Friday, December 31, 2010

VOICELESS


VOICELESS
It is that time of the year when one has to think of new resolutions to make and break; a time to recollect forgotten thoughts. With that in mind, I collected my writing and, bound the scrap with old twine and a blunt needle. This is the result:

12-31-3010

12-31-3010


Every time I enter my pad, I find it tough not to smile. I inherited it from an `uncle’, a well-wisher. He had invested everything he had on it, his money and his time. He had studied old sources and tried to recreate something sublime. It is quaint, pleasant, a relic but nice. There are windows in the East with sunrise against an azure expanse with lacy frills of white cloud. In the West, I have sunset into blue-green sea. In the North, there is an equatorial forest deep and thick stretching far. In the South, snow-topped mountains, waterfalls, lakes and fresh water springs with smoke rising from a volcano, too. One of these days, I will interchange North and South. Or, I will let it be, for my uncle’s sake.

I stretched on the old arm-chair, the one with old leather, stains and smell. It was a hectic day. I had chosen too many parallel lives.

As usual, my body went to office. It is a good rule, I think, to make everyone come bodily to office. Work can happen from anywhere but it is good to fit in old-fashioned social interaction for a fixed period of time every day.

There is so much to do on the latest project, taming the higher orders – that’s its description. There used to be a guy called Einstein who thought the speed of light is a constant. The paradigm shift changed everything – a world without fundamental constants, only fundamental laws. We are now somewhere between the second and third generation. It is a never-ending process. New technologies, new needs will develop the next generation of approximations. I had to make a presentation today and most of the participants were bodily there. It is tough to make out the virtual and the real these days.

I fumbled at two points during the presentation. Two other lives exerted their influence – first, my meeting with Ann; and, second, the fight with my nemesis, my twin.

She had `knocked at my door’, in the virtual sense, before I left for work. And, I `let her in’. I have heard that people used excuses in the old days – like, “I am otherwise engaged”. Now, it is either `in’ or `out’. An orgasm with Ann made me fumble during the presentation. Ann is a tricky one and I like her. It was not easy finding her. Now, including her, I have six people who can `knock at my door’, anytime, any place. I can manage that many lives simultaneously.

My twin is a bastard. He, too, calls me that. Our ‘parents’ had wanted to prolong their lives. They tweaked our DNA. Then, they conditioned our synapses and nerve centers – with their experiences. It is still a tricky business. We know how each part of the brain works. We understand consciousness and intelligence; also, chaos and turbulence. But, the haphazard still plays a role. At times, it is the initial conditions; at times, the final conditions; an exact replica is still improbable, if not impossible. I do not know what happened in our case, I mean, with my brother and I. We hate each other. We try to destroy each other. There is hardly a day when we do not go for each other’s throat. I guess that explains why I fumbled.

The other lives had been less eventful today.

In one of them, Shiv and I are touring some of the outer communities. It is just a pet project – studying these old communities (in alphabetical order): atheists, blacks, browns, cannibals, capitalists, Christians, communists, families with husbands-wives-children, Hindoos, Jews, Moslems, paedophiles, politicians, soldiers, yellows, whites…Do you know that some of them used to be terminated in the old days? People used to believe that some people could decide how other people should live. Some of them still think that there is an intelligence out there called God controlling them.

We have tried various programs to educate but old customs die hard. We try to teach them about the latest discoveries concerning intelligence and consciousness; about the latest laws of the physical world, in equilibrium and non-equilibrium; about experiencing parallel lives.

The phenomenon of letting loose parallel lives has been there for more than five hundred years – it was discovered after the period of globalized war and annihilation, after the despondent years, after the years of reawakening. But, parallel lives were not viable till the method for `switching off’ was found. When that was found, some of these old communities claimed that we are trying to be God. If my brother or Ann dies, it is no big deal, nothing to do with God. Old cells always die; rarely required after prolonged use. If I don’t let my brother or Ann `in’ at this moment, I am not being God; I am just telling them that I need some privacy. If they keep knocking, I might let them `in’.

It is time for me to get up and knock at Swapna’s door. We will spend the night together. I call her a dream; she calls me a nightmare. I hope my episode with Ann does not cause too much trouble. I can handle erectile dysfunction; but not Swapna’s emotional dysfunction. She knew all about Ann when she accepted me as a `contact’. She could control it, if she wants to. But, she does not want to. Neither do I want her to control her likes and dislikes. I accepted her with all that.

We might cook together and wait for that moment called midnight when people in the old days used to cheer and shout… if we are not otherwise engaged… we might cheer and shout, too…whatever that means…`Happy New Year 3011!!!’. 

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

My Football Days

 

My Football Days
 
I was in the playing eleven for one league match. Twenty minutes into the first half, I received a kick from behind on my calf and at that same moment, the rival forward I was trying to tackle smashed the ball into my groin with tremendous force. I watched the rest of that match from the sidelines.
 
My team had five from my family, six if you count me; four first-cousins, including the captain Biju and the centre-forward Aju; and Shaji, a rather distant cousin but a close friend of my cousins. I used to hang around with those three though they are a few years older than me. It seemed to be the best way to enter the team.
 
I used to look forward to those visits to my paternal grandparents’ place during extended school holidays. The house consisted of two single-storey buildings separated by a small sandy courtyard. When I see Malayalam movies, I wonder why they never show houses like that rather than the grand ones with pond and what-not. Every village house I knew looked like my grandparents’ house.
 
Every nook and corner of that house would be filled with people. Rather dingy dark rooms with old smells, a toilet to be avoided, small groups whispering, few loud ones omnipresent, these I remember. My mother and sisters complaining, not about the direct in-laws, but about the other women and their kids who had entered that house like them via marriage; a fair competition between those in the same category, I suppose. My grandparents used to proudly watch their kids arrive in cars. At dusk, my grandmother used to gather the kids for the evening prayer, Rama Rama bhagyama, or something that sounded like that. Meals were rushed affairs between games.       
 
For me, and my cousins, life revolved around football. Every evening, a big crowd including most of my family members would gather around the ground next to our house. Our main rivals were from the same neighbourhood. The toss decided the team that played bare-chested. Some had football boots, most played barefoot; most had shorts but some still played the old way with lungi folded and expertly tucked in.
 
The captain of the rival team was a guy named Sasi. He was a tall chap, standing well above six feet, barrel-chested, athletic, fair, light-eyed, aquiline features. I have heard my cousins say, ``Kuravande veettil aaro purathuninnu mathilu chaadi…’’ (``Some outsider must have jumped the wall of that low-caste’s house…’’). After scoring a goal against us, he would go near the sidelines where my family was gathered and standing in front of them, taunt us with a roar. We also knew that he was putting on a show for the benefit of our cousin, Indira.
 
Indira is my most beautiful cousin and Biju’s elder sister. Since she was my father’s sister’s daughter, I could have married her if I had been her age or older. She treated me like a kid-brother while I teased and ogled. Aju, the son of another paternal aunt, could not view her as anything but a sister. The distant cousin Shaji was right for her by way of age and family lineage. Only two obstacles stood in his path. The main one was that his father was much richer than hers; the minor one being his ugliness and her revulsion towards him. But, whenever he talked to her, it was obvious that he considered her as his by default.
 
I was there when Aju caught her with our rival, Sasi. They had been talking and standing close, Aju told us. Biju confronted Indira and warned her to stay away from Sasi. Why, she asked her younger brother. He is not suitable for us, Biju told his sister, he is poor and though he belongs to our caste, he is of a lower sub-caste. She stared at us without saying a word. We thought she would listen to us and we decided to keep this from the elders. But, the next day, after his team defeated us he strutted in front of her and she smiled at him.
 
We planned our attack well. We knew that he returned to his house from his Club at around nine at night. Two days after the last taunt, the four of us waited in a well-shaded part of that route. We were in briefs; our bodies oiled and greased. We attacked Sasi that night with iron bars, thick sticks and cycle chains. I had a thick stick and I think I managed to hit him once on the head and chest. Shaji was the most ferocious and he used an iron rod against the knees and ankles. When Sasi lost consciousness, we stopped hitting and left the place.
 
The next morning, news came to us from various quarters. Then and now, the elders have never questioned us about that day’s incident (``annaththe sambhavam’’). Sasi was in hospital for a long time. The police questioned him. When he could speak, he told them that he could not recognize his attackers. We knew his intentions and why he decided not to sneak on us but we could do little after that.
 
My studies took me away from my land. Then, my grandparents died and I had even fewer reasons to visit frequently. I used to get the family news. Indira married our rival Sasi. He managed to become a clerk in some government office.
 
A few months back, on one of my rare visits to that place, I met Indira and her beautiful kids. She insisted that I should visit her house and her kids tugged and pulled me there. I sat with Sasi in the front-room, discussing local politics and World Cup football, having tea and sharing a plate of biscuits. He walked with a limp and used a walking stick, his nose had a broken skewness and the left side of his face had a slight droop as if patched badly. He caught me looking and smiled; those light-eyes taunting me like then, my football days.    
 

Sunday, December 5, 2010

4% Deal

 

4% Deal
 
Let me try to tell you a true tale.
 
Here, in this story, I have given all that I know about the characters. The place or setting could be anywhere. The time might have a constraint - it happened before cell-phones, laptops and messaging became popular...
 
when time moved slower
with pen and paper
bearing the weight
of hopes and thoughts
the message
crossed darkly
but not deleted
forever...
 
Not really a long time ago...   
 
 
Every year, before the monsoon, Sreekumar took two weeks’ furlough – from work, from family. He considered those two weeks out of the fifty-two in a year as his 4% deal.
 
Friday, 5:30 pm
 
His boss, the Dean, said, “Sreekumar, have a good break! Go somewhere and you know...” the Dean chuckled and then continued, “What are you going to do, man? Don’t tell me that you have a few books to read in solitary confinement! Arre, you lock yourself in too much. So?”
 
“Well...sir...actually...” Prof. Sreekumar mumbled hoarsely with a voice that had been silent for most of that day.
 
The Dean erupted, “You fool! I really do not know why you waste your life like this. How old are you...35? And acting 75! Go…before you make me feel old.”
 
Outside, Sreekumar went past boisterous students and their favourite instructors. They hardly noticed him, the “peon” they called him, in his customary black trousers, white shirt hanging like a shroud, oily complexion, large spectacles and hair pasted onto his scalp.
 
He went to his office, arranged the books on the shelf, filed a few papers and closed the window. He cleared his desk and left it bare. “For the next two weeks, goodbye,” he said quietly.
 
His eyes ached. He tried straightening his back but gave up the effort, exhausted after the last few weeks of concentrated mindless work. He took his briefcase and umbrella, and left the University building. At 6:15, he reached his quarters, a mile away.
 
He did not sit on the bed or anywhere knowing that he might fall asleep. He picked up a backpack, already packed and ready for flight. After bidding farewell to his family, with the usual give and take of instructions, he left at 6:30.
 
He tried to run to the auto-rickshaw stand. The first one in the queue took him on, grudgingly though.
 
“Railway station...fast...7 o’clock train...” he said getting the insolent reply, “What? Slept off?” The guilty customer remained silent.
 
Later, he could remember jumping onto the moving train. He had asked someone at the door, “S3?” and got a nod. Further inside, he requested, “Berth 27, please, can you remove your luggage? Please, I have to lie down...” He could remember climbing onto the upper berth, resting his head on his backpack, falling asleep still holding his umbrella and with his shoes still on. At some time during that night, a ticket examiner had nudged him awake with, “Dead?...No?...Ticket!”
 
Saturday, 6:00 am
 
He woke up thinking that he was screaming. He sat up on his berth. Below him, a family with two toddlers, both screaming, was frantically trying to evacuate with their belongings. “What happened?” he asked from above. The harried father replied with the station’s name.
 
Sreekumar felt like screaming, too, on hearing that the train had reached his destination. He gathered his meager belongings and managed to exit behind the family with two toddlers and an endless stream of bags.
 
He transported his stiff body from the train to the nearby bus station. Apart from stranded commuters and queues of red banners, it was deserted. For the second time, he asked “What happened?” “Strike,” the surly reply rebuked the ignoramus for asking about the ordinary.
 
He stood there immobile, his mind still working on the dredges of the dream from which he had been startled that morning. In that dream, he was reciting Emily Bronte’s poem ‘Remembrance’. He was near two parallel railway tracks. Then, in that dream, he was lying across one of those tracks. Train after train went past him on the other track and he waited for his, reciting the poem on and on.
 
He smiled at the dream. He moved towards a make-shift tea-stall. There, while munching a bun and between swallows of hot tea, he enquired if there was any transport plying between that town and a hill-station a few hours from there. “Only trucks and private vehicles are running...try to catch a truck near the highway...try the dhaba...” the helpful answers from a few full mouths. No one there suggested hitchhiking on private vehicles.
 
He walked to that dhaba on the highway, about three kilometers from the bus station. By the time he got there, his grimy and sweaty clothes were sticking to his body like second skin. He learned that only one of the trucks there was going to that hill-station, though in a rather circuitous route with a few stops, and that truck’s driver told him that there was no place for him. Sreekumar pleaded with the driver that he did not need a seat up front, that he could sit on the sacks behind. He was informed, “You will be in a sack by the end of the journey.” Sreekumar replied that that would be fine, too. “Choose your own burial,” he was told. They bargained amicably about the fee for that.
 
At 10:00, he was told to climb onto the back and to sit tightly in a corner. For the sake of appearance, he laid a few newspapers on the floor before taking seat. He secured his backpack and umbrella and found for himself a few good handholds and footholds. The driver proved to be a true specimen of his species – without care for the natural beauty outside, manhandling the gears and brake, screeching and swerving, overtaking dangerously and treating hairpin bends as suicidal as possible.
 
In the first hour, Sreekumar was threatened by nausea. In the second hour, his muscles gave in and he lay back, feeling paralyzed from head to toe. After that, the journey did not produce anything new. With assured fatality, fatalism seemed sensible and when that failed, he tried to think about his good luck in the present state – the list was short –not wet, not stranded and the road trip had to end.
 
The journey ended at 5 pm. The driver and his two aides climbed onto the back of the truck and woke Sreekumar, or rather, brought him to consciousness. “Saar, should I take you to hospital?” he was asked kindly. Or, he thought he was asked that because there was a humming in his ears. He felt punch drunk.
 
He got down from the truck and sat on the ground for a while, a sorry figure hugging a back pack and an umbrella. After twenty minutes, he realized that he was at the market in that hill-station. Ten minutes later, he tried standing. A cycle rickshaw driver offered a ride. Sreekumar had had enough of rides on wheels. Tired, dirty and hungry, he started on his way, walking slowly and with increasing steadiness and purpose.
 
At 6:30 pm, he reached the gates of the resort. A young security guard shooed him away. Sreekumar and the guard stood on either side of the gate staring at each other, saying nothing further. An older security guard came to this tableaux a few minutes later, looked at Sreekumar, recognized the backpack and the umbrella, and said, “Professor, sorry, sir. This idiot is new.”
 
Sreekumar entered the grounds.
 
Saturday, 6:30 pm
 
Gopalakrishnan and his wife Aswathy were seated near a window in the foyer of that resort. They had had a long day of hiking. They planned to have a quick early dinner before going to their room with amorous hiking in mind, that is, if their body would allow.
 
“Where is Sudarshana?” asked Gopal, reaching for a magazine and hoping that this wait would be brief.
 
Aswathy replied, “She is calling home to find out when her lot will join her here. It is a shame that she had to come alone, with us, and now this strike...” her voice trailed off. She, who was facing the entrance and the counter, stared at a man entering the building. “Isn’t that your friend?” she asked her husband.
 
Gopal replied with little interest, flipping through the magazine, “Which one?”
 
“That lecturer, I don’t remember his name. After our wedding, he took us out for a good lunch. And later, he refused to come to our house because he didn’t want to bore. Or was it...get bored? I think it is him...but he is looking...yuck!” By this time Sreekumar had reached the front-desk and Aswathy decided to stare in a more discreet manner.
 
“Sreekumar...here...?” Gopal queried with pleasure. He stood up, studied the bedraggled state of the man with a smile and then, shouted at the man when the latter moved away from the front-desk, “Abhey saala, Sreekumar.”
 
Sreekumar raised his head wearily, looked at the source of the pleasantry and approached slowly, “Gopal” he acknowledged. Both decided against contact.
 
“What have you been up to? Rolling in the market? How did you get here? Arrey, you remember Aswathy, right?” Gopal asked, without pause.
 
Sreekumar wearily replied, “I cannot take friendship at the moment. See you tomorrow.” With that, he turned and proceeded to the lift.
 
He waited for the lift, allowed a person to step out before stepping in.
 
In his room, he undressed and put on a bath robe. He had already requested at the front-desk for Saradamma, the cleaning lady. When that lady appeared, he asked her, “Saradamma, could you please take care of this?” He handed over a plastic cover with his stinking clothes. “If you see Murali, please tell him to bring the food at 7:30. And if I do not answer the door, tell him to check if I have got out of the bath.”
 
The cleaning lady said, “It is good to see you here again.”
 
“Same here, same here...” and then he added, “Is your grandchild still with you?” he handed over a packet for the kid and accepting that the lady left, nodding her head and smiling sadly. She was glad to see Sreekumar again but each time she hoped to find him in a better state.
 
Meanwhile, downstairs, the person who had got out of the lift joined Gopal and Aswathy. Those two were comparing notes as to whose friends were the craziest, the rudest, the meanest...Both stopped abruptly and smiled guiltily when Sudarshana asked, “I hope I did not start that discussion.”
 
“You are an angel compared to some we have just met,” Aswathy gave an accusing glance at her husband, “did you notice that chap who got into the lift?”
 
“No, I was thinking about something else. Didn’t notice...” Sudarshana said with a resigned tone.
 
“So, when will they get here?” Gopal asked Sudarshana, trying to switch from the talk about his friend.
 
“It seems this strike is going to be a serious affair. Since this afternoon, even private cars are being stopped, it seems.” Sudarshana replied, half-convinced.
 
Arre, don’t worry, they will be here in a day or two. Now, let’s go for dinner. I am starving. And I want to go to bed early today. Tired...” Gopal tried to sound convincing.
 
“How did that guy get here?” Aswathy asked, not wanting to let go of the earlier topic.
 
“My dear, do you want to go to his room and ask him?” Gopal retorted, slipping his arm around his wife’s waist.
 
“Will I go to the Devil? Sudarshana, you should have seen him...” Aswathy explained. Sudarshana smiled and followed her friends to the restaurant.
 
She was thinking about how to make the best out of her situation. Maybe, this was the break she had been hoping for – to do absolutely nothing apart from what took her fancy. Lonely, maybe; but for a day or two, it might be good – the solitude. She could read. Maybe, even sketch. And, Gopal and Aswathy were not bad company either. She and the couple had reached a tacit agreement regarding the amount of time they will spend together.
 
Sunday, 5:30 am
 
Sreekumar woke up with an old dream. He sat up and leaned against the pillows. The good dinner and the comfortable bed had done him a lot of good. After his ablutions, he did some stretch exercises, tried a few sit-ups and push-ups. He went down to the main pool outside. It was empty. He stepped in and let his senses succumb to the morning chill. He pushed against the pool wall and swam slowly, like a cripple being helped by a physiotherapist. The months of neglect protested and he was not foolish to ignore that. He knew that he had lots to do to exercise his mind and body. He kept to the sides, allowing himself to gasp and rest at frequent intervals in that hour there. Then, he returned to his room to get ready for breakfast.
 
At 7:30, he left his room. In the lift, he looked at himself in the mirror with a bit of surprise - clean shaven, rarely used trendy spectacles and his hair left in a ruffled state; casual cream-coloured khakis and a wine-red T-shirt.
 
He went to the restaurant for the buffet breakfast. There, he started piling his plate. Murali, the head waiter, greeted him. The waiter then whispered to him, “A couple over there has been staring at you for some time, sir.”
 
Sreekumar replied, “Friends, Murali, just friends.”
 
With his heavy plate, he made his way to the table where Gopal, Aswathy and Sudarshana were having breakfast. They looked up as if they had noticed him just then.
 
Sreekumar greeted them with, “Let me first apologize for my behavior yesterday. I hope you will give me a second chance...” Gopal, who was familiar with his friend’s avatars, smiled and introduced the ladies. Aswathy, probably due to some awakened maternal instinct, forgot all grievances and beamed at the man who had taken a seat and started to devour food like a teenager. She encouraged Gopal to join in that boyhood custom. Sreekumar’s journey and old anecdotes provided topics for the morning chit-chat.
 
When Sreekumar laid his fork and knife down, Murali flitted onto the scene, removed Sreekumar’s plate and left him with a mug of coffee, its aroma filling the air around the table. Sudarshana, who had largely remained silent till then asked, “How did you manage that special stuff?”
 
“Would you like a mug, too?”
 
Sudarshana nodded. Sreekumar caught Murali’s eye and indicated with a gesture. When her mug arrived, she asked, “Are you a regular over here?”
 
“Not as regular as I would like.” Seeing her raised eyebrow, he added, “I can manage this only once a year.”
 
“And for how long have you been doing it?” Aswathy asked.
 
“Since I could afford it...” the vague reply.
 
After coffee, without any enquiries about each other’s plans for their stay, they parted.
 
Sreekumar went to his room, collected his washed umbrella, packed his camera and left for a solitary walk, after collecting a packed lunch from Murali.
 
Meanwhile, the other party had gone to their rooms. Gopal and Aswathy invited Sudarshana for a visit to an aunt’s house. The latter declined the offer politely, informed the couple her approximate whereabouts that day and went to her room.
 
She planned to try sketching. She left her room carrying a college bag with the articles for sketching. She had seen a spot the previous day. It was a little away from the walkers’ trail, leading to the hill-top, but still within sight of the hotel. She settled down after laying a cloth on the grassy slope, still wet with morning dew.
 
The mist was rising from nearby hills. She waited for the picture to impress on her mind – the trail leading to the hill top, through dense trees, and above the tree-line, a bald top with the gnarled remains of a single tree. She would have loved to go there. Something told her that the view from that tree was even better. But for that day, her sketch would be of that tree, she decided – about promises that lay ahead. If she had not been absorbed in capturing the details of the tree, she would have noticed a man on the other side of the tree, leaning against the trunk, remembering promises.
 
Sunday, 4:30 pm
 
Sudarshana and the couple, Gopal and Aswathy, were resting under a shade in the garden. Aswathy was complaining to Sudarshana about Gopal’s aunt “...his aunt thinks that we should be taught how to have babies...” Sudarshana thought about her day and smiled at her friend.
 
Her sketch had not turned out well – too ambitious for a rusty talent but she was glad that she had tried, and confident that it would get better. She had returned to the hotel for lunch. She had called for room service. Later, she had what she described to Gopal and Aswathy as “a refreshing afternoon”. Gopal nodded sagely and Aswathy raised an eyebrow at that phrase.
 
The couple had returned around 4:00 after the “boring” and “horrendous” visit, collected Sudarshana from her room and reached their current state of repose in the garden, munching samosas and sipping hot tea.
 
They saw Sreekumar exiting from a building in a corner of the gardens, quite close to where this group was seated. He approached his acquaintances after reminding himself that he should try to be polite for a while and acknowledge their existence.
 
“Gymming, macha?” Gopal enquired.
 
“Just relaxing in the steam bath...”
 
He enquired about the couple’s day and got an account of their time with “agony aunt”. Then, he asked Sudarshana who seemed to have drifted away from the group with her own thoughts,
 
“Did you finish your sketch?”
 
“Didn’t know you are a peeping-Tom…” she replied defensively, rather insecure about her sketching.
 
“That tree over there, right?” Turning to the other two, Sreekumar explained, “I was on that hill. I saw her looking in my direction. I waved to her but she did not acknowledge. Then I tried jumping and all that, but she just turned away. This poor Devdas had to drown his sorrow in his tears.”He said this seriously, even though he did not expect the others to really believe his tease.
 
Oye Sudarshana, how cruel,” entered Aswathy.
 
“I am sure he was not there.” Sudarshana retorted, though half-puzzled.
 
Aargh, I have become invisible.” Sreekumar gave a mock cry.
 
Gopal asked, “Where were you, saala?”
 
“I swear I was there.”
 
Sreekumar then asked Aswathy if Gopal could join him for a drink. She replied, “Only one.” And when he enquired, “That’s a tight leash...one per day?” She clarified with a resigned tone, “One per session.” The men agreed and promised to be back soon.
 
After the men left for spiritual pastures, Sudarshana spotted a piece of paper, neatly thrice-folded to fit a shirt pocket, near the spot where Sreekumar had stood. She picked it up. “This must have slipped from his pocket...” she said aloud. She placed it on the table. Aswathy eyed it with curiosity.
 
Aswathy remarked to Sudarshana, “That Sreekumar...there’s something troubling him...I can see it in his eyes.” When Sudarshana did not bite the bait, she continued, “At first, I thought he is the kind who goes for the other woman...”
 
Sudarshana replied to that, “I am sure his other one wonders about his another one, too...”
 
Aswathy ignored that easy and flippant conjecture, “Then, I thought he is the kind who tells a woman “Yes, I was in love with you.”...but, it is not that...it is a lost love...I am sure...”
 
Sudarshana just smiled at her imaginative friend.
 
“Is that Sreekumar’s?” Aswathy leaned forward and took the paper. Sudarshana did not even try to tell her friend that she should not pry. Aswathy opened one fold and read the writing on one quarter, reciting with emotion and the diction of a school-girl,
 
At the Wedding of my Love
 
Stop! Raise your chaste lowered eyes,
On this altar feel as fever of forever need dies.
Burning our illicit love in that wedding fire,
Add blood, sweat, us naked raw to that pyre.
 
“See, what did I tell you?” Aswathy exclaimed to her friend. She opened another fold. This time, she read silently.
 
“What is it?” Sudarshana queried, now curious herself. Aswathy read with a low voice,
 
Bid adieu to naughty love of life
I am now relation, my love, my wife.
 
Stop! Raise your chaste lowered eyes
You spies!
 
Sudarshana burst out laughing. “Well, I guess he knows you as well as you know him...” she ragged her friend.
 
Aswathy folded the paper neatly and placed it on the table. The men returned soon. Sudarshana handed over the paper to Sreekumar without a word. Aswathy maintained a regal composure and silence. Sreekumar had a dead-pan expression, too.
 
The foursome decided to try a restaurant in town for dinner. There, when they were mid-way through the main course, two unsavoury characters entered the place in an inebriated state. They sat at a table close to the four, talking in a loud vulgar way with explicit comments about the ladies. Sreekumar told his fuming friend, “Gopal, don’t fall into the trap.”
 
“Those bastards should be given a hiding, man.” Gopal replied, with clenched fists and his teeth gnashing.
 
“Listen to me. Let’s leave, ok?”
 
He called the waiter and settled the bill. The comments from the other table were getting louder and more vulgar. Gopal and the ladies stormed out. The group walked silently to their hotel. Sreekumar trailed behind the three like some pariah.
 
At the hotel, they parted company. Gopal and the ladies went to the couple’s room. For ten minutes, they brought out the rage within. They realized that they were still hungry and ordered sandwiches. Murali brought them a tray of succulent sandwiches. They were still discussing their nasty experience. Murali set the table and before leaving, told the three,
 
“You are lucky. Those men are crazy local thugs with no sense or fear of law. Three years back, they stabbed a guy in a similar situation, went to jail for two years. They will go back again. I think Professor sir was here at that time.” He left after that.
 
Aswathy edged closer to Gopal, caressing his shoulders, as if searching for the stab he would have suffered. It was Sudarshana who finally broke the silence,
 
“We treated Sreekumar quite dreadfully, didn’t we?” The other two nodded like obedient puppies.
 
After a few minutes, Gopal told the ladies that he was going to apologize to Sreekumar and left the room. But he could not find Sreekumar. Gopal returned to his room, told the ladies the situation, for a while they sat gloomy before deciding to call it a night.
 
Monday, 7:30 am
 
Without waiting for the couple, Sudarshana went alone for breakfast.
 
This time, Sreekumar was already there, having breakfast, reading a newspaper, his relaxed body showing the signs of physical exercise. His swimming was now facing the last hurdle – an old block, a breathing action he had never bothered to correct.
 
Sudarshana brought her plate and asked him if she could join him. For a moment, he leaned back, just stared at her, as if he had to think a lot. After a while, she told him with a smile, “While you are trying to decide, let me take a seat.”
 
They had a quiet breakfast and it was only when their mugs of coffee were brought to them, she asked, “Where were you last night? We wanted to apologize.”
 
“For what...?”
 
“For preventing that fight...Murali told us about the thugs’ reputation.”
 
“I had no choice. I don’t enjoy getting my clothes dirty.” Sreekumar answered with a smile.
 
“Not even for the honour of ladies?” she countered.
 
“Not if they pose a threat themselves...” he argued.
 
“Now, we are getting to the point...”
 
“I prefer to beat around the bush.”
 
“How can the oppressed be a threat?”
 
“The mock oppressed ready and waiting to be the oppressor...”
 
“Scared, you are,” she concluded.
 
“Woman, you are,” he reasoned.
 
With that, they raised the white napkins, as if calling for ceasefire, wiped mouth and left the table together.
 
Outside the restaurant, they met Gopal and Aswathy. The apologies and other light banter followed. The couple had received an ‘urgent’ phone-call from the aunt demanding their presence at a larger family gathering. Aswathy forecasted another course on pregnancy. Gopal cursed himself, “I have the only relatives who do not believe in contraceptives,” and after some thought, “they are out to screw me...”
 
“Can I ask you for a favour?” Sudarshana asked Sreekumar once the couple had left the hotel.
 
“Your command is my wish.”
 
“I have heard that before. Can you take me to that tree on the hill?”
 
For a while, Sreekumar’s face became blank and his eyes seemed to look through her, at someone behind her.
 
“Do you always have to think so much when I ask you a question?” Sudarshana asked giving no hint that she had noticed the strange look.
 
“Of course, my lady...But, you have to promise that you will fight any thug that will come in our way?”
 
“Anything for you, my knight...!”
 
They made plans to leave at 9 and return for lunch. Neither of them made any suggestion of a picnic.
 
Sudarshana wondered for a while whether she had forced him into a situation he did not like. But felt consoled by remembering that Sreekumar had dismissed niceties with Gopal and Aswathy.
 
As for Sreekumar, he was asking himself, “Why didn’t I say no?”
 
Monday, 9:00 am
 
Sudarshana realized soon enough that the trek uphill through the dense foliage was quite arduous. Birdsong competed with her grunts and groans. She thought she saw monkeys peering or were they squirrels or large cats or mongoose? The trees seemed alive, the ground too. At one point, she saw a pile of elephant dung. “Wild elephants?” she queried. Sreekumar offered studious silence instead of security.
 
After fifteen minutes, she realized that her legs were beginning to cramp. He suggested some stretch-exercises. Sweaty and dirty, she cursed her morning wish. They hardly talked. He did not bother to be chivalrous. He allowed her to tackle on her own those dangerous ledges with steep falls, on that slippery muddy path.
 
Worse, they seemed to be lost. For some reason, Sreekumar had decided to try a new route. He consoled her with an unconvincing “go up, come down, simple…how can we get lost?”
 
“Don’t you know the way?” she asked.
 
“Not really,” he admitted, “each time, I try a different starting point and path.”
 
“Fantastic!” she taunted.
 
“It’s good to be strangers – even with a path –
 
These banyan trees with peeling bark,
Entwined vines, branches and roots,
I prefer not to cross them twice
To find them uprooted or with an axed notch;
 
These naughty rascals the life within,
Those peering eyes, lurking danger,
The rustling leaves, chattering cries,
They compare and mock, my many lives;
 
I the husband-father, I the worker-boss,
I the lonely voyeur, I trying to be me,
They compare and mock,
 
At them, I can smile
But I prefer not to cross them twice –
 
It’s good to be strangers.”
 
“So, what do I have? You the fool, me the lost?” she accused, feigning disinterest.
 
He gave her a look of mock anger, squinted eyes, sulking mouth trying hard to suppress a smile.
 
“Well, well, you the lost? What are you anyway?” he parried.
 
She gave a mirthless laugh, “Nothing, right? A non-entity...”
 
He did not let go, and prodded,
 
“I have to be the one who knows the way –
 
A serious wit or a man of steel,
I should treat you like my image,
Or a restrained selfless safe shadow;
 
My words should rest with gravity,
You will speak while you hear little;
 
You can try to be the aggrieved,
But you do not deceive me with frailty,
 
Why do I have to be the one who knows the way?”
 
She looked at him with flaming eyes - tired and exasperated – not ready to let him have the final word, not realizing that she was biting his bait,
 
“Tchah…stereotypes and misconceptions, thy name is man…
 
These trees and I, for you
An old used textbook chapter?
 
Blue skies, green canopy,
Vales and dale, brook and willow,
My hair these vines,
My arms these caressing tendrils,
The birds and the bees,
Remembering pulp romance?
 
A few four letter words
Used, misused.
 
I am not a girl, a woman, a mother,
A wife, a lover, a womb, a vagina,
An idol to worship, serve or curse.
Am I trying to shock you?
 
I am not a role
For your stage
Or any stage.
 
Of right, wrong, norm, deviant,
Of values, debt, trust, loyalty,
Of past or present memory, real or virtual,
Of explanations, justifications,
Of relations, love, friend, foe,
Of utility, used, futility, fate,
 
I want to be me too
 
Or, is that your domain alone?”
 
“Good! We agree on one thing at least,” he said. When she did not reply, he continued “Fine words searching for meaning, like a search for the soul-mate,
 
Why are we born in chains?
From one role to the next –
Isn’t that the old line?
 
The face of love –
Fables and morals define
Familiar features
On an easy mould;
 
That’s the tragedy –
Each role is an easy part.
 
Give me one
I pray, just one:
 
Without barter, without give-n-take,
Without promises, without vows,
Without a black book of credits-debits;
 
Friendship do you suggest,
Russian roulette I suggest,
Get away you blood-sucking parasites;
 
Love do you suggest,
Bluff I suggest,
Get away you symbiotic dead.
 
This is in the Scriptures
It is in the Book of Trouble;
 
But, this one –
I pray, just one:
 
Not to share trouble,
Not for stale jokes,
Not to judge, not to weigh;
One without pretense,
One to trust,
One with faith,
One even Death cannot part;
 
Is that Utopia?
 
It is about the precious fragile,
The dew on the flower on the branch
On the tree on that hill on and on;
 
For some, it’s their senses, their feelings,
For some, it’s them, their own being,
But it’s both, the being and the senses.
 
When “you hold that one”,
The senses take “hold”,
With “you” and “the one” separate,
Is that it?
 
Feel the fragile within – “you”, “hold”, “one”,
Stress each without strain,
The fragile feel within – “one”, “you”, “hold”,
 
That is not Utopia.
 
That is not role play.
It is tough to be real.
 
When I hold my soul-mate, will I let it go?”
 
Sreekumar and Sudarshana resumed their journey and reached the edge of the tree-line at around 10:00. She was exhausted, exhilarated and gave a whoop of joy.
 
He turned around from a little distance ahead, looked at her with a spreading smile and said, “You have bird-shit on your face and front.”
 
She glared at him, searched in her bag for a mirror. She had left it behind at the hotel, along with the rest of her vanity kit.
 
Sreekumar came close to her. He took a bundle of tissues from his backpack. He wiped her face, slowly, with a light caress, cleaning her cheek, her jaw, the right side of her neck, her collarbone, a few specks on the collar of her shirt; he opened a button and wiped the last below the collarbone, a little above the right rising heaving breast. Then, he used another set of tissues with water and cleansing soap. He buttoned her shirt at the end. They looked into each other’s eyes a few times but they did not speak.
 
For some, this is a 4% deal. Some will call this a light and charming adventure or the beginning of a swift, fleeting love affair. For some, it is not 4%.
 
They stood together, near the tree-line, where there is a brook, but with no willows. They reached the top, untroubled by seasons, the moss always velvet, the branches always gnarled, the view sublime.
 
Sreekumar reclined against the tree. Sudarshana sat near, letting her hair loose against the wind, shielding her face. They hardly talked. Sreekumar napped or scribbled in a notebook. Sudarshana sketched eyes that spoke strangely.
 
Monday, 5:00 pm
 
Sreekumar and Sudarshana returned to their hotel at 2, had lunch in the restaurant and then, went to town for shopping. At the front-desk, they left a note with the message that they will be back by 5:00.
 
Gopal and Aswathy returned at 4:40. Their day had turned out to be surprisingly good at the aunt’s place. The couple decided to wait in the foyer, meet their friends and then go to their room.
 
Around 4:50, it started raining. Five minutes later, they saw Sreekumar and Sudarshana walking quickly, in the rain, for the cover of the hotel. He was carrying his umbrella, as usual, but it was not open.
 
The four met near the entrance and exchanged brief notes about their day. Sreekumar and Sudarshana mentioned that they had had tea and heavy snacks at a delightful tuck-shop in town. The four decided to meet the next morning since no one was keen on dressing up for dinner at the restaurant.
 
Around 10:00, that night, Aswathy asked the cuddling Gopal, “Why didn’t he open the umbrella?”
 
Gopal thought of evading with a curt reply but he was curious, too.  
 
“Are you going to remain silent?” his wife prodded.
 
“Sreekumar is a decent chap. He won’t touch her.” Aswathy turned and faced him with a look, ready to defend her friend. He added quickly, “Don’t you crucify me now. Why don’t you go and ask your friend?”
 
Aswathy did just that. She slipped into a dressing gown, leaving Gopal punching the pillows. She went to Sudarshana’s room and knocked on the door. When Sudarshana opened the door, Aswathy asked, “Sudarshana, so sorry, but do you have a band-aid plaster? Gopal got hurt.”
 
“I thought it is the girl who usually gets hurt...”
 
She has been with Sreekumar for too long, Aswathy thought.
 
Sudarshana got her a bandage and saw that Aswathy was looking around the dimly-lit room.
 
“Don’t worry, Aswathy, he is not hiding beneath my bed.”
 
Blushing, Aswathy blurted, “Oh no, I didn’t think that. Gopal told me that Sreekumar won’t touch you.”
 
“Yes, he won’t...” Aswathy did not wait to understand whether that was an observation, a question, a challenge, an amused whatever it could be.
 
Aswathy returned to her bedroom, removed her gown and crept in beside Gopal, hiding her face deep in the pillows. Gopal smiled in the dark but he decided to keep his mouth shut.
 
Tuesday, 7:30 am
 
Gopal, Aswathy and Sudarshana were having breakfast. Sudarshana informed them that her folks would be arriving that evening.
 
Sreekumar entered the restaurant around 7:45 and joined them with a heavy plate. “Man, I am hungry. Nearly two hours in the pool. Fantastic.”
 
“Sudarshana’s family is coming this evening.” Aswathy blurted.
 
“Good. Good. Good.” His meal or the pending arrival of her family, no one cared to check. The usual talk ensued and when his mug of coffee arrived, he asked Sudarshana, “Is the sketch over?”
 
“No.”
 
“Do you want to go to the hill-top?”
 
“Will you take me?”
 
“Yes.”
 
“We will be back by lunch-time,” Sudarshana told the couple.
 
The rest of the days
 
Sreekumar tried to correct his breathing motion but without any success. On one day, he joined the others for dinner. After 4 days, they left.
 
He stayed on for another week and left wearing black pants, white shirt, with an umbrella in his hand and carrying a backpack. He looked at the gnarled tree. “Till next year, my love...”
 
 
Author’s note:
·         2/52 is definitely not 4%.
·         That reminds me of an interview question: if the interest rate is r %, in how many years will your money double? The answer is based on the ‘rule of 72’. The interview question is: Why 72 and not 69?
·         This question is typically used as a ‘loosener’, to make the candidate relax. And, at the end of the interview, the relaxed candidate would invariably ask the question, “Five years down the line, where will I be?” Well, there’s only one reply, right? “Not with me.”
 
·         Wish you
 
Merry Christmas
&
Happy New Year