of relationship which only a sensitive person who is an avid reader and an expert writer CAN.

    1. Wow, Jaya, that is a perfect couplet! You are correct about the relative rigidity of the elders of our generation. There were instances when their attitudes bordered on the ridiculous. Thank you for the continued readership and appreciation. I will write about the Giggling Gladiator again. I still rue the journey to the Valley of Flowers that I missed.

  14. Uff….I am just enamored with the wit, the panache and the utterly emotive element that your pen is capable of coming up with. Loved every bit of this awesome piece. I think it will forever remain in my memory as something very very beautiful that I have ever read.

    Tried typing so many lines here. Typed them…deleted them…I am just speechless!! Wish I could think of a comment to match the brilliance of this piece!

    Warmest of Regards!

    1. That is a gorgeous bunch of compliments, Amit! It will keep me going for long. You are an emotive writer yourself, a kind soul. Thanks a trillion!

  15. Brilliant ! Hilarious and poignant at the same time, your tale vividly portrays the trauma and anguish of the ‘owl’ while creating a ripple of merriment among the readers. And imagine you going to a Sanskrit pathsala – U S Pandey, a pucca sahib !

  16. Like your comparison to owl. My tryst with becoming my father’s cause of agony came a bit late in life. I was always a very obedient daughter and a student. papa always dreamt of me, rising high in life ( and official posts with fancy titles). Much to his dismay, when I was well on the path to fulfil his dreams, I left my career for the sake of my daughter. Now whenever my siblings break news of their promotions and perks in the family, papa can’t take his accusing eyes off this black sheep…

    1. Meenakshi, the high altar of parental expectation may lead to crucifixion at times. It is an unfortunate jinx as they invariably have the welfare of their ward in their mind. Thank you for stopping by.

  17. At last! A long-awaited post from Uma and well worth the wait! Bring on more – you have left me thirsting to know (and read in your wonderful prose) the journey from someone learning Sanskrit from ‘Enter the Dragon’ to the banker that you are today 🙂 (The writer that you are today was seeded by Julius Caesar, that I already know from this post 🙂 )

    For me the piece that stuck in my mind out of Julius Caesar is the obituary favorite (Mark Anthony about Brutus) – “This was the noblest Roman of them all; All the conspirators save only he; Did that they did in envy of great Caesar; He only in a general honest thought and common good to all made one of them; His life was gentle and the elements so mixed in him; That Nature can stand up and say to all the world; This was a Man!”

    1. Thank you for liking it so Suresh. Assurances from fellow bloggers like you keep me going. I will surely dip in the river of memories again. I do expect you to read me across the leaner patches though.

      There is little to choose from Mark Antony’s speech at the funeral of Julius Caesar; it is a blinding valley of gems. Yet, it is the refrain that hits me like a bullet each time:

      And Brutus is an honourable man.

  18. How do you do that USP, “I was born before I was born. All owls are, …..sisters hated Switzerland, ….perfect set of spectacles with a rounded frame for my ‘round face’. And it was many, many years before J. K. Rowling dreamt of Harry Potter”.
    To me you seem to be a magician playing with words & I was caught in your magic till I finished reading……. Well have no words to praise your writing…….. I am stunned by your art …’s great buddy 🙂

    1. About time, Samir! I had started suspecting you have forgotten the URL to my blog! I am relieved to see it appealed you so. I tend to pour my heart in whatever I scribble, this one was special though. You love it and you love me! And hey, I have started missing your emails.

      1. No, not at all, how can I forget this URL…… I am connected with you :). Yes USP long time, past few weeks were very busy…… you will be receiving my emails soon :).

  19. Unmistakable stamp of umashankar. What varied influences molded you! They have enriched your caliber as a writer-it was nice to read your childhood account.

  20. My-my! So they did make sure you were born before you were born. 🙂 And with all that Sanskrit and all you really have a rich reading history. Wow!
    And now, you impress your readers every single time you put up a post. Great job, USP. 🙂
    Round faced? Me too. My besty calls me idli 😉

    1. Time has taken its toll on my face, Divya. It resembles more a bloated potato now. And like the proverbial rolling stone I have gathered no moss, Sanskrit, Russian or French! English though is my life and the world ends the day it ends.

  21. A beautiful post. It is so hard to write about one’s childhood and I think an author truly comes of age when he can confront the fact that there were some things about his childhood that he didnt like and some things that his parents and siblings did that made him unhappy. I often relegate such thoughts to the far corners of my brain and so I know I have a long way to go. I just loved the post. It is so difficult to know when you are right as a parent. I used to be very rigid in my thoughts about my parents actions that influenced my life but now that I have a daughter I tend to look at them more kindly. I am not sure I am doing the right thing myself many a times

    1. Many thanks to you, Varsha! I agree it is painful to be objective to your childhood: too many emotions are involved, some pent up. I am a father of twins now and I can swear there are times I am struggling with just the dilemmas that made my parents falter.

  22. Such a nice post… .I don’t know how to express my appreciation. You are linguistic expert. I’m scared to write anything, you will find the mistakes uhh :-)…but still…Loved the way you unfolded your childhood. And Uma Shankar to Mark Antony? NO! Uma Shankar is a nice name:-)

    1. I already feel humbled by your appreciation. And hey, I am not running a grammar class! Thanks for your kind comment. And neither of the names moves me any more.

  23. Very well written and composed article. You have very nicely jotted down the experiences of your childhood. Those are the days which frame and shape us. Totally enjoyed reading it. Thanks.

  24. Isn’t it amazing how childhood is always a shade of grey? It is such a warm feeling to remember life when we are able to derive pleasure even when all our decisions were not ours but were born from idiosyncracies of those who surrounded us.
    Beautiful post.

    1. Amit, grey is a relative term. I am not sure which shade you have on your mind, the chronological or the undesirable passage of time. Yet, I can assure you, the nostalgia is an inextricable mix of pain and pleasure. Again, idiosyncrasy is a matter of perspective. It is more the inflexibility of the perspective that starts hurting grievously. The damage may be irreversible at times.

      Many thanks to you.

  25. I could so totally relate to you, on your post, my mom was a stickler for “higher marks” and I have a vivid memory of endless hours of copying with the myriad books I had to read. A strong post , enjoyed reading every bit of it!

    1. Poonam, I am happy you could relate to the post. There is a simple tenet that people often forget, you can stretch a string only to the point beyond which it will snap. And I have seen parents working feverishly on the broken fragments too. Unfortunately, the damage may not be physically palpable.

  26. That is yet another fantastic excerpt from your childhood. You have been a scholar all your life and no wonder… you write so magically with the lyrical precision and panache I could only dream about. Your memory intrigues me immensely, as to how precisely you remember everything and make it come alive through your words. The way you link up several events in your life and draw intelligent comparisons with history is brilliant. That is a trait of a phenomenal writer. And as always, your vocabulary floors me every single time.

    1. I’d rather believe I was a little nerd, Raju. And those are but broad sweeps of the memory; I may keep boring you with finer details ad nauseam! Childhood memories are long and often sweet as humans tend to be simpler souls in those days. I am happy for the effect my writing has on you -even if you may be just humouring me- and your appreciation floors me too, every time. Million thanks to you for being such a patron.

  27. Mr Pandey, my previous comment seems to have vanished without a trace? The technology doesn’t come easily to me. Your site and email-correspondence are the reasons that push me to the Internet. This post is a glittering solitaire jewel. May your art flourish and never look back.

    1. I tender my apologies for the error, sir. The webmaster’s astringent spam filters get overjealous at times. Thank your for the blessing.

  28. Wonderful writing, Uma. Such playful use of language about such a serious subject. Such high expectations must’ve been quite a heavy load to carry. It seems you could only truly become yourself by disappointing them.

  29. So – different cultures, different faiths, different texts – but our childhood experiences were not exactly dissimilar, Uma. Thank you for these insights.

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