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.