Thursday, October 27, 2011

Of once pretty palaces and bells that still chime

A quiet but insistent knock on the door woke him up. The ceiling fan was still creaking like a clipped metronome. The curtains were flapping soundlessly to the beat. It was an old curtain, washed many times over. The sun shone through the outlines of a faded rendering of a tiger roaring mid leap on the calico.

The knock again.

He stepped off the bed.The clock needles said 9:40 or was it 8:40. 9:40. The floor was cooler than it was yesterday. He opened the door.
"Breakfast closing at 10. You want something?", the 15 year old Marathi receptionist,concierge,cook of the Gangaram Hotel, Bhuj asked him.
"Scrambled egg and toast",he said.
"Wanting tea or coffee?"
"Tea. I know the farmers in Vidharbha are in the red, but go easy on the sugar"
"Jee sir", he smiled."Wanting hot water?, Cold day today, one bucket for twenty rupees"
"Ok.Bring it up after my breakfast is done. Will come down in a while"
"Maria madam already there", he said with a smile and walked back down to the kitchen.

Maria Joao was at the table reading the paper framed against the doorway. A gentle drizzle had started sometime not too long before.
"Good morning",she said adjusting her shawl which she had wrapped around her shoulder.
"Morning. Late start?"
"Yes. Will take it easy for the next couple of days.Plan to leave next week to the weaver village"

Maria was from Portugal. A graphic design graduate learning block printing techniques from the local artisans in the villages around Bhuj.
She spoke slowly, rolling her syllables with care.Also, she was pretty.
They had met at the dinner table the night before.An Italian photographer and a tall Dutch woman on a Sabbatical who were there for dinner were not to be seen.
They had talked of Sicily and Sicilians and how Maria's sister had wanted to marry a Sicilian she had met. In the end she decided not to, after meeting the prospective mother-in-law.
He had never been to Sicily. He wanted to go to Sicily.

"What about you?",she asked.
"Yup.Lazy weather day.Plan to go down to the Paraag Mahal a bit later in the day.
"Hmm.. was there with some friends a while ago, but the entrance charges for foreigners is outrageously expensive."
"Any good?"
"Creepy, if anything..",she said after much thought.
"We'll see..", he said, sipping the milky tea.

It was nearly two when he decided to go to the Palace complex. The hotel was right next door to the walls. The air was moist and the streets wet. Every now and then a droplet would land on the back of his neck. He followed the wall until he came to the gate.

A sign pointed to the right "For buy ticket".
A signboard said that the Palace was built in the 1879. Italian Gothic. A functional Bell tower.One of the three functional British era bell towers in the country.

All around were signs of the Great Bhuj quake, which everyone mentioned once in conversations he had had since he was here .Spidery cracks on the facade. A lopsided tower.

The palace was closed till three. The rubble from Bhuj quake had still not been cleared from the complex. It had over the course of the nine years blended into the forlorn, though not entirely depressing surroundings. Pipal trees were starting to take root among the fallen bricks. The bricks were redder than usual because of the rain. A disused well with a pulley lay to one end. A truck load of sand had been carelessly dumped nearby.
A little girl was busy tunneling into the sand with both hands. Each little hand carefully extracting a scoop of sand from either side in tandem.After every scoop she took time to smoothen the walls with her little palms. Every three or four scoops she wiped the sweat from her sandy brow.She paused for the while to check either end. Soon they would meet. She decided to take it one end at time now.

He decided to walk around until someone arrived. Soon someone arrived.
The gatekeeper.

"What time does it open?"
"Check the board. It says three"

The girl had completed her tunnel and after a pat down on the insides stood back to admire her handiwork. She was now deciding on whether to make a new tunnel to the left or the right of the current one.

"Whats inside?", he asked the gatekeeper.
"See for yourself. Just another 20mins to go".

A red sedan which had seen a brighter coat of paint rolled in. Tourists. A newly married couple got off and the man said something terse to the driver.Honeymoon.Both had their shades on. It was cloudy, so the whole world probably looked like an under-exposed photograph to them.
They came down to where he stood and asked the gatekeeper for the tickets.

"Look here.", the gatekeeper said pointing to the signboard.
The wife pulled at the husbands arm as he glared at the man through his shades. They soon found a convenient fallen pillar to take each others' pictures on, with the rubble as the backdrop. Shortly the husband walked over to him and asked if he would be "So kind as to " take their photograph.
He said yes. He took two photographs. One with the shades and one without.

They walked back together to the door. Shortly a man in an old uniform walked down to the desk at the gate with a steel box in hand.
Soon, the palace was open for business. The gatekeeper stared into the rubble with a disturbed expression for a while and then walked to the well to smoke a beedi.

The palace was as Maria had described. The corridors were wet and slippery. The couple was on their way out by the time he entered the main hall. Obviously, the decor and tenor of the place didn't go well with what they had in mind for a honeymoon. He now had the entire palace to himself.
He went into a room with a stuffed tiger whose fur was now starting to get moldy.There was one room which obviously was the bedroom with full length mirrors. The silver coating had worn off in large patches. The furnishing was distinctly European. He walked into the once definitely magnificent durbar hall. More tigers, buffaloes and antelope heads. Two buckets had been placed to catch the water leaking from a damp patch next to the crystal chandelier. Big drops sploshed into the almost full buckets every once in a while. The stained glass windows fresh after the drizzle filled the far end with dewy light. Red.Blue.Yellow.Green.

He loitered around the hall, looking for a good angle to photgraph and gave up after a few attempts. He walked up the stairway to the bell tower.The bells rang every fifteen minutes.One chime for each quarter and then ringing the number for each hour. Soon it would be four. he scrambled up the stairs to be in time. On the roof at one end was the Hamirsar and a cool breeze was blowing in from there. The tower had been hastily patched up and held rather precariously with assorted scaffolding and pillar support. He walked up the claustrophobic spiral stairway and stood above the assortment of bells, ropes and gears.
Sure enough, at four, the gongs rang out, the oiled metal and wood creaked, the ropes were pulled and with a rearrangement of gears to chime out five strokes the next hour, the tower fell silent.
He stood for a while staring into the tiled roofs of the palace watching pigeons dart in and out secret cubbyholes and cracks left open by the quake.
The sun was now out. He wondered if the tunnel still held up with the dampness fast drying away in the western Sun.

He stood there for a long time. Soon he heard footsteps. A balding head popped out of the stairway followed by a girl in her late teens in a dress she would start hating in a while. After another few minutes, a matronly woman of forty panted out of the stairway and she stood against the railing catching her breath. He walked down the stairway and went back to the entrance.

The gatekeeper was still standing by the well.
He walked down to him.
"So how long have you been working here", he asked.
He shrugged and threw his stub into the well and lit another one.
"Longer than I care to remember."
"Is the palace maintained by the ASI?"
"Nope. The trust runs it. The Maharaja's trust"
"They dont seem to be doing much from the looks of it"
"My grandfather was a halwai in the kings kitchen. He used to say that the King had an ugly queen but a lovely palace.He should have seen it now"
"Hmm... There's water leaking in the darbar hall"
"I placed the buckets myself", he said,"The present Maharaja is a mad man. Ego. Britain, France, America had all said they would pay to renovate the palace.But the man wont listen. He says, he will bring the palace to it's rightful place but not with an Englishman's money. Baawala ho gaya hai sala" ..and after a pause "Poori duniya Baawli ho gayi hai" and walked off.

He stood by the well for some time. The red walls were now glowing, the water slowly drying.
He turned to walk down back to the town.

The little girl was nowhere to be seen. All that remained were two tunnels with damp,darker sand on the entrances and a lazy dog sunning himself on the heap.
Another sedan pulled into the gates and passed him, splashing his shoes, riding over a shimmering early evening puddle.

He cursed silently and walked to the gates. "Poori duniya baawli ho gayi hai"

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Scandal in the Wind

From the Political desk special correspondent


Under fire following the recent Wikileaks' release, Ms.Mayawati's government has gone on the offensive to reverse adverse public opinion with a slew of measures. The Wikileaks report had accused Ms.Mayawati of, among other things, being MAYAWATI.

The Uttar Pradesh State government has announced the institution of the Salvador Dalit Award for excellence in the field of sculpture and iconography. The awards will be judged by an eminent panel headed by Ms.Mayawati. It is expected to be a single person panel.
The award will be given out every year on the occasion of Ms.Mayawati's birthday to the best Mayawati statue sculpture and will include a free trip in a empty jet to a choice of location of Ms.Mayawati's rally in the past one month.

Addressing a rally of 100000 strong people patiently waiting in the dusty heat of the Cow belt for their promised biryani, 500ml desi and a Maya themed Barbie doll, Ms.Mayawati stated that the move will galvanise, what is arguably, the state's biggest industry and benefit the poorest of the poor.
The announcement has also resulted in the increase in the stock prices of the Reliance Industries, who had acquired the biggest marble quarries in the neighbouring Madhya Pradesh just days before Ms.Mayawati's institution of the award. Company spokesperson denied any links between the two events and the same evening issued a denial for the denial to keep all bases covered just in case.

In the press conference following the rally, when one of the press corps indicated that she was obviously misappropriating the name of the famous European artist, she promptly accused him of being anti dalit and said that like Salvador Dali, she was widely misunderstood and misrepresented

Her suave aide-de-camp Satish Mishra, then disconnected his call to the US Ambassador's residence and interjected that, like Dali, Ms.Mayawati shared a Surrealist view of the world. He also reiterated that he had been misquoted in the Wikileaks report and said that all he said was that Ms.Mayawati had a “strong, authoritarian steak” sent to her by the Texas chapter of the BSP(TBSP, often mistaken for Tablespoon in party literature) on the occasion of her birthday.

Ms.Mayawati's birthday is in addition to being a significant social event in the UP Administrative services calendar is also a very important source of income for Lucknow's bakery industry. The economic churn associated with the event is no less significant in comparison to what is experienced in New Orleans during the Mardi Gras or Rio during the Carnival weekend. Unlike Marie Antoinette, Ms.Mayawati on her birthday means business when she says “..let them have cake”.

At the end of the conference, she released an audio CD compilation of songs sung by leading artists of the day,from around the world, in her praise. The album features Elton John's rendition of "Scandal in the Wind", Chantal Kreviazuk's “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and Bappi Lahiri's remixed version of “Blue Suede Shoes”.

Party insiders indicate that Ms.Mayawati had stridently demanded that the famously dead Michael Jackson be convinced into contributing to the album. After, much grovelling and convincing on the impossibility of the situation, she grudging accepted that he would be unavailable, but not before accusing him of being obviously anti-Dalit for not being a part of the historic compilation.

Salvador Dali, for obvious reasons was unavailable for comment.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

People from The Mountains -1- One Fine Day

He was sitting on the top of a bus when he first saw her. He saw her before she saw him. She was with a companion. A tall brunette. You could say, they had just met on the road. Both seemed to be people who would pack and unpack their backpacks a few times before they decide to stuff everything in anyways.

She saw him as she stood trying to figure which of the many old green and white buses she had to take to go over the mountains, over the Rohtang. She was not too sure she wanted to be travelling on top of any of them and walked towards the far end with the brunette trailing slightly behind.

The morning mountain air was crisp. The bus stand had been washed clean by the early morning showers. Little puddles with little ripples as the buses trundled past, engines struggling to breathe in the thin air. The man next to him tried to light a beedi. Two match sticks, the wind blew out before the end glowed a bright orange as the man drew in a deep drag. A couple, possibly Israeli with Star of David tattoos and dreadlocks looked like they had smoked something stronger than just a beedi.

A sharp rasping voice from below cut in. "Uthro saalon!! This bus not moving if people on top sitting. Bus company very strict. Sometime people falling into mountainside and dying."
The conductor went into the bus having made what he thought was a fairly impressive speech... in English.
No one moved. Ten minutes, the world went around it's axis, slowly , thoughtfully.

The sharp rasping voice started again."What I tell..". Only to be cut off by the earthy pahaadi accented Hindi speaking driver who sauntered in from the chai shop with his still steaming glass of chai. His voice had the same quality as the vapour strongly rising from his glass.
"A man died a month ago. Left behind a woman and a few kids. The driver and conductor are in jail now.If you dont get off. This doesn't move. ", he said pointing his tea glass at the bus. The steam silently melting into the morning chill against a dusty bright movie poster.
The driver then pointed his tea glass hand at him and said. "Tell the bloody phirangis what I just said .All of you get down and wait for the next one coming in from Rekong Peo".
Everyone climbed down in a few minutes. Some more reluctant than others.

The bus from Rekong Peo silently slid into the other end of the bus stand as everyone was getting off this bus and before he was able to get in, it was full. He threw his backpack on the roof in between a bunch of vegetable sacks and got into the already full bus.

She was there in the last seat by the door and a dirty window. He climbed in. People walked in. He let them past leaning against a cold steel pillar by the door. The floor of the bus was muddy.

The conductor walked up to him.
"How long to Keylong?", he inquired.
"The road is quite bad, just a slush stream at places on the top.Should be about 8 hours tops"
"How much?"
"8 hours I said"
"No. I was asking about the ticket."
"Here you go. Standing is not fun"
"Hope your back holds up. You city folk", he said and walked down to the brunette.

"Two tickets to Keylong"
The brunette said something into her ear. She replied.In French. She had a lilting faraway tone. She shuffled for a while, opening her passport pouch and then her wallet before putting together her 120 for her ticket.She smiled sometimes into a distant void as she talked.
The bus weaved its way out of the town. Slowly at first. Slower still later. Little pockets of conversations had started in the meanwhile. A vegetable seller introducing himself to a Slovenian father and son. The Israelis quietly whispering to themselves. An old man complaining to his neighbour about the Israelis. A quiet looking short man was asking a tall Dutch lady if she would marry him.
He stood against the pillar for a while. Every time the tyres drowned into a pot hole of indeterminate depth, the passengers at the back were tossed up like vegetables being tossed for a salad by a careless tired chef.

One hour.They were climbing now. Someone pointed to a carcass of a jeep fallen off a cliff and everyone craned their necks ..some ...only because the neighbour was craning his neck.
She woke up the brunette, who had dozed off and pointed wordlessly to the jeep.
The brunette said something. She said nothing. The brunette dozed off again.

The road was better now and they were making good time.
One hour.Still climbing. The honking was conspicuous by it's absence.

He had just found the sweet spot against the pillar he had now warmed up and that was when the brakes slammed. Someone swore. He was sprawled against the door before he knew what had happened. Almost at her feet.
The driver was leaning outside the window and questioning the parentage of a jeep driver coming downhill. The jeep driver was responding in kind . He stood up righting himself. He felt a vague dull pain in his shoulder where he had landed against the door.

"Are you alright?". The same distant lilting tone.
"Yup. The road is..ummm.. quite bad". he said in an asphyxiated voice of someone who was waiting to talk to someone with a opening line in mind, but had to change it suddenly on being spoken to.
He certainly didn't sound anything like he had wanted to sound with the opening line.
She smiled brightly and looked away as you would look away from someone you wanted to make conversation to , but just figured that the other person probably didn't.
He wanted to tell her, that it wasn't that way. He didn't. He couldn't.

He sat on the floor by the doorway. The wind had dried the sludge into little misshapen crumble cookies. He felt them crumble as he sat on them.
The bus was now behind an army convoy. It sure seemed that it would be there for a while as the road had now dramatically narrowed.
The bus stopped. The whole world as far as he could see had stopped.

"Landslide". Someone said.
Slowly people started getting off. The old man, went to the rock scree behind a boulder after much looking about. He came back his fly still undone.
The Israelis, got down to smoke.
She fumbled into her pack and came up with a crumpled cardigan, careful not to disturb the sleeping brunette, contorting herself in the little space she had to put it on. He was sure that they had just met on the road.
He got down to stretch his legs. His shoulder was a bit numb too. He jumped across the slush missing his target and splashing into the muck. The mountains are never a bad place to get stuck in he thought as he took in the view of the valley in mid summer.

The greenest it would be any time of the year. Glacier melt slowly pushing it's way down the valleys. Stopping to pass on a secret package to the trees it happened to meet along the way. The trees would then blow up the bounty in a brief shriek of joy..A joy, green in colour. Only to slowly wither away leaf by leaf in the not too far winter. He vaguely pointed his camera to capture the valley mid-shriek.

She had gotten off the bus too. She walked across . Uphill of where he was.
He asked the driver who was squatting by the slush on the side of the road how long they would be here.
The driver shrugged and asked if he had a cigarette.
He said he didnt . The driver shrugged some more.
She took out a pack of almonds . She ate them staring into a valley with defocussed eyes.

She had pretty hands.
What makes some hands prettier than others?

He continued to stare at her hands as she stared into the valley. Keeping time by the delightful arc of her hand as it moved from somewhere in her lap to her slightly chaffed wind blown lips.

The crowds were now starting to head back to their buses. The rubble had been cleared.
The Israelis had just lit a cigarette. One of them looked peeved that he had to waste a perfectly good stick because someone cleared the rubble a bit too early. He seemed to be a someone who thought the whole damn world was unfair anyways. He was the last to get in.
He let the guy past as he stood against his once warm,now cold steel pillar.

The brunette was up now and was trying to take some pictures of the valley and the mountains on the other side placing the camera unsteadily in front of her nose as the bus swayed.
Soon, they were at the top. It was a time somewhere between early evening and late afternoon and now the bus started to go downhill trying not to careen into the valley and join a few other unlucky brethren rusting in the scree far below.
Everyone had their cameras out. The Japanese far in the front respectfully poking their long lenses past their neighbours noses apologising every time they fell against them when the bus braked.
Had had his out too. The brunette was sleeping again. He was busy for a bit trying to adjust his light meter settings every time the bus went in and out of shadows of the mountains .

Their eyes met. She half smiled.
He was not sure if she had smiled. He smiled and looked away not sure why he did that .
When he next turned to her with a rehearsed opening line,she had already closed her eyes, her fingers gripping the window pane pretending to be asleep
The evening light was settling softly across her tightly stretched face.
Yes.She was pretending to be asleep.
As the bus turned a bend , he saw her hand, still gripping the dirty pane. One brightly painted red nail glowing in the warm light.
One glowing red nail, framed against the mountains. Like a wayward sun who had lost his way across the sky. He could see her fingers tighten and relax as the bus banked around bends, but her eyes remained shut. Her face remained taut.
He closed his eyes too. Letting the sunlight warm his eyelids. He found the sweet spot on his warm pillar again to rest his back on. And watched floating tendrils in a red sea through his closed eyes.

"Bon Jour", he would say when she opened her eyes.
"Bon Jour", she would say with a smile . Adding. "Parlez vous Français ?!"
"Nope. Nothing beyond 'Ça Va'. Ça Va?"
"Hehe. Am fine. Where you from by the way"
"From the south. Somewhere warmer. And you"
"From Paris.I've never been to the south of India. I'd like to though."
"You should. It's pretty in parts, ugly in parts, interesting in most parts."
"One can say that about most places in the world. Dont you think so?"
"Nope. Wouldn't say that about Paris."
"You've been there?"
"Yes and no."
"And that means?"
"Was there for only a weekend? Almost doesn't count considering Paris"
"You liked it?"
"Hemingway didn't lie, when he said that Paris is a movable feast...Ugly was sure missing there"
"A movable feast....."
"Ya. Difficult to explain it without spoiling the orange tinted connotations that the phrase puts in your head"
"I kinda get what you say. I would say 'Yes' if someone asked me if Paris was a movable feast too I guess"
"You read Hemingway?"
"Which one?"
"Something about a civil war in Spain"
"For whom the bell tolls?"
"Yup. The same one"
"It's like listening to the Blues isnt it ? Reading Hemingway.",he said.
She mulled over that for a moment.
"Not a bad way to put it. Though I look at it like watching people at the Notre Dame on a bright Summer day."
He mulled over it for a moment.
" Not a bad way to put it either", he smiled into her eyes.
"You have pretty hands"
"Really", she said looking at them,"Nobody told me that"
"Now someone did"
"I'll remember that" .She laughed from into his eyes.
"Not a bad day at all isn't it?"
"A fine day, monsieur. A fine day" ,she said looking into the distant mountains. "It isnt the same as Not a Bad day"
"A fine day it is , mmeslle"

The light was already fading as the bus made its way down the last stretch.

The damn brakes again.
They both woke up with a jolt.

Their eyes met again.
He half smiled at her. "Bon Jour", he said gingerly.
"Bon jour" , she said, not exactly like she had said a while ago when both where floating down the mountainside in the warm light with the bright nail framed against the evening mountains.Eyes closed.

She had gone from pretending to be asleep to a point in space-time she may not have been awake, somewhere during the descent.
She looked at him and started to say something.

She took a little too long.

He had already decided that it was probably not the right thing to have said. Should he have said "Bon Soir"? He looked away into the mountains.
He looked up. He saw her eyes closed. The window closed . Eyes shut.Hands pulled into her crumpled cardigan. Face taut.
He smiled into the evening and waited for Keylong to arrive listening to Norwegian Wood looping over and over again in his earphones.

"It was not a bad day". He thought.
"It could have been a fine day", he sighed and walked off the bus to find a place to stay for the night.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Of Moments of Truth

Railway stations had always fascinated him. This one was vaguely similar to an old picture he had filed away someplace . The picture in his head was too clear to be true. He smiled at the thought of how much of our past is imagined and how much is what we want it to be , rather than what it really was.
His train of thought was broken by the footsteps of a dozen dhoti clad passengers running on to the rusty metal over-bridge to go over to the next platform, mouthing a very rural Telugu in between paan tinged breaths.
The evening sun, had just gone below the horizon. A slight chill hung in the air. It was a window between when he could see the mynas silhouetted against a shade of an indigo sky, with a tinge of orange and the time the antiseptic white street lights are switched on.
The mynas were as he had imagined them in his filed away picture.Equidistantly perched over the electric lines with millimetric accuracy.

The crowd thickened steadily and he instinctively tightened his grip on his backpack. He had an hours time to kill and he walked the entire platform searching for a suitable bench to settle on. All of them were full.. With families excited to be going away on a holiday, with daily labourers and their dazed looks, with a newly married couple thrilled to be holding hands and making plans.

After he had walked back and forth a couple of times, he found on bench with a red veil limply across it. It was probably left unoccupied, because of the veil.. It almost told you with a quiet dignity to find another bench..this one is taken.. He pushed it one corner of the bench and settled in for a long wait for his train to arrive. He didnt mind the wait. He could see in the fading light, the wisdom and the quiet fortitude of the elderly, the burden of responsibility,the ebullience of youth, the joy of childhood. He was completely at peace. He liked the fuzzy feeling of the nothingness and disconnected thought. Miles way from the life of constant confusion that he was going back to.

A feeble voice, yet so clearly heard over the din, reached him. It was an elderly man, dressed in clothes that looked like they had been washed many times over and yet looked neat. He held in his hand a leather case ,that had seen better days. The bag was packed completely and the zipper had popped at the seams. The man asked him, if there were any ladies sitting next to him. When he answered in the negative, the old man picked up the veil and with a tired sigh, he moved it aside to make room,taking care not to drop it onto the dusty floor.

Both stared at the mynas until they were imagining them against the pitch darkness on the horizon.

The crowd was by now jostling around with people tracing random traverses to get from one place to another. He nervously asked the man,where the B2 wagon would stop on the platform.
The old man indicted that it would be stopping just about a few metres from their bench. He relaxed.

The old man asked him, where he was going to. He replied that he was going to Bangalore. The old man, throttled half a chuckle.

" Software?"

"No, Electronics"

"Ah, Ok, Software". A quiet,uneasy silence.

"You are going to Bangalore too?"

"No. I am going to a small town called Chittoor. It's close to Tirupati, about 50 km from the Karnataka border.",he said in fairly good Kannada.

"Oh, you speak Kannada!",he exclaimed, decidedly surprised to hear his native tongue,so far from home.

"Yes, I worked in Bellary for some time. I learnt my Kannada there. Are you here on a vacation?"

"Hmm. Had come over to meet my grandparents, who live close to here. What about you?"

"I am on my way back home from Behrampur, travelling in the general compartment"


"Yes, my son works in the Archaelogical Survey of India, as a junior assistant. He has just been posted there and it is the first time, he has been away from home for so long. I went to visit him for a couple of days to make sure he is alright"

"Oh,that's nice"

"I am a school headmaster in a government school in Chittoor" , "just three months way from retirement",he added with a twinge.

"Must have been difficult travelling in the general compartment."

"We are used to this. We have to learn to."

He imagined the headmaster's son, brought up on a dosage of middle class values. middle class resilience, conservative sheltered thought, poring over dig sites, finding stuff that people world over would come to see and could not help comparing it with his own job of pecking away mindlessly at a keyboard. The confusion, which had cleared amidst the throngs of the humanity just moments ago, was slowly seeping back into the crevices of his psyche.

He felt guilty about earning all that money for a little more than breaking a mild mental sweat in a shiny cubicle in an environment where people complained if the AC setting was 2DegC above or below their liking.

More than ever, he resolved to end up doing what he wanted to do. Get back to the classroom,only this time, on the otherside of the desks within the next few years...
His guilt trips were using up more fuel than ever before off late.

He shook his head and said,

"It's such an interesting job, is'nt it? The ASI "

"A job is a job. He found it after a lot of running around. I spent a lot of my savings to get him this job. It doesnt pay much, but he atleast can do something with his life. "

He tried hard to find the right thing to say. He couldnt find anything much to say and smiled meekly.

"Must be hot in Chittoor"

"Much hotter than Bangalore definitely"

Weather. Signs that the conversation was wearing thin.

He left the old man to his thoughts. The old man wiped his glasses.
A mother shouted at her 5 year old. An old woman carefully adjusted her sari before descending into the tracks to cross over to the other platform.

His train was due in a couple of minutes. Already people on the platform were restlessly stirring, counting their baggage and in some cases their children. A kilometre down the line, where the tracks bends into the paddy fields, a strident beam appeared and was soon followed by a strident hoot of the engine's whistle. He got up and stretched.

He looked down to the old man still staring into a private void.
"The train is here"

"I have a small request if you will care to hear"
"I dont have money for a ticket or food. My wallet was stolen on my way here from Behrampur"
"Ok...",he said hesitantly. The engine hooted out a clear and shrill note.
"If you dont mind, can you lend me 200 Rs? Give me your address and I will send you the money. I dont know anyone in this town and you know how the Ticket Checker is"

The train was now almost at the platform, sending people instinctively behind the yellow line which they normally ignore.

His mind was racing. It was not the 200Rs that worried him. He wondered about many things, like trust, fate, belief all at once. The train stopping and all the people rushing in did not help him.

He took out 200Rs and hurriedly wrote down his address on the paper the man had held out to him.
The man thanked him tersely and walked away.

The train stopped here for only two minutes, a punctuation in its journey across the fertile south. He had to get into the train now. He went in and sat at his window seat pushing his cheeks against the cold,rusty grills. He saw the man... or was it someone else headed towards the station exit.

Something told him, sitting on the cold rexin of the Indian Railways berth... all the "life experience" he thought he had earned over the years of travelling and meeting strange people in strange lands, had not helped him when he was getting conned in a place 50km from where he was born.

But somewhere there was a niggling hope that a cheque would be mailed to him. Like in a Reader's Digest story.

Three and a half years hence, recalling the incident and updating a blog post .. it still rankled. The old man needed the 200 more than he did, no question about that.. He spent more getting his hair trimmed.

Still.. the fact that the letter never came dented his faith in more ways that one.

The old man probably still comes to the same station every once in a while, fine tuning his act, adding minute details to make his son. his job and his retirement vivid entities with a life of their own...A sharpened pencil and a piece of paper ready in hand.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Slip Sliding Away

She walked in somewhere between the time he ordered for his fourth cup of kahwa and the time the cocoon warehouse caught fire caught fire in Kawabata's Snow Country.

She walked in with the afternoon melting fretfully into evening which made it easy for one to make a choice between the cane outdoor chairs or the air conditioned couches inside the cafe with the artificial lights and the still cinnamon laden heavy air. He never like cinnamon all that much anyways.

It must have been the glasses. What about her glasses? He wasn't quite sure.But yeah..must have been the glasses.

The cafe overlooked a wide street across which was a grey ash brick wall. Inside the grey ash brick wall was a grey ash brick one room house . A dog wrestled a cock into the ground .The cock in turn tried to peck the mongrel when it had a chance to get up and noisily flap its wings into a little private dust storm.

She chose a chair overlooking the entrance, across his table, partially hidden behind a rather inconveniently located pillar.

His kahwa arrived. She beckoned to the waiter. She didn't look like a coffee person. Must have been the glasses. What about her glasses? She didn't take too long to place her order. She was possibly a regular here? Quite unlikely though as this was a new cafe and he was here most weekends since it opened and had never seen her.

A brisk breeze not quite a wind, was blowing. Monsoons had hit the Andamans already.. the confident looking, business suited newsreader had said and was fast progressing towards the mainland.The dusty leaves swaying with a practiced carelessness cast moving rusty shadows on the walls of the cafe. Filtered sunlight.

A Mango smoothie arrived at her table. Yup. Not a coffee person. She opened a book,tweaked the straw at the bend into a convenient angle, pushed up the bridge of her glasses, drew a sharp sip from the glass and proceeded to read.He tried to read the title on the red colored cover. The pillar was definitely inconveniently located.

More people were walking into the cafe. Some of them still numb mouthed from a comfortable afternoon siesta in a shaded dark curtained neighborliness with the ceiling fan creaking randomly rhythmic overhead. The curtains occasionally forced astray to cast shards of bright light.

The book she was reading was fairly thick. His Tolkien in his bookshelf didn't look too dissimilar. Was she a Tolkien reader? He remembered a random conversation he had with a friend some years ago about women who knew their Simon and Garfunkel and what defines them.Very few women he knew ,knew their Simon and Garfunkel. He met one on a beach on the West coast on a rainy weekend ..but he didn't know then that she knew her Simon and Garfunkel. She was a something in the media business..he couldn't quite remember now.. and had a little gap between her two front teeth and her name reminded him of snow in a teacup.

His tea was now cold. He didn't particularly mind that .The shadows were getting longer, the streets busier. Each table had a little plot unfolding. Some more interesting than others.

She seemed to be a slow and a thorough reader.Unlike him. She took her time stopping occasionally to stare vacantly into the street. Which Tolkien was her favorite? What did she think of the movie? He wagered that she too would have thought that the movie never did justice to the book. He was right about the coffee,wasn't he? A phone call interrupted her. She disposed of it quickly with a series of shrugs and a none too cheerful goodbye.

He walked down to the restroom . She looked up as he went past and their gazes met. Before either could register much he walked past. What about those glasses? By the looks of it..She hadn't started reading the book too long ago.

On his way back, he caught her mid sip staring into the vacantness ahead and he could read the title lit in a shaft of light.

“Word Power Made Easy”.The same book thats been crowding the pavements of the cities of the country for the last decade along with babble like “Who moved my Cheese?”

It was like someone switched on a fluorescent industrial tube light in a cozy candle lit room ,switching off the BB King record playing in the background at the same time.

He got back to his table. A stray dusty leaf had found its way into his tea cup in the meanwhile. And he was no longer sure when he claimed in conversations that life had taught him how not to be judgmental.

Wry smile.

He closed the Kawabata, put it into his backpack,paid the bill at the the counter and cycled home humming “Slip Sliding Away”...Damn.What about those glasses?

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Immigrant

Moussa bin Said lit his last cigarette for the day. This pack had to last him until tomorrow. He inhaled deeply and watched the match he carelessly flicked sputter briefly in a puddle from the afternoon rain.
Strange, he thought, the evening paper hadn't predicted any. The paper had even said, it was going to be a bright sunny day.
Well now that he thought of it, the papers had predicted an Algerian victory over Egypt in the African Cup in yesterday's game in Algiers. They'd got that wrong too.

The rain wasn't a bad thing at all he figured as he took another deep,satisfying drag. The sun was out now and the remnant barely cohesive film from the brief downpour made the leaves look greener and the Sacre Couer more ethereal than the usual 4PM light made it look.

He watched the Japanese tourists pass by, Nikons in hand, clicking everything in sight with accompaniments of exaggerated sighs. They were the easiest to peddle stuff to. All he had to do was thrust a replica Eiffel Tower into their faces, and say "2 Euros, Arigatho" in his gruff baritone with a slight furrow on his shaggy brow. This usually convinced them to buy one from him.
The Americans too were good bets. One of the paradoxes he never understood. The Germans were the most difficult, followed by the Chinese. He had trouble telling the Chinese from the Japanese when the first waves of Chinese started coming in to Paris in the early nineties. He'd learnt eventually.

He let this bunch go undisturbed though he had made half of what he usually did because of the rain. The old man who played his harp on Saturday evenings on the stairs was slowly making his way up among the evening throng coming up to watch the sun set over Paris and watch the world(yeah.... the world in the literal sense) stare into the evening sky.
He took a last deep drag and then with gentle deliberation exhaled ringlets of smoke into the evening sky. The butt joined the match without a sound and he watched it get gradually soggy.

He leaned on the railing, turning his back to the relentless horde on the courtyard on their way to the traditional photo op. He could hear Malouda trying his persuasion skills on one of the Japanese. He was new, just come into Paris from Abidjan.Just like he had all those years ago, as a fourteen year old. He and his mother.

His mother was now dead. One of the few regrets he had was that he had no photographs of her. He no longer could recall what memories of her were creations of his imagination and what memories were real. She called him Pasha. Emperor. He smiled and for a moment, he almost recalled her profile conjure itself in his minds eye with startling clarity before fading way into a maze of half formed images and words.

A voice behind him meekly said a feeble "Excuse me". Japanese, he smiled to himself as he turned to greet the owner of the voice. She was university student with a non descript bespectacled face and a slightly disheveled hairdo. "How much for the Tower?"
He smiled again. Picked one of the cheap replicas (Made in China) and gave it to the student with a look of genuine benevolence, which only time can bestow on the faces of old men, and said to her. "For you. I take nothing". The student looked confused. She slowly extracted a 5 Euro note and stood there.
Moussa, bent and packed the remaining towers into his cheap plastic bag whose zippers needed a replacement. He emptied his days earnings into his mother's camel leather pouch, his only inheritance. He got up,put on his cap and heaved the ring of trinket key chains onto his arm.
The student was still standing there with the tower in her right and the money in her left.

He turned and walked away down the stairs. He passed the harpist Jacques. They exchanged a nod and he stood there for a while listening to the sombre notes. He turned upwards. The student was still standing there. He smiled. She smiled.

Some days..are better than others, he thought. "What the hell..".. he lit another cigarette and headed down the hill to a place he called home, but was not quite one.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Immigration,Customs and other things wrong with international air travel

Burning hydrocarbons..., originally uploaded by Stithapragna.

A reassuring thrum,
Dim lights mellow,
He smells stale airline food

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Metal Bird

Clear Winter Morning sky,
A Bird soars,
Sonic Boom

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Personal Quasi-Tragic Sunset- I

a flower blooms,
thick black smoke,

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Kashmiri kahwas

early evening sunlight,
thoughts of kashmir,
he sipped saffron laced tea

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Of long gone Summers and taking the wrong train

Minmaya!! That was the name he was looking for. He had spent an entire Saturday and a bit more, but yeah, early Sunday or late Saturday, depending on the kind of person one is, he finally managed to roll out the syllables painfully encrypted in the depths of his sub conscious. 2:10 AM.

It was a name from four summers ago, not too long ago, many would say,again depending on the kind of person one is... but he had grown old in the meanwhile. Four years... "Older than I once was, younger than I'll ever be, but that's not unusual" as Paul Simon would say.... The summer of 2007, was preceded by a long winter and a longer more painful spring.

He had decided the summer would be his epilogue to the story of his last one year. A year he made choices, including a choice not to make one. Choices that defined him, more than any event in his 25 year old life. 25 is a nice round figure. He never understood why 25, not 24 and 26 are counted upon as significant take-stock milestones. Was this a result of the decimal system? What ages did the Romans deem significant ?

Mimaya became a little paragraph in his epilogue. A dead end on the JR Tohoku line. A point of must return. He had left Tokyo's Ueno station early in the morning at 5AM. Changed seven crossing the torturous spine of the Japanese mainland, all to reach Aomori in time to catch the 1130PM ferry across the Tsugaru on to Hakodate.
Crossing the sea, gave him a metaphorical finish line. To start a new race all over. To be done with the race he had been running all along. A race he had lost, but like the athletes trailing the winner and runners up, just pointlessly kept running to reach the ribbon which has been breasted and subsequently trampled upon by a horde who already finished ahead of him. Flying didnt give him the same feeling. It had to be a boat. A break in the medium not dimension.
Reaching Kanita three fourths of the way, he felt confident enough to hop on to the train heading north, without asking the ever polite station attendant of the final destination.

It was a little toybox of a train. The kind railways put in at the fringes of their network. Fringes forgotten by people but alive as numbers in the budget sheets of a Rail company. But none the less important to the two people every square kilometer who live in these fringes. People who plan their entire social lives around a timetable at the neighborhood railway platform(yeah not station). Soon, he was passing through cabbage fields (reminded him of Chekov's Soviet), little platforms with people sitting on benches on the platforms not to catch trains, but to catch up on conversations and sunshine. The train, hesitantly gathered speed, knowing surely that she had to stop in the next minute or two and then she gave up hope at the slightest tug at her brakes,stopping to drop off a lady and her unmarried 35 year old daughter here, a milkman there.. He could not see the coastline, but he could smell the sea. A smell not unlike the sea of his home.

It was a good two hours where he sat looking out of the window, acknowledging or ignoring fellow passengers depending on how much he liked them when he saw them on the platform as the train drew in. He never listened to much music on the road..or on the rail. He never managed to finish a book on the road. He needed long pauses in motion to be able to dispose of a couple of chapters. His books always got back badly dog eared from a trip. Not from use, but being shoved into a rucksack which seemed to have enough wiggle room when the trip started, but now was strangely refusing to accommodate.

A little into the afternoon, he rolled into a quaint little town called Minmaya and yeah, it didnt take him too long to figure that he would be going nowhere for a while. A traveller can easily know by the sounds the train makes at the last stop. It's like a collective sigh of an audience after a rather boring lecture one has to sit through more out of politeness than heartfelt interest.
He asked the station attendant(ever polite) in his pidgin Japanese. He always took care to use the pidgin version. He had learnt that the moment, one asks a question in fluent Japanese, one gets an answer in fluent Japanese, and it aint easy for him to keep count once that starts happening.
He got a suitably "yukkuri hanashitekudasai" response telling him what he had suspected.

This was the end of the line. Would you like to stay?
Then why are you here?
Wrong train.
Wrong train he says,haha.Where do you want to go.
Aomori?Haha. Go back to Kanita.Haha.
Well, haha.When does train leave?
In an hour.Are you sure you dont want to stay?Haha.
Well, haha.

And there he was in a little town, a town he would have liked to settle into a quiet retirement like the one the station master was looking forward to..or not. A town, where time was measured not in minutes, but in seasons. Four springs old, three summers ago. He sat on the bench watching the train. She was in a deep unshakeable slumber, like people who sleep with no sign of life.
He knew then, that he would miss the ferry. Five hours in a day is a tough little stretch to make up for when all one has is a Seishyun 18 ticket and a lot of time to kill. He made peace and waited for the train to wake up.


Looking back, four summers hence,with the benefit of hindsight he realised that reaching Aomori in time for the ferry, would really not have made any difference. His obsession with the prize was strong enough for him to disqualify winners, move the finish line and ....may be he still races against ghosts for prizes long won.

Minmaya was just another bend in the track. A nice little memorable bend from four summers ago.
He uploaded the blog entry, switched off the lights, opened the curtains and faded away with hazy images of deer at sheer gorges, volcanoes with jagged cones, a shop attendant who rented bicycles next to an onsen, who served milk in bottles....and the prize.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Kathy, Emily and Metaphors

Venus, Cycle and a Basket , originally uploaded by Stithapragna.

And from the shelter of my mind
Through the window of my eyes
I gaze beyond the rain-drenched streets
To England where my heart lies