My Theatre is Sexy

I recently watched a series of ten-minute plays as part of a popular theatre festival. Most of them were long and sour. The underlying contribution, it seemed, came from scripting.

Not to say there weren’t any impressive moments. Imagine a satire of Modi in which the central character keeps rotating a globe in his hand; in another play, a fugitive sculptor, who has always wanted to shape up his art, is shown to be helplessly hiding amidst… giant rocks; in a mime about a budding actor, the character establishment is done with the actor competing with his peers for an oscillating spotlight – an exposition so concise and brilliant; a long monologue of a boy seeks to break the monotony by holding rhethoric conversations with the audience. All reaffirms the presence of a director or writer behind these plays in the festival.

The real problem I saw was the epidemic use of sexual innuendos. As if each play infected the next, snide comments and acts kept showing up in circles of yellow and gels of blue and green. At the risk of sounding prudish, I must say it was disappointing to hear one-line sex jokes and hints being sprinkled from the stage like holy water. And the young audience, seated in a dark atmosphere in the chill of the night (or Hitachi), were in splits, leaving the elders and white hairs clueless.

All these would have been harmless had they chosen a context warranting the innuendos. Rather, the plays lacked identity, setting. They were not cohesive. Where were the warp and weft of scriptwriting? Pick the line from the seventh minute and twentieth second of the play and say it aloud – it would still sound entertaining, which means the performances were essentially stand-up comedies masquerading as drama.

Some plays, on the other hand, portrayed purple prose in an attempt to sway the audience, but ended up like literary novels.

And the lifeline of scriptwriting – conflict – was nowhere to be seen, except in very few plays. What is story without conflict? I don’t suggest placing Goliath against David; conflict has various forms and features.

While it is indeed appreciable that audience are laughing and clapping and not gasping at these sexual remarks (which would not have been the case a decade ago), it is also dispiriting to realise that the audience come across as a facile and philistine group, even if only momentarily.

“Well, if that is what they want, why deny them?” My friend said, clapping at a character who wanted to blow the pipe of his friend.

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Revenge of the Orangutan

FLASH FICTION #19:

‘He’s 97% human. This fellow. Can you believe, son?’ Alex taps the cage.

‘But I wanted a Komodo dragon.’

‘And I wanted to spend the vacation in our island, not in this forest flicking mosquitoes,’ is the complaint of Alex’s daughter, as she applies a squeeze of lotion on her wad of face and throws away the pulpy tube. Its crinkled body shows it contains palm oil, possibly from Alex’s plantation a few kilometers away in Sumatra.

‘Darling, only this summer. Dad has to iron out his business here,’ enters Mother in a flaring skirt and sunglasses. An Asian brings her a basket, bows, and departs watching the orangutan.

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Referenced from web* [labelled for reuse]

Outside the guest house, shards of sunlight fall through the porous green cover. All around is air chill and herbal. Deep into the woods, whereto the Asian is now driving Alex, empty patches of land are expanding, like an aging man’s balding head. Hired lumberjacks fell trees in a hormonal surge of productivity. Fires engulf the rest and reduce to charred lumps. Elephants try to flee the puissant intrusion, but elsewhere seeing only lands stranger to their nature, they fall with the trees. The feet of orangutans, unaccustomed to the touch of earth, jiggle in search of their crusty habitat, umbrella leaves. Meanwhile, Mother clicks photographs of her surrounding and shares with her clique and calls out serenity, inner peace, natural unction and unhurried relaxation in her self-pandering captions.

In the backyard, Nick pokes with a twig the orangutan captured for him. It jumps and rattles the cage. The nail on one of its toes has been uprooted, leaving the cuticle to the flies. Nick slowly brings his finger into the cage; the orangutan watches closely. He takes his finger to its underarm; it smiles. As he wriggles his finger there, the ticklish ape responds with laughter. Nick, satisfied, next inserts a banana; the orangutan grabs his hand. Nick drops the fruit in panic and shouts.

A flaring skirt is lifted as it anxiously sails across the courtyard, the living room, disturbs a jar of cookies (containing palm oil) in the kitchen and enters the backyard, overflowing with tension. Nick smiles to Mother and motions it is nothing. The orangutan has just picked a flea from his arm and stuffed it into its bulbous mouth.

Hearing the gasps of Mother, the ape turns in its cage. Moments later, rills of tears stream down its eyes. In them, if you watch closely, you can see the flare of smoke rising in the wild brown yonder. It figures the burning place as where it has lived all its years and raised its children. The sight of the smoke is a plunge into uncertainty regarding its family. The last it has seen its family was during their expulsion after their home had been toppled into a plantation of oil palms.

It stands crying, as Mother drags Nick away from the cage. After all, the orangutan is only 97% human. The remaining animality does not render it capable of inflicting the kind of harm natural only to humans.

*Image referenced from here.

For further factual reading of this topic: Guardian article on how palm oil producers are wiping out orangutans.

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Whodunit

FLASH FICTION #18:

This is a short story that accompanies a crisp 3-minute dramedy, if you prefer to watch it first.

A pair of shackles, marrying two wrists – one umber, the other a shade darker – restricts the free accompaniment of their swinging arms, as the two saunter in the shade to the sound of stressed gravel.

Both the Constable and the rogue are calm. On top of it, the Constable is amused. Birds chirp on their way, as if in expression of curiosity at this duo. Looking at their faces, it seems they do have a tale between them.

*

That morning, as the residents of the colony go about their daily tasks, the wheel of routine stumbles on a dark, bald head. It is the man who is soon going to be shackled to the uniformed figure. What is his buzzing eyes looking for in that colony? Standing in a corner, why is he frantic about the movements around? One of the residents spots him and doesn’t feel alright.

A stone’s throw from this corner (if thrown by a powerful arm) is a dunce squatting on the sideline of the injured tar admiring a fruit in brown. He looks at his friend nearby and says it was kiwi bought by his father on his way home from Delhi. Delhi is obviously so far away and foreign to this boy, probably his father was a first in their familial travel history. The other, receiving the fruit and upon a slight glance, declares it is no exotic kiwi, but only a local sapota, mostly bought at the decaying store located at the entrance to their colony. So furious, so injured, the dunce stands and collects his prized fruit. A flaunting Constable appears by the arising squabble.

He climbs a staircase, beating his lathi on his thigh, and reaches a door, indistinguishable from others in the colony; but the policeman is in front of this particular door on a purpose. He slaps it and shouts a name. A boy, son of the shouted name, nervously opens and testifies the absence of his father. His father is not a person who can pass through the legal books, so he himself feels justified at the tremor in his voice.

The policeman, there on purpose, pulls him outside, barges in and shuts the door, all done in a lubricated jiffy. He is careful to close the windows and doors and only then turn around the house, looking for something. After a few neat minutes, he opens the door and tells the son he has got the ‘packet’. Packet? You and the son ask. Yes, euphemistically powder. But he is not very discretionary, he says he identified the packet of cocaine stashed behind the grinder. And then, he asks the boy to convey this to his roaming father, so that he himself will come looking for him. And that is how it came to be.

Is this the tale?

*

Birds chirp. Gravel squeak. How many days? So today had been the day to get caught, the Constable pokes. I didn’t expect at all, just thought of passing by, but the lucky wind has turned around today, comments the rogue. Not some lucky wind, my job is inherently hard, you must admit, defends the Constable. Whoever asked you to carry on in this job, exclaims the other. Who was there to advise me against it, so I just kept on in it, the Constable says. All crooks say the same thing, says the other.

This is the tale.

*

Once the Constable is outside the colony, he is not able to restrain himself from taking another look into the packet. He unwraps it and – jewels! Gold bangles, chains and a glimmering necklace. He satiatedly smiles to himself and proceeds. The Constable in mufti, dressed like a rogue and on the watch since morning, rats out of his snoopy hiding place and jumps on the thief who’s modus operandi – if such a sophisticated term could be employed to describe the pettiness of his thefts – is to dress up like a policeman and conduct searches around known criminals’ rests.

Watch this story as a 3-minute film here.

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I at the end of Padmavat

It was saturating to come by long-form reviews, blogs, microblogs and all other available formats of opinions about Padmavati – some critical, some complacent and others congratulating. For this saturation I blamed the natural felon – the digital revolution that enabled everyone to express their expert opinion – and now am taking advantage of the same platform to express some of my own. Let’s put one more voice on top of the noise.

Padmavati. Where do we begin?

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One of the reviews was from Namrata Joshi from The Hindu. She picks a few threads that did not go down well with her. She says the climactic jauhar has been carefully orchestrated and glorified; totally out of depth in these #MeToo times. And that “for the jauhar, Padmavati has to seek her husband’s permission”. It is easy to disagree with her with respect to this because:

  1. As we are shown, and as it is easy to understand, the Rajputs are ceremonial people. So there is no point expecting to see their queen and her followers announcing their death and falling to it in the next shot. And as Cinema demands, there is a mandatory need for tension in the sequence: in her decision and its acceptance; in Alauddin Khilji’s futile attempt to steal at least one glance of his dream woman. So if this orchestration, if this staging, had been missing, we would have only criticised Bhansali for the hurried, perfunctory climax.
  2. There is statement pasted before the film starts: that this film is based on a poem written around the events shown. The glorification of sati, of a practice dutifully followed in itihaas, of an event penned down in the poem, therefore can neither be Bhansali’s directorial decision, nor the endorsement of the crew. Could be that the reviewer was a few minutes late to the theatre. Also, why did #MeToo appear here? Is the filmmaker necessitated to validate his script and choices against social media hashtags?

She also writes Padmavati “deliberately lives on the extremes”, and I heartfully agree with this. The demonisation of Ranveer Singh’s character is lazy writing. He could be a man with one foot in scruples and the other in cesspool, and this choice would have lent dimension to the character, rather than having to seek it in 3D, a tool uncalled for in this picture.

To nitpick others’ reviews is difficult, both for me and the reviewer (if (s)he sees this post). To look at my own two cents, I strongly feel the narrative was facile. As we settle down to watch Alauddin Khilji’s story, we drift to important occurances in Padmavati’s life. Well, the title did warn us it is her story. So as we reorient ourselves (tough in the cushion chair allotted to me) and lean on her narrative, her husband Ratan Singh bad mannerdly intervenes, just as he comes between Khilji and the queen every time the man readies himself to realise his dream. And then there is hope lighted for the raj guru’s own villainy narrative, but he reduces to being a unexplored instrument.

How would it have been to see Khilji as a decent sultan (we can dismiss the killing of his predecessor as it might have been normal for those fellows in those times) and his hearing of Padmavati’s beauty inciting the storyline and giving him his motive. After this we could have simply followed him through his systematic investigation, learning of her, her husband, how they came to be, etc. and his own qualms of being interested in someone else’s wife could be the inner conflict, while the external conflicts could be his journey to and stay in Mewar, a potential mutiny among his soldiers, and his wife’s resistance to his motive. All along, we could just be Malik Kafur (the dedicated eunuch and confidante of the sultan) or some other fellow traveler in Khilji’s journey as he fights forces in him and others to set eyes on a promised beauty.

This way, the film would have stood up from simply being a telling of incidents, to being a powerful, emotionally packed insightful story. (This narrative would mean tilting the poem written, but it’s nothing that’s not permitted by this craft’s liberty.)

At the end of the three-hour experience, Padmavati felt fascinating and susceptible of improvement at once.

Bitterest feeling: The film’s renaming. Nothing shown to me seemed injurious to the Rajput pride nor warranting a snip at the title.

Happiest feeling: Sathyam Cinema’s parking charge is just too pocket-friendly.

Surprise feeling: This story has already been filmed in Tamil in 1963, called Chittoor Rani Padmini.

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No Home for Children

Who would kill a seven-year-old for being too… innocent?

The child lying dead in the middle of the room, with his swathed head looking like an overgrown cabbage, continued to attract men, women, tears and snot through the evening.

Outside on the stoop, as the man was stammering his question to me, ‘How did my child die?’, the mother swooned down behind, unable to handle her grief. A couple of greying ladies together with the fat cook of my school struggled and carried her away. Though the question was anticipated, I still had not figured out how I was to reply.

We were seven students in the school and he was the youngest of us. For some reason, I had nicknamed the boy Mandu and it stuck. When his father enrolled him into the school six months before, I was called downstairs to take him into my care. He needn’t necessarily have joined the Paatashala – some Brahmin’s decaying house converted into a school for learning Hindu scriptures – for I have heard his father was a prospering trader in Madras with the capacity to afford an English education. Maybe Mandu was summoned by his fate.

While it was the sepia of early 1940s outside our village, the conditions remained completely black-and-white for us inside. Only countably few houses boasted Philips tubelights and the rest rendered themselves recognisable with kerosene lamps. For this reason, we students would assemble in the hall for the rationed dinner by 6 pm sharp, holding our plates and tumblers.

Mandu was a silent, harmless boy, giving strangers the impression that he was both deaf and dumb. But during school hours, when it came to listening to our teacher recite verses off his old bound book and repeating them, Mandu, with his shallow voice of prepuberty, enunciated flawlessly and often achieved the rare feat of impressing our teacher.

Mandu, literally following his father’s last words to him, stuck beside me at all times.

He reached my waist when we lined up for our meals, was plump all over the body, and had his lips pulled inward most of the time. Any question outside his purview of awareness made him pause and blink; not that he was particularly quick at other times.

Now the sun appeared to sink behind the grove across the lane and I felt habitually hungry. I still had not replied to the father, and as if he understood my situation, he didn’t bother to stop sobbing and ask me a second time.

My mind flew to the stout pillars of stone that guarded the entrance of her house. And the callus hand that had shoved Mandu’s little face against one of these pillars. I knew he had died immediately, or perhaps even a moment before in fear of striking the hard, rough surface.

‘What can I tell? He – he was pushed against a rock pillar.’

My diction shook the father’s body.

My teacher stepped down to his side and lowered him onto the pyol.

‘He is our only child… I can’t bring myself to accept he is no more.’ He lifted his eyes to me, ‘Tell me, son. Who did this to my child?’

It had all been fine until she stepped into our village and came to reside in the house at the end of this lane, holding in her hands that big brown box and a worn trunk. She could not have been more than twenty-five. I was not sure what made her topic so ripe to the villagers – whether it was her beauty that she unconsciously, openly carried about her, very unlike the conservative, obedient women we were used to seeing, or it was that layer of mystery that shrouded her background and made her independence further questionable.

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Painting of Rodolfo Amoedo

We had all seen her coming alone in a horse-driven cart. Even the bachelors in the lane had hesitated to help her carry her belongings into the house. After a hopeful short wait, she had flung the loose end of her sari over her shoulder and carried them all in one by one, in the process shamelessly swaying her hips and entertaining the husbands standing behind their stunned wives.

From that moment, in the market, by the well, during performances of the touring troupe, and wherever people rubbed shoulders, the men – young, old and very old – always sought to know where Amaravati came from, if she was married and how she lived alone in that huge house; while the women focussed on the more cosmetic aspects like how she was the way she was.

However, the most fantastic and interesting angle to the story was the purported sounding of a male voice in her house. Vinayagam Pillai, a landlord living directly opposite her house, indeed a curious neighbour to have, shared with all who cared to listen, which was essentially everybody, that he would occasionally hear a strong male voice, especially late in the evening and early in the morning, speaking to Amaravati in Hindi or English.

I have heard the wife of Rangachari gossiping with my teacher’s wife that she once spoke with Amaravati over their party wall, and in the course of their brief conversation had come to know that she was a married woman and that her husband had proved to be so indispensable to the British Raj that they kept him tucked in Delhi. It didn’t sound very credible, but it lent credibility to Vinayagam Pillai’s inference that Amaravati was now and then visited by an outsider who did not stay longer than a night.

Since I had formerly completed my education at the Paatashala, I went with my teacher as his acolyte to most of the rituals and religious gatherings he was called to and therefore became the unintended recipient of all these rumours and facts. I used to come back and share these with the other students, who, all on the cusp of adulthood, except Mandu, would drink every word of mine with an increasing eagerness and wicked smiles.

Mandu, on the other hand, would attentively listen to me with open mouth and tilted head, as if preparing to recite all I had said. We boys might also, now and then, in his silent presence, discuss the vague prospect of venturing near her house in the night – a self-declared taboo even for the grown-ups in the village. Once it was flippantly commented that it would be appropriate to send Mandu, as our emissary, near Amaravati’s house; after all who would take him seriously. However, during all those instants, I had never wondered what Mandu must have been thinking.

‘Yesterday evening we heard in passing that the man who regularly visited her had come.’ I could see Vinayagam Pillai solemnly nod from the corner he was standing in. ‘We did not think it was anyhow important to us students and so went to dinner, and upstairs after that. Only when Man – only when Maadhu was missing in the dormitory, did I get the feeling that maybe he had become too interested he couldn’t resist strolling down to the end of the lane.’

A shriek of anguish from one of the inner rooms terrified us all. My teacher sent his wife to be with the mother. A couple of doors were closed to muffle her cry; even still she succeeded.

The father straightened and looked up at me, which only made my telling harder.

‘I stepped out to bring Maadhu back. On the way, I was wondering how silly it was of him to go near her house, and what would our teacher do if he ever found out.

‘The lane was so empty and silent at that time that I could hear the voice of the man in Amaravati’s house, shouting in a different language, even at a few feet from this place. As I went closer, the door to her house seemed to open, and immediately, in the white light from inside, I could see a tall man pulling Mandu out of the house by his ear. I was shocked! Someone who has only been spoken of, never seen, was right before my eyes, and in his uncaring hands was Mandu weeping. I tried to run, but by the time I reached them, the man had pushed Mandu, who hit the pillar before falling on the ground at my feet.

‘Amaravati then locked the door and went away with the man and her few belongings.’

A couple of villagers, including the Panchayat Head, nodded their complement to my narration.

*

I must admit, at least to myself, that I had not been truthful to a grieving father.

I had been waiting for a long time to complete my formal education and escape the fetters of this village; to go to the town of Trichinopoly and find myself a footing in better conditions. I had realised long before that studying these purposeless scriptures was itself a sacrifice extracted out of me by my poor parents. And in addition, all the domestic jobs asked of me by my teacher, his wife and the school were torturous to my unwilling character. My palms were senseless, dead skin now.

So, when Amaravati entered our village, it was a fresh breeze of change to me. Sneaking around the drolls of the village and hearing them talk of her showed me the thrill of what men expected out of women, and on all Sundays, being accidentally present at Amaravati’s backyard exactly during her bathing ritual furnished me with unseen fantasies to occupy my lone time.

I obsessed over that woman. And one midnight, actually one of last week’s, I didn’t know how, but I was inspired to walk into her bedroom.

I had marked an opening in the hedge bordering her backyard. Once through it, I crossed the washing stone, the vestibule and entered the main hall. There was a soft voice of a man coming from one of the inner rooms on my left. It was a monotone. For a moment I considered withdrawing myself, but I ended up nervously inching in the room’s direction. Curiosity proved to be a swirling vortex, pulling into its scheme the weak.

As I pushed open the door in degrees, the man’s voice raised in decibels. Along with it, now I could hear feminine gasps, rendered more distinctly by every degree.

Amaravati was on her back, fully naked, with a pillow between her thighs, and her neck stretched backward on the bed. There was unexpectedly no man in the house, and the voice seemed to come from the brown box Amaravati had carried with her when she rode into our lives.

I could not definitely conclude which amazed me more – a naked woman engaged selflessly in a strange action, or the wonder of the brown box, with perforations, that spoke like a man. One was an answer to my nocturnal question, another was a question by itself.

It took me some time to see that Amaravati had stopped her engagement and was now staring into me. She invited me by a gesture of her head, which was mostly veiled by her long black hair. As I lumbered towards her with pacing heart, she moved her fingers over the box on the bedside table and touched somewhere – the voice was gone! Without turning her head in my direction, with her other hand, she pulled me into her bed.

The rest was like a half-remembered dream. I felt giddy throughout the process, but my body parts were conscious of what they were doing, or rather, all that they were guided to do. More than being a boon of vision to a blind, that night churned out very visceral experiences for me; an educational tour of my own body and its deep inner cravings.

When I exited her house, not at all wanting to, Mandu was lying crumpled on the pyol of a hut situated across the lane running behind her backyard. I sighed.

He must have heard the disturbance in the hedge, for he immediately jerked and lifted his sleepy head. Noticing I had finally come out, he jumped down carefully, clutched my upper cloth and followed me to our school. He never asked me anything about that night.

During the intervening four or five days my mind revolved around that one night – fighting hard against itself to recollect our efforts on bed, the ensuing pleasure that flowed out of me and the sound that gargled out from her stretched throat – but I could not retrieve much. I even started from school a couple of times to visit her (this time I took with me a small towel hidden in the fold of my dhoti), around the same hour, but one thing or the other prevented me from reaching her house. Twice it was Mandu holding onto me tightly in his sleep, threatening to wake up whenever I tried to release his clasp, and once it was a group of youngsters having a whispery meeting outside one of the houses on the lane.

Yesterday evening, Rangachari’s wife jogged to my school with her flabby figure bouncing within a nine-yards. She caught hold of my teacher’s wife and whispered loudly, ‘Amaravati is packing her house. She’s leaving tonight.’

I didn’t know what to make of it. Was I the reason for her sudden departure?

‘I don’t know,’ Rangachari’s wife scowled. ‘Must be because her story has begun to stink all over the village and it dawned upon her to quickly leave the place.’ Her tone was already wistful.

I waited with bated breath for the evening to sail past. After a half-eaten dinner and handing over Mandu to the charge of another student, I walked stealthily towards her house, taking precaution not to attract any attention in that silent space.

When I entered her house from behind she was already out on the front steps, meddling with the iron lock on the door. Hearing my footsteps, she paused and pushed the door open. Her oval face turned into an exclamation.

Amaravati rushed to the hall where I was standing and enquired why I had come there at that time. Even the tone of her question ragged my sincerity. And only then I myself understood that I was there on no purpose. I could not, after all, bluntly request an encore, although deep down that was what took me there. I stood numbed by her question.

I heard her repeating the question. A minute would have easily passed. Finally, she moved her body from the path between me and the front door and indicated the exit with her hand. What else could I have done? I walked out, down the steps and stopped on the lane. Amaravati turned a key in the lock, slipped it between her waist and the fold of her sari, and jumped into the waiting cart.

The big brown box that spoke like a man was behind the driver.

Very surprisingly, her walkout had no audience. All windows and doors on the lane remained shut, as if glancing at the wanton was itself a sacrilege.

In the wake of the cart, as the awoken dust fumed and settled, my eyes caught sight of Mandu sleepily standing across the lane. This boy!

He approached me as if nothing had happened, extended his arm and tugged at my upper cloth. I was so out of my mind, so confused, that I nudged him lightly. Who would have supposed it might kill the boy?

Like a thought from the past, wafted to my ears, the voice of the man from inside the big brown box.

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A baby dreams…

The vending breast exfoliates its black skin and peeps into the burrow of a little snake. The round organ balloons as milk fills it on the inside. Musical notes leak from the other breast, but feel fainter. A melange of this milk, soap that gropes her breasts and my own synthetic lotion pervades my nostrils.

The man who keeps pressing ‘Pa’ into my ears enters in sounds, notices I am full of life, and turns a dial. The stream of notes falls loudly from the other breast, impressing my closer ear. The notes, as if having limbs, disturb the hairs on the nipple on their way out, making them rhythmically sway.

The milch breast and music breast return underneath their black skin. My right ear is now cushioned by the thin folds of her stomach, and its telephoto image brings to me an echo of sounds – industrial sounds. Of gurgling fluids and grinding muscles. Solids, forcefully consumed on my behalf, turning upside down in a smelly cauldron.

I am lowered into my cage. Soon cold, dark winds scare my bare. The warmth of my amniotic residence is but only a placebic salve these days…

…Sunny light suddenly fills. Empty faces rush above and form a shameless crowd. Their saccharine words and squeaking tones newly scare me. If I cry, she pushes through the crowd and comforts – the only voice I recognise and relax in.

Some more darks and sudden fills later, my memories are erased and old delights are quietly stopped.

Now, as I sit on the bed and dangle my legs, my half-dressed wife juggles coffee and eggs and complains of my prickly moustache.

She Face

On my 22nd birthday I said ‘Nothing,’ to my father when he asked me what I wanted for a gift.

I have spent all these years in unfelt luxury – so part of home, school, (the car trip between) and family vacations that luxury metaphored as life for me.

But in this one year I have been working, doors came open; new people, those from unfamiliar backgrounds, new ways of carrying out life fell into my view, bringing to my knowledge the carefully knit blanket of my own social ignorance.

This sudden exposure has made me question everything – from the increasingly capitalistic working of day-to-day life to the innermost intentions of every human interaction; like a curious baby wanting to touch and feel every part of its world.

So here I am, an unbridled horse, let loose and galloping wild in its capacity of youth, with an unsettling doubtfulness tagging along by the tail.

Sometimes to rest the mind, this horse goes farther. To places and characters well-defined, in contrast to life, and neatly put down in papers. Flaubert is a tonic. In my most self-conscious moments, as I think of my new surroundings and my role in them, I fall into the comfortable trap of considering myself a romantic, as a protagonist making sense of life in the sort of experiences he has only been reading about.

(Given the times we live in, it becomes imperative to declare I am not drawn to the romances of Bhagat and Singh and their cohort of self-proclaimed bestselling authors. I would like to think I belong to the classical period, the finer ground.)

Opposite my house is a newly constructed bungalow. On the first floor, in the façade, opens a baroque-like window showing me a face, which when I turn away and collect my thoughts I realise stands for concrete meanings, an embodiment of my mature imaginings and which, in a moment of truth, belittles my self-worth and makes me feel inferior.

I find it difficult to look at it at a stretch, afraid she would catch me, even though she is always bent down, perhaps fixed on the garden below.

I see this portrait twice every day; very warm when I start for work, nightly cold once I am back. At all times, her face carries a cosmetic of sadness and poses a mystery, making it all the more attractive and intriguing.

The she face

Original illustration by Swathi Venkateswaran*

I see her father is a proud man, expectedly snob. His wife is nothing less. However, in my comparison, I guess our riches could be matched and that my family would not be embarrassed in calculating for the girl’s hand.

A week before today her parents crossed over and visited mine. They were very happy to invite us to a party they were throwing.

Today evening, I dress to my best, thinking I would get to say hello to the girl, and if lucky, shake her hand.

It is a very swish party; the music is contemporary, maybe even futuristic; red wine keeps flowing from bottles to perpetually empty glasses, bringing to mind the generous stock of blood in a Tarantino; cummerbunds, with rinds for faces, sail on the lawn, always attentive to any turn of the head; young women, trending with 1970’s Hollywood fits now, are supple in their movements, their practised English creating a cacophony; some old women, all with cropped white heads like an agreed uniform, discuss post-millennial Indian feminism; the lights are minimalistic and that aches my searching eyes.

My mother and father have gone into groups that take people like my mother and father. My counterparts, young men and women, are in a gel, and as if by a tacit understanding I ignore them and they ignore me. It is very amusing to see how people of my age instantly categorise me as a foreigner.

She is still not here; or maybe I am so used to seeing her framed face that I am not receptive to her whole now –

She is coming out of the house, unaccompanied and hesitant-or-shy. The usual sadness is dispelled, as if she has only been waiting for this night, and in its place is something stronger I cannot immediately place.

I take a step in her direction, assuming two leftovers would naturally feel belonged when together. As I walk towards her, I prepare. As I walk towards her, I am also deviated to her. She is in a gown that is the colour of tea served in Ladakh. Its hem reaches her – she is gone! She jumps into a car that has been noiselessly revving until that moment and it whisks her off through the gate that opens to the road on the side of the bungalow.

A few minutes of murmur later it is revealed to the paused party that their only girl has eloped with one of their drivers.

The glorious notion that I am a romantic has been built on small negative aspects, like nostalgia, but now, when a tragedy strikes so pitilessly, in the form of a driver getting to take away such a girl, when it dawns upon me that the imaginings of mine she represented are turning into pleasant realities for another, the romantic notion is not at all comfortable, it is throbbing.

Another chapter of formative years.

 

*You can find her other amazing artworks here.

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Chinatown

I am travelling shoulder-to-shoulder with a stranger, in his car and in his pace, and it has struck midnight just now. Only hours before, I had an experience of friction with my father, the voices and noises from which are shredding the silence in the cab now. Though I can guiltlessly place the entire weight of the discord on him, I must admit I did have a role or two to play.

The repetitious nature of this father-son tussle is becoming irksome.

I am riding to the airport to receive a Chinese businessman, arriving to visit the company I work for. I don’t know how he would look, or what exactly would show him to me, but I don’t complain, because it is vaguely thrilling to flit over dark roads in a cab I needn’t pay for.

A disturbed soul briefly reflected as a daring ghoul.

The only conversation in the cab is centred on the driver’s lamentations of working by Ola’s rules. ‘You have to reach these many kilometres by this time to get what is, after all, your rightful earning. It is like a game, you lose real money if you don’t win.’

Corporate sharks jawing around small carps.

*

My first impression of the international terminal is that it appears like a stage set for a beauty pageant. A ‘U’ railing separates the crowd of white chauffeurs (from various ‘white’ hotels) holding white placards from the exiting passengers of different flights – most of them new to Chennai and expecting to be collected. If a walk from one end of the railing to another does not show the foreigner any board with his / her name, (s)he would turn to walk back to the start, now slower and more attentive, as if flaunting self to judges settled around with scorecards. Some walk back and forth and back before finding themselves and finally relieving the tired man, while others spot their names from a mile away and communicate to the happy holder with a gesture of the index.

The chauffeur from the hotel our Chinese guest will be staying in, a black man uniformed in white, meets with me at the edge of the crowd. He raises the placard and asks if the spelling of the guest is right.

‘What is your name?’ I ask him. I am in the mood tonight to engage strangers in pointless conversations. Probably to ease the short while, probably to bask in stories.

‘Nikhil.’ His manner is prompt, almost mechanical.

Nikhil is not a Tamil name. Nor is his face Dravidian. Upon digging I learn he is a Bengali who’s pitched in Chennai for more than 20 years. His father had a factory, in Howrah, which was cheated out of their hands by his own uncle. Lured by false promises to start a new factory, by his father’s friend, his family was shepherded all the way to Chennai, where they are now in various menial jobs.

A Lufthansa has arrived. I see people trickling out of the exit, some excited, some exhausted and the others equanimous. A young woman is the first I see. Her lips are bleeding and her hair bouffant. Seeing her luggage, I estimate her to be very wealthy, but seeing her clothes I think the other way. She is trying hard to be someone else, in her walk, outlook and all.

Next into view is a young man, awkwardly dressed. Seeing him the weary old man and woman behind me lurch, circle around the crowd, pass through a narrow gap somewhere and rush to him. The father is calm, standing dignifiedly away with his hands held behind, while the mother loses herself and hugs and cries and kisses her son, who smilingly nods to hose down the expression of her happiness.

First flight fantasies.

Close behind comes a tall, lithe, white man, seemingly in a trance. He is pulling one trolley and his other hand is shaped by his side as if it is holding another. After he is received by his chauffeur we all hear a shout and see the man rushing back into the exit shaking his head. He reappears minutes later still holding only one trunk, complains about the futility of travelling in Economy and entertains us all. His chauffeur turns to Nikhil and says, ‘Has drunk all the free liquor they provide up there and forgotten his other bag.’

Light-headed comedies.

*

I and Nikhil wait on the railing for a long time. The flight carrying our Chinese has arrived and even many unconnected brothers and sisters have swept past us, but we have not been approached by anyone yet. Every time a clueless flat face appears I urge Nikhil to raise the placard. He reassures me, but we are still standing.

I shift my weight between my legs, while Nikhil stays like a mannequin. It is insightful to see daily routines remodel a man. I think of my own, and then a lot of other things, but still no Chinese has walked towards us.

A tiny fat man beside me, wakeful and smelling salty, raises his placard reading ‘Gianni Schiavoni’ to all the Chinese men and women passing by. I want to let him know, but I keep silent.

My mind figures many explanations, some creatively curious, to reason the absence of the Chinese. I turn around and walk away to sit on a thick metal pipe installed for me. It is 2 in the morning and only the sky supports that; the crowd at the terminal is unflinching. As I muse about my sleeplessness, trying to balance myself on the pipe, I hear Nikhil’s voice and notice a small Chinese man, glassed and pleasant, nodding to him.

We shake hands, introduce and perform small talk with Nikhil on our toes. He feels very thankful for the reception and climbs into the car. I wish him a good night and turn the other way. As Nikhil drives away I book a cab for my homeward trip.

Another stranger. Another conversation skilfully kickstarted. His mother, the driver said, has been admitted into a hospital and it has become too late for him to get home. Since waking up again early in the morning to start his shift would be difficult he had decided to simply continue driving through the wee hours.

Riding over a short bridge I see hairy pigs, dark as the night, scuttling across to a thick bush and disappearing there.

A few minutes later I am paying the driver outside my house. Before closing the door, I want to mouth something like ‘Take care of your mother,’ but it is so unlike me and I wonder if I am mature enough to say that.

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Clocks have Wings

Guess it is the email invitation from my college announcing our graduation ceremony that triggered in my mind what I am unable to pin under a name. But for clarity of expression, I can make a comparison – it felt like last year’s farewell.

In the traditional WhatsApp group that still held us together, I typed a message requesting for a conference call. Affirmative responses popped one after another, playfully pushing the earlier response above. While fixing a time for the call was a conflict, having to keep in mind the different time zones and carefully adding or subtracting hours, we soon settled on a day and time of commonest convenience: the morning of the approaching Sunday.

One of us who is with me here in India, the one who had made it an adamant point to be in touch with everyone, opened the call, not unexpectedly. When I joined, there were multiple voices, sounding as if echoing from my memory.

Greetings are customary, meaningless trivialities reserved for men and women of profession. When they noticed I had joined the call there came expressionistic equivalents of a casual pat, one even bordering on low-key abuse. Levity at once settled, like the usual coat of dust on a polished table, and it felt like time hadn’t sailed long at all.

I clicked each profile and viewed the familiar faces. Some were in day, some were in dark, but every face sent out warmth and aroused the feeling of belonging. Each had an associated emotion, hardcoded in the mind through familiarity. Memories coming to the forefront of the mind were more than many.

The topics for the discussion were several; higher degrees, professional life, trysts with love, of who will be the first to get into knots and stories of brief encounters with what I can’t list here in fear of offending the prudish. The topics were jumped into without minding to discriminate by gender, for years of oneness had aligned our outlook.

Mutual mockery soon followed, encouraged by laughs and giggles in the background. This only left me feeling more despondent, bringing to mind nostalgic images from a blissful past, where happiness was habitual and responsibility was nothing more than a word.

‘Guys, I have to get going,’ came a sudden voice. He had his internship to leave for.

The rest of the conversation was a struggle to weave together the past, present and future, in an attempt to find a place for everyone in life. Surely, those who were across seas would have felt the weight heavier, as the awareness of the fact that they would not be returning for the next many years had already sunk. Until that distant time, only online jaunts like this were to mollify them all.

Every time someone left, the default tone of the app sounded like death knell. We tried to maintain normalcy in the absence of the few. Stories were exchanged, minds were spoken out, but hitting silence at a point seemed inevitable. Cliched conversations had to be restarted.

College and shared incidents made sure to feature in the conversation, punctuated by exclamations of reminiscence. Each point of view was no different, as if experiences were actually one, and only complemented each other to present a vicarious picture.

The last piece of conversation was a request from those away to share photos from our Graduation Day. And then I lowered the phone and went to have my lunch. Only after mother’s hand intruded before my plate I realised I was far, far away from the canteen in college.

Ashamed to Narrate This

The rain still sprayed at my face when I decided to step out from under the overhang. The wind was harsh, sending stormy clouds hurling into one another in a confused somersault. I decided to brave anything just to attain home and sleep well before tomorrow’s marathon.

I had never in my 21 years exercised my limbs, except only to wave at one of my parents to get me what was away from my arm’s reach. But I was running this marathon tomorrow because she would be there.

Locating my bike in the dark was difficult. All of them in the line were glistening with cold pimples on their naked skin.

When I finally identified, there came a lash of wetness, back to back, upon my back. Post a short struggle to start the vehicle, by which time I had become as wet as a dripping leaf, I took to the road, driving as fast and as slow as I could manage on the glossy surface.

It was raining pins and needles. Icy cold prickles syringed my nape, making me cringe as if in embarrassment. The new monsoon freezed my exposure. I struggled to view the road through the coloured water on my glasses. Blinking red, constant yellows. An occasional green granting us permission to move, in a smudged tone. It was like running around in a pub, pushing through a hybrid of psychedelic colours; but since my knowledge of pubs sprouted only from books and films, it felt immature to imagine this. Also, I had to concentrate on the road.

I left OMR and scurried into the service road. And immediately regretted. I was cutting through the logged rainwater, sending waves on both sides and inviting some quantity into my shoes. They were new shoes and new socks, bought especially. I lifted my feet and placed it awkwardly on the crash guard. Thankfully the road was empty with no audience.

*

I hurried up the steps and stopped outside the closed door. Shaking my shoes and wringing my socks, I dislodged murky water in the corner of the veranda and silently reclined my shoes on the wall. As I pushed open the door my nose picked up the acrid smell of extinguished candles. Father was there on the sofa, sitting with no vest, and not bothering to towel his wet chest, mother emerged from the kitchen carrying a ladle, sticking to the insides of which was hot pulp of some vegetable.

I crossed the hall on my toes into my bedroom, and stretched the socks on the clothesline there. ‘Why are you drying them here?’ Mother asked, following me.

‘I want them ready for tomorrow’s marathon.’

‘Don’t you have another pair?’

‘This is Puma.’ I hoped she would appreciate that.

I had dinner, but only a little, prompting a question from my mother, ‘You can’t eat properly either when you are too happy or too sad. Which one is it?’ I thought I blushed.

Ashamed to Narrate this

Original illustration by Swathi Venkateswaran*

All I knew next was jumping onto my bed. I had slept like a dead. In the morning, I responded sharply to the alarm – later a great surprise to mother, father and the alarm clock – and hoisted myself and beamed at nothing. While telling myself that I was a brisk young man ready to run a marathon, I jumped down from the bed and landed on the pool of water formed overnight from the clothesline. Shluck! Something dragged my feet and I banged my left arm on the frame of the bed. There was a momentary blankness; freaky heartbeats and mind full of emptiness.

I brought myself to existence, like pushing the head out from a dark womb, and searched for meaning, looked for cause and effect from my position on the floor. I tried to get up, to open the door my parents were banging, but I was lying flat on my back with legs undecidedly hanging in the air, unable to voice anything except buckets of breath.

*

But all is well that ends well, isn’t it? She called me after returning from the marathon, asking in a tone of concern (I would like to assume) why I didn’t show up that morning.

Should I ask her to read this?

 

*You can find her other amazing artworks here.

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