Saturday, July 31, 2010

Epidemic

Rajesh Kumar (Inspector General, Central Jail) entered his office along with his trusted officers and he looked at the high pile of files in the EXECUTED and TO BE EXECUTED bins. He slumped in his chair, head in his hands, wishing for a brief private moment to cry.

“Sir, it’s nearly uncontrollable, spreading fast, like an epidemic,” said cherubic Ajith.

Jose added, “We have separated them, sir. We have to even convert the non-death-row side of the jail. We have created various wings: for politicians, doctors, scientists, engineers, homemakers, husbands, wives, kids. We are running out of notice boards and rooms.”

Rajesh enquired tiredly, “I don’t understand…are you segregating them by their profession or what?”

Ajith and Jose nearly replied together, “By crime, sir! According to whom they killed!”

“Ah! Of course...” Rajesh sighed.

“Sir, this is the last execution for today. The appeal for pardon has been rejected.” Ajith said handing over a file.

“This is that guy who tried to kill you,” Jose added, “tough decision, death sentence for a failed murder attempt. Now, judges are trying to eradicate all criminals. They are scared of being the next victim; or, trying to stop the spread of this disease.”

Rajesh took the file and looked inside. He signed at the bottom, approving the execution of his illegitimate son, the son uncared and unknown.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Speechless

Note: An edited version was shortlisted for the DNA-Out of Print Short Fiction contest, 2014.
( http://outofprintmagazine.blogspot.in/2014/07/dna-out-of-print-short-fiction-sreejith.html Or http://www.dnaindia.com/lifestyle/report-dna-out-of-print-short-fiction-contest-speechless-2005583)


Steffi Graf married Andre Agassi a few days after I landed in Berlin.

I had two reasons to be in Berlin. I have discussed the first and main reason elsewhere when I wrote about love and here, that reason is not important. The second and more pertinent reason is that I wanted a speechless life.

Why? For thirty years or more, I had been a linguistic chameleon.

Till my teens I spoke mainly Malay since my friends were Malay or Iban. I also achieved distinction in writing Jawi. Then, to pass exams here, I had to learn English, my mother tongue and the national language. In the years that followed, out of necessity or love, I picked up Tamil, Kannada and shuddh-gaali (pacha-theri, pure unadulterated vernacular useful for survival) from the north and the south.

Language is a weapon for power, to form clubs and to exclude. Sometimes, it is used to communicate, I know. I was usually not offended during business meetings when the language would switch over to that of the majority. I tried my best to gel with them. When the level is intentionally notched up above my level of comprehension, I take the hint and switch-off. It is not a difficult game to play and everyone, including me, has participated as the predator or as the prey at one time or the other.

While being that chameleon, I realized that I had another gift, too. I could forget a language just as easily as I could pick up a language. A part of my brain seems to be reserved for this, a slate or a memory drive for writing, erasing and writing again repeatedly without damage. When I realized that, I had to acknowledge the fact that language, and therefore speech, could be irrelevant.

That is one of the reasons why I decided to live in Berlin and refused to learn German. Berlin was ideal for this experiment. It is also a beautiful and dynamic city; and, it offered enough escape routes, if necessary.

I was not there as a tourist with a return ticket but there to live for years. Some decide to go into the wild. I need contact with people to feel exhilaratingly claustrophobic, boxed-in and smothered. Without city air, I would suffocate. But, I did not want to talk and I did not want to understand what others talked all around me.

At work, I had to talk at times but it was not essential for my work. I could not speak in the train; in the supermarket and the street-side café or beer-garden; in the museum, the cinema, the opera-house or the library; and, not even in the police station or the foreign office where I had to renew my stay permit every year. I managed – there were irritants, of course, but there were enough nice people who were ready to understand what I wanted to communicate, without talking.

Fortunately, my barber was one of those people.

There, the barber is not called a barber but a friseur. It was in my third month in Berlin that I found that shop, located a few blocks from my apartment, and I mustered enough courage to go inside for the much-delayed haircut.

The chief-friseur and proprietor of the business was a German, mid-thirties, with a friendly but strict smile that reminded me of my class teacher in grade three, buxom and rather unapproachable. The chief took measure of my hirsute mess with a long careful look and then assigned the junior, the only other friseur, to attend to my case.

Fortune was still knock-knock-knocking on my door. The junior-friseur was not a German and seemed flexible enough to try sign-lingo with me. After a few failed attempts, I managed to register for the combo of hair-wash and haircut. I did not really need the wash since I had shampooed and cleaned my hair thoroughly at home that morning.

The friseur handled my head gently from behind during the washing, shampooing, final washing and drying. I felt her long fingers massaging my scalp and her long nails which never scratched. I kept my eyes closed. Once that was done, she adjusted the chair for the haircut. She stood close and in front of me. She held my hair in the front between her forefinger and thumb and with her eyes and a slight pout in her lovely full lips, she enquired about the required length. I indicated with my right forefinger a length sufficient to postpone the next visit for just three weeks from then.

She must have been around my age if I had been a few years younger; east European, probably from one of those countries which had recently gained independence; two or three inches shorter than me if I kept my head high; slim and athletic; and, on that first day, she wore a black t-shirt and low-slung jeans. The t-shirt went well with her fair skin, black eyes with a tinge of blue and specks of brown, and the Celtic butterfly tattoo on the lower back.

The haircut went as well as the hair-wash, in spirit if not in deed. She took her time, using just one hairdressing scissor and one comb. She used her fingers to measure and trim, to smooth and set. She moved effortlessly from front to back, left to right. We looked at each other once in a while, face to face or in the many mirrors, smiling only when the chief-friseur was favourably engaged nowhere near.

The hair-wash and haircut lasted 20 minutes, every three weeks, on Saturday mornings. On one of those days, we exchanged names like a talisman, or at least a memento. Hers is Delia.

I do not know when we became lovers. Well, if this was fiction, I would have made that sentence sound true. We never became lovers. In fact, we met outside that shop only twice.

The first time, I met her at the Spar supermarket adjacent to my apartment block. It was close to 1 pm on that Saturday winter afternoon and I was desperate to get home for lunch. I was trying to count the exact change for the figure displayed at the counter. The nice lady at the counter was familiar with my dumb ways and waited patiently with a comfortable grandmotherly smile. I gave her my usual apologetic look and my best smile and, also directed the same at the person behind me in the queue. It took me a moment or two for me to realize that I was looking at Delia. I paid my bill, collected the bags and left quickly.

I waited outside. When she came out and saw me waiting, she smiled. I did not know what to do. It was either due to the confusion in my mind or a rumble in my tummy that I gestured to her about eating at the Koreanische restaurant next to the supermarket. She nodded in agreement. We shared soup, kimchi, noodles and bulgogi.

I have wondered since then about what we would have talked if we could have talked.

I would have described the green hills, the plains with the carpet of coconut trees, backwaters, beaches, education and healthcare, God’s own country, Onam and the wonderful cuisine, secular mixture of cultures, maybe even about my family back home.

She would have educated me, I suppose, about the Orthodox Church and the influence of Moslem culture, the great years of communism, caviar, science and the great academies, ballet, all those great masters, authors, painters, composers, sharing food at Christmas and Easter, the land rich with natural resources, the entrepreneurs, the calm plains and the beautiful lakes, holidays at the Black Sea or the Mediterranean.

I guess we would not have talked about why we chose to be away from those places we called home.

We had a long lunch without a word or a touch. When we looked at each other, we just searched in each other’s face and eyes. The other senses tend to work better when you are speechless. We shared the bill and when we parted outside, she held my hand for a while.

Winter turned to spring and the other seasons followed. Months went by and I kept my appointments with my friseur. It was on a hot summer Saturday that I found that the shop had closed. Or rather, the shop was being refurbished for some other business. I walked back home and did not leave the apartment that weekend. I felt lost without my barber. Or maybe, I was just disappointed that I had to find a new one.

During the early days of the winter that followed, I was on leave on a Thursday. I wanted to visit a photography exhibition that afternoon and attend a concert that night. The exhibition was not exceptional and I was free by 4 pm. It was getting dark and I had a couple of hours to kill before the concert.

I walked to a cemetery. Though not in the same league as the Pere Lachaise or the Highgate, there are two or three in Berlin which are great places to walk or sit and think. I used to go there around noon and I usually had company to clear leaves and check the stories etched on gravestones. On that day, it was deserted. I searched for a famous man’s grave. It was behind one of those handsome gravestones that I saw my friseur outside the shop for the second time.

Delia looked weak and scared of someone. Her eyes kept looking around. When I got close, even in the fading light, I could see that her lovely lips had a nasty cut and that her left cheek was slightly bruised and her clothes seemed dirty. She leaned towards me and I held her. I would have liked to see her smile but she looked as if she had not smiled for quite some time. She did not cry, though. She had a small backpack with her. She said with a weak voice, “Hilfe, bitte.

I knew those important words which were unnecessary at that time. I knew that she needed help but of what kind I was not sure other than to know that I was not the one she really needed.

I could only think of two avenues for help. My boss could help but he is like me, earnest, indifferent and insensitive, a rather self-centered person. He is the type who asks at the end of a seminar, “Have you said anything which is not trivial?”

The next and only choice was Susannah, a colleague I liked a lot. I had been to her place for dinner couple of times. She is an armchair liberal and quite useless with practical matters. But, her partner Gudrun seemed to be the right person for Delia since she is involved with various organizations concerned with human rights violation and all that.

Susannah and Gudrun lived about 2 kms from Wannsee station and we could get there by the S-Bahn train. From a phone-booth, I tried to contact them but nobody picked up the phone, and I assumed that they were still at work. We waited in the cemetery till it was dark before going to the nearest station. We tried to be inconspicuous but a dark-skinned guy walking around with a disheveled beautiful fair lady is not a common sight anywhere. In the train, we took the bogey right behind the driver. I usually do that when I return late from work. My Lonely Planet advises me to do that. It’s got nothing to do with racism. There is no dearth of hoodlums in any part of the world and every place has a local version of skinheads and neo-Nazis.

When we reached Wannsee, it was about quarter to six. We walked fast, eager to reach the apparent safety of my colleague’s house. Sick with tension, I had thought of approaching the police but Delia seemed reluctant. The road was deserted and we hardly came across any cars on that route.

We were a kilometer from the house when a car went past us, stopped a few meters in front and two men got out. They approached us with one holding something that looked like a gun. I would have suggested running if I thought it would be of any use. Anyway, Delia looked spent, defeated and she just crumpled on that sidewalk.

I knew that I had to face the two men and fight. Altruism usually has a simple explanation. I had a greater chance of living if I did not fight but if I lived after the fight, I could live without guilt.

The two men casually walked towards me. I had seen a lot of movies in which the good guy puts up a good street-fight. I was tougher and fitter in those days. I lasted about a minute on my feet. One of those men moved quickly and I tried to follow him. The other then came behind me and immobilized me with a choke-hold. The first hit on the solar plexus left me breathless. By reflex, I raised my hands which were guarding my groin. Predictably, the next kick was to the groin. I nearly lost consciousness but I was still standing. After a few more well-aimed punches to my sides, I slipped to the ground. They kicked me a few times as an afterthought.

I realized that these guys were not mere street-fighters. They did not leave any visible injury. From that foetal position, I watched one of them drag Delia to the car. The other leaned towards me, roughly grabbed my hair and whispered in my ear, “Talk…kill.” I knew those words, too.

I did talk to Gudrun and Susannah. Through them, I talked to the police. But, the talking did not do any good.

Maybe, those men were Delia’s husband and some relative, the police suggested weakly. None of us wanted to admit the bitter truth. There’s too much traffic of that kind, invisible and if not, we prefer to turn a blind eye. I have looked for Delia on the street, amongst cheer-leaders, in resorts, at air-terminals, ports and railway stations. But there are no traffic lights on those avenues used to transport that kind of cheap but profitable cargo.

I remained speechless.


Author’s note: This is fiction. Isn’t it?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Catharsis Before A Wedding

I have never been in a fast Porsche on the expressway but life, in the last few days, appears to be in that mode with blurred vision, weightlessness and adrenalin overdose along with ruffled premature grey hair and excessive hair-loss. I am on vacation to attend a wedding.

This morning, I woke up at 4:00 feeling cold and sweating at the same time. As usual, I gathered from the bedside drawer my morning dosage of valzaar, clopilet, atacor, betaloc and other hearty stuff. I had been promised a long day and a memorable night too. Even now, I can feel sweat trickling down my neck and back while thinking about the past few days and also, the days ahead.

It is now 5:30 and I can hear people waking up, sneezing, blowing their nose vigorously or loudly clearing their throats, chest and every air sac. All around me, water closets are getting flushed; the dirty are scrubbing themselves clean as if for the first time; morning ragas on TV and Eminem on the boom-box compete with babies practising asynchronous crying; the old and the young are scrambling for their fair share of morning coffee and other wedding goodies.

How I longed for the calm at an undertaker’s, a requiem or a simple dirge and a sober lot to match my mood and the occasion. But, what I get is the laughter and the noise, the hustling and the bustling, the merry-making and the cacophony, and the entire house in a stressful mess. I have found this silent spot beneath the staircase leading to the terrace. I need catharsis. I need to pour my encrypted thoughts and recollection of recent events into well-sorted bytes.

When did it start? Was it five or ten days back, or two or three weeks back, I am not sure. My parents told me to take leave on that day. My mother gave me a fresh and dry-cleaned set of jubba-mundu (kurta-dhoti in the North, I suppose). I had been to a beauty-salon the previous day for the necessary trimming, cleansing and polishing. I was ready an hour before the visit scheduled at 10:00. Or rather, I tried to be ready while I struggled – to subdue increasing tension and a frequently complaining bladder, to adjust the forever-loosening mundu and to straighten the so-easily crumpled jubba.

My team gathered for the last-minute prayer and discussion of strategy. The final team of eleven consisted of me in the lead role, my parents, a pair of maternal and paternal uncles and aunts, a sibling and a cousin and their respective spouses. The drawing-cum-dining room and the kitchen were well-covered for any offensive or defensive play.

The other party arrived on time at 10:25 and the brief delay of 25 minutes indicated that they are courteous and worthy of respect. To be on the safe side, they had arrived 5 minutes before rahu-kaalam on that Friday (though it is usually applied to the time of departure and not that of arrival).

As they were piling out of an SUV and a Mercedes Benz E class (not commercial vehicles, we noted, but were these borrowed, we wondered), our immediate task was to identify the key person to be marked. By the time they reached the front stairs, our team had figured out that person, their key negotiator – a rather fat middle-aged man, probably an experienced uncle or a friend of the family, exceedingly jovial, busy with introductions and busier eyes taking in the size of the property and depth of the foundation.

Their negotiator asked my maternal uncle, indicating the land and the house with a broad sweep of his hand,

Ithellam nangalude alle?” (“This is ours, isn’t it?” as if he was already part of the family.)

My uncle replied to this frontal attack with an equally ambiguous nod. The negotiator nodded cheerfully and before entering the house, added firmly

Nalla sthalam. Makkalkku flats kettam.” (“Good property. Kids can build flats.”)

As required I had stayed inside the house, in the drawing-cum-dining area, close to the door leading to the kitchen. I was ready to invite the men and the women with a very welcoming smile and namaskaar.

The women sat near the dining area and the men took the front. The girl who had come for the ‘payyan-kaanal’ (‘viewing the prospective groom’) sat along with the men alone on the sofa for two. I sat next to her on the sofa after my paternal uncle indicated to me that I should do so. The girl looked beautiful in a gorgeous sari, with a blouse that seemed to be on the verge of being an off-shoulder top and, I couldn’t believe it, noodle bra straps. She caught me looking and smiled knowingly. I nearly blushed. I loved that confident smile and I fell in love with her.

My maternal uncle and one of her uncles exchanged the jathakam (horoscope or birth-charts). In our society, that is the ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card. If the match does not work out for other reasons, either party could say that the horoscope did not match and bring the affair to an end without any needless and hurtful explanation. The parents and the kids were further insulated, legally and emotionally, because the negotiation is usually conducted by proxy, that is, by the others.

My aunts brought the refreshments and I served as per custom. As soon as the cups were half-empty, the negotiation started in a more earnest fashion. I paid little attention since my thoughts were elsewhere, or rather, were lingering over that person so tantalizingly close. At one stage, I heard the negotiator ask my father,

“In which clubs do you have membership?”

My father recited the names of three eminent clubs. My parents had taken membership in two of those five months after I was conceived; and the third, when I turned eighteen and the standard of respectability was being raised in our society. The negotiator looked impressed,

“Very good…you know these stupid folk with stupid castes…each generation has a different set of brahmins…stupid I say. But…but I say…but, these club memberships are everlasting like plastic. These are guaranteed, I say. Guarantee about the actual caste – about economic status and also culture, education, company and background…I myself a Platinum in two of these clubs.”

I switched off for a while and when I returned, the negotiator was asking my maternal uncle,

“Boy has gold, right?”

“Yes, he has 100 pavan.” (A pavan is a sovereign, that is, 8 grams.)

The negotiator’s wife made an attack from the back,

“Our neighbour’s son got married last week. Fantastic wedding they held in the best hall in this city. But somehow, the feast was gloomy. Even though the boy came with a kilo of gold. Nothing like proper gold to make people happy, right?”

My paternal aunt then muttered that the boy here, that is me, will not make people gloomy. I did not pay attention to the remaining details regarding that barter but I think it was settled at 1.5 kg. Anyway, I heard the negotiator finishing the deal with,

“These days, gold is the only safe haven, I say. In our times, it was fine if the boy had a government job. But now even governments can’t be trusted. Only gold, I say. Anyway, it is all for the good of these kids. They can sleep well, you know. Or, you know what they can do…I say!”

He chortled with delight on his own joke, nudged his marker (my maternal uncle sitting next to him) in the ribs. It was then around 11:10. The negotiator looked at the rest of his group and we saw them exchange glances signalling that the meeting could be concluded.

“Ok, so that’s it then, right? Tchah, such fools we are…we forgot about these kids. Why don’t you kids go and talk a little?”

I led the way and she followed me to my room. She sat erect in my chair. And I sat on the bed crossing my legs at the ankles. She, like the negotiator, did not believe in beating around the bush.

“I have a green card. Will you be able to come with me?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Do you like cooking?”

“Yes. I can cook Indian very well. And you?” I enquired.

“Only Chinese. Only on weekends. Do you want to have kids?”

“Yes. And you?”

“Two. Hopefully, both organic. No test tube, no Caeserian; but I want my hubby next to me when I deliver. Do you have any pending affairs?”

“No. And you?”

“I don’t think so. Are you a virgin?”

“Yes.” I nearly blurted out “And you?” but I didn’t.

“Good. Did you want a love marriage?”

“Who? Me?”

“I think love is better when arranged well.”

“Me too.”

“Do you have anything to ask?” she offered.

“Do you like movies?”

“Not much. But I liked Kill Bill.” she said.

“Ah!” I sighed with pleasure, quite content.

Well, that was the last day of my peaceful life. Then, we started the process of inviting those close and dear, those near and far, the unknown and the not-yet-dead essential lot.

There was very little time to arrange everything. And the guy’s side had to be really careful. On two or three occasions, the negotiator and his wife made surprise checks with regard to the hall; the final settlement with car, gold and property, all included; the proposed catering agency; the decorations and the menu for the wedding and the reception parties before and after the wedding. With each day, the number of people in the house also increased exponentially.

Whenever she was free, she would call and check up on me. I tried to mask my nervousness and tiredness by thinking of those noodle bra straps.

It’s now 6:30. In four hours, I will be married. This catharsis has helped to soothe my nerves. Maybe, if I get the jitters tonight when I have to carry the glass of milk and the banana to share with her, I might try to record my thoughts once again.


Author’s note: Roughly quoting Andrea Camilleri –“This (blog) is made up…There is no doubt, however, that the (blog) is born of a specific reality.”

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Shame You All

I risk losing your attention by beginning with a cliché. But, that’s how fights start in my village these days.

It’s either with the groan “It all started when… ah! …that idiot doctor…” or the growl “On that dark night…who…damn you…wrote that…” Opinions predictably turn into accusations, names of strangers are confused with that of relatives and friends; sometimes within a minute, usually extending hours; these fights had to happen.

If it has to enter history books, for once let it be facts.

In May that year, Dr. Jose joined the Census Panel which was preparing the questionnaire for the census. Along with the customary questions regarding sex, age, property, profession, income, virility, religion, caste and family, question number 11 asked, “Have you ever been treated for mental illness?”

The census was completed before Onam. It took three weeks for the panel to study using computers extensively for statistical analysis. They released a report which included the line, “One in each generation of every family suffers from mental illness.”

The immediate response was to quip “As if we didn’t know.” Someone then pointed out some similarity with the plot of a late 80’s movie called Thaniyavarthanam. People familiar with that movie raised the concern, “But, that was for a family, that too only the male and they made him mad, right? Here…?”

Reports indicate that at least four families shifted from the village before November. By late-November, seven marriages were cancelled. In one case, the marriage vows were exchanged but the feast was cancelled. A scuffle broke out between the well-wishers of the bride and the bridegroom. The bride suffered severe concussion following a blow to the head and the marriage was annulled.

In early December, a reliable source revealed that question number 11 was due to Dr. Jose, also adding that Dr. Jose moonlighted as a psychiatrist. New Year’s Eve celebrations were subdued that year and during that night, unknown persons pelted stones and certain unsavoury items at Dr. Jose’s house.

To add to the woes of the village, the incident of the nasty writing happened around then.

In the village, the temple and the mosque are situated, side by side, opposite to the fish market and the church is situated to the right of the market - somewhat like Palayam, Trivandrum. There is a small space in the middle where a board has been placed for pinning important notices (such as the census report). It was definitely a dark night when someone wrote on that board, in crooked and barely legible bold letters, “shame you all”.

The morning after, a large group gathered in front of the board. The majority did not know English and classified the writing as gibberish. Then, a learned person in that group muttered, “Tchah! Who…is making fun of…our institution…insulting our sentiments. Damn!”

People, depending on their affiliation, felt that their religion or their market had been defiled. The riots that followed that incident lasted only a week. The intermittent fights that followed the riots understandably injured and killed more.

Those are the facts.

Some claim that Dr. Jose has a Ph.D. in Chemistry. He tried to incite further trouble by asking, “Who isn’t mad here?” He’s left the village.

An unconfirmed source has revealed that the police are working on anagrams and that they suspect Shankunni. He’s the ten year old son of Soman, the rubber trader.

Suspected of being influenced by outside elements, Shankunni has been dismissed from the village school.

Those who spied on Shankunni’s notebooks found more hurtful stuff.

“shame you all”, “a seamy hullo”, “my halal esou”…“omallahyesu”… this had to stop.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Blogger I Never Forgot

Today, I had reason to remember that blogger I forgot.

I checked on this portal if that blogger’s blogs are still there, before I sent a note, after I realized who it is.

I am surprised that I vaguely remember the last blog of that blogger even though I have totally erased the rest from my memory.

It had been a rather abnormally hectic morning. Both my kids are in town and their spouses and kids too. I had to take my spouse for the six-monthly check-up, ‘over-all servicing’ as we call it. I was actually glad to reach my office by ten, though I had taken the morning off. Then, I had three hours of bliss with work and meetings. At one, I grabbed my usual sandwich and a cup of hot chocolate at the cafeteria and relaxed in the lounge.

I flipped through the magazines on the table, munching and drinking without tasting. I chose the newspaper with a literary review in the supplementary pages.

On top of the page, there was an obituary of a famous writer, ‘the son of the soil’, it claimed. The work and life of the dead writer was shrouded within the obituary writer’s opaque scholarship.

On the right, in a box, I went through ‘the best 10 books’ of this month. I had read one out of those ten. Or rather, tried to read; I could not follow the modern English.

In the middle, there was a scholarly essay about modern translations ‘without Victorian prudery’, certainly not my cup of tea.

At the bottom, an article about ‘the elusive Garbo-Salinger of twenty first century literature’, with encomiums such as ‘a style like that of Mishima, Rushdie, Allende and Kerouac all rolled into one, blended but pure’, ‘a truly global voice breaking frontiers and barriers’. A photo, ‘a rare one’, along with a review of the latest book and excerpts from five different novels, and ‘each a new genre of its own’. I had not read those, not even tried. I stay away from that kind.

I went through those brief excerpts. For a moment, I suspected my sense of déjà vu to be wishful thinking. Expressions, word-play, humour, the confusing voice, the play with a reader’s mind – a silhouette I once cherished. But, I doubted myself. After all, when we see someone famous we really like or when we read or see a great work, don’t we try to project ourselves onto them or that work, and don’t we try so very hard to feel that that is about us, too?

But, I know that it is the blogger. The blogger I forgot.

I do remember that I was the first to comment on that blogger’s blogs. I don’t remember what I said. The reply was gracious, a bit stiff as if shy of praise or doubting whether I had actually read the whole blog. I had not, I have to admit. But, that’s how it is. On a blog, ‘to be or not to be’ is wasted tautology.

I commented on those blogs rather frequently, whenever I chanced upon it, maybe once every five or ten blogs or so. I could feel rage in those words and at times, sheer disgust; and a search for something, or someone. Maybe, there was a need for insulting but true criticism; maybe, begging art to touch upon that work; maybe, waiting for a good reader.

We used to send personal notes to each other. We even flirted, knowingly of course. I realized that I did not know whether I was still hetero- or whether I had turned bi-. I still have those notes along with the rest of my virtual memorabilia. That blogger knew a lot about me. I don’t think I really cared. The blogger used to post frequently when we used to exchange notes. Today, I checked; 100 blogs were posted in thirteen months! Well, the notes dwindled, the blogs too got rarer and I had other things in mind.

Then, that blogger disappeared after posting the last blog.

When I read that last blog, I hated it, I felt used. I did not comment. I did not send a note. It didn’t help that I was feeling down and out. It was about us, about what we could have done, about what I meant to that blogger. Of course, it was well-disguised – only I know the truth, thank God.

I read the rest of that newspaper article. The blogger had received his first award, for a short story, and I noted that it was awarded a month after that last blog was posted. Then, a collection of short stories followed, it seems. The first novel came out nine months after the disappearance. I wonder whether that would have happened without disappearing from my blog world. I hope I had helped in some way.

I took that article to my office. The company has blocked most social networking sites but for some reason, this portal has escaped their attention so far. I think the blogger’s account is still active. I logged in and read that last blog. Then, I sent a note to that blogger with the text and subject line having the same content, the blogger’s full name.

I read the blogger’s last blog once again, titled ‘The Blogger I Never Forgot’.


Author’s notes: I believe that there are very few thoughts which have not been thought before in a better way. I plagiarize; therefore I am. What about this? I am sure that there are various sources but the primary one seems to be M.C. Escher’s Drawing Hands (For Escher’s work, the official site seems to be: http://www.mcescher.com/ . The 1948 lithograph Drawing Hands is shown in the Picture Gallery under “Back in Holland 1941 – 1954").

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Space Between

The space between us is three strides length; for you, the world above, the nether regions and my head; for me, there is one world; on the first step, I am a voyeur; then, on the second, passion and desire; at last, two brutal savages being one.

I’ve heard of poets, fine words; and I know that I do not know the names of this or that; I do not have the time to view dew on leaves or on the grass I trample; I do not sense or feel the early morning mist like a shroud or a fine veil; I am a scholar denied schooling, I am a nearly landless farmer.

I the landlord and he the tapper, on every other day, it is the other way; I curse if it had rained that night and there’s little but grief; but otherwise, there is no early morning light when I wipe those damp cups, of damn dew, upturned for the night to be set right for the latex to fall and fill; three passes upon that rough land, to wipe, to cut; then, after breaking fast with her, I stinking of rubber and mud, she too with an earthy touch; to collect with a pail for fresh milk and a shoulder bag for wasted rubber; I have to press sheets, hang these and the old ones to dry, each one a hundred’s note, a million dreams, or more, while I feel mighty rich, I laugh for a while at least.

I cycle to the trader with my load, I hate to store or invest, we book our profit every morn, we are never sure if there’s another; too many rogues and thieves, too many vultures perched on trees, with death in plenty and dearth of luck hovering above us if we care to look at the bloody stupid world we have left.

There is work till half past noon, upon that land, so moodily fertile; I do not talk to the trees or to my kids; I plant, I grow and I let them go, I do not talk to the trees, that’s for the romantic, the plain loony kind; I do not caress the land or my woman; I shovel, I dig, deep within, I spit, I sweat and I curse with relief, I lie on top, breathing hard, resting in the shade; I do not caress the land, that’s for tourists of the temporary kind, the only kind.

At half past noon, we quit; she does not let me touch the pail at the well, as if her hands are cleaner, as if she smells not of smoke, grime and sweat; pail after pail, she draws,

I lean against the wall, watch her body relax and strain, fluid motion in careless abandon; she smiles at the spy but she will not let me close.

I clean and scrub with new husk and old soap, there’s enough for her bath after mine; I wait for her, to sit beside, to serve, to eat, without a word or other trash.

With heavy body and not so tired mind, we lie for a while; I have to have her then, but it’s all for her then, I hear her beg, command, I hear her happy moan, cry, but it’s all about her, then; then, hush and sleep till three or so.

She knows I am a beast lying in wait, senses raw, ragged, on the edge; I like her like that, indebted and satisfied; I shall have her later, after we have fed the neighbour’s cats, and there’s that last bark from somewhere, while the wide-eyed owl looks over my ass, there might be ghosts and gods at the window but we do not care, about them.

But that’s way ahead, there are lots to do from tea till supper; we the landlord and we the tapper, on every day, it is that way; before the last light we make a pass upon our land, upturning those cups from damn damp dew; hoping that at dawn we will be there to set it right.

It’s a fickle world, you and I and them; the space between us is three strides length;

at times, even none.






xxxoooxxx


The space between
us is three strides length;
For you, the world above,
the nether regions and my head;
For me, there is one world;
On the first step, I am a voyeur;
Then, on the second, passion and desire;
At last, two brutal savages being one.

I’ve heard of poets, fine words;
And I know that I do not know
the names of this or that;
I do not have the time
to view dew on leaves
or on the grass I trample;
I do not sense or feel
the early morning mist
like a shroud or a fine veil;
I am a scholar denied schooling,
I am a nearly landless farmer.

I the landlord and he the tapper,
on every other day,
it is the other way;
I curse if it had rained that night
and there’s little but grief;
but otherwise,
There is no early morning light
when I wipe those damp cups, of damn dew,
upturned for the night to be set right
for the latex to fall and fill;
Three passes upon that rough land,
To wipe,
To cut;
Then,
After breaking fast with her,
I stinking of rubber and mud,
She too with an earthy touch;
To collect
with a pail for fresh milk
and a shoulder bag
for wasted rubber;
I have to press sheets,
hang these
and the old ones
to dry,
each one
a hundred’s note,
a million dreams, or more,
while I feel mighty rich,
I laugh for a while at least.

I cycle to the trader with my load,
I hate to store or invest,
We book our profit every morn,
we are never sure if there’s another;
too many rogues and thieves,
too many vultures perched on trees,
With death in plenty and dearth of luck
hovering above us if we care to look
at the bloody stupid world we have left.

There is work till half past noon,
upon that land,
so moodily fertile;
I do not talk to the trees
or to my kids;
I plant, I grow and I let them go,
I do not talk to the trees,
that’s for the romantic,
the plain loony kind;
I do not caress the land
or my woman;
I shovel, I dig, deep within,
I spit, I sweat and I curse with relief,
I lie on top, breathing hard,
resting in the shade;
I do not caress the land,
that’s for tourists
of the temporary kind,
the only kind.

At half past noon, we quit;
She does not let me
touch the pail at the well,
as if her hands are cleaner,
as if she smells not of smoke,
grime and sweat;
pail after pail, she draws,
I lean against the wall,
watch her body relax and strain,
fluid motion in careless abandon;
she smiles at the spy
but she will not let me close.

I clean and scrub
with new husk
and old soap,
there’s enough for her
bath after mine;
I wait for her,
to sit beside,
to serve,
to eat,
without a word
or other trash.

With heavy body
and not so tired mind,
we lie for a while;
I have to have her then,
but it’s all for her then,
I hear her beg, command,
I hear her happy moan, cry,
but it’s all about her, then;
Then, hush
and sleep till three or so.

She knows I am a beast
lying in wait,
senses raw, ragged, on the edge;
I like her like that,
indebted and satisfied;
I shall have her later,
after we have fed the neighbour’s cats,
and there’s that last bark from somewhere,
while the wide-eyed owl looks over my ass,
there might be ghosts and gods at the window
But we do not care,
about them.

But that’s way ahead,
There are lots to do
from tea till supper;
We the landlord and we the tapper,
On every day,
It is that way;
Before the last light
We make a pass
upon our land,
upturning those cups from damn damp dew;
hoping that at dawn
we will be there to set it right.

It’s a fickle world,
you and I and them;
the space between
us is three strides length;

at times, even none.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Machete Murders

Report in the newspaper ‘Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo

Ariyilla Nagar. July 9, 2010. A sustained effort by the city police to nab the suspect in the triple-murder case known as ‘Machete Murders’ bore fruit, with last night’s arrest of the suspect.

Commissioner Prasad held a brief press conference late last night in which he revealed that the suspect is being interrogated and that the arrest took place at the suspect’s residence in Ariyilla Nagar. The commissioner did not reveal the identity of the suspect and he mentioned that all the details will be released once the suspect has been charged.

The triple ‘Machete Murders’ case involved the brutal decapitation, in a period of nine weeks, of the headmaster of a reputed city school, a world-renowned neurosurgeon and the managing director of a MNC based in the city. The murder of the three well-respected individuals had created an atmosphere of fear and helplessness in the city and the citizens along with various political organizations had staged two hartals and various protests. The city MP released a high-brow tweet last night as a sign of solidarity with the netizens, ‘relieved our protests managed to murder city’.

In a statement released to the press, Commisioner Prasad has stated that he is now in-charge of the case and he lauded the efforts of Inspector Shankar who was the lead-investigator and prime-force behind the investigation. Shankar was not available for comment and a reliable source revealed that he is recovering from minor injuries suffered during the investigation.



The Case Of The Machete Murders by Mrs. Srividya Shankar
I am Srividya Shankar, the proud wife of Inspector Shankar, the principal investigator in the Serious Crimes Unit. Here, I will try to provide a thorough description of the case of the Machete Murders. Please excuse me when I am overly verbose. It is my first attempt after all and possibly my last too, once he gets to know.

For long, I have dreamt of being Dr. Watson to my Holmes. I have always followed my husband’s cases with keen interest. I guess I should mention right here that Shankar has never responded favourably in any fashion, and worse, he has tried to impede any interest from my side. But I will touch upon that a little later.

To understand the case of the Machete Murders, it is important to understand Shankar and his life.

Ours was an arranged marriage. On the tenth day after our wedding, we kissed for the first time. We made a pact to leave our old baggage at the door. Does the past really matter? Now, with hindsight, it seems to matter. I might sound like the new-age freaks who advise on marriage and parenting, but we did build our partnership on trust, respect and understanding; at least, mostly.

We have two kids, Lakshmi and Shiva, aged 14 and 11 respectively. He spoils them rotten but he is a good father. Our daughter is like him and my son is more like me; but as Shankar says, we have the duty to make our daughter be like the mother and the son to be like him; and, that will be our failing, he also says. Let them be, that is the advice we get. With anyone you love, how can you let them be? I know that I am trying to make it sound like a fairy-tale. It is never so, is it?

Initially, I had problems sitting at home, being a homely wife; and then, the usual ‘in-law’ problems. When will it be politically incorrect to use that term? Both of us have the clichéd ‘love to hate, hate to love’ relationship with our respective in-laws. I know that I will also be so, if given the chance. I will also try to make my daughter-in-law a daughter who will have to listen to me and she will know that I put up with her because I love my son. As for my son-in-law, I hope I do not have to see him that often, especially if I have to cook for him. But, everything is fine now, like a fairy-tale. Except when he is on a really serious case…

When he is on a case, he is a man I would rather not know. Once, soon after our wedding, my husband’s mentor Commisioner Prasad spoke to me in private. He told me that Shankar is very sensitive. I suppose he was telling me that my husband could ‘snap’. Ironical, isn’t it, about who snapped at last?

During the last case involving a “Ripper”, once when he shouted at the kids without reason, I confronted him later in the bedroom. I asked him why he cares more about the murdered whores than us, his family who loves him. He did not hit me but he crushed me hard against the wall with his body, his face close to mine and snarled that it is because he lives with the horror that evil could visit those he loves, anytime. I saw madness in his eyes. He is not at all nice then. During those months in which he is haunted by a case, we do not even make love, if at all it is just brutal sex. Why am I writing all this? I should not, I know.

I was a house-wife, or is it home-maker these days, till the second child was three. Then, I joined as faculty in the multi-disciplinary institute in the city. It feels good to have time and a life of your own. Our parents help a lot with the kids. It allows me to stay late when I have to complete some line of research. Typically, both Shankar and I get back home before eight with enough time for the four of us to eat together and catch up on each others’ lives.

Now, let me briefly go through the machete murders.

On May 10, 2010, the city was surprised with heavy thunder shower that started around 14:00. By 18:30, it was dark and in several areas of the city, including the area around the Passion School, there was power-outage due to trees that had fallen on electric lines. The murderer, with a carry-bag on the left shoulder, entered the premises of the Passion School unnoticed at 18:45 and went directly to the office of the headmaster who was known to work late. The murderer knocked on the door of the headmaster’s office and entered the room after the headmaster asked the visited to enter. The headmaster was sitting at his desk, with a bright lamp-cum-torch, behind a pile of Geography answer papers waiting to be marked. They were alone in the building. The murderer asked the headmaster, “Do you remember Ashwin Gangadharan?” Despite the dim light of that torch, the murderer could see recognition enter the headmaster’s eyes. Then, without any further hesitation, with two steps to get near enough, the murderer took out the machete from the carry-bag, and brought it with a mighty and strong swing to and through the headmaster’s neck. The murderer then exited the premises.

Ashwin studied in that school 20 years back. In the ninth grade, he was abused by a teacher, a paedophile. Ashwin did not reveal this at home but he brought it to the attention of the headmaster. The headmaster reprimanded the teacher in private but allowed him to continue as a teacher in that school. Then, the headmaster called Ashwin’s father to the school, informed him that his son should leave the school because he is a homosexual. Nobody thought of asking Ashwin whether it is true or not, definitely not in those days. Ashwin committed suicide that night. His father died within a year. Nobody knew about this.

The modus operandi remained the same for the other two murders of Dr. Sathyaraj and Mr. Ramesh which occurred on June 14, 2010 and July 8, 2010 respectively. Dr Sathyaraj was killed in the secluded underground parking area of his apartment block and Mr. Ramesh was murdered in his penthouse apartment. In these two cases too, if anyone else had been around, the murderer would have pretended to be an acquaintance and aborted the mission, at least on that date. How much time did it take? Utmost two to three minutes – no dialogue, no contact, no wasted words, no clues.

Dr. Sathyaraj, during his college days, had been a frequent visitor at the residence of a family-friend, Mr. Gangadharan. In that year in which Ashwin and his father died, Sathyaraj became a constant presence and a source of support for the mother and daughter. One day, he abused that trust and raped the girl, aged 17. Her mother later told her to bear the pain; to treat it like a physical injury; to forget the incident. Nobody knew about this, too.

Mr. Ramesh was a vice-president and not a M.D. when a smart lady with a Ph.D. came to work for him. They built a great team – the technical expert who trained, guided and signed-off on technical work with nearly zero-tolerance for errors, and the non-technical manager in charge of administration, appraisal and kissing the right ass. Ramesh never abused her, not physically. It was easy for him to place the stumbling blocks, to destroy her role and career. When she had had enough, she resigned. Of course, nobody knew about this.

Petty misdemeanours, that’s what they committed, according to everyone. Any wrong is just a petty misdemeanour these days. It’s good to know, isn’t it, that if you commit a ‘misdemeanour’, the grim reaper could visit you anytime?

When the headmaster was murdered and my husband Shankar took the case, the situation at home got predictably bad. As the days went by without any developments, bad turned to worse. Then, when Sathyaraj was killed, I could see my family crumbling before me. The kids rarely came out of their rooms. They tried to avoid their parents. My husband and I hardly talked. He rarely came home. When he did, I could feel his rage pouring out of his silent menacing self like lava pouring out of a volcano ready to erupt. But, this time, he wouldn’t touch me in any way. At night, I could feel him sitting beside me, and in the darkness feel him looking at me like you would look at a pet you have to put down. He was readying a gulf to separate, it seemed. I heard him cry in the bathroom one night. The next day, Ramesh was murdered.

I could have left my handkerchief at the last scene or some other clue. But I think this note to my husband is more suitable. He must be wondering why I have not taken my own life. I do not know myself. Ironically, I do believe that one does not have the right to destroy life. I do not know whether he will destroy this letter but I do not think he will allow a monster to go free. How could I do this to him and our kids? The kids will manage and they are in his good hands. Then, him… this is what I can say truthfully, I wish I did not have to do this.

When I want to sleep, I try to tell myself that he, my loving husband, the smart intelligent Inspector Shankar somehow knew. I do not know how but I think he knows about Ashwin, my brother; about Srividya, the 17-year old girl and the destroyed Ph.D.

Anyway, this is our last communication. We will not talk or see each other ever again.

Will he curse me? Do you think I am smiling, being smug and trying to act wise? Do you think I am smiling?



Excerpt from the Interview of Inspector Shankar by Commisioner Prasad on July 9, 2010.
Prasad: When did you know that the killer is your wife Mrs. Srividya Shankar?
Shankar: Yesterday.
Prasad: Did you suspect her prior to that?
Shankar: No.
Prasad: In the nine weeks during which the three murders occurred, didn’t you have any reason to suspect your wife?
Shankar: No.
Prasad: Are you sure?
Shankar: Do you think I assisted her? Is that what you think of me?
Prasad: Shankar, wouldn’t you ask the same question if you are the interviewer?
Shankar: Yes, sir.
Prasad: So, let me repeat. During those nine weeks, and with hindsight, did you have any reason to suspect your wife?
Shankar: No, sir. From the material unearthed during the investigation, I found no clue that linked the murders with my wife, that is, till yesterday. This is also clear in the investigation reports I submitted daily to you. In addition, in the investigation team meetings in which you also participated, there was never any reason or clue for me or anyone to suspect Mrs. Srividya Shankar, my wife.



Excerpt from the Assessment Report Of Inspector Shankar by Commisioner Prasad
Based on the lengthy interview with Inspector Shankar and his assisting officers and, based on the thorough study of the investigation reports, there is no hard evidence to indicate that Inspector Shankar was aware about the murderous activities of his wife or had any grounds to suspect his wife, Mrs. Srividya Shankar.

I recommend that Inspector Sharma should resume work and that the temporary suspension be revoked.

As a personal and confidential remark, I would like to add that based on thirty years of my service and, based on my deep affection for Shankar and knowing that his past experience and work has been of the highest calibre, I find it impossible to believe that he did not suspect his wife.



Selection of Comments from another site

reader A: There seems to be a close resemblance with the Malayalam movie ‘Kariyila Kattu Pole’. But, there are differences too. Maybe, there is a case for going through this lesser work of yours where the focus seems to be elsewhere, hopefully somewhere. Please try to avoid piracy of any kind and to any extent.

reader B: You are a psycho, man, because yoU wasted MY time, loads of MY time, you nincompoop (even that is a compliment for you). This your attempt at pseudo-psychology? Stick to love, will you? By the way, have you forgotten about Suspense! God, if only blogs had peer-review before submission. BTW, did you forget to also say REDRUM REDRUM REDRUM (from Stephen King’s The Shining, remember) ??? Climb a pole and sit on it, man!

reader C: Hi, It’s me…can we forget our ‘misdemeanours’…fresh start??? Yours, xxx. What’s that they say in Morse? .. / .-.. --- ...- . / -.-- --- ..- (Di-dit, Di-dah-di-dit Dah-dah-dah Di-di-di-dah Dit, Dah-di-dah-dah Dah-dah-dah Di-di-dah).

reader D: you have definitely got it right…i mean, the power of a woman’s forehand swing…tell those wimps to stop going to the gym and to carry a kid or two…fyi, i defeated my hubby in arm-wrestling last night…whooopppeee…

reader E: I don’t get it. Did the husband kill the wife? I truly enjoyed reading the ending.

reader F: Is this fiction? If not, I would love to have you for supper. Kind regards, Hannibal Lecter




                                         Get Set...Ready....Go...

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Last Time I Wrote About Love

The last time I wrote about love, she laughed at me.

Then, I was studying at a college in a small village about 250 km from Delhi. It used to take more than 52 hours to reach Delhi by train from my hometown. From Delhi to the village, the travel time used to be 5 to 6 hours. I preferred to take the direct bus but the decision depended on how late the train arrived at Delhi. There was a bus at 22:00 and when I missed that, I had to wait at ISBT till the 05:30 bus. There were terrorists even then and the police did not allow anyone to sleep or leave their baggage unattended. I could also go by the 20:30 train from Old Delhi station to another village 26 km from the campus. Reaching the campus from there involved an hour’s ride in a jeep at around 03:00 with dense fog and a driver, in a bhang/alcohol induced stupor, spurred on with nudges to the ribs.

Life was not that bad in the college. The students rarely went out of the campus other than for the essential visits to the bus stand, the dhaba for paratha-anda bhurjee, that for hot chai-jalebi on a winter’s night, the hospital with the nurses or the balika vidyapeeth where the computer teacher was a beautiful unmarried Susan. In my second year, I ventured out to find a typist. I found the typist’s shop at around 10:00 on a dusty Saturday morning.

I had fallen in love for the first time and I had written my first love poem. The poem had three sections written separately and feverishly for three earlier ‘one-night crushes’. But, it seemed like a good idea to join the ‘feelings’ for my first love. It also seemed like a good idea to send that as an entry for her approval and also, as an entry for the British Council All–India Poetry Competition. The latter required a typed entry and thus, entered the typist into my life.

They were everywhere in those days. In fact, this typist resembled the one in my neighbourhood back home – a middle-aged educated man, a small shop with three typewriters, three tables, four chairs and two trainees (probably students learning typewriting on a holiday). At the back of that shop, and behind the man, a flimsy curtain barred the way leading to the typist’s house and family.

The typist saw me standing outside, looking nervous and uncertain like a virgin in a brothel. He lowered his spectacles from his forehead, studied me from head to toe for a minute or two, gauged my intentions and with a twirl of his hand beckoned me to sit beside his table. I entered without a word, took out an envelope with the manuscript from my cloth-bag and extended it to him. He blew on the flap, licked his thumb and took out the three sheets of my handwritten love poem.

“How many copies?” he asked.

“Two.” I had planned for one but I had money for two. I wanted my first love to read every word. “When should I come to collect...”

“You will have to read this to me,” the man interrupted, “your handwriting is nice to look at but impossible to read.”

I looked around the shop. I tilted my head in the direction of the trainees and begged silently to the typist.

“It’s Ok.” He leaned forward. “They hardly know English.”

I read and he typed. It was the first time I was reading my poetry aloud and to others. He guided and manoeuvered, and after the first stanza, I was reading well. We would stop when he had to use the whitener and correct a mistake. He did not suggest any corrections to my text. Once in a while, he even said “Wah!” My first audience and I felt great. I still cherish that. I do not care whether his true intentions were mercenary. I have written lots since that day, never to be seen by others but in my mind I still read to him everything.

It was past 11:00 when I read the last lines:

Solitude’s Wrath

   Which angel scattered diamonds upon this field –
   O wicked one! Why do you charm me so?
   Life seems so light with its wish to join you,
   But the gentle air alone caresses and beckons.

   Regal trees in slow waltz to Nature’s measures,
   Gilded crowns lighten the green expanse.
   O let us tread a measure, my beloved pretty one,
   Entertain this heart, control its childish raptures.

   Shafts of light in hazy blue – lanterns of the Path –
   Memory slips away to that distant time
   When with such a sight we delighted,
   But now, your hand not in mine, I face Solitude’s wrath.

When I stopped at the end and gave a sigh of relief, I heard her laugh.

The curtain at the back parted and she entered the room with a tray carrying four glasses of chai. The typist gestured to me and I hardly hesitated before taking a glass. The typist took his glass, signalled with his little finger that he is going inside for ‘1’ and left the room.

“O dear sir, drink thy cup or should I wait so?” I heard her whisper by my side.

I glared at her for mocking my words. I kept on glaring but I saw only her eyes, those beautiful eyes, maybe also her lips, and her smiling face, nothing more, I swear; at least, not then.

What was she then – her name Shreya, a girl in her final year at school (at Susan’s balika vidyapeeth, strangely), two or three years younger than me, staying with her uncle and family. Her parents were abroad and kind of separated. She had two siblings, one married and both abroad, too. I got to know this later.

Predictably, I lost my first love (and I swore I would never send my poetry to any woman – unless, I could not think of a better way to end a relationship) and never heard from the organizers of the Poetry Competition. But every fortnight, on Saturday morning, I would go to the typist’s shop and get two copies typed of whatever I had written. I waited patiently for the few moments with my critic. I guess I needed her more than she needed me. She did not share any of my beliefs, fears and passion. Many years later, in one of our worst moments, she told me why,

“For you, everything is just a phase.”

It was true. I was like a non-addicted chain smoker who had never experienced a nicotine rush. I wanted to wage wars, fight for justice, protest against something but I was just the clichéd pseudo-rebel really without a cause.

Even my writing life had its phases. In middle-school, it was Tagore, Wordsworth and the lot. I knew the Lake District better than my village. I was full of vales, dales, dew, doe-eyed beauty and patriotism. In high-school, I stumbled on Tolstoy, Chekhov, Wilde and Marquez. But, I still wrote like before. Without experience, I barely understood (and in that stage, the above juvenile venture happened).

I had a brief dalliance with Che (when I tried to grow a moustache); howling mad days with the Beat generation (when I did not cut my hair); a calm spiritual one with Richard Bach followed by Castaneda and a bit of the Upanishads (I think Pirsig’s Zen started that). Then, a lovely mother of a dull friend tried to introduce me to existentialism telling me that a ‘sin-free’ life is beyond human nature.

It was Shreya who introduced me to crime novels (that phase continued till the end of my marriage) and she made me try M&B. I dreamt of being tall, dark and handsome (I had a 33% chance of success, Shreya calculated) sharing champagne and a fireplace, if not my bed, with a woman. When the concerned women married tall, fair and handsome men, I lost interest and decided to stick to crime.

In my third year, Shreya joined a college in Delhi. But, she used to come to her uncle’s place for Diwali and Holi. I didn’t have anywhere to go and home was too far away.

She had a great relationship with people in that village, dada-dadi-chacha-chachi everywhere. During my third year Holi vacation, she took me to raddi-chacha and his typical second-hand bookshop in a university-village. I found a treasure for five rupees – Piaggio’s Differential Equations. Shreya asked me to take her through the book, “if not everything, something,” she said. With the permission of her uncle, I held tuition classes on those holidays. I tried my best to share my interest and she did well. I think we enjoyed each other’s company, too. I was even invited once for lunch. At the end of the fifth class, when we decided to stop after going through the basics of partial differential equations in chapter four, she told me,

“You are a lousy teacher.”

“For you, I am a lousy poet, a lousy teacher…” I retorted angrily.

“All that I meant was…you don’t have the patience to explain. You expect your student to know the subject before you teach.”

“The power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous.” I quoted Gibbon.

“Bull-shit!” she said, “It was nice anyway.” she added grudgingly.

I have wondered about how I was given access to her by her uncle. But, in those days, I was a guy a girl could take home to her parents – as a friend, of course. Somehow, girls’ folks found me ‘asexual’.

We ‘got sexual’ only once, during her Diwali holidays in my final year. We were alone in the dining room after lunch while her uncle, aunt and cousins rested elsewhere in the house.

“Have older women made passes at you, touched you?” she asked.

“No,” I replied too quickly and uncomfortably.

“You must not have noticed.”

“Shreya, that I would notice. Why do you ask?”

She shrugged. “There was a nice man in the train.”

“Old man?”

“Not very old.”

“Did he trouble you?”

“No.”

“What’s troubling you then?”

“Nothing…I fantasized about him last night.”

Then and now, I have never been open to discussions about such matters, even with guys. I believe that everyone should grow up without any help and with their own warped sense of sexuality. But, at that point, bravado, curiosity or a mixture of both made me ask,

“Have you thought…about…me?”

“Long back,” came her prompt reply.

“Oh!”

During my college days, we never met outside her uncle’s house. I never invited her to the college. Nor did we try to meet in Delhi. But, we did see each other once in Delhi.

Once a month, I would catch the first bus to Delhi – to take a break and to breathe the sweet city air. I would reach Delhi around 10:00, feeling like an old soggy pair of socks, probably smelling like that too. I would take an auto-rickshaw from ISBT to Connaught Place and there, to Nirula’s ice-cream parlour to have a double chocolate ice-cream soda. I was familiar with the waiters and the school-kids kept their distance.

On one of those visits, I saw her there with a baby-faced guy. I did not want to skip my drink but I tried to avoid her. I must have stood out like a sore thumb, if not a country bumpkin, in that place. She came over with baby-face,

“Adarsh, what are you doing here?”

“Drinking soda.”

She introduced me to the guy, I have forgotten his name, and he did not seem very pleased to share her and a table with me. But, we did talk like adults and during the interval, he excused himself with “to refresh” and gave me a pointed look. I have always had a thick skin when it comes to other guys. Together alone, I asked,

“Who is Farex baby?”

“He is smart.”

“How long?”

“Six months.”

“When did it start?”

“Cute, you sound jealous.”

“You wish!”

I completed my ‘time’ in college and took up a research position in Bangalore. Before leaving college and that place, I met her uncle and family. I even touched her uncle’s feet and he hugged me with genuine affection. While taking leave, I gave a note to him,

“That is the telephone number at my parent’s place – that will not change.”

In my second year at Bangalore, when I returned to the hostel after a tiring day of research and volleyball, a colleague told me,

“There was a call.”

“Whose?”

“She said that she is your wife.”

“Did she leave her number?”

“No.”

In Bangalore, I had managed to lead a good life but on the edge of penury. The closest I came to a meaningful relationship was a close acquaintance – fortunately, she was a vegetarian and quite happy when I treated her at a decent but cheap place to curd rice, bisibele bath and free pickle. But, a recurring nightmare prompted me to end the affair. In that nightmare, I am married to this acquaintance; and, after my strenuous efforts on the ‘first night’ she enquires “Theerno, chetta? ” (“Darling, over?”)

It took two months for ‘my wife’ to call again. This time, fortunately, I was there in the hostel.

“Adarsh here.” I said gruffly.

“Hey, it’s me.”

“Shreya, you idiot! Where are you?”

“Here, in Bangalore.”

She had joined a course for MBA. In the months that followed, we met often though not regularly. She had discarded Farex baby for a professor. I asked her why she was going after ‘my type’. She did not answer.

At that time, my first love popped into my life once again, a brief tempestuous fling before she married someone respectable. I borrowed money from Shreya to finance my affair. I managed to repay when my fellowship was increased in the fourth year and I felt rich for the first time – I could go to M.G. Road more than once a month.

Shreya got a good job after her two-year course. She took me to Karavalli along with a nice girl-friend of hers with whom I flirted outrageously. Mid-way through the meal, the friend asked me,

“You two – are you an item?”

I looked at Shreya but she kept a blank face, “We are too good friends for that.” I replied.

Shreya smiled. I felt as if my life had been sucked dry.

Was I thinking about some North-South divide? Did I think that Shreya would never want to settle in my hometown where I thought I had my roots, ancestral property, what-not? Was I trying to keep Shreya as a friend – I wanted that role at least?

Another year went by and I got a fellowship from abroad. I got the news by e-mail. I remember that Thursday evening – it was raining heavily and there were reports that M.G. Road and the area around Ulsoor Lake, where Shreya lived, was water-logged. I desperately wanted to surprise Shreya and celebrate with her.

But, I received her call around five in the evening.

“Adarsh…please come.”

“Where are you?”

“Apartment….”

“Are you Ok?”

“Sick…”

I asked a colleague to help me but he told me that it is too dangerous to go on his motorcycle. I asked the Administrative Officer of the Institute whether he could help me. He owed me a favour. When his wife died in an accident, I went with him to the mortuary, shielded him from the arduous task of dealing with the helpers and the officials, even bribing to ‘process’ his wife’s body quickly. He arranged for an Institute car to drop me at Shreya’s apartment.

It took a while for Shreya to come to the door. She was shivering, looking extremely weak and dirty, and her house-coat seemed stained with vomit. Even in that state close to fainting, her eyes contained an apology and she was crying, too.

I half-carried her inside. I took her to the bathroom. It was really a mess out there. I filled a bucket with warm water, washed her face and made her rinse her mouth. I got her a fresh nightdress from the cupboard and told her to change her clothes. Once she looked reasonably fresh, I took her back to her bed. I changed the sheets and then, tucked her in. Using her phone, I called my sister, a doctor. Probably just flu along with a stomach bug; rest, fluids, food and rest, my sister suggested.

While she rested, I cleaned the place, washed her clothes, cooked for both of us. I woke her up at regular intervals – “to refuel”, I told her. Outside, it continued to rain.

It remained so till Saturday morning. I was sleeping on the sofa in the drawing room and I woke up in the early hours to find her sitting by my side. She looked much better.

“Can I lie here for a while?” she asked.

She snuggled against my chest and we slept. By the time I woke up, she had already had a bath, looked fresh and rather healthy, and she had oats and coffee ready for me.

“Do you remember our first fight?” she asked in her usual abrupt fashion.

I nodded. On that occasion, it was I who had been sick – bronchial asthma compounded with viral flu. When she tried to fuss over me, I told her “I know how to look after myself”. I went back to my hostel to rest. But I waited for her hoping that she would bring something good to eat, a good soup, maybe. She did not come to me till the next morning. When she did, I told her to get lost. Unfortunately, she listened to me. Later, a colleague told me that she had come the previous night – rather late though, after sulking probably – but did not want to disturb me. I guess it was the first time we really showed some ‘real emotion’ to each other – and so, we stayed away from each other for a month or two.

“Why?” I asked in reply to her question.

She shrugged. She was sitting close to me. I held her hand and kissed her for the first time – I remember kissing the space between the second and third knuckle of her right hand. I held her arms and drew her close to me. Then, I kissed her on her lips. Just the plain old-fashioned kiss – starting at the middle, light touches here and there and then to the side, exploring together, parting the lips a little, kissing deeper. There are some during which you wait for the end; there are some which make you wish for a strip of Wrigley’s (I do not know about the young these days but my generation used to carry Wrigley’s rather than condoms – just being realistic, I suppose). Then, there are those kisses which you will label as the kiss of your life. And the first one with that woman is usually the best – when there are barriers to demolish.

When we parted after the kiss, we still held each other. I traced a finger over her left cheek. I looked at that face and thought,

“God! I need this woman.”

Then she said,

“Adarsh?”

“Huh?”

“I cannot have sex with you.”

I was still holding her. I cannot remember whether my grip tightened or loosened.

“I am engaged to be married…” she continued.

What?!” I exclaimed and then, pushed her away.

She gave me the details, it was the same professor, she said. I listened quietly. When I felt rage ready to spill over, I went to the bathroom, washed my face and bashed my right fist into the concrete wall. I watched the middle knuckle swelling. And then, I felt that I was in control of myself.

We continued chatting, even touching upon the kiss,

“It was…” she hesitated.

“Lousy?” I fished for a compliment.

She just smiled.

Her wedding happened a week before I left the country. I took the newly-wed couple for a good lunch at Silver Wok. Pati patni aur woh – just that the three of us seemed unsure about which role to take. But, I wished them well. We made no promise to keep in touch.

Nice women get lousy husbands. But, wonderful (and lousy) women unfortunately get great guys.

I got married after two years. When I got married, most of my friends were married too. Only when I got divorced did I hear about friends who had divorced or were in the process. Then, even those re-married. I decided to remain single, to concentrate on my career, I reasoned. Is there anything to say about my marriage? No, I guess not, she is a nice woman.

I had switched fields and I was rising fast in an investment bank. What did I do? When the margin from old products was not enough to beat hedging errors, I cooked up new exotic products. As long as the customer was not sure about how to price, I made a profit – irrespective of whether it was a bull or a bear market, recession or boom time. There were always enough fools around to cheat.

I was in the midst of a rather big deal when my phone buzzed and I saw that it was her call. I remembered her husband, switched off the mobile and finished the meeting. Then I took the team to a wine bar and celebrated. I got home late with a pleasant lady, feeling rather lonely till she left at the break of dawn.

It was Saturday, around 6 am. I switched on my mobile and remembered that I should return her call.

“Shreya?”

“Adarsh.”

“What’s up?”

“He died last night.”

I think she disconnected or maybe, I did. It took more than three years for me to get her talking. What do you expect? I didn’t go for the funeral. I didn’t send a note. I didn’t call either. It took me a year to show up at her place. Right at the door, blocking my entry, that’s when she told me,

“For you, everything is just a phase.”

I nearly retorted, “For you, too.”

But, she was right. And, I was wrong, I knew.

I left her place. But, she called me later, that is, two years later. We agreed to meet for lunch. She was doing very well, career-wise. Same with me, too – though, I could feel the beginning of the end of that career.

Her husband had been “fine for breakfast, in a coma by lunch, thanks to an aneurysm or something”. When the doctors had told her that her husband was brain-dead and advised her to pull the plug, that’s when she had called me three years back from the hospital. “That’s all”, she concluded.

After that, did we keep in touch regularly? Did I think about her? No and yes, always, as usual.

I left my job, went back to my hometown and realized that I had no reason to be there. But, I stayed.

Two years passed before I got her next call with the message,

“My uncle died this morning.” Her uncle, my typist…

I managed to catch the flight to Delhi, with a stopover at Mumbai. I think the bus ride from Delhi to the village still takes 5 hours or so. I am writing this in the plane.

I do not know what the ending will be – maybe, she has married once again; maybe, I will propose a long time too late; maybe, she is sick; maybe, the bus will meet with an accident; maybe, it’s just another meeting between her calls.

It is not the ending that matters, to me or to her. It is never the ending that actually matters.

I will show this to her. I will read it to her. Her uncle would have liked it.

The last time I wrote about love, she laughed at me.

Monday, July 5, 2010

If You Think You Are Old, Read This; Or, Even Otherwise...

This is a review of the Montalbano series by Andrea Camilleri.

Note from the reviewer: First, I will touch upon the question ‘Where does this book fit in?’ and this might be relevant if you are not a fan of crime fiction. Then, I will briefly touch upon Andrea Camilleri (age 85 and going stronger) and his wonderful character Detective Inspector Salvo Montalbano (age 56 in the recent ‘The Wings Of The Sphinx’). Here, I will use passages from this particular book to illustrate my case. I shall try not to reveal the plot or the story. I will also touch upon other details which you could look forward to while reading this or any book in the Montalbano series.

Crime fiction can be roughly classified into three. One, those books where the emphasis is on the crime, the plot and the method of detection (Holmes, Poirot-Miss Marple, Dalgliesh, Morse are typical examples of master detectives). Two, those crime novels which use the structure of ‘a police procedural’ to focus on society, the current issues and the exploration of human nature (here, I recommend Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly, Val McDermid, Henning Mankell). Finally, an equal combination of the first two categories along with a motive for crime which astounds and enthralls (Umberto Eco’s ‘The Name Of The Rose’ is a likely example).

The Montalbano series falls under category two. Camilleri uses sparkling wit, subtle and also slapstick humour, satire and an honest love for the good things in life to discuss the ills of society, crime and the true criminals, politics and of course, a poignant view of human relationships. Though the novels are typically based in Sicily, there is a universal nature to his discussions. Each book usually contains a barely concealed attack on ‘controlled’ media and Silvio Berlusconi, the powerful Italian politician. The reader can easily replace Berlusconi or the Italian media with the local bigwigs. The books in this series rarely exceed 300 pages. But, in between crime detection and entertaining comic dialogue, Camilleri finds space for simple observation:

‘Actually, if one really thought about it, the television had been presenting the same news stories for years; the only things that changed were the names: the names of the towns in which the events were occurring and the names of the people involved. But the substance was always the same.’

What should you know about the author Andrea Camilleri? He was born in 1925. In 1994, Camilleri at the age of 69, published his first book in the bestselling Montalbano series. This series is based in a fictitious place called Vigata, the model for which is Camilleri’s own Sicilian birthplace. To honour Camilleri and the Montalbano series, his birthplace Porto Empedocle has changed its name to Porto Empedocle Vigata.

Why do I envy the character Salvo Montalbano? At 56, he has

• a volatile but trusting relationship with a long-term long-distance girlfriend Livia;
• the sexy and intelligent Swedish blonde ‘Ingrid Sjostrom! His friend, confidante, and accomplice!’ with whom Montalbano shares an occasional platonic cuddle;
• trustworthy colleagues including the half-wit Catarella who is the expert in computers, the good journalist-friend Nicolo Zito and Dr. Pasquano, a match for irascibility;
• a wonderful cook and housekeeper Adelina;
• Enzo’s trattoria which serves him the best (the unfortunate reader will be tortured with well-described meals, a la gourmet, and even enticed with recipes);
• survived many battles against the establishment;
• a lovely house by the beach;
‘before going in…lit a cigarette. Smoking was not allowed inside. And he always conformed – perhaps with a curse – whenever he saw a non-smoking sign…On the other hand, where on earth was a poor bastard allowed to smoke these days? Not even in the toilets.’

The Montalbano series have been translated into English by Stephen Sartarelli and he has done a great job. He adds his own touch to the books with ‘Notes’ for the English reader unfamiliar with Italian/European politics and history, and Camilleri’s usage of Sicilian dialect and references to Italian literature.

Of course, Camilleri leaves you with his own challenging note at the end:

‘This novel is made up…There is no doubt, however, that the novel is born of a specific reality.’

For a proper review of Camilleri and his work, please refer to:

Paul Bailey on the late flowering of an Italian phenomenon’ in The Guardian.
Review including the list of his books and Author Q&A.


Or better, read the books...you will not regret!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Terms & Conditions for the Nouveau Blogger

I am still knocking at the Gates Of Blogdoom. I have company.

A few have left, discouraged, but they will be back. Where can they go?

To kill time we discussed about what we should do, that is, if we gain access.

Minutes of the discussion, scrawled on our fig leaves, are:

1. Be an adult. If you fall in love with a fellow-blogger, be ready to find out that he/she is actually Hillary Clinton and/or Osama Bin Laden.

2. Never assume that you are anonymous. On blogosphere, like elsewhere on the Net, refrain from activities that your mother should not see.

3. Itemize, that is, if you want your viewer to go beyond line 1.

4. Forget composition classes in school. In a blog, a paragraph should not have more than 2 lines.

5. Use smileys/emoticons. It helps viewers laugh/cry with you.

6. If you are ‘into’ creative writing, still use smileys/emoticons but just mix them up – when you laugh, your viewer should cry.

7. Do not expect viewers to read between the lines. They can hardly read the lines.

8. You can be an active or a passive blogger. An active blogger will spend 60% of time commenting on one’s own blogs, 10% commenting on others’ blogs and 30% to post a blog; a passive blogger will spend 100% of time to post a blog.

9. System Administrators usually help passive bloggers by deleting their work after every third blog so that they can start with the same stuff all over again.

10. Use a tool to see the time spent by a viewer on your blog. If the time is less than 3 seconds, the comment will be “Great stuff”; else if, time is greater than 3 seconds but less than 1 minute, the comment will be “What crap!”; else, the viewer has gone to sleep without switching off the internet connection.

11. Do unto bloggers as you wish they do unto you.

12. For bloggers, the 10 commandments still hold – but include these, too. More the merrier.

13. Never write the 13th blog/point/comment.


Note posted 48 hours later: This blog, posted on Sulekha too, is my most ‘successful’ blog. Unfortunately so but the irony of the situation is a redeeming feature. I cannot reply to the comments from good people (no sarcasm intended), can I? Self-deprecation turned into sarcasm, satire into mockery. Then, there are those who remain absent, those who doubt me. I can only repeat, “I abuse those I love, I place my friends on the rack but I am kind and courteous to those I don’t give a damn. Which do you want me to be?” Doubt is an illness and you will not get any help from me.