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Neela November 16, 2009

Posted by K in Fiction.
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2. Neela
Dolly was late that day.

Sheep clucked impatiently. She had eaten her breakfast and now her lunch, and the pile of books from the library had been re-read three times. Where was Dolly?

Summer afternoons in Delhi have an eerie stillness. There is not a whisper of a breeze, or a hint of motion. The streets are empty of people, and only the trees are left to wilt in the searing heat.

It is this solitude, however, that proves so immensely attractive to vacationing young minds. Troupes of children colonise staircases in different apartment buildings, playing ‘Red letter ‘A’…’, ‘Monkey Memory’, safe in the knowledge that they would not be called in to eat, sleep or study. Those whose parents went to work thrived on this unstructured time till the evening. Those with mothers at home blessed the heat that made the adults so drowsy.

Sheep heard a loud whoop right outside the door, followed immediately by the sound of several running feet. She wrinkled her nose. Large groups of people were not her idea of fun. She usually spent her mornings reading until Dolly came, and then they went out together.
She perused the books in front of her wondering which one would be most suitable for a fourth reading. A low quavering sound filled the hallway just then, and Dolly ran to answer the bell.

“Isn’t our new bell funny?” she laughed, as she opened the door. Instead of Dolly, however, there stood a man before her. He was clad in blue shorts, and wore the expression of a missionary.

“Come, Aadab, let us go play with the other children,” he said, and smiled.

She shook her head and clutched the curtain in her hand. My name is Sheep! She said inwardly.

“All the children are outside,” he insisted.

Exactly, she thought, shrinking further behind the open door. She gave what she thought was another firm shake of the head. And since he wouldn’t stop smiling, she looked at his teeth. Yuck! She thought, and giggled. They were yellow like her socks.

This nightmarish figure was Gokulnath V. Konda. He was the man who lived next door and made a lot of noise in the mornings. She always heard him when she was on her way to school, gargling, rinsing his mouth, talking on the phone. Once she even heard him flushing the toilet, for he would leave his door open all the time.
Her mother distrusted him because of that. Leaving a door open all the time! Shameless, she would exclaim. Vulgar! Like people who did not draw their curtains across after sundown.

Sheep did not understand what ‘vulgar’ meant, but try as she might, she could not imagine what was so shameful about letting others catch a glimpse of warm, yellow light, from outside.

She had seen Dolly pause, sometimes, in the middle of a game to look into homes that had open curtains. Why are you looking? Play your turn, na, she would tell her, but a few minutes later, Dolly would turn again to look at the curtain-less windows.

Dolly’s older sister Rincey seemed to share her mother’s opinion. Dolly had been forbidden, under threat of sisterly violence, from giving as much of a glance at anybody’s window. She had escaped so far because Rincey helped her mother at work and did not play with them. Once, however, she had walked in on one of Dolly’s reveries in the middle of a game and had slapped her, and pulled her hair. Sheep had been shocked. Dolly and then Rincey had started crying but Rincey’s sobs were different from Dolly’s. Sheep took to staring hard at windows to understand the problem, but it was no use. Open windows were just open windows to her.

It was shameful for girls to sit with their knees apart, that she knew. Or to come to play without bloomers. Sister Clarita had said big girls must wear their bloomers. Sheep hated the ones she had. She had tried to get out of wearing it, the first time, by arguing that other people called her a little girl and that her bloomers had flowers on them. Sister had merely looked at her and said, you will get used to the flowers, and Renita had been called to begin the game.

Sheep had always been fascinated by Renita’s long hair which she wore in a braid. How lucky she was to have a religion that did not allow her to cut her hair! Her mother always said little girls should have little hair, or they don’t grow tall. Renita was tall; maybe little girls of Renita’s religion grew despite the hair.

Games at school were more than enough for her, she thought, but Gokulnath V. Konda disagreed. He wanted her to come out with him and the other children and play tag and pitthoo at the playground in the colony. He never asked Dolly, though, and Sheep and Dolly usually slipped out together before he came calling. And come calling he did, every other day, until the appearance of Neela and Nabir threw his routine out of whack.

They came in the middle of the summer break, a girl and a boy, sweating from the heat. The girl was as tall as Sheep and carried a battered suitcase decorated with stickers of Shahrukh Khan. The boy had a suitcase too, and was peering uncertainly into Gokulnath V. Konda’s open house. Ma had seen them waiting and had come out to ask if she could help them.

It turned out that they were Gokulnath V. Konda’s niece and nephew. Ma was shocked, as were the others in the building. Somehow they had all assumed that GVK, as the older people called him, had no family. In a way the presumption was not too far off the mark, for GVK’s only brother had died many years back. Neela and Nabir were his only living relatives, a fact he had obviously been pleased to hide.

Nobody knew why they had suddenly appeared, but GVK was reluctant to play uncle. He took to staying away from home as much as possible and ignoring them when impossible.

The neighbours felt sorry for them, but the two children kept to themselves. Nabir was a silent boy, who stayed indoors and drew all day. Sheep only caught a glimpse of him now and then when he went out for a walk. Neela was more visible. She would stand at the balcony every evening, staring into space, until she came to be friends with Dolly and Sheep.

She had watched them playing Gil Stapu every day and fighting just as often. Once, in the middle of a particularly heated argument, Dolly and Sheep found Neela grinning at them.

“You are just a SHEEEEP!” Dolly had said, and Neela had burst out laughing.

“Is that really your name?” she wanted to know.

“No, but I prefer it to Aadab,” said Sheep, trying to sneak her stapu past Dolly.

In no time at all, the three of them realised they were kindred spirits. They abhorred karela, tinda and geography and went into collective raptures over the same cartoon shows. They liked Gil Stapu and imaginary quests, Uncle Chips and Suppandi. They started spending all their time together and GVK with his strange, missionary zeal to unite the colony children and be a nasty relative seemed a distant nightmare.

Neela told Dolly and Sheep that her mother was unwell. Everybody thought Amma would die soon because she had been sick for so long. A week before they left for Delhi, she had finally been brought home from the hospital.

“Doesn’t that mean she is getting well?” asked Dolly.

“I thought so, but Nabir says no,” said Neela.

“What will happen to you when she dies?” Sheep had asked.

“Nabir said that is why they sent us here…” Neela grew silent. “He didn’t want to come; he hates our uncle.”

“Why?”

“He thinks he killed our father and is now killing our mother.”

Sheep and Dolly were wide-eyed. “Really?”

Neela nodded. “Black magic. Nabir says it’s easy. You have to hate a person enough and tie up some chillies with a lemon. He looks through the house everyday; once he finds the chillies and lemon, he is going to reverse it on our uncle.”

“Don’t you also look with him?” Sheep asked.

Neela didn’t reply. She squatted on the ground and picked up a twig. With deep concentration, she drew a face in the soil. This is Amma, she smiled; don’t I look just like her? Dolly and Sheep looked dubiously from the drawing to Neela’s face.

“You don’t wear earrings…” muttered Sheep.

“Your nose…” said Dolly.

Neela continued to crouch on the ground. She looked at Sheep and Dolly thoughtfully.

“Can you keep a secret?” She asked.

They nodded.

“You have to swear that what I tell you will stay between us.”

“God promise, I won’t tell,” swore Dolly, pinching her throat with her thumb and forefinger to seal the oath.

Neela shook her head. “No, that swear is for babies. You have to swear my way.”

“Here, spit on your hands like this and hold it out in front of you,” she said. “Then we count to three and slap our hands together.”

She rolled her eyes at their expressions of disgust. “Everybody seals big oaths this way!”

They counted to three, slapped their saliva smeared hands, and that was it; anybody who broke this oath would have all their teeth fall out in a day. Dolly was impressed in spite of herself; it sounded a lot more binding than ‘God promise’!

The secret was revealed as Neela slowly inserted her hand into her pocket and drew out a piece of crystal. It was a magic crystal, she said. Nabir and she had found it outside their home.

“This stone,” said Neela, holding it up against the sun, “acts like a magic mirror.”

“There is no such thing-,” began Dolly, but Sheep shushed her.

“Whenever I want to see what Ma or Nabir are doing, all I have to do is concentrate on this,” continued Neela.

“Can I see?” asked Dolly, still sceptical, but Neela shook her head. Carefully, she put the crystal back in her pocket.

“If Ma dies, we can go on seeing her face,” she said, a little quietly.
*** ***
It was the empty streets that put the idea in their heads.

“Let us find the tunnel!” exclaimed Dolly.

The tunnel? Their eyes glowed with nervous excitement.

Local myth and legend had it that back when this part of Delhi was an undeveloped jungle frequented by thieves and bandits, a tunnel had been dug to create three escape routes out of Delhi. One led to Meerut, famous even now for day light robberies, and another to Agra. As for the third, nobody knew where that one led.

How true the legend was is debatable, but the reputation of the tunnel was filthy. Every parent in the neighbourhood had forbidden their children from even approaching it. A few of the less obedient ones had tried, ofcourse, but all they had to report was a crumbling entrance that could have been the mouth of the tunnel and a snake or two in the area.

Dolly’s restless soul had longed to be one of the disobedient ones, but she had been too scared of Rincey to try. Now, however, emboldened by Neela’s presence, and the hot noon that kept most people indoors, she suggested the tunnel.

Neela was delighted. A forbidden adventure to spice up their quests!

Sheep was a little doubtful. “Shouldn’t we ask Ma…?”

“And you think she’ll say yes?” Dolly rolled her eyes.

“Oh come on! It’s just a tunnel!” pleaded Neela. “Your mother hasn’t even seen it, how can she know it is bad?”

Sheep turned the matter over in her head. Neela clutched the crystal in her hand for good luck.

“Okay!” grinned Sheep, suddenly, and off they went.

The directions to the tunnel were pure hearsay. They followed the path by the playground that went around the Pump House to the boundary wall of the colony. They made their way to a broken bit of the wall which had created a no-man’s land of sorts, overgrown with weeds. Here there was no line to define where the slums ended and the colony began.

At first they couldn’t spot anything that looked out of the ordinary. Then Dolly found it; a crumbly arch, four feet off the ground.

“That does not look very much like a tunnel to me,” said Sheep, doubtfully.

Ignoring her, Dolly and Neela approached the structure and peered in. It smelled musty. Gradually their eyes adjusted to the darkness, and they beckoned to Sheep. There was a raggedy blanket inside, a mug and stubs of several beedies.

“Do you think bandits still use this place,” asked Sheep, wide-eyed.

“Don’t be silly!” said Neela.

“Should we go in?” Sheep did not really want to hear the answer.

“We can’t.” Neela pointed beyond the beedi stubs. The tunnel was blocked up by trash of all sorts, big plastic boxes, scrap iron and blocks of broken cement.

“Do you think the tunnel actually branches into three behind that?” asked Dolly, excitedly.
They didn’t know, but it was fun to guess. Now that their curiosity had been satisfied, it would have made sense to find better smelling places to play in. The mystery and allure of the tunnel, however, was too strong, and they found themselves returning to it almost every day.
*** ***
Half a month after the arrival of Neela and Nabir, Sheep woke up one morning to a lot of commotion downstairs. She heard shouts, curses and many angry voices. Running to the balcony she immediately spotted a crowd of people gathered up the road, gesticulating at each other. She could see GVK in the crowd and Dolly’s sister. She rushed next door, but neither Neela nor Nabir knew anything about the matter beyond the fact that their bell had rung early in the morning, and GVK had gone out.

It was from Dolly that they came to know that there had been a burglary in the colony the previous night. There had also been a murder in the slums behind, and both crimes were suspected to be connected.

From Rincey they learnt that the Colony residents were accusing the slum residents of harbouring the suspected criminal, which had the indignant slum residents pointing out that as the suspected burglar was a suspected murderer for them they had a greater interest in finding him!

The row continued for a few hours. The Police came in, took down complaints and eventually came to the conclusion that a disreputable old man and his teenaged grandson had committed both crimes.

The excitement faded, and the colony resumed its inertia. No sooner had the afternoon stupor set in than the daily exodus of the children began.

Sheep, Dolly and Neela went, as usual, to the tunnel.

They were there for several hours and Neela was playing with her crystal when Sheep suddenly gave a start. Drawing her finger to her lips, she gave a warning glance to the others and pointed towards the tunnel. Soon, they saw what she had seen; a sense of movement within the darkness, and faint sounds from within.

“Is it a dog?” whispered Sheep, half hopefully.

“Only one way to find out…” replied Dolly and made her way to the entrance.

“Nothing!” she called out in relief, and Neela and Sheep joined her.

All three of them peered inside, blinking against the sudden darkness. Sheep’s eyes again caught sight of movement. Their eyes adjusted at the same time, and they found themselves looking at an old man and a boy, half covered by the blanket that lay there.

An old man and a boy!

They stared at each other, not sure what to do. The man was drunk, and his eyes were bloodshot. He tried to say something, but he slurred his speech and subsided. The boy was blinking his eyes rapidly. He must have been about Nabir’s age.

Seconds ticked by, and the figures on this run-down patch of land, claimed by neither the colony nor the slum, or by both, when it suited them, seemed to have been paralysed. Finally, the boy hung his head, and the man yawned.

“Shall we leave?” asked Sheep quietly. Neela nodded, and the three of them made their way out.

The girls sat in Sheep’s home, wondering what to do. Should they tell somebody? There was little reason not to tell, and yet…

The matter was soon taken away from their hands. Before they could come to a decision, GVK overheard Neela talking to Nabir after dinner and he wouldn’t let her alone till she told him everything.

The news was all over the building in seconds. GVK was all for dragging the man and the boy out of the tunnel then and there, before they ran away, but the others calmed him down.

You don’t know if that area is safe at night, said some, and they might have already run away. Besides, who knows if they are actually the culprits? One can’t trust the Police anyway…

They went to bed that night with a strange sense of foreboding.

Early the next day, Dolly came to see Neela and Sheep. The Police had gone to the tunnel but it was empty. Everybody was very angry. They had taken away the blanket and the mug, she said.

Three small figures made their way to the tunnel that afternoon as well. Neela, as always, carried her crystal, Sheep carried biscuits and Dolly, a sombre expression.

Dolly had looked in askance at the biscuits but Sheep had shrugged.

The area near the tunnel looked disturbed. Stones had been kicked about and weeds stamped under heavy feet.

“They’ve gone. The Police said they’ve gone,” said Dolly, chewing her hair abstractedly.

The pits of their stomachs were doing strange leaps. It knew, before them, that Dolly and the Police were wrong.

They peered into the darkness and Sheep gave a yelp.

The old man and the boy sat framed against the dark hole, stinking worse than the day before. Several thoughts raced through their minds. The boy was as old as Nabir, wouldn’t he be scared of the Police?

“Why are they back?” whispered Neela, in dismay. Why are you back!

The boy looked like he was about to answer but the old man stopped him.

Sheep took out her biscuits and nervously extended it to them. The boy took it eagerly, but the old man glared at them.

He was so like Nabir that Neela couldn’t help asking, “What is your name?”

Whether the old man would have let him answer nobody would ever know. No sooner had the question been uttered than there was a shout. Nabir came sprinting up to the tunnel, waving a bunch of chillies and lemon.

“I found them! Neela, look!” He cried. Neela paled, and looked at the chillies helplessly.

There was another shout, and they all turned to find Gokulnath V. Konda appear suddenly behind Nabir, eyebrows knitted together in fury and frothing at the mouth. He looked from the chillies in Nabir’s hand to Neela and the boy, his eyes bulging.

“How dare you!” he screamed, though Sheep wasn’t sure which of them that was addressed to.

Neela rushed at him, and pushed him hard. The old man laughed, and something seemed to snap in GVK.

He dashed forward and grabbed the old man by the collar, screaming for the colony security guard as the boy crouched deeper inside the hole. With increasing levels of fury GVK shrieked and cursed, spit spraying off his tongue, as the mute guard watched uncomprehendingly.

The old man tried to free himself, but GVK tightened his hold and punched him for good measure. His eyes fell on the baton carried by the guard, and like a madman he lunged for it, raining frenzied blows on the old man. Again and again the baton fell on various parts of the man and again and again GVK hit him. It was happening too fast; Nabir still clutched the chillies, and the girls stood still as statues. The boy tried to stop GVK, but with a snarl, he turned on him too.

The noise finally woke up the slumbering neighbourhood and drew out the children from the stairs. The slum dwellers came too, and they all surrounded the scene and watched with a fascinated horror as a middle aged man beat a drunken old man and his companion. There was blood everywhere, blood and spit, and GVK was sweating. Somebody finally took the baton away from him, and led him away from his victims.

Twenty minutes later an ambulance arrived to carry away the old man and the boy.

Dolly and Sheep still stood there, shaken and terrified. Nabir was sitting on the ground, his head in his hands. Neela was mute with shock. Blood was mingling with the loose soil around the mouth of the tunnel. She extended a finger and touched the mud. I lost the magic stone, she said, breaking into sobs.
*** ***
The incident was never much talked about publicly. It had shaken up the colony. One was used to hearing of violence and murders being committed in the slums beyond, but here was a member of their own society who had wantonly taken up a weapon and beaten to death an old man. It was a collective secret that everyone seemed to have spat on their hands and sworn not to share.

Neela and Nabir disappeared the day after the incident, and GVK left his quarters soon after. Neither Dolly nor Sheep had seen or heard them go, and the last memory they would always have of that friendship would be of that hot, summer afternoon, when they had returned to a tunnel that now justified its reputation.

Dolly moved away too. She had been soundly thrashed at home for everything that was and was not her fault that day, and her sister had suggested to her mother that they find work elsewhere. There had only been time for a hurried goodbye, because Rincey would not let her stay.

Sheep was now all alone with the memories of that afternoon, and they began to play tricks on her. Had the boy smiled at the biscuits and said shukriya just before Nabir appeared? Had Neela brought her crystal out to play that day?

It was all a blur. Neela’s arrival, Gil Stapu, and the first afternoon when they decided to go adventuring. She remembered the smell of the man and the tattered clothes of the boy. She remembered Dolly and Neela walking up to the entrance; she remembered the first thwack of the baton falling on the man. She remembered the blood. She remembered Neela touching the crimson earth and crying because she had lost her magic stone.

That afternoon had forever entered her sleep. Who knows, perhaps Neela and Dolly shared her nightmares.

She dreamt of the guard and GVK; she dreamt of the old man who now walked around saying I am not dead, they burnt the wrong body.
One day the man was joined by a mud drawing that wore earrings and had a lop-sided nose. “I am not dead”, said the drawing, “they burnt the wrong body.”

She woke up, then, because Neela no longer had her magic mirror and Neela’s mother was dead.

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Taposh October 25, 2009

Posted by K in Fiction.
4 comments

Taposhda had called me to a coffee shop in the middle of nowhere.

“Hullo, Sandip, how are you. There is an atrocious structure that has come up in-. Come there at three, we shall mock it together.” That was his style; abrupt, unexpected and assured.

I was surprised to hear from him after so long. The last I had seen of him was in college, an eccentric senior given to sporadic flashes of brilliance. We were in the same department, but it wasn’t until the last term of his final year that we spoke. He came up to me in the library, put his feet up on a chair and asked me what I thought of Godot.
“It defines my life, you know,” he said, not waiting for a reply. “Come to the window, I want to smoke.”

I had complied, because he clearly expected me to. From Godot, he went on to air his opinions on television, street lights and public transport.

“Oh, I’m out of smokes. See you around, I’m Taposh.” That was it. He left as abruptly as he had entered, and from that day on, he seemed to lay a sort of claim on me. It wasn’t exactly a friendship; it was more of a symbiotic relationship that we had. He liked bouncing ideas off me, he said, because I was such a good listener. On my part, I liked him and the shape my thoughts took after every session with him.

Taposhda graduated with top honours and disappeared off the scene. Some said he had gone off to study theatre in London, others claimed he was on a tour of the country. I would get an occasional cryptic message from him, on my phone or sometimes via email. ‘I am looking for my Mountain of the Moon,’ said one. ‘What do you think of education? Does it make sense to get another degree?’ asked another. In a few years, even those messages stopped. There was no way of getting in touch with him, wherever he was, he evidently did not have a cell phone of his own, nor did he ever reply to an email.

I finished my graduation, and then my post-graduation, and Taposhda faded to a memory.

Imagine my surprise, then, when my phone beeped that day and I read his message. Typically of him, it was unsigned. However, as nobody else called me Sandip (with good reason, for Sandip was not my name), I knew at once it was him. I debated my reply, for I was at the other end of nowhere, and with a disposable income that vanished sooner than I could make it meet my ends.

It was Taposhda, however, and I hadn’t seen him in four years. So there I was, sitting in a glass house, drinking filter coffee and waiting for him to arrive. He was late, even by his standards. I was one of three patrons, each sitting at a round mahogany table, watching people outside. It is not easy being an observer when all the walls are made of glass. For every person I fixed my eyes on, three others turned to look at me. I was surprised at how crowded it was. Each plane of the hexagonal structure was obscured by the people who constantly moved to and fro outside of it. Growing slightly claustrophobic, I decided to train my eyes on the ceiling, also made of glass but thankfully free of motion. It didn’t really help; I felt those eyes continue to bore into me.

The staff seemed impervious to the heightened visibility. They were all impeccably dressed and courteous to the point of being obsequious. One of them now came towards me with my sixth coffee in an exquisite cup made of bone china. I looked at it nervously as he lowered it off the tray onto the table. Do you have anything that is less easy to break, I wanted to ask, but he smiled, said enjoy your coffee and gracefully walked away. Rather on the edge, because of the eyes, Taposhda and all that caffeine in me, I jerked the coffee clumsily, and nearly dropped the saucer. For no reason that I could fathom, my cheeks grew hot and I surreptitious looked around to see if my awkwardness had been spotted. The waiters were at their stations, polishing other elegant cups, and my fellow coffee drinkers did not look my way. I was about to sigh with relief when my eyes shot to the wall on my right. A little girl with straggly brown hair stood grinning, her feet apart and her hands on her waist. I recognised her; she had offered to sell me a pen with a torch, ten rupees only!, as I came in.

“Sandip!” came a voice, just as I was about to push back my chair and leave that horrible place. It was Taposhda, and four years or not, I was furious with him.

“What kind of a place is this? “I began.

“I know! Delightful, isn’t it?” He chuckled as he slid into a chair and looked expectantly at me. I looked at him incredulously, and pointedly shifted my coat to my other arm.

“You’re wearing woollens? Is it winter? No wonder my feet feel cold!”

We both looked at his feet. Taposhda was wearing a dhoti in peak winter. I laughed and sat down again. It was Taposhda, what did one expect?

“Are you having that coffee? Thanks, I don’t mind one.” He pulled out a biscuit from the pocket of his shirt and looked at me. His smile was warm, and as I watched him drink from that exquisite cup, I ran my eyes over him. He looked much older than when I last saw him and I told him so.

“Wiser, too, do you think?” He asked, and pulled out a pipe. “This is how I burn my tobacco now. Much more aesthetic, don’t you think?”

“I like the concept of a pipe, more than the execution of the concept,” I said.

“True, true,” he nodded absently, as he held it between his teeth. We sat in silence for a while. I was never much of a talker, and Taposhda seemed busy admiring his smoke rings. Suddenly he sat up.

“Three hundred people died yesterday.” He said, and lapsed back into a brief silence.

“If a bomb went off right now, what do you think will happen?” he asked.

“What kind of an answer are you looking for?” I returned.

“I don’t know!” He cried. This was an unfamiliar Taposhda. The one of old never said I don’t know, and never looked anxious or uncertain.

“What have you been doing?” he asked abruptly, in a customary way, jumping from one topic to another.

“Playing.” I replied. “Still trying to make sense of my education. Working a job, as I wait for my eureka moment.”

“Ah. I never did get another degree, you know. My papers will always say-Taposh. B.A. (Honours) only. Traveller.”

“That’s exactly what I am. That is all that I am.” He said this with some violence.

“After my graduation, I decided I needed the bigger picture, and hopped onto a train. I’ve been everywhere since then, but what sense have I made of anything? I can’t seem to get off that train. What use am I?”

“Sandip, if a bomb were to go off right this minute, if six bombs were to go off right this minute, can you imagine what will happen? The blast will take place outside. We will see the flames, we will see the dead, and because it has all happened before, we will go on drinking coffee. We will crook our fingers around the stems of these ridiculous cups and make ridiculous small talk. We will occasionally glance outside, casual eyes will move from one writhing figure to another. And then we will look at our coffee and discuss its origin. Or perhaps we will push back our chairs in fright and run outside to help. We will ferry a few bloodied men and women to hospitals, but in effect we go on drinking our coffee. This ridiculous glass house, my dear Sandip, is an exaggeration of many things. You and I, we are on the inside.”

I scratched my head. On my right, the girl with the straggly hair was back. She stuck her tongue out at me and gave me the finger. My jaw dropped open.

Taposh jumped up and my eyes swivelled back to him. I have to go pee, he said, and disappeared. That was the last I saw of him.

Two days later, I received a short note. Sorry, I forgot I left you waiting, it said. I ran into Collector Cama on the way, and he had something new for me. I am not a bleeding heart liberal. What do you think of Godot?

What did I think of Godot? I wasn’t sure now, and I wasn’t sure all those years back either, whether he wanted my thoughts on the play or the character. It didn’t matter, because we were never to continue that conversation.

Some months later, my door bell rang. I was in the middle of a project, and let it ring a second time before I went to answer it. It was the postman.

“I have a package for Sandip, Madam. D 4/63.”

I stared at him. Taposhda again.

“That would be for me,” I said.

“But Madam, it says Sandip…”

“Yes, the person who sent it is mad.”

The postman remained suspicious, but there was little he could do; the addresses matched, even if the gender didn’t. I took the parcel and felt for its contents. This was a little out of our method of communication. Or rather, his method of reaching me.

There was a note inside, and an old diary I recognized from his college days.

My Dear Sandip,

If you are reading this, it means I have succumbed to the foolish thought of finishing our conversations through a letter. It doesn’t matter that this is not the library, or even that hideous coffee shop; our pattern remains the same. I talk, I ramble, and you listen. I leave every such conversation with a new idea in my head, my jumbled thoughts organising into some form of coherence. I am not going to thank you for that, I am sure my august company must have more than compensated for any hardships thus endured.

This is my diary. Oh, that sentence was a joke, by the way. I have many diaries, but this one will best serve our purpose. Read it, if you will.

I found my Mountain of the Moon.

Taposh

P.S.- I withdraw my statement about the aesthetic appeal of the pipe. Nothing beats the raw beauty of a beedi.

I re-opened the newspaper before I opened his diary. One of the first few pages had a small article about five dead Naxals. The reporter did not name them; by now nobody cared to know. Taposh was right, beyond a point, we just go on drinking our coffee. And now, instinct told me, Taposh was dead. It is hard to substantiate the certainty I felt. I had no occasion to believe that the brilliant, if eccentric, student would take to arms to express his reaction to the circumstances that existed around him.

I try to imagine what it must have been like. Someone would have kept a gun in front of him. A toy gun, that merely asked a question. Would you use me to force away a world that is clawing away at everything you believe in? Taposh would pause, and remember all those places he had been to, an impotent traveller of ideas. He would come to a sudden decision, laugh, and edit his bio data to read- Taposh. B.A. (Honours). Violent traveller only. And then he would ask them what they thought of Godot.

What plans would they have had for him? How did he feel when he first pulled the trigger? Why did he have his diary sent to me? I couldn’t bring myself to read it, not as yet. I kept trying to reconcile the dhoti-clad, curly haired young man who had aged in the four years he left college, to the nameless five who were squeezed in between articles on the Ambani brothers and BT Brinjal.

Unbidden, my thoughts turned to that little girl who sold pens and looked into glass houses to give coffee drinkers the finger. They were both outsiders, even though Taposh was, by default, inside.

In the brief moment before his death, did he feel he had finally got off the train? Would that little girl give him the finger too?

Slowly I reached for the notebook, and turning to the first page, I began to read.

The Present October 9, 2009

Posted by K in Fiction.
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The silver wrapping paper lay like a rejected nightmare in the dustbin. What was Koli to do with it? Ma had told her, take no gifts, we are not beggars, but how could she resist? When the uncle came on his scooter and asked her to confirm the name that lay on the tag, her eyes shone with the promise of what she knew lay in there. The basket.

He lifted the lid, and gingerly drew out a cylindrical container, gift wrapped and shiny. She knew she should have said no, and then delivered the speech Maman had made her practise, but the crackle of the wrapping paper was too much. In a daze she brought the packet in. She wanted to see what lay inside, but decided to postpone the moment so she could share it with her mother.

Maman was not like other mothers, and she had not brought up Koli like other children. Her life had been a battle and she was preparing to send her daughter in as her second. Maman didn’t have long to live, which made her long to live even more fiercely. Koli knew the doctors had found a cyst in her mother’s brain, but she was as yet too young to grasp the full implication of the find.

Maman was alone in the world, physically and emotionally. No, not quite alone; she had Koli. All the same, Maman was alone.

When she came back with a daughter, hushed voices and whispered conversations followed her. When she found a job, the hushed conversations increased. She never gave an account of Koli or her past life, and eventually the whispers became a part of the background noise. Much like the drone and chug-chug of a washing machine, as you sat down to eat, or watch television.

Maman was not that old, but her youthful features stood at odds with her grave demeanour. Koli would tell the neighbours how Maman joked that she was an eighty year old stuck in the body of a twenty seven year old person. Ofcourse they never believed her; Maman couldn’t joke.

Koli wished her mother would go to school parties like other mothers, but from a very young age she understood that Maman was different. Sometimes she would ask her mother questions, but nobody ever knew the answers because Koli wouldn’t share.

Maman hated the festival season. Too many people pretending to be what they were not, spending money on unnecessary things. If there was one thing Maman hated, it was spending on unnecessary trifles. Money was hard enough to come by without blowing it up on things that often lasted only an hour.

Diwalis were the worst. Maman had no friends, she told Koli. And only gifts given by friends are worth keeping. You know then that the gifts were picked especially for you, with nothing but your happiness in mind.

Maman would pause then, her eyes lost in thought. But, she would add soon enough, I have no friends, Koli; so don’t you ever accept any gift. Koli knew Maman hated the time when the next-door aunty had wrapped her old aqua-guard and gifted it to her mother because she had upgraded to a newer system. Maman had gone deathly still. For two days she sat at home looking like someone had skinned her alive. Koli had quietly hidden the gift and slowly Maman had become her usual self.

Now Koli looked at the silver wrapping paper and trembled. Unable to bear the wait, she had ripped off the first layer to find another wrapping paper with a card on it. Koli did not dare proceed further.

When Maman came in, Koli’s eyes went involuntarily to the dustbin, but Maman’s eyes were fixed on the cylindrical package. She glanced at Koli, and slowly approached it. The card seemed to pierce her concentration; she couldn’t look away. With an uncertain hand she plucked it off the surface and began to read it. Koli’s eyes anxiously searched her mother’s face, but Maman’s eyes were un-readable. She took the package to her room, and for the first time in Koli’s memory, she locked the door to keep herself in.

Koli never found out what was in the package, but Maman took her shopping. For the first time in her life, Koli heard her mother encouraging her to buy fanciful things. Maman’s eyes no longer looked like a shop with downed shutters, and sometimes Koli was sure she saw the shadowy image of a person in there. Maman had changed, Koli knew, but it was hard to figure out how. She would still scold if Koli threw a tantrum for a toy; they would still read wonderful stories at bedtime. No, it was something else. Maman suddenly looked as if she were not alone; when she looked into the horizon, she was looking at a far-away image of herself. And Maman had a friend, Koli was pretty sure of that. The mirror image of her inside, reflected from a distance. Piercing beams of light bouncing off, creating a connection, stronger for its absence. Maman was still Maman, but one day the kitchen wall was suddenly seen to sport an old, weathered aqua-guard.

“Will you come with me, Koli?” Maman asked, smiling. “It is time I thanked aunty for her present.”

I.D. September 30, 2009

Posted by K in Fiction.
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It was dry and dusty, but the compartment did not smell of summer.

On seat numbers seventy four and seventy five two bald men played cards. On the upper berths lay two young army recruits whispering into their phones. By the windows, in perfect symmetry, sat two women, face to face. They weren’t looking at each other; that would have been too familiar too soon. One attempted to dream about the passing countryside. The other read the slightly stale news of the day. Eventually, though, each began stealing frequent glances at the other, till conversation became inevitable.

“Where are you going?”

“Home.”

“I see. I am coming from home.”

“Ah.”

“Strange, isn’t it? We are always either coming or going.”

“One can never be stationary.”

“Unless you’re very rich,” agreed the other.

“But even then.”

“They move their wealth around.”

“Or themselves, to commune with their riches.”

“New cars, houses, friends.”

“Investments, stocks, profits.”

“Not so still after all.”

“No, except for Collector Cama.”

“Collector Cama doesn’t count.”

“No.”

They paused to fish into their purses to pay for tea.

“So what do you do?”

“I work.”

“Me too! I repair computers.”

“I see.”

“I don’t dismantle and reassemble them…”

“No.”

“That is another department.”

“Yes.”

“I repair the damage people do to it. Reformatting crashed systems. Sometimes even deleting traces of, you know, porn sites visited.”

“That must be embarrassing.”

“Not really. It is they who are embarrassed. I don’t ask for it, but they always pay me extra for those jobs. Hush money, I call it.”

Both women giggled over their tea.

“Where do you work?”

“Oh, several places. Mostly peoples homes.”

“Oh, what do you do?”

“I just told you. I work in peoples homes. I cook, clean and garden. Sometimes I take care of children; it depends.”

“I don’t think I quite understand… What are you? I mean, what do you do?”

“I do domestic work. I am a domestic worker.”

The tea cup halted on its way to the other woman’s lips. The countryside crawled by in the pause that followed.

“You are a servant?”

“As much as you are.”

“I am not a servant!”

The domestic worker smiled.

There was no more tea left to drink, and no passing vendor to afford the opportunity to engage one’s hands and eyes.

The army recruits clicked off their phones as Vodafone went out of reach. The bald men were inspecting various parts of their anatomies. The women inspected the outdoors. Eventually the computer fixer glanced at the domestic worker.

“They let you go off?” she asked.

“Like an egg, you mean?” grinned the domestic worker.

“No. You know…take a holiday to go home.”

“Why, yes. It is in my contract.”

“You have a contract??”

“Yes. For two years. It contains my work profile, hours of duty, pay, leave, bonus. Medical benefit. Travel allowance.”

“You mean to say that your employers give you all that?!”

“Yes they do, but don’t get shocked; they are not so big on charity. It is a rule, where I work… All employers have to provide certain facilities and conditions of work.”

“Do they treat you well?”

“I don’t know; I never really pay much attention to them. I go in, do my job, and leave.”

“Do you like them?”

“Some are nice. We don’t socialise though.”

“No, ofcourse not. You come and go in different circles.”

The domestic worker nodded. “We come and go in different circles. The circles move too though. Sometimes, who knows, maybe they even intersect.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know,” she smiled.

They sat back and watched the fields run past, sometimes green, sometimes fallow.

“Moonghphali!” announced the peanut seller. Following him was a woman with a clipboard and an identity card.

“Ticket, please.”

The army chaps took out theirs. The bald men produced theirs. The computer fixer and the domestic worker fished out e-tickets. The ticket collector ticked off names, and asked for IDs. Both women fished in their purses for pieces of identification and value for peanuts.

Cracking open shells, they lay back comfortably against the seats.

“That was my union ID card, if you’ve been wondering. It works for official purposes,” said the domestic worker.

“Oh,” said the computer fixer, only slightly embarrassed at having been caught out.

The journey was now quite a few hours old. It was time for dinner, and dinners are always terrible on trains. It is advisable to stick to light refreshments. Or fruits, maybe, if one were so inclined. The occupants of seat numbers seventy through seventy five were undecided about their meal. Finally, one bought a dinner (young army recruit; one veg. Biryani), two chose bread and omelette (one bald man and the computer fixer; fifteen rupees a plate). The remaining three decided to subsist on tea and sugar and trust the offerings at the next station (Junction: Vadodara). As the station approached, the domestic worker got up and stretched.

“One can’t ever be stationary,” she said.

“No,” agreed the computer fixer.

In a metro September 6, 2009

Posted by K in Fiction.
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Man 1, clutching a briefcase on his lap.
Man 2, staring at Man 1.

Man 1 (edging away from Man 2) :Aap zara us taraf dekhiye. Mujhe kyon dekhe jaa rahe hain?
(Why are you staring at me? Please look away)
Man 2: Kyon? Dekhna mana hai?
(Why? One is not allowed to look?)

Man 1 (edgily): Dekhiye, mai us tara ka aadmi nahi hoon…
(See here, I’m not that kind of a man…)

Man 2: Matlab aapko dekhna mana hai?
(Meaning you’re the sort one isn’t allowed to look at?)

Man 1: Haan, us tara ke aadmi mujhe dekh nahi sakte hai. Mai mana karta hoon.
(Yes, I forbid those type of people to look at me.)

Man 2: Hm. (switching to English) By ‘us tara’ you mean homosexuals.

Man 1 (startled): Er, yes, look, I…

Man 2: You think just because I looked at you I was a homosexual. Fine, lets imagine a scenario where I was homosexual.
(pauses)
What makes you think I would have picked you…to stare at I mean…

Man 1: Er…

Man 2: Because you have a briefcase on your lap? Because you wear Wrinkle-Free? Because your mummy told you that you are her han’some lil boy?

Man 1: Look…

Man 2: Staring makes you uncomfortable, does it? Why do you stare, then? Why were you staring at that girl over there? I saw you, and thought I’d see how well you take your own shit.

(Announcement over the metro station. Man 2’s station has come)

Man 2(getting up): Oh and by the way, I am homosexual. Just so you know.

August 22, 2009

Posted by K in Fiction.
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The little mouse clung to the underside of the pavement, tiny arms curled about its head, crying ‘No more! No more! It looked with fear at the phone forever tied to its tail, and whimpered again, no more! no more!

Beside it, on the rusty bench by the bus stand, sat an old man, too full of memories fresh and old. No more! he cried, as haunted eyes misted over and his bald head glinted with sweat.

No more! cried the lad, not yet seventeen, wearily accepting seven rupees from a passenger. Stretching before him, condemned rides up and down the city, stolen moments of youth, a cup of tea and hurried pav bhaji.

In front of the hospital, the bus stops, and there is always somebody who gets off. Not rich enough to buy life, not poor enough to stay away. Smells of sharp instruments and futile rubber tubes. An atmosphere so heavy that the sprightliest thought chokes on itself. Gloom and rigor mortis rise like a hideous vapour seeking to consume all in its path. Lonely halls, where private grief is a joke, and the illusion of being the special one is shattered the moment the bed beside fills up. Grieving family, made sour with anxiety. Of illness that pervades the being, and harried doctors and nurses. No more! he cries, beside the bed of his mother who has been dying for years.

She sees the cry, and pursing her lips, just this once, wishes to cancel her rounds, and flee home. But she cannot, she cannot withdraw from the beds and halls, and she must go home to find a daughter and a son, and a husband, all perfectly nice, all perfectly trying. Day after day, year after year, of waking up at the crack of dawn to send her children away, cheerfully, fixing breakfast, heading to work, and coming back to finish odds and ends, till it is again a late night, and the forthcoming dawn, an endless cycle. She wishes, no more!

Like the endless, endless waves of sound, dark turmoil twisted her mind, till she stayed at home, and slept to keep the demons away. No more!

And the mouse stayed right there, under the pavement, a fearful eye still on its tail, keeping the old man unconscious company

The Pot October 11, 2008

Posted by K in Fiction, Gender.
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The earthen pot was in the middle, and they all squatted around it. Five women, two unmarried. The sun warmed the soil beneath them, but their hardened feet thirstily sucked up the heat.

She had a pallu covering her face. She had a spot on her nose. She, she and she fought their biology with rags infested with disease.

They sat there and watched the pot.

In the distance, Manu called out his wares. Billoo stubbed his toe. Ram Babu struck cheap gold at the madiralay. The village fly went from house to house, finishing its afternoon round by evening.

The sun began to set on the pot; the women watched shadows play on its natural body. Shanta’s husband’s cows mooed. Lakshman’s mother’s bull swished its tail. The muezzin called the faithful to prayer.

Dusk turned into night, but the women came prepared. Each one pulled out a diya from the folds of their pallu, and passed the oil around. As one, they lit the flame, and watched it burn the pot into visibility.

The sounds of the darkness imperceptibly took over the nameless, maybe timeless, place. Five houses stood more silent than the rest.

The women watched the pot.

The diyas were refuelled periodically until, suddenly, a stone rang out of nowhere and pierced the neck of the pot. The diyas flickered, and five pairs of eyes watched the cracks spreading across its body. A slow, unbroken movement, until there was no more pot to hold its progress.

The shattered remnants lay around the spot, as one by one, they collectively watched it no more.

As the darkness continued to veil the surroundings, all that remained were five, flickering, intermittent bursts of light.

April 17, 2008

Posted by K in Abstract Ramblings, Fiction.
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As it so happens, mosquitoes bother me. I am not one of them who can absently swat at one of them irritating buggers and flip the page in the same motion. I start up when I hear the whine in my ear, wildly slap at it, and nurse my coffee waiting to hear it approach again. I cannot concentrate when there are mosquitoes around me, I cannot sleep if I see a mosquito in the vicinity.

People are scared of snakes. I fear mosquitoes.

The other day, I was at a coffee shop, drinking coffee and silently waiting for ideas to catch me. It was good coffee, and the sun was lazy, so I was willing to indulge their absence. Besides, I had money, for a change.

How long can a good morning last? Before soon, I heard an electric crack. The fly catcher had caught a mosquito. My scalp prickled. Where there is one, there are bound to be others. A crazed brood, out for psychological blood.

I think they know their power. I am convinced they know the potency of their whine, otherwise, why do they fly around your ear? If it was food they were after, a quick swoop and a suck ought to have satiated them. I would never grudge them their nutrition; it’s the whine I object to.

I want to reach for my hair and tear them out, when I hear it…

I shifted to another table, but it was futile. The mosquitoes entered like a swarm and smothered the tiny place. I pushed back my chair, struggled with my wallet, and ran for the door. Beads of sweat dotted my middle-aged brow.

Out on the pavement, the sun was suddenly scorching hot, and there were suddenly too many people. Nobody seemed to mind the mosquitoes except for me.

They were blackening the horizon, like the locust clouds I had seen on teevee. My skin was suddenly tight against my throat, and I couldn’t breathe. I gasped and gagged, and staggered past people carrying umbrellas and children.

Shield the children! I wanted to squeak. The mosquitoes are coming!

The mosquitoes are coming…

The mosquitoes are coming…

Tunnel January 1, 2008

Posted by K in Fiction.
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The light at the end of the tunnel was glowing. Arjun couldn’t sleep; the red glow on his eyelids entered his dreams, turning them into nightmares. Strange how the same red in daylight reminded him of lips and strawberries. Luscious strips of fruit, the juice running down his chin when he bit into them. He suddenly craved a strawberry. Remember the days, he thought to himself, remember those days when we would climb into orchards, and steal fruit. We would be chased, but only half-heartedly because it is the job of every child to illegally acquire fruit. You’re brain is a fruit, his grandmother would tell him. Why do you need to tear your ganji, and scratch your knee when the object of your pursuit is arranged in two neat fruit bowls by the table? Your mother buys four types of fruits everyday, why don’t you eat them?

His grandmother now danced on the curtains of his eyes. Red,red,red, red sari, red bindi; more red than she had ever worn, and certainly more red than she had worn since she was widowed. Widowww-when you say it your lips pull back like you’re about to smile, then pucker up into a tiny ‘o’. Window… he jumped out of a window, which is why she is a widowww. Arjun had never seen his grandmother dance. She rolled her head, moved her arms and twisted her feet. The dance of the dead. This is how she would look if you put her together from the ashes. Arjun remembered how the ashes had remained in a jug because nobody was sure if the river was holy enough for them. Dance of the unholy dead.

Palat! Suddenly she was a nautch girl. The tunnel was intent on waking him up, because he couldn’t obviously sleep through such a dream. Nightmare. Night-mare. Nigh-tmare. Galloping streams of unconscious.

What would grandmother say if she saw him waking up, filthy and covered in patches of stink? Nothing, probably. She had never much cared for him. Look at your sister, she would always say. No mis-behaviour, so pretty, hardworking, pleasant, always smiling, good heart, respectingelderstallsimplechildreligious…. And you…dirty,grubby,confused,rude…

Grandmother flitted across his open eyes, like a movie screen. He rubbed his eyes against the tunnel and gifted his grandmother to the flat stony walls. When he turned around he could see the patch of wall where his grandmother had stuck. He giggled. Any minute he expected to see her pull a cigarette out of the folds of her pallu and smoke it.

The tunnel swallowed grandmother. Arjun sighed. The red light came back every day. The light at the end of the tunnel. Light at the distant end. From darkness to light. Moving along, steady,steady, because there is light at the end of the tunnel. What they don’t know is that grandmother is at the end of the tunnel. Dancing, a two dimensional television.

Arjun knew that the truth lay in the darkness. He turned his back to the light and grandmother, and drew in a breath. He picked his spectacles off his nose and laid them beside him. He needed to concentrate all he could. Blankness, darkness, quietness; when the three unite, you hear a boom. Arjun opened his eyes, slowly, slowly, until the black of the tunnel matched the black of his boom. There, the tunnel was a tunnel again, and the red light, still to come,a part of the future.

December 28, 2007

Posted by K in Abstract Ramblings, Fiction, Life, Travel, Uncategorized.
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Medea started her journey with a sandwich and a cupcake. She had been told to take the second right turn home, but on the way she realized she didn’t know what home was. She had forgotten, just like the way-oops, sorry, no parallel here. She stopped by the wayside at a quarter to twelve, just as she had been told, and ate her cupcake. The sandwich she preserved for her four o’clock snack, unlike what she had been told.

Medea’s one significant characteristic was that she had none. Wait, this is quite like one of the bagful of storyteller’s clichés. What would be more accurate, would be that Medea could stand in the middle of the street and no one would see her. You know, quite like how spies and detectives fashion themselves, except in her case, no fashioning was required. She just was. And she knew it. What she felt about it was anybody’s guess, for she never told.

Yap yap, yappity yap. Medea fed the last of her cupcake to the scraggly little puppy that stood before her, wagging its dot of a tail.

“Where to, scruffy?” She asked.

“Wait; what am I doing? I’m talking to a dog. I never talk to things. Except myself, quite like what I’m doing right now, but that’s besides the point.” Hm.

She stood up, dusted the meagre crumbs into a heap where Scruffy could get at it, and watched as Scruffy was joined by other little scruffies.

“Quite a happy family,” she said, and her mood darkened.

Country roaaad…take me hommee…she sang in her head.

Four o’clock came, and she sat under the same tree and ate her sandwich. She noted discontentedly that it was a vegetable sandwich, and an average one at that.

Take the second right turn home, but where was home?       

“I do not have amnesia, no. Atleast not like how it is in the movies.” She remembered her name, and she knew she remembered the reason behind her name, except it was as if the knowledge was hiding behind a stone wall. Sometimes she wanted to claw at that wall, but it was never any good.

Home…she had secretly looked up the dictionary meaning of it, but the words did not ring any bells. She knew she had people who were close to her; there was a tiered system of affection, and home had something to do with that.

She knew her world was closing in on her, and she knew her mind was collapsing in on itself. A boulder rolling down a hill, closing in on her. A boulder bouncing like a ping pong ball, with her strapped to the table.

The sun rose in the morning, reached its peak when she had he cupcake, and set in the distance as she settled beneath the tree.

She didn’t know where home was, but she wasn’t bothered. Someone would tell her, she knew.