Sunday, November 21, 2010

Waiting for Trouble near Westkreuz



He stood at his doorway on this winter night, the light from his apartment sending out shadows creeping towards me, a dangerous menacing figure with an eerie halo, staring in my direction, legs apart and mean-looking, like one of those spaghetti-Western villains.


But, he was the sheriff and I the villain. I had waited for the moon to hide behind clouds, for total darkness to provide cover for my crime.


I broke the law every week, every Sunday, and I did not even try to learn how to put the right rubbish in the right bin. Biodegradable, cans, paper, glass...aye, that’s where I erred this time...glass. I realized that after my pack of bottles fell with a loud crash into the bin for metal.


That disturbance brought him to his door. If I could have seen his face, I would have seen the anger in his eyes, the spit foaming at the side of his mouth, veins jutting out on his neck and forehead, livid face red and quivering. He is the janitor of my apartment block near Westkreuz. He lives on the ground floor.


I hoped that the cold darkness would save me. He must have seen me. In a loud guttural voice, he said something sharply in German to me which I could not understand. I walked away from the scene of the crime, sticking to the shadows, never showing my back to him.


I reached my apartment, breathing heavily and sweating in that freezing air, locked and bolted the door, waiting for him, waiting for certain trouble.


I could not resuscitate appetite for dinner, poked at my frugal meal, if not to kill hunger, at least to kill time. I saw my blood in the ketchup and my battered face in the mashed potato.


I was washing the vessels when the door-bell rang. Strangely, I felt calm, then. The waiting was over. I walked slowly to the door. My mind was blank. I was not even thinking about how to tackle the situation.


My breathing was steady. I remember correcting a few wrinkles in the carpet on my way to the door. The life I knew was going to change forever, listening to BBC Radio on FM, waiting for the world to end and writing silly things, all that will have to go, I knew. But I did not think that then. I just walked to the door, calmly. I unlocked, unbolted and opened it. I stared at the person standing in front of my door.


She looked very attractive with a nose-ring, young taut body and a marvelous smile. She said, “Enschuldigung...” and I knew that it only meant “Excuse me...” She said other things too which I did not have to understand. I stepped aside and let her enter. She went to my balcony and returned holding a piece of clothing. She lives in the apartment above mine. That clothing must be hers and it must have fallen by design, I hoped, or by mistake, I allowed. I let her do whatever she wanted. I let her say “Bye”. By the time I said “Bye” she had disappeared from my life.


In a moment of uncertainty, she had come and gone. I was left waiting for the sheriff, that janitor, the mean one.


There are too many mean guys and attractive girls. They come and go. I keep waiting for trouble in my apartment near Westkreuz.

Soliciting with Ice-cream near Ku’damm



The second time I met her, she was standing near a newspaper-stand on one of those side-streets off Ku’damm, quite close to the French Consulate.


On the first occasion, chance had made us walk together from Beate Uhse’s Erotik-Museum up to the Deutsche Post. Nothing was said then. As she walked away from me that time, I took in the leather pants, the plunging cleavage and the swaying hips.


The second time, I noticed her eyes, mouth and the lines on her face. I could picture her in some crowded small kitchen, kneading dough, brushing aside strands of hair and sweat from her forehead, attending to a husband sitting in his underwear and kids not too sure if they should seek attention.


At the newspaper-stand, I circled around the meager International section. Then, I shifted and stood undecided in front of the soft porn magazines. I turned around and faced her with a surge of boldness.


Did a tinge of amusement flit over those lips? She stood with her weight on the left stiletto and the right leg swayed lightly. She was not a smoker, I had already noted. Her left hand was in the back pocket and the right coyly hooked in the front. She raised her eyebrows at me in acknowledgement. After a few long seconds, she walked towards me slowly.


I was surprised when I heard my voice ask her,
- Hot, isn’t it?
- Yes, bloody hot.
- Care to have ice-cream?
- Where? Some hotel here or at your place?
- Shall we try that place at the corner?
- There? That ice-cream joint?
- Do you have the time?
- What the hell! My legs are aching.


We made our way to the ice-cream parlour. She nodded at the waiters with familiarity and chose a discreet corner. We sat silently till the sundaes arrived.


During that silence, I kept looking at a point on the left side of her neck. Instinctively, she tried to cover that side with her hand, and she asked me,
- Is the strap awry or is it my blouse...torn?
- Pardon?
- What are you staring at?
- Oh! Sorry, I was looking at the mole on your neck. Is it natural?
- Of course.
- It’s cute.
- Thanks.


She started to fidget with her spoon. After a few moments of uneasy silence, she blurted,
- What do you have in mind?
- I would like company.
- One of those Pretty Woman scenarios, is it?
- Ha! Not so rich. An hour or two? A quiet dinner?
- With this outfit, that would be tough.
- How about take away?
- No.
- You can trust me...
- I could, but it’s a silly idea.
- Ok. Then, let’s sit here. Is that fine with you?
- You are not joking, are you?
- No.
- If you want company, shall I call a few of my pals, too?
- No.
- But, there’s nothing to talk.
- Maybe.
- Look, this is weird...I think I will just get back to work, ok?
- Alright. Let’s at least finish this ice-cream together...please...

Shrinking Hope near Innsbrucker Platz



Somewhere near Innsbrucker Platz, I am in a courtyard crowded with greenery. I press the buzzer at the main entrance and announce my name. The door clicks open.


The interior matches well with the neo-Gothic exterior. The moulding stone walls, in desperate need for renovation, seem to be ready for overhanging ghouls in each corner and crevice. I expect the door to creak open but it is well-oiled. But, the staircase fits the scene. Each groaning complaining step is amplified by echoes.


I whisper “Hi there” and the echo says “Hullo”. I look up to see the source, a smiling face of an octogenarian of indeterminate sex about two flights above me. A slow climb takes me to that person, cloaked in heavy woolen, standing sideways on those steps, breathing heavily. I could not make out if ‘it’ was going up or down; or when ‘its’ journey had begun. I continue climbing leaving behind the creepy smiling physiognomy.


While I climb, let me tell you why I am here; or, at least, how.


Yesterday, at a traffic light, I met my hypochondriac pal-acquaintance-colleague-whatever John. He greeted me with a melancholic “Yow” and I reciprocated with a hearty “Hi”. He asked with a sadistic tone, “Howz life?” I replied truthfully, “Staying alive.”


Then, John took a card from his wallet and told me, “my shrink, meet him”. Without another word, he crossed the road giving scant respect to the traffic light. When John reached the other side of the road, he turned and with a downcast dopey-eyed stare, his bass voice uttered in a staccato fashion, “There...Watch...Your...Step...”


So, ‘there’ I am. With no affliction or affection to brag about, I wonder if I will be good company for a shrink.


Five flights of steps conquered, with tobacco ravaged lungs doing hiccups, I reach the single door on that level (white, new and slightly open) with no bell or peep-hole waiting for me to enter.


This door creaks open and as soon as I stepped inside, it recoils back noiselessly and I hear locks being sprung.


I am in a massive dark hall. I can see a gas lamp on a table at the far end and a downturned head. I tread softly on the uncarpeted wooden floor. With every step, the shadows dance more vigorously.


When I reach the table, the ‘head’ reveals a blonde with dark eyes and lush pouting lips. She says, “Ah, you are here. Let me take you to the doctor.”


She took the lamp and led the way to a narrow and steep spiral staircase. Cream chiffon blouse that seems to be draped rather than worn, a cleavage that never ends, blue jeans tight against wide hips and those legs...I nearly tripped. John’s voice whispered in my head, “Watch your step.”


After 47 steps, I reach a room at the top...a room? Well, it is bigger than a closet with space enough for a table, a chair behind it with its back towards me and a dentist’s reclining seat by the side of the table with a sticker which said ‘Dr Shilly - Dentist.’


I exclaimed to the angel, “Oh! There’s a mistake. I am here to meet Dr Keller, the psychologist.”


The angel gestured at the chair where a large bulk of mass quivered. The angel left. The mass boomed, “I am Keller.” The mass rose to six and half feet, three or so in width and plenty in depth. The boom continued, “Swapped couches with my friend Dr Shilly.” I was shown that seat. He settled down in his chair facing me with a familiar creepy smile.


Dr: What’s up?
Me: Up?
Dr: Excellent...continue...
Me: I don’t know where to start. A week back...
Dr: The further back the better.
Me: It will cost more, won’t it?
Dr: You could talk faster.
Me: For three days, starting last Monday, I was friendly at work. It was really strange...a girl even told me that I am nice...
Dr: Is that girl barmy?
Me: I could be nice, right?
Dr: Frustrations rise when reality clashes with fantasy.
Me: I get the point.
Dr: Anyway, lot of nice people end up here. Good, you are now receptive. Continue.
Me: Last Thursday, I went to a cake shop and got a slice of Black Forest pastry. After the first bite, memories hit me hard and I cried.
Dr: Some other place, some other time, a cherished moment with someone?
Me: Yes.
Dr: Did you finish the pastry?
Me: Yes.
Dr: Why?
Me: It cost me 2.50 Euro.
Dr: Then...?
Me: That same day, I went to a Chinese restaurant for dinner. Ordered steamed fish. Again, I cried.
Dr: Another person, another place, another time?
Me: A fish bone got caught in my throat.
Dr: Ah! A pen is sometimes just a pen, so said Freud.
Me: Two days back, in a U-Bahn, I was watching a family. A ponytailed father with religious tattoos on his arms; a mother in a purdah and chewing gum; and two kid daughters, the only ones who talked.”
Dr: How do you know she was chewing gum if she was wearing purdah?
Me: I could hear.
Dr: Ah...continue...
Me: The father sat with his head in his hands, looking down, as if he was suffering from migraine or a bad hangover. Two sexy girls entered. He did not notice.
Dr: Were you looking at him or the girls?
Me: At him.
Dr: Serious...continue...
Me: Later that day, in a mall, I saw an elderly couple touch each other fondly.
Dr: And, you want to reach that stage, I suppose...
Me: Yes.
Dr: Without the intermediate...?
Me: Well, I don’t mind if my wife chews cud. But if my senses go dead, what will I do?
Dr: Start chewing gum, stay married, lots of things. What else?
Me: I am feeling hopeless.
Dr: Do you have a job?
Me: Yes.
Dr: Family?
Me: Yes. Wife.
Dr: Kids?
Me: En route.
Dr: Happily married?
Me: Married happily.
Dr: Why are you feeling hopeless?
Me: That girl who told me that I am nice, she also said that I am hopeless.
Dr: Clever one.
Me: I thought you said that she is barmy.
Dr: Anything else?
Me: No.
Dr: Sure...?
Me: My wallet is.
Dr: Good. Come again.
Me: Doc, how do you get down that staircase?
Dr: I don’t. That’s for patients. I take the lift.


With that, I left him, paid at the angel’s desk, met the octogenarian at the same place, and got out of the building.


At a nearby traffic light, I met my cheerful pal-acquaintance-colleague-whatever Pierre. I greeted him half-heartedly “YooHoo”. He chirped, “HooYoo”. I taunted, “How’s life?” He let out a sigh.


I took the card from my wallet and told him, “my shrink, meet him”. After crossing the road, I shouted “There...Watch...Your...Step...”


I felt lighter, happier and even hopeful.





Sunday, November 14, 2010

Weird Jungle

An old man with his palm on a young boy’s lap,
   Pray, did someone tell the prey he is prey?


A retired tired with own child banging at the gate,
   Is it time to feed the impatient vulture?


A couple waiting for an anniversary to make love,
   Why did they forget to be animals?


Young adults measuring future on a faulty balance,
   Do they feel when teeth sink into fresh kill?


Teens announcing friends as laissez-faire,
   Hush, isn’t it an old deception to hunt?


Even babies forget to feign innocence,
   Why did the prey turn predator so soon?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

One week married, four days alone

Disclaimer: This is again from that folder with old writing – others’ writing (in earlier blogs, I posted the one on writing [http://newnonentities.blogspot.com/2010/06/on-writing.html] and the other on football [http://newnonentities.blogspot.com/2010/06/brazil-1986-heroes-death.html]). How old was she when she wrote this? 25 or 26? This is not really a tale or a blog. It is not even Xmas eve or Monday. But, it is a grey evening. And, her thoughts float in the still lonely air.

Xmas eve. Monday. Grey evening. Harpestry on FM radio. Romantic?

It would have been so if I had his company. One week married and four days alone. A loud cousin had warned me about Monday weddings. Not that I listen to such gobbledygook. Not last week.


The wedding was a success. My brother and uncles had done a splendid job. Even he smiled.


By that evening, things started to change. The reception at his place was too sober, too silent. I didn’t mind it because I was scared of the moment when my people would leave and I would be left all alone to fend against his crowd. Should I go to the bedroom or the kitchen? How long can I hide in the bathroom?


These worries turned out to be unnecessary. Soon after my folks left, his folks went to some club to relax, leaving us with a few of his friends. There I was alone in his house while he entertained his friends. The friends left around half past ten.


We had a quiet dinner at eleven. I thought I fell in love with him that night. He was great. We had not planned to do it. Around two, both of us rolled against each other and it just followed naturally. Couple of months back, I had asked myself “How long will a guy and a girl stay together in a room without sex?” Two hours, it seems.


The next day went by fast - another party, visiting those deemed near and dear and then packing. On Wednesday morning, we left; a heady experience that - leaving behind the known and the loved with a new love on a silent train. Most of our relatives assumed that we were going on a honeymoon. I wanted to be with him, wherever. At the station, there was the usual mixture of tears and naughty comments. Heard one of his cousins suggest, “Be tough with her.”


Around five pm, he received a call on his mobile. Without any change in his expression, he told me at the end of that conversation, “Have to go to headquarters tomorrow evening. Hope you will understand?”


“Yes.” A disappointment doesn’t become one till it is mouthed, does it?


On Thursday, we used the few hours available to set up the house and clean. We tried to make love. But neither of us seemed too keen. Around seven pm, he left.


On Friday, I joined for work. I got complimented. I hid my thoughts from my boss and colleagues. I got through the day half there half elsewhere. A lonely Friday, a lonely weekend, a lonely Monday followed. And more to come, I suppose, sans compliment, sans thought, sans dream. But I understand, don’t I? I shall understand. I am not the first woman in that state, right?


On Saturday evening, I was walking on Main Street, watching couples walk past me. And, the spinsters; I was one of them a week back, the sadness or the naughtiness or the determination in their eyes. No more of that, just blank eyes, mechanical pragmatic moves, chores.


Have I already started hiding skeletons in the closet?


On Sunday afternoon, I went to a mall, to spoil myself, to ward off a nasty depression. There, I met Praveen. He asked me to have coffee with him at ‘our old joint’. I thought it would be childish not to go. Over mundane conversation and sugarless coffee, I realized how much I loathed him. I had actually forgotten. The sentences became more and more blunt. By the time of the cordial ending, we knew we would never talk to each other again. My first long love, my first long torture, my first long mistake, I think I could not suppress my mirthless laugh.


That night, I did not even think about my husband. I was busy trying to stay away from self-pity, my unmarried days’ companion. Self-pity and pragmatism do not mix well.


This morning, close to lunch-time, I received a call from Atul, half way around the world. He was a ‘brother’ a decade back, then a stranger worth three meetings. I told him about my wedding. He replied curtly, strangely perturbed, and I knew what was coming. “I always thought we had something going.” He must have been between dances, lonely for ten minutes at a party.


Not really skeletons, are they?


Today, I unpacked my cassettes. This book, too. Back to the old days, right? No. I love my husband. I really do. I do understand him and why he had to go. If there was a chance, he would have stayed. I suppose so. I suppose I do love him.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Family and a Smiling Man at Suicide Point



He stood near the edge of Suicide Point, a popular tourist spot. He leaned forward cautiously, holding the barricade tightly, studying the crags and the vast expanse below and ahead. He felt like a king viewing his dominion. Forty-five, successful, a father, a husband, it seemed to him that he had achieved nearly all. He took a few steps away from the edge and twirled on his toes trying to dance to some forgotten song. When he looked up, he recognized the man standing ten feet away from him. He tensed, reached for his daughter’s hand. He wondered why the man was smiling.


His pretty wife was looking through the telescope when he was at the edge. With a brief sideways glance, she had taken in her husband’s pleasure. On most days, she shared his content. At that moment, she tried to find some other source. Later, she would wonder whether it was a mother’s instinct which made her turn her head. She saw her husband staring at a man, tense and pulling her daughter towards and in front of him. She reached for her daughter’s other hand, pulling her kid towards her. Was that man smiling at her, she wondered.


His cute daughter was bored with the place. She wanted to get back to her new friends at the resort. While her parents looked at space, she studied the other tourists there. Like her parents, they seemed odd, she felt. In front of her, she saw a man watching her father. She smiled at him. Though odd, he looked nice when he smiled back at her. She felt her parents tugging at her hands. Over-protection, she thought.


The man smiled at the daughter. She looked like a nice kid. He waited for her father to turn and recognize him. He watched the father pull his daughter towards him as if to explain or to plead. He also noticed the pretty mother trying to pull the daughter away. Instinct of a mother or a wife, he wondered. He smiled at the thought.


The man brought out a gun from within his coat and shot the father and the husband, twice, dead and not smiling.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Path of No Return


 
The first time I saw her she guided me away from the path of no return. That was in the last week of January, 1985.

I was on a ‘cruise’ from Cochin to the islands of Lakshadweep. The cruise itinerary included 4 islands; ‘fun and frolic’ on an island during the day; and, onboard the ship at night while crossing from one landmass to the next. The trip cost me four hundred rupees. While making the ‘deck’ reservation, I dreamt of sleeping on hammocks under starry skies.

The ‘deck’ turned out to be a huge dormitory with rows and rows of berths within the cavernous hull. As neighbours, I had friendly agricultural merchants transporting their produce and purchases. On the first night, I tried to count the number of hands in each cluster (kola) of bananas hanging from frames and cross-beams. On the other days, I was tired after swimming, exploring and walking and did not need that to sleep.

The common toilets and shower area were reasonably clean. The food served in the canteen was fine – for breakfast, bread and jam or uppu maavu; for dinner, ‘ration’ rice (found a dead baby cockroach only once) with vegetable and curry (looked like fish curry or maybe it was vegetable curry). I had lunch at government tourist hotels or small tuck-shops on the islands.

Each day, the ship anchored in the deep at a safe distance from an island. At sunrise and sunset, the cruising lot was packed into a small motor boat for the journey to and from the island. I guess life-jackets were uncommon then. We never saw one.

On the third day, we were returning to the ship against the tide (was it from Kalpeni or Kavaratti?). It was a terrifying ride. Today, I might compare it to an out-of-control bloody-scary roller-coaster ride. I have stood with awe on many beaches, delighted with the lashing waves and scared of the under-currents, whispering “Kadalamme, Rakshikkane” (“Mother Sea, Please Save”). But, in a small boat on the high seas with no sight of land to comfort, the violent deep inspires lesser and more common thoughts appreciating the true sublime magnificence.

On the row in front of me, a young lady retched. Her husband held her tight with his left hand and held his own seat even tighter with his right. Two boys sitting next to me sang Hindu and Christian prayers. I lost my favourite cap to the wind and the rough seas. I held on to the boat, not even thinking of reaching for it, watching it bob away from me and disappear. I thought that it would be easy for me too, to escape like that, slipping and bobbing away, forever, to somewhere far away.

I noticed her then. She was sitting two seats ahead of me and I could see her profile. Her hair roughly caressed by the wind covered her face; her light translucent blouse stuck to her skin like grease-paper; her face was serene, with a wisp of a smile not of amusement but plain secret delight, her eyes contained that smile too; her young untroubled face expressed freedom and hope; and, she did not seem to have any worries about mortality.

I forgot my own fears and my plans to escape. I kept on looking at her, amazed and enthralled, till the boat reached the ship. In the rush to get inside the ship, I lost sight of her.

I did not see her for the rest of that journey, maybe hidden in some place with a no-entry sign for me.

Then, I saw her again a few weeks back, much closer to home.

About forty kilometers from Trivandrum, in a backwater lake with a strip of land separating that and the sea, there is an island. It is a small island, roughly half a kilometer in radius. It is about a kilometer from a pier on the mainland.

There is a small old temple in the middle of that island. The Trust that administers the temple has appointed a priest to conduct prayers on the first of every Malayalam month. But, devotees can visit on any day.

This temple has two peculiar features and one strange belief associated with it. The first feature is that the sanctum sanctorum, with the deity, is never closed. The second feature is that there is only one way to enter this island – there is a boat (vanji) and a single boatman who can bring the devotee here from that pier on the mainland. The belief of devotees is that a person with true faith will not return from that island. The island is called Thirichu Ella Thuruthu (Island of No Return).

I went there few weeks back. Maybe, I was like most people who visit knowing that they will return. But I felt that my own belief or faith, whatever it might be, was irrelevant.

I guess I was standing on that pier wondering about that when I saw her again.

She came out of the pay-and-use toilet there. To the right of that, and at a fair distance, there is a roofed waiting area. A man, with a kind and friendly face but with no inclination for small talk, runs a makeshift tea-stall in that waiting area. The stall has a gasoline stove, an old kettle, few glasses and plates, and two or three steel vessels with that day’s specialty. It was idli (with sambhar or chutney or chamandi podi, I guess) and vazhakka appam on that day.

She asked the man for a glass of tea, strong. I heard her ask him about the boatman, too. I heard him reply that it would be best if we (the waiting devotees) went to the boatman’s house to inform the boatman that we are waiting. She asked him for directions to the boatman’s house.

I watched her while she talked, while she sipped the hot tea. She looked older, of course. But, it was her, I knew. Those eyes, the smile, her small frame and the way she slips her hair behind the right ear. I studied her face and her body. She must have seen me by then but she did not look in my direction till I approached her.

“Are you going to the boatman’s house? I am also waiting for him. Can I come along?” I enquired.

“Yes, that would be nice,” she said and added out of custom or as if it was her place to be hospitable, “will you have some tea, too?” I shook my head and waited for her.

Somewhere along the way, I asked her, “Were you at Lakshadweep about twenty five years back?”

“No. I have never been there. Why do you ask me that?”

“Never mind, I must have seen someone like you.” I said. Why is she hiding the truth?

The boatman’s house was a hut. A lady was washing clothes outside near a well and beside her, a young man was brushing his teeth with umi-kari (roasted paddy husk and salt).

“Is the boatman here?” I asked.

The woman gave an angry look towards the hut, “Hopeless drunkard. Sleeping like a corpse…” (“Mudiyanaya kudiyan. Shavathine ppole kidakkunnu…”) I expected her to spit but she did not.

“Will he come to the pier today morning?” my companion asked.

“Who knows…wait till ten…that is his usual time.” It was only eight in the morning.

I looked at the young man, “Can you take us there?”

“After he dies…” (“Angeru chathittu…”) came the quick harsh reply from the lad.

We walked back to the pier. It must have been our common predicament that made us stand together and talk.

I pointed at a board nailed to a coconut tree near the edge of the pier. I asked her, “Can you read that?”

We went closer. She read the writing on that board: The Gita, Chapter 8, verse 26:

      sukla-krsne gati hy ete
      jagatah sasvate mate
      ekaya yaty anavrttim
      anyayavartate punah

“What does it mean?” I asked.

She hesitated and thought for a while, “I am not really sure… well, I think it’s something like… there are two eternal paths for mortal beings… the day and the night are symbolic of that…it is given in the Scriptures…the two paths are the path of return through rebirth and the path of no return through union with God.”

I told her, “Sounds like Greek to me.” She laughed.

Watching her laugh, I was reminded of the young girl’s expression. She has changed. The smile still entered her eyes. But along with that, there was also sadness or weariness or the hard weight of experience or knowledge or…

It brought back my initial thoughts about the purpose of my own trip. As if to extricate myself from that impasse via association or combined study, I asked her, “Why are you here?”

She looked surprised with that question. A stranger asking a personal question, it must have sounded like that.

She looked away from me, looked towards the island, at Thirichu Ella Thuruthu, and remained silent for a long time.

I accepted her silence. It was after all none of my business. I sat on the ground, leaned against a coconut tree, watched her and thought.

I should admit that my thoughts were not really virtuous. When I was young, I believed in going to temples with a virtuous mind; later, I stopped going because I could not manage that; then, I resumed going resigned to the fact that I could only be myself. I must have laughed at my petty thoughts.

She looked at me and asked,

“Do you believe in superstitions?”

“Not really…” I replied without hesitation.

“I don’t. But recently, I think I found a reason to believe…”

I avoided wisecracks and wisely I kept quiet. She continued,

“It started 12 years back.”

“What?” I prompted.

“Whenever I thought about one particular…thing, I faced a disaster.”

“Aha! Tell me that you caused 9/11, 26/11, Bush, Lehman…” I quipped.

She looked at me with a serious face, clearly wondering whether she should continue. I raised my hands in apology and silently begged her to continue. How could she understand that I was trying to cover my own discomfort by joking…her tale was sounding a bit too familiar.

“Mostly personal tragedy…relationships breaking, job failure, accidents, long-lasting bad luck following a brief tease of good fortune, loss of wealth, loss of those near and dear…one by one, till there was nothing…at first, I looked at it as mere coincidence or at worst, improbable chance. I even checked and tested…brought disaster on myself voluntarily…through that thought…but I still refused to believe…”

“What happened then?” I asked.

“Now, I have nothing left to lose…but…I lost even that thought…it is like its force is spent or that it had had enough of me…”

“What was it…that thought…what was it about?”

“The only person I loved…I was not supposed to think about that…till I lost all…now I can…but, it is gone too…strangely, I seem to believe now…”

“This person…?” I asked.

“Dead...”

By then, I was not sure whether the voices had flipped. Was it me or was it her…who talked about the lost thought? We did not talk after that.

At ten, the boatman did turn up, washed and cleaned but surly, smelling of yesterday’s liquor, still unsteady on his feet but steady enough to do his duty. Unlike our first boat journey, this ride was smooth gliding. I returned alone and I do not think I will see her again.

The second time I thought I saw her she guided me to the path of no return.

A Walking Tour

Bangalore (circa 20th century)

 
From Sadashiv Nagar to – [Shivaji Nagar or Majestic?] – (Bus number 100 or 104?) – does not really matter but good to get it right.

From Shivaji Nagar bus depot, it is a short walk to St. Mark’s Rd. At the first cross-road, near the street with cheap furniture stores, a man is beating his wife to the ground. He does not kick but his slaps are loud. She is crying loud but she refuses to cower before him, getting up like a nearly KO-ed boxer, giving back with a guttural hoarse tongue. He kept on slapping, not her face but her arms and back. A young man in the gathering crowd, Iyengar says the stamp on his forehead, approaches the couple; to help, to break the fight. The wife turns on him; the husband ignores him; it is not his fight; the crowd laughs, agrees and cheers for the fighters.

On St. Mark’s Rd, there is Koshy’s coffee-shop and there used to be the British Council Library on top. Further down the road, past the oil pump, there is a liquor shop that veterans trust. It is too quiet to listen to other’s stories in the Lib, but it is there at each table and the characters and tales are kept for later reference. Sit for a while at Koshy’s, in the middle or in a far corner never elsewhere, feel the old colonial railway waiting room. Listen to regulars and try to look like them. Hear about the drama guy’s cake-shop and his dogs and his friends; the new steak joint with rare meat and the way to cut and taste the blood; the latest writer, poet or painter, groovy stuff man; and, some look so damn earnest about the damn dams and the bloody poor. Even the regular irregulars there think of trying that lifestyle. Note it all down for reference.

Across the road, at the Bengali sweet shop, a lady of fifty tries to be fifteen. A young couple outside argues, before the impassive magazine vendor. She says I want rosogolla. He says no, I hate Bengali women, they make me fall in love with them, I hate Bengali men they try to be men. She laughs, come on, she says, my Bengali man.

A few steps from there, there’s Premier bookstore with the nice man who will let the poor reader browse for long hours, even whole books on multiple trips, and gives discount irrespective of the buyer’s English accent. On the left, there’s fiction. A girl and a boy definitely not size zero, share the narrow space with one foot on the floor, the other entwined while she looks for du Maurier from M and he searches for Neruda from a misplaced Steinbeck. He reads to her, from Neruda’s Lone Gentleman,
   Young homosexuals and girls in love,
   and widows gone to seed, sleepless, delirious,
   and novice housewives pregnant some thirty hours,
   the hoarse cats cruising across my garden’s shadows
   like a necklace of throbbing, sexual oysters
   surround my solitary home
   like enemies entrenched against my soul,
   like conspirators in pyjamas
   exchanging long, thick kisses on the sly.
She nods with thoughts elsewhere, replies with a glassy stare, from Daphne’s Rebecca,
   Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderly again
They talk, giggle, disentangle and silently promise never to meet again.

Further ahead on Church St., there’s the place which serves light phulka and heavy mutton curry. Before that, a famous video-turned-DVD-no-CD store (Habitat, is it?). Three young men and a lady browse together among those shelves. One man and that lady were desperate to get away, for sex, excuse the French, make love, it is called (right?). Meet them later many years later. They live happily ever after, with cute young kids, married to a rich another from their own different hometowns and religions. There are two kinds of men, the one who thinks about the morning after and the other who does not think. The second man belongs to the first kind. The other three laughs at his story that is yet to begin. Decent man, married, nasty divorce, lost half his pension, fell in love, married again, divorced, lost half of the remaining half of his pension. Well, he is still got a quarter to slice again, they console gleefully. The third man is a hybrid. He picks out three DVDs (Unbearable Lightness of Being, One Fine Day, Private Lessons) for an all-night session holding himself tight.

Retrace your steps, walk up to MG Rd, past McDonald's, now boarded and closed, where a couple discuss their divorce plans and how they should get together. The Spencer’s gave way to another chain. There’s a phone-booth in between where a man screams at his wife on an outdated phone, choose me or your job. Then, there’s that tall building with a pub on the 13th floor. Or, walk arm in arm, like the Wild West, to the cool shade within to steal a kiss or whisper sweet nothings. On Saturday nights, young drunk men shout from a balcony on the top floor, “Why am I with him and not her?” Hear the echoes down below.

Further ahead, near the old Plaza theatre, a married couple stops. She wants to check out new saris at Deepam, she demands her due. He sweats, distracts her and quickly signals to the man in the alley, not now says the furtive signal. The man in the alley hides his package of pornography beneath the second-hand books. Two young men leaning against the railing stare at her sari-clad figure. She notices their stare, she glares, they continue to look from head to toe, lechers, she smiles; her innocent husband oblivious of this whole episode.

At the junction, turn right and go along Brigade Rd. There are pubs on each side-street; each with its pseudo-theme – space-shuttle or hard rock or wannabe cool – with the same draught beer in same pitchers. It’s the same groups – small-town guys wide-eyed losing virginity, B-school guys with their college chums some a miserable reminder of fancy ideals or long hair-n-beard or borrowed philosophy, et al.

Still on Brigade Rd, there are old kids with new jobs showing parents and relatives their brave new world. Some still try out the old small malls, the cake at Nilgiris, window-shopping at the expensive fruit stall, cheap shops with pirated stuff to get something for those who could not make the trip.

On the left, there used to be dancing halls with women with vacant eyes and clothes considered scant in the old days; below, you might meet homely women in traditional Kerala saris and sandalwood paste on the forehead. Do not smile at them, it might cost you. Go past all that and to the left, there are more famous pubs, Karavalli restaurant for a fishy meal with expensive appam for that rare occasion and an ice-cream parlour. And, to the right, there is the old cheap Hotel Empire for late-night food, just do not be a vegan and just stick to the usual.

Back on MG Rd, past Cauvery crafts shop and past the pub where guys dance with each other, it is a long straight road to Kids Kemp at the end or Strand bookshop somewhere on the right (it is after Oberoi, right?). That is past Standard Chartered Bank and the other offices. There is a way to go to Shoppers Stop from there. And, on that road, there is an Indian restaurant famous for chicken legs wrapped in silver. Listen to young working women there for lunch complain about bosses with drifting fingers and promotions in suspended animation.

Before that and the tall building with a theatre and a rotating restaurant, there is a small lane with restaurants that promise to be affordable. Near the bottom of that lane, there is a place that serves Andhra thali; another more exclusive lot, with a common kitchen probably, for Andhra (fish curry and plain rice for INR 120), North Indian (try Sikander Raan), Chinese (lovers croon, “Oh, so shady, so nice”). The scene is not really different – suburbia, young loving couples, whole families, it might appear boring for the undiscerning but there’s a peculiar tale at each table.

The Chinese joint in the middle of that lane serves good Chinese tea. At table one, one young man tells another about unrequited love and the pain that will last till the next day. Far from them, a couple; the man confesses his love, the woman says we were kids then, the man agrees. The woman cries, says she is in love, she does not know what to do, she begs. I love a man of another religion, she admits; I do not know what to do, she asks. The young man seeks revenge and advises her to stick to her love, to go against the odds. She listens to him, cries more. They leave together, like good friends. He is heart-broken and he does not know that there is one on table one, too. She is happy, she calls home, she cries and protests, tells her parents about her affair but for her parents who did everything for her, she will do whatever they have arranged for her.

Now, with a full tummy, catch an autorickshaw and say ‘Sankey Tank’. It will cost twenty five rupees. But save for that luxury return journey. As you fly past the traffic policeman with a kindly face and a big moustache (killed in action, you heard) and the Golf course, you are ready to doze or think about your day spent scavenging for stories.



Author's Note: This is not about Bangalore. It was the same story in Berlin or London or Mumbai or Delhi or Corsica or Trieste or any goddamn place. There's only one comment worth hearing: whose story is it?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

First Class Travel

“Your journey starts now…”

The young travel agent said that to Sree in the office of Luxury Tours & Travels and he sounded like a TV compère of a game-show.

Sree, a thirty-year-old handsome man in a well-tailored expensive suit, was inspecting the travel documents placed within a custom-made leather travelling case.

He raised his head to look at the young man. He maintained an impassive face typical of aristocracy. But, he barely managed to suppress the brief smirk that expressed disdain and minor revulsion.

The fare for his trip demanded luxury. The young man’s words; nervous chewing of gum; missing top button and cheap tie; off-the-shelf suit probably used by other staff, too; with all that, the young man appeared sub-standard, if not mocking.

“Where is the reservation for the Ritz?” Sree asked the young man.

The latter made an angry gesture to an unobtrusive secretary. She collected the case in a fluster, went to her desk, inserted the missing document and re-checked the contents. When she returned with the case, Sree asked with an exasperated tone, “Should I check this again?” She tried to apologize but he gave a dismissive wave.

The young man escorted him to an S-class Mercedes Benz even though Sree ignored the other’s presence. A prim and proper chauffeur in a grey uniform opened the rear door for him after greeting him with a polite smile and an obsequious bow.

At the Mumbai international airport, a person was waiting to escort Sree to the special VIP lounge past the security-check zone. He hardly noticed the queues for the economy class and the normal first-class. His baggage, check-in and other requisites would be taken care of, he was informed.

In the lounge, Sree browsed through international journals while a middle-aged man with hennaed beard served him café latte and his choice of snacks. Sree watched that man retire to a corner where he coughed and sneezed a few times after covering his mouth with a handkerchief.

A few minutes later, when the manager of the lounge observed that Sree had not touched his plate or cup, he came to enquire. Sree raised the query, “Do you allow sick people to serve?” The manager apologized before he himself cleared the table and then, served coffee and snacks. Later, discretely but within earshot of Sree, the manager admonished the middle-aged man and told him to take off for the rest of the day.

In the plane, an air steward attended to his needs and helped him settle in the luxury first-class cabin. It was in an area above the normal first-class.

When he went to the toilet, after his first meal, he noticed an air hostess guiding a young boy from the toilets in this section to the lower-classes below. Sree raised an eyebrow at the lady. His steward who appeared then berated her for her lapse. In this class, luxury was not supposed to accommodate mere or dire necessities or even base comforts. She tried to explain some plausible reason for bringing the boy there due to urgency and crowded toilets below but Sree silenced her with a slow look from head to toe pausing at her breast to study her nameplate and her name, Anu.

At London, a Rolls Royce Silver Ghost took him to the Hotel Ritz. Apart from this chauffeur-driven car he also had a Jaguar or a Bugatti at his disposal, he was informed, for driving on his own to the country or elsewhere. At the hotel, he was assigned a suite and a butler. The front office manager escorted him to the lift, “Sir, if there is anything you need, please let us know.”

Dinner on that first day was a black-tie affair. There, he was joined by his companion, a beautiful 23-year-old named Susannah. She was in a two-piece ensemble with a silk blouse and a full satin skirt and it complemented his dinner suit very well.

He was there for four nights and five days. Private auctions and exhibitions, special shows at Museums, concerts for the select few; splurging at boutiques, even allowing a brief stroll with the common in Soho and Oxford Street before moving to the comforting spaces of Mayfair; a dinner at some manor hosted by a business tycoon, an exhibition match for charity with the top tennis players; and, a speedy trip to the Mediterranean, to gamble and party, with her by his side.

Hectic but refreshing, and when it was time to leave, the first class journey seemed like it had never started.


xxx


On the sixth day, Sree got back to Mumbai around noon, the return journey by economy class. There was no one waiting to receive him. He collected his luggage from the carousel, waited in the long line at immigration and stood near the exit, watching people enter taxis and big cars or being greeted by loved ones.

A man, with rolled-up long sleeves and khakis, standing next to a tempo-van in the Parking Area waved at him. Sree pushed his trolley to the van and loaded the luggage on his own. The man got in after him at the rear. There were two long-seats facing each other and Sree sat opposite to the man. A young woman, the man’s colleague, sat next to Sree.

The young woman said to Sree, “We have got the reports from everywhere. You have put on a good show!”

“Thank you, Miss.” Sree replied.

“Please sign this form,” he was told.

The form, on the letterhead of a well-known company, contained:

“We thank you for participating in this research program to help us understand better the adaptability of millions of upwardly-mobile luxury-aspiring people in this country.

We are extremely pleased that you fitted well in the new environment and responded correctly to situations and irritants.

Your services are hereby terminated and as reward for successful completion as per terms and conditions of the program, we give you one lakh rupees.”

Below that, Sree added, “Received with thanks.” He signed at the bottom.

The man then gave him a plastic cover with his own old clothes and shoes. Sree changed into those, put the clothes that he had worn in that plastic bag and handed it back to the man. The man went through an inventory and checked if Sree had returned everything. Then, the man gave him a thin bundle with 100 thousand-rupee notes.

Sree was dropped near his crowded Co-operative Housing Society in Kalina. His father used to work at the airport and most of his neighbours were airport or airline employees.

On the way to his house, he met a middle-aged man with hennaed beard. Sree stooped and touched his feet, “Baba, forgive me.”

“Your father explained everything to me a few days back. I am just sad that you had to do something like that.” They hugged each other with affection.

Sree then proceeded to his house. His mother and siblings greeted him quietly in the small front room. His father kept his head down and barely acknowledged his arrival. Sree slipped the bundle of notes into his mother’s hands. “We can now settle the loan and avoid foreclosure; we have at least that,” Sree told her.

His girl-friend, who had not changed her air hostess uniform after that day’s shift, was standing near the kitchen. She brought him a glass of water. He drank the water, kept the glass on the rickety dining table and told her, “Let’s go out.” They left the house together. He borrowed his friend’s motorcycle and they went to a park at Powai, a reasonably luxurious far-away place for them.

“Anu, I am sorry. I had to be a jerk. It was all or nothing.”

“It’s ok, Sree. I understand. You had to do it, right?”

“Bloody toilet, bloody first-class, bloody luxury…”

They sat quietly, holding each other. He then lay on the grass with his head on her lap. He caressed her face. She lowered her head and kissed him. After a while, she asked,

“Sree, did you…you...women…?” It sounded like a pleading.

“One…Susa…” Anu kept her hand over his mouth not letting him complete. He could have lied, he knew. But, she would have known, he thought.

Anu tried to hold back her tears and she avoided looking at him. But, she held him tighter. He buried his head against her young body, crying out of shame. Was that shame for participating in that program or was it for enjoying the trip, he was not sure.

He wondered if Anu would ever forget it or even forgive him. He knew that they would continue to love each other, marry and live together.

Time might heal or if that cliché failed, he felt that they will try to remember all the good things and try to forget all the bad things. And, some of those things will be common, he hoped.

It may even turn out to be a first class travel.


Author’s note: This is fiction. The author has twisted the existing luxury of real places to suit the non-existing needs of his fantasy.