Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Lady with a Smile

1. Scene of the Crime

The dead young woman had a trace of a lingering smile on what remained of her battered face.

“What could have made her smile?” Inspector Arvind muttered to himself rather than to his colleagues, constables Winston and Kutty. They were on the rock on which the lady’s body had been found at seven that morning.

Arvind looked around from that rock jutting out onto the river. The scene appeared rather poetic though such a thought seemed incongruous at that moment. To him, the river seemed furiously careless; swollen with the recent rains; troubled by eddies, rapids and uneven depths; after being raped and tortured by illegal sand-mining.

A hundred metres upstream, near the temple steps where there used to be wide shallow sandy bathing places, wild green growth had invaded along with impassive jagged rocks marking the route like traffic signals leading the new and unsuspecting to deadly depths. An empty sand-miners’ boat was tied to a tree there.

The green trees, the muddy river and the blue skies mirrored the false calm of the dead body.

Arvind felt, shamefully, that the body completed the scene very well – a once-beautiful lady lying on those rocks, her white sari in place quite correctly. Rather too correctly, he observed. Her right hand still clutched a betel leaf with temple offerings. A smudge of sandalwood paste could be seen on her forehead along with raw flesh and darkening blood.

“Looks like it wasn’t sexual abuse, right?” Arvind asked his colleagues. As usual, they treated it as a rhetorical question. With many years of experience between them, the two kept questions for suspects; and, expected statements and orders between colleagues.

Arvind waited for a while before continuing with his soliloquy,

“Someone left her with care. Of course, after bashing the left side of her face to pulp. She must have been facing her killer and even standing quite close. Same height probably, since the blows are from the side. To get bashed on the left, the killer must be right-handed, right?”

Winston, the baby-faced giant, hitched up his pants above his huge pot-belly and tried to suppress a yawn. The tall scrawny Kutty rubbed his pock-marked face and simultaneously scratched his groin languorously.

Feeling that it was time they chipped in, Kutty said,

“Rajappan the butcher found the body. He reported it along with the barber Sethu. This Sethu says that he was on his way to open his shop when he came across Rajappan in this area. Well, that’s what he says...”

“At seven, on a Tuesday when the barber shop is closed... and his shop is on the opposite side…?” Winston added his own suspicions. “And, Rajappan had gone to the river for a wash…wash indeed....when there are better spots near his house a kilometre upstream…”

There were two plots of land overlooking that area – one, an uninhabited rubber plantation which extended for a few acres; and the other, a small plot with a hut. There was a muddy path between the two plots and this appeared to be the only way from the rock to the main road. There was no point searching for footprints now after the whole world seemed to have trampled on that area that morning. Arvind pointed at the hut.

Winston offered, “That’s Maniyan’s hut, the rubber tapper. A real trouble-maker…we booked him once or twice for stealing rubber sheets. We should bring him in. And his wife…she is one great piece...” Kutty silenced him with a glare.

“Do you know the victim?” Arvind asked turning back towards the body.

His constables asked back together, “Don’t you know?”

Kutty tried to defuse his senior’s stare by adding, “She is…was…Prasad Master’s daughter, Bharathi.”

“Ah!” Arvind looked at the battered face once again. He had seen her at the temple once or twice. He had admired her slim curvaceous young body, with equal portions of guilt and pleasure, while he prayed to the Gods to save him from this rural posting. She had smiled at him. Her smile had seemed a trifle cold, he remembered. Arvind had even gone to her father’s house once, during his first week six months back, but he had not seen her there then.

Arvind’s mentor in college, on hearing that he was leaving for this village, had told him to meet Prasad Master, a retired teacher and ‘a great scholar’. Arvind found the teacher to be a straightforward decent human being, too. Though he was invited to visit at any time, Arvind never returned because he did not want to awaken the ghosts of his aspiration.

Arvind’s father died in an accident a few days after he enrolled for a Ph.D. in literature. Following that disaster, he had to find a job to take care of his family and he managed to enter the police force. On his record, his IQ and athletic strong body were noted as his pluses; and, his below-par height of five-eight and an inclination to ‘think too long alone’ were among the minuses. If he had had some ‘influence’ or money, he could have tried for a posting in some place other than this village police station previously manned by the two veteran constables.

Before his arrival in the village, Winston and Kutty spread a rumour there that ‘Arvind’s specialty’ was ‘terrorist networks’ and that ‘he made even the crazy talk sense’. This helped in a way and the crimes had so far remained petty in the last six months and ‘catch-able if necessary’. On one lazy afternoon, the two constables found Arvind reading a book of poetry in office. From the displeasure or disgust on their faces, Arvind realized that he should consign such books to those beneath his mattress at home. He also decided that visiting Prasad Master would be inappropriate for his image in that village.

“She must have been taking this short-cut from the temple to her house.” Winston interrupted his reverie.

“If she had gone to the temple…it must have happened between 05:30 and 07:00…Who would kill at that hour? Rather careless, that…” Kutty added.

“Uncontrollable rage while killing and then care to cover her body well after the deed…Find out if she had a lover. Ask the tea-shop owner if he heard anything.” Arvind said knowing that the tea-shop is the nerve-centre of the village.

“Also, grab some of those sand-miners.” In his early days there, he had wanted to arrest the whole lot but the common sentiment in the village was ‘it helped a lot of the poor come ashore’, the ‘it’ being illegal sand-mining.

“Those temple ruffians, too…?” Kutty suggested referring to a group of unemployed disillusioned youth who treated the stage in front of the temple as their ‘hang-out’ for card-games, siesta and liquor.

Arvind nodded and added, “Maybe, even the priests…” A young woman walking alone on a deserted path from the temple....

“A thick stick or a rock must have been used to bash her face in. It must be in the river.” Winston said, scowling at the river.

“There is no point in trying to recover, is there? You two, arrange for the rest of the formalities. I will go and inform her parents, what a bloody task!” Arvind left the scene feeling that the poetry had left long back. He took stock of the area while walking past the rubber plantation to Prasad Master’s house, about five hundred metres from the scene of the crime.

Arvind’s ‘task’ at the teacher’s house was painful as expected. The mother collapsed in front of him and her youngest daughter tried to support without breaking down herself. The father lay unmoving in an arm-chair, with eyes closed and tears flowing down his sunken cheeks.

The victim’s younger brother angrily told Arvind ‘to kill the killer’. The elder sister stood quietly while listening to her husband describe to Arvind, rather profusely, about the victim’s activities that morning. When Arvind left that house, he wondered why the brother-in-law knew so much about the victim.

On his way to the police station, Arvind studied the list in his hand – he had ten people and another assorted lot in three groups, too. One of them was most likely to be the killer. Or, was it someone not on the scene at the moment?

2. Questions & Answers


On what remained of that Tuesday, Arvind and the two constables Winston and Kutty interviewed nearly all the people other than the family, allowing the family to grieve in relative peace.

They tried to interview without prejudice or any presumptions. Winston offered Rajappan the butcher stating that the person who discovered the crime usually turned out to be the perpetrator. The other two suspected that a personal grudge was blinding Winston but they did not voice their doubts. Kutty tried to sell Sethu’s name on the same grounds. Winston knew why Kutty raised the barber’s name but he kept quiet. Arvind would have preferred to put cuffs on the brother-in-law because it had to be someone close to the victim; or the sand-miners, because he hated them.

Arvind told the constables to deal with the tea-shop owner. Though he was on pleasant terms with the village-folk, he was still an outsider. He knew that even the constables filtered that which he should hear and that which he need not hear. He had realized that there was something about Rajappan and Sethu that his juniors were not telling him.

Arvind started with Maniyan, the rubber tapper, whose house was near the scene. In the police station, a sullen belligerent Maniyan informed him that he had left his house around five. He had cycled to a plantation five kilometers from his house and after completing on various plots in that area, he had tea at a nearby shop at six forty five. Then, he had started on the second phase of collecting and delivering the rubber milk. Arvind checked out this alibi and did not find anything amiss. Maniyan also told him that he did not work on the plantation next to his own plot. He had fought with the owner, he replied looking quite smug.

“Every day, God-willingly if it does not rain, I work and return to my house only at ten. Everyone knows that...” Maniyan informed implying that Arvind must be a damn fool to waste his time talking to him. He also told Arvind that he had never met the victim apart from seeing her around in the village.

Next, Arvind interviewed Maniyan’s wife at the hut. He waited near the river till he saw Maniyan leave the hut around mid-afternoon, probably for his customary tipple. Arvind introduced himself and she brought out a steel chair for him to sit. He had to struggle hard not to stare at her voluptuous body. She could be said to be pretty if not beautiful, with a small upturned nose and a delicate mouth with full pouting lips, her kohl-lined fair eyes seemed to entice. She was definitely a woman who knew her charms. She stood five steps from him, watching him like a cat.

“Where were you between five and seven yesterday morning?” Arvind blurted.

“Here.”

“Was your husband here?” he checked.

“No, he had gone for work.”

“Do you know the woman who was killed?”

“No, sir...I have seen her around, of course.” Arvind detected a hesitation and made a mental note.

“Did you see her yesterday?”

“No. I did not go near the river.”

“Did you see anyone going to the river?”

“Rajappan went there, around seven. He wanted to take bath, I think.”

“Did you see him before he went to the river?”

“Yes…”

“Where…?” He asked expectantly.

“Here.”

“Here?” Arvind stuttered.

She told him with an amused tone that Rajappan had been there with her from six till seven. Then, she offered to get Arvind a glass of tea or buttermilk. Arvind declined the offer.

“Has she come to this house?” Arvind asked.

Now, it was her turn to feel flustered. She replied, “She came here once…preached to me about morals. I gave her an earful. Who does she think she is?”

Arvind left the hut. He decided that he should talk to his juniors before he interviewed anyone else.

It was around tea-time when he got back to the police station. Winston was out trying to get some of the sand-miners.

Arvind sat on Kutty’s table and asked him, “What’s going on between Winston, Rajappan and Maniyan’s wife?”

Kutty remained quiet but seeing his boss’ tightly drawn face, he did not try to evade the question, “Nothing, sir. Rajappan succeeded where Winston failed, that’s all.”

“How long has this been going on?”

“I don’t know…heard about it long back.”

“Is this common knowledge in the village?”

“I guess so.”

“And, does he know, I mean, Maniyan?”

“Of course… I suppose he gets what he wants. I think even Rajappan’s wife knows. They always get to know such things.”

Arvind was at a loss for words. He remembered what Maniyan’s wife had said about the victim, “…preached to me about morals…” Maybe, there was a gulf, created by small-town morals, between him and the villagers…

Arvind left the station and walked over to the butcher’s shop. Rajappan was cleaning the knives and the shop, and getting ready to close the shop for the day. Standing a little away from the dirty water and the stink of offal, Arvind went through his story. He did not learn anything new. Rajappan told Arvind that he did not know the dead lady personally. He refused to admit that he had been to Maniyan’s hut even after Arvind told him that Maniyan’s wife had admitted the same. Arvind asked Rajappan whether he had touched the dead body or arranged the lady’s clothes after he found the body.

Rajappan replied, “Why should I? I know a dead body when I see one. I touch only dead animals. And I don’t touch the clothes of dead women.”

Arvind went back to the station where he found Winston taking care of some paperwork. Kutty was not in the station.

Arvind stood near the constable, “Winston, why did Kutty pick out Sethu’s name?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

“You don’t know, do you?” Arvind’s mood was getting darker by the minute. “Do you know how it is like to get posted far from your village for the rest of your miserable career?”

“I am not sure, sir…I mean, people say that Sethu is a homo. Kutty does not like that kind of people…”

“Was Sethu meeting someone there, near the rubber plantation?”

“There is an old shed in that rubber plantation. I have heard that lovers meet there…”

“Who is Sethu’s lover?”

“I don’t know, sir…”

“Which are the houses in that area?”

“There is Maniyan’s house, of course…then, Prasad Master’s house after the plantation. There are only two more houses after that before the paddy fields. One is empty, they are abroad; in the other, there is an old lady and her servant girl.”

Arvind left the station once again and walked this time in the opposite direction to the barber’s shop. When he opened the swing-door,

“The shop is closed.” Sethu said with his back to the door, sweeping the hair on the floor.

“I will take only a few minutes.”

Sethu looked up and saw Arvind in one of the mirrors. He turned around immediately, offered a chair and said, “Sorry sir, haircut or shave?”

“No, I am here about the murder.”

“Oh, that…”

Sethu told Arvind that he had gone for a morning walk and that he met Rajappan near the rubber plantation. Rajappan had looked shaken and so, Sethu had enquired if there was anything wrong with him. When Rajappan told him about the dead body, he had advised him to report it at the station. He had gone along.

“Didn’t you want to see the dead lady or go near the river?” Arvind asked.

“For what…?”

Arvind left the barber’s shop without asking Sethu about his lover or about any meeting.

Before dusk, Arvind and the two constables gathered some of the sand-miners. They had not done any sand-mining that day, they said, because of the murder, they added like a complaint.

Arvind tried to act tough and roughed up the leader, releasing old pent up anger but all he got back was the retort,

“Sir, are you trying to scare us? If you are really that bothered about what we do, why don’t you catch the big fish?” The leader laughed. “That murdered lady…she also tried the same stunt with us, threatening to finish us. As if she can…”

“But, you did finish her?”

“Sir, have you been watching too many movies? When we do not worry about you, will we worry about such small fry?” There was nothing more to get out of them.

Around six, Arvind walked to the temple alone. As usual, there were a few young men playing rummy, not even bothering to get up or hide the cash when Arvind walked up to the stage. He had seen most of them before. He knew that at least two were post-graduates like him.

The youth were just a shade better than the sand-miners when it came to insolence. Yes, they had seen the lady often at the temple. No, she was not the type they liked, they said and further added, though you seem to have liked her, sir.

Arvind asked them if they had had any confrontation with her. That bitch was itching for a bite, they replied nonchalantly, she had tried to provoke them…said she would report their stealing…or their gambling…or some other stuff.

Arvind could imagine what the other stuff could be. He also knew that youth like these lived to get into trouble, to get at least that attention from their society.

The dead lady seemed to have gone against nearly all that came on her path. Did she go fatally wrong with one of them, Arvind wondered.

Before closing for the day, he met his constables once again.

“Tomorrow, we will tackle the family. What did you get out of the tea-owner?”

Winston replied, “It’s really strange.”

Kutty added, “He told us that nobody talks about her. She must be the only one in the village about whom nobody talks.”


3. The Meaning of Her Smile

On the day after the murder, Arvind woke up at five thinking about his two initial doubts: the smile and the loving hand.

He got ready and left his rented house at around half past five. He walked to the temple. His last visit to the temple must have been a month or two earlier and the two priests looked new to the place. There were two or three ladies praying. He watched the main priest complete the main puja at that hour and while collecting the offering, he requested the main priest for five minutes of his time.

He learned that the main priest and his assistant had joined six weeks back; and, that they were just getting to know the village-folk. They had seen the murdered lady Bharathi in the temple but neither of them knew her any better. Arvind tried to probe further but the priest excused himself stating his temple duties.

Arvind approached the temple accountant-cum-officer who was giving puja chits to a lady in the temple’s office-room. The officer had a perpetual disgruntled look as if he was doing a favour to God by sitting there. Arvind gathered that the officer did not think it necessary to talk to the villagers except to collect donations.

In the temple compound, a lady was sweeping the ground. She was more accommodating. The lady stood at a ‘safe distance’ from Arvind and talked in whispers and, at all times, kept a lookout for the main priest or the officer. From the lady, Arvind learned that Bharathi, the murdered lady, used to visit regularly and that her visits were more frequent before the former priests left the place. She and the former priests used to talk a lot together, she confided. The lady regretfully conceded that she did not know why the priests decided to leave. Arvind thanked the lady and left the temple premises via the temple steps leading to the river.

Arvind followed the path that Bharathi had taken. He knew that police sniffer dogs had been used on that path but without any success. He reached the rock where the lady was found. He looked at the area more carefully. He realized that if the killer had taken the muddy path past Maniyan’s hut, the killer would have been seen by someone.

As he looked around, he realized that a person familiar with the place had another route too. Though treacherous and dangerous, a person familiar with the place could go downstream by hopping onto the rocks that dotted the river at irregular intervals.

Arvind nervously took that path. He knew that he would meet a watery and bloody death if he made a slight mistake in any jump. It seemed to take ages for him but he knew that it would be less arduous for a local. At each rock, he inspected the area for any clue or evidence. He got lucky on the eleventh rock.

He found a handkerchief snagged in a wedge on that rock. There were a few red smudges on that as if blood had been wiped. He slipped it into a plastic cover. When he was about fifty metres from the murder site, he realized that the next step was onto a plot and that it was that of Prasad Master.

“Was it someone from this house or someone from outside?” Arvind asked himself.

It was then close to half past seven. He went to Prasad Master’s house. It appeared empty. The policeman had expected the usual lot of morning relatives and friends or at least the arrangements for the last rites.

He knocked at the door. After some time, the two daughters came to the door together. The elder one told him that their parents had gone to a hospital and that father had not been well. They did not invite him inside. Arvind tried to ask a few questions but did not get anything substantial from them. Arvind felt, rather angrily, that Bharathi must have done all the talking in that house.

The son-in-law then appeared and invited Arvind to step inside. Arvind curtly told the son-in-law to come to the station, at half past eight, along with Bharathi’s brother.

Arvind walked to the station, thinking about all that he had heard so far. Kutty and Winston were there at the station and he told them that he wanted to tackle the son alone. Meanwhile, he wanted the son-in-law to sweat it out waiting at the station.

The son and the son-in-law reported at the station ten minutes before the scheduled time. The son appeared nervous rather than angry that morning. He tried to look at Arvind eye-to-eye. Involuntarily, he kept biting and chewing his lower lip.

“Sethu mentioned your meeting – at what time did you two meet?” Arvind decided to bluff with the opening hand.

“What?” the son pretended as if he had not heard properly. Arvind remained silent, tapping his fingers on the table as if to indicate that he was losing patience. He stopped smiling and started scowling. He remembered that the ragging in his college hostel had been quite similar.

“At six thirty,” the son whispered.

“And, your sister Bharathi knew about it…and she did not like your relationship…” Arvind was hoping that his second bluff would hold, too.

“Sethu should not have told you that,” the young man was on the verge of crying, “after all, she is dead. It is not nice to talk ill of the dead.”

“Did she threaten to expose you two?”

“Yes, but we promised not to meet ever again. That was supposed to be our last meeting.”

“But, the two of you killed her, instead.”

“No! That is not true. You are like the rest of them, aren’t you? For you, our kind should be the killers, the evil ones?” the young man was ready to sob.

Arvind did not bother to correct the young man. He proceeded to get the details about the meeting in the plantation. Then, he kept the son waiting in his office, went to the outer office. He gave Winston the details and told him to corroborate with Sethu’s version. Make Sethu give his version, Arvind told Winston and the latter nodded.

Arvind then returned to his office and questioned the young man about his sisters. He enquired if Bharathi had had any lover. The young man replied that she did not even have close friends. Arvind asked him if the other two sisters were also similar to Bharathi. They are totally different, not so bold or outgoing, the young man said.

Arvind tried to ask about his brother-in-law but he felt that the guard was up. And, though he tried to break the defenses, the young man did not utter anything worth noting about his brother-in-law and sisters. Winston returned and indicated to Arvind with a nod that Sethu’s version matched well. Arvind let the young man leave. He made the son-in-law wait for another hour before calling him in.

“Why didn’t you go with your father-in-law to the hospital?” Arvind asked the son-in-law.

“Father told me to stay with the girls.”

“Of the three, Bharathi seems to have been your favourite.” Arvind was fishing with meager bait, he knew.

“What are you talking about?”

“I have heard that you were more close to her than your own wife.” Arvind lied.

“That’s nonsense. You are new to this place. You should believe only half of what you hear.” The son-in-law sounded agitated.

“So, there is a half-truth in what I said. Tell me, did she accuse you of abusing her or the younger one?”

“Who told you that? It is not true. Ask my wife or the younger one. They will tell you that I treat my wife’s sisters like my own sisters.”

“But, she did accuse you?”

The son-in-law looked at Arvind desperately, hesitating, probably thinking about the right answer to get out of the mess. Finally, he said, “Yes.”

Arvind spent the rest of the morning questioning, trying to get more but the son-in-law’s story was similar to the others.

Bharathi the accuser; and in this case, Arvind was not sure whether the accusation was a lie or true. He also knew that it was impossible to know the truth. People do not reveal such truth and worse, such accusation sticks and stinks; like shit on one’s sole.

The son-in-law had a perfect alibi – he was in the house with the others, he tried to argue. But, without outsiders to confirm, the alibi did not amount to much. Around one, Arvind let the son-in-law leave after asking the final question,

“Was she a pleasant character?”

“She could smile…I will never forget her smile.” The son-in-law said with a smirk.

Arvind did not leave for lunch. When Winston and Kutty poked their head in to check on their boss, they found him staring blankly at a wall. They decided to let him be and attended to other work.

At half past four, Arvind told them that he was going to Prasad Master’s house. He left after telling them that he understood the smile and the loving hand. That was the motive and the clue, he said. Kutty and Winston did not tell their boss what was on their mind; that it was a waste of time to dwell on such crap.

When he got to the house, it still looked deserted. Arvind knocked on the door. It took a while before the youngest daughter came to the door. She told him that her father was lying inside. He went with her to an inner room which served as the dining area. A bed shared the space with the dining table and chairs.

Prasad Master was lying on that bed, staring outside. On seeing the policeman, he tried to get up. His wife came into the room from the kitchen and helped him. The two daughters stood near the door to the kitchen. The son and son-in-law were not there.

“Yesterday, he fainted and his fever got worse,” the wife explained. She gave a sob and went back to the kitchen. The daughters followed her.

“Poor woman…she still can’t call it by the right name…cancer.” He told Arvind that he had been diagnosed with cancer a few weeks back. Then, he asked Arvind if they could get Bharathi’s body soon. Arvind told him that it might take a day or two.

Though he had met the scholar only once before Arvind felt a deep affection for the other. He did not know how to start.

From his pocket, he brought out the only evidence, the plastic cover containing the handkerchief, and placed it next to Prasad Master’s hand. The teacher looked at for a while before saying,

“Ah! You have found that. Where did you find it?” Arvind described the location. Instead of asking questions, he remained silent. Like a student waiting for a class to start.

“When I got to know that I had cancer, I knew I had very little time to correct the problem. One who creates an evil has the responsibility to destroy that, too.”

The teacher paused to drink water.

“Wherever she went, whoever she met, she tried to destroy them with her set of morals and her righteous indignation. I do not know if she realized the kind of havoc she was causing all around her. In her family, in the village, in the temple, everywhere…”

He continued with a choked voice,

“When she was born and she smiled for the first time, I was the happiest man alive…I never realized that I would feel like the most cursed man…to see her remove the smile from others…as if, only she had the right…to smile.”

Arvind knew that he could lose the only evidence very easily. But, he also knew that he would not and that the scholar before him would not allow him to do so.

“Do you know what she did when I confronted her on that rock? She smiled. Do you know the meaning of that smile?”

Prasad Master looked at Arvind, laughed mirthlessly and quoted words which Arvind recognized from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,

“You are my creator, but I am your master—obey!”

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Why I Left You

Twenty five years back, a teacher presented to me the novel Roots (by Alex Haley). From what’s given on the cover, I know that the book is about a man’s search for his own roots starting with an 18th century African slave named Kunta Kinte. I have not yet read that book and maybe, that is because I wanted to embark on that personal journey myself without another’s help or thoughts or prejudices.

I started that task when I was in my twenties. I constructed family trees, tracing branches and even pruning when I had to. Each member gave me stories begging to be told but I knew that I could not use them or give them dialogues they had never used.

There were the legitimate and the illegitimate; the aristocrats and the paupers; the educated and the illiterate; the physicians, the farmers, the labourers; and then, the unknown or the crazy or the irrelevant. One day, some descendant might put me in one of those boxes. For now, that life is just irrelevant.

In that massive tree, there were two people who really stood out – the one and only famous person in my family; and the second, the only criminal. One had used his life nearly to the full and the other had wasted nearly all. But, these two had one common feature. They left their wife.

The famous person was a great man, a good man too, a social reformer and a teacher. His students were mostly those who had stepped a few paces away from bonded labour. From the numerous books about him, I learned that he started when he was in his twenties and with remarkable purpose and clarity continued and extended his work for over fifty years.

In the initial phase, he used his education and conviction to give the downtrodden community the right to pray and learn. When he gained the faith and respect of many, he asked them to get rid of damaging beliefs and rituals. He taught philosophy but stressed more on practical matters like the importance of personal hygiene and healthcare and, the need for faith, trust and respect in social institutions including marriage. He laid a lot of emphasis on education and secular ideas based on inclusion rather than differentiation.

In every stage, he tried to make people go beyond what he could teach; to go beyond the idols he had himself installed. I realized why he deserves to be called a Guru. Sadly, very few follow his simple teachings today – even in his, I mean, my family.

There was one incident in his life which intrigued me. When he was about twenty, he got married. His wife belonged to a family of similar background as his. Apart from that, there is very little known about her, not even her age or education. A few days after the wedding, he left his house and his wife. He never returned to that life ever again, remained a celibate and immersed himself in social work.

I searched in many books, essays, biographies and critical studies but I could not find any information about that aspect of his life. In one, there was a brief mention about a meeting many years later. During a public gathering, she came to him to ask for his blessing, just like a student with a revered teacher.

In my mind, I could imagine that meeting. He would have recognized her and they would have shared a look of regret and deep longing. In my story, the man had left his wife because he knew that he had to give up that life for the sake of the society he was trying to rescue. When I am drunk and depressed, and closer to my true nature, I cursed that great man and even abused by calling him an impotent, a cheat or a crazy idiot.

One day, I meet an old lady, a relative of the Guru’s wife. In her house, I try to explain my ‘research’. She tells me that the Guru’s wife stayed in that same house, but died young in a boat accident.

Then, she tells me “There’s a lot of old stuff in the attic (thattu)…stuff which people forgot to discard. Since she did not have any kids, after her sudden death, there might be some of her stuff.”

After two hours in that dusty place, I find a small old steel trunk. Inside, there are some clothes but no books or diaries. Near the bottom, between the folds of an underskirt (pavada), there is a folded piece of paper.

I open it and read the first sentence,

“Have you wondered why I left you and why I have to send this without anyone’s knowledge, to be a coward unable to express his love for you?”

I close the letter and slip it into my pocket. I do not tell the old lady about the letter and I leave that house.

If I tried, I could prolong that dream about meeting that relative or finding a long lost letter. But, even in my dream, I do not read that letter any further. I use it to light a cigarette and let it burn on my palm. I grind the ash in my palm, hardly feeling the burn. It was like doing the last rites. In that dream, I hear my own voice,

“It’s their story…not mine to tell…will I ever talk about why I left you?”

As for the life of the criminal, did I not tell you that that life is irrelevant?



[Words: 933]

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Problem to State

I have to write this quickly. I wish I had the time to tell everything or to write this well.

Did it start three weeks back? Or, when my team was dismissed eighteen months back?

Eighteen months back, I had a meeting with the Minister. It was a brief meeting. It lasted one full sentence.

“Your team is dismissed and the case is closed.”

If he had looked defiant or smug or even apologetic, I would have lost my cool. But when I saw the defeated look on that face, I felt sad and even betrayed. I had walked out without a word.

That case had started as a common case of large-scale corruption. But, the case turned out to be like Hydra of Lerna – for each head cut off, it grew two even more vicious heads. Corruption, money-laundering, the people involved could paralyze the executive, the judiciary and at every echelon of the State including the private sector. The violence and murder was so ruthless and if compared, even the famous terrorists might look like innocent suckling babies.

But, when it was time for the final action, we were dismissed. A few team-mates even suggested vigilante action or about going to the press. But, we knew that it was wishful thinking – that it was an irrational ineffective thought (and embarrassingly sensational, too).

Three weeks back, we re-grouped after another meeting with the Minister. Why did I say that it could have started eighteen months back? When we re-grouped, we were like hungry dogs, snarling and barely leashed. Maybe, the Minister knew that, too.

The meeting with the Minister, three weeks back, was again brief. It lasted five sentences.

The Minister started without any pleasantries, “We have received information from very reliable sources about a problem to State. Large funds, from an unknown source and to an unknown destination, are pouring in to destabilize and cause irreparable and everlasting damage. We do not know the nature of attack or the assailant. All that we know is that we are going to be the victims. Find out the problem and neutralize.”

As for the team, I cannot divulge too many details. The team does not have any fancy name nor do we wear RayBan glasses. I was given the freedom to choose a ‘suitable’ lot from anywhere, viz. any state, any department. It was not some stupid national integration exercise. They are the suitable means to meet the ends. Our job does not require us to be politically correct. Is there any guiding HR policy? I can only give you an anecdote. A senior colleague briefed me about this incident,

“We were in a crowded lift in the Admin block. That guy who joined with me, myself and that new recruit – that female, you know, that chubby friendly thirty-something who calls everyone, even you, beta. The other guy was standing next to her and started groping her. I thought of intervening. But then, I saw her hands caressing his ass, too. At that moment, I felt disgusted with her. But then, I saw her hand jerk upwards and I saw that guy spluttering and coughing, eyes filling up, screaming silently. Boss, she had pulled the hair between his buttocks.” I guess that’s our HR policy. I know that even I would not be spared. There might be a few helping hands too, I guess.

Soon after the meeting with the Minister, the team had a meeting. The agenda was simple, “This is a brain-storming session. I have told you what the Minister said. That’s all we know. In this brief session, I want you to state a problem, your first thoughts and assessment if any, please …” There was silence. I continued, “It must be staring at us on the front page of today’s paper. Come on … what could be the problem to State?”

We were sitting in a circle and started clockwise.

One said, “Cross-border terrorism including nuclear arsenal. The armed forces are prepared for this. Casualties can be large, but is it irreparable and everlasting?”

Two said, “Kashmir and the other areas with such problems. Again, the problem is known and it could be managed.”

Three said, “Same with Ayodhya and such cases. It is not new though it could really hurt. If the State does not know how to handle that, then we deserve to be damned.”

Four said, “Internal power struggles, economic conflicts, the huge rich-poor divide. It is scary if the Naxals are aped in the cities. But jobs or money or infrastructure might do the trick, the rich and the poor think about money equally … probably even the middle-class … anyway, they will follow with no thoughts of their own …”

One entered the fray again, “Credit and banking bust ... large-scale unemployment. But, is that a common problem now? Painful – yes; everlasting - not really; irreparable - no.”

“Come on, what else is there on those front pages?” I goaded.

Five said, “Identity theft and hacking, revenge of the plastic and the chips? I wonder if that will really affect lots or even be a huge security threat in India.”

Three added, “Invasion. China. They are really growing muscle. I wonder why they would want India and all its problems, though.”

Six said, “Break-down of moral values and old institutions, borrowed culture, sex, freedom, divorce, suicide. It is tame, right? Sorry…”

Four came back in, “Global warming, green or anti-green terrorism…but that is a global problem, isn’t it? Sure to be damned but who is bothered!”

Six re-entered, “Hey, there is an advert on the front page. Some new institute… Education, man, how about that, I mean, the breakdown of that? Hey, we know that we are degrading everything, we are chasing mediocrity and we want to be the manager of mediocrity. Who wants R&D, even a proper higher education? Are there teachers who learn and teach? Do we compete with the best? A whole generation is being mutated right before our eyes and every future generation seems doomed…”

Two joined in, “What about good old corruption? Mafia – human traffic, land, sand, liquor… but that’s part of us, isn’t it? That’s just the good and the ugly, il buono il cattivo… we need the bad, il brutto …”


“Come on, ladies and gentlemen, what is the problem to State?”

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Other

(Common and uninteresting confidential conversations: a 10-15 minute drama unsuitable for public viewing.)


Swapna
Arjun, her husband
Dr. Shyam, their clinical psychologist
A man (twenties) & his father (fifties)
A woman (thirties) & her daughter (early teens)


The stage is divided into two by a partition. There is a single door on that partition between the waiting room (on the left) and the doctor’s office (on the right and occupying 75% of the stage).

In the waiting room, there is a single row of 6 chairs facing the partition. There is also a noisy table-fan placed on a small table. The waiting room is otherwise empty.

A woman and her daughter occupy seats 2 and 1 respectively. Arjun enters the waiting room leaving his shoes and wet umbrella outside. He takes seat 6. A man and his father enter the room, and occupy seats 4 and 5 respectively.

The man is in a tense and rather disheveled state. The other four appear calm and well-dressed. All of them appear to be troubled by mosquitoes and the noisy fan. Apart from that, the five people remain seated and stare blankly at the wall in front of them. Once in a while, the man rises, walks up to the noisy fan, tries to adjust the speed or gives it a thump hoping to reduce the noise.


The woman (addressing the three men): Excuse me.

Arjun (the only one who turns towards her): Yes?

The woman: Do you know how much to give the doctor?

Arjun: I asked him. He will tell you.

The woman: First time. (Arjun does not respond. She turns to her daughter.) Molu, when the doctor asks you questions, please answer, ok? (She hesitates. The daughter does not respond.) Molu, speak to him, ok…just answer his questions, that’s all. (She now lowers her voice.) Tell the doctor that Daddy works abroad. (She places her hand on her daughter’s arm.) Don’t mention about Uncle staying with us, ok? It does not matter but there’s no need to talk about him, right, molu? (The daughter turns away from her mother after removing her mother’s hand on her arm. The two then continue to stare at the door.)

The man’s father (to Arjun): What is the exact time?

Arjun: 4:16.

The man’s father: I hope we get to see him before six. When did the last one enter? (No one responds. He then addresses the door.) He takes so much time. (Then, he turns to Arjun again.) Are you next?

Arjun: No, they are next. (With a small turn of his head, he indicates the woman and her daughter.)

The man’s father (to Arjun, more urgently): What is the exact time?

The man (speaks rather sharply from seat 4): Appa, keep quiet!

The five people then continue to stare at the wall silently.

The light fades on that part of the scene and the other side brightens.

There is a desk, a large chair for the doctor and two smaller chairs for patients on the opposite side. There is a computer and the table for that on the right of the doctor. The room is not disorderly but there are lots of books, files and loose paper. Some kids’ toys can also be seen.

The doctor is talking to Swapna. When the light brightens, we are also able to hear their conversation gradually.

Dr. Shyam stoops a little, even while sitting. His face is pleasant and friendly.

During their conversation, Swapna is demure and maintains eye-contact all the time. She does not interrupt the doctor when he speaks. Her hands remain at her side. Her legs are crossed at the ankle and her posture is elegant. She does not fidget.

Dr. Shyam: Good…we have covered a lot, haven’t we?

Swapna: Do you really think that we still have a chance?

Dr. Shyam: Yes. And, that is not because I really like you two.

Swapna: But, it is not getting better. In fact, the situation seems to be worsening…

Dr. Shyam (laughs): I would have been worried if the situation had not worsened…it looks as if you two are at least responding in some way, right?

Swapna (shakes her head): But, we have not changed our stand at all…

Dr. Shyam: Look…we have had these separate sessions for me…for us…to understand the problem. Now, the three of us, at least, agree on what happened. Do you remember how it was in the beginning…even that was not clear…

Swapna (nods her head): Where do we go from here?

Dr. Shyam: I think we can start having joint sessions.

Swapna: That’s not going to be pleasant…

Dr. Shyam: Anything new at home?

Swapna (nods her head but keeps quiet)

Dr. Shyam: What happened?

Swapna (hesitates but she does not turn her head away): We tried to make love, have sex, whatever…

Dr. Shyam: Some argument…

Swapna: I just couldn’t…the thought of him sleeping with her…that hit me like a blow to the stomach…

Dr. Shyam: He is not sleeping with her now, is he? (He pauses till she nods in agreement.) At that time, both of you had mutually consented for a divorce, wanted to try living separately before filing for the divorce, am I correct? You even went abroad…

Swapna: But, I did not sleep with anyone…

Dr. Shyam: True. And, your husband did not sleep with just anyone. He met a woman he really admired and the two of them got close mentally and physically. But, for some reason, that did not work out and after eight months, that affair ended. Were you here then?

Swapna: No. I returned after Lehman collapsed, after I got laid off. We started meeting again…and we wanted to give it another try…

Dr. Shyam: What happened then?

Swapna: We started living together once again.

Dr. Shyam: Your husband told you about the affair before that, right?

Swapna (nods her head): Yes.

Dr. Shyam: If Lehman had not collapsed, you might not have returned at all other than for the case, right?

Swapna (nods her head)

Dr. Shyam: Anyway, after your husband tells you about his affair, you think a lot about it. But, you still wanted to try living together. Correct?

Swapna (nods her head): Yes.

Dr. Shyam: Then, what happened?

Swapna (remains silent)

Dr. Shyam: In the first week together, you come across a photo of that lady in one of his personal diaries.

Swapna (protests): I was cleaning.

Dr. Shyam: The fights start then?

Swapna: I asked him why he wanted to keep her even now.

Dr. Shyam: Her or, her photo?

Swapna (she ignores the doctor’s question): He does not even apologize. He does not even wait for the divorce…cannot even wait…he does not even say sorry for his infidelity.

Dr. Shyam: You two were separated…you were away…

Swapna: Does that justify his infidelity?

Dr. Shyam: Is there anything to be justified? If someone were to tell you that staying away is a kind of infidelity, what would you say?

Swapna: Are you on his side?

Dr. Shyam (laughs): Then, I would get paid by him only, right? (He pauses.) Let’s leave that. Before that…I asked you a question…what was it…ah, yes…do you think that he still keeps her or her photo?

Swapna: It is worse. He wants me to accept her. What kind of woman does he think I am? I am not willing to share my bed or my husband with any woman. I do not want such a husband. When we sleep together, he must be thinking about her, I am sure.

Dr. Shyam: He does not think about you?

Swapna: How do I know? But, I know that he thinks about her quite often.

Dr. Shyam: You know that?

Swapna: A wife can make out such things.

Dr. Shyam: Ah…it is possible that he fantasizes about her…

Swapna: So, he told you that he does, is that so?

Dr. Shyam: If he had told me, do you think I would admit that? (He pauses for a while.) Isn’t it normal for married people to fantasize about people other than their spouses? How about you? Don’t tell me that you have never thought of Hrithik Roshan or Brad Pitt or some Greek god?

Swapna (laughs)

Dr. Shyam (laughing along): Why? Don’t you fantasize?

Swapna: I was laughing at the Greek gods…I prefer normal men…Balraj Sahni or Humphrey Bogart or (she appears to be thinking)…

Dr. Shyam: Or, Arjun?

Swapna (nods her head and smiles): Yes.

Dr. Shyam (looks at his watch): Let’s call it a day, ok? Next time, let’s have a joint session. Trust me. You two are doing great.

Both of them rise. Swapna takes an envelope from her bag and gives it to Dr. Shyam. The doctor slips it into a drawer. Then, the two come out through the door to the other side. The whole stage is now bright. When the doctor enters the waiting room, the 5 people there stand.

The doctor goes towards the woman and her daughter on seats 1 and 2.

Dr. Shyam: Ah, good! You have come with your daughter. Very good! Look, do you mind if I see this man first? (He points towards Arjun.) Just for a few minutes to arrange the next meeting. Is that ok? (The woman nods her head vigorously.).

The doctor then goes back to his office. Swapna does not take a seat but stands near the exit. Arjun goes to her.

Arjun: Will you wait?

Swapna (nods her head and says softly): Yes.

Arjun then enters the doctor’s office.

Swapna keeps standing in that corner. The woman turns to her as if to offer her a seat or to engage her in conversation. Ignoring her, Swapna stares at the door.

Then, except for Swapna, the action there continues to be the same as before, with mosquitoes and the noisy fan.

The light dims in the waiting room and the office brightens. Arjun has taken a seat and he is leaning forward with his arms on the doctor’s desk.

Dr. Shyam: I was telling Swapna that we can have joint sessions from next time.

Arjun: Will it help? She has not changed her mind one bit.

Dr. Shyam: Have you? These fights will not disappear so fast.

Arjun (edgy and embarrassed): So, she told you about yesterday?

Dr. Shyam (he remains silent and keeps looking at Arjun)

Arjun: I am still not comfortable about discussing my bedroom matters with strangers…or doctors.

Dr. Shyam: Does she tell strangers?

Arjun: How should I know...I guess not...

Dr. Shyam: Do you talk to her about your…bedroom matters?

Arjun (exasperated): Doc, there is nothing to talk about…that is one of the problems, remember?

Dr. Shyam: Do you talk to her about the lady?

Arjun: Talk? Her photo is enough for Swapna to see red. The only time I could talk about her was the time I told her about that blasted affair.

Dr. Shyam: Do you regret that it has ended?

Arjun: Doc, it has ended, period. I don’t cry over spilt milk. If only she…my wife…could understand that…

Dr. Shyam: Maybe, your wife thinks that you would like to keep that lady, too…

Arjun (laughing nervously): What…a ménage à trois? When I can’t even keep one in bed? Do you think I am crazy?

Dr. Shyam: No. But, don’t you think your wife could feel a bit jittery about your feelings for that lady?

Arjun: Doc, jittery is an understatement. For her, that lady should not even exist. Not even a memory. I get so mad when I hear those crazy demands…burn her photos, never think about her, that’s all she has to say…that lady is…I mean, was…part of my life. I will not discard any part of my life, period.

Dr. Shyam: It won’t hurt anyone, will it…if you forget…erase that part?

Arjun (rather agitated): You are beginning to sound like her, doc. Can’t you understand? It is the past…can I erase that? Even if it amounts to nothing…even if I could…will I have to erase something else after that? Myself?

Dr. Shyam: Don’t worry, I understand you, Arjun. And, you will make her understand. Give her some time.

Arjun (tired and downcast): It’s been more than a year.

Dr. Shyam: Hey, just some more time, ok? Trust me, both of you will understand each other better soon.

Arjun: I hope so, doc. Just getting tired of it all…

Dr. Shyam: So, let’s meet together next time. I will call you about the exact appointment, ok? Till then, think about what we talked about…

Arjun nods his head and stands up. He hands over some folded money to the doctor who puts that in the drawer. When he is near the door, Arjun turns to the doctor.

Arjun: Doc, what were your conclusions from the Rorschach tests?

Dr. Shyam: Ah! The tests you don’t believe, right? (The two laugh.)

Arjun: I studied about all those ink-blots…thanks to the Net…about what you expect me to see in those stains…

Dr. Shyam (laughs): Did your Net tell you that one of them……what was it…ah, yes… looks like a naked gymnast with one leg up, correct?

Arjun (laughs): Just kidding…but, a joke to a shrink can be dangerous, right?

Dr. Shyam (laughs along and after observing that Arjun was waiting, as if, for something): Are you nervous about the psychological assessment?

Arjun (sheepishly): Not really.

Dr. Shyam: Here, let me show you the preliminary report…I hope you will be satisfied with that…even though you do not believe in what I do…

The doctor searches in a couple of files. Finds a sheet of paper and hands it over to Arjun.

Arjun (reading aloud bits and pieces): …seen in detail, in mental status examination and in diagnostic testing…do not manifest features suggesting any psychiatric illness or abnormality…there is poor frustration tolerance and mild impulsivity…intellectually bright and judgement in non-emotional matters are also good.

Arjun gives the sheet of paper back to Dr. Shyam, shakes hands with the doctor and leaves the office. The woman and her daughter enter the doctor’s office. Swapna and Arjun exit the stage together.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Will You Marry Me?

In the summer of 1985, a girl asked me that question for the first time. To be fair, the question was, “Will you marry girls like us?” I was accompanying four girls 3-5 years older than me. It was more precarious than that. I was in a cable car on its way to Sentosa (an island and a tourist attraction in Singapore). The question was posed by a beautiful and voluptuous Sri Lankan girl. I stared at her intensely and thought about two other facts of life. One, I suffer from vertigo. Two, the 1983 cable car disaster when two cable cars on its way to Sentosa plunged 55 metres into the sea and seven were killed, about which I had read in the Reader’s Digest. I managed a polite and succinct reply, “No.”

The trauma caused by that reply lasted more than fifteen years. My recovery was partly helped by a ‘get-tough’ education. I was taught Socrates by priests and I learned that ‘As to marriage or celibacy, let a man take which course he will, he will be sure to repent.’ Coming from a family with the wrong background, I had only one course to avoid the other. In that same school, I was taught logic in primary school. I learned about the 3 questions to get a “Yes.”

- Q1: Will you answer the three questions with a Yes or a No?
- Student: Teacher, if she does not agree?
- Teacher: Boy, do you really want to marry such a girl?
- Q2: Will you give the same answer to this question and the next?
- Q3: Will you marry me?

Due to unforeseen circumstances, my first date was an arranged affair and it coincided with the ceremony called ‘viewing-the-prospective-bride’ (pennu kaanal). The elders agreed that we were suitable material. Even the stars and the bank accounts agreed. We were allowed to go to the only park in town. In the sun, she reminded me of Smita Patil. In the shade, she looked like Ingrid Bergman. I asked her my well-compiled 19 questions and realized that she is my soul-mate. I asked the 20th question, “Will you marry me?” She gave the polite and succinct reply, “No.”

Before long, I was involved in my second such ceremony. I did not raise any question this time. It is unnecessary, I had been warned. And therefore, everything went smoothly and almost successfully. That night, I happened to talk to an old and dear attractive friend who had just returned that evening from New York. We spoke over the phone late into the night. When the clock was about to strike one, she told me, “I always thought we would be an item.” I was sleepy and replied, “Me too.” Then, this friend asked me, “Will you marry me?”

We slept on that question. That morning, I got up early and tried to resume the conversation with my friend. Her strict and unhelpful mother told me to try much later in the day. I thought very carefully. I called up the ‘prospective-nearly-fixed-bride’ and told her that I am otherwise engaged. I did admire her sang-froid. Much later that day, I got through to my friend and gave her a resounding, “Yes.” She asked, with sang-froid still in the air, “Yes what?” I jogged her memory, “Yes to your question about marriage, you fool.” She replied, “We talked a lot of nonsense, didn’t we?”

Lesser men would have drowned themselves in a vat of alcohol. I tried to reason with my family that I was ready for the next ceremony. They told me that they were not. They also advised me to have a change of scene. It might be good for my health if not theirs, they suggested. I left for Berlin.

There, I led a lonely life till I was spooked by a lady with a Celtic butterfly tattoo on the lower back. On a rare sunny blue day on which the cactus flower bloom was a bright yellow, we were walking in a park by a lake. The scene would have made Van Gogh cut off his right ear or Wordsworth prance on the vale like a senile seven year old. Such a setting is fine when you enjoy solitude or soporific matrimony. Many brave men before me have fallen from grace on such a scene, I knew.

My head was tilting to the right and hers to the right too, ready for a long and tender kiss (philematologists have studied why we did that the right way, read this 2003 article in the famous scientific journal Nature [click here]). Without going on my knees, I crooned to that amazing lady, “Will you marry me?” She replied, “Enschuldigung, ich verstehe nicht (Sorry, I don’t understand).” I knew enough German to translate but I did not.

By the time I returned from Berlin, unattached and free, my family had recovered and they arranged the next ceremony. For some unknown reason, I convinced my folks that I should go alone; and surprisingly, they acquiesced.

There are certain homes which resonate with your inner spirits and you can even hear banshees wailing and in that girl’s house, they seemed to be lamenting my protracted bachelorhood. The prayer (puja) room was next to the living room and I was made to bow to a wide assortment of Gods of various faiths. I sat next to a seat on which was placed the photo of a famous swami with a funny hairdo. I prefer the bearded variety in orange robes that refer to every woman as Ma.

For the first half-hour, I met the uncles and aunties. They quizzed me about my physical activities and academic qualifications. Then, the eatables came along with the older generation. I fielded every question very well and also, consumed well. At the end of the first hour, the younger generation came in along with the prospective-bride. She sat on a seat opposite to mine, maintained a chaste silence accompanied by a beatific smile.

Next to me sat an intelligent girl, a cousin probably. She and I got along famously and discussed the poetry of Housman and e.e.cummings; then, we shifted to movies covering the psychosexual in The Silence of the Lambs to the courtroom scene in To Kill a Mockingbird. We went on for more than fifteen minutes. I nearly asked that girl, “Will you marry me?” I then noticed that my prospective-bride had left the room.

I did marry another using illogical means but to avoid copyright infringement, I will not write about that.

Now, I request humbly and sincerely for an honest poll.

Though my experiences do not provide an adequate sample for a proper statistical inference, I am certain that I preferred it when the woman did the asking.

What is your preference? Should the man or the woman ask the question “Will you marry me?”

Try to forget your better half (if any). If your preference contradicts experience, you can always try it out once again your way.

The future of your kids and the institution of marriage depend on your answer.


Author’s note:

- I am still waiting for my first original thought. Till then: I plagiarize, therefore I am (Latin - effingo ergo sum).
- My better half tells me that this would have been better ghost-written rather than being written by a ghost.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

My Father is a Good Man

Last weekend, at Chennai airport, I saw Shreya and her father – the girl I should not remember and the man I want to kill.

For thirty one years, I have harboured that thought. But now, like a serious matter losing relevance, I have to write before the ink fades on that memory. What remains seems like a silent movie with shadows acting.

At that time, we lived in Borneo – an island divided and administered by three countries: Indonesia (more than 70%), Malaysia (the two big states of Sarawak and Sabah) and Brunei. When I jog my memory, it is not the best or the worst which comes to mind but two rather irrelevant memories.

I remember that, in those days, Brunei did not like to recruit Malayalis because of ‘their communist inclinations’. Around the same time, in Sarawak and Sabah, the government was facing the danger of secession and also, communist protests. The government had even passed an order declaring that communists would be shot-at-sight.

Even with such conditions prevailing, the people from Kerala were not viewed with a single label. Thanks to that, my father worked as an engineer for the Sarawak government and he even received the medals for long-service and good-service from the Head of the State.

My second memory is of the Iban, an indigeneous tribe of Sarawak. At one time, the Iban used to be a fearsome warrior race famous for headhunting and piracy. My father used to tell us that the Iban were a simple lot, quick to please and even quicker to anger; he called them the original human, worthy of trust and loyalty, before becoming primitive like us.

We were occasionally invited by my father’s Iban sub-ordinates for simple meals at their longhouse. On one of those visits, to express their affection and respect, my father was presented with a parang, a sword more than 100 years old, well-designed for one handed use and probably, with a few human heads to its credit. I used to wish for that parang as my inheritance.

The place where we lived was too small to be a town and too big to be a village. There were two Indian families and the rest consisted of Malays, Chinese and Iban. Shreya’s family was the other Indian family.

Shreya was my classmate from lower kindergarten till primary three. Her father worked in my father’s office, in the clerical or accounts division, and both of them reported to a Chinese boss named Mr. Chung. I used to hear my parents discuss about ‘irregularities’ in the accounts division and about some confrontation between Mr. Chung and Shreya’s father. My parents and Shreya’s folks rarely socialized. But, my parents treated Shreya like a daughter.

Since we were the only Indians in that town, she had to be my girlfriend. I did not complain because she was beautiful, dusky; with lovely black eyes and long lashes; and, she could smile and laugh the way I love. We never played doctor-and-nurse-or-patient because she wanted to be the doctor all the time. I used to go to her house for books, jigsaw puzzles and her cycle. She used to play with me in our three-acre compound, treasure-hunting on the green slopes under the shade of huge wild trees. She allowed me to be the guide and her protector.

Once, I asked her if she is a Tamil brahmin. A Tamil chettiyar, she proudly corrected. I asked her what it meant, brahmin or chettiyar. We were eight or nine then and neither of us knew. She asked me about what I am. I don’t know, I remember saying with a defeated low tone, my father told me that it is not worth knowing, I added weakly.

In that village-town, my family used to be invited for a party nearly every other week. My parents got along well with nearly all. We used to have parties in my house too, including the day-long party on Diwali. I used to call Shreya but she could not come without her parents.

Of those days, I also remember my mother arguing with my father’s ‘bad habit’ of not saying ‘no’ to those who ask for money. Every month, a week after pay-day, I would see my father being approached for small loans. The Iban used to return. Most of the others tried to return with chicken or meat, fruits or vegetable.

My father used to take me with him to his office when he had to check on some work on holidays. I used to hear him shout and rage with his famous temper. But I knew that it was not really serious. Without my father’s knowledge, I used to receive sweets from his co-workers. They used to tell me that my father is a good man.

It was a Friday when everything started. Shreya and I were resting inside a freshly-dug pit at the edge of the compound.

- Sree, I got a new jigsaw puzzle yesterday.
- (envy and silence from me)
- It is different…it allows for three different pictures…depending on how you start at the center…
- Wow (curiosity won the battle)…can I play with that…with you…
- But, you have to show me one thing…
- What? (what could I have)
- Will you show me the headhunter’s sword…the Iban parang?

That evening, while my parents were entertaining some guests, I took my father’s parang from their bedroom cupboard and smuggled it out within my Yonex racket case. It was with great pride that I displayed the sword in her room. Shreya had to beg real hard before I allowed her to hold it in her hand, with my hand over hers to make sure that she did not drop it or hurt herself.

We heard someone outside her room. I took the sword from her hand. I didn’t have enough time to put it away in its case or within the racket case. I hid the parang beneath Shreya’s bed. It was Shreya’s mother at the door and she informed me that I was wanted at my place.

The next day, I went to Shreya’s house at around ten. Shreya told me that the sword had been there beneath the bed the previous night but that morning, the parang was missing. We searched together. When she cried, I wanted to cry too. At noon, I told her that I will return later that day to search the house more thoroughly.

That afternoon, heavy equatorial rain caught us by surprise, and by evening, the village-town seemed like one big muddy flooded playground. But, it was a common affair.

At about six, it was quite dark outside when my father received a call from Mr. Chung for some urgent document. I begged my father to take me with him. We went in our old Beetle. At the office, I was told to remain in the car. My father entered the office through the front entrance. There is another entrance on the right, close to the back-gate, and I saw someone exiting the building that way. It was dark and raining. But, I caught a glimpse of the face in the bright search-light placed at the gate. It was Shreya’s father but I could not be sure.

A few minutes later, I saw a police-van and an ambulance rush into that office compound. I sat in the car for a few more minutes while I watched more police cars enter the area. Curiosity got the better of me and I left the car. A constable prevented me from entering the building. A senior policeman there recognized me. Maybe, he had seen me at some party. He ordered one of the constables to take me home. He told me that my father would come later. Nobody asked me anything else.

During the days that followed, I heard that my father had found Mr. Chung dead, hacked to pieces. The police were trying to get more details from him. I was assured that he would return to us soon and I believed that my father would return. I saw Shreya a few times but I did not tell her or even my mother about seeing Shreya’s father that night. It did not seem to matter and I did not want to cause any trouble for Shreya. In all that confusion, I even forgot about searching for my parang.

A week or two later, I heard a Chinese lawyer talking to my disconsolate mother.

- I advised him to go with my story about an Iban.
- (my mother was weeping)
- I told him to say that he saw an Iban, one of those sub-ordinates, being reprimanded by Mr. Chung and in a flash of anger the Iban had chopped Mr. Chung. But he won’t listen to me…can you make him listen?
- Don’t you know that he won’t agree to such stuff?
- What la, you know it is going to be difficult…

A month later, I read the ‘whole’ story in the newspaper about how my father had a fight with Mr. Chung, how he killed him with his own parang which was found at the scene of the crime. My father was not even able to explain how the parang had reached that place. The rest of the columns described my father as a bad man, a hot-blooded man known to have fits of anger and even a suspected communist. It seems that he was ‘cool’ enough to take his son to the office and even ‘bold’ to call the police himself.

The senior policeman came to our house to question my mother on one of those days. When he was leaving, I approached him. I told him about how I had lost the parang. I told him about seeing Shreya’s father. The policeman held my shoulders kindly. He told me that my ‘girlfriend’ had also phoned him to tell him about how the parang was lost.

- I do hope that you and your girlfriend have a better time ahead of you. But, do not tell stories like this, ok? Another person in my place might not take it lightly.
- But, it is not a story…
- Listen, young man. You are now accusing your girlfriend’s father? I know why you are saying that…maybe I should ask your girlfriend about that…stop it! Do you understand what I am saying? The next time, I will not be so kind…

My mother and I left the country a few days after the execution. I had stopped meeting Shreya long before that. I heard that Shreya and her folks also left for Australia a few months later.

Last week, at Chennai airport, I saw Shreya and her father – the girl I could not forget and the man I wanted to kill. She came to me and said,

- Sree, it is me. Shreya, remember?
- (silence)
- Your father was a good man, Sree.
- I know.


Thursday, September 9, 2010

Love Dies

A few days back, my friend and I were looking at photos on the Net. On one thumbnail, I felt my friend stiffen with tension. Though she was looking at the photo, her mind seemed to be far away.

“What happened?” I asked.

“This photo reminds me of a college…the hostels…I visited that college recently…” she replied haltingly. She was touching the screen and tracing that photo with her right index finger. [I noted that the photo belongs to Raghuram Ekambaram a.k.a. kolipakkam - click here to see the photo.]

Then, she continued,

“The hostels are shaped like E. This looks so much like the center wing. Do you know…on one of those wings on the side of that E, the twelfth and last room used to be 113 on the ground floor and 213 on the top floor.”

“Used to be?” I queried.

“Yes, those rooms were demolished.”

“Why?”

“Some time back, a student who stayed in 113 got into a fight with the local people. It was rare, you know, for students to mix with people outside the campus. Some say that it was a business deal or a local love affair that went awry. One night, a group of locals came to that student’s room and hacked him to pieces. The college authorities hushed the case real fast. That room remained empty that year but it was allotted to a new student in the next academic year. On the very first day, when that new student opened the steel cupboard to place his stuff, he found within…a severed right hand.”

“Aw…come on…” I exclaimed.

She countered, “I know...Anyway, students then on refused to stay in 113 or 213…in the other hostels on campus, too…and, the college did demolish. I have seen the old photos with the twelfth rooms on that wing. It is not there now.”

“You goofie, every college has such tales. My college had the old chowki (chowkidaar or caretaker) in the red-and-yellow-shawl. This old chowki died in my first year in college. He was found dead near the X-ray lab a few days before Holi - an old man who was alone in life and death, and always with a red-and-yellow-shawl around his frail body. He used to be really friendly with students. During my second winter there, a student who was studying late at night left his room, to go to the loo, after latching the door. When he returned and unlatched the door, he found an old man inside, an old man in a red-and-yellow-shawl. Every winter, we used to have at least one student seeing him.”

I laughed and she joined in, too. After some time, I could feel that she had slipped away from me once again.

“Hey…are you there?” I enquired, touching her hair and tucking it in behind her ear.

“Can I tell you something…maybe, just another laughing matter…it might help, I guess…to laugh, I mean…” she asked me.

“Shoot.”

“I went there recently for recruitment. I heard another story in that college…”

“Ah…at least, you have called it a story…”

“Shut up, will you? Listen…”

Then, she told me the following:

On one Sunday evening long back, two students went together to the Saraswathi temple on campus. He (let me call him Arjun, she said) was not very religious, circled the deity, finished his prayer fast and sat on the cool marble temple steps waiting for her (let her be Swapna, she added). She joined him after some time. She looked weak and tired.

“What happened, Swapna?” Arjun enquired.

“Just a mild headache…I am ok…must be migraine…sitting here will help…” and she added shyly, “with you.”

After some time, she asked him, “Arjun, these steps are very cold, aren’t they?”

“Not really…are you feeling feverish?”

“No…but…I think I should go back to the hostel.”

He went with her till the gate of the ladies’ hostel. Before parting, he said

“You know, I have been thinking of getting married…asked my mother to find me a girl as soon as I leave and join that company.”

It was an old joke between them. Every time, she would reply with

“I have been thinking of going away after college…meeting new people, forgetting the old ones and allowing them to forget…”

The college rules did not allow them to touch each other in public but there’s a lot that looks can do, too.

Anyway, this time, she just smiled without saying those words and went inside.

Next day, on Monday, Arjun did not see Swapna in the morning classes. He asked the other girls in his batch. She went with her father, one girl told him. He felt angry with Swapna for not informing him.

Later, that day, Arjun received a call at the Warden’s house (those were the days before the mobile and even hostel-phones). It was Swapna’s father. Arjun could not hear him well and then, he heard Swapna’s voice on the line.

“Arjun, can you please come…”

Swapna’s father came back on the line and told him, now more clearly, the name of a hospital. He left immediately and met Swapna’s father outside the ICU.

“Her headache got bad. She called us and we brought her here. A few minutes after calling you, she became unconscious. The doctors tell me that they are draining her brain...aneurysm, haemorrage, something…”

That night, Arjun waited outside the ICU. According to the hospital rules, visitors were not supposed to hang around near the ICU. But, he waited near the ICU. The doctors and the other staff probably understood and did not make him leave.

He did not leave his post that night or the next day. Swapna’s family waited in the waiting room on the ground floor. On Tuesday, around 3 pm, a doctor approached him and told him to come back with Swapna’s father. They were told that Swapna is brain-dead.

Arjun took Swapna’s father back to his family, then went up again and requested the doctor for a moment with Swapna. In the ICU, Arjun stood next to her bed, touched her for the first time and said, “I love you, you know that, don’t you?” That was the first time they used that word.

Arjun left the hospital without saying a word to Swapna’s family. Swapna never had the chance to face the five stages of dying (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) and Arjun felt that he had all the time for that.

A few days or a few weeks later, he realized that he was beginning to forget her. He felt angry with himself. But, no anger could hide the fact that the dead have no place and that only the living matter.

Swapna’s family tried to contact him. But Arjun had left that college and that city. He disappeared. Some say that there are days when the steps of the Sarawathi temple feel unnaturally cold.

At this point, her story ended, or I thought that it had. But, my friend continued:

“When I went to that college, a famous author was there for her book-release. The author read excerpts and at one place, she read from her book…love never dies

Then, that author did something strange. We saw her pointing at someone at the back. We turned to look but we could not figure out at who she was pointing her finger. The author was talking to someone there…

“Could you please repeat the question? Can you tell me your names, please?” the author said.

Then, the author addressed everyone “Interesting question from the two at the back. Arjun and Swapna would like to know if there is anyone here who actually believes that love never dies.”

Those who were familiar with that old story also knew that Arjun and Swapna always returned to mock those words.”

I held my friend in my arms…tightly…there is no point in hoping to hold her when she is not there anymore, right?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Two Sides of the Coin

Recently, I was asked the question: what do you do for a living? I told the half-truth: I have retired. Today, I thought of coming clean. I will briefly tell you about my business. If you read till the end, there is a prize to be won (t&c apply, not tlc).

What is my business? It is called ‘Two Sides of the Coin’ (click here for a homepage) – we offer the better alternative. The business is best explained with examples.

First, consider politics. We get 40% of our revenue from politics. Every politician wants to have an own group. Language, religion, race and ethnicity are so easily exhausted. Think of the many permutations and combinations. Here, our task is to make today’s bhumiputr tomorrow’s foreigner.

Even ruffians and anarchists want to be divided and subdivided. Go to any street-corner and look at the goondas hanging around in spotless white or saffron or green or chic red or dull khaki and the way they mix and match.

Those are our customers - we give them an identity, the USP and a life-long mission. And, we do it for a modest fee. Given the volume of business, the pennies will do.

Second, consider religion. I have a sentimental attachment to this – I started my business with this. When I started, I had only one guru to follow – history. It is still really hot.

In politics, everything is transparent and people know the truth. But with religion, the work has to be clandestine and involves a great deal of subterfuge. There is very little to be made with inter-religious divisions. That is so obvious, isn’t it? We make money from creating intra-religious divisions and in this advanced age, it is the sub-divisions that really sell. Split and split again.

If a caste or sub-caste involves people who used to tap coconut trees for toddy, divide them into groups based on whether they were the first or the second to come down the coconut tree, i.e., to leave their ‘ancestral’ occupation.

If your group consists of people who landed by ship from some other land, differentiate between those who came on the deck and those who were in the first-class cabins. Irrespective of whether you are an upper-caste or a lower-caste, we will help you find your own group.

We help even atheists find their ‘special’ group: the rationalists, the ones who say I-went-to-space-and-did-not-see-God, the tricky kind with is-there-God-is-a-non-question and so on.

Even those who fight against the caste-system come to us and we give each group a meaningful identity, for e.g. the against-caste-but-against-reservation group who are not keen about every dog having its day, the against-caste-but-want-benefits-based-on-caste group and so on.

I have been asked the question: why do you say ‘two sides’ when there seem to be many sides? Everyone wants the other side to be the side. Just another side will not sell.

Some try to challenge us by bringing in emotions and concepts like love, altruism, jealousy, patriotism and so on. We do not deal with love but if it is love marriage, then it is an institution ready for our attention. Even lovers like to have their own elite group and we help in creating the group that they desire. The same idea holds good with the other concepts.

Most of our business is based on groups and institutions. We rarely deal with individuals. But, recently, we had a client with the following requirement: his wife wanted at least two persons as her husband. We gave him multiple personality – with different styles, techniques and even philosophy of life. We even allowed for spontaneity.

Divide and rule, that is our mission.

If you have reached so far, there is only one question in your mind – what is the prize?

The prize is: anything you want!

To get the prize, just answer the following (only the winners will get a response) and the gift is yours:

Name a group which cannot be divided?



Author’s note: This is to celebrate tomorrow’s Bharat Bandh – if I am to believe the newspapers, normal life will be paralyzed from midnight to midnight and the government has endorsed it.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

24 Hours in an Urban Reality Show

One


19:00 - Yesterday at 7 pm, as I turned the key in the lock, I prayed for a dark and empty apartment.

It was dark inside. I checked each room. The apartment was empty too. I could smile.

I had drawn the curtains that morning and it was still that way, like mute spectators seemingly untouched by anything from within or without. I stood by the closed French windows, looking at the other apartments, at families gathering, at kids and their parents following each other. I wondered whether anyone there was watching me. I did not open the windows to let in the sound from outside.

It had been a hard day with a crucial presentation. The academic lot in the project wanted the grant at any cost, those from the company wanted just the program and I wanted to write the right numerical program for the right scientific problem. At the end of the day, their symbiosis won and I was discarded as a parasite.

Hunger made me come out of that reverie. I checked the contents of the fridge. There was some old cooked stuff which I did not feel like warming or eating. Anyway, I wanted to cook and relax. From what was available, I leisurely made a basic meal: fried chicken breast along with chopped spicy sausages, roast chilly potato wedges, sautéed beans and carrots and there was enough sweet yoghurt in the tub. I split the stuff into two portions.

20:15 - At quarter past eight, I ate my share. I was washing the dishes and sipping Amaretto Disaronno when my wife entered the flat. She came over to the kitchen, stood by the door and said,

“Hi, smells real good.”

“Your portion should still be warm.”

In our first year, we had agreed to dispense with the formality of waiting for each other or checking up on one’s arrival.

“I would have loved to have,” she leaned against the dining table, stretching, “but I had a heavy sandwich for tea.”

I kept quiet. I felt that there was more to come from her.

“I have to catch a night flight. There’s an important meeting at HQ tomorrow.”

“Again…?” I blurted.

“What do you mean by ‘again’? I told you that I am ready to sit at home, didn’t I?”

“For what…? Hey, it’s fine with me. Don’t get worked up about that.”

“Yeah, right…it must be convenient for you.”

I stared at her. I could feel my body stiffen, hands clenching, nails sinking into flesh and a dirty feeling curdling in my gut. I snarled,

“Spit it out…whatever…”

“When you reply to your friends, do check the send-list…or, did you include me intentionally?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Don’t you remember the e-mail you sent yesterday…to her…your friend who is like a sister…?”

Each emphasis sounded like an obscenity. I did remember sending that e-mail in a hurry but I could not remember adding my wife as a recipient. It must have ‘dropped-in’ from the frequently-used-list since their surnames are a close match, if not their character.

“Well, you saw my e-mail…is there anything in that for you to bitch about?”

“You don’t even remember, do you…just last week, you told me that you are not in touch with her.”

“But, there is nothing in our e-mail. It was just the usual Hi…Bye, right?”

“I didn’t check if it was Hi…Bye or Wham…Bam.”

“It was a good idea, wasn’t it, not to tell you the truth?” I retorted.

“I bet you sent that to me just to hurt me…to make me worried, to spoil my day in office.”

Whatever!”

She stormed to the bedroom and I stayed in the drawing room. I could hear her packing and getting ready to leave.

21:30 - At half past nine, she was at the door. She came back to me, sat next to me on the sofa and reached towards me. I moved back to avoid her touch.

“You can’t even hold me these days, can you?”

“If I did, I would be treating you as a prostitute.”

She got up and left, thankfully not banging the front door this time. I sat there, with my eyes closed, for a long time.

23:00 - It must have been around eleven when I went back to the kitchen and put her portion in the fridge. I remembered what my parents used to tell me about their fights. They used to throw dishes out through the window. Even when they could ill-afford to do so. They have been married, quite happily, for nearly sixty years.

Moral of the story: Dishes are thrown out through the window in happy homes.


Two

00:00 - Around midnight, I realized that there was no point lying in bed waiting for sleep. All that came were murderous thoughts. I decided to go for a walk to clear my head.

It is a pleasure to walk in the middle of a city road at that time of the night, to look at the moon philosophically while it returns a cold empty stare, and to smoke that rare joint without passively taking in exhaust fumes.

On one of those rare occasions when my wife and I shared the guest bedroom, she complained about how men, and not women, had the luck to do all that. It is true, I admitted. It is not safe enough for women to have such pleasures.

I had walked past the school and the Party office. I was near the dangerous turn on that road leading to the University. In the moonlight, I could see that there were some people on the footpath, huddled close to the short wall. At about twenty meters, I could make out that there were three – a young woman in her early twenties, a young baby in her arms and a girl barely in her teens.

The woman and the girl were sharing a meal from one clay pot. When they saw me, the young girl tried to hide a small cloth-bag furtively. As I got closer, I could see that the bag barely covered a water-melon. Probably, that was their prized possession of that day.

They are migrants or gypsies or whatever people call them these days. I have heard that there are vans which pick up these people and deposit them at the state border. It makes this place look good, I am told.

I did not even want to think about their life or the dangers these women faced. I have heard that there is an appropriate term in physics: dark matter – invisible matter that makes up most of the mass in the universe. In reality, unlike physics, people are like me and try not to observe.

I was then five meters from them. I saw briefly the bright headlights of a large speeding car swerving dangerously at the sharp turn. Before I could utter a cry, the car was nearly on us. What happened next took just a few seconds.

To my right, I could see the girl jump over the short wall. Though she had tried to throw her precious bag in that direction, it went vertically without any horizontal flight. The woman and her baby stood fixed. I grabbed the woman and jumped over the wall, with the baby crushed between us. There was a loud crash behind us and a squelching splattering sound also.

I landed on my back on soft wet ground. Though jarred by the impact and scratched and cut at a few places, I was fine. The woman moved quickly away from me. She and her baby looked more or less undamaged. The girl crawled to them. She seemed angry and ready to take on the driver but the woman held her tight. They disappeared into the night.

I jumped over the wall back onto the road. I could not help admiring the BMW and its wide wheels. It had gone a distance on the footpath, then crashed through a drainage slab and ended up immobile with one of those large wheels stuck in the large drain.

I moved towards the car. The watermelon had landed on the car and splattered in the front. The left front window was lowered and I saw a girl lean out, retching violently. The doors on that side were too close to the wall and could not be opened. On the driver’s side too, the windows were lowered. I heard a male having a slurred conversation on a mobile,

“Dad…the car is stuck…we hit something…damn it, dad…who cares…something or someone…just heard a sick sound…dad…please come…can you hear me…damn…”

The driver stepped out of the car. He was drunk, sobbing and young. I was right behind him and he had not seen me. I do not know what came over me then.

I grabbed him by his neck and pushed his head inside the car through the window. I reached inside through the door, for the button, and raised the window till the young man’s head was securely trapped in a narrow gap, choking him a little.

Through the window, I could see inside the car. The girl in the front wanted to scream but I hushed her and thankfully she kept quiet with her mouth and eyes wide open. A very young couple was lying on the back seat quite oblivious of the outside world. Drunk or doped, they were sleeping like babies, drooling spit on each other’s laps.

I was seething with rage, partly due to them and the rest from my own life. I reached for the young man’s waist and stripped him of his wide belt. I held the buckle and wrapped the belt a few times around my hand to leave enough for a good short whip. Then, with that, I smacked him hard ten or twenty times. That is deterrence or retributive justice or a good lesson or whatever. The only kind of justice such people will ever face.

I knew I was also letting out a lot of other stuff. I was too tired to feel ashamed but not too tired not to feel good.

01:00 - All this took place in a few minutes. I left the place quickly and got home by one. I had a hot shower and later, ate a bar of chocolate, drank a large peg of Glenfiddich and listened to Dido croon to me and only me.

03:00 - At three, I fell asleep on the sofa.

Moral of the story: If you drive after drinking or doping, angry men walking on the road can be a nuisance.


Three

06:00 - At six, I opened my eyes briefly and sent the message ‘hi today sick thx’ to my boss. He must have been expecting it. Then, after switching off my mobile and shifting to my undisturbed bedroom, I slept soundly.

10:00 - I ran out of luck, once again. I was woken up, at ten, by a friend. His arrival was heralded by the musical car reverse horn playing ‘Bad Moon Rising’. Then, he tried to play ‘Spanish Rose’ with my door-bell.

“Hi.” I greeted weakly.

“Hey man, holiday, huh?” He pushed me aside and entered.

“Yeah...”

“Is the Mrs. around?”

“No…she had to leave early for work this morning. You should have called…we could have planned…”

“Man, you would have scooted.”

It hurts to have friends who know you rather well.

I have two types of friends: the friends who contact me only when they are on holiday; and, the friends who do not contact me even when they are on holiday. I prefer the latter.

This guy belongs to the first category and worse, he is also what people call a best-friend. I try my best to avoid him but he has the habit of turning up and leaving me with trouble.

The last time was at my wedding. He graced the occasion without invitation. The main part of the five-minute ceremony which is the tying of the thaali (mangalsutra) was about to happen when a young boy-child came to me, looked at me and cried with anguish,

Appa!”

The priest and the bride sighed at the same time. Standing there, with the chain to put my bride on leash, I wondered about how people dealt with such minor inconveniences. Then, I saw my friend rush to us,

Mone (son), come here,” and then to my bride, “he gets confused at times.”

Later, during that event, I saw him sharing a hip-flask with my father-in-law and brother-in-law. These two new relatives, like many others in my place, are usually long on spirits and short on sense. The three of them appeared to be bosom-buddies.

That first night, before tucking me in with their relative, the two in-laws asked me in private,

“Your friend is a jolly good fellow. But, we could not understand one thing. He asked us the meaning of 6.9 (six point nine). He said that it is a good time interrupted by a period. What did he mean by that? He told us that you would know all about that.”

I feigned ignorance.

That’s all that my friend did on that occasion. He has mellowed with age.

Today, my friend looked nearly normal. Probably, that was because he was raiding the fridge. He took out my wife’s portion of what I had made last night and between large bites,

“Man, good stuff…”

“Ah…you should try her traditional stuff…that is her specialty…” I elaborated.

“Yummy…your wife is a great cook…”

“We were celebrating last night…” I lied again.

“What was the occasion?”

“Do you need an occasion?” I gave a sly wink. He guffawed with pleasure and a full mouth.

Truth, I have realized, is insufficient and unnecessary for most relationships.

“How is your wife?” I asked.

“In production…thought of having the second before menopause…”

“But, she is very young.”

“I meant mine.”

“Ah!” I agreed.

We talked about foreign trips and vacation plans, mine definitely fictitious, his probably true. Then, he talked about his latest venture, building holiday homes for himself from Chennai to Kanyakumari and then up till the Konkan coast.

“Managing a single large house is so difficult…especially when you are old…so, I want small holiday homes…and I want to go from one to the other by speed-boat.” he tried to sell the idea passionately.

I kept quiet. These days, friends have very little to talk about other than real-estate. I also realized why he is my friend. There is very little we need from each other.

“How about you, man? Is this a rented place?” Another emphasis treated like an obscenity.

“Yes, it’s rented. Why have anything which I can’t discard in an hour!” I philosophized.

“Your wife?” he challenged.

Including my wife…”

He eyed me warily. And, as if to change the line of thought or to raid another fridge, he suggested,

“Hey man, let’s go to Seetha’s place. She is in town.”

Seetha is…was my first love.

“Ok.” I replied.

We left immediately.

Moral of the story: A good friend is indeed a friend not in need.


Four

12:00 - We reached Seetha’s house around noon. Seetha’s parents greeted us cautiously. We waited for her to finish her mid-day bath. Her father and I studied the tiles on the floor, and when we came up for air, exchanged ambiguous smiles that would have made Mona Lisa jealous. My friend quizzed her mother about some shared acquaintances.

After twenty long minutes, Seetha came in like a breath of fresh air and her parents left her alone with us. She looked the same as she did twenty years back, still that 30-to-40 look which used to look great in that 15-to-25 stage. I looked at myself in a mirror on the wall, still the same 45-to-55 look, too.

There was one difference with the old days. She refused to look me in the eye. Probably, that was because my friend monopolized the dialogue. She was also into real-estate.

I studied her house. Chrome, leather and prints in sepia; more chic than the Ikea stuff in the Living; and not as personal as the stuff in Country Home. Her drawing room was as big as my apartment plus half the car-park. She had done well, without me, I concluded without envy.

13:00 - Around one, she realized that my friend did not intend to leave without a meal at her place.

She is on a diet, she claimed. We shared her misery with a frugal meal of rice, dal and a measly portion of vegetable curry.

13:30 - At half-past-one, we were back in the drawing room and I felt lost in that great expanse. Seetha went to a room inside and returned with some old letters. She said to me,

“Look what I found when I was clearing old junk.”

I did not have to look long to recognize that stuff. Old letters, greeting cards, flowery handwriting and poems composed for her. There were so many, too many. Seetha sat next to me and read a few of those personal lines to my friend. I laughed with them and felt sad.

I am not sure whether I loved her then. At one time, I did love the idea of falling in love with her.

After the laughter died down, my friend and I took leave. We went to a restaurant and had a proper lunch.

Moral of the story: When you write love letters, do not use ink that lasts.


Five

15:00 - My friend dropped me at my place at around three and left me in peace. I sank into my arm-chair, enjoyed the solitary air and dozed till four.

16:00 - I had a mug of black tea with heaps of sugar.

I logged onto my computer and checked e-mail. The inbox had a few friendly notes which I kept for later. I studied the spam more closely. There were the usual – cheap vicodin, enlarged organs and the like. I deleted all but the one with the subject, ‘yellow convertible’. I opened that e-mail:

'A father asked his son on his fourth birthday,

“What do you want for your birthday, son?”

“A yellow convertible, Papa!” the son replied.

“Fine, son…I promise that you will have that on your eighteenth birthday.”

This was repeated on every birthday. On the eighteenth birthday, the son asked for the same once again. The father said,

“This morning, I saw a nasty accident involving a yellow convertible. Sorry, son…I cannot get you that.”

What is the moral of the story?

Never ask for a yellow convertible, ask for a red convertible.'

Nodding my head in agreement, I shifted to a social-networking portal and tried to be anti-social, enjoying virtual company and comfortable honesty.

18:30 - Around half past six, I received a phone-call from my wife.

We exchanged cordial greetings. She promised to return the next day. We made plans to go out for dinner. She filled me in on all the details about her trip. At the end, she asked,

“How was your day at work?”

“I took leave.”

Why?”

“Simply…”

What did you do?” the volume was increasing with each emphasis.

“I was here most of the time.”

And…” my wife persisted.

“Seetha is in town. I went to her house for lunch.”

She kept quiet. I clarified with a lie which sounded good,

“Just a simple lunch – pulao, mutton curry, vegetable kofta and grilled paneer which was out of this world. And payasam for dessert…ada payasam…”

“Sounds like a feast. Were there other guests?”

“No.”

“She made all that…for you…?” my wife asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe not…” I was testing truth but it didn’t sound as good.

She kept quiet for some more time.

“Seetha asked about you.” I lied.

“How is she?”

“Looks the same…” I admitted the truth.

She kept quiet and I kept quiet too.

I felt Solitude shift on the sofa from my right arm to the left side. I do not like that side of Loneliness’ face.

19:00 - The clock-wall ticked loudly complaining that it is seven pm once again.


Author’s Notes:

Before I submitted my first research paper for publication, my mentor suggested that I could split the 19-page dense article into two or three. Listening to good practical advice has never been my forte.

• I did think of splitting this into three: Modern Marital Mishaps, Dangerous Drunk Driving, Long Lost Love or another attempted alliteration. I could have posted two under Current Affairs and one in Travel.

• The question that remains: where do I put it? Current Affairs? I chose “Creative” because it is the closest to a “Non-Creative” account of mundane and common stuff without twists, turns, suspense or thrill.

• As for morals, I can only repeat Bertolt Brecht’s words in The Threepenny Opera, ‘Food comes first, then morals.’ Anyway, it is a myth. People tend to believe myths. As for stories with a moral, the less said the better.