Monday, December 1, 2008

Angrez Chale Gaye II

A thought: If we Indians happened to be white in skin colour, like the firangs, and if someone saw one of us walking down the street, would he be able to guess our nationality? Would he be able to tell whether we are Indian, or American or European? Probably not. And why? Because today, where everything from clothing to behaviour is being homogenized, where everyone talks the same language, wears the same clothes, similar to everyone else even in mannerisms, it’s only our skin colour that establishes our uniqueness.

Because we are the urban Indians. And like the Americans living on the other side of the globe, we talk in English and think in English, wear t-shirts and jeans when casual and suits and ties when formal, have coffee rather than tea. All whitewashed. If one thinks about it, food preferences are perhaps the only thing that have still not changed; although we love burgers and pizzas and pastas, most would maintain that rice and dal is what is best for everyday consumption.

It is fascinating to see the gradual shift in Indian lifestyle in the years after independence. The British Raj insured that Indians would never again be comfortable with their own identity; the five-cubit-tall sahib would forever hold a psychological edge over the third-world, backward Indian. Even before the British left us, this inferiority complex had settled itself in the Indian psyche. To emulate the foreigner in everything he did, to talk, dress and behave like him, indeed to be him, has always been the Indian’s ulterior, if not declared, goal. Of course, this phenomenon, this aspiration to become someone else is not just restricted to our country, but to many others which have been subjected to colonial rule.

But curiously, this desire to ‘be’ English has faded away gradually. To be replaced by an affinity for everything American. And the sort of maniacal attachment the young urban Indians have for it is rather interesting, when not annoying. One look around and it’s easy to recognize how much American preferences have permeated into our own lives. The introduction and subsequent success of fast food joints, the coming up of brands like Levi Strauss and Dockers, the market for American films (or rather, ‘movies’, which are always, by some unwritten law, better than the material we produce here), the stupendous speed at which coffee joints have opened (and tea centres have disappeared), the inception of words like ‘stuff’ and ‘bucks’ in everyday conversation, our carelessness in spelling ‘colour’ as ‘color’ and ‘centre’ as ‘center’ etc etc. The Indian obsession for education in the ‘States’ tops it all. American college t-shirts are so popular and common now that the last time I visited Sarojni Nagar in Delhi, I even saw a roadside shop selling fake cheap red sweatshirts with ‘UCLA’ printed on them.

Of course, for most parts, this inclination towards American attitudes is but natural. What Big Mac does, the Toms, Dicks and Harrys do it too. The Americans are, after all (and I borrow a phrase rather famous in diplomatic circles), ‘the shaper of global sentiment’. But even if you leave this very human tendency aside, they deserve most of what they have managed to do. American universities are some of the best in the world, Levi Strauss is the last word in casual wear, McDonalds does deserve its status for the sheer quality of the food it has to offer. And till the day Indian brands come up with the same standards, the above are bound to stay on top.

But sometimes, it all becomes too much to take. They can’t be the world’s best in every single darn thing they do, can they? Sometimes, if not quite often, this phenomenon becomes rather nauseating to assimilate. Sometimes, if not quite often, one is bound to feel that that our little tendency here is only an inch short of blind aping. Sometimes, if not quite often, one is sure to think that if this continues to be the case, the Indian in us will slowly fade away, making us what an American Macaulay would love to see us as – Indians only by birth, but Americans in behaviour, lifestyle and education.

Of course, one might ask – Is that a problem we need to address? For me, it is. And yes, there are some solutions too that come to my mind. But leave all that for some other post, at some later date.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Booker, eh?

Chetan Bhagat must wonder why any of his novels – Five Point Someone and the other two, whatever their name was - haven’t won the Booker yet. For if a heavily clichéd take on modern Indian civilization by a first-time amateurish writer can bag the prize, surely Mr. Bhagat deserves it too. His efforts if not purely authentic, were at least not cynical or judgemental in any way. At least, they made for good time pass.

Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger leaves you with no such hope. The plot itself is one that’s bound to make you roll your eyes. The protagonist, a sweet-seller-turned-driver, son of a rickshaw puller, recounts the story of his rise to entrepreneurial success to none less than the Chinese Premier, letting him see and making him familiar with the face of the ‘true’ India in the process. Sounds quite exciting, doesn’t it? Yes, that’s the bait.

What follows is one cliché piled upon another. Almost every page in this book contains some witty remark by the author; you haven’t yet got over the last fantastic conclusive comment when you encounter the next. Very early in the novel, the narrator, Balram (the protagonist himself) divides India into two parts – Light and Darkness. According to him (and this theory takes some gulping down), all the places in the country which lie on the banks of the Ganges (called the ‘black river’ by him) fall in the Darkness. All other places fall in the Light. The Darkness, as its name unmistakably suggests, is an area of utter desolation, where rich and oppressive landlords rule over the poor working class, where no one is ever pleased with his life and hopes to, someday, move to the big cities of Delhi or Bombay i.e. the Light. This ambitious demarcation is not just mentioned cursorily; it is repeated throughout the novel; for example, a fellow member of the working class from Bihar is described as ‘belonging to the Darkness’.

Firstly, what the author fails to realize is that the area he has called the ‘Darkness’, which includes states like U.P., Bihar and Bengal have produced some of the greatest minds of the country. For decades before and after independence, this area has often been the centre of Indian thought. To call it by this preposterous title is nothing but a travesty. Secondly, they might not be in the fittest condition at present, but not all is dark there really. Yes, many people in most of these parts do aspire to move to the bigger cities in search for a better life, but that is only because of the pressures of globalization, the advantages of which haven’t yet reached them in its entirety. Nevertheless, like everywhere else, most of the people do manage to live a content life, and not everyone is as close to destitution and total dissatisfaction as Adiga paints them to be. In his world, every man in these parts is a bitter man, frustrated yet subdued by an overbearing social system, where nothing happens except daughter-in-laws being killed for dowry or husbands being milked for money, treated worse than animals by their wives.

Everything reminds you of some early 90’s melodramatic extravaganza. The villains are the politicians and the landlords, conspiring to keep the poor beneath their feet, adept at murder, rape, bribe-taking and all other possible crimes. When the rich appear, they do like over-savvy maniacs, who are obsessed with wearing designer clothes, going to the malls every second day, who love sending SMSs to their friends in the U.S.A. Generalization upon generalization, so much that it makes you wonder whether all the talk about India’s multi-faceted personality, its diversity, its dynamics is but a myth, whether in reality everything here can be painted in the twin shades of black and white.

But unlike the films, the poor are not really good people either – deeply wounded by being treated like animals, they themselves have become animal-like – excessively bitter, revengeful and ready to play along. They curse the rich behind their backs, leave no chance of pinching money from them, even conspire to murder them. In Adiga’s world, everyone is a negative character, with no scope for human dignity, pity or kindness. You have it in writing here. India is a living hell and all its inhabitants are monsters.

Every great novel, however morose or melancholic, treats its characters and the world around with compassion. Be it Rushdie’s Bombay, Naipaul’s Trinidad or Bellow’s Chicago, even the worst of men in these great cities are portrayed as human beings capable of thought and feeling. And even when the world around is in tatters, there is always the glimmer of hope, the anticipation that things can be set right, that life, however ghastly it may seem at the moment, is better than death. This is where Adiga fails completely. In this novel, which is in the form of a letter, the protagonist finds nothing remotely good about the country to say to the Chinese Premier, nothing that could point towards a possible solution, of a way out of the mess he has taken so much pain to elaborate on.

Adiga gets the Booker. And perhaps it is not that surprising that he did. For to the ignorant foreigner eager to know about India, this book can be very easily assimilated. It doesn’t even attempt to get into the complexities of the new India, the whys and hows, and the foreigner, who has never seen the ‘Light’ or the ‘Darkness’ with his own eyes will take the author’s word for it. A friend told me that Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh is believed to be selling more copies in India than this more recent award-winning novel. And that too is not surprising. For the Indians of the ‘true’ India know better.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Perfect Imperfections

Bombay is a mad city, and that is probably why, despite its thousand troubles and limitations, it is very easy to fall in love with it, to lose yourself in the madness, become one with it. And perhaps, that is also why someone who’s spent even a little amount of time there finds it so hard to leave it, feeling incapacitated everywhere else. The city, through its imperfections, sucks you in. And if it doesn’t drive you insane, it’ll fascinate you like very few other places ever will.

For example:

  • Refer to the last post, third segment. There was a snake sighted in the locality I was staying in, and rather than actively taking measures to look for it and possibly save lives, the apartment management just put up a hardly noticeable notice on the walls, saying that if anyone did spot it, he or she was to contact the watchman, who would then see where the snake moves. I doubt if any more sightings of the snake or even casualties would have made a difference to the urgency shown.

    Meanwhile, remarkably co-incident with the snake sighting, the front door of my cousin’s flat broke, leaving a small gaping hole at the bottom. When I asked him whether we should get it repaired lest the snake sneaked in at night, he just shrugged and changed the subject.
  • Given that the city was devastated by blasts very recently, on my way to Colaba by the local train, I expected to be frisked all over. Nothing of the sort happened.

    I could have been carrying a live bomb. It was Diwali night. On this day of celebration, the city was one man’s will away from being blown to pieces. Yet again.
  • During a three-day stay, I came across two instances of people lighting crackers on the road, that too in full, evening, Diwali traffic. In the latter case, the man was setting fire to chakris and throwing them on the main road, while auto-rickshaws, cars and buses turned and swayed and evaded them without complaint, as if it was all a harmless video game where nothing really valuable was at stake.

    The man kept laughing all along, his joy multiplied manifold when the cracker flinging sparks in all directions made another man on a bicycle almost lose his balance. He kept laughing even when a rocket launched by him boomeranged onto his own chest, before he frantically pushed it away to avoid harm.

Whichever way one would like to put it, this kind of indifference to adversity, or the confidence of the people in their ability to handle it, is baffling. But that’s how most things in Bombay are. In a city where the cost of living is very high, the cost of life, on the other hand, is very low.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Midnight Halt

It was barely three hours since the bus had stopped last, and now, the driver seemed to want another break, parking it alongside a roadside dhaba. As the breaks finally squeaked and the thing came to a decisive halt, everyone in the bus let out a collective, exasperated sigh.

Amir wasn’t too pleased either. He wanted to get home as early as possible, the short span of the holidays making every hour of journey seem that wee bit longer. The bus was scheduled to reach Delhi by seven in the morning, but going by the way it was taking breaks, that seemed only to be in theory. Suddenly irritated and feeling half-tough, he got up from his seat, wanting to know what the trouble was now.

He got out of the bus and called out for the driver. There was a group of huge, moustached men standing just a little distance away, and one of them replied – ‘Main hoon. Ke baat se?’. That was enough to dispel all the toughness inside him, and feeling calm again, Amir went back to his seat.

A couple of minutes later, the same man entered and declared that as there was some problem with the engine, they were going to have a half-hour halt, and everyone was free to make himself comfortable at the dhaba. Not knowing what to do, Amir decided that perhaps having a cup of tea wasn’t that bad an idea. There was still a long way to go, a little outing away from the almost claustrophobic bus was probably better for the senses, and for his bums as well.

The dhaba looked nothing special. It was like any other dhaba – one floor, walls whitewashed in a horrible shade of blue, a few wooden and plastic chairs around, and a couple of khats kept outside. One solitary tube light glowed on the outside, and this was where the customers sat. The lights on the inside were switched off, probably because there were not many people eating, the hour being close to twelve in the night. Amir looked for the place’s name, and there it was, just above the light – E-quality Dhaba. They all might be the same when it comes to how they look, but they sure are creative when it comes to naming themselves, thought Amir, and seated himself on an idle wooden chair.

It wasn’t long before the aroma of hot, freshly-prepared aloo paranthas reached him, and though he wasn’t hungry at all, Amir ordered a plate along with the mandatory cup of tea. The boy taking the order listened to him keenly, and after asking him twice whether he was sure he needed nothing else, disappeared inside into the darkness.

It was a full-moon night. Back in college, with the hectic schedule, and the noise around everywhere one went, it was almost impossible to have such an opportunity, to sit alone in the dark, amidst strangers and admire the moon in its entirety. This was a novelty, and it was hard to decide how overly nice it felt.

He got up to look at the open fields behind the dhaba. Nothing much was visible, but courtesy the moon, Amir could at least see that the vast emptiness extended far into the darkness. He saw the outlines of the boundaries that differentiated one tiller’s land from another, and also a small, dilapidated, light-coloured house a few hundred metres away. These small structures seemed to be very common in the countryside, and he had seen many such wherever he had gone - Punjab, U.P., Bihar, Rajasthan. Even as a child, he had always tried to guess what purpose they served, or whether they served any specific purpose at all. And as before, he stopped midway in thought now, wondering whether he was getting fascinated with something totally commonplace, whether his fascination with those little houses was only the city-dweller’s fascination with the village.

The boy, meanwhile, had got the paranthas and chai. He called out, shouting ‘Bhaiya!’, and Amir signalled him to get the things near where he stood, a little more away from the crowd. There was less light there, but more peace. Having seated himself finally, he started with the paranthas. Quite unexpectedly, they were perfect, warm, polished with butter and almost bursting with potato. The tea, on the other hand, was a little less sweet by his taste. He felt like calling out to the boy for some sugar, but then decided against it.

Everything about the place felt good – the food, the ambience, the faint sound of petty talk coming from the table in the distance. Everything was peaceful, and that’s why he had wanted to go home – to get some quiet time, away from the daily set routine of college, away from assignments and deadlines. Maybe, thought Amir, he didn’t even want to go home, just some place away, and this little spot here, somewhere in the wilderness, seemed just like what he had wanted. It was perfect here, to be sitting under the open sky, in this place he hadn’t visited before and would never visit again, having food and tea, while endless, open fields provided the backdrop, illuminated, but only slightly, by the moon above.

Fifteen minutes later, someone declared that the bus was ready to leave. Amir walked over to it, reluctantly, hating the prospect of the night’s journey even more now.

Monday, October 13, 2008


Amir woke up today morning to find his Self missing. The realization came to him quite suddenly; he first felt the void in his head, then he sensed it going down his neck, his spine and then travel to every single part of his body. It wasn’t something ordinary that happened every other day. That much was pretty clear. For the void, rather than giving him a feeling of space, made him feel strangely heavy. A vacant heaviness or a heavy vacant-ness - both meaning the same.

He got up from the bed and the void travelled with him. He didn’t know what to do with it, or even what to do at all. On an ordinary day, he would have brushed his teeth, prepared for himself a cup of tea, and then sat down on the balcony with the morning newspaper. But all this seemed senseless at that moment. Inconsequential. Not that these tasks had overwhelming significance in his everyday life anyway, but the futility of it all struck him to the core today.

Therefore, leaving everything, he went and lay down on his bed.

Where could it have gone? Suddenly, without warning. He had felt quite alright last night, nothing had happened to make him uncomfortable. They had had a drink session at Ari’s place, and after hours of dancing and singing, he had returned home in the late hours of the morning, exhausted and happy. Where had the feeling gone? It was replaced by this weird dullness, this inexplicable sensation of loss.

Looking at the parking lot overlooking his house, where a bunch of car-washers were getting on with their job, Amir tried to think of a possible solution. What could he do to make the situation better? Where to look for the darn thing?

Where would he find his own Self?

It wasn’t just a thing, not his wallet or the lighter. It was him. He couldn’t just jump out and try to look for it beneath the bed sheets, or check whether it had, by mistake, slipped underneath the bed, or remove the junk off his study table, thinking that maybe that was what hid it. He could not even tell anyone about it, simply because no one would believe him. They would laugh it off, blaming it on the hangover. This was something so huge, something so personal, that he couldn’t even hope to regain it by talking it over with a friend, or by holding a loved one’s hand, or by looking into someone else’s eyes. This was, and he knew it already, much beyond that.

With much mental effort, he walked over to the bathroom and looked into the mirror. Suddenly, his own face seemed alien to him, the eyebrows, the curve of his cheeks, the mouth, the chin – everything seemed new and cold, as if it belonged to a different person. Who was he, Amir found himself asking. Was he living inside another person? Did this assortment of organs even belong to him? He looked at his hands, his legs, and he felt he wasn’t even real, just playing a character in some video game, using someone else’s body, who controlled everything but had no claim to ownership.

The feeling of emptiness, the loss of Self, was overbearing. He couldn’t stand it and found his legs shaking rather alarmingly. Somehow, he pulled his body, which felt now like a rented piece, to the bedroom. He lay down on the bed again, staring at the ceiling, contemplating sleep. Maybe that would freshen up his memory a bit. In any case, Amir simply didn’t know what else to do with himself.


What he also didn’t know was that the realization that had dawned upon him today was the end result of something that had been going on for many years now. He had lost his Self long ago, misplaced it somewhere and hadn’t even given a damn at the time. Time had passed, and though sometimes he did feel lonely and vacant, such moments were pretty short-lived, overcome by spells of prolonged activity, or lost in the laughter and nonsense of everyday conversation. All this while, he had never felt a desperate need to question himself, to look within and see how he had changed and was changing. The Self had left him a long time ago, just that its realization, which had remained hidden from him until this day, had finally made its presence felt.

And Amir didn’t know what to do.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Pack-up Man

My name, you ask? What do you want my name for? That hardly holds any significance. If anything, let me tell you what I am and how I look. I’m middle-aged, around forty years of age (no one in my family remembers the exact date of my birth), with a slight paunch, drooping shoulders, and a head that’s getting bald with every passing day. I am dark, around five feet nine inches tall, and keep a beard which has gone completely white with time, at odds with the hair on my head, which is still more black than white. People, intrigued by this peculiar contrast, ask me whether I dye my hair, to which I can think of no reply.

My family has been a family of farmers; since generations, we have known no other means of livelihood. But now the times have changed. With big landlords eager to get hold of as much land as possible, ready to pay amounts which are too hard to refuse for people like us who never know what tomorrow would bring, its very rare for a man with meagre land holdings to get enough to pass his days. He has to look for a new job, that too in a place where they are hard to come by.

I got a job in one of the many multiplexes that have come up in this little town over the last few years. My task, as they told me, was to maintain cleanliness in and around the place. I am not the only one assigned this responsibility, there are a few others who work with me, and together we clean the floors of the porch, the lobby, and also the toilets, once in the morning at nine, and then in the evening at four. The building is huge, with two floors, there’s a lot of ground to be covered, and it turns out to be a tiring task, especially because we rid the floors of dust with a broom first, and then polish it by wiping it with phenyl and water. To make it shine. As the manager, our boss, likes it. We also, along with the above, hold the responsibility of cleaning the halls between shows, empty coke glasses, food packages and popcorn strewed here and there. But that doesn’t take much time.

As the oldest among the workers, and the one who looks most reliable, I have also been given an additional piece of work. On weekends, in the evening, just outside the entrance to the halls, they have a music show. A bunch of youngsters, all of whom look like they have just got out of their beds, come together and sing noisy, mostly English songs. My job is to assemble the equipment before the shows starts and dissemble it after it ends – the stand on which they keep the keyboard, the drum set, the huge black speakers, the microphones.

It isn’t something that takes too much effort, just fifteen minutes before and after. But what’s exhausting about the task is the wait, to stand there and wait for the show to get over, to hope that the song they are playing will be their last for the evening. When the rains are around, I can’t even leave the place for a moment, lest it starts pouring suddenly and the equipment needs to be replaced to safety. The manager thinks me responsible, and I’m too eager not to lose his confidence. So, I sit in a corner and wait.

I sit there and look around, the players - working away at their instruments, looking absorbed and lost in the music, smoking cigarettes without break, one after the other, the crowd – people eating at the cafeteria just behind, more youngsters, some standing and some sitting on the floor, listening to the music, many of them constantly smoking as well, and then there are, of course, the people who are here to watch a film, who just pass by, some pausing to listen to the music for a while.

The variety of people that can be seen near the place is quite remarkable, there are all kinds – boys and girls dressed for their evening out, company executives just back from office, uncles and aunties who wonder what the fuss is all about, and very old men and women, who don’t give the band as much as a glance. Yet, they are all together there, who have come to this multiplex for some form of enjoyment or the other.

Somewhere between ten and ten thirty, the band stops playing. I, in anticipation, go into the crowd and stand there much before that, hoping that they would wind up soon. This is the most difficult part of the waiting, it’s late and I am desperate to get back home. I can see a few eyes turning towards me, giving me a cursory glance, wondering whether I too was there for the music, and I’m conscious of the fact that here, where almost everyone is dressed to kill, having a good time, I look odd, a man who doesn’t belong, maybe even a blot on the landscape. But it hardly bothers me.

When it’s all over, and the whole place seems immersed in sudden, complete silence once more, I pick up everything from the stage and put it inside the store room.

My work for the day is over, and I leave on my bicycle, for my home in a village just a few kilometres away.

This is what I do. Clean. Assemble. Dissemble.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Bridge Chalein?

All the characters and events in this piece are entirely fictional and any resemblance to any person, living or dead, is purely co-incidental.

From the flashlights of the motorcycle, it was pretty clear to all of them that what stood ahead, just about fifty metres away was nothing but a police jeep.

Their little plan had all it takes to get into the deepest possible shit. It was past one in the night, they, Abbas, Muahid and Tayseer were on someone else’s bike, in a relatively unknown city, without anywhere specific to go, but sure in their minds that they had to go somewhere. After all, they were happy. That’s the least they could do. Go somewhere.

So, having taken a packet of wafers and two Thums Ups for their little picnic from one of the very few places that were open so late, they decided to go to the famous bridge, a broken one, about two to three kilometres into the wilderness. On their way there, the talk was of murders, encounters and cover-ups, and many other possibilities their lives could meet at the bridge, depending on which they might accidentally meet there, the police or some scoundrels. None of them suspected that weren’t after all building castles in the air. The first sight of the jeep was just the preamble for what was to follow.

Abey koi hai wahaan pe…truck ya jeep…’, said Tayseer, as if this was a fact that needed mentioning.

Jeep hi hai…police ki hai kya?’, added Abbas, fearing the worst.

Haan police ki hi hai…’, replied Muahid, and after letting the realization sink in, ‘Waapis chalna hai kya?

This was a crucial question, the sort which one would rather like to pose than answer. There was a brief silence, not more than a few seconds, as the question needed to be answered quickly, the three of them getting closer to the jeep with every passing moment.

Abey chalte hain….faltu mein panga na ho jaaye’, Tayseer, chicken heart, finally uttered. This was all the other two chicken hearts needed, and without wasting further time, Muahid, who was driving, took a U-turn and headed back.

The danger dealt with, the three breathed easy again. Ripples of nervous laughter were complemented by remarks such as ‘Bach gaye yaar!’, ‘Kya kismet hai!’ and ‘Ab kahaan jaaye!’. But this hadn’t gone on for long, before Abbas interjected.

Abey waise problem kya hai? humare paas daru hai, na kuchh aur…bas 3 dost hai, chips aur cold-drink peene aaye hai…unko isse kya problem ho sakti hai?

This was another good question, again one which was really difficult to answer. It is hard to say what transpired next, but within moments, chicken hearts turned into brave hearts, the bike headed back towards the jeep, all three infused suddenly with a new-found confidence in the innocence of their little outing.

They parked the bike just a little beyond the jeep, and though it was pitch dark, each searched for the others’ eyes, for a mirror to their apprehensions, waiting for someone to break the uneasy silence. It was broken, but it wasn’t they who had spoken.

From the back of the jeep, came out a moving a torch, and a voice beckoning them. None of them were really taken aback, they were expecting it, almost waiting for it.

As they approached the back of the jeep, it turned out that there were no less than four policeman present at the spot, three at the back with one asleep, and one in the front, who as they would later discover, was their boss. One of the two awake sub-ordinates, whom we would hereafter refer to as Good Cop, was the first to speak.

Kahaan se aaye ho tum log? Kya kar rahe ho yahaan?

Kuchh nahi uncle…woh aise hi…’, replied Abbas, leaving Tayseer a little surprised as to how quickly he had moved on to buttering the policeman, calling him ‘uncle’.

Raat ko dhai baje tum yahaan aise hi aaye the! Woh kya hai haath mein?’, Good Cop retorted, his tone a bit harsher this time, pointing to the chips and soft drinks in our hands.

Kuchh nahi uncle…woh chips hai….aur…’, Tayseer replied, thinking at the same time whether ‘sir’ would have sounded better.

Bas yahi laaye ho?....’, Bad Cop finally spoke up, sounding rather disappointed. He sounded drunk, and excited, this little incident perhaps being the only diversion in his otherwise long and uneventful night vigil. ‘Yahin khade raho.’, said the Good Cop now, and both of them walked towards the motorcycle.

What they were looking for was liquor, and had it been found, it would have been the perfect excuse to have the youngsters jailed for the night and extract some nice cash out of them in the morning. But as they found nothing, even after an elaborate search, they returned silently, almost not knowing what to do now.

Having won a point in their favour, Abbas, Muahid and Tayseer now started to ask the cops for forgiveness, saying that they would never come here again, that they were just a bunch of stupid, innocent teenagers wanting a good time, that they had absolutely no idea that a small picnic on a deserted piece of land in the wilderness at two in the morning wasn’t the safest thing to do.

When they had no more excuses left, all three fell silent and there was a rather uncomfortable silence for a second or two. Bad Cop now took over the proceedings.

Thane le chalo sabko! Saale chutiye…subah tak inko wahi rakhna hai…tab samajh mein aayega inke…jab newspaper mein photo niklegi na….’, and then, as if struck with a sudden amazing idea, ‘woh India Today walo ko bulaon….haan wahi jo poore din idhar udhar ghoomte rehte hain

Good Cop had gone on staring at the hapless three all this time, while they looked ready to shit in their pants. They started on their pleadings again, to which Good Cop said he understood but they had to talk to their boss once before anything could be done.

The boss sat in the front seat. He was asleep, probably on two or three bottles of desi liquor. When Good Cop explained the situation to him, he suddenly got up on his seat, as if awakened by a call of duty and scowled at the three.

Band karo inko!...madarchod kya karne aaye the yahaan?...bhodsi ke!’, and then as if exhausted by this sudden surge of activity, he dropped back into sleep again.

Bad Cop, now encouraged once more, added that the three must be thieves, as only thieves come out at such hours. To this unbeatable piece of logic, none of the three had an answer.

Kahaan ke rehne walo ho tum log?’, he now asked.

Dilli ke, sir’, Tayseer replied.

Kabhi dilli mein 8 baje ke baad nikalte ho?

Another stupid taunt. Tayseer wanted to laugh at the policeman, but kept quiet, knowing that this wasn’t what he was looking for.

Ten or fifteen minutes passed in this fashion. The three of them kept pleading, calling the policemen ‘sir’ and ‘uncle’ alternately, the Bad Cop pouring taunts and threats, one after one. Good Cop now started to talk calmly to the three. He explained how there was a suicide by some Maharashtrian youngster in this area just a few days ago, and how much trouble they had to endure for it, and how unsuitable this place was, therefore, for a midnight picnic.

Slowly and steadily, as Good Cop talked to the three, they started to feel that there was still a way out of this, that there could be a negotiation. And no doubt, Good Cop finally offered to let them go, only if they pay the fine for their little adventure.

Tayseer didn’t even have his wallet with him, Muahid had all of forty or fifty rupees, and Abbas a few hundred. They informed Good Cop of this fact straight on his face; he was disappointed, but did well to maintain his composure.

Kitne hain tumhare paas?’, he asked, getting down to the bottom of it all.

Mere paas to kuchh bhi nahi’, Tayseer apologetically replied, ‘Iske paas 40-50 honge’, looking at Muahid, ‘aur tumhare paas?’, turning to Abbas.

Abbas dig into his purse and said ‘300…350….’

Muahid, who wasn’t really keen on paying the policeman more than a hundred in any case, who even in such dire circumstances was keen to hold on to his money, now reproached Abbas by hitting him on the arm. Good Cop noticed that, and when Muahid tried to speak again, he asked him to shut up and learn some tameez first.

Tayseer now did all the talking, intentionally sounding soft, trying to make Good Cop feel that he could start crying any moment. Good Cop finally gave in, showering elderly advice on the three, telling them again and again how difficult the job of a policeman was, how they had to cover up so much, how the world would break into pieces if they didn’t do their thing. He sounded like a depressed Atlas, on whose shoulder all the burden of the world rested.

Having exhausted (or bored) himself ultimately, he asked Muahid to fetch the motorcycle, and continued talking to the other two.

Ye ladka theek nahi hai…chutiya kahin ka!...poori tarah bigad chuka hai yeh’, said he for Muahid, perhaps remembering the earlier fine negotiation, and then for no apparent reason, added, looking at Abbas – ‘Tum bhi aadhe bigad chuke ho…’. Abbas might have wanted to ask him why, but stayed shut for good.

The three got on to the motorcycle, and after saying ‘Dhanyavad’ and ‘Shukriya’ about 5-10 times, sped off. Their little adventure was over, they had come out unscathed, without even parting with a single rupee (the three had repeatedly informed Good Cop that they were 'student log' and could therefore may kindly please be exempted from the fine), and though their nerves hadn’t quite calmed yet, they laughed loudly, maybe at themselves, maybe at each other, maybe at the hour just gone by.

Then, Muahid, the courageous asked – ‘Ab kahaan chalna hai?

Sunday, August 24, 2008


What would you do if you suddenly found your house on fire one night? What if everything you had of value, everything you priced more than your own life, whatever you were prepared to give it for, whatever you loved and adored was suddenly ablaze, you denied even one last look at it because of the cruel, enormous fire that’s around?

One. You could jump from your bed, run around frantic, or look for the nearest source of water, or shout out for your neighbours, or dial 101, or try to find a piece of cloth to douse your dearest belongings with. Or something else.

Two. You could sit on your bed calmly, or maybe replace yourself to safety, and then, without panicking, without losing yourself, watch all that was yours burn in front of your eyes, watch it happening, accept it, come to terms with it, do nothing.

Sometimes, when the world around you is on fire, preserving your peace of mind and not losing yourself in the whole trick is the best you can do. And in the longer run, perhaps that alone matters more than anything else ever will.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Angrez Chale Gaye...

On my way to Delhi a few days ago, while I waited to get my boarding pass at the airline counter, it was rather hard not to observe and not be amused by the man just ahead of me in the queue. He seemed like one around forty years of age, clean shaven, wearing an impeccable suit and tie, looking all prim and proper like all these senior company executives do. He was talking to the girl at the counter.

‘I would like an aisle seat. Just see if one’s available’, he declared to her, his voice and tone heavy and commanding, which took the girl by surprise a little.

‘Just a moment, Sir. I’ll just check if one is’, she replied quickly, getting on the keyboard.

‘Yeah. If you don’t have that, give me a window seat. But not one in the middle in any case’, out came the second declaration, by which time the lady was jumping frantically on the keys.

Her hurried behaviour seemed rather odd at first; she would be used to hearing a hundred such requests in a day. But what was special about this one was that it wasn’t really a request, it was a declaration, almost an order. It wasn’t its nature but the tone with which it was delivered was what took her aback that little bit.

The man was an executive, a confident, self-assured executive, who knew where he stood, who knew what the pomp and exuding self-belief in his deliverance of the English language meant and signified, that it would impress and rattle the young, naïve-looking female airline employee, and that it would definitely be enough to get him the best seat possible. He knew everything, at the back of his mind at least, if not entirely consciously. He never as much looked at her in the eye, looking hither and thither all throughout. That was part of the game, the performance.

A few moments later, in the flight, having got an undesired middle seat for myself, I started with the novel I was wisely carrying. On my right, by the window, was a middle-aged, mustached man with a rather healthy paunch. One look at his face suggested that he was either very upset or very angry with something. He kept looking at the air-hostesses that passed by, shifting nervously in his seat throughout, as if not sure what posture would look most respectable, and would also be most comfortable at the same time.

Now, it happened that by the time they reached our row for serving dinner, all the non-vegetarian meals they had were finished. In crisp, air-hostessque English, one of the girls explained to him that as they had run short of the non-vegetarian meals, to take the vegetarian one was the only option he had. At this, the man’s already unpleasant expression turned even more so. He looked offended, as if being subjected to a gross injustice.

‘Non-veg nahi hai aapke paas? Yeh kaise ho sakta hai?’, he barked at her, more of an outburst than a question.

‘Sorry Sir. Lekin kuchh problem ho gayi hai. Galti se vegetarian khana zyada aa gaya, aur non-veg kam.’

This apology was all he needed. He didn’t really abhor vegetarian food, after all. Now sated, he murmured something incoherently, to which the girl didn’t reply and handed him the food plate quietly.

After she had left, he laughed and murmured something more to me. I couldn’t get anything of what it was, and only nodded slightly in return, thinking it would be enough to quieten him down. It was. Having embarrassed the hostess as he intended to, and visibly pleased with his performance, he now started with the food in front.

He had surely needed this little tantrum, without which his feeling of dislocation would only have been accentuated. To have this brief argument with the hostess, and that too in the language he was most comfortable in, was his way of getting level with the people around him, all of whom, as he must have noticed, were looking much more ‘sophisticated’ then he, and therefore superior in his eyes.

The English language is, as they say, the best thing the British ever gave us, and in that, I would agree with them. But on occasions (which, by the way, are not rare), it acts as a sheer monstrosity. One that cannot just be ignored.

Thursday, July 31, 2008


Shehanshahon ke shenhanshah, the emperor of emperors, Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar looks down at the blisters on his feet. He has walked miles on stone and dust, in the heat of the midday sun, like a mere commoner, to this little town called Sikri, just to seek the blessing of Shaikh Salim Chisti, the revered saint.

What his heart aches for is an heir to his throne; he is till now, childless. The Sufi saint did indeed bless him, predicting the birth of not one, not two but three sons, three possible heirs to the glory of the great Mughals.

What Akbar, childless and almost broken, doesn’t know is that the son he has asked for, the son who’ll ultimately be born, proving right Chisti’s prophecy, the son whom he’ll name Salim in honour of the great saint, will grow to be an obnoxiously rebellious offspring, and when the time came, will plot his own father’s overthrow, breaking his heart in two. Forever.

Today, Akbar knows nothing of that. For he is lost in the moment, in the promise that these blisters will not be for nothing. He is hopeful, believing, content.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting.

A man is walking down the street. At a certain moment, he tries to recall something, but the recollection escapes him. Automatically, he slows down.

Meanwhile, a person who wants to forget a disagreeable incident he has just lived through starts unconsciously to speed up his pace, as if he were trying to distance himeself from a thing still too close to him in time.

The degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory; the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting.

Milan Kundera. Slowness.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Tea & The Sky

Dear Mani,

Though there is no point in writing letters anymore, I just didn’t know what to do with the irrepressible temptation to do so tonight. It’s been quite a dull day, all throughout the clouds have stayed overhead, the rain teasing, without any wind. The sort of day that passes without making you realize that it has. The sort of day you love and hate for the same reason. And strangely, because I don’t know why, the desire to talk to you on such days becomes practically irresistible, even if it’s only one way, only like this.

Sometimes, on such days, when I lie on the bed in the afternoon, watching the white of the ceiling above, the blankness gives way to images and memories. Images in the form of memory. Memory in the form of images. And almost always, on such days, they are of you, and one other thing.

I see the both of us, like an approaching stranger would, sitting at the chai wala near the government school, the same which gave the tea in long, over-sized cups, more suitable for beer, which always made you feel that you were only being given half of what you paid for. Do you remember?

Maybe you don’t. It’s been a long time anyway. But regardless, the image of us at that joint remains fresh in my mind, and comes again and again on such slow, uneventful afternoons.

Why, I don’t know. I’m not sure why I even remember it so vividly. Does it bring me comfort? Pain? Ache? I have no answer. Maybe it is the feeling of timelessness we felt in our meetings there that fascinates me, the joint but unspoken feel of being suspended in time, as if the moment before and the moment after didn’t exist, as if the world was restricted to the few square metres of the shop, as if the world beyond was only a fantasy of our minds, as if anything we did before and after didn’t matter, as if this was what we were born to do, to sip tea beneath an empty sky and talk about anything outside the realm of consequence. How limitless and ecstatic would it be if our lives got frozen there, beside the chai wala, with the cups of tea in our hands, all the innumerable possibilities of our lives reduced to a beautiful, complete zero!

Consequence, consequence. How powerful and dangerous can that be! Yes, maybe it was the absence of this in our meetings and conversations that still make me remember it.

Do you remember? Maybe you don’t. It’s been a long time anyway. The shop doesn’t stand there anymore. The school authorities had it removed on the grounds that many students used it to bunk classes and have a smoke. But it is there in my mind, exactly as it was then - unscathed. As it will always be, as it will always come, on such days, which, in their stillness and completeness are quaintly similar to it,

Good Bye,

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Chai Ho Jaaye!

‘Tara, chhat se kapda utha!’, shouted his grandmother, in a tone so filled with alarm that it would have sounded more appropriate if the entire house was on fire. And without waiting for any confirmation from the maid, leaving the brinjal she was slicing in the kitchen unsliced, she ran frantically to the balcony to do the needful there.

The monsoons had arrived, and to little Amir, it seemed that it rained nowhere in the world as it rained in Patna. A moment before, it seemed like a perfect, idle, hot, summer afternoon, and now, all of a sudden, all hell had broken loose. The unlatched doors banged against the walls ferociously, the clouds roared, all tree tops pointed horizontally to one direction, as if showing a stranger the way to his destination. It was perfect, sublime chaos, turning the impeccable tranquility of the entire household to over-frenzied activity in a jiffy. As Amir saw, everyone in the house was running, everyone had suddenly sprung to action.

He ran to the terrace and stopped at the door, looking at the maid who was busy picking up as many clothes as she could in one go and depositing them at the nearest dry place. No one could have been more efficient right now; she did it as if her whole life depended on it.

‘Kuchh kapda tum bhi utha lo. Khade ho ke dekh rahe ho!’, she shouted above the rain when she saw him.

‘Rehne do na. Kya jaata hai? Bheeg jayega to kya hoga?’, he replied, teasing her.

‘Kya hoga! Agar tumhari Nanima ne humko baad mein daanta to? Tum bachane aayoge?’

‘Kyun nahi?’, Amir said, smiling his most mischievous smile. Leaving Tara behind, he now walked back into the house to see what the rest were up to.

His grandmother had returned from the balcony, satisfied and exhausted, and sat at the dining table, just below the ceiling fan. The look on her face was almost triumphant, as if she had just diffused a time bomb only a couple of seconds before it was supposed to go off.

‘Kitne jaldi aaya baarish. Bhaagte nahi to sab kapda bheeg jaata!’, she said when she saw Amir, explaining the supreme importance of the task, waiting for someone to commend her for her effort.

‘Hmmm’, Amir replied and went to the kitchen to fetch her some water.

The maid returned, the clothes replaced to safety. All was still once more, the household relaxed, only the sound of rain falling outside to be heard. His grandfather, who had carried on reading the newspaper quietly all this while, unperturbed by the abrupt bout of activity the world inside and outside had been in, also came in and sat down on the divan.

‘Chai ho jaaye!’, he cried, as always, as if the moment called for a celebration of sorts. In a way, it did, thought Amir. The rain always called for celebration, even in Patna, where there was never any scarcity of it.

Tea was brought, and as little Amir wasn’t allowed to have it yet, he sipped quietly on his Bournvita. The coming of the rains was almost a ritual, everything happened the same way every time – the runs to the terrace and balcony, the subsequent tea session, the small talk. Watching everyone have this unplanned chat, with the sound of the rain in the background, Amir felt strangely happy.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Suit & Tie

The malls. A showroom. A mirror.

I look into it, trying to judge whether the dark black trousers suit me, whether they produce awkward creases, whether the sleeves of the shirt I have on are too long, whether the shiny, black shoes I intend to buy would go well with the entire outfit.

I’m tense, a little irritated and very tired. And in between all the noise around and inside me at that moment, I stop and it occurs to me that this is the way it has always been.

And will be.

Where's the face, you ask?
Oh never mind, that hardly matters!

Your life is lost in this perpetual charade of trying to look like someone else, so much so that sometimes, you get scared of just being yourself. Trying to look like the well-dressed schoolboy when you are only a kid, being told to wear T-shirts more often when kurtas suit you fine, and now – trying to look like a prim-and-proper executive when you are at least a good one year away from actually being one.

And they do in the name of discipline. Even if one agrees to dress codes in schools and institutions, to ask someone to appear in suit and tie for an interview is totally preposterous. For once in the institution, the powers that be have the right to dictate how they want you to appear, and as a member, it is only correct that you follow the rules. But to do so when you are only applying for admission into the same is something that I don’t understand.

Isn’t it true that they are conducting the interview just to know you better, what you are and of what use you can be to their company? If the answer is yes, won’t it be more helpful for them and easier for you if you appear as you really are, be it unshaven, dirty or haggard? Doesn’t it harm the ‘selection’ process if everyone appears as if in uniform, with the same fake ‘confident’ smile, giving the same prototype ‘smart’ answers? Won’t it make things simpler for everyone involved if they decide to see each person in his own mould, his individuality shining through, and isn’t that what they are actually here for?

The whole exercise, as it stands, is a sham. It is, and excuse me if the phrase sounds a bit exaggerated to you, a perfect example of identity assassination.

But oh well, if you think I’m going to have my own way in this and play the harbinger of change, you can’t be further from the truth. The companies arrive in ten days time and you can be sure to find me all nicely dressed up in suit and tie, wearing the ‘confident’ smile, giving the ‘smart’ answers.

Saturday, June 14, 2008


Marvin, IC tagged me again. And though he didn’t expect me to complete this one, I found it quite interesting to do so. Ah, how I love these tags! Not the substitute for the real good stuff I should be coming up with, but who cares.

I am for whom the bell tolls. At least, that’s what I like to believe.

I think alarmingly more than one should think.

I know a lot many sad PJs.

I want roses in my garden when I do have one to call my own.

I have something really special in me. What it is exactly, that I’m still trying to ascertain.

I wish I had ideas to write on and not just be completing such tags for time pass.

I hate the man without a purpose.

I miss my old grandparents’ house where I used to spend my summer vacations as a kid.

I smell good most of the time. People can’t normally tell even when I haven’t bathed for a week.

I crave for the simple rice and dal meal I used to have at home.

I search myself in everyone I see, and eventually end up disappointed every time.

I wonder if God exists, and if yes, whether he has a conscience.

I love my grandmother. She is the strongest and the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.

I care a lot for my brother and sister. But I can never tell them that. I hope it shows.

I ache for rain all year, only to have it for a little time.

I am not many things that people think I am.

I believe in the principle ‘Live and help live’.

I dance only when I’m feeling silly. And only when I’m alone.

I sing quite well, but not many, like my mother, agree with me.

I cry “Pushpa, I hate tears. They are nothing but saline water.”

I don’t always mean to be rude but often am.

I write pulp fiction.

I win in almost all that I attempt. Because I often only attempt things in which I know I’ll win. And I know it’s wrong to be that way.

I lose my ‘usually dependable reasoning powers when I’m romantically trapped’.

I always end up confused. (Had to copy Marvin on this one)

I listen to Dire Straits when happy, The Doors when sad and Floyd when just myself.

I can usually be found on the bed, idling away effortlessly…na…effortFULLY.

I am happy when watching a Satyajit Ray movie.

I imagine myself as something incredibly grandiose in the distant future. Not that I’m going to tell you.

I tag Calvin and Jezuz yet again, though they haven’t still completed the last one I sent them.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


The rain comes. Uninvited but welcome, as always. The sun is down now, its almost night. The already darkening sky becomes even more so due to the cloud cover above. Everything’s hazy. Everything’s beautiful. Everything painted a dull white.

The rain has come and it’s washed everything with its colour. All white – the sky, the trees, the roads. The world suddenly looks cleaner – all the dirt washed away suddenly. It’s as if it needed the rain once in a while to purify itself.

You remove your glasses. They are the last thing you need right now. You lift your head to the white sky and close your eyes. The rain falls on your face, and for a moment, just for a moment, you feel that it has cleaned you too.

In the background, Gilmour sings –

The rain fell slow, down on all the roofs of uncertainty
I thought of you and the years of all the sadness fell away from me

The words don’t fit at all and fit just right at the same time. Combined with the rain, they produce a weird sensation, something like a cross between the most irrepressible ecstasy and the dullest ache.

And you wonder, you just wonder - could there be anything more complete than this?

Monday, June 2, 2008

Nai Dilli

Let me start by saying that when Marvin, IC tagged me some time ago, I wasn’t very keen on penning down a flashback on my home of many years - New Delhi. For the simple reason that it’s close to impossible trying to write about something you have been so closely related to, and for such a long time. At least not without letting your emotions get the better of you. But as I’ve been suffering from the Dearth of Ideas syndrome again of late, I thought I might as well give this a try. If nothing else, it would make the old man happy.


When I first set foot in the capital, I was about 4-5 years old. I was then staying in a little town called Sindri in Bihar and had come on a visit to my grandparents’ place in Saket. Within a few hours, I urged my maid to take me to the park opposite the house. Slides are meant for sliding, one might slip and things might happen. The recollection of what happened in the park then is only a blur in my memory. All I do remember is that there was quite a lot of blood, a few stitches and a little boy crying, shouting, cursing the city, saying repeatedly – ‘Ab dilli kabhi nahi aayenge!’. Later, when my grandmother had moved back to Patna and I to Delhi, and I wouldn’t get to see her often, she would tease me and say – ‘Look. You said you’ll never go there. And now you have become a permanent Dilliwala!’

Around two years after the incident, my father left the job he had in Sindri and as was the trend then for all ambitious, moved to Delhi. After a one-year stint in a particular flat in Vasant Kunj, a place of which I have no real fond memories, we then moved to another a little distance away. This was to be the place where I would spend the next five years of my life.

One of the first things I remember noticing about the place was that the flat was on the 3rd floor, the steps were steep, and so everyday, coming back from school, with the big heavy bag on my shoulders, I had a taste of how Edmund Hillary would have felt trying to climb the Everest. That was perhaps the only disagreeable thing about the place, as the rest was perfect – a balcony with a view of the entire colony from it and a huge park just opposite our flat with swings, skating rinks and a whole lot of empty space to play cricket on.

My first introduction to how Delhi was different came through the neighbourhood. In Patna and in Sindri, every flat had the same sort of people, all like you, middle-class, friendly, always full with unnecessary smiles when they saw each other. Delhi was different. It was the proverbial big city – hustling-bustling, busy, always in a hurry, smiles - yes but twisted, the sort which never encouraged you to start on a conversation. Unlike Sindri, not many uncles or aunties came to your house, not many asked you which school you were studying in, whether you could recite a poem or sing a song for them.

The difference was also in the variety of people. Before, I had only encountered people from Bihar in my life. Delhi, on the other hand, was a zoo of different-looking people. In the flats below us lived two Bengali families (loud and unclean), and in the ones opposite lived a family from Punjab (financially better placed than us, I remember thinking), one old South Indian lady, who looked rather lonely, and therefore friendly, and a Nepalese couple on the ground floor (they scared me every time I saw them. Even to my little mind at that time, they looked the sort of people who would be making explosives and stuff, a belief strengthened when they later covered their windows with black chart paper). Our apartment was a mini-India in itself, I still remember thinking.

The routine all throughout my stay there was rather fixed. School till two, lunch on the floor consisting of rice, dal and mashed potatoes, a brief study period, getting milk from Mother Dairy using coupons (which fascinated me no limit at first), off to the park for a two-hour cricket session, returning home like a weathered soldier, another brief dash at homework, dinner and sleep. All this may sound mundane to the reader but there are thousands of memories intertwined in this daily drudgery – like playing cricket from six in the morning to one in the afternoon on Sundays till our bodies ached and heads reeled from the heat, fighting ferociously with one of my best friends over a controversial run-out till I tore off his T-shirt resulting in he giving up and running back home crying, being mistaken by the man at Mother Dairy for a servant, shitting in my pants at school and being slapped by my mother when she discovered so at the bus-stop, being hit by a gunda called Shakal (what a suitable name, I thought!), kicking him back impulsively in return and running away, waiting for Shri Krishna on Doordarshan desperately on Sunday mornings, thereby watching the whole of Krishi Darshan also in the process, and the best of them all - mixing water colours in the terrace tanker on Holi with my partner-in-crime.

Then, when I went to Class 6th, we moved to Chandigarh. But Delhi was what we would eventually return to, and so we did in a couple of years, again taking shelter in Vasant Kunj. That was the start of another six years in the capital. But I wasn’t a kid anymore, rather a boy trying to act like a man. Reading and writing overtook cricket, surfing the net overtook the mythological serials, listening to George Michael and Queen, to an extent, overtook idling away with friends.

Love also entered thoughts somewhere. Falling in love with someone and then falling out in a month was the usual trend. It is amazing to think now how I got myself deeply infatuated with every second girl in sight, and ruminated over her for hours continuously, and then due to mental exhaustion, in the end, forgot her entirely. It was almost as if January to December, there was someone new every time, like the Flavour of the Month at an ice-cream shop.

With time also came an increased emphasis on studies. And the final three years of my school life were absorbed in wanting 80 when I got 70, 90 when I got 80 and so forth. First there were the 10th board exams, then coaching to get into ‘THE IIT’, and then the 12th board exams again. Being the reluctant science student that I always have been, the coaching proved to be futile with me failing miserably in all competitive exams. Result – while my friends got busy with their first year at college, I had to stay at home and drop a year.

I would be deceiving myself if I say that the last year of my stay in Delhi wasn’t the worst of my life thus far. Coaching continued, and also my awareness of the futility of it all. In January, helpless, I moved to a flat in a place called Jia Sarai, which I fondly refer to as The Shithole. The move was supposed to help me concentrate better, away from home and between fellow students. But it hardly helped; the four months stay there was slightly better in terms of studies, but was accompanied by long late-night walks to Hauz Khas or Munirka to keep my sanity intact. The desire to leave Delhi, the city where I had grown and the city which I had loved, was overwhelming and it was no little relief when I did so finally in August 2005, putting an end to the eleven years that I had lived in the capital.

Three years have passed since then. The family has moved to Gurgaon now, a place so self-sufficient that Delhi seems like a part of the past. Trips to my old home are made only to meet up with friends at CP or to the railway station to catch the train to Gandhinagar. Delhi is always so near but always so distant, not just in terms of distance but also in terms of years, and in terms of memories - some good, some bad - but as a whole package, strangely warm.

I am not an expert on Delhi and Delhi life, nor do I claim to be. My association with the city has almost entirely been with only its southern and central parts, and there is a lot, as some have pointed out, that remains to be seen. But this was how I knew the city, and the city knew me. Maybe someday I’ll return and see the capital in its entirety. Maybe. Someday.

To carry on the string of tales, I tag Jezuz and Calvin.

P.S. - And now that Zinque is with us, I invite her as well to tell her story. After all, small, insignificant places deserve a mention too ;)

Friday, May 23, 2008

Flat 608

He pulled up near her house, in that familiar jam-packed parking lot, uncanny in its crowded resemblance to all other parking lots in Vasant Kunj. Nothing about the place had changed, as he had half-expected to – the flats with their illegal balconies jutting out, the parking with every car from 800 to Tavera on show, the sheer cave-like look of the place. After all, it was only two years before that he was here last, walking up to the 3rd floor of the apartment and ringing the bell for flat 608.

He did the same again today, but with an inexplicable urgency, as if he wanted to start or end with something very quickly. The servant answered and when he took her name, the man quickly disappeared into the house, no hint of emotion on his face, as he was expecting him already.

Then she came, walking up to the door, trying to get a glance of who it was through the netting. She finally did recognize him, and with the faintest of smiles, she said, ‘Is that you?’

‘What does it look like?’, he replied.

She through the door open, and looked at him carefully, as if to check whether he was really what he sounded like, what he looked like, what he claimed he was.

‘Hello’, she said, after she was convinced that it was indeed so.

‘Hi’, he said quickly, not wanting to say it.

Both stared at each other for a moment, not knowing what to say, afraid that one word might spoil everything, just trying to let the moment sink in, examining each other’s faces as if they expected to see sagging wrinkles, white hair or deep hollows below the eyes, as if it had been not only two years but eternity since they had last set eyes on each other.

‘Come in!’, she finally exclaimed, first conscious to the un-reality of the moment. This woke him up from his trance too, and he nervously shifted his feet.

‘Can we go out for a cup of coffee?’

‘You know I don’t like coffee.’

‘Yes. Tea then?’

‘That’ll be good. Give me a minute.’

She rushed in again, leaving him at the door. He was confused. It was almost as if he had been sure that his invitation would be refused, as if he had expected or even wanted her to say ‘Oh yeah?’ and slam the door on his face. But she hadn’t. This was what he had come here for, this was what he had feared. He suddenly found himself wanting to run down, get into his car, and drive away as if nothing had happened.

But he didn’t.

Then, she reappeared. She hadn’t changed anything really, she was her casual self – a blue worn-out top, dark blue jeans, a black hair band - failing miserably to fulfill its purpose, and dark green Puma floaters. On her way out, she murmured something to the servant, and rushed down the stairs, leaving him behind, as if it was not he but she who had invited him for the outing.

As it has always been, he thought, trying to catch up with her, and failing as usual. When he finally got down, she was already alongside his car in the parking, her hands on the door handle, waiting for him to unlock it. He smiled weakly when he saw her, and she smiled back.

Tea was had at a roadside ‘settlement’ near the Central Market. Five rupees. Full with sugar and milk. Like he liked it. And she.

They walked around the place for a while, flipping through the magazines on sale, gazing mindlessly at the passing traffic, she pausing to ask the man at the music store for a cassette he knew she would never buy.

‘How’s college?’, she finally asked him, casually, in a tone more suitable for asking someone whether he liked strawberry ice-cream.

‘Good, good’, is all he could say in return.

‘Found good friends?’

‘Ya. Was a bit lonely in the beginning but its getting better slowly. Found a nice group of people.’

He was not sure whether this was the most correct thing to say, whether this was what she wanted to hear, whether she even wanted to hear something in particular.

‘What about you?’, he asked, trying to be polite, trying to keep up his end of the conversation.

‘Ah I’m still trying to adjust. I had expected an engineering college to be this way. And it has surely lived up to my expectations!’, she said, laughing with sad eyes.

Desultory conversation followed, straying to the courses they had studied, how and where aunts and uncles were, how and where old school friends were. It never got too personal, how-are-you-s and why-don’t-you-s where spared - things both wished passionately they could say or ask, but none having the final required courage to do so.

And then slowly, it was dark. They headed for the car without saying anything, as if the time to leave had been fixed by prior understanding.

When they reached the parking lot near her house, she got down slowly. Then, having closed the door, she bent down and looked at him in the eye through the window.

‘When am I going to see you next?’, she asked. It was the first remotely intimate question of the evening from either of them.

‘Soon. I’ll be here again in the summer.’

She nodded, and said ‘Don’t say Bye this time.’

And in an instant, she turned, ran and sprinted up the stairs of her apartment, not looking back. He was a little surprised with the abruptness of it all, but he thought he understood, and tried to smile to himself. Then, he backed his car, and left the parking lot, longing already, in a very strange way, to visit it again.