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.

You might also like Anatomy of Love.

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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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Marriage of Men

FLASH FICTION #17:

I think it was the wedding of my mother’s cousin’s son, in Trichy, in which we entered familiarity. Familiarity, not friendship. Friendship is too costly a term to be used to describe, even now, the poor bond between us.

Originally, the friction we had always had developed during our first meeting in another marriage we attended as primary school children. It had to do with a plaything he refused to share with me, and then on, until this Trichy marriage, only cold glances had been shared both ways.

Between these two marriages we had met at many familial occasions. He was a writer, his mother would proudly announce to all who were obliged to listen. But since our family was mostly philistine, no one understood what it was to be a writer, and so simply nodded and prevaricated the subject. ‘My son is doing his Engineering,’ my mother would say, and at the turn of awed faces, she would proudly add, ‘At IIT.’ There would follow the immediate question of how I managed to place myself in an IIT, and then my mother would drop into an hour long monologue of how I had always been academically strong, and how she had never had the trouble, right from my wee years, of entreating me to study. And if the moment was opportune, she would even quip at the end that her son had conscientiously refrained from anything extra-curricular, like writing, for example. Although, I must admit, this remark only made me feel profane and less intellectual; especially so in his presence.

All through the occasion we would mutually try our bests not to come too close to each other. We would meet the same cousins, same relatives and same family friends, but never together and never at the same place. And Ramya! She was the object of a sort of competition between us; always individually sneaking to speak to her, and trying to gauge the feeling she had for the other of us. There just had been this indescribable thing between us, so much that I could not come to understand it myself. But looking back from now, it seems ludicrous that we had not considered the bitter resentment a temporary, immature feeling.

IMG-20170509-WA0002

Original illustration by Swathi Venkateswaran*

Back to the Trichy wedding. Nothing had changed; only I had begun to work, and heard he was attempting to publish his novel. We still maintained the same frigidity, even while lunching at the opposite corners of the long dining table. After the meal, at the same time the ceremonies got over, the bride’s father summoned me. ‘Go home, open the locker and get me the white envelope inside; we forgot it,’ he hurriedly dropped the words. I nodded my head to display responsibility and darted off to the exit, where I realised it.

‘Didn’t you go?’ Bride’s father again. ‘Uh-no, I don’t know the route; we reached the hall directly.’ He sighed in reply and noticed Keshav sitting in the last row. ‘Keshav, you have your father’s bike? Good. Go home – ’ ‘I don’t know to ride it,’ came back the quick reply. ‘Useless boys! Give this fellow the bike, go home with him and bring back the… he knows; now go fast, you two.’

Keshav and I stared at each other. Before us was the white car, ribboned and taped with roses, soon waiting to carry away the happy couple. Without a word, I went to start his father’s old Suzuki, and watching about him strangely, he came to sit pillion.  The directions were indicated with silent gestures, and when at times he brought his hand in front of my eyes, I shook my head to warn him. The search was even more difficult, not because of the deep location of the envelope, but we had to coordinate silently, both not wanting to be the first to talk. We returned similarly, just as the couple were climbing down the steps.

Uncle, from behind, raised his eyebrows at us. I quickly parked the bike in a corner and let my hands into my jeans. Keshav pointed at my shirt pocket, from where the envelope was projecting. I jogged to Uncle and handed it. To this day, I don’t know who spoke first, but I’m sure the ice has broken, and it would only need another marriage to melt the pieces.

*You can find her other amazing artworks here.

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Lost in Beauty

FLASH FICTION #16:

Encouraging night. He kissed her cheeks and licked powder. Sucked her lips, but only rubbed off a bitter chunk of red paste. Simply wanted to hold her by her exposed arms, but his hands kept slipping down their polish.

He wondered if he would feel a woman behind the veneer.

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What War Does to Men

An episode from the Stri Parva of Mahabharata

With original illustration by Swathi Venkateswaran

It is the end of the epic war. Kurukshetra, the valley of death, has in it thousands of hills of dead bodies with rivers of blood flowing round their bends. Mothers and wives, both palatial and civilian, are wailing and beating breasts in a frenzy of murderous energy. Flag poles, armaments, parts of warriors, elephants and horses, and even full chariots can be seen strewn on ground, suggestive to anyone present that restoring this piece of earth would take no less years.

The Pandavas, looking as if, after all their efforts, they have been the losers of this great war, have just reached the Court of Hastinapura. The doorkeepers bow six times and show in the group; Krishna, with fragrant garlands and a smug smile on his face, as if the drama he orchestrated has been completed in harmony to his fullest satisfaction, is seen to appear at the wake of the Pandavas, like a collyrium of clouds sailing past and revealing the always bright sun.

Dhritarashtra, blinded but aware of all that has transpired, and so greatly disturbed outward and inward, is at the edge of his throne. Sanjaya, his charioteer, and Gandhari, his ideal wife and also the mother of one hundred mighty men, all killed by Pandavas in the war, flank the throne. As the announcement of the arrival is whispered, the king leaves the throne and walks down, his grandeur and enormity not smudged in the least by his heavy loss.

Yudhistira, the first among Pandava brothers, steps forward to embrace the king and to receive the blessings of a father-figure. The embrace is conducted, but formally, and the king utters no words of goodwill, understandably. Next, Bheema, the giant, the strongest of them all, like ever possessed of a destructive cyclonic storm within, steps forward to embrace the king. His foot covers many measures of the floor and lends a sense of shiver to the palace itself. Even a blind can understand it is Bheema approaching him.
As the last step that would lead to the embrace is about to be taken, Krishna, Vasudeva, the conductor, the dramatist, the playful, raises his hand and gestures Bheema to stop right there, with the smile on his face intact. A giant pillar, round and tall, made of the strongest iron, and immovable by any man or beast that exists, suddenly emerges between the king and Bheema.

Pillar on Fire
Original illustration by Swathi Venkateswaran*

Dhritarashtra, sensing Bheema close in front of him and overcome by grief and anguish, as a father who doesn’t carry meaning anymore in that position, throws his arms, each weighing a boulder even in that age, around the giant iron pillar. At the next moment, the pillar is crushed to grains and reduces to a heap on the floor.

A loud sound, torturous to every soul in the Court, emanates from the chest of the king. In realisation of his mistake, he cries like no man has ever cried. ‘I killed you in my grief, my dear! Forgive me.’ Even one hundred deaths did not deserve this cry, for who was Bheema, but another son to him. He has played on his lap as a child, has been fed by him, been coached by him on the field, had his growth overseen with love and fatherly affection by him. But now, why did the same hands, which have always been tender and protective of this son, kill him in an embrace? The king, thought to be above human vagaries, beyond the crippling emotions of man, bends down before the heap of metal and shakes in guilt.

*You can find other amazing artworks of her here.

 

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Anatomy of Love

Flash Fiction #14:

When Koushik met Ramya for the first time, he changed his image of the girl he had always wanted to fall in love with.

It was a New Year’s Eve party. As an antonym of the people she was with, Ramya stood in a corner, away from the maidens laughing and dancing. She was a wallflower.

During the next six months, Koushik built his mind and body, all for that day he would go and speak to her to champion her heart. Wanting and needing and coveting and dying to be her ‘Yes’ candidate, he took care not to let slip the confidence and courage that had never been his.

On the marked day, he walked into her classroom after smelling his breath and adjusting his sleeves. Ramya was there, distributing to her classmates her marriage invitations. ‘It can’t happen without you, Shreya,’ she said to a girl in the front row. They went for a long embrace.

Koushik felt deeply disappointed. But when he met Shreya for the first time, he changed his image of the girl he had always wanted to fall in love with.

That Family Festival

When Tabu’s mother breathed for the last time and closed her eyes, Tabu’s plastic clown, the wacky battery toy he calls ‘circus man’, clapped his hands and smiled his painted smile. The boy’s father, entering the room to stop the clown’s noise, discovered his dead wife and started.

After the doctor had come and gone to do the unnecessary vetting, after chests and breasts were beaten, the body of the young lady – not beautiful, but all the world to Tabu and father – was lowered into the rented glass box. Soon, plies of coloured flowers began accumulating over the box. Friends, relatives and neighbours visited to do the same ritualistic enquiry. Tabu’s friends, all little like Tabu, came to gape and whisper at the glass box and leave with their parents, attaining a sense of maturity.

The incense stick was replaced. Flowers and garlands were shoved off to leave way for the oncoming batch. Tabu’s father’s manager dropped in with his decorated wife, and before leaving, announced a week of paid leave. Tabu’s paternal grandmother, a mentally weak old woman, settled down at the head of her daughter-in-law with a large bowl of flour. Mindless of her surrounding, she poured in tumblers of water and began kneading as hard as her age and mind permitted. She had been meaning to do this for many days. For that night’s dinner, Tabu’s mother had planned to cook the packet of penne he had picked in the supermarket. But now with no one to intervene in her kitchen activities, the old woman concentrated her energy on the solidifying mass to get out of them soft rotis. Her husband loved her soft rotis.

That evening, Tabu’s father and three uncles shouldered their dear dead to the cemetrey a kilometre away. Once at the ground, a tussle erupted between the elder uncle and his two younger brothers on whether to bury or electrically burn. Tabu’s father pleaded with the warring factions to stop arguing, but they kept vetoing the opposite’s decision. Losing patience, Tabu’s father slapped the elder brother. As if suddenly realising their bereavement, all three calmed down. Tabu’s mother was presented in a copper container an hour later.

Back at home, Tabu’s grandmother had washed the floor and was waiting for others and her husband with set plates and a hotpack of soft rotis. Tabu was on her lap, trying to retain his mother’s face and silently praying it should stay with him forever.

A week later, Tabu’s father nailed his wife’s newly framed photograph beside his father’s.

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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A Real Neat Post

Love these awards that go in chain, linking people and words, and giving another chance to just blog.

This time it is the Real Neat Blog Award, passed on by fellow writer (you must visit him, here he is). Thanks, Varun 🙂

So the 7 questions that need answering:

1. Do you believe in God? Why or why not?

There are those who have realised. And then there are the others. I belong to the former.

2. Do you know what MBTI is? If yes, what is your type?

Yes, Varun helped. I am of the INFJ type.

3. What do you think is the most admirable quality in a human being?

To stand by the working world and observe things dispassionately.

4. Which is the one place you want to visit all by yourself? Why?

All by myself? The 90’s Varanasi featured in The Romantics.

5. If you had a choice to be born as an animal/bird, which one would it be? Why?

A bird would I be

To chirp outside her window,

peck at her offerings,

and sing a song to soothe her sleep.

6. Imagine you are exiled from the earth for whatever reason and has to live forever in one of the planets or moons of the solar system (and you can survive there due to some advanced technology and life support systems), then where would you choose to go? Why?

Moon. With Matt Damon.

7. Do you believe in ghosts? Why or why not?

There are those who have realised. And then there are the others. I belong to the latter.

I pass this on to: Sangbad, Raj, Megan, Confabler, Shreekanth, Mahi and Urvashi 🙂

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.’