Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Window

The room has just one Window, a big one, about four by four feet. Except that, there is nothing that qualifies even remotely as an outlet. No ventilator, no smoke chimney, not even a door. Just those four by four feet. Nothing more.

And a look out of the Window offers no beautiful gardens or landscape, no high-rise towers or buildings, no bazaar lanes, nothing in relation with the immediate world outside.

Just images.

It offers images, vivid and alive, of the past and the future, of childhood and of old age, of birth and of death. The pictures are personal, therefore engrossing. Each one stays there for about half a second, and then slowly fades away, being superimposed by the next one, before disappearing altogether.

The pictures offer insights into the years gone by, of childhood, like his first day in school and the hours he cried and cried, like how hard he held his mother by the waist when he first stood under a waterfall, and how his heart was filled with limitless pride when he bought his first novel with the earnings saved out of his monthly ‘pocket money’.

They also offer insights into the years to come, of the tension and turmoil of adult life, of a one-storey house with a narrow mud way leading to it, of one wife and two kids, and of death, cold and serene.

He can stare at the Window as long as he likes. Sometimes, so intriguing are the pictures, that he can’t move his eyes from it, even if he wishes to. Sometimes, they are too ugly or distasteful and the images change hastily, as if the Window was remote-controlled by his mind.

Interestingly, some keep coming back, from time to time, and he ponders over them for hours, like a ruminating cow does over a mouthful of grass.

They never cease. The Window is always open, always available, much to his pleasure and displeasure.

That’s all there is to the room. It’s a beautiful world. Four walls, a floor, a ceiling, the Window and him.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

A Bird's Eye View

There is something common about all contemporary Indian authors in the English language, be it Vikram Seth, Jhumpa Lahiri, Kiran Desai or Raj Kamal Jha, and that is that they have all spent a substantial amount of time outside India. Some have stayed there for education, some for work and some have made it their home, peeking in on India when they so desire. If you loosen the argument just the little bit, you can even include writers like V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie and Rohinton Mistry. They’re of course not Indian, like some of us do claim, but are of Indian ancestry nevertheless.

Some pretty big names, aren’t they?

The startling fact is that the above is true for most acclaimed Indian authors. There are very few who have spent their entire lives here and have still been able to come up with writing that is comparable to some of the masterpieces by the names taken above. Arundhati Roy and Pankaj Mishra, to name a couple. But there are too few, and why is that?

Living abroad didn’t necessarily improve their style of writing; I doubt if anyone else could ever produce a novel as powerful as Roy’s The God of Small Things. And also, it wasn’t that the years away from India helped them gain insights into the world inside and outside in ways they had never been aware of before.

Maybe, and I think I might be right here, those years in the West gave them that much-needed privilege, which is something we all wish we had, that is of being able to observe and understand something so personal to oneself from a distance. Maybe, this place is too complex and confusing to fully understand when you are living in it, as one of its countless little parts. Maybe, one needs a bird’s eye view, the chance to lose oneself in the maze completely, and yet not be overwhelmed by wild, uncontrollable emotion, the type which is bound to come when you think about this great country.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The End Is Not Near

When I was about 5-6 years old, one of my Mamaji’s friends seeing me with a pen in my hand, trying to solve a sum, had remarked – “Mat pakdo beta…mat pakdo…ek baar is cheez ko pakad liye to phir kabhi peechha nahi chodegi.

Words of wisdom, if there ever were any.

When I was in primary school, I was promised that mathematical tables and crappy essay assignments were only part of the learning curve; this would pass eventually and +2 is all about bunking classes, going to the theatres, having fun.

When I was in +2, I was promised that the Board exams were only a meaningless hurdle which had to be passed and passed gracefully nonetheless, that the nerve-shattering entrance examinations were that price I would have to pay for a comfortable life afterwards, that college comprises the best years of a person’s life, I was only to wait.

When I’m in college, I am promised that all I need to do is to work hard for good grades and get myself a nice job. A fat salary, nice start to my corporate career - everything’s going to be an easy ride after that. Life begins at 40, isn’t that how the famous saying goes?

I have this gut feeling that when I’m 40, I will be promised to slog it out for another decade or so; after all, I’ll have a family to take care of, the children’s education, big, never-ending loans to pay off and whatnot.

By the time I’m 60, thanks to Classic Regular, I guess lung cancer would surely have had its final say.

So tell me, my dear reader, when I’m dying, ready for the final goodbye, with the pen no more in my tired hands, will the priest at my deathbed promise me a happy, hassle-free afterlife? And more importantly, how credible would that last promise be?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Hard Way

“Not that way, moron!”, he says after about a minute of loud, non-stop laughter. I lie on the cement, feeling my bums, trying to smile, see the humour of it all.

This is my first try at skating. My friend had bought a pair of skates just the other day and he asked me if I would like to learn. He is pretty good at it, he has done it before.

I decide to give it a try. There are two round skating rings in the park opposite our apartment, each around seven or eight metres in diameter, with the floors made of cement, and boundaries lined with netted grills, probably to prevent novices like me from crashing out.

“The secret to skating and skating well is to keep year head slightly forward, ahead of your body, so that your entire weight is taking you in the direction you wish to go. You know, that way your Centre of Gravity…”


“Nothing. Just keep your head slightly forward. You can’t possibly fall on your back that way, and nobody falls forward really, unless he's stupid.”


I do exactly that. And as he had said, I don’t fall.


But he was wrong. I found that out this morning, on my way back from the galla. It had rained severely last night. With my Bata sandals so slippery that I might as well have been walking on two banana skins, it was hard trying to stay on my feet.

Then, I remembered what my friend had told me that day.

I jutted my head out in front, bending above the waist just that little bit. The little bit slowly became a little more, and more.

Result: I slipped on my toes, the Centre of Gravity got too far ahead, I think, forcing me down.

Lesson: When it rains and your footwear doesn’t have a good grip, you can fall either way, forwards or backwards.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

"About A Night"

A straight question: What’s the most uncomfortable you have ever felt in your life?

Was it when you were sitting at the dentist last month, with your mouth embarrassingly wide open? Or when your father punished you for something once, when you were seven years old, asking you to stay watching the wall for ten eternal minutes? Or is it when you went to a get-together and the best friend you were depending on for company failed to show up, leaving you with a group of strangers, without anything to talk about? Or maybe when you waited with a container in your hand at Mother Dairy, waiting to get the coupon for the milk?

No. For me, it isn’t any of these. It is something more common, which happens too often to get used to it (no irony intended). It is when you lie awake in bed, sleepless. It is when your body is tired, you would love to get some sleep and wake up early, but your mind, restless as ever doesn’t let you free.

Like, for example…

It’s raining. You can hear the rain falling on the trees outside. It is cool, the fan’s running slowly, humming away, as it was meant to be a lullaby. You have the blanket over you, blocking the swing, making you feel all cosy, ready for some nice slumber.

But no, it won’t come that easily. What did you think? Twenty minutes go by. So you get up, switch the lights on, put on your t-shirt and go out to get some coffee. There is nothing else you can think of at that moment.

You come back after the little break but you find out, to your dismay that the coffee hasn’t helped at all. It has made matters even worse. Thanks to Nescafe, now you don’t feel like sleeping at all. But still you give it a chance. You lie down and it’s the same story again – rain, tip-tip, fan, blanket, cosy, no sleep. This time you accept the helplessness easily, you get up with the air of a man on a mission, who has just realised what he was sent down for. Fuck it, I shall not wait for sleep, shall try to pass time better, it’ll come when it has to.

You switch on the computer. Check your scraps on Orkut, there are no new ones. A new mail maybe, even if it’s a Sardarji joke, but no, nothing new there as well. You feel the sudden pinch of utter helplessness again. What am I doing, I should be trying to sleep. Wasting time waiting for people to mail me. Who’ll mail you at 2 A.M., fucker? After all, you checked your mail just an hour ago, didn’t you?

So things are back to square one again. Rain, tip-tip, fan, blanket, cosy, and of course no sleep. Stray thoughts enter your head now – the assignment to be submitted on Friday (god I don’t have a clue!), the school friend you didn’t even bother to call when you were at home last (what will I say if he asks me why?), the little nap you took in the afternoon (maybe that’s what's keeping me awake). These don’t help, they don’t induce sleep, only make time pass quicker.

Hell! I have spent almost an hour and a half in bed now. And things look no prettier. The bones are still heavy, the body aching, but crucially, the mind and eyes are as fresh as ever.

I wish I was like Papa. He falls asleep within five minutes of going to bed, irrespective of whether the TV is on at full volume or whether I’m playing Led Zeppelin in the adjoining room. Soon, you can hear him snoring away in bliss, oblivious to everything around. How does he do that?

Frustration slowly seeps in. There can’t be a worse feeling. It’s almost three already. There is a lecture at half past eight. But what can you do? You’re helpless, and you know it. That adds on to the frustration – being aware of the helplessness.

You close your eyes again. I can’t possibly fall asleep if I keep them open. So let me at least pretend that I’m preparing to sleep. Maybe I’ll fool Father Wakefulness by doing so, maybe he’ll think that I’ve already dozed off, and he’ll stop trying to pull me out of it.

My life’s a mess, it is. What is a man if he has no control over his own sleep? What good is winning the world, when you can’t even win such a small battle, over yourself, with only sleep as your adversary?

What good is anything?

P.S. – And then it comes, you don’t realise that final moment, you least expect it. Yes, it finally comes and you’re asleep. Your conscious calls it a day. Call it night.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Bom Bom !

I hail from the capital, New Delhi as we all know it, the NCR as I sometimes call it (with one eyebrow slightly raised above the other). And I don’t claim that it’s something I’m ‘proud’ of, as that doesn’t make much sense. I moved to the place when I was six and a half years old, my father took up a job there, and coming to the big city was hardly a conscious decision on my part.

But having spent more than twelve adolescent years in and around the place, I have obviously developed feelings for it which can be labelled loosely as affection. I would be the first to concede that it has no inherent culture, not much greenery and natural beauty to boast of, and that it’s the country’s most unsafe city with its alarming crime rate, but it’s where I grew up and each joint and locality has memories attached to it, holds special significance.

So when I, a staunch ‘Delhi-ite’(don’t ask me to pronounce it !), hear someone go ga-ga over Bombay, ‘the financial capital of India’, the land of Bollywood, of the beautiful Nariman Point and Juhu Beach, my first reaction is to give him the I-couldn’t-care-less look, make a few nervous movements here and there and move out of the room saying that whatever it is, however grand the ‘necklace’ might be, it may have a thousand Hanging Gardens, but Bombay can never be what Delhi is, what the NCR is(the eyebrow is in action again).

But, as it turned out to be, when I went to the port city for the first time two years ago, to that ‘great, ruined metropolis’, I found my baseless defence melting away. For there in front of my eyes was a city which offered everything, which was a world to itself, a world of the beautiful and the ugly, of fire and ice, of the rich and the poor, and of everything that lies in between.

In Bombay, just as you get out of the air-conditioned comforts of the airport, you are confronted suddenly with something totally different. There are no towers, no buildings, nothing to suggest that you are now in one of India’s metropolitan cities. Just small, dirty-looking houses and slums, people sleeping on the pavements, some even on the road, inside temporary roadside tents and below the flyovers. People everywhere; much more than the city can afford. You are reminded suddenly of all you have read and seen in movies about Bombay over the years. Bombay is the city to which more and more people flock in every year, in search of a job, of food, shelter and security. They come from everywhere: some with hopes of getting into the film industry and many others with no clear objective at all. They live on the footpath, struggling to make ends meet, because even if the city wishes to, it can’t adopt them. Not anymore. The contrast is startling; on the right are high-rise apartments, on the left you have people sleeping amidst their own shit and piss.

The same contrast is written all over the city. For every Malabar Hill, there are a hundred Jogeshwaris, for every Infinity, there are a hundred Crawford Markets, for every Amitabh Bachchan, there are a million wanna-bes who keep trying unsuccessfully every day, settle down on the sidewalks, or in the slums. This violent collage of modern existence is exhilarating, when not disturbing. Bombay is, as Suketu Mehta describes it, the ‘Maximum City’.

And tell me, which city could present you with such amazing sights, as the one I witnessed sitting at the Hilton, of the people below walking along the seacoast, of families with the children holding colourful balloons, of couples strolling hand in hand, admiring the water, of old men, out for their evening walk, gossiping away like teenagers. That view, I remember distinctly, developed a sudden, violent urge within me to leave the air-conditioned restaurant, to leave my five-star coffee half-drunk, to get up from the heavily cushioned chair I was sitting on, to run down and do what those people were doing, talk and watch the sea.

All very romantic, you say, what about the problems, the horror of living in a city like Bombay? What about the floods you have there every monsoon, when the city breaks down, submerged up to the neck? What about the problem of living space, Abhinav? Have you forgotten how you and your cousin went running around Bombay looking for a flat to take shelter in, when you had given the poor chap a sudden visit last year? And have you also forgotten how wretched you felt at Crawford Market that day, with the rain belting down, and a million stall-keepers shouting in your ear? Remember how you swore that you’ll never set foot on this blasted piece of land again?

And I will nod, I will say yes, and then I will tell you that it is not the only thing that matters, that there is a certain kind of beauty the eyes cannot see, which only the heart can feel, that there is something beyond logic, something about the city which sucks you in, however clichéd it might sound, it is the city’s history, its dynamics, its spirit.

So would you be surprised, if I tell you that given the chance, when I grow up and have a job to call my own, I would like to have an apartment flat near Nariman Point, facing the sea, and that I would love to make weekend trips into the old city, uncovering secrets yet hidden about the ‘great, ruined metropolis’?

P.S. :

I call it Bombay, not Mumbai, and I have my reasons:

1) First and foremost, I am not a Shiv Sainik, nor wish to become one in the coming time.

2) Naming the city on the basis of it being a port, or a bay, sounds more logical than naming it after some goddess called Mumba Devi.

3) And yes, to bring out the hidden sentimentalist in me, Bombay sounds romantic; has been its name for quite a long period of time. Names, like places and people, have histories behind them, and the past cannot be erased all of a sudden by a bill passed in the parliament.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Girl at Andheri

She stood at the side of the road outside the Andheri railway station. I, with my cousin, had just got down from the auto to catch a local to Bombay Central.

She wore a short-sleeved top and a pant, the colours of each being hard to guess. They might have been white originally, maybe light pink or maybe even blue. All they looked to me now in the limited visibility the street lights provided was dirty brown, at some places dark and at some places light, in patches all over the cloth. Her hair looked brown too, but the yellow light above gave it a somewhat orangish touch. Her face was beautiful - innocence written all over. From her two eyes came out two thick drops of water, both heading down but vanishing before they reached her mouth. On the face still were the dried remains of many such drops her eyes had shed during the day. And of course, she had nothing beneath her feet.

She was thin and small. Not more than 7-8 years old – I’d have thought.

She held her hand out shyly. She was asking me for money.