Monday, September 26, 2005

The Chains That Bind

Sachin waited till the train started moving before jumping in. The disgusted looks he got from the women standing near the door didn’t bother him. He still hurt all over from the thrashing his father had given him last night. He smiled wryly – just another drunken boor for a father. The chawl was filled with lives like his.

It had been only two weeks since his mother had left them and he had dropped out of school. His father had insisted on it. But he was glad. School had only added to the tediousness of his life. He liked the colour and bustle of the local trains.

Amol had taught him how to do a sales pitch. Though two years younger to him, Amol was a veteran on the trains. Start out with the ladies’ compartments, Amol had told him. Women like kids, so that’s already a point in your favour, he said. Sachin experimented, modifying his babble till he got it right and then vocalised it with a mix of cuteness, impishness and audacity. The women will swoon, Amol avowed.

Yesterday he had made his first sale. He had been about to get off the train after passing three stations when somebody called out to him. He took a deep breath, then turned around wearing his broadest grin. There were three college girls. College girls loved trinkets. As the girls rummaged through the box of earrings, he sat on the edge of the seat and offered his opinion. “Take this one madam. This blue colour matches your dress perfectly… Try this long one. Your face is round, so it will look really nice… It’s only Rs 10 each madam. Buy all four…”

Sachin got off at the next station and sat on the bench, counting the money over and over again. He then bought a wada pav. My money, he thought. When he decided to go home, the last wisps of twilight had faded away. He sat at the edge of the door of the train, his eyes closed, letting the wind whip his hair into disarray.

He was whistling when he had walked in the door. “So you’ve finally come?” He turned around to see his father sitting against the wall, bottle in his hand.

“Yes,” Sachin mumbled and went towards the kitchen.

“Wait,” said his father, “where are you going? Did you make any money today?”

“Yes.”

“So where is it? Hand it over.”

Sachin stood staring at his father.

“What happened? Have you been struck by paralysis?”

“No.”

“Well, that’s nice to hear. Now give me the money.”

“No!” Sachin wasn’t sure he had actually said that.

“What did you say?”

Sachin did not reply.

His father got up.

“What did you say?”

Sachin took a step back.

Sachin lay on his stomach all night, his eyes dry and awake. He had tiptoed out of the house this morning before his father woke up, taking with him a few clothes in his school satchel.

He spent another good day in the trains. At 8 pm, he alighted at VT station. He bought some food and found an empty bench at the far end of the platform. He watched the people and trains come and go for a long time. He lay down along the length of the concrete bench, using his satchel as a pillow.

He woke up with a start. There were very few people around now. They spoke in whispers that echoed off the walls. The lights were dim and the shadows towered up to the ceiling. He shivered and curled his body in a little closer. He didn’t go back to sleep.

When morning came, he bought a pair of scissors, a spindle of thread, and a needle. He sat down on the pavement and carefully removed the stitches of the lining in his satchel. He put Rs. 20 inside it and carefully sewed it up again. He put the remaining Rs. 30 in his pocket and made a running jump into a train as it pulled out of the station.

His father was still asleep when he got home. Sachin got into bed, and looked at his satchel for some time before closing his eyes. Some day, he promised himself.

Flight

His smile would spread slowly on his face, the dimples getting deeper. The laughter in his eyes – warm, wicked, incorrigible. Which was why she had stared at him a little longer than was polite. She had turned her head away when she caught his eye. When she looked up again, he was laughing with his friends. But he was laughing at her. He knew that she knew.

The memory lingered for a few days and was forgotten. Eight months later, she met him at a friend’s party. She couldn’t recollect where she had seen him before. It came back only months later. When she remembered she had smiled.

He understood her restlessness. He saw through it, turned it upside down, mocked it, and let it be. He ripped apart all her questions, dismissed her answers and swore everlasting love. Not as a promise. As a certainty. A fact. Irrelevant and negligible.

When he loved, he was the ocean. Wild, raging calm. She drowned. Gasped for air as he sat back and watched, and then turned away. He was there, whichever way she turned. So big she could not see him. And she slept. Like a baby.

She asked for promises. He refused every one. He held her hand in his as she walked upon water. She sang to him of worlds forgotten. He kissed her lips. And never stopped. He spoke in whispers, unraveling the mystery of the ages. He swept the world into his arms and overturned it in her lap.

He taught her to dance to the rhythm of the stars. He played the tune. He was the Pied Piper. She was the bird in the golden cage. She turned the key and threw it away.

She breathed.

Today, she watched the sunrise on his body. She bent down to kiss his hand. Then she dressed, took the knapsack from under the bed and walked out the door. And all the while he had smiled, she thought. That slow smile. The deep dimples. Wicked laughter. Warm and incorrigible.

She would come back. In another eternity. He would forget about her. He would wait for her. He would search all the heavens. Let the eternity pass. Laugh at her.

And she would always run.

Friday, September 09, 2005

When 55 is Too Much

**

Not today, thought Laxman, as the alarm rang. Everyday for the past 20 years, he had woken up at 5 am to a monotonous day. But not today, thought Laxman, as he hit the alarm and returned to deep slumber. He didn’t feel the tremor three hours later as the building came crashing down.

**

His wife, ex-wife now, had put up a hard fight but he was free at last. Now, he was completely Angelina’s. Angelina was waiting for him in her apartment. “I don’t how to break this to you. I’ve fallen in love with someone else. I’m going to Paris with him tomorrow.”

**

It was a dream come true. Happy Birthday to me, he screamed and jumped from the aircraft. Whee! This was the life. He tugged at the parachute strings. Oops!

**

In the beginning God created heaven and earth… and he saw that it was good. And it remained good for evermore. He had skipped creating man you see. Just then, the irksome twang of harps woke him up. God looked down upon earth and sighed, “Ah well, no use crying over spilt milk."

**

The stories are the result of a tag by Rajesh J. Advani. And I pass it on to:

Bhavv
E Vestigio
M

Friday, July 08, 2005

The Chasm Of Silence

Mom hovered near my bed as I packed. I didn’t look up. There were books and clothes all over the floor and the bed. It was all there was left to pack. In two days I would walk out of here. Mom remained quiet. It was getting on my nerves. I turned around, “Do you want something?” “No,” she said. More silence. I went back to my packing. I wasn’t in the mood to humour her.

After a while, she spoke again, “Is there anything that I can do?” “No,” I said without turning around. “Anything you need?” “No Mom!” I don’t know when she left the room but when I looked to see if she was still there, she was gone.

Mom was sitting in her hammock in the garden when I came home and told her that day. “I’ve got a job in Bombay. I’ll be leaving in a month.” She just looked at me. I was wondering whether she had heard me when she said, “Oh, you’re leaving?” “Yes, at the end of the month.” I walked inside before she could say anything else.

“Dinner’s ready.” She came to my room that night as I was sitting at the computer. “What? Oh, you go ahead mom. I’ll eat later.” We hadn’t eaten together in years. She usually ate first, while watching TV in the hall; I ate later in my room. Mom continued to stand there. I looked up again, “Really Mom, you go ahead. I’ll have dinner later.” She nodded and then went away.

Mom and I kept out of each other’s way mostly. She was 21 when she got married and 22 when she had me. She had wanted to become a doctor but her parents didn’t see the point of it. Dad died at 23 in an accident. I guess it all left her bitter.

I was entrusted to an ayah’s care. Mom plunged headlong into a life of gossip and kitty parties. She never attended school plays or award functions. She did raise an eyebrow though when I stood second in class five. “I guess being the best has become too much for you to handle,” she said as she signed the report card and handed it back to me. I never stood second again.

I think I was 10 when I first made my conscious decision to leave home as soon as I could. I had told her I wanted to learn to play the violin. Some musicians had visited the school that day. “The violin?” she had asked, “Whatever for?”

I dreamt up wild fantasies of escape. One day I would just up and go in the middle of night; climbing down the pipe outside my bedroom window. I would have wild adventures and make a million friends as I backpacked around the world.

Most of my friends planned to go abroad for their post-graduation. When I broached the subject, Mom didn’t refuse. She merely ignored me. That night in my room I cried violently. I even broke a few things. The next morning I braced myself to face her again. She had gone out early that day. She came back only after I had gone to sleep. The next morning all my bravado had fizzled out.

I think it was her way of getting back at the world. Then she had a stroke. I was in the middle of a class when I was called by the principal. I was shocked when I saw her lying on the hospital bed. I had never thought of her as vulnerable.

She was discharged in two weeks. The following days were simply unbearable. There were two nurses to attend to her but she always wanted me around. “Please stay… or do you have something to do?” she would ask looking extremely embarrassed. I was embarrassed too. I would sit there avoiding her eyes; neither of us saying anything to each other.

After she recovered completely, she would keep bumping into me. “Did you have a good day?” “Do you need more money?” “Are you cold?” “Would you like an extra blanket?” “Have you had dinner?” I was completely unnerved. I started staying out later but whatever time I came back home she was always awake. One day I asked her straight out, “Are you waiting for me?” “No, no,” she had smiled, “I’m just not feeling sleepy yet.”

As soon as I graduated I started looking for a job in other cities. When I walked out of the interview room with the offer in my hand, I closed my eyes for a second and mouthed, “Thank You God.”

My room was completely bare. Things that I wasn’t taking with me right now I had kept at a friend’s place. The taxi was waiting. Mom was taking a long time to get to the door. I was getting impatient. I had told her not to come to the airport.

When she came out, she had a package in her hand. “This is for you,” she said handing it to me, “go on, open it.” It was a gold-embossed leather-bound volume of Shakespeare’s sonnets. How did she know I loved Shakespeare? I looked at her quizzically, then said goodbye and got into the taxi. I think there were tears in her eyes.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

It's Where We Left It

I had forgotten about the tree. The mango sapling had taken root in the midst of all the banana trees that filled up the small plot of our garden. Sighs were let out. It would never make it. But it continued to grow, slowly, torturously. A few more leaves on a new twig every year, while the banana trees that had given fruit were cut down to make room for the new shoots that sprouted regularly. Then one day, we spotted a tiny mango hanging precariously from one the branches. That was when I fell in love with it. By the time we moved out, the tree was still only giving a few mangoes each year. Now, it stood proudly up to the sky.

I had thought I would never come back. Then, Jay’s mail came. Arul and he wanted to sell the house. Jay sent the letter to my office. He must have read my bylines in the paper. I read the mail a few times over. Though it was brief and terse, I would like to think it took him a long time to write it, struggling to find the words to fill up a void of 15 years; failing; then giving up.

It’s a beautiful house – a two-storey bungalow from where you can watch the sea. We had all run away as soon as we could. Jay took off for the Navy after he finished his 12th. Arul stayed till he was 22, but he was never around much anyway. I was the last to go and with me the last ties that held ma and appa together.

It had never been an easy relationship between ma and appa. I was five when I walked into an argument they were having; the first I remember. They were screaming at each other. I didn’t know what they were saying. I curled up against the leg of the dining table and looked on in terrified bewilderment.

The walls are dusty now. They’ve soaked up the essence of the lives we lived here for 20 years and have aged like wine. I can still make out the coffee stains on the wall. Accusations of lives ruined and dreams trampled upon flew frequently along with plates and coffee cups. Now a new coat of paint would wipe away all the memories.

All the furniture is still there, smoky with dust. Neither of us had come back to take away anything after appa died two years after ma, leaving their legacy of anger etched deep within the three of us. Our dreams of escape were solitary ventures; bound together in an understanding that none of us dared to voice.

The door of the balcony that opens out to the sea is crumbling. The sea is my solace. Leaning against the railing, I can feel the salt on my tongue. The sea looks calmer now.

Arul, Jay, and I would fight to sit there in the evening to watch the sunset. Whenever Jay lost to Arul, he threw a tantrum trying to pull out Arul out of chair. Arul merely gave him a bemused look and continued to watch the sun. When I got the chair, Jay would simply pick me up and drop me to the floor.

Appa never sat in the balcony. He had his own old-fashioned easy chair that looked like a hammock supported by wooden frames. He had bought it when he first came to Bombay, 35 years ago. The nylon sheet has faded into an even brown now. He’d sit there with his eyes closed listening to music (Sade, The Carpenters, Dire Straits, The Beatles). I’d sit besides him watching the sun’s rays slowly slip away from the floor into the water.

Ma’s kitchen looks eerily empty. Sometimes, when we called it that, ma would erupt into righteous outrage. She hated being enslaved by the kitchen. As with everything else, she blamed appa. And us too. But she was a fabulous cook. Ketchup, jams, juices and ice creams – she could make almost anything. Eventually, however, we stopped eating together as a family.

Arul and Jay shared a room. Jay loved to read. His books were strewn everywhere, irking Arul who was very territorial. Once he picked up a stack of books Jay hadn’t cleared from his table and threw them out of the balcony. They nearly killed each other that day.

The knob of Jay’s book cabinet is missing. It takes a little effort to get the door open. There are still a few comic books lying inside and a mangled edition of Somerset Maugham’s The Human Bondage. I had taken it without asking Jay and then accidentally spilled water over it. I never told him. I put it back in his cabinet once he left.

Appa and I had our own rooms. Ma would sleep in the hall. Appa’s room is bare except for the furniture and a few LPs in a shelf by the window. He never accumulated anything except for his music. He played LPs on his record player long after people had forgotten what they were. My room is bare too. I cleaned out everything. It was my way of purging the past.

When I moved out, the bitter recriminations between ma and appa stopped. They lived out their last days bent down with the weariness of a past they had no energy to fight anymore. Arul and Jay never called any of us. My telephone conversations with ma and appa once a month lasted 10 minutes, always awkward with the embarrassment of a forgiveness that none of us dared asked.

I hope they’re doing okay now. The tide has to turn sometime. I breathe in the freshness of the mango tree. The sky is blue and beautiful. I sent a long reply to Jay’s mail this morning.

Maybe.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Running. Stranded.

Restless. Feet drumming. Hurriedly, repetitively, wearing out carpet. Feet want to be elsewhere. There. Anywhere. Don’t know where. Not here. Or maybe here. If it would stop feet drumming.

Mind reeling. The same tune spinning round and round. The monotony breaking it down. And still it plays. Over and over. Can’t keep mind still long enough to figure out what tune.

Can’t keep mind still. Thoughts unfinished. Don’t want to think. Want to think slower. More coherence. Want to think faster. To get on with it. No wasting time on now. The future’s begging to be caught up with. But no movement. Still here in the same place. Feet drumming. Feet still drumming.

Restless heart. Body. Mind. Soul. What else is there? Is it desire? A hidden voice screaming? Too loud to be noticed. Too soft to be ignored. What? What? What? What?

Activity. Will still the mind. And so the body. Can’t concentrate. Spill out and let it be done with. Still itching. Calm down. Breathe slowly. Okay, no more. Try again. Oh oh, can’t account for the past five minutes.

Mind wandered off. And got lost. Thoughts are lost. Not forgetting. Simply no remembrance. How is that possible? Part of me. They can’t just get lost. Can I get lost? Small parts, insignificant parts. How to tell if insignificant. No remembrance. Just slipped away smoothly and stealthily. Didn’t know it was there. Want them back. How to look. What to look for?

Too restless to look. Want to be doing something else. Don’t know what. Anything else than this. Then the other will become this. And will want to do something else. Cycle. Vicious. Got to calm down.

Will calm down. Sooner. Or later. All will be articulate. Structured. Comprehensible. Can get down to living. Making dreams. Breaking dreams. Keeping the restlessness at bay. Something might have been lost. But can’t look now. Don’t know what to look for.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Alice in Wonderful

Alice giggled softly. She knew what they were saying about her. She could have told them that they were wrong. But it was her secret. It was all in her head, a place they would never be able to get to. She smiled.

Alice was happy. She had Jennifer. Jenny had long, black, silky hair. Everyone loved her smile. But it was Alice for whom Jennifer smiled the brightest.

Jennifer was her childhood friend. Alice never got along with her classmates. They would give her sly looks and whisper among themselves. They mostly avoided her. When they were cruel, they laughed. So Alice found Jennifer.
Jenny and she had long conversations everywhere and anywhere. Alice took care to make sure nobody heard them after the day her mother came in unexpectedly and found them talking. Her mother had given her such a queer look.

Only Jennifer understood. Jennifer was smart, and kind, and funny. She was beautiful. They had great adventures together. They would sneak out at night and run to the river. They would dive from the bridge and swim for hours in the cold water. Alice was never terrified of water when Jenny was around. They would go to the discotheque, pretending to be 18. They danced, and drank, and kissed tall, dark, handsome men, who would beg them for their telephone numbers.

But Jenny wasn’t perfect, though Alice had tried hard to make her so. Once in a while, Jenny would become adamant and sullen and refuse to listen. At such times Alice would banish her. But Alice would miss Jennifer terribly and bring her back, although only after extracting promises that Jen would be good.

The last time, however, Jenny refused to make such promises. Alice pleaded and wept bitterly through the night. When morning came, Alice slit her wrist.

She could barely remember being brought from the hospital to this place. The nurses looked at her with pity. Such fools, Alice thought. Can’t they see how happy I am? For Jennifer was with her again. Jennifer would never leave.
Alice giggled softly.

Monday, April 25, 2005

It’s Crummy Being Superman

Context:
3 words; The letter S, Matchbox, Revolver

Task:
A 200-word story

Outcome:
The matchbox was empty. That meant no cigarette. This was the last straw. Life sucked big time. Yeah, he could use his laser emitting eyes to light it; but the last time he did so, he set the whole living room on fire. Sigh! It wasn’t easy being Superman. He was tired of playing hero, wearing his underpants on the outside, and having an S emblazoned on his chest. S for Superman. S for Sucker. Sex with Lois Lane was getting to be a bore too. But all Jor-El could say was, “They need you son.” What about him? Didn’t he have a say in anything? All he wanted to do was have some fun, preferably with Sheryl Crow.

Meanwhile, Jor-El was ruminating over Superman’s last plea to turn him into a mortal human. He thought he had done the right thing, but now he was having second thoughts. Superman had had it tough. Jor-El sighed. Ok, he thought, let Superman have his way.

Superman eyed the revolver on the table. He had kept it as a souvenir from the last criminal he had pounded to pulp. He picked it up and put it to his head. “I can’t even #$%9$% kill myself,” he laughed wildly. And pulled the trigger.

As he lay on the floor with the blood oozing out of his brain, he thought, “Damn Jor-El.”

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

29 and the World’s Alright (Almost)

Hi. I’m Josephine. 29 years, single and loving it. A senior features writer for a city magazine. Working my way up to editor. Then my own newspaper. It could happen! Right now, on the brink of another promotion. 20 years of education. A post-graduate degree in Literature. Six years of payslips. Could have been: a cartographer. A character in a book I had read was one. Sounded fascinating. Is there money in it? But I would get to go around the world right? I mean, you can’t possible dream up maps sitting at your desk.

Hi. I’m Josephine. 29 years, single and loving it. Gregarious and optimistic. I can cheer the black mood out of almost anybody. I like people. All kinds. Have long conversations with the maid, watchman, and the man at the post office. Women in trains confide in me. Kids think I’m a pretty cool “grownup.” And dogs come bounding up to me.

I’m Josephine. When I get cranky, I get really cranky. Wear out the carpet in my room, pacing up and down. Can’t let go easily either. Weep for months after a hurtful word the person who said it has forgotten about. Try too hard, I’ve been told. Can’t say no either. That’s when I get cranky. Talk too much. But you’ve got that by now.

Josephine. A do-it-yourself girl. I’ve painted the walls of my room. One wall is all orange and flowers. Love music. Classical, jazz, Broadway, and the blues. Never got a hang of rock. Though Bono is umm…. umm… Sang in the church choir for a while. Can even strum a few chords on the guitar. Will soon sign up regular lessons. Honest. Love trekking. Nature and all the blah! Next on the list: rock climbing. I’m a mad mall moll. My credit cards are usually maxed out. Make resolutions to straighten up every time I get the bills. But it’s an addiction. If this was America, I’d do therapy.

29 years old. Hmmm. The face in the mirror seems strange. Can people tell who I am from just looking at me? Does my face have character? I’m having a mid-life crisis, standing on the threshold of 30. Yes, 30 is mid-life for someone who’s 29. Where am I going? I mean, really, where am I going? Is this it? Am I missing something? Or what if after all this, it all goes nowhere. Shouldn’t it be bigger? Shouldn’t I bring about world peace? Discover the grand unified theory (Or should it be invent?)? Achieve Nirvana? Or is it about the all the small things? Will they all fall into place? Or will the jigsaw remain jagged? Will I have a granddaughter perched on my lap, listening wide-eyed to my stories, while I rock in the chair contently? Will there contentment at the end? Will there be contentment along the way? Who decides? Do I? Can I? Oh, how can I? Lie down. Don’t think............Don’t think, dammit!

Twenty-nine. Single and loving it. My space, my time. My terms. Loads of friends. But they’re dwindling. Getting married; moving on. Maybe I should call up my ex and ask if he would marry me. But I couldn’t take six months of whining, how would I take a lifetime? I can just picture his face if I did ask him. Maybe I should. Lol (yup, an im freak. Only with people I know of course, cyber sex not my cup of tea.) . But there’s Peter. Had a really nice time at dinner last night. Got my fingers crossed. :-)

Hi. I’m Josephine. 29 years, single and loving it. Each day I get out of bed and know I’ll make it through the day. But sometimes I funk it. Then I call up mom. She usually drives me up the wall. But she knows when I need a hug and it’s best one in the world.
Hi. I’m Josephine. I’ll figure it out someday. Or maybe not.

Bedroom Window

I’VE never been to a pajama party. I’m not likely to either. Father says it’s not the done thing to stay over at somebody’s place, though they live just across. You can see Payal’s house from our window. Laughter is loud as the others run up the stairs. It’s the grand ending to ‘Camp Day’.

I’ve been standing at the window most of the day. Usually, I am down with them, playing, the noon sun burning down our backs. Today, they spent the day inside a tent made of bedspread. Shanti’s mother didn’t mind if the dark blue sheet patterned with big white flowers got too dirty. It had faded some time ago. By the end of the day, gulmohurs fallen loose from the branches were sprinkled on it.

There was a lot of shoving and giggling when all seven of them got in. A tape recorder, comic books, cards, and lots of munchies were added. It was such an adventure! I went in and read some of my own comic books. I got through them quickly. I had read them before. I wandered around the house a bit. Ma was busy in the kitchen.

After a while, I could smell the smoke of the burning twigs and papers. I watched from the window again. Vessels already blackened were balanced on three bricks to cook rice, dal and potatoes. Each trip back home to get something that had been forgotten – onions, haldi, kadipatta – was a noisy affair. Some chaos later, it was ready. Not as good as Ma’s cooking of course but the vessels were scraped clean. I’ve never tried cooking. Ma wont let me near the stove. She says it’s dangerous.

After lunch, they all retired to the tent. I could hear the faint strains of George Michael’s ‘Wake Me Up’. We loved jiving to that song. Meghna had asked me to join them for playing cards. But I didn’t think it would be nice to go just for that.

They were out again, when the sun sobered down, to play kho-kho. That was okay. I don’t like the game much anyway. I’m not too good at it. They stayed out a little later than usual before making their way to Payal’s house.

It’s a lovely night to stay awake. Payal’s mother makes those lovely coconut sweets for these pajama parties. She also sends them over during Diwali. Tomorrow they’ll tell me how Anil squeezed toothpaste all over Samantha’s face while she slept. That was last year. Maybe he’ll choose another victim this year.

I’ll watch some TV before turning in. I don’t think I’ll sleep much though.

Hands

His fingers stark white, reached into the pocket of his black windcheater. He dropped the coins he needed into his left palm and handed it to the paanwallah in exchange for two cigarettes. Slipping one into his pocket and another between his lips, he held out his hand again for a matchbox. His hand trembled a little in the wet cold as he struck a match and lit his cigarette. He moved to the bus stop next to the shop and leaned against the railing.

He took a long, satisfying puff and dangled his hand by his side, the cigarette held loosely between his long, sinewy fingers. He turned his hands over contemplatively. They were an artist’s hands. Would they have looked the same even if he had another profession? He liked to think not. Sensuality without purpose did not appeal to him. The purpose of his hands was to hold chisel to marble and so they were so.

He believed in destiny. Whatever path a soul takes, it would ultimately lead it to the destination it was meant to discover. He had reached his. The universe could reinvent itself infinitely but the energy that made up his soul would always create these hands to sculpt stone.

This consciousness didn’t make it easier to bear the chill of his third floor single-room apartment. Mostly, he worked through the night. It was when he was most free. Darkness flooded in and filled out all the ugly spaces and from that pool he could drink of beauty. He poured into his sculptures the sad, haunting wail of the universe. Sadness was the creative force. Happiness was too easy and shallow. Only sadness could reach the dark recesses of truth and beauty. Not gut-wrenching despair but the slow melancholy that builds ever so slow inside the bones, shaping them and fleshing them out in time with the rhythm of the universe.

He flattened the stub of his last cigarette under his shoe, pulled his windcheater in closer and ran across the road. It was payday, and tonight he would meet the gang for conversation and drink. It was it their monthly ritual. Painters, writers, actors -- all trying pitifully to mould themselves to the necessary stereotype of the struggling artist. A few had talent. Others would make it big. He enjoyed the ridiculous boisterousness and the numbness of his empty mind. It was a necessary cycle. One couldn’t fill what wasn’t empty.

The second-hand bookstore where he worked had that rundown, musty feel of an authentic bookshop that made promises of treasures waiting to be unearthed. The owner had stared at him with an unapologetic intensity during the interview and then cackled a cruel, satisfactory laugh that shook his gaunt and withered frame. The owner kept him in the shop for as long he could but he didn’t mind. He only claimed the nights as his own. He didn’t care for books much. He was merely thankful he could keep himself clean. Occasionally a customer would walk in. Rarer still, one stayed, savoured, and left with eyes shining. He would nod them an acknowledgment. Brief, and then gone. The warmth eternal.

The stars were still bright when he returned home. He climbed into bed without switching the lights on. He always slept soundly. There were no dreams to haunt and nurture him. They just slipped effortlessly in and out of his sub conscience without a sound. All this thoughts were formed, wide awake, in the clear light of the night.

The incessant ring of the telephone jarred his senses. His mind rebelled and then gave in. It was the gallery director. Two of his pieces had gone unnoticed six months ago. The director, however, had held on to them. Very rich. Great admirer of art. Likes to encourage young talent. He listened without replying. The director went on. Wants to commission an entire series on the theme “The Grand Passion”. Wedding gift for daughter. Recognition. Money. He listened patiently to the director’s anguished barrage, and then politely repeated his refusal. He kept the receiver back and realised his body was stiff. He let out a deep breath and walked back to his bed. He sat on the edge and put his face down to the sheets and wept.

Demon Rain

IT was the 25th day of rain. Raju, squatting on the branch of the neem tree, watched contemplatively into the distance as the waters swirled around the last visible beam of the roof of his house and finally submerged it. Who could tell that there had been his life? He swept his eye along the horizon. Water had taken over the entire expanse of land. Beyond it was the sea. Now land and sea were one.

It had been an exceptionally dry summer. The hot winds had left mouths constantly parched and lips cracked at every crease. There was prayer for rains. And they came, falling from the embrace of the magnificent black clouds that flooded the sky. Every leaf and bird was drenched. It brought the first smile on his father’s face that Raju had seen in a long time. Mohan was a serious man, as any man who had a family of five to take care of would be. He had set out to work immediately. The five-acre land he tilled held their fate in its hands.

The rain continued to fall. Raju watched his father, now almost constantly standing near the door and looking up at the sky. His mother Vasanthi looked at her husband with concern. His stoic face was incomprehensible to his children, but she had, in these 17 years, learned to read every emotion. Raju usually looked at his mother to know what was going on in his father’s mind.

Mohan’s mind was awhirl. This winter they would have to follow the rest of the village into town. He would leave Shankar to look after Raju and the baby. Gopal and Vasanthi would accompany him. As construction workers, they would get Rs 20 a day. Vasanthi would get only Rs 15. Till now, even a bad crop hadn’t forced them to leave. This time, fate had corrected that oversight.

The rain merged the night into the day; the waters swept into the houses. People salvaged what they could and began their trek to drier land. He would have to make the decision soon, Vasanthi thought, but, she knew, he would hold out to the very end. She rebuked Gopal and Shankar, who had been agitatedly insisting that they had to tell their father to leave now. Mohan would know when it was time.

Raju watched them wordlessly, dangling his feet from the cot just above the water. His family found him as incomprehensible as his father. He had none of the stoicism though. He let his mind loose, to discover and walk along its own alleyways, and kept those discoveries to himself. His mother despaired sometimes. His brothers teased him. His father, however, would merely nod an acknowledgement of the boy’s presence, whenever he came across him. Raju considered himself an oddity and his family a curiosity to ponder over.

Thunder rent the sky. He sensed things would never be the same again. The water in the house was ankle-deep. The two older boys threw impatient looks at their father. Mohan’s eyes were blank as he sat on the cot and stared at the rising water. Soon the cot lifted from the ground. An outburst from Shankar broke his reverie. He nodded. Yes, it was time to leave. Raju saw the puzzled look in his mother’s eyes. It was the first time Mohan had surrendered the right to decide.

They took only a bundle each. Vasanthi slung the baby high up on her back with a sari. She couldn’t keep the baby’s feet dry though. They would walk through the fields, on the walls of the irrigation channels as far as possible, and then climb up to the main road. There, they might be able to hail a passing truck to take them to town.

Raju looked back every once and again to look at the house. He wanted to imprint its memory deep enough into his mind to last him forever. He too had noticed the difference in his father. While Vasanthi was worried, Raju was merely curious. He was not asking why. Demon rain would not go without being satiated.

The water was getting deeper. Some time along the way, Gopal and Shankar said they would do better to go via the village school. Though it was a longer route, it was also a pucca road and safer than the muddy fields. Raju wondered if his father would give in. The boys stood stubborn. They believed their father would yield again.

Mohan merely fixed his gaze on an undefined point in the space behind the boys, and then turned and walked on. Vasanthi followed him, suddenly afraid. Raju waited for a while making up his mind. His brothers, furious at their father’s stubbornness, started out in the direction of the school. Raju decided to follow his parents. He could not thwart the beckoning of the rain.

The rain whipped itself into frenzy. It was hard to see where they were going. Mohan’s legs threatened to collapse under him, but he carried on, mumbling to himself. Vasanthi walked blindly, clinging on to Mohan. They stopped at the old banyan tree. They climbed on to the sunken platform around it and found nooks among the branches to rest. Raju climbed up to a high branch and looked at the house that was slowly sinking. He did not hope. He looked up at the sky. Overpowering and overwhelming, who could hold out?


They wrapped themselves around their tattered souls and got back into the water that churned around their bodies as they pushed against it. Above, the birds circled, bewailing the desolation with their shrill cries. Exhaustion ate through their bones.

Then Vasanthi slipped. Mohan, a few steps ahead, turned around and tried to rush towards her. Raju grabbed hold of his mother, but the water dragged his frail frame down too. She rose and fell a few times before Mohan reached her. She regained her balance and then went deathly still, her eyes piercing through Mohan. He turned her around slowly and took the baby out of the sling. He knew he did not need to but he checked the baby’s breathing and pulse. Darkness was taking over land and sky. He set the baby down into the water and walked ahead. He did not look at Vasanthi.

Raju waited back with his mother, watching the water embrace and swallow his sister. Then, they followed Mohan. Raju still felt the horrified eyes that had gone down into the water. Vasanthi’s shoulders shuddered violently with desperate, soundless tears but the rain washed them away as soon as they fell. Raju held his mother’s hand tight. The rain hadn’t had its fill yet.

The night was complete when they reached the main road. The ripples danced under the light of Mohans’ torch. A roar came crashing through the water. The van, arranged by the district office, was carrying people from the next village. Their bodies slumped in bitter relief against the sides of the van. They were taken to a community hall, where provisions for refugees had been made.

Nobody spoke. Vasanthi spotted Gopal and Shankar at the far end of the room. She ran to them and collapsed inconsolably into their arms. Raju heard in his father’s sigh, a sigh so soft that Raju had to imagine it, the rain proclaiming its deed done.

The next morning, Raju climbed to the top of the neem tree near the hall. There was nothing left to fear from the rain now. He stayed there till the sun came out to lay bare the pieces.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Thoughts

One has to start out with the assumption that nothing matters. Then one can get down to the task of living.

It’s almost romantic, here on the shore, watching my thoughts swirl and dissolve into the sound of the waves. A whole year has reduced me to my last few bucks. Now that I have nothing to lose, my mind is at its clearest.

I hadn’t tempted fate by climbing up the ladder at a vulgar pace. I was only doing well enough to keep away the questions that can taunt you. I went through all the clich├ęd reactions of disbelief, denial, and despair. Then I could put if off no more. I had to start on the agonising journey towards the centre of the soul. I had never equated self-discovery with survival. Then again, the thoughts of the past year have been unlike any that I’ve had before.

All my ‘whys’ have been swallowed up without the faintest of acknowledgements. The waves merely rise and fall, over and over again till, at last, it will be time to cease. I still ask though. The mind is amusingly stubborn.

But there’s peace now. For nothing matters. It’s a truth hard to find in the chatter of living. Friends and family had looked on indulgently as I wallowed in the pool of self-pity and then moved on. Bereft of attention, there was no use for it. I stopped. Till it was all quiet. And listened. Hundreds of questions raced through my brain, making me reel. I took them up one at a time.

What now? Too mundanely obvious, isn’t it? But that’s what life is about. One thing after the next, one minute after the next. Or more appropriately, one moment after the next. Minutes and seconds and hours, days and nights, and years and lifetimes are man’s constructs. The universe swims in moments and through movement, a seamless continuum, folding back into itself, constantly reinventing, going on and on. Forever. There lies the discord. We don’t go on forever. We stop. But we try, all the same, to continue.

But these weren’t the thoughts that came when I asked that question. The answer I got was nothing. Just that. What now? Nothing. I was taken aback. Surely, there are alternatives. You don’t spend the best years of your life and your parents’ money for school and college to be so ill prepared. So I thought hard and came up alternatives. And the excuses to go with it. Why, I asked myself. Why must there always be excuses. Because, I said, to start all over again means admitting that you have failed. Which I didn’t want to.

Then I started hammering at the core. Why is having to start all over again a failure? Who says so? The people around me. Some who matter; most who don’t. And me. But failure is just another human construct. We weave a net of constructs and throw it over the chaos of existence. To give it order. Meaning. Importance. To keep us sane. Then we convince ourselves of its insoluble sanctity. But what if we didn’t? What if we said, “I don’t believe. I have no more use for them.” Then rebuild new ones that will serve our purpose.

What is my purpose? This one threw me completely off balance. It was territory I wasn’t sure I wanted to venture into. Because to answer that question I had to answer another: Who am I?

But I had to get down to it eventually. I started with the basics. I am man, I said. Then, dismantled that image. That left me with stereotypes, conditioning, genes and primal desires. Not much that I could claim as unique, mine and nothing else’s. A part of the human species. A product of evolution. Here by chance. Walking triumphant over the lands, and seas, and skies. Claiming ownership of the earth. And insight into the divine order. But the earth itself is a tiny speck. Clothed in milky starlight, it falls through the endless void that is the universe, where all things begin. Does it really care? It has spun us out and has then moved on.
So where do all these questions come from? And why?

Then it struck me. The questions are ours. So the answers must also be ours. Not a part of destiny or a grand order. But simply ours. For us to use. To survive. To live. To love. To hate. To take. To give. To create. To destroy. To laugh. To cry. And to believe in soul.

That’s who I am. I am my questions. I am my answers. And my purpose is to choose whatever I will. To be whatever. To move. To keep still. And watch the waves knowing that nothing matters. Everything matters. And to be human and still ask why. Life will rise and fall. As long as it does, we are free to reinvent ourselves. As many times as we want.

The sea is beautiful. Funny, I didn’t realise it when I had money in my pockets.