12 Feb 2015
God: “They know you are not me. Why keep them waiting?”
Godot: “I might go, but what’s the point, though?”
God: “Contemplating about the point! Doesn’t suit you.”
Godot: “If only I cared!”
The leafless tree braves another winter.
Godot: “What’s your point?”
God: “Do I need one?”
Godot: “So, let it be!”
The lace of the shoe comes off.
All Over. Again.
10 Dec 2014
I can't tell this day from the other; I can't tell the next week from this one, either. Months have passed in tens and I can't tell which one will remain etched into the farthest lanes of time, for each one has just been the same. I can't tell this year from the past few I had lived through. There was a time - and what a time was that! - when I could spot that one face among hundreds, even in the gloomiest of hours, and now I can't tell her face from another's. Have I lost the eye or is it the faces indeed? They sport the same deliberate smiles, that sly glint in their eyes and that haggard bearing that fain hides the beauty of ageing skin. Just as the nonchalant fingers, benumbed by habit, hold the fag but never feel its texture, I feel I have sleepwalked in time without ever confronting life. There's neither the joy of living nor the ache of dying; just a frozen indifference.
Maria found it unusual that Jacob should ponder so deeply in her company. She ran her finger through his hair. He felt Maria's slender nail slide along his neck. Then he heard her: "I sleep with three or four men every night; I can't tell one fuck from another. You either get used to it or you look beyond. When you start getting used to, you have chosen to die."
Briefly, Jacob looked at her face. "And what is it to look beyond? What is it to look beyond when this is all there is?"
"I don't know! But on some morning when you open the window and look into the distance, you will feel you can still run, that you can still abandon everything and just run. You will not mind the stakes, you will not care if you must run barefoot, you will know how much you want to run and touch those spotless skies, crash in the sand and just breathe. And maybe then, when you die, you will at least die with grace!"
27 Oct 2014
You can reconcile with death, partly because it is choiceless. Just as the claws of an eagle that hold fast its prey, death holds you captive. Its clasp is firm and its strike, final. When the errand is done, it leaves behind nothing, just as the flight of the eagle does not, either. The inevitability of this fate at once justifies the seeming absurdity of life.
In contrast, dying is tougher to reconcile with. Unlike death whose move is abrupt, the abject process of dying invites you into its hold and imposes its contours on your unwilling person. Its biggest triumph is in putting you against yourself. One part clings to the hope of surviving so you can return to the familiar; the other is strangled to give in. In this very ambivalence, dying and living merge as a continuum.
What you are familiar with, you realise, is not life but living. The only thing that needs to be understood, if you must understand life, is death.
2 Aug 2014
I didn’t know where to begin. Or how. The old woman looked straight in my eye. Whether her glance reflected gratitude or contempt, it was not obvious. The old man, frail and bound to the wheel chair, held the book close. His fingers ran fondly along the name of the author, as he tried holding back tears. Briefly, the woman, sitting beside, held his hand gently. Neither of them said a word, but each one knew how the other was feeling. I felt like an intruder to a most private moment.
“Let me get you a cup of tea”, the woman said affectionately and stood up.
“Please don’t bother, auntie”.
“With a few cookies too”, she smiled, as she paced toward the kitchen.
That morning when I woke up, I realised I had particularly nothing to do. The return flight was at late evening, so I had the entire day of leisure ahead. I knew I would die of tedium if I stayed at hotel. Quickly I took out the book from my bag. Twenty-two years before when my Dad brought it home, I took an instant liking for its cover. “I found this in the train”, my Dad said. “Luckily, it has the address of the owner. We will send him by post”.
I was barely into my teens and still didn’t lose the fascination for collecting things that I will never use. Having liked the book, I didn’t like the idea of returning it to its owner. When Dad went into another room, I picked up, furtively, the book, rushed into my room and put it behind a pile of books.
After two days, Dad left for Europe and by the time he returned after two months, both of us had forgotten about the book.
After many years, I opened the book for the first time. Untrampled, read the title; Karthik Srinivasan was the author. I was never fond of reading, so I just glanced at a few pages. It appeared to me like an anthology of poetry. What caught my interest was the name of the owner, with address. Would he be still looking for the book, I doubted. The book had aged, and its pages gathered a yellow tinge. For some strange reason, I decided I will find that man and return the book.
In my previous visits to Bangalore, I could not find time. So during that trip, when I found time, I thought it was the best chance.
It took a couple of hours to find his house. I gathered he was a well-known, respected man in the neighbourhood. Srinivasan T Palani, I noticed the name plate. Retired Justice. The house had two Ambassadors in the garage, and had a well-maintained lawn. An old woman, who looked graceful and learned, opened the door. When I told her I wanted to meet Mr Srinivasan, she received me politely and led me to a study. I saw him reading a book. The room resembled a library. I wondered if he even remembered that book.
Shy as I was, I didn’t spend much time in introduction. I kept it to the point and told him I had come to return that book. I thought it would finish with a simple “thank you” from them, and I would leave. Strangely, although I had never read the book, when I gave him it felt as if I was relieving myself of a persistent burden. As he held the book, he was overcome with emotion. The woman too partaked of that feeling but showed more restraint. His fingers trembled a bit when he opened the cover and read his name.
He wiped a tear at the corner of his eyes, looked at me and offered a hug. It was so effusive I could not refuse. Yet when he hugged I felt awkward. “Thank you very much”, he said. I didn’t understand why a simple book would effect such a rush of emotion. Maybe he was too mushy by nature, I thought. It appeared as if he got back a precious box of memories which he had, in a moment of carelessness, lost two decades ago. That is perhaps why the book had become heavier with time, for it preserved, on each of its page, the memories of unforgettable times.
As I sat back in the chair, and the woman looked at me, I was overcome with a sense of guilt. Neither asked questions about how I had found the book. The story was rather irrelevant for them. Yet if they ask, where should I begin the story, I reckoned. I didn’t know where to begin. Or how.
It had just begun raining, so I felt good that Mrs Srinivasan would soon bring a cup of tea. Before she walked in, the old man recollected briefly. “This is my son’s poetry collection”, his eyes brightened. “I always thought he lacked a poetic bent, and often made disparaging remarks. The day I retired, he sent me this book. The only signed copy. We were not on talking terms that time, so he lived in Mumbai”.
As he recounted fondly, I could slowly connect the threads of melancholy. Just then, a little boy came running into the room. “Grandpa, who mixes salt in the sea?” he asked impatiently. “Whenever you refuse to eat what Grandma gives you, the salt in your food goes and mixes with the sea water”, Mr Srinivasan quipped. The playful exchange must be familiar, for the boy didn’t care to hear an answer. He laughed and said, “How does it go to the sea? Does it fly? Does it have wings?”
As impatiently as he ran into, he ran out of the room.
“My grandson”, Mr Srinivasan looked in the direction the little boy had run.
“Very adorable”, I said. I remembered my six-year-old daughter.
Mrs Srinivasan walked in, and offered me tea. Very gracefully, she put the plate of biscuits on the stool beside. She must have followed our conversation, so she added, “one incorrigible brat, he is!”
She sat beside Mr Srinivasan, as he continued. “When I read the book, I broke down. I called him up and absolved my shame. I told him I was proud of him; I wept. I asked him to visit us. In hindsight, that was my biggest blunder. The following weekend, just an hour before they were to reach the city, their vehicle met with an accident”. It appeared to make him recollect something more. “A few years ago, my daughter too met with a similar accident. Only this little fellow survived”, he referred to the little boy.
“I am very sorry, sir”. I then realised why the book was especially precious to him.
The old man sighed. “We learn our best lessons in life that way. It’s all about the art of losing”, he pondered. I followed him earnestly. “He had a great writer in him. I lost my son; the world lost a writer. A poet”, he emphasised.
Mrs Srinivasan reminded me of biscuits again. “He used to carry this book everywhere. Everywhere. On one of his trips to Calcutta, he lost it”.
“In train”, Mr Srinivasan added.
“He was heartbroken that day”.
“And remained so! Till you walked in and gave it in my hands”, he smiled at me.
The more gratitude they expressed, the more guilty it made me feel. I also felt proud of my father who always taught me that every little thing has a value. Twenty-two years before if he hadn’t told me that he intended to send the book to its owner, it would have never occurred to me to visit Mr Srinivasan.
I wanted to apologise, but Mr Srinivasan picked a poem to read out. “See how beautiful this one reads. It’s titled Chasing the Light”, he said.
“Between the fringes of the leaves
That she spots in shadows
She tries to catch the light
She breaks into laughter
As her fists close tight
The light between her fingers
Draws the lines fine
As it slides along her palm
Which, in her youth, some man
Will hold with love and admire
The leaves sway, her fists open
The shadows fall apart, forlorn
And curse the gleeful breeze”
As he read a few more, the little boy again walked in and sat in his grandmother’s lap. I knew the title of the book but for the first time, I read it carefully. Untrampled. The irony hit me – by not walking into their life, by not taking the steps I was supposed to, till that day, I had left twenty-two years of their memories trampled. What occurred to me as a casual trip to kill the purposelessness of a boring day, ended up as a most fulfilling experience. I sought their blessings as I got up. I wanted to leave my address with them, for I wanted to hear from them of their well-being. I fumbled as I tried to pull out pen from my pocket, and everything fell down. A few business cards, some currency, and some coins.
Embarrassed, I quickly gathered everything. The little boy rushed in, slid his hand below the sofa, stood up and hastily walked toward his room. Mrs Srinivasan stopped him, “Vijay! Show your hands”. The little boy unfoled his fists. It was a coin. “Give it back to uncle”, she said. I didn’t surely mind the kid fancying a coin, but I also liked how obedient he was. “Thank you, Vijay!” I appreciated when he returned. He disappeared into his room. I gave Mrs Srinivasan the address slip, thanked them and took leave.
That evening when I took the return flight, the airlines misplaced one of my bags. I left a complaint and made it to home. I always traveled light, so the bag had just a couple of pairs and toiletries. Or so I thought, till the next evening when my little daughter came running into my embrace and asked me to show her the keychain she had chosen for me as a birthday gift, five months before. It had a meticulous carving of the Buddha, and I always carried it with care. Every time I returned from a trip, she would check if I kept it safe.
To my utter disbelief, I could not find it in my trousers. I searched frantically, but it became clear I had lost it. Even as I was angry with myself, I broke her little heart. As it was raining the previous night, I had packed a few things in the bag at the last minute. I told her how one of my bags was lost, and assured that the airlines would find it and send. But nothing could convince her. I couldn’t sleep that night. Neither of us would ever forget that event.
Twenty-four years have passed since that day. The morning was bright, but clouds have gathered now, as I recline and leisurely reminisce those times. Time moves on, but you remain anchored to some moments in the past. They refuse to let you go.
I followed up with the airlines for three years and gave it up. They apologised for the loss and offered compensation. I declined, for what I had lost was priceless. My daughter still, on occasion, taunts me about my carelessness and I still try to convince her I couldn’t have been careless about her gift. And I fail.
Six months after I returned that book, Mr Srinivasan died. I attended the funeral, and that was the last I saw of Mrs Srinivasan and their grandson. I heard from her, though, for a few years. Six years after Mr Srinivasan’s death, Mrs Srinivasan died. Her cousin’s family took Vijay to Europe.
Briefly, my grand-daughter walks toward me and gives me a stone. “Grandpa, keep this in your pocket. And don’t tell grandma”, she says. “Here, my precious”, I tell her as I slip it into my pocket. She smiles and walks into the lawn again. She remembers something and turns back, “Don’t lose it, Okay?” I smile and assure her, “Never, darling!”
I hear a knock on the door. “I will just be back, precious”, I tell her and walk in to check the door. “Mr Siddharth?” the young man asks. “Yes”, I confirm. “Hi! Hi uncle, I am Vijay”, he says, extending his hand. The name sounds familiar, and before I get it, he helps me, “Mr Srinivasan’s grandson”.
“Ah, of course! What a pleasant surprise!” I invite him in. “How are you, boy?”
“Very fine, uncle. How are you?” His tone is firm and affable.
I ask him about his years in Europe, his education, job and the rest of it and he answers politely. Curiously, I ask how he could find my home. He refers to some technologies which I vaguely understand. Nonetheless, I find it impressive. “My wife has gone out for a while; let me get something for you. Would you like coffee or tea?” I enquire.
“Sure, I can do with a cup of coffee, uncle”, he replies. A pause later, he adds, “but before that, I have something for you”.
As I follow eagerly, he slowly takes out a small box from his pocket. It is neatly wrapped. I remove it carefully. When I remove the last strand of paper, tears rush in my eyes. For a minute, I feel it to my fingers. The complacent, content Buddha on the metal. I look at Vijay and tell him, “I cannot thank you enough!” I walk to him and embrace. Twenty-four years ago when Mr Srinivasan embraced me so, I felt awkward. I can understand if Vijay feels awakward, too, but I also understand Mr Srinivasan couldn’t help it. “Let me get you coffee”, I tell him and walk into the kitchen.
For a few minutes, I clasp the keychain and sob. It might be a romantic notion, but it feels as if the keychain too had been looking for me. Isn’t that why when it slipped off me, it found the right person to be spotted by, who will preserve it for decades and eventually find me and return it? As did that book, too, forty-six years ago? And when one loses something so it finds him again, even after decades, he has mastered the art of losing.
I come back with coffee and find him chatting with my grand-daughter. She picks up one cookie and runs out into the lawn. Sipping coffee, he asks me, “Uncle, that day when I returned the coin, why did nobody ask me to open the other hand?”
“Just so, twenty-four years later, you knock on the door of an old man’s and make his day!” I smile.
My grand-daughter walks in and comes to me. “Grandpa, will you tell me a story this evening?” I caress her face and say, “Absolutely! I have a very nice one for you”. She is delighted. “What is it about, Grandpa?”
“Dear one”, I explain, “it’s the story of a lost book”. Three of us smile, and hear the gentle sound of rain drops.
11 May 2014
He knew the moment has come, but pretended to stay strong. He took her frail hand in his. He wanted to plead, “don’t go, Mom!” but when she looked at his face, he wept. “I cannot live without you, Mom!” he said. If life has any essence, living through this moment was it. You either cross this line or you collapse, broken and devastated. It’s the moment of nakedness.
“My dearest child”, he heard her. “Mother is not a person. Mother is not a role. Mother is a presence. A mother never dies.”
“If you have loved your mother, don’t finish with it when you place the wreath”, she said lovingly. “Be a mother yourself. Toss your baby into air and let her breathe joy. Let her absorb it with her being. Walk with her on the sands. And when she has learnt to dance to the kiss of waters, retreat. Sit quiet on the sands and watch your footsteps run into the sea. And when the waves return and bathe her feet, feel your caress.”
“And when you know it’s time, walk away with the grace of a falling leaf.”
Her eyes closed, and the lone breeze that tiptoed through the window ruffled his hair.
22 Feb 2013
I can’t distinguish between sleep and wakefulness these days, but if this is called waking up, I have just woken up. You open the eyes, stretch the limbs, join the rush, pace with the clock till it’s dusk, or till your eyes close again. A day in one’s life. I had known such days. Till four months ago.
I fold my bed carefully and put it in the hole. They gave me this pack when they threw me out of that bus. The stock has to last for one year, I was told. Should I have to visit the Embassy to collect the stock, I wondered. I don’t need to. They will come and give me. It’s all right if I forget the track of time, and I most likely will. They will remember. They will keep the clock for me.
This is my domicile. It’s an abandoned subway. It used to stink when I was thrown in, but I have gotten used to it now. One of my friends had a theory that it takes a man 21 days to get used to something. I didn’t keep a count, but I guess it didn’t take me longer than that. The subway, just like the rest of the city, is under surveillance. And that’s how they will fish my body when I die.
I walk up the steps and smell the day. How does one smell the day? Live my life for two weeks and you will, too.
The din of the city is gradually getting louder. Artemis de Cuba is a secret Cuban province. You won’t find it on the map. It’s a small picturesque island, two hours off Guantanamo, and a favorite retreat for the mafia. The city is rich and thickly guarded. Unless you are in close circles of mafia or politics, you can’t get out of this island alive. Should you get caught scheming an escape, they will put you on a boat to Guantanamo as a subject for training the new recruits in torture methods. If at all they don’t shoot in your brains and dump you dead in the sea while on the boat itself.
People walk past me. I walk past them. I’m not a stranger anymore. I would cross three lanes and I know my place. I arrange my humble spread and sit at the foot of the skyscraper. On a lucky day, in two hours I get the money needed for a basic meal and tea. I sit here because this is closer to airport. I look at the skies and I see these planes – all of them private, chartered jets – flying. And I fancy one of them mistaking me for a head of a drug cartel and flying me out of this place, back in time, for an evening with a Brazilian escort, but losing the direction and landing in India. Or even, having realised the mistake, push me into the sea below. From where I would swim, across one sea after another, to reach the tip of India. And resting on the sand, cry. Cry loud, to my little daughter, “Darling, I have come!”
An old man hurriedly drops a coin into my bowl. I lower my eyes and look at it. I say, “thank you”, but he has already left. Within two hours, thanks to a few generous souls, I have enough money to buy myself a meal. What would my daughter think if she is told her father is now a beggar? At six years, she is too young to examine her prejudices, but also old enough to imagine her father in a beggar’s rags and form a lasting opinion, as a consequence. Her mother abhors beggars and has done a good job of gifting her prejudice to the little one. It takes a snap to form a bias; to undo it takes a lifetime.
By the time I finish brunch, it’s almost noon. I don’t know when I will have a good meal again, so I sit there for some time and relish. I close my eyes and feel the sun on my face.
Swiftly walking by, a young man pulls a coin out of his pocket and throws at me. Before I thank him, he has joined the crowd. They never look at me. If they do, they would see their own guilt. Charity is the easiest way to get rid of guilt. Pull out a coin, throw at the guy, and you are a step closer to the heaven. I gulp a piece of bread, sip a cup of tea and take them closer to heaven. By sheer accident.
But this isn’t a bargain I had asked for. I had a life just like these people who, dressed in rich suits, are hurriedly making their way to work. I was a strategy consultant with one of the biggest brands on the globe. Fat pay, enviable perks, two cars in the garage, annual holidays in the Caribbean, medical insurance, education allowance for the kid, I had everything. I didn’t see a blot on the road ahead, I was proud, confident, and believed I don’t owe anything to the world. And then, in one hour, everything changed.
I remember that day. “Come over with your docs in an hour. A quick meeting”, the voice on the phone said. It was an acquaintance at the Embassy. Must be for an important trip, I thought. The guy didn’t smile when I entered his cabin. I was told that a confidential file of national security, which I had prepared for a defence client, got leaked and, probably, traded. “But it was protected, encrypted at two levels, and can’t go out without approval from high-office”, I clarified. “But we can’t touch the big fish”, he admitted upfront. “And because you know this secret too, we got you”, he added. They took me into a voice-proof room, stripped me, burned my documents – passport, bank cards, identity cards, education and work papers, everything – and put me on a plane. I was blindfolded. A couple of minutes later, I felt a sharp prick of a needle on my wrist. For a few seconds, I felt everything was spinning and slowing down. When I regained my consciousness, I found myself sitting in that bus. I wanted to know what, if at all, they had informed to my family. To my daughter. But they wouldn’t answer. Can I make a phone call? No answer. When will they send me back? No answer. Estranged. Stripped of identity. Done in.
Education would see me through. Or so I thought. I would find some work, make calls to home, post notes on Facebook, file an online petition, and it will be fine. A few weeks of tough life, but I will be out. Rahim laughed at me, “you are naive”. Rahim was the guy I first met when I took the steps down the subway. He looked younger to me, but I never asked his age. He taught Economics at Stanford, he told me. A migrant from Pakistan, he was picked up as a terrorist suspect after he strongly defended on Facebook a campaign that questioned the government’s stand on freedom of speech. I wanted to know why he thought I was naive. “Because you are in a rat-hole and are still thinking in terms of options. That’s what the world makes you into. Your life depends on someone’s whim, they kick your butt, put you into a hole”, he stressed, “close the doors and expect you to find the way out, yourself!”
I was still not convinced. Rahim explained, “Not for nothing is this a secret province. Once you are in here, there’s no way out. You are an illegal entity here. Nobody is allowed to give you work. Without identity proof you are not allowed to make calls. Besides, you can make calls only to other provinces. Calls to your country and my country are barred. Unless you are, you know, in close circles with mafia. If at all you go the distance and steal one of their phones and call your home, they will intercept your call, track you down and kill you in ten minutes”. It made me feel more gloomy and angry. “Without identity proof, again, you cannot step into any internet kiosk. And no, this ain’t no movie, so don’t imagine some generous bystander helping you with his iPad. Every mail is tracked, every IP is mapped, every corner of the city is under surveillance. Nobody will risk it for you. And Facebook? Twitter? Mail? Ha ha ha! You surely don’t know the world, bro! Your profiles must have already been erased!” he added. “J-u-s-t l-i-k-e t-h-a-t!” he snapped his fingers. “And in a world obsessed with evidence, how will you prove your identity?”
“It can’t be that bad”, I tried to tell myself. “Authoritarian regimes are vile. Human rights are totally violated”, I opined, trying to keep it as a mature conversation and not yield to my emotion. He again chided me to not repeat from the book, but look deeper. “All regimes are just the same, bro! It’s a power game. In authoritarian states, they use torture; in democratic states, they use persuasion. Whichever way, it’s the state that decides your choices”. His argument was forceful, so I couldn’t refute. At the same time, I refused to lose. “But even at relative terms, democratic states grant you more freedom. Your voice is at least heard”, I made a point. “Freedom is a big myth, a sort of global urban legend! In a state that is strongly capitalist and with a thriving consumerist culture, feedback is a cog that helps their competition. So you are encouraged to voice your grievance, and they make you believe you have the same equation with the state. You are a scapegoat. You voiced your story. Did anyone give a fuck? You think your state or your company wasn’t aware that you would be deported? Why do you want to deceive yourself more? Wake up!”
I couldn’t move. His words, “Wake up!” played in my mind for some time. He had to add, “And who said you don’t have freedom here? You are free to move around in the town, you can sleep anywhere. You won’t be killed for begging. Public toilets are free to use, and they are clean. If you pass out or get shot, health care is free”. I noticed his dismissive shrug. “You could visit the girls, they give you a special price. They are kind”, he winked.
He seemed to be familiar with this place. He could help me out, I reckoned. “Well, I had everything till the other day. Now here I am. I don’t have any document. I want to go back to my little daughter. I at least want to call up and hear her voice, and tell her I am alive. I can do some work. I could… teach, do computers…”, I tried to add. “And?” he asked. “I could… I could wash cars, clean the tables”, I was desperate. “Can you sell drugs?” he asked. “Impossible. I will rather die than sell drugs!” I asserted.
One week later, he introduced me to a crack gang. After I told him I will never sell drugs, he didn’t ask me again. But probably he knew I would relent. For six days, I knocked on the doors of offices, homes, hotels and malls. Nobody would give me any work. When I returned at nights, fighting the pangs of hunger, he would offer me bread. Desperation was getting to me. I wanted to call up, if only once, and find out how my daughter was doing. “I want to give it a try”, I finally told Rahim. He briefed me. “It’s illegal by the book. But do you think cops don’t know? There are millions in it, and state needs it. You do good, you make quick bucks. No danger from cops, they will look the other way. The danger is from the other gangs. Even from your own. But, hey, it’s not any more cruel than it’s in a corporate. There, they fire with pink slips. Here, they use guns. You rise the ranks, they may even help you visit your country”.
In my job, I always smuggled ideas. It is the norm. It is the game. My conscience was clean. Now if I were to smuggle drugs, what’s so bad, after all, I reckoned. Rahim almost read my mind. “You are trained to believe that everything legal is moral and everything illegal, immoral. If selling drugs were legal, would you have taken so much time to decide?” When the gang briefed me about the job, it sounded very similar to a job description in a multinational. If one looked at their organization chart, he wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, either. It wasn’t an ethical question for me anymore, but that of my own grit. I was enticed by the fact that I could save money and somehow find a way out. But the stakes were high – one mistake, and I must pay with my life. Can I risk it? Survive longer, save coin by coin, and meticulously plan an escape, or risk it, live on the fringe and rather even die? I had thought about this even before I met them. Rahim warned me to be polite with them, no matter what. I weighed in the stakes again. Politely, I thanked them and told I am not ready for it yet. With a grin and a hard pat, the guy said, “Easy. No worries. Whenever”.
Although in Rahim I found a chap who I could share my anguish with, I hated him because he seemed to have answers for everything. He was incisive and witty. I tried to find the method in this madness, and he reminded I am mad. I could not come to terms with the situational irony of my life, he persuaded me to confront it. I can’t say I made friends with Rahim, for I didn’t spend much time with him. And in whatever short time I had spent, I was preoccupied with my thoughts and hardly tried to know anything about him. However, in the few discussions we had, he packed in insights that I couldn’t crack in my lifetime. If I have survived here for so long, I owe it to him. Three weeks after I met him, at about midnight a crack gang came in and took him away. Rahim told me that the new recruits in these gangs compete for cash awards on Ximbo, the local version of YouTube, by posting videos of their violent attacks on the homeless. I don’t know if they killed him, but after that night I have never seen him again.
A few hours go by, as I reminisce and pointlessly observe the crowd. I sit on the pavement, sipping tea. My cap is torn at its edges. With my thick beard to add, I look funny and out of place. On the opposite side, a young woman is talking on the phone. Her other hand is firmly clasping her little daughter’s hand. They may be waiting for the bus, returning home after a round of shopping. The woman looks complete with the baby. People are wrong when they say a woman completes a man and vice-versa. If that were so, marriage by itself would be fulfilling. But that’s not how it is. It is children who complete them both – the man and the woman. The nurtured becomes the nurturer, life comes full circle. The little girl looks at me. I look back and she smiles. Maybe she finds me amusing, or maybe, by some miracle, she saw in my eyes the beautiful face of my daughter. A minute later, the bus arrives.
After a short walk, I find a place to sit outside a park. I watch the children playing. A little kid approaches me and puts a chocolate in the bowl. I smile at him. His mother scolds him and pulls him away. Over the next hour, a few people notice me and I gather some coins. The city is brightly lit and it has started to get cold. I get up and start walking. It takes about 30 minutes to the subway. I take the shortcut to reach sooner. I reach the penultimate lane when I spot a group of young guys chatting and smoking. It doesn’t feel all too well, but I just keep at it. I will just walk by quietly and not stare at them, I assess. As I am just about to walk past them, two guys stand up and intercept me. We don’t exchange any words or stares. Quickly, they check on me and find nothing. One of them pulls the change I had gathered in the day from my pocket. Finished with, they push me away.
Anger would have been a fair response, but I realise this is the world I have made. I realise I am responsible for the world, as it is. This much is clear to me – that I had lived like a frog in a well. I thought if I have a good job, a family, and minded my own business, I am living it perfectly. Why do I need to care for, or understand, the world, I convinced myself. What do I care if some country, thousands of miles away from mine, is at unrest, I would dismiss with arrogance. But I see that to think one is alone and independent is a delusion. Every time I forgot to be kind, every word I spoke in anger, every act of indifference, every prejudice I held as truth, every truth I refused to believe – at every such moment, I made the world what it is. Now I am paying for it. Everyone must pay. If you are lucky to make it through life unscathed, your kids will pay. If they are lucky too, your grand-kids will.
I reach the subway. When I walk down these steps, there’s no note of piano that I hear. All I hear is the haunting sound of my own feet hitting against the floor.
I spread my bed carefully and lie down. In an hour or two, some young chaps, ambitious of winning cash awards on Ximbo and making it big in a drug cartel, may stop by and pick me up. Or they may come next evening. Or the day after. A day or two later, someone munching on popcorn will, after watching the bullet hole crack my skull open and my frame drop dead to the ground, point the cursor on the Like button and click it. Deliverance of another kind, but if there’s no deliverance from this hole, that’s the second best. It’s that time of the hour when, if that guy from the Embassy hadn’t called me that day, I would hold my little one in my arms and hum the rhyme that only two of us know. It’s meaningless, but she gets it. Quietly, I sing what has become her favorite lullaby.
Round round round and round round round
In such a big ground, round round round
Daddy round, baby round, round round round
You and me on the ground, round round round
I just hope my daughter is listening to it. Will I ever see her again? I don’t know. I don’t want to know. Imperceptibly, and stealthy as a snake, fear grips my frame. With every fleeting moment, the tide of hope seems to recede further. With hopeless resolve, though, I want to hang on to its faintest edge. There’s a secret cam somewhere in this dungeon. It could be right above, looking into my tear-dimmed eyes. The indifferent stare of the world. As I look into blinding darkness, I wish this night never ends.
26 Apr 2011
When I opened the window, I felt it was cold. The sky looked cloudy, but I felt like going out and enjoy a stroll. I looked at the street. Involuntarily, I focused more on how much it has changed. "Sid, wear sweater. It's cold", I heard mom's voice. She was in kitchen, making tea for us. Earlier, it always irked me that she thought more about me than about herself. But now, it didn't. I thought I would say, "Mom, please! I lived in Ladakh for so long, this is nothing".
But I said, "Okay, mom!"
"It's in the second shelf of your wardrobe, Sid".
It amazed me how she remembered such a trivial accessory with such precision. Mothers are a rare breed.
Quickly, I pulled on the sweater. When I was about to shut the door, I noticed an old diary. Twenty years old. "Wow!", I exclaimed. It was more out of curiosity than a rush of nostalgia that I opened its cover. The pages have aged. It's a funny thing about diaries, they get heavier with time. They store your memories. It was dad's gift for my birthday. In a neatly written hand, the first page had dad's favourite quote.
"Music should strike fire from the heart of man, and bring tears from the eyes of woman."
I admired how beautiful the writing looked. Dad's fingers not only played piano to perfection, but also wrote exceptionally good. He was an artist, impelled to compose and play music. He performed for years, held audiences captive, and taught music at university. For him, music was not a discipline to be learned; it was the very essence of life. On an evening when I was about to fall off the car, he tried saving me and had his fingers crushed by the car door. Doctors broke it to him that he can never play piano again. Next evening, he jumped out off our flat on the fifth floor and fell dead. Doctors took pride in being frank; I lost my dad.
"Sid, ready yet? Tea is ready".
I closed the diary and put it carefully back in the same place. "Done, mom. In a minute".
As I sat and relished tea, she ran her fingers fondly through my hair. It felt so nice it choked me. When I left home eight years ago and chose to stay in Ladakh, I had no intent to detach myself from anything or anyone. Yet, even as I met strangers and made friends, had my moments, memorable and forgettable, a sense of distance had slowly crept into me. With every passing day, the world looked further afar, and I thought its affairs would never touch me again. Along with the feet that battered and bared many a rough terrain, and felt hardened, the heart, I thought, too, had become stronger like the solitary soldier whose armour no weapon can pierce. And how wrong I was! A simple, loving gesture felt like the touch of a gentle breeze in the midst of a desert, wafted across lands and sea to soothe a forlorn bird and break all walls and doors of the cage to set it aflutter in joy. I realised I didn't become detached; I merely shielded myself from all care. It was fear; strength was a pretense. It felt so absurd that it choked me.
She arranged my collar neatly around the sweater. "You are still a careless brat", she teased. "Mom, easy! Sit and have tea", I smiled and pulled the chair beside. I always liked being lazy and disorganised. I could never imagine living any other way. An organised, planned life is a dead life, I always believed. Nevertheless, when I reflected this moment, I realised it was probably not this heavy philosophy that drove my inertness. It was probably that I valued these small moments as priceless and desired them more, for every such moment attracted care and attention from mom. What if she admonished, didn't she just so lovingly notice how I wore the sweater and arranged my collar? And if I added up all such moments through the years, I would have a wealth of precious memories. The price of being disorganised! Priceless!
She didn't say it, but every glance of hers said, "I am so happy you are back, my precious child". I had regularly written her how it was there in Ladakh, what I ate and drank and where I stayed and slept and worked. But she asked about it all again. I answered in brief, as ever.
But it was enough for her. She didn't ask to know answers; she asked just to hear me talk. Just to notice that glint of joy in my eyes. She recounted how the neighbourhood has changed over the years, who moved in and who moved out, how unfortunately Steve met with the fatal accident just a day after he finally had agreed to marry Jennifer and how sad she felt, how prices have increased, how fast the neighbour's baby has grown up, how fond the kids in the society have become of her... As I listened to her, I didn't mind it was getting late for the stroll. But she remembered. "Oh, I could go on! You enjoy your stroll and come back soon. Don't stay out too long, Sid, you could catch cold".
"Sure, mom! Will be back in an hour".
I went to Steve's. A Goan family had moved in, not long after he died. The house looked new. I rang the bell and an old man opened. He put on his glasses when he noticed me. "Evening, Mr Benjamin. I am Sid, Steve's friend". It took him a few moments to map. "Okay! come on in", his tone was cordial. I walked in and looked around. "Please", he pulled a chair for me. "That's okay! Don't bother, sir", I took it from the old man. An old woman entered the hall and smiled at me. "Steve's friend", Mr Benjamin told her. "Hello! That's nice", she said, with a smile that made me feel at home. "Hello! I... I just dropped by to... to just see the place... and say hi to you. He is my best friend, and I used to visit him often. Steve". They followed me ardently. "I understand. This is your home. You are always welcome", she said. "Let me get some coffee for you".
"No... it's fine. I just had tea at home, in fact. I wouldn't have anything. Next time, surely", I replied.
As I conversed, I looked around the house. Everything looked different. The family was nice and warm, but I couldn't relate to anything. As I got up to take leave, he gave me his card. "Do call up and drop by with your mom. Would be a pleasure", he said.
"Sure. Thanks!" I would rather never call or visit them again. I had nothing against them; I had nothing to do with them either. Steve is gone, and what does it matter who lived there? I wasn't sure why, but I was angry. Maybe I thought they had destroyed all signs I could possibly relate with. I didn't expect Steve to receive me at the door, but I didn't want the house to look so alien either. Steve was dead, and the house looked alien. I had no intent to extend acquaintance with Benjamin family.
After walking a few paces, I wanted to call Sameera. I heard from mom that Sameera got married a few months ago. She also said, "Don't call her up at late evenings now. You will cause her trouble". I always found it queer that unlike any other attribute, that of marital status affects all other equations, and perpetually alters a few. I asked quite a few people, relations, acquaintances and friends alike, to explain this to me, but none could. It was as if they had accepted it as a divine dictum, and questioning it sounded like blasphemy or at best stupid. For my part, the fact that one person's arrival should alter the equation with others meant absolute disrespect for the others. It did not, however, matter what I thought. The world runs its course. None of the friends lived in the town anymore. Sameera was the only one. Without thinking much, I called her number. A male voice answered politely and put me to her.
She was her ebullient self. I wondered if she could take some time out for coffee. She suggested me to drop by at her place instead. "You could get to meet Armaan too. He has met all my friends except you, so he would love it", she pushed. I was not up to it, as I felt somewhat lonely and lost, and preferred some time with someone who has known me for a good time. I was surely not up to striking it with strangers. "I would love that, too. Will drop by, one of these days. Take care", I assured. I thought I would visit her next week.
I walked back home, observing people and streets. It felt cold, and it was not just the weather. Streets were buzzing with trade, people were rushing, and it confounded me how distant and cold urban spaces are. But then, it's probably just me; I never felt at home in cities.
After supper, mom liked watching news and playing some music. I waited impatiently for the newscast to finish. She knew how much I hated watching news. "Just five minutes, sweetie", she smiled. "No problem, mom". Soon after, I checked if she wanted to listen to Kishore Kumar or Ilaiyaraja numbers. Listening to the music, she fell asleep. I switched off the player, closed the window and left for my room.
Lying on the bed, I stared at the roof. I saw no sky or stars; only a dark concrete wall. I don't remember when I drifted into sleep, but something woke me up suddenly early next morning. It was quite early, it may not be even 5 in the morning. I heard someone gasping, trying hard to breathe. For a few seconds, I tried to make sense of it all.
I realised I was at home. I rushed to mom's room. I switched the light on and saw her writhing in discomfort. "Mom!" I cried out loud and rushed to hold her. She was not in pain. It was rather a feeling of being strangled. She was trying hard to breathe. "Mom!" I called her, holding her by shoulder. I felt she might need some medicine, but I had no idea. "Mom, are you all right?" A stupid question, but I just wanted her to say something. Recollecting herself, she said, "tablet... it's on... the... table... coffee table..." Quickly, I fetched the medicine and offered her. "Water", I gave the bottle. A minute later, she could breathe normally.
She looked weak. Weary. Her forbearance has worn out. She couldn't open her eyes. Sitting beside and holding her hand, I noticed the wrinkles on her face. It scared me. All these years, every day of my life, every morning when I woke up, every evening when I slept, I took her presence for granted. I held it with certainty that she was always there, whenever I needed her, and whenever I needed her not. I could walk out in anger, booze and return home at midnight and find her serve food, and I could stray for years and return and still find her receive and welcome me with a hug. For the first time, I found my certainty shaken. For the first time, mom looked mortal. For the first time, I realised how fragile it all comes down to when you sense the end. It felt as if I was looking at her for the first time. How busy we get running around for tomorrows that we rarely look at those we think we love! I cried.
Shortly later, she slowly opened her eyes. She looked at me fondly. "Don't cry, my child! Old age, you know. But... not much time left, though. I have lived well and I lived happily. I am proud of you, child. I am happy you are back. I have no regrets and nothing to seek. If this is it, this is it. I love you and I'm always with you. Always". She had tears in her eyes. "I know, mom. I know. You will be fine. No worries". I didn't have it in me to think of her death. Maybe, it seemed to me, this is why I left home. Having lost dad, I was perhaps scared to see her age every day. So I ran away.
Or maybe I felt like that being faced with a sensitive moment. Maybe it wasn't out of any fear.
Maybe I left because I had wanted to, having become quite averse with living in cities. I wanted to see the mountain, the stars, the streams and breathe fresh air. Maybe that was it.
I had a quick breakfast. I convinced her that we will visit doctor. She checked if I would take her to temple also. I assured I will. She was happy. She wanted me to select the saree. I was never good at that. But I suggested thick blue and she liked it. "I will be ready in five minutes", I told her.
When I came out of the shower and pulled on the tee and jeans and walked into her room, I found mom lying on the floor. She must've collapsed. I held her, pulled her up and cried, "Mom! Mom!" She didn't respond. I sought the neighbour's help for rushing her to the hospital. I didn't keep track, but I was sure it didn't take more than twenty minutes for us to reach the hospital. All the while, I kept checking if she was breathing. After the formalities, doctor suggested we can't afford to delay and that she be put in intensive care unit. They put her on the bed, lined in white sheets. She lay quiet and motionless. As I stood out at the door and watched through the glass, they took her into the intensive care unit.
The hands pushed, the wheels slid, and the bed retreated. And with it, mom.
19 Apr 2011
Waving at the neighbour's baby, Sudip entered the house. He noticed Sucharita in the kitchen. "Here, on the table", Sudip told Sucharita, putting the packets of milk and medicine on the dining table. Sucharita looked at him and acknowledged. "Thank you", she said with a smile. Sudip responded with an indifferent shrug before walking into the bedroom.
Ten minutes later, he walked to the kitchen to check what Sucharita had prepared for breakfast. Not finding her there, he called out her name. "Yeah, coming", she replied. He walked toward the table and found tea and breakfast arranged neatly. Serving tea for himself, he looked around for Sucharita. He found her administering medicine to Tanmoy. Tanmoy looked rather weak. "Two more doses through the day and you will be fine. Don't worry", Sucharita assured him fondly and took from him the glass of water. "Have these and tea", she gave him the plate. Sipping tea, Sudip observed her. As she stood up and walked toward the hall, he pretended reading newspaper.
Sucharita pulled the chair beside Sudip and served breakfast for both. "He is quite down, poor fellow. Medicine should help. I advised him to take rest", Sucharita told about Tanmoy. "Okay, good. He should be fine", Sudip replied. He avoided looking at her, and his reply was rather terse. "Are you taking me for the movie next evening?" Sucharita asked. "Let's see", Sudip said, following the sports page.
Sudip returned from work early. He looked cheerful. Tanmoy was plucking flowers in the garden. "How is it going?" Sudip asked, without expecting any reply. He walked in and noticed Sucharita lying on the bed. Naina, the maid, arranged for tea and snacks. "Nilanjoy is staging a play at Nandan tonight. We have the passes. Shall we go?" he asked Sucharita. She remained quiet. "Suchi", he said and moved toward the bed. As she saw Sudip, Sucharita began to weep.
"What happened, Suchi?" Sudip enquired. She wouldn't answer, but couldn't stop her tears either. Sudip insisted her. "Suchi, what happened?" She nodded her head disapprovingly and said in a faint tone, "Nothing". Sudip held her shoulder and insisted, "What happened?" He shouted loudly, "Naina". Naina rushed. "Yes, dadababu".
Sucharita meant to stop him. "Shh, nothing happened!". He ignored her words. Looking at Naina, he asked, "What happened? Why is she down?" Hesitatingly, she said, "No idea, dadababu". "Nothing happened", Sucharita repeated.
"Tell me what happened", Sudip demanded an answer. Wiping her tears, Sucharita spoke to Naina. "Naina, arrange tea and snacks".
"Just done, didi". She, however, knew that Sucharita wanted her to leave. She walked to the kitchen.
Sucharita looked at Sudip. "I am not finding the necklace that mom gave for Puja. I fear I might have misplaced it, but I have no clue where". Trying hard to suppress tears, she said, "It's her last gift to me and it's precious to me". She broke down.
"Do you remember where you had put it last?" Sudip asked. "It's unlikely you have misplaced it. You hardly do. And if someone has taken it, that's a dangerous move. It must not happen".
"No no. It's not possible that anyone has taken it. I must've misplaced it", Sucharita assured.
"Suchi, I know how precious it is to you. You cannot be so careless about it. This is certainly someone's doing".
"But who can it be? That's impossible".
"Naina", Sudip called. "No, Sudip", Sucharita held his hand and suggested not to call her. Sudip ignored her gesture. "Naina, Suchi di has lost her Puja necklace... her mom's gift. I am sure she hasn't misplaced it. Someone has surely taken it. And I don't tolerate that. If you did, you better admit. If police step in, it will be, let me tell you, very bad for you". Naina has been working for them for years and it came as an insult for her, although she very well knew Sudip's outspoken nature, sometimes bordering on rudeness. All the same, the mention of police scared her. "Dadababu! At least for my belief in God, I wouldn't be doing such a thing. I swear on my children", she pleaded. "Sudip, please. She cannot have done that", Sucharita said.
"Okay, okay! I had to ask anyways. Don't mind. Get the tea", Sudip looked at Naina. Naina gestured obediently and reflected a sense of gratitude. She went to the hall to fetch tea.
"Sudip, relax. We will find it", Sucharita stressed.
"Rubbish. Your decent nature makes others easy to exploit. And necklace is not a small thing, Suchi... if only not for money... it's precious to you for deeper reasons. Let me check with Tanmoy".
"Sudip, that's ridiculous. You are not doing it".
"Stop it. I don't know why you defend him so much". The tone of arrogance and a deeper grudge surprised Sucharita. Naina walked in with cups of tea. "Naina, call Tanmoy in".
"Sudip, please! This is getting unpleasant. We will ask Naina to search the house. Am sure it is somewhere".
"Suchi, enough. A precious thing is gone and it's fair to check with people living in the house. What's so outrageous about it?" Sudip paused. He added, "He asked me for some money the other day. He needs money. I feel he is the one".
Sucharita feared where this would lead to. She is fond of Tanmoy and it pained her heart that he was being put to the wall. At the same time, she didn't know how to convince Sudip to stay quiet. But she feared the worst and wanted to stop. "Sudip, please stop. I don't care if it's lost. Let it go", she said in a firm tone.
Sudip ignored. "Stop defending him. I am only doing a fair job. Why don't you let me even check with him?"
Tanmoy walked in and sensed an air of grimness. "Sudip da", he looked at Sudip.
"Tanmoy, I saw you at the jeweller's the other day. What work did you have there?" He was brash in tone.
"Sudip da! Not at all. I never went to the jeweller's", Tanmoy answered hesitantly.
"Oh, so you mean I'm lying?"
"No, Sudip da. I don't mean that. But I never went there".
"So who was it then? Your clone? Your apparition? Or you are saying my vision is at fault? Now I get it! You wanted money. I didn't give, so you stole Suchi di's necklace. You sold it or mortgaged it? How much did he give?"
Sucharita was completely taken aback by Sudip's words, but she knew it would get worse if she interfered. She just prayed it ended soon. Naina watched helplessly.
"Sudip da, I swear!" Tanmoy broke into tears. "I couldn't have done that", he pleaded. "Believe me, didi", he looked at Sucharita. Tears rushed to her eyes.
"Stop this mushy drama. It's okay if you did it. I can understand... people do all sorts of things for money. Just admit and tell me if you sold it or mortgaged. I will convince police to not handle you roughly".
"Sudip da!" Tanmoy fell on Sudip's feet. "I didn't do it. I swear. Please believe me".
"This is useless. Thieves cannot be trusted with promises. Nobody else could have done it. None has the need to do it. Except you... except you. I know you did it. You better admit".
Sucharita couldn't take it anymore. "Sudip, I beg you. Please stop this", she said, tears running down her cheeks.
"I plead you, Sudip da. I swear I haven't done that".
"Okay! I know you did it. But I don't intend to hurt people. I know you did it. I will forgive you. Will not take it to police. Only, walk out of the house this very moment and never come back. Go!"
Sucharita cursed herself why she had told Sudip about that necklace. She wept. But she realised there's little she could do to stop Sudip. After the deathly blow on his credibility, she felt it's better if Tanmoy left and went on his own. She was heartbroken, though.
Tanmoy took his belongings, thanked Sudip with folded hands, bid a moist-eyed farewell to Sucharita and Naina and left the house. Sudip sported a faint smile of victory. Shortly after, Naina finished her errands and left for the day.
At midnight, Sudip woke up. He noticed Sucharita sleeping. Quietly, he walked to the next room. He pulled on shawl, picked up his two bags and walked out of the house in silence. Thirty minutes later, he reached the railway station. "When is Guwahati-Trivandrum Express arriving?" he checked at enquiry counter. "In ten minutes", the attendant answered.
The train approached slowly. Standing on the platform, Sudip pulled the necklace out of his purse, looked at it carefully and smiled, and put it back. He located the bogey, checked his name on the chart and stepped in. Two minutes later, the lady made the departure announcement of the train.
15 Apr 2011
The huge corridor was complete with massive pillars. It surrounded a spacious hall, that, ages ago, was witness to royal grandeur that few reigns could match. The splendour has died, the noise of dance has faded, and the palace stood weary, beleaguered by its own weight of forgotten history. Standing atop the hill, west of Sarnath, the palace echoed melancholic silence.
As they stepped out of the hall into the corridor, Banya clasped Amit's hand. She didn't say a word, but he knew she was concerned that it was getting dark. He looked into her eyes and smiled, and it meant assurance for her. Her heart sang and her step lightened. Amit put his arm about her shoulder and teased, "In light and in darkness, I am with thee, beloved; Do you care, then, where we go or where we don't". They stopped in their stroll. She smiled and embraced him. "You are my world, my love, my life; Wherever you take me, I shall walk in heaven", she whispered.
"Isn't this the perfect moment! Far from the din of the world, holding you in my arms, looking at your smiling face, your hair caressing my face, your glances soothing my soul, your whispers making my heart throb... I see, hear and feel none but you... just you... only you, Banya!", Amit said in all tenderness. Briefly, they looked at each other. A moment that a soul in love feels has transcended time. "My mad poet!" Banya ran her fingers through his hair and beard and laughed.
Anwar heard a faint sound of a woman's laughter. He stood up with a start and tried to feel where the sound had come from. It was from right side, he reckoned. He heard the sweet female voice tease, "You never keep your promise, do you! You have not given me your poems diary yet!". The sound became gradually more distinct. Anwar moved toward them with caution. He thought it's better to quickly walk toward the corner and hide. The male voice replied, "The poet himself is yours; What of frozen poetry!"
"It must be him", Anwar thought. He hastened his walk, and slowly pulled out the gun from his pocket. Four more pillars and he would reach the corner.
"Do you know it's full moon today?" Banya asked, her beautiful, loving eyes glancing him. "If that is so, we should watch it by the lake. It's stunning. You will love it. And I would love to watch you as you admire the moon", Amit replied fondly, pulling her closer as they crossed the penultimate pillar before the corner.
Anwar's heart raced faster, as he heard the steps approaching the corner. He held the gun tighter and awaited impatiently. He reckoned they were barely three feet away.
As they turned left at the corner, Amit dreamed of Banya's face, shimmering in moonlight, tender as her touch. Anwar quickly took his stand, obstructing their tread. The sudden sight of a stranger startled Amit and Banya. A fretful Anwar was possessed with fear, and he didn't give it even a second to ensure it was indeed the person he wanted to kill. Gasping, he pointed the gun at Amit's forehead. Before Amit or Banya could react, Anwar pulled the trigger. Amit felt a jab on his forehead, a gush of blood, and a veil of dark quickly pulled on his dream, before his being could feel the shock completely. As his head hit the stone on the floor hard, the dream has faded into utter darkness.
Banya stood stunned in disblief. She looked at Amit, lying dead, and fell to the floor on her knees. Tears would rush in cascade. Anwar collected himself as he tried to check the face he had just shot. He observed carefully for a few moments. Banya looked on, as her eyes swelled with tears. Anwar realised his mistake. He seemed to speak to Banya, although he avoided looking at her. He still looked at Amit. "I am sorry. I thought it was Sid", he said and quickly walked away.
Banya sat defeated and devastated. She held Amit's hand and sobbed. Inconsolably. She was so full of love for Amit that she felt no trace of anger for the stranger who shattered her world.
Not very far away, an eagle hovered above the lake, admiring the reflection of full moon.
7 Mar 2011
Six people got into the bus. Two of them were blind. Sameer, sitting close to the door, noticed them holding each other's hands and talking. Is it the language of reassurance? What is it to be blind, Sameer wondered. As the bus collected speed, Sameer observed their faces. They were smiling; they were happy. He wasn't.
"How far is Lenin Square", the old man, sitting next to Sameer, asked. He was inaudible, or Sameer felt so. "Second stop from here", he looked at the man and quickly looked away. The old man was keen to prolong. "City traffic is getting worse. I'm already late... my granddaughter would be waiting at her school. My poor little bird", he remembered fondly. Sameer smiled casually and nodded, only preteding to have followed the conversation.
As the conductor made his way through the crowd, the blind men moved next to Sameer. He looked at them again. Would they get down at Lenin Square, he almost asked. He refrained. Of course, he wouldn't have asked. He is in no mood to talk. He noticed the girl on the seat in front, reading a message on her phone. He noticed her smile. She quickly typed a reply. He could clearly see her typing. "Stupid doc. What does he mean by ineligible? Tom is already high on harmones. High time you find him a mate ;-) Check with another vet", she sent.
Sameer didn't find it funny. He wondered why she smiled. And why she typed ;-) But he wondered only that far. He wasn't able to focus on anything. He was looking aimlessly. His mind wasn't registering anything. He moved his leg a little backward, and felt the bag. It was stable, under his seat, perfectly unnoticeable among that crowd. The bus stopped. Five people got down. The blind men didn't.
The old man was restless. "Next stop, right?" he asked. Sameer assured, "yes". "I am also getting down, don't worry sir". The old man smiled. Sameer looked at his watch. "13 minutes more", he reminded himself. The signal turned red and the bus stopped abruptly. The bag moved out a little and hit his leg. "Asshole", Sameer referred to the driver. Slowly he pushed the bag in. He felt he should rather get down here. But he reckoned Lenin Square is just a couple of minutes away, and decided to remain seated. The bus moved.
Sameer checked the bag again. For one last time, before he stood up. The old man followed. Sameer moved toward the door and looked back. The two blind men took the seat. He looked at the girl. She was busy with phone; she wouldn't get down at Lenin Square. "Lenin Square", the conductor yelled. The bus stopped neatly in the slot. Sameer got down, and noticed Sid who had been waiting for this bus. "Hey!" Sid greeted Sameer. Sameer was nervous. "What are you doing here, buddy?" he asked. "Am going to the mall. Want to come?" Sid asked, prepared to get into the bus. As he followed Sid's words, Sameer noticed the old man walking briskly away.
The conductor was asking crowd to get in. The bus would move. "Hey, why not take the next bus?" Sameer checked.
"No. Need to go to the book exhibition from there. Am already running late".
"That's ok, Sid. Have a cup of tea and then make a move".
"Sameer, next time", Sid patted on his shoulder. "Will go. Will buzz you. Bye", Sid got into the bus.
Sameer wanted to stop Sid. Sid won't stop. The bus moved. Sameer remembered their previous meeting. Sid had remarked he wanted to die. Sameer stood still and watched the bus move away. He looked at the watch. "Six minutes more", he noted. He looked around. For a moment, he felt he had lost all sense of comprehension. He wasn't able to follow anything. He could just see, hear, but it was all like a swiftly passing dream. He thought he should rather run and stop the bus. But he stood unmoved.
After a minute, Sameer turned around and walked on.
Five minutes later, the bomb, ticking silently inside the bag that the blind man felt with his leg, took off.
6 Dec 2010
The nonchalant, sly smile broke Sid's patience. He closed his fist and punched Russell on his face. In his youth, such a blow would have hardly had any noticeable effect on Russell. But his frame has aged and become frail. The impact made him fall to the floor. As his jaws shivered, his mouth was full of blood. Collecting himself, he still managed to smile - it could've meant mockery of Sid's strength, or the lack of it - and stood up. Sid looked at him with rage. With a stronger blow, he saw Russell fall again.
Before Russell could clean the blood and stand up, Sid reached for the pistol on the table beside. He moved closer and pointed the weapon at Russell, whose eloquent eyes showed no trace of fear. "It's up, bastard!" Sid asserted. It took effort for Russell to smile and speak, "Not quite, son! I trust the Almighty and He will see me through".
"Delusions get stronger in the face of death", Sid remarked. "I don't even pity you. I served six years in prison for a murder you had committed. Now I will give you six holes in your skull - one for each of those years of my life that got sucked by time. None shalt save thee! Truth shall triumph".
Russell remained composed and replied, "Let me tell you a secret, son. Truth is most vulnerable. It is bare. Defenseless".
Sid noticed the cross resting against Russell's chest. Looking back intently at Russell, he said, "A remorseless exploiter is not fit to talk of vulnerability. You seem to be completely lacking in conscience".
"You excel at presumptions! Conscience is a self-appointed cop, needed by those who run away from themselves. A clear soul doesn't need conscience. Thank you very much!"
"Let me see how clear your soul is, then. Just because you got away with the murder six years ago, you think you can put the truth behind, locked and buried in a closet? You will pay for it. With your life. Now", Sid said emphatically.
"Six years ago when I killed Rameses, you knew it. But what of it? Who cared? The sinner gets away with it, wins plaudits and worship, and the poor fellow - you - has six years cut and the indelible tag of convict, just for being the unlucky witness to the crime! World cares for robes. I have the robe of the priest; you have that of the sinner. Nobody cares for truth".
"Much as I appreciate your wisdom and shrewdness, I am amused at your confidence. It's just one pull of the trigger that separates you from a certain death. You got away then. There's no getting away now. It's the judgment day. The world might have spared you... It indeed spared you, and that's why I am here. I will not", Sid explained. "And if you think I am here to brood over the lost years, you are wrong. It's for selling those three girls to pimps, you fucken pig! I won't let you get away with it".
Briefly, Russell's eyes reflected surprise. "How could I not guess that! They are young, pliant and ambitious. I put them in to the trade they will do good at. Even if I take your moralistic ground for a minute, why should you have a problem when they don't? Regardless, son, I can see that I can walk out alive even now. I have the signs. I pity you don't see!"
"The signs? Like what? Miracles? Let me remind you, fucker - it takes twenty miracles to survive six shots to your brains. I don't mind another six in prison, but this time I will go with contentment. And I will let the world know how much of a disgusting old pig you are. They shall know the truth", Sid insisted.
"Either you don't know the world at all or you are too naive", Russell remarked with a smile. "The world is a slave to beliefs and hope. Hope is a lie, beliefs are lies. They want lies. All they do is talk about truth; they don't want it. They are scared that the truth might not fit their belief. In such a world, truth is always a casualty. So whom will you tell the truth to?"
"However the world is, it is not my problem. It's not about them. It's about truth. Whether they take it or leave it, it's their problem. I'm not leaving it to them this time. I'm ensuring justice right here, right now".
Russell looked unruffled. "You are still a young fellow. Don't be foolish, son. Listen to me. Give it up. Put it down. Forget it. Walk out. Go, live!"
Tightening his grip around the pistol, Sid punched Russell with force. Russell fell to the floor. His jaw was swollen. Sid took two steps forward, aimed the pistol at Russell and pulled the slide. "This is it, mate! Pray your Almighty". Russell saw Sid's face silhouetted against the bright glass roof. Holding the weapon tight with both hands, Sid squeezed the trigger.
When the trigger released, the sound was almost deafening. Even as his hands recovered from the recoil, Sid fell to the floor. The bullet went right through Sid's left eye and left a gaping hole in his skull. Russell got up slowly, adjusted his robe and stepped toward Sid. Looking at Sid lying dead in a pool of blood, still gushing, Russell whispered, "The first rule when you aim, son - be sure which way the weapon fires. You should've known that I wouldn't have kept a straight one for your taking! God bless you!"
The next morning, one read in print: "Sid shoots self. Succumbs". Further, the brief read: "Sid, the convict who served sentence for killing Rameses six years ago, shot himself as an act of atonement. He died instantly. Shortly after dusk last evening, Sid stepped into Se Cathedral, offered prayers, confessed to Rev Russell how guilty he had been feeling and how desperately he sought forgiveness and expiation. He carried a loaded pistol, whose ownership police have failed to determine. When Rev Russell tried to stop him, he reacted violently, effecting injuries. Before Rev Russell could alert the police, Sid shot himself and fell to the floor, dead".
The doctor administered analgesic to Russell and assured a quick recovery. "Should not take more than ten days, Father. Thank goodness he didn't shoot you!"
Russell smiled. "Thank you, son! God bless you!"
19 May 2010
The dawn was promising, and the day at Cafe Delight began early. Sid, an amateur poet all through his life, now weary and old, stepped in and settled at a corner for a quick cup of tea. He was eager, unstoppable and uncontainably happy. It was so obvious and infectious that everyone looked at him and smiled almost as if lured to. Being a recluse, attention always made him uncomfortable. But he wouldn't mind all the attention that is being showered on him now. It is his day. It was as if he postponed living so that he could live it all on this day.
Sid had been a regular visitor to the cafe for the past fifteen years. He would walk in quietly, find a corner, have tea, pen a few lines on the tissue, and walk out as quietly. He would talk only rarely, and in brief, at that. He was queer but affable. Stacey greeted him. Over the years, she became a good friend. She knew his regular choice and she was sure he would not try anything different now. Sid smiled and meant, "Ya, the same stuff". "You look so happy today?" Stacey was curious. Sid looked at her with a beaming smile, took a deep breath, and said, "she's coming today! Twenty years ago, she promised she will come this day. And here it is!" Stacey was quite happy for him. "Aha! Now I know!" she giggled. "I will get you a chocolate cake too", Stacey rushed to the counter.
"No no. You know I am off cakes".
"Shut up! It's for her. From me". Stacey looked back firmly at him. Sid smiled.
"I had been living just for this day", Sid reminded himself, almost holding back a tear.
Arvind was arranging roses on the tables.
It was tough to tell whether it was the occasional, chance chats with the young or his ramblings on the mangled tissues, but Sid became known among a few as an oldie with a thing for poetry. "Poetry is not to be read. It is to be felt", he tells the young when they ask him the trick. "Feel. Live. Poetry will come by itself. You will be impelled to write. There's no trick". A useless advice, but he is only an amateur poet anyways.
As he looked around, he saw her everywhere. He could see none but her. That same face, but only more beautiful. A few gray strands of hair, those stunningly beautiful eyes and that loving smile. He felt she was coming in hundreds, to shower all the love that he had awaited all these years for. A few lines occurred.
for thee, my queen
and for this day
i have lived
hasten thy walk
come, o, delay not
a moment more
this longing heart
and weary soul
He felt more restless with every minute. He wanted to run and hold her in his arms to never let go again. But it's still a few hours away. He must wait.
Stacey left the tray on his table and went to get the cake.
Roses looked forlorn. They knew their fate. To serve as mere adornment through the day and at evening dumped and thrown away in garbage. Sometimes, their petals are torn by ruthless hands or they get trampled under unkind feet. "Nobody ever looks at us", the roses seemed to grieve.
Sid caressed the rose placed on his table. "No. I looked at you. Every day. For the past fifteen years. And this day I will not let you get wasted for the beastly circus of trade. I shall take you along with me, to be the messengers of my love, to be blessed by the loving touch of my beloved. You shall live for your rightful purpose", Sid spoke in a whispering tone. The roses glowed in joy and swelled with pride.
As he sipped tea, he again wrote a few lines on the tissue. Stacey noticed it, as she does every day. She brought the cake. Sid quickly crumpled the tissue and put it beside the flask in the tray. Stacey was all curious to know Sid's story, but he was, as ever, brief. She knew she cannot elicit any details from him even if she grilled him for ten years, so she took just what he had told.
When Arvind brought the check, he said to Stacey, "Here. A thousand bucks more. Pack for me all the roses in the cafe". Sid hardly ever asked anything, so Stacey couldn't turn him down when he did this one time. Besides, he was so happy that she just couldn't do anything to spoil it. She knew why he asked for roses. So she didn't ask him any questions. She smiled and told Arvind to have all the roses packed in the best of gift-wraps.
As Arvind cleared the table, Stacey swiftly and furtively grabbed the tissue and slipped it into her pocket.
Stacey dislikes it when Sid sounds formal, so he didn't thank her. He thanked Arvind, though. As Sid prepared to leave, Stacey hugged and extended her best wishes. "This got to be your best date, Sid", she said. Sid, at his happiest best, wished her as well and walked toward the door. Stacey, at her curious best, almost ran toward him and asked, "what if she doesn't come?"
Sid turned around, smiled, and said, "she will". His eyes didn't reflect even a trace of doubt. Stacey was quite happy for him. After a pause, Sid said, "to answer your question, though... these roses would then make for a beautiful wreath on my grave". And he said it as firmly.
Stacey made a dismissive gesture. "Shut up! Now, go. Run, boy!" She smiled.
Sid smiled, waved at her and walked out.
After he turned the lane, Stacey unfolded the crumpled tissue eagerly. She found a quote: "I'm not frightened. I'm not frightened of anything. Why should I be? I welcome obstacles, because they'll be like mountains I can fly over to be in your arms. The more I suffer, the more I'll love..."
9 Mar 2010
December 11 '08, 6.47pm
The clock showed 6.47pm. It made noise with the tick of every second, but nobody heard. It has become a part of the din of the day. The evening faded and the layer of dust on its top thickened.
Aslam entered the room with haste. He closed the door behind and moved toward the bed. His steps were loud. Sarah lay on the corner of the bed. She heard the approaching steps and cried, "please do not". The protest was lame. It was a pleading. She was thoroughly languished and had barely any energy. Her back was bare and bruised. She couldn't feel her legs anymore. Tears filled the eyes that reflected emptiness and blood trickled from the corner of her mouth.
"Please do not", she pleaded again. She knew it was futile to plead. In the last 90 minutes, six men ignored her words. She resisted, even violently, the first two. She hit the third and he punched and kicked her. When the fourth walked in, she began to accept her fate. Hope faded; energy gave in; will broke. Six men. From behind. 90 minutes.
Aslam looked at her thighs. When he moved closer, he noticed the blood on the pillow. He couldn't see her face clearly. He stopped and observed for a few seconds. "Please", Sarah said, tears running down her cheeks and soaking the pillow. Her voice was barely audible. "Scream!", Aslam said in an audible whisper. Sarah was too much in shock to comprehend. "Scream!" Aslam raised his voice. Sarah heard him now, but she failed to construe his suggestion. Even as she strived to understand, Aslam explained, "Look! If you don't scream, they will feel something is odd. You must scream. I won't fuck you. Don't worry. But you must scream".
Sarah thanked his gesture with a glance. She could do whatever at that moment, if only it saved her from another round of rape. Another round of fucking. But, has it ended? What if there's an eighth who is waiting for his turn? What if there are more? What is she? What is left of her? Sarah started screaming. Aslam sat on a chair and watched her scream. A kind fucker watching a helpless woman, raped and sapped of her life. For the moment, though, he was the saviour. Fifteen minutes went by when he stood up and walked out.
Sarah looked into the mirror. She sought to find herself. She couldn't. Tears, blood and void - that's all she could see. At the foot of the mirror, she noticed the burnt remains of her passport. Two hours before, she was a woman with dreams, wishes and hopes. In two hours, she saw her life slip by. Forcefully taken, caged and mauled. An erased identity, shattered dreams, quivering frame, pulsating heart and lifeless soul are all that remained.
Aslam walked toward Varadan who was engrossed in watching television. Aslam fastened his belt, tucked in his shirt and pretended to adjust his hair. Varadan looked at him, gulped a sip of beer and winked. "Awesome, wasn't she?" he asked. "The best bomb, boss!" Aslam smiled. Both of them shared a good laugh.
December 11 '08, 4.00pm
The car was speeding and Sarah's hair was swaying with the breeze. "I'm so excited", she said, looking at Asghar, her spouse for three years, who was driving. "After a year when we will have saved much money, we will come back and take mom along with us. She will be so happy", she shared her plans with glee. "A small house, and she will have her own room". She tapped on Asghar's shoulder. "And, you know, we will...", she continued when Asghar's phone rang. "Varadan", the name read. Asghar answered promptly. "Yeah yeah!" A pause. "Soon", he kept it brief. Sarah was lost in her world of dreams. She looked at the sky and noticed the solitary bird flying at leisure. She imagined herself cruising through the skies, comfortably seated in aircraft. "Can't wait to get into the flight... just a few hours away!" she enjoyed a brief monologue.
Sarah turned to Asghar. She put her arms around his neck and asked lovingly, "You will come soon, right? I will miss you, love!"
"I will join you in three weeks, sweetheart", Asghar assured.
"Listen! Do they serve wine in flight? I will try two", she said. Asghar smiled and said, "I am tired. How about stopping by at a friend's?"
Sarah continued, "I won't get tipsy, don't worry!"
A moment later, she nodded, "Yeah, sure dear! We can. You can take me wherever you want. So long as you drop me at the airport next morning on time! I'm all yours, honey!". She gave a quick peck. Asghar looked at her. "We will have a ball", he teased. "Airport will just be 30 minutes away. I will drop you on time. Worry not", he assured.
Sarah looked at Asghar fondly.
December 11 '08, 4.25pm
Satya opened the door. Asghar smiled and walked in. Asghar took Sarah's purse and asked her to come in, too. A gentlemanly gesture. Sarah followed him. Satya smiled and stared at her. It had the suggestion of being lewd, and it inconvenienced Sarah. They walked in to a spacious hall. Varadan was playing a game of cards with Irfan and Mitra. As they exchanged greetings with Asghar, Sarah noticed three mugs of beer and a few butts of cigarette on the table. At the corner on Irfan's side, there was a briefcase. On its top, she noticed a pistol. She moved closer to Asghar. As Irfan and Mitra looked at her admiringly, Varadan grinned and said, "Welcome home!"
"Thank you!" Sarah said, with a hesitant smile. It was a formal, ingenuine response. But it seemed like nobody cared.
Irfan took the pistol and pushed it into his pocket. Irfan was swift. Sarah observed the gesture with extreme alertness. None of the others did.
Suddenly she felt a hand slithering across her waist. She shuddered instinctively, held Asghar's hand tight and looked back. "Sorry! Some insect", Satya said. Sarah looked at him but didn't say a word. His was a sly smile, and Sarah noticed it. She moved further close to Asghar and whispered, "You want us to stay here?" She actually meant, "I don't feel good at this place. Let's go!" Asghar looked at her and assured, "Relax! Nice people".
"Killed it", Satya told Sarah as he crossed her to stand beside Irfan. Satya sported a wide grin. It repulsed Sarah.
Sarah overheard a few men shouting and clapping in the room behind Irfan. It felt they were enjoying a cricket match. She was unsure of their number, but she was sure they would be at least three.
Satya pulled the briefcase up and looked at Varadan. They communicated with glances; a code they had agreed upon, practised and perfected through years. Sarah could not comprehend anything. Her impulse was to just run away. She wished Asghar would change his mind about staying there for the night.
"Here, dude!" Satya handed over the briefcase to Asghar. Asghar gave Sarah's purse, in exchange.
Sarah's heart skipped a beat. The code wasn't private to the group. Asghar also, she realised, knew the code. "Asghar!" she meant to tell him to not give the purse.
"Passport?" Mitra asked.
"Yeah. Everything in", Asghar replied. "Thank you", he told Varadan. It was clear to Sarah that something was amiss. Asghar let his hand off Sarah's grip and made a move. Sarah was nonplussed. Mitra pulled open the zips of the purse and held it upside down.
"Excuse me! What the hell are you doing?" Sarah asked Mitra. Asghar walked toward the door. Mitra pretended he hadn't heard. Varadan looked intently at Sarah. Irfan and Satya laughed. Sarah made a frantic move. "Asghar! Where are you going? What's going on?" she shouted. Asghar ignored and walked ahead. Sarah ran towards Asghar and held him by the collar and pulled. Everyone enjoyed a good laugh. "Chill, babe!" Irfan said loud. "This is your home", he laughed.
Mitra emptied the contents of the purse on the table. He found the passport and gave it to Varadan.
Asghar turned back. "Where are you going??" Sarah yelled. A muscular fellow, he pulled Sarah's hand off his shirt and pushed her with force. He heard her no more. He won't answer. Sarah almost fell down, but Satya held her from behind. He had his hands press against her breasts. It was deliberate. "Easy, sweetie", he said. Sarah was irate. She tried to loosen his grip. "You bastard! You can't do this to me. Don't go", she shouted at Asghar who was opening the door. "You can't do this to me!" Tears rushed down her cheeks as she still wrestled with Satya and yelled at Asghar who closed the door and walked out. Without a word. Without a trace of remorse.
"I loved you!" Sarah cried. "I loved you!"
She tried helplessly to remove Satya's hands. She attempted to run toward the door. She wanted to run away. However hard she tried, she was too powerless for Satya. He lifted her and took back to Varadan. "Let me go, you asshole!" she dug her nails against Satya's hands. He laughed and ignored. Varadan held her passport up and licked her photograph.
"Fucken assholes! What do you want?" Sarah yelled.
Mitra picked his glass and threw the beer on her. Her eyes were fuming with anger and the chilled drink hit hard against her face. "You", Mitra said with a smile. A pack of wolves ready to pounce and gorge on the prey. Sarah was the prey. The hunt was complete.
"How do they feel?" Irfan asked Satya.
"Let me go!" Sarah pleaded.
December 11 '08, 5.17pm
The room was dimly lit. Satya finally let Sarah off. "All yours, boss!" he told Varadan. He quickly walked out and bolted the door. Varadan walked close to Sarah and sprayed perfume on her. He threw the bottle on the bed and moved closer to hold her. She moved back. "Dare not touch me, you fucker!" she warned.
Varadan smiled. "You are in, honey! There's no going out from here".
Sarah rushed to the door. She tried to open, but it would not. She banged the door. "Open", she shouted. "Open the door, filthy bastards". Varadan approached her with ease. He was absolutely sure of the opponent's moves. He was in total control of the game. He ran his fingers through her hair. She quickly turned around and pushed Varadan fiercely. "Don't!" she reminded. Varadan was unmoved. He moved closer as Sarah avoided him. He clasped her hands. She tried in vain to avoid him. He tried to kiss her lips. She quickly turned away her face. He bit and licked her cheek. Possessed by rage, Sarah kicked him in the abdomen. Even for a rugged, strong man that Varadan was, it was painful.
It took him a few seconds to collect himself. He punched Sarah on her face. She fell to the floor. "Remember the equation, doll. I am the Man", he said.
"Shameless bastard! One must be a disgusting worm to hit a woman. And you call yourself a man! You are just a male. Not a man. You can never be".
Varadan moved towards the mirror and picked the lighter up. He pulled out Sarah's passport, air ticket and other documents from his shirt pocket. With an arrogant smile at Sarah, he held them against the flame.
Sarah hurriedly crawled toward him to stop. "Son of a bitch!" The documents were on fire. She held his legs and tried getting up. He slapped her hard again. She fell down. At his feet. The burned remnants of her documents slowly fell beside her. She held his foot and bit his leg with all her strength. Varadan grabbed her hair, pulled her up and threw her on the bed beside. Sarah fell down on her face. Varadan threw down the burning documents. He admired her body for a moment and stripped her skirt. She tried turning around and kicking the fellow. He held her hands tight from behind and pressed her against the bed. She couldn't turn. He stripped her undergarment. Sarah lay naked from below the waist.
"I will show you who the man is, you intelligent cunt". He unbuttoned his trousers.
Outside the room, Irfan, Mitra and Satya were playing dice. To decide whose turn it would next be. "There! Me next", Irfan revelled.
"She's a tough nut", Satya said.
"My foot! It takes just a few weeks even for the toughest to crack", Mitra joined. "Third week on, one starts adjusting. Six weeks, she begins liking it", he shared his insights. "Six months down, this same tough nut will be a professional whore, liking it every bit. Wanna bet?" They laughed. Sarah's life; their joke.
December 12 '08, 2.12pm
"Hello?" said the voice from the other side of the phone.
Sarah restrained breaking down. "Hello?" she heard the voice again. A pause later, Sarah greeted, "Hello, mom!"
"How are you, darling?"
"Fine, mom. Reached an hour ago. How are you?"
"Found the place? Did Asghar's friend come and receive you?
"God bless Asghar! I always knew he is right for you. Else, I was worried how you will go".
"Yeah. Asghar was a great...", Sarah's voice choked. "...a great help".
"Is it very cold there, Saru? Wear sweater. And did you take the medicine last evening? I hope you didn't puke on flight!"
"Ya. Took the medicine, mom".
"Is this the new number?"
"Yes. Ah... no. No, this isn't. This is a kiosk. Will tell you the number later".
"Oh, you haven't reached the place yet?"
"No. I did. Mom,... I will give the number later".
"Tell me the address, Saru. Let me write it down. Wait, I will get the pen".
"Mom. Wait! I will... I will write you a letter. I don't know the street number and zip yet. I will write you and let you know".
"Okay. Write soon. And take good care of yourself, child. I always think of you".
Sarah was in tears. "Yes, mom... you do, too. ...and..."
Irfan cut the line and took the pistol away from her forehead. As he put it in his pocket, he said, "Good job. One call a month. One letter. Some bucks. Don't worry, the old girl will be fine".
As he walked away, he turned and said, "You wanted to go to the U.S for fast bucks only, after all. You will make more here".
January 09 '09, 10.53am
"I don't want to fucken eat!" Sarah yelled at Mitra who brought her the breakfast.
"All right. One call from the boss and they will fucken pump ten fucken bullets into the fucken brains of your fucken old woman. How about that?" Mitra left the breakfast on the table and left the room, closing the door with a bang. He took away the envelope addressed to Sarah's mother. It had a letter and two five-hundred dollar notes.
Sarah wept. She had no choice. She remembered her mother. The unwritten words remained with her. "Dearest mother, I am dying. Please save me!"
February 10 '09, 01.16am
The last client left ten minutes ago. It was a long day for Sarah. She lay naked on the bed. She looked up. The ceiling was white. Quiet. Empty. Emptied. Like her eyes. She got up and walked toward the window. She pulled the curtains open. Behind the iron railings was the glass window through which she could see the enire city. Shimmering in lights. Speeding cars. Weary pavements. Trampled cigarette butts. A sleepless metro hosting millions of dark lives.
As she focused hard, she saw her own faint reflection in the glass.
April 06 '09, 4.34pm
Sarah gave the envelope to Aslam. A letter and four five-hundred dollar notes. "Careful", Sarah reminded. "Absolutely", Aslam reassured.
Aslam walked out and shut the door. Sarah looked at the door. "Dearest mother, I am retreating. Don't let me go!"
April 06 '09, 11.03pm
Sarah sat naked against the pillow and sipped wine. The young man pulled out his wallet and counted the money. "Look. I don't want money. I made plenty. I make...", Sarah said and paused.
The chap looked at Sarah. "Come again!"
"Look. You said you are with government. I want a passport and a pistol".
The young man shrugged. "Why?"
"I will pay you 10% more".
The man threw two five-hundred dollar notes on her and left.
October 22 '09, 12.23pm
"How about the day after? He's a rich ass. He will give you two trucks of gold for an hour", Irfan asked Sarah. Varadan laughed. "Didn't I tell you I'm busy all this week?" Sarah commanded a reply. "Only after November 2nd. Till then, ask him to cool his dick in gold". Varadan burst into laughter. Irfan couldn't help laughing, either.
Irfan took the envelope from Sarah. He wanted to try again. "He is a dude with great power. Will be good for our business", he tried to convince.
"Power! Power is when you have strength but don't use it. Not when you do", Sarah replied. "He who exercises strength is not powerful; he is a weakling. An ant is more powerful than such a shaky ass", she added. "Fuck off!"
Sarah liked Varadan. She made the best business for him, so Varadan showered her with incentives. It was easy, now, for her to command everyone. Stockholm syndrome didn't perplex her anymore; she learned about it the hard way, in real time.
"Dearest mother, I am vanishing. Don't let me go, please!" The unwritten words, yet again.
March 01 '10, 11.41am
"We will go and visit her. Don't brood. She has been put in the best hospital in town. Rizwan knows everyone. He is running the show fine", Varadan assured Sarah.
"I need to visit my mother", Sarah insisted.
"We will get your passport in a day. Irfan is doing the tickets for us. Relax. Don't brood. You are a strong slut".
Sarah looked at Varadan. She reflected: "Strong? What was I? What am I? What is left of me? A woman who walked out of home to chase her dreams. An abject pawn in a chilling tale of ruthless betrayal. A professional whore with a dead soul. A living commodity for the needs of lust. An involuntary accomplice in the cruel game of abuse of humans".
"Dearest mother, don't leave me alone. Please! I am coming. I am coming home". She never uttered these words. Her mother never heard.
"Irfan. Three tickets. Dubai to Mumbai", Varadan reminded Irfan.
March 08 '10, 6.19pm
Sarah put the flower gently on the grave. Varadan and Irfan stood behind, at a distance. Sarah looked at the inscription.
(September 21, 1946 - March 06, 2010)
She ran her fingers along her mother's name. She longed to feel the warmth of her love. All she felt was the cold of the stone. "Dearest mother. I have come home. But where am I? Where are you? Where are dreams? Where is love?" Tears rushed in cascade.
March 08 '10, 6.47pm
Irfan accelerated the car as they hit the expressway. He spotted a huge, brightly-lit billboard a few metres away. The ad read:
For the beautiful half of the world
Happy Women's Day!
99 years of celebrating womanhood. Share your vision. Call: 9000933399 E-mail: email@example.com
It featured the smiling face of a model. Irfan looked at her and she reminded him of Sarah. He looked at her from the rear-view mirror and fantasised abusing and fucking her.
Sarah opened the window. Her hair danced wildly in the breeze. The sun had just set. In the fading light of the day, Sarah looked out of the window and noticed the retreating waves of the sea.
Her eyes, devoid of all dreams, would not seek to stop her retreating soul anymore.
30 Oct 2009
The streets were buzzing with crowd and the deafening noise was unavoidable. The loud steps of the young, infirm steps of the old, tender steps of children, arrogant steps of cops, measured steps of the ascetic, wayward steps of the awestruck tourist, all of those crossing one another's randomly on the tarmac. Not a very hot morning it was, and they decided to stop by at a restaurant.
No sooner had they found a place to sit than the waiter loudly listed the items on the menu and waited impatiently for the order. A few words of slang from the table to the right, squeals of laughter from that to the left, and the clang of empty glasses from the one behind... noise permeated the entire surrounding. The waiter rushed to fetch and one doubted if he heard the order completely.
The tea was hot, and Murthy preferred to wait. He noticed Sid looking at the tea with focus. Maybe it brought a few memories, but it wasn't obvious to Murthy. He asked, "Dude, is something off with you?" "At times, one is off", Sid put it vaguely.
"I'm asking about you".
"At times,... one is off", Sid repeated.
"You could've informed me before coming. What if I wasn't here? As it is, it's Diwali vacation for school!" Murthy looked at Sid. "Isn't that crazy?"
"Well, I've become unpredictable, of late".
"We are too old for that, man!"
Sid responded with a shrug.
"You didn't have a plan, did you? Been quite some time since we met last. You didn't even want to check if I'm working with the same school? And you don't have return tickets!"
"Just occurred to me if I could visit the ghats and Sarnath. So I came. Checked with school... and you were there. And then there are always hotels, anyways. As for tickets, I will book it here".
"Being planned doesn't hurt, right?"
"If one is unplanned at times, I guess it's all right".
"Sailing with no direction or purpose, then? How good is that! Specially when one can afford not to?"
"There are times when one can't drive the sail. Waters are rough at places".
"That doesn't mean you would just let it go!"
"Maybe one hasn't. If one is running to catch the distant flower, he will brave the thorns on the path. It doesn't mean he is careless or hasn't planned his run to evade the thorns. On the contrary!"
Briefly, Murthy seemed to agree. "I see you have a point. Maybe you don't consider this important enough to plan. I plan, however, to go for a mobile number next year. You can do better then".
The pause in conversation was unnoticeable. It faded readily into the noise, imperceptibly. Sid almost finished drinking the tea while Murthy just began.
Murthy wouldn't be quiet for long. "Why the ghats, all of a sudden?"
"Something about them seemed to draw me".
"What? Their being old, sombre and morbid?" Murthy laughed.
"Perhaps. Resembles some old chap who has gone through the run of life. Reeks of silent wisdom".
"How about a haggard, used oldie crumbling under his own weight? Totally done in".
"Let's see. We will be there in a while", Sid smiled.
"You look low, man! You sound low, too!"
Sid knew, but he didn't think it showed. "The ride isn't always up and smooth. Sometimes, there's the decline on the hill of life".
"So you are on the decline? Where does it end?"
"It ends with the fall... The fall that levels everything... and shows you where you belong".
"So you are waiting for the fall?" Murthy finished the tea and put the empty glass down with deliberation. The contact of glass with the table was far from quiet.
"Waiting for the inevitable is redundant. For the present, it's just the decline".
"How long will the present last?"
"For now, the present is indefinite".
"Present indefinite", Murthy smiled. "Dude, tea isn't the best drink when on a decline. Like to try grass? Mescaline?" he winked. "My buddies at BHU can treat us".
"No, thanks!" Sid was amused.
"Worry not. One dip in the Ganges and the sin will be washed away", Murthy laughed. "If present is indefinite, future is tense. Present indefinite; future tense", Murthy played with words.
As they set out to the walk to the ghats, the noise followed them. Loyally. The noise of restless mankind. The noise of winter morning. The noise of ancient city. The noise of trade. The noise of the dogs fighting for a piece of bone in garbage. The noise of the pleading of beggars. The noise of the chanting of hymns. The noise of the weight of tradition. The noise of absolute faith. The noise of the suppressed dreams. The noise of the abandoned newborns. The noise of tears in the eyes of the old woman on the brink of death. The noise of brawls, of shattering failures, of loving hugs, of wily smiles, of the words unsaid, of the songs unsung, of broken hearts, of blithe spirits, of chattering minds, of noise, and of silence.
At the bottom of the flight of stairs, they stood on the banks of the Ganges, flowing serenely with flowers and filth. Shortly after, an old man in saffron robes and gray hairs caught their attention. "I will just get some flowers. Wait", Murthy said and went up. "Sure", Sid replied. The old man approached Sid, looked at him for a while and smiled. Sid couldn't help reciprocate; old man and saffron was a charming combination. "Life-altering time?", the old man asked with a smile and started to walk away. Sid, caught in utter surprise, looked at the man. Sid didn't answer "Yes", but the old man seemed to know. Walking the steps up, he said "God bless!"
"Thank you", Sid replied.
As the old man walked away and Murthy started walking toward, Sid heard the noise of their steps. Noise followed noise. The noise of surprise. The noise of ascent. The noise of descent. The noise of the ardent devotees. The noise of the living. The noise of the dying. The noise of sinners. The noise of sinning. The noise of the burning pyre. The noise of priests haggling for money. The noise of wrestlers. The noise of boatsmen luring visitors. The noise of kids jumping into the waters. The noise of the click of camera buttons. The noise of the pens arranging words on empty paper. The noise of relations consigning the corpse to flames. The noise of the flowers in garlands. The noise of the presence of strangers. The noise of the absence of dear ones. The noise of the silent, unseen God. The noise of the souls seeking salvation. The noise of eagles prying for the edible remains. The noise of monkeys stealing bits of food. The noise of the ashes dissolving in waters. The noise of reason. The noise of unreason. The noise of longing. The noise of belonging. The noise of unbelonging. The noise of existence. The noise of death. The noise of life.
The noise of the beat of the heart. The noise of presence. The noise of absence.
13 Oct 2009
The bus came to an abrupt halt. The jolt woke up the baby. She had been blissfully asleep thus far, lost in the celestial world of her innocent dreams. "Careful!", the conductor, bespectacled and in his early-fifties, shouted at the driver, who didn't seem to care. The baby was displeased. She felt as if someone has forcefully pulled curtains on the beautiful world she was dreaming of and dragged her back into this infernal chaos that the people inside and outside the bus are living in. The rude intrusion into her sleep and the inexplicable end to her dreams didn't impress her. Striving hard to open her eyes, she burst out weeping. Sikandar held her close to his chest and patted on her back to put her back to sleep. The conductor held the door open for Sikandar to get down. "The baby will be fine. Don't worry", he assured Sikandar, as he alighted. "Give her medicine on time", the conductor loudly reminded. Sikandar, with his back to the conductor, smiled, waved his hand and said, "Sure, dada!"
Sikandar had been impatiently waiting for the stop, for it started getting cloudy an hour ago. He wanted to reach Saharanpur before it rains. So, when it finally stopped, he was quite relieved. He just wanted to rush to the village. He couldn't give even a moment to turn, look back and thank the conductor properly.
The roar of thunder echoed all around. The clouds were closing in with haste. Saharanpur is still 7 miles away. It's a narrow, muddy stretch through dense forest to the village. Only carts and autos bring and take people between the bus-stop and the village. As one has to wait for hours to find an auto or cart, the young usually prefer to walk the 7 miles. Sikandar hastened his walk as the baby slowly gave in to sleep. He looked at the clouds and it was gloomy. The Sun has completely disappeared behind the dark clouds and the earth smelt of rain. It was raining at a distance, certainly not far away. He quickly assessed that he must not waste even a second if he should reach the village before it rains. For, if it rains, even walking becomes quite difficult on the road. "She is down with cold and high fever. Don't let her outdoors or she'll get weaker", Sikandar remembered the doctor's words. The baby must not get wet in rain. He must rush. He had walked on this stretch many times earlier, so he knows where and how to step and pace.
As it got darker, lightning wouldn't stop. The forest stood in utter quiet. If it rains now, it will pour from the skies. There's nothing to stop by and take shelter at. Suddenly, Sikandar was possessed with apprehension. He thought, for a moment, if it was wiser to go back to the bus-stop and wait till it stops raining. But where would he wait? The barren road aside, it was just shrubs and bushes. Not any better than this stretch. He walked on. Faster. A blinding streak of lightning ran through the sky in front of him, and it appeared as if the clouds were being torn apart. A tender rain droplet fell on his forehead. And with it vanished the last remnant of his wish that it should not rain. Now he must find trees for shelter. He knows the route thoroughly and the nearest one was still a good distance away. Not being one with a faint heart, he was hopeful that the huge tree will protect him and, more importantly, the baby from rain. If it rains through the tree too, he will, he hoped, hide in the groove of the trunk. But all the trees that he knows have full trunks. But reality made little sense now. He relied on his ingenious self - he would disregard all the cold facts and wish for even the most impossible of heroic rescue deeds by compassionate saviours, even if they come in the form of trees. Better yet, he hoped he will find a tiny brick structure, laid overnight by strangers, with a roof. He could put the baby there. Or, how about a divine turnaround - the clouds suddenly going shallow and cannot rain? It wasn't raining yet, so he could still play with hope. For some more time. Just.
With every drop of rain, however, hope dwindled. He must, if he must, believe only in miracles now. The baby was sleeping, and hasn't felt the rain yet. Shortly, however, she will. Sikandar held the baby closer. He has walked a good distance off the road but the village was still far away. When he left for the town that morning, it was bright and sunny. It didn't occur to him if it might rain. He cursed himself. But it was more out of helplessness, for he couldn't have foreseen anyways. Nevertheless, he cursed himself. He felt he should have anticipated, however impossible it was to. He heard the faint sound of rain. It was approaching him. He must run. Inevitability looked straight in his eye. That he failed to foresee didn't appear an accident now; it appeared like a downright mistake, instead. He must pay for it now. But must the innocent baby pay for it, too? Sikandar was anrgy. Rain pelted against the still foliage, and it'll reach him in a few seconds and drench them both. He looked up at the skies. Angrily. That he was always dismissive of God didn't bother him. He prayed. He prayed that the rain should stop soon. If the baby gets drenched and stays wet for a long time, it could be fatal. She is his life and he must save her.
The sky roared loud and rain caught him. Millions of gallons pouring incessantly from above. The baby woke up with a shiver. Startled, she looked at Sikandar. He looked lovingly into her eyes. His anger dissolved, resolve surfaced, but her glance had a thousand questions. One question, repeated a thousand times, rather. "Will you save me, papa?" she seemed to ask. Tears rushed into his eyes, but he stopped. How could he tell her she means everything to him and that he will do everything to save her! He caressed her face, held her closer, and said, "It will be all right, darling". Did she understand? He thought she did. Maybe she indeed did. Or maybe she didn't. Certainly, however, she didn't feel secure in his arms anymore. At what moment did the loving embrace turn into a lethal stranglehold? But what could she do? She doesn't know how to save herself. She was utterly vulnerable, wholly at the mercy of this fatherly character and the elements, earthly and divine. It could've rained an hour earlier or an hour later, but it chose, to his misfortune, this precise hour. He wondered why, for that was all he could do.
The relentless rain resolute to get her, the clouds that cheered without shame, the vast forest that slipped into slumber, the Sun that forgot His might and hid behind the clouds, and this hapless man's insecure embrace - her life was bare. The cold rain water soaked her clothes and skin, and she could not keep her eyes open. Crying aloud, she held Sikandar's collar more firmly. Her shrieks dissolved in the din of rain and her tears were awashed by the callous drops that pelted against her tender face. She did all she could - she cried with all her heart, totally ignorant of what was at stake.
Sikandar did all he could, too. He held the baby with utmost care. If he was desperate to reach the village before it started raining, if he hurried on a rugged stretch, if he wished for the impossible rescue acts, if he scanned everything he could see for anything that promised shelter, it was for the baby. Yet it was the bottomline that mattered, and the bottomline was that he was helpless. At the end, the measure would be this - whether he saved the baby or not.
As it rained heavier and skies became darker, it proved more tough for Sikandar to spot any signs of shelter. With the water on the ground already sinking his feet, even walking became a testing task. The baby continued to cry and he didn't know how to calm her. Six months ago when he spotted this baby abandoned in garbage, when she looked into his eyes for the first time, when he held her in his arms, she became his life. She was a few months old and he was twenty-four. "You are not an orphan anymore, darling. You are my daughter", he told her, unable to contain his delight. She looked at him. She understood she was precious. She smiled in sheer joy. "She is my most precious", Sikandar announced to the village. They thought he went crazy, but it didn't matter to him. He named her, according as his guru's suggestion, Aarushi. His days hence would begin with her glance. "I will never abandon her", he told himself. And yet, as he held her close and ran toward the village in rain at that moment, everything was being put to test. Was she being chosen to be perpetually abandoned or was he being driven to abandon her? He didn't know.
Sikandar spotted - or so he thought - a small tree that he believed could shield rain. He began running impatiently. A few steps later, the run was interrupted by a solid blow against his right foot. Before he could realise he had hit a massive rock, he found himself falling down. He gathered fast and turned around, still in flight. The strong blow toppled his balance and the fall was inevitable. An instant later, he fell down on his back. For an already freezing Aarushi, it was a shock enough to effect hiccups. Sikandar was too focused on her safety to feel, or even worry about, the pain. It was a relief for him that she was not injured. He didn't think much about her hiccups. He believed that once he reaches that tree she will be fine.
Holding Aarushi tight, he tried getting up. His right foot wouldn't move. Surprising Sikandar, it gave in and made him collapse. He underestimated the impact of the rock. It crushed his toes and the gash was deep. Nothing was known of the ligaments or bones, but this was clear - he couldn't walk. Lying down on his back, he tried to feel his foot. But he couldn't. It was as if the foot has been amputated. Struck with an element of dread, he raised his head to look at the foot. He found it trembling in pain and dripping blood. Meanwhile, Aarushi cried with subdued voice, marked by intermittent hiccups. Sikandar took his shirt off with haste and used it to cover Aarushi. As one after another agonising minute passed, she shivered more severely and her crying became more irregular.
The tryst with the damned moment of fate lay in the open. Everything was soaked to the soul, as if the Providence wanted to prove that water is the basic and the only element of the universe. The hunt, he felt, was over. The monster chased, caught, cornered, and rendered him helpless. It's just the final blow that remained as it enjoyed watching him suffer the last pangs of pain. Tears reached the brink of his eyes and he choked in pain. He felt Aarushi against his bare chest. If he could, he would tear his chest open and keep her inside and cover her with his bloody flesh. It was time to admit, the moment to apologise. Would she forgive? She might. She most likely would. She would, indeed. But would he forgive himself? She rested in his arms believing he is the only hope and he couldn't save her! The life of his precious, tender one lay on the edge and he was chosen to witness as a helpless invalid. Nay, he was, by a move most shrewd, chosen to execute the kill himself!
A few minutes passed and Sikandar shook with a start. Letting a loud fit of hiccup, Aarushi fell silent. An eerie chill ran through his spine. Even though she rested in his arms, he didn't feel her anymore. His heart pounded unstoppably, and his worst fear came to the fore. The monster had dealt the final blow. The decisive, fatal blow. And it laid the baby dead. Aarushi lay motionless, abandoned by life, and in utter quiet. Sikandar didn't dare to see her face. He could not. Not as yet. His strength betrayed him. He burst into tears but she wouldn't be moved. He cried aloud but she wouldn't hear. He wept and pleaded but she wouldn't wake up. Inconsolable grief would be his for life. As he lay on the ground with a broken foot, holding the dead baby in his arms, the rain fell in abandonment.
* * * * * * * * *
Sikandar stood silent and looked intently at the ground. It was at this very place that he lay in abject helplessness and let her die. It has been three years. He bent down and kissed the ground. A heavy silence fell on the forest while he was haunted by the rending glimpses of the rainy evening that shattered and reduced him to nothing. Tears blurred his eyes.
At a distance one heard the roar of thunder.