Summer Nights and Power Cuts

Common cold, perhaps my warmest friend in life, returned to visit me a couple of days back at the invitation of chilled lime juice. With him, he gaily brought along his family of nasal and throat infections. If a thirsty man can’t take chilled lime juice after arriving home drenched and drained, without the fear of catching cold, I wonder why lemons are planted and grown!

At home, firm resolutions of abstinence from all things chilled and all things citric were adopted by mother on my silent behalf. A flask of hot water was introduced beside. At work, upon a spree of sneezing, questions of bodily tolerance were raised by surprised colleagues, ‘After chill lime juice? Really?’ A feeling bordering on embarrassment passed across my face. Two more days with this! I sighed.

Have you realised that all things cruel are bound to happen in perfect sync at tiring times to simple, harmless souls like you and me? That night, while I was sleeping (or struggling to) with mouth wide open (nostrils blocked) and a container of nasal spray (realised to be empty when needed) thrown by my pillow, the fan above slowed down in its rotation (power cut). As the blades got slower and slower, the pores of my skin began to bud with droplets of sweat. As I sat up in irritation, the droplets met one another and formed playful streams. I smelt salty.

Power cut.jpg

Original illustration by Swathi Venkateswaran*

My mother, coming to feel my wakefulness, opened her heavy eyes and asked me how I felt. How I felt? Woken in the middle of a peak summer night to find body wet with sweat (and kerchief by the pillow wet with something else) and dense humidity choking me from all sides, I wanted to assure her I was doing great. With mouth so dry and words coming out as coughs, I snorted hard to clear the blockage in my nose, but in the process inhaled a passing irritant, making me sneeze continuously and at the end, feel dizzy and dead.

A tumbler of hot water was promptly presented. My hands groped in the dark until they touched the hot tumbler. Believing my mother’s words that the water inside would not be as hot, I inclined it slightly to my lips.  The fiery hot water slid and burned my skin. I pushed the tumbler to her and angrily exited the house.

Coming to stand unsteadily by the grilled window of my floor, I expected gushes of cold wind. There was nothing like that. Mother followed close behind and cajoled me to slowly drink from the tumbler. In her other hand was a plastic fan. She waved it at me, but the softness of her little palm, unable to disturb the density around, did not create much flow of air. Pitying, I took the fan from her and waved it myself. At her and me, in turns.

A few minutes of wait later, finding the tumbler to only accumulate heat from the surroundings, I slowly sipped from and drained it. I stood there, adrift, in limbo between loose consciousness and unconsciousness, the waving of my hand further tiring me. The opened doorway was given a glance every now and then to detect signs of power restoration, but the yellow bulb did not spring to life for nearly an hour.

And when it did, myself and mother were sound asleep; she on the staircase leading to the floor above and I still on my legs, with head leaning on the window grill. I must have been a picture of pity to sleep like that! I was tapped on the shoulder by father and shown in; Mother followed. With all the energy I had, not caring for the nasal block nor for the slimy plastic sheet covering me, I threw myself on the mat, as if catapulted from behind, with only the thought of sleep in my mind; as well to say I didn’t care for anything else in the world.

 

*You can find her other amazing artworks here.

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The Trump in You and Me

How Donald Trump serves as a personification of all the darkness in us

Donald Trump has tied the world together under the common imagery his name evokes. His is a personality we all agree on. Now to add meaning to the title, a few personal accounts want to be stated here.

Every life…

On our way to work, my friend and I have to cross a particular street (he takes me on pillion). Apart from the waste-logged potholes and spheres of mosquitoes, my friend hates the people themselves living beside these. They are categorised as Dalits. Vulgarity is abundant in their every spoken word, even those of the old women, and civility is almost absent. The combination of these two factors was evidenced upon us once when he swerved the bike a little and endangered their lifestyle. Oh, even the children of this street are, piteously, unpleasant to him.

Later, when the street is crossed, I myself relax and breathe a sigh of relief.

The genre called Women

On International Women’s Day this year, there was a simple, yet powerful definition of feminism being promoted. It addressed men this way: It is how you see the woman next to you. I instantly remembered how, on our way home I see every day, striplings and the middle-aged looking up and down the women passing them, some secretly with a small sense of shame, while the others without.

Every time a trace of masculine arrogance takes birth within, I would turn to the woman next to me at that time; a very concrete exercise to turn my ego into nothing.

All the green and blue

‘Environment’ has always been an abstract term to me. When my friend litters, runs his AC in an empty room, or when his sister takes the cab to go shopping in the next street, I have not consciously thought about these. But when the city submerged in 2015, when I had to roam with my mother for a can of drinking water, environment was suddenly all around me – in the waters I was wading, in the darkness the city was plunged into, and shrinking away from the plastic, AC and cab I have myself carelessly used.

If the above paragraphs feel disparate, then we clearly misread. They are united, at the very bottom, by the pride and wilful unacceptance that characterise them. And who better to represent these with other than Trump, a xenophobic misogynist under the scary impression global warming is a Chinese hoax .

Without meaning to say we all share these qualities, this is to present a window of introspection towards the Trumpian characteristics we could harbour, for he is just not a leader we joke of, he is also the embodiment and mirror of all things dark in us, worthy of all our thanks for having shown us who we are.

Now, do you have a Trump in you?

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One Night at the Call Center

At 8 in the night, as the last set of people were pushing open the exit door of the office, I had an engaging chat with my colleagues to take some time off our work; we were aware it was going to be a long stay for us 3.

The topic veered to our college friends who have flown to study in America and Europe and such. L, one of those nice seniors you can approach with any doubt, investedly narrated her friend’s experience. The girl, it seemed, was sharing a flat with a 55-year-old Mexican nurse, and was lately seeing a different man emerge from the nurse’s bedroom every night.

Now I imagined this scene, how it would have happened night after night – how the girl would have felt when the nurse came out, tying her hair with a casual smile on her face, following the man to introduce him to her. ‘Living like that must be awful,’ I quipped in. ‘Especially since she is from here, unaccustomed to the promiscuous ways of the West.’

‘Oh, beyond what you can imagine! Not a day goes by without my friend calling me with her apprehension and disapproval,’ L said, with a dash of sorry sadness in her tone.

I turned to the silent S, my other senior who has contributed generously to the growth of our company over the past 4 years, and herself become less human in the process. ‘So what do you think?’

‘Not a very comfortable situation, I agree,’ she replied thoughtfully. ‘But you see, like how we don’t approve of this, a man living further in the interiors, who if simply informed that his daughter is in love, would hunt the poor boy through the entire village with raised billhook and puffing chest. So what is normal for the Mexican doesn’t agree with us, and our normality is beyond the understanding of a rural. One man’s food becomes another’s poison,’ she proverbially concluded. I nodded, considering the varied people and what they embraced as their culture.

I stretched my arms and my mouth opened wide. Two more hours to fight with this computer! L’s phone rang. She looked at the screen and worriedly walked away with the phone. ‘Must be that girl,’ I commented to S. As she smiled, her own phone shouted for attention. It was her man, calling to utter words dipped in honey and… you know right, all that these love birds usually chirp on phone.

She returned after the call and said, ‘I must inform my father soon. But I’m scared of what he’s capable of doing.’

A Snoring Way to Srirangam

‘For the kind attention of passengers,’ a pleasing voice noised in Tamil, English and Hindi. I had arrived at the Egmore station an hour and a half in advance out of some innate sense born of punctuality and anxiety – something my friends ridicule me about, asking if I wished to sweep the station before the train rolled in. It was also something that ran in my bloodline; my father and maternal grandfather just can’t sit in calm when they have a train to board, even though hours later.

I was sitting beside my mother, dipped in Baradwaj Rangan’s article Taking a stand featured on the day’s Hindu, when the engine shined its torch and boomed its arrival. Once the chart was pasted, I checked our names against our seat numbers and then climbed in with a light wallet thanks to Modi and a heavy backpack thanks to my mother. Wide and cosy blue births welcomed us.

When the hands of my watch reached the designated alignment the train pulled itself. My mother climbed onto her middle berth with a blanket unfolded behind her like a cape, and I climbed onto mine – the uppermost berth. I noticed the white ceiling of the train curve inches above my nose and two gigantic fans ready to chop my neck and ankles. In my position, Robert Langdon would have complained of claustrophobia. I jumped down and requested in polite words the man on the other middle berth to switch places. He acknowledged the fragility in my tone and consented immediately. I was soon facing the blanketed bundle my mother was.

When Tambaram arrived and while I was still struggling to keep my eyes closed (my mother was in a relaxed slumber) a couple, in their late forties probably, walked in. They decided between themselves and the woman took the bottom row across the aisle and the man settled beneath my mother. So far so good.

Maybe my mother had communicated her malady to me, because I was in deep sleep, in an atmosphere of nothingness for time unknown, until I was brought back to my berth by the sound of a shrieking soul, reminding me, even now, of the gruesome sound made by Christie’s small piece of rubber during Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. The sound must have had a deep and malignant origin, for it was ineffably cruel and sadistic. After a semi-conscious search, I noticed that it spewed from the mountainous paunch of the Tambaram man. The train was stationary, probably at some signal, and my mother smiled wakefully at me.

In the darkness of our immediacy, it looked like only we were disturbed. His snoring was overwhelming in the absence of any other sound. How much ever I tried to deviate my attention, I found I was only attached to it, expecting the rise of next during the pregnant pause that followed every fall. At times when I managed to shift focus, I felt desperate for the train’s rhythmic motion, in the hope that this sound would dissolve in it and cease to have full effect.

The train moved, probably for myself and mother, and we resumed our efforts to maintain shut-eyes. But after a few minutes, when it came to a gradual halt at the Vilupuram junction, we realised God was against us. The sound was now amplified and murderous. Unlike daylight journeys, no man ventured out for a short break and hot tea on the platform; everyone was calm and closed, and the snoring happened.

Many a times I dared to bring my index finger, and sometimes the big toe, very close to the man’s shoulder to prod him. My mother would raise her eyebrows and silently warn against it, and I would fall back onto my berth in irritation and powerlessness. And even after the train started moving, even after the snoring was subsided, the memory of the sound stayed long with me.

After persistent efforts to find some sleep were self-declared as useless, I got up and walked to the door at the end of the carriage. Mother’s head peeped now and then from her berth to ensure I wasn’t perilously close to the exit. Overly chill winds blew past. Bright and faint yellow and white whisked by. A cement factory was in sound operation in Ariyalur. The train was well on time to reach Srirangam in twenty minutes.

As I stood there, waiting to catch my first glimpse of the Srirangam temple spire majestically standing out from the mass of little coconut and pine trees, the Tambaram man came sleepily walking towards the loo. On his way, he dropped a very surprised smile on me, as if meaning to ask why I wasn’t sleeping.

Of Filth and Wealth

I am going to need a handful of Oregano to digest the unexpected developments of last week. The young, carefree minds that work in the fields of my mother’s native saying they don’t know who Trump is would register as uncommonness. While the same minds travelling to the nearest town to exchange their invalid notes of ₹500 and ₹1000, the possession of the latter being extremely rare, is the most common sight today.

Billionaire Trump rising to the top of the most powerful country took many by surprise, and Mr Modi’s announcement of demonetization hours before a midnight recorded a tremor of 7.3 on the Richter scale in the Indian subcontinent. While the poor who live in houses not more than one-storey tall escaped the quake, the rich who touch clouds if bored fell down spectacularly, although a bit tragically in their own eyes.

There are many Indians – notable economists and some others who don’t drink their morning coffee without The Hindu – who welcome the PM’s move with predictions of long-term benefits for the nation. And then there are others – Trumpish minds – who remain silly and naïve and ignorant and characteristic of all such synonyms that Oxford could give you, and painfully talk of long queues outside ATMs and create memes to ridicule this move.

And about this Trump, what he could do, no one can say, because, well, he himself doesn’t know. But there is some vague, indecipherable sense of satisfaction smiling deep within me at the thought of this win. A fleeting feeling of schadenfreude. All those relatives who have a natural awe for even the American illiterates and soggy minds would pause a minute to reconsider their admiration. Wouldn’t that be awesome, to see a false sense of respect become nothing in so little a time?

Now then, if you still have not exchanged your notes, join me tomorrow outside ICICI, Adyar at 9 sharp. Let us joke over America’s decision while progressing in the queue.

Basket of Fruits

Staring at Caravaggio’s Canestra di frutta prompted me to shake off the heaviness of mind and lightness of body to get to my writing desk with determination and zeal.

Oh! Who wouldn’t? Just look at the summer fruits so carefully plucked and jumbled in a wicker basket. Oh! How I fear the basket might tumble down from the edge of the ledge it has been so carelessly perched upon.

canestra_di_frutta_caravaggio

I can imagine the liquid essence of the fruits, crushed out by my molar, sticking onto the walls of my mouth with a tenacious and eye-closing sweetness. Though at first sight the painting is very attractive and tempting, a finer eye (that I lack) would discover the hidden imperfectness detailed in so brilliantly and intentionally – blighted leaves developing from the stems, the skin of the fruits mined by moth that I would have ground out of jealousy, the especial grapes ripe beyond what is natural and glistening with hyperbole, and the texture of peach that looks too hard to bite.

Maybe the master had such a basket with such fruits laid behind his canvas. Or maybe he wanted to convey the underlining mistakes ingrained in every creation of God – of either the mind or body – subtly hinting at what life is through this still-life.

Or maybe we just have to move on after our mind is satiated upon repeated viewings of this art. Too much thinking, though it brings perspective to the table, might well taint whatever was the original purpose.

If there is one thing I am granted to covet, it would be not a fruit from that basket, but the empty container itself. I would want to keep its fragrance intact for all my years, at the corner of the writing table I am now sitting at, so that it inspires me to keep writing through the thick and thin of so imperfect a life.

 

A Million Hopes

A million babies come out every second. A million souls exit every second. Between these two millions, there are millions of millions breathing with some hope or the other. Some want to bite a pizza, while some risk their lives to deliver that pizza on time. Some want their sons to carry on their family business, while the sons want to get out and study abroad. Some want to restore an irresponsible president, and some want to bomb in opposition. A country has become a playground, and some in it want to cross the blue sea and escape the madness, while others in it want to survive under their beds until the bombing goes silent. There is hope hiding in every beating heart, that their needs would find closure before the heart stops beating. While respecting every hope, let us also make sure ours do not get in the way of others. Or at least, let us hope to make sure.