Thursday, December 10, 2009

Short Story - The Barn

Generally speaking, I like waiting. I have to in my line of work. But even otherwise, I like it. It allows me to sort my thoughts, iron them out a little bit. They can get awfully muddled sometimes, these thoughts. Need sorting from time to time. But every once so often waiting can become a real shit job. Like right now. If I’d known that the man meant this place when he said ‘keeping an eye from the barn’, I’d have given the matter more thought than I did before agreeing. My fault too, I suppose. Just that I didn’t expect middle-aged white collared gentlemen to actually keep alive and kicking fucking cows and goats and what have yous in the barns of their fucking farmhouses. And then have one solitary caretaker to clean the place up once in ten years. And hire a lousy broke detective to keep watch from it at the start of the tenth year. Ah, strike off lousy there! I must’ve gotten carried away in the general stink and depression.

I kind of let slip my being a detective, didn’t I! Should be more careful! I mean I know I am only talking to myself. I have developed this habit over the years, one of the things I do while waiting. Talk to myself like I were an external audience. Most of the things I do, I can’t share with anyone else due to, you know, reasons of confidentiality. So I just narrate my exploits to myself like this, makes me feel good. Besides, it keeps my thoughts from straying too much. And then, sometimes, in the middle of the story, the audience in me jumps up and asks a question which I, as the narrator haven’t thought of. And that leads to a train of thought that I hadn’t thought of. Nothing like another man’s opinion! But coming back to the slip of tongue, I like my self-narrations to be suspenseful and intriguing. Like a thriller novel – only necessary information at appropriate times. But never mind, what’s done is done. Let me assume I now know I am a detective.

One of the great things about waiting is observing people. It fascinates me to look at people everywhere. I believe if one looks hard enough, one will find every single man and woman has a reason to kill some other man or woman. I am convinced of this. The more people I meet and observe, the more convinced I am. I know a man I want to kill. If that man comes to know of me, he’ll probably want to kill me too.

Its been over two hours and there’s no sign of anyone yet! Looks like a false alarm, this. So anyway, I was talking about the man who’s making me wait in this shithole. Now, apparently, this chap has this really young beautiful wife. Trophy wife, I’d say from the sound of his voice. I mean, I haven’t met the man but on the phone, he sounds like one of those focused, boring money making machines who derive all their humour from the stock market misfortunes of others. Nothing that would truly interest a young beautiful woman. Other than the money, perhaps. Therefore, the trouble, I should think. Neha, the lady is called. Interesting coincidence, that.

So now this man, Arvind, thinks his wife is cheating on him. Very likely, I think. I personally don’t see any harm in these occasional acts of breaking the monotony. I mean, honestly, how exciting can it be to sleep with the same person year after year, and in this particular case, I daresay without the least bit of adventure on or off the bed? I am having this really cute affair with a married girl myself at the moment. About three months now. Such a nice girl. Visits me thrice a week, always afternoons, and quietly gets down to business. Very little talk. Spends a couple of hours with me, gets up, makes some tea and leaves, closing the door noiselessly behind her. Very much like how the relationship will eventually turn out. If it were not for this silly exercise, I’d be with her by me right now. Sometimes, when I get a little sentimental, I feel like I should murder her husband and take her away. With the experience I have, I am confident of doing a good job. Ah, I hear a car in the driveway! Some action finally!

I can’t quite see the car yet; the car park’s a little out of the line of sight of this rotten fucking wooden window. Admittedly, not the ideal place for surveillance, but what option do I have? At any rate, the front porch and door are right in front of me as are most of the windows on both storeys. Yes, now I hear their footsteps crunching on the fallen leaves strewn across the courtyard. Should spot them any moment now. Good thing, all those fallen leaves. The strange screwy sound of my old camera will be impossible to...hey, wait a minute! What the hell is this? This is his wife? And who the fuck is that guy with him? No, this cannot be true! This can’t be the wife! Oh dear! He said his wife was called Neha! Goddamit! And I thought strange fucking coincidence! Fucking bitch! So its not just me...this fat oversized slob as well! And who knows, maybe she’s got a bloody chest full of them!

Straight down to business, I see. Its been barely two minutes since those two went in. And they’re already on the top floor and...and doing what they’ve come to do! They don’t even close the fucking window...what balls! The bitch! I am going to kill them! The husband can go to hell with his briefcase full of money! I am going to choke the bloody life out of her with my bare hands! No, gloved ones! Hold on, be calm... Take it easy! Where’s the camera, where’s the bloody camera! There! That should make your husband proud!

Been an hour since they went to sleep, I think. Good thing too, I am much calmer now. If they had gone on with the romping and howling much longer...I wonder if she’ll wake up and make him some tea as well. Bitch!

Ah, there’s the tea you fat prick. Yeah, go ahead, sip it like...its all yours!

Gone into the shower now, the two of them. No, strike that. They’re out now. And getting dressed. Hold on a minute! He’s taking out a shirt from the wardrobe! So she allows him to wear her husband’s clothes too! No no, wait. There’s something wrong here. He’s already tried four of them. There’s something wrong! There goes the sixth one, flicked carelessly onto the floor. He’s treating them like his own clothes. His own clothes! Yes, that’s it! That’s it! But what’s the point of this! This...oh my God! Oh my God! He wants to kill me! They want to kill me! That’s what all of this is about! The bitch! She must’ve told him everything! I’ve got to get out of here! I’ve got to get out of here. No, I will go in and kill them myself! Yes, that’s what I’ll do! And nobody could ever connect them with me. There couldn’t even be the remotest connection! Yes, I must look for a...yes here, it is. Fancy that! An axe right by my feet! Yes, nice and heavy! Time to go! No, let me think through this. Could there be anyone else in the house? In the car? A servant? A guard or something? Can’t be, I’ve been here for hours now. Didn’t Neha tell me once about that sinister looking friend of her husband who always stayed with him? Could he be here? Hey, wait a minute! Wait a minute! They want to kill me! They, could he be the...I need to get out of here! Forget the axe. Just, lets get out of here! Run, run run...yes, there’s the barn door...And, oh No!

Gunshot.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Short Story - The End

The place looked like it looked most Thursday evenings: full but not crowded. The familiar smoke and noise. The hazy phosphorent blue lights peeking from false ceilings and walls. A local band was reproducing mediocre improvised versions of popular 70’s rock songs. The crowd, most of them young boys and girls with rich old fathers, sang along sporadically and cheered at the end of each number to indicate that they had recognized it. Night after night, different bands produced near identical playlists, goaded on by an energetic audience that couldn’t care less what was being played as long as it sounded familiar. The song, as Led Zep would’ve put it, did remain the same.

He sat, nonchalantly sipping beer, and studying the two girls and his friend sitting with him. Very early in the conversation, he had been left behind, beaten by his friend’s aggression and experience and his own diffidence in the matter of random dating. Right from when drinks had been discussed, decided and ordered for and his friend had asked the waiter for a weird sounding chicken dish that was not to be found on the menu but was prepared for esteemed customers such as him, he knew he was out for the count. And so, he contended himself with odd sarcastic remarks here and there while he studied the two girls closely, a consistent half smile plastered on his face.

It didn’t help matters that the girls performed so dissimilarly on his appearance rating scale.

One of them had the kind of face that rarely inspires poetry and yet, is oddly attractive. This was complimented by a suitably dusky complexion, a magnificently toned body and well-chosen attire - in this case a well cut green gown. She spoke almost exclusively in excited monosyllables, in a sharp clean voice, and laughed gregariously.

The other was chubby and bland. Flat, pudgy face, puffed under the lips, accentuated by sagging cheeks. Unremarkable hair. She wore a brown corset, too tight for her, over bland blue jeans. The corset’s ends pinched into the flesh close to the armpits, about where the breasts begin to rise, forming a rippled mound of surplus fat. He felt almost revolted at the sight.

He felt sympathy for her, a sympathy he shared with himself. Here they were, he attracted to her friend and she to his, but fully aware that neither could hope for their attractions to be reciprocated. For a while, he had tried to chit chat. She was from Orissa, she had informed him. He had nodded and gulped down the tasteless Oriya jokes that scrambled into his mind.

“I am from Kolkata” he had ventured, to which she’d made no comment. So they had fallen silent again.

That had been over ten minutes ago. He decided to try another time. He thought awhile for appropriate and witty rejoinders after ten minutes of silence and came up with none.

So he went with “So, when you go to Orissa from here, how do you go? By train?”

Immediately, he realized just how ridiculous the question was. His mind flashed back to the time when he had been on a flight to Kolkata seated next to an American girl touring India. Having exchanged pleasantries, he had picked up his novel and pretended to read while contemplating how he could manufacture a conversation. An hour and a half later, he had noticed the girl fumbling through the magazines and instruction manuals inside her seat flap, out of boredom, and eventually picking up the air sickness paper bag and fiddling with it. “Do you feel like vomiting? I have some chocolates.” He had said.

“Why are you smiling?” the girl asked.

It was a habit that had come subconsciously to him and would not go away. It annoyed him that it would not. Whenever he indulged in wistful memories such as these, a smile crept into his face and held itself there until he realized it was there. On innumerable occasions, he suddenly became conscious that his face was creased in a wide smile, while waiting at the bus station, travelling in a train, walking on the street. He would immediately look around embarrassedly to check if people had noticed.

“Oh, nothing. Just remembered something.” He said.

He gazed around the place. Gradually, the dance floor had filled up. He realized with a shock that they were dancing to a remixed version of The Door’s “The End”.

“I did not think I would ever see this in my life. The End on a dance floor? Do these people even know what the song means?”

The girl laughed with genuine amusement.

“Yes, I noticed. They were using Another brick in the wall before this.”

“Quite appropriate, I’d say.”

“So, you listen to a lot of rock?” she asked.

“I’ve heard my share, yes. I prefer country though. Nicer and softer and less grandiose ambitions. And fabulous voices.”

She smiled again and looked away politely. He noticed his friend and her friend holding hands. He sighed.

He wondered if he’d ever have the opportunity to do that himself. Or be able to. He turned back to her.

“You want another drink? I’ve finished too, we could order one more?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“You’ve ever been to Kolkata?”

“Yes, a number of times. I have an aunt who lives there.”

“Ah. Where in Kolkata?”

“Kankurgachi, I think.”

“That’s a long way away from where I used to live. How do you like the city?”

“Dirty”

“Commonly held opinion! Its a strange city though. It looks like there’s always something happening, continuous flux, movement, worried looking people...but in truth, nothing actually does happen.”

“And it never seems to change. Kolkata looks the same every time I go there.”

“It‘s probably been like this since the 1800s. When they make a time machine, it’d be useless to use it in Kolkata.”

She laughed again.

“Time machine? Duh...that concept is all hot air.”

“You think so?”

“If they are ever going to make a time machine, then at some point in the future its already been made, right? Which means, it should’ve been here by now. In fact, it should’ve been to the prehistoric ages by now and introduced it to the Neanderthals themselves. And then, there’d be no need for all this gradual human evolution and gaining of knowledge and all of that. We’d be as advanced as we are ever going to be right from the beginning...”

“And the fact that that has not happened means they’re never going to make one?”

“Logical, no?”

“Depends on how you interpret a time machine. They could make one where you don’t physically time travel. So you can’t interfere with what has happened, only witness it. Something of that sort”

“And how would they make that?”

“How could they make either? This is just hypothetical shit we’re spewing...”

“True”, she reflected on this for a while.

“I have another theory though. Or rather, an slightly silly interpretation of time itself. What if time is continuous and cause-effect driven in the present and the future but malleable in the past?”

She looked at him quizzically.

“Like an assembly line process where once the material passes a certain phase in the process, you could keep breaking and disconnecting or do whatever with those phases and, ideally, the material would still come out the same. You get it?”

“Yes, vaguely.”

“So, lets say time moves like that. So you pick up a point and call it present and everything beyond it future. Now if you go backwards into the past and modify something, it doesn’t matter because the future doesn’t know the past has changed. So everything goes on the same way, see! So maybe, the time machine has been made in the future and has gone into the past and changed things but we have no idea! Maybe the second world war never happened!”

She smiled and nodded to let him know that she had lost interest. He was too excited to notice.

“Of course, the counter argument is what do you consider as Present. Which is a tricky one. Because the counter to that is quite depressing.”

He paused, finished the rest of the whiskey in the glass, and looked intently at her, to communicate the seriousness of the issue.

She understood what was expected of her.

“And what would the counter be?” she queried, anxious to get done with it.

He chuckled, “Destiny. Doesn’t matter where you start in time. Whatever you change in the past does not matter and whatever has been changed in the future, you would not know in the present!”

He beamed widely again. He was starting to enjoy her company.

“So, how long have you lived in Mumbai?” she asked, exasperated and did not bother to register his reply.

She remembered reading on his facebook profile that he’d like to be a filmmaker. That had interested her. That was why she'd agreed to come in the first place. Besides, from what she could gather from his profile pictures, apart from being slightly short, he was pretty presentable. Through the course of the evening, she had found him a little nervous but otherwise agreeable. She had waited for him to settle down and start talking. On the evidence of what he had spoken, she felt, if he ever did make a film, she wouldn’t want to watch it.

“I didn’t notice, those two are over there, dancing.” He said.

“Oh, they are? I didn’t notice either.”

“Well, would you like to dance as well?”

She thought quickly, looked at her watch and said

“Yeah, sure. I’ve got fifteen minutes.”

Monday, August 31, 2009

At the Salon

Loud cantankerous music blares its way out of two enormous speakers connected to one pocket size stereo; the speakers, wooden and with cavernous apertures expected to woof, emit the kind of sound one was used to inside cars before the time of Bose. Kumar Sanu and Udit Narayan take turns to express love or the end of it on behalf of Ajay Devgan, Sunil Shetty, Akshay Kumar and other popular Hindi film heroes of the nineties. These are songs nobody admits to listen to anymore from films that nobody watches anymore. The audio cassettes from these films that T Series, Venus, TIPS and HMV sold in generous quantities have made mysterious disappearances over the years. This, here, is one of the last bastions of that era, mothballing itself from the transition the rest of the world has made.

A mirror runs the entire length of the wall and is faced by three of those amusingly shaped hair salon chairs that have not changed at least since I was born. A single leg protrudes from under the seat, broadening as it moves downwards, much like barstools. The seat is filled with cheap cotton wool and other assortments hidden by a squeaky layer of resin. There are knobs somewhere at the bottom that crank the seat up or plonk it down depending on the mismatch of one's height with that of the barber’s. There are, of course, special arrangements for kids who don’t fall into the prescribed height range of these chairs. Whenever a kid appears, accompanied by a doting father, the barber whisks out a wooden plank from one of the several shelves and drawers in the shop and sets it up on the chair’s armrest. The kid is then placed upon this plank and has to suffer in silence through the rest of his time in the salon.

Having patiently waited my turn for a quarter of an hour, I am finally beckoned by one of the two men manning the three chairs. Even as I walk up to the recently emptied chair and work my way into it, the barber swiftly slaps the dust and hair off the seat with a cloth caked with dust and hair. He then produces a white cloth that is to be tied round my neck and expected to function as an apron. The cloth has evidently been in use a few times since the start of the day and the man slaps it aggressively a few times to underline his regard for hygiene. ‘The usual’ I say and work commences.

A loyal consortium of retired or out of work men hangs around perennially, reading vernacular newspapers and tabloids, sipping tea and making lewd observations about the scantily clad women that appear in these publications. They’ve stuck around for years, these men, even as their children have grown, their wives aged and their parents withered and died. In the evenings, when the salon shuts down, they trudge back unwillingly home and squabble with their screaming wives about life and money. But in the salon they are kings, backslapping and cursing each other out of their miseries. For their fierce loyalty, these men are allowed to jump the queue, a strange privilege, considering that they will hang around the place the entire day anyway. They are sometimes offered complimentary tea but rarely ever, a free haircut.

In the middle of all this, I sit on the chair, staring at myself and others in the mirror while the man I scarcely know fiddles with scissors and other sharp instruments inches from my face. It is as helpless a state as one can get into; there is not a thing one can do if the barber suddenly develops Sweeney Todd like tendencies. It is, I confess, one of the less agreeable effects of watching films and reading literature in that one’s imagination seems to run wild in the most trivial matters, goaded on by the references and remembrances of outlandish events in similar settings. And so I pass the next few minutes remembering and visualizing everything from slasher films to torture porn, reasonably confident that such fate is unlikely to befall me and yet, sufficiently worked up, to fidget uncomfortably in the chair.

For all its dangers, the chair does afford me a peaceful time. At such times, I often become acutely aware of my physical self. It is astonishing how much discomfort can be attained by merely thinking about such things, once they are wrenched from the sub conscious into the light. How one’s arms rest on one’s lap, for example. Once one is aware that is where the arms are, there does not appear to be a correct way to keep them there. Or one’s jaws and how they are set. Are the upper and lower sets of teeth supposed to touch each other? Or is there normally a gap between them? If one lets the teeth touch, the jaws feel clenched and unnatural. When one draws them apart, the face appears awkwardly stretched. One tries out various combinations and is dismayed how difficult it is to remember how one has set one’s mouth since the day one was born. And one admires the mind’s fantastic ability to forget about its own body with such deftness as to let us not bother about these things all the time.

To take my mind away from my arms and jaws, I force it to think about something else and settle on what I should write about next as the most promising train of thought. The last time I wrote was a month ago when I wrote a two page story and that is not the kind of pace desirable when one harbours ambitions of publishing one’s works. I fumble with a few half baked ideas I’ve had for the past few weeks – about a man who falls behind the rest of the world by a day, a paedophile who laments how his greatest fear is to become a father and his greatest curse that his romances must always be transient or a man who undergoes a sex change operation and realizes it was a mistake and wants to change back. I make a mental note of researching on Google about the scientific viability or otherwise of such intentions. At some point, I convince myself, I shall work upon all of them. But for now, I feel too lazy to delve too deeply into these concepts. That is when it strikes me that I might as well write about the hair salon! I quickly do a mental feasibility check and conclude that there is enough shit that can be spewed on the matter. The next task is to carefully reconstruct the haircutting experience, observe and memorize important objects and points of interest around me and try and recall other relevant experiences and observations from past years. So I notice the chairs, the instruments, the stereo and the speakers and the other men in the salon. While this goes on, I also simultaneously ponder upon methods of introducing elements of seeming profundity into the piece, perhaps a paragraph on these men wasting themselves away. And then there must be inserted a couple of absurd observations that sound cute and appear interesting – the setting of the jaws maybe?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Autobiography of a Road

I am a road. My name is Mahatma Gandhi.

I don’t know why these human beings named me that. It appears some fellow by that name did something noticeable with his life. So this is their way of honouring him. Having me named after him and then trampling all over me all the time. I find that a little strange, but well, they move in mysterious ways.

I don’t know how this Mahatma Gandhi chap had anything to do with me, but then, roads can’t really choose their own names. I hear I’ve namesakes in other cities as well. That’s alright, I suppose, although I’d have liked to keep the name for myself, given a choice.

The other roads do seem to make a bit of an issue out of my name. They think it somehow makes me better off than them. You get a good name and a good place, and they give you a good body and take care of you so much and so and so forth, they keep telling me. They even point out I’ve got better tyres running me over. Fat lot of difference that makes!

I hear that kind of shit all the time, really. The tyres keep bringing all the latest gossip in town to me. Good friends of mine, most tyres. Since we work with each other so much, might as well be on backslapping terms. Besides, it does get a little lonely otherwise. I do, of course, meet some of the other roads at the intersections every once in a while. But we tend to get a bit bored, seeing each other so frequently. Then again, they think we are a tight bunch, all of us, and they don’t tell me what their other friends have to say about me. Keep me from getting hurt and all that crap.

No, tyres are much better. They do make too much noise about their supremacy though. About how they see so much of the world while we stick around like shitpots. The human beings don’t help matters much, I must say. They’ve devised this utter crap with their language about us taking them from one place to another. I find it extremely humiliating. And the tyres, of course, find it hilarious. Rub it in all the time.

Wait, I've been rambling on uselessly, haven't I? Guess I must introduce myself better. After all, what’s in just a name?

I was born several years ago, not sure of the exact number though. Gets a little difficult to keep track after a point since they don’t really celebrate our birthdays every year. One or two of the other roads argue with me as to why I need to keep any sort of time at all, since it hardly means anything to us, in the condition we are in. But I think it is important. Anyway, coming back to my birth, I was born right here, where I am now. The whole thing is quite similar to how these human beings are born themselves. Requires a lot more people, of course.

One fine day, a truckload of chaps just land up with all the plans and relevant material and get on with the job. Quite painful really, what with all the heating and burning. And then just when one thinks the worst is over, that monstrous thing with those huge metal tyres comes and stomps all over us. That’s supposed to keep us in line, apparently.

I wonder if these human beings are like God to us. They sure have all the ingredients, I should think. Just that they don’t seem to be right and fair and caring and all of those things all the time. I am Mahatma Gandhi, of course, and I get treated a little better. But some of the other ones are in dire shape, I hear. Then again, these human beings die long before we do. Now that’s not how their God seems to work. I am not sure how they know that but they do make a big deal of believing it, so I guess they know something I don’t.

I like late nights the most. After all the traffic thins out and the place is calmer. And the conversations with the tyres, though infrequent, become more vibrant and chirpier.

It doesn’t get dark for me though, with all those yellow lights waking up. But before those things were put in place, I could look at the dark sky without trouble. And see the moon and the stars wandering about throughout the night. Did depress me a little, seeing that even they had scope for such movement while I lay prostrate on the earth. I’ve learnt since that apparently I too am moving about with the earth the same way they do. That makes me feel better about myself, though it still does not make me feel any motion. Mind you, I am not complaining about the yellow lights. After they’ve arrived, I sense that I can see myself better if I wanted to. I probably look better too; the lights must make my complexion glow!

The days aren’t too bad either. I make so many new friends every day. And then there’s the Sun. It also wanders about the sky throughout the day, just as the moon and the stars do. But the Sun looks more powerful. I am told that this is not strictly correct. I don’t know why that is.

The only time I get really pissed off with life is during the rains. That’s when all those sewer pipes down there get all high and ambitious and have their time under the sun. We keep them where they belong most of the time, those retarded fucks. There’s a reason they’re down there below us, I say. But then, the rains come and they take every opportunity to puke their filthy guts out all over us. I don’t know what they think they achieve with this utterly disgusting exhibition. They think this will cause some kind of revolution and people will start travelling through them instead of us? Such absurdity! They did have their moment of glory when they started the underground metro in my city. But I don’t think that’s made much difference to anything at all.

Truth be told, I am quite happy with the way my life has turned out so far. You get used to the world making a fool of itself on top of you in time. It is quite peaceful after that. Comforting even, knowing everything’s alright every day. Yeah, I would’ve liked to go see a few friends in other countries. I keep hearing how roads are more cultured and all that. But, at least, the tyres don’t get to do that either!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Ride

I walk out of the shopping mall, polythene bag in hand, in quick measured steps, confident that this simple act of exit would not be botched up. And I don’t. I descend the familiar flight of stairs that lead to the main street and its jumbled traffic. I must cross the street for I have to travel in the other direction. This too I accomplish without anxiety, no mean feat in the milieu of ferociously accelerating vehicles hoping to avoid the impending red lights and even more ferociously accelerating vehicles hoping to avoid the cops once the lights are red.

It is only when I safely reach the other side, that my confidence abruptly deserts me. I am engulfed in a deep sense of foreboding. The journey ahead, though the path is familiar and the destination known, poses challenges that I am most fearful of. For it is now that I must face my most intrinsic insecurities and inadequacies, delve into the darkest corners of my mind and soul, engage in a cathartic dialogue with myself. For I must now find myself a willing Auto Rickshaw Wallah.

They stand there in haphazard formation, dozens of them, waiting for an opportunity to deny me a ride. I am engulfed in their midst, in despair and without escape, needing and loathing them more than ever. My gaze wanders amongst them, seeking friendly eyes, compassionate faces, desperately keeping my mind from straying into territories where I know it eventually must. But I find none.

Distraught, I venture to enquire a couple of them if they would consent to aid me in my quest to journey homeward. They quickly glance back at me, shaking their head in a direction perpendicular to the one I hope for. It is a tight rope travellers like me must walk. If the destination be too proximal or too distal, rejection must be accepted. The Auto Rickshaw Wallah’s nobility must neither be shortchanged nor exploited.

What an odd relationship it is between the driver and his passenger. They have never seen each other before. They know not what the other is like. They know not whether or not they have anything in common. They know not how, precisely at that moment and in that spot, the other is present. And yet through the infinite other possible cosmic combinations, they find each other to spend a few minutes with. And yet, they, perhaps, do not even talk to each other. The passenger sits, calm and observant, comfortable in his or her assumed superiority over the driver, while the driver guides his vehicle through the mayhem, master of their collective destinies.

What must I do, I consider, to find myself one such driver from this group. Must I tug at their heartstrings, stating how my body bears the brunt of a deadly disease? No. That would be selfish and inconsiderate. And unethical, perhaps.

Must I then, appeal to their sense of duty, informing them how I must make it to the said address in time or catastrophe may befall me? No. With a shopping bag full of items of leisure in hand, the suspension of belief required, would be beyond them.

Must I be aggressive, shrieking and threatening them if they refuse? No. My disposition is too cultured to trouble theirs.

I watch as a pair of lovely young ladies walk up to one of the Rickshaws, simper coquettishly into the man’s ears, and immediately secure permission to sit inside. How I wish I were born a woman, I muse. Then I check myself. Would this be interpreted as sexist? And if so, which side would I have debased? Or, I reflect, I could I wish I had a girlfriend in tow. I always despise it when I reach this point in the introspective arc. I have noticed that I seem to be reaching it with increasing frequency as the days pass. Whether I must or must not have a girlfriend is an issue I fail to address with logic and composure. It is an unconquerable conundrum for me. There, of course, exists a more elementary problem in this case. I fear the day I decide that I do need one. Because I would not know how to go about finding one. For all my conversational talents, I remain sadly devoid of the knowledge of the art of courtship. Not that I have ever actively sought to hone it, but I have a feeling it is the sort of thing that does not require honing.

The crisis at hand still remains unresolved. The auto rickshaw wallahs have by now lost all hope in me. I feel like I have disappointed them. I wonder if I will ever be able to make it up to them. But then, I remember, these men are shorn of their rights of refusal. They are a mode of public transport and public service cannot be conditional; thus have deemed those with knowledge and power. I almost convince myself that this is indeed true before I understand their folly. Auto Rickshaws are as much a form of public service as any private industry. They run their own business and make their own money. And they must have the right to choose who they do or do not do business with. Trains and buses are public transport. And those that drive it are employees of the government. They have fixed routes and fixed incomes. Auto rickshaw wallahs don’t.

Anyway, I walk home.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Internet Cloud

I login, as ever, soon as I get up in the morning, and scroll down the familiar application window to check how populated my friend list is. I do this every day without exception or purpose, like a dog dusts itself after an severe scuffle in the mud with another. My fingers coil over the mouse with confidence, each one at ease with what is expected of it. The mouse’s incarnation inside the screen transforms the uneven human motion into a more graceful glide.

I see the same familiar faces. Familiar names. People I know, spread across the planet, unified together in this moment by habit and digital codes. They will stay here, throughout the day, always within reach, and yet I may perhaps not offer them a cursory greeting.

And yet, I continue to scroll. A million times a day. Minute after minute. Hour after hour. For what? Hope?

And then some day, I shall find that unfamiliar name. The name that I have been waiting for. The name I have not seen in days. Perhaps months. All this time, I’ll have been glancing perfunctorily at the other names, recognizing but not registering. And then, just as perfunctorily, your name will be sitting there, unassuming in the crowd.

And then I’ll be taken over by that most mystifying of all human traits – hesitation. Should I greet you immediately, desperately? Or should I wait, nonchalant and impassive as any other name on your screen, escaped from notice? I’ll wait. I’ll open a dozen sites, grown bland and uninteresting as canteen food, and sift through them, as if your name on the screen will be watching my every move. Every once in a while, I will steal a glance towards where your name ought to be, satisfying myself that you are still here, intensely proximal. I shall pick out other names in the list and greet them, names I’ve not spoken to in ages. Some of them will return the greeting, some will not. Of those that do, some will strike further conversation; some will simply stare at me out of that screen, through all those 0s and 1s, without a word.

Some days, I will be too late. All at once, you shall disappear, as suddenly as you appeared, from under my watchful eyes. And I shall be heartbroken I waited too long. But then, I will think, if you were only there for these handful of minutes, I could not have had a conversation anyway.

Some days, you will be too late. You shall just float there forever, I know not for what reason, but long enough for my desperation to pump through my heart and into my fingers. And I shall type ‘Good Time of Day’ and press the fatal ‘Return’ key before I can stop myself. I will stare in horror at my foolhardiness, wishing I could turn back Time and not do it. But it will be gone. Like words spoken.

Then shall begin the excruciating wait. Would you respond? Or would you ignore my sudden bursting forth, perhaps with a chuckle, as I do to so many who dare do the same with me? Again, I shall go back to my dozen sites, browsing through them, checking mail, playing games, as if everything were fine. Hell, I would even close the bloody window with your name on it, dismissing you from sight, as if it did not matter whether or not you replied. All the time, desperately hoping, that suddenly, out of nowhere, the window would pop up again, with your lovely written words in it.

Occasionally, it does pop up. An impersonal ‘Hi, how are you?’ to my warm ‘Good Time of Day’. Words that can be spoken anywhere and to anyone and mean nothing. Hollow. But at least, there is a reply. A chance to extend beyond. So I think about what I shall write next. Again, nothing too personal so quickly. Something simple, witty, unique. ‘How’s the city treating you?’ maybe. And then I must wait again. This time, more heartbreakingly than before, for hope is replaced by expectation. For infinite seconds, nothing happens. I implore, with all my might, you, all vestiges of civilized indifference devastated in your ‘Hi, how are you?’. Then slowly, the window flickers. There are those extra words of agony next to your name ‘...is typing’. What will you say? Will you enchant me with a description of your city? Or will you dismiss this question, beseeching you for words, as an innocuous demand upon your time? Or will you start to speak, as you already have, and then simply let it hang, dashing my hopes with ‘...is typing’ for eternity?

Whatever you do, I shall be waiting for you the next time too.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Short Story - The Porn Story

I first met the extraordinary Mrs. Gupta in a sleepy little cocktail party that one of our mutual friends had invited us to. I had, of course, heard of her from various sources, and though most of the stories constituted of the same basic facts, I never quite managed to shake off my incredulity towards them.

At first glance, I could detect nothing in her appearance to betray her reportedly macabre tastes. She was and looked well over seventy, draped in a spotless white sari with elegant black borders. Her face appeared entirely composed of deep lines and wrinkles of varying sizes, her lips thin and colourless, as if they were inward extensions of the lines on each side of them. Small, black, lifeless eyes. Her hair had turned completely gray and lay thinly on her head in long frail strands bunched together tightly near the nape of her neck. She sat patiently listening to and evidently uninterested in the high pitched gossips of the ladies around her. The only feature worth noting, I reflected, was the absence of glasses. I had rarely seen a woman of that age without them.

It was during a particularly low phase in my fledgling career as a writer. In the past year, I had published a few stories in second grade magazines, earning barely sufficient money to stay afloat in a city like Mumbai. For several months, I’d been constantly approaching publishers to see if my motley collection of stories and essays could be combined into one volume through a common thread; a thread I myself could not detect. Expectedly, the publishers were not keen. They told me I could become a pretty decent author, but not by writing short stories. Write a full length novel and come back to us, they said. These days, nobody publishes short stories by an unknown author, they added.

And so here I was, trying desperately to find inspiration for a novel. There were none coming. Everywhere I went, everything I looked at, I tried to find myself a story. I even attempted to put myself into the shoes of authors past and how they’d look at a scene. Once, I’d sat three hours in front of an old, nearly blind beggar staring at him, until he’d gotten so uncomfortable that he’d limped off himself. What would the great authors write about him? Murakami would possess him with powers to make frogs or fishes or some such thing fall from the sky. Coetzee would create a poignant history of the man and who he was. Beckett would perhaps see him waiting for that one coin that would change his luck. Kafka would simply name him K. Which of these interpretations would I enjoy the most? For a long time, I had considered the one closest to my own to be an indication of the best. For wasn’t it when an author could describe a situation as if you were doing it yourself, as if he had gotten into your head and read your thoughts, that he achieved the inhuman? But then, I reasoned, that meant the author had merely reproduced what one has already thought oneself and has, therefore, little to offer by way of an alternate perception. So then was it the work that differs the most from one’s perception that should be considered the greatest?

Coming back to Mrs. Gupta, the chance encounter with her raised high hopes for me. A woman whose life and inexplicable tastes were worthy of being documented. A woman who perhaps held in her mind my future. A woman I had to talk to.

And so I walked up to her and offered her a glass of wine, which she graciously declined. I introduced myself.


“A writer, I see. How interesting”


Then she looked away again into the crowded milieu of multicoloured skins and fabrics, as if that interested her more. I asked if I could sit next to her for a while. She looked up at me for a moment with a semblance of surprise and then nodded.


“You don’t appear very interested in talking to all these people; don’t know many of them, I gather?”

“I know all of them”

“Oh”


For the next half hour, we sat next to each other, without conversation. At the end of it, she asked me to help her to her feet. I did so.

“Thank you, young man” she said “Visit my home sometime if you want to. I get quite lonely sometimes. A cup of coffee wouldn’t hurt.”


“Yes, of course. It’ll give me great pleasure.”


She nodded, picked up the walking stick next to the chair and walked off.

For a week after that, I meditated on how serious she really had been about the invitation to coffee. She had appeared earnest enough. The more pressing concern, however, was whether I should indeed go. If indeed the rumours about her were true, this could lead to an encounter more demanding than one over coffee. But I was desperate for my story. So I went.

Nothing happened. Her home was a lovely little two storey bungalow by the seaside. She didn’t speak much at all, politely answering whatever queries I put to her. I, prudently, avoided talking to her of what really held my interest. After a couple of hours, I bade her goodbye.

“Come back some time if you want to” she said, as I walked out.

Come back, I did. Several times in the next two months. Determined. Dogged. Each time, I spent a little more time with her. I learnt she had had a husband who died some ten years ago. I learnt she had a son she hadn’t seen in fifteen years, though he lived in the same city. I learnt she liked walking to the nearby park once a week and play with the children there.

It was probably my fourteenth visit, when she proposed I accompany her upstairs to see what it looked like. So far, she’d never shown me around the house and I hadn’t expressed any particular inclination in doing so. I was immediately on alert, the fear of what this might culminate in, coming back. But there was no conceivable reason why I could refuse and so followed her up the stairs, anxious and perspiring.

The stairs ended in a balcony, one that was visible from outside the house. It looked extremely clean, given the sea and the sand right next to it, and was evidently cared for. At the far end of the balcony, there was a door that led into what looked like a penthouse. She waited while I walked around the balcony, taking in the view and making mental notes of what I would or would not describe, if this did end in a story. Then she gestured towards the door and led me into the room.

It was a penthouse alright. Converted into a library. Four shelves full of books. There was a small glass paned window next to which was a medium sized reading table and two chairs.

I walked up to a shelf and picked up a book. And I realized all that I had heard of her was true. The truth was placed neatly, row upon row, stack upon stack, hundreds of them. On all the shelves

Porn. Magazines, graphic novels, literature. All porn.

I dared not look at her. I leafed through a few, scarcely able to keep my hands from shaking. A seventy year old woman, perfectly sane, who devoured porn.

I said nothing. She said nothing. I quietly made my downstairs; she made no attempt to intervene.

At the door, I turned around and asked her to if I could have a glass of water. She returned a minute later with it.


“I’ll take your leave now” I said.

“Do come back again”


That’s it. No explanations. But she had wanted me to see that room. Why? And what secret perversion made her keep, and in all likelihood read, all of that? What was the meaning of all this?

For a month after that, I did not go back. I lay at home, rarely going out, thinking of her. Devising stories. I thought of several, each more morbid than the other. But that was not the point. I had to know what the truth was. I had to ask her. And if her letting me have a look meant anything, then she probably wanted me to ask. She knew I was a writer.

So one morning, I called her and asked if I could see her. She consented, without letting her voice betray whether or not she wanted me to. I went anyway.

As always, she sat me in the cosy sofa where I always sat and went inside to make us some coffee. I sat there, looking around me, half expecting to see what I did not know.

She put the cups on the table and sat opposite me, looking at me intently. I did not speak. The silence hung over us oppressively.


“You wanted to see me again.” She said after a while. I nodded.

“It is about the library, isn’t it?”

“Yes”

“You want to make a story out of this, don’t you?”

I did not respond.

“That’s why you’ve been coming to me all this time”

I remained silent, staring down into my cup.

“So go ahead, ask.”

I looked up. She had been staring at me all the time.

“Why?” I asked

Her husband had been a moderately successful businessman. She had met her when she was about thirty and he well over forty. She had fallen madly in love with him and his money. He was in love with sex. So they had married.

A year into the marriage, they had realized that compatibility did not enter the equation for the two of them. They didn’t have the same tastes in anything. Not even different tastes. They just didn’t know what they wanted, assured only of the fact that whatever one desired, the other did not. Before either could contemplate a separation, a child had been produced. So, for the rest of their lives, they based their relationship on sex. To the very end. Just that.

Their son had, once he grew up, sensed the apathy that the two had towards themselves and towards him. So he had left. The two had gone on anyway.

And then the husband had died. And Mrs. Gupta’s entire life, wasted, had come tumbling down on her. She had mourned and wept for two years, yearning for her husband’s physical presence. There was no memory of him, of their time together, that she could conjure up to soothe her grief, to replace it with melancholy. And that made his absence more severe.

She looked back and forth in her life to find what she could go on with now. There was nothing. Once, before their marriage, she’d wanted to paint. Now her hands trembled and she smeared paint over the canvass.

Then one day, she had picked herself up, put on a dress she’d worn when she was young and which ill fitted her, put on pounds of makeup and gone to a pub. There she had sat alone at a table, staring at every man that walked in, smiling coquettishly at whoever cared to look at her. Nobody had come to her, talked to her. She’d returned home after they told her they had to close and cried herself to sleep.

Thus she spent every night thereafter. Sitting in one of the corner tables, being a laughing stock. Until one day, a young handsome looking fellow had walked up to her and asked her if she’d like a drink.

Later that night, she had returned home with him. She had asked him to wait in the hall, while she decorated her bedroom with fragrant colourful candles, which she’d bought in anticipation. Then she had stripped herself naked, switched off the lights and asked him to come in. When he entered, he had turned the light on. He wanted to see her for what she was, he told her. He had looked at her with tender eyes as she stood disconsolate and feeling more naked than she had ever felt before. Then he had walked up to her, taken her in his arms, and gently kissed her on the lips.

He had tried desperately to arouse her, to satisfy her. That she could not experience anything close to an orgasm, was entirely God’s fault. In truth, she never had had an orgasm in twenty years; when she was with her husband, that had not seemed to matter. She had cried desperately, clinging on to the young man, sniffing I am sorrys and saliva all over him. There was nothing wrong with what had happened, the man had told her. He had asked her to wait while he went outside and returned with a book in his hand. What is it, she had asked. It’s porn, he had replied. So they had lain there the rest of the night, in each others’ arms and he had read the entire book to her. She had not stopped crying, with sadness and pleasure and relief. Thank you, she had said. Thank you, as she dozed off in the best sleep of her life. In the morning, when she had woken up, he was gone. She found a note from him which said he was sorry and that he couldn’t let his conscience do this any longer.

A week later, a large parcel had arrived. It was from her son. He had sent her two porn magazines along with a photograph of himself with his friend, the young man of the previous night. She had read them, standing on the porch, right where she had opened them.

Another parcel arrived after a week. They continued to arrive week after week, year after year.

Her son had never come to meet her himself. The incredible library upstairs was her memories of her husband, her son and that last wonderful night she would have in her life, all rolled into one.

All of this, I wanted her to tell me.


“That is no business of yours” she told me instead.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Short Story - Ganglands

Once upon a time, in a little known town in India, there lived two handsome young men, driven by one great ambition – to bring the town’s haphazard but promising gangland under their control. Naturally, the two bayed for each other’s blood.

Now, the small time gang lords, obviously displeased with this interference, against their best judgements, called a temporary truce and convened a meeting in a long abandoned textile mill, appropriately located in a rundown part of town. That these two would have to be stopped was agreed upon unequivocally. However, exactly how this should be accomplished was more vigorously discussed. Various means were suggested. Coercion was immediately ruled out given the well known ambitiousness and stubbornness of the individuals in question. Eliminating them was deemed too drastic; the two had by that time gained much popularity amongst the minions and such an action could lead to outrage and revolt.  Someone suggested eliciting the local police’s help. “Let them sleep” said somebody else.

The problem was nobody had definite knowledge of how the two men planned to lay siege upon their fiefdoms and therefore planning a counteroffensive proved to be a somewhat ambiguous task. When after many hours of poring over the matter, no consensus could be arrived at, they decided to not indulge in any immediate action; rather let those two make the first move. Nevertheless, the gang lords promised to bury individual differences and business interests and remain united against this enigmatic external threat.

With this uneasy alliance, the town became an edgy, peaceful place. The small time crooks, drug dealers, robbers, etc, part of one clan or the other, were given strict instructions to not pick up fights with members of rival clans. To assuage their barely controllable tempers, they were allowed free booze in the evenings and free women later. So there they were in the ill-lit bars from early evening, drinking their fill and exchanging hostile and helpless glances with each other. In the early hours of the morning, they’d be deposited into a girl’s room, where they’d sleep till the next evening.

The townsfolk too were disgruntled. The perennial conflict of the gangs had been the cornerstone of the town’s economy. With the war on hold, bribes and payoffs reduced to a trickle. Bar owners and pimps had to peddle their wares at enormous discounts to the gang lords, owing to the free booze & women benefits being meted out. This meant the common folk had to be charged higher to keep the money flowing in. The drug trade too suffered. In the absence of competing clans vying for the same set of customers, prices shot up.

In short, the entire town was on the verge of revolt.

This was precisely the situation the two young men had hoped for. Without any effort on their own parts, they could see discontent and rage set in the ranks. This was their golden chance to exploit the situation. And thus started the long drawn and skilful process of indulging and buying out men from all echelons of these gangs. So began the great exodus. Money was spent, favours exchanged and infidels eliminated. For the disgruntled populace, a fantastic new opportunity had opened up. They negotiated and renegotiated with the two aspiring men; each out to outdo the other in the formation of their armies.

 By the time the gang lords realized their folly, it was a tad too late. For a while, they threatened their men and the public with violence. They met with abject failure. The town had witnessed firsthand the limitations of these aging lords and had no intention of bringing them back to power. Each act of violence was retaliated with a more gruesome one. Myriad battles raged on the streets. Blood spilled and flowed. The sewers overflowed with disposed bodies.

In time, the gang lords realized the hopelessness of their predicament. There was nothing they could do now. They summoned their closest aides and advisors and scratched their heads over an alternate solution. As it turned out, there was only one. They had to reach a compromise with either of the two factions. And they had to do it before the rest. Hasty communications were sent. The lords fell over each other in their bid to align themselves with those in positions of power.

The two men bargained hard. Those that committed the highest percentages, had more and pertinent officials on their payroll and were docile or dumb enough to not pose future threat were preferred. The rest, like their henchmen, were thrown out of the window. Literally.

Eventually, the realignment was complete. Drug peddlers and pimps infested the streets again. The bars reopened their supplies of booze at affordable prices to the commoner. The town returned to normalcy.

The revolt, however, had been a great education for both the men. And it was important to avoid this at all costs. Peace , calm and unity were virtues of another world. So then, the two avowed enemies met. They understood that for one to survive, the other must too. But coexistence could not be congenial. Therefore, the two men shook hands and made several important decisions. Artificial and actual sale prices, payoffs, etc were fixed, leaving sufficient room for bargaining and satisfaction for the public. Intermittent, unremarkable clashes between the two were mandated. These would be used to cleanse each others’ groups of irrelevant, dispensable resources. Deriding each other on public platforms was encouraged.

For many years hence, the town blossomed. The economy expanded manifold. As did prices, which didn’t pinch the citizens so much since they themselves were receiving higher payoffs and revenues in business. Occasional scuffles between the two regimes were doctored; irrelevant The two men grew their wealth and power even as the rest remained happy and as poor as they always had been.

Till the two ran, unplanned, into each other at a posh restaurant and didn’t know how to react. Everybody in the vicinity closed in around them, expecting a thrilling encounter. Their bodyguards and disciples, unaware of the arrangement of coexistence, drew their guns and readied for a bloody finale. There was no escape.

“Put your guns down” said one of the young men to his bunch, “this is between him and me”

The other fellow commanded his troops likewise.

They formed a battle ring around the two men. “A fight till death!” cried someone.

“Yes! Yes! A fight till death!” echoed everyone else.

And thus began the great combat. They exchanged blows and kicks and everything else in their armoury. For hours they strived for an artificial advantage, even as their minds raced to find a way out of the mess. They were battered, bruised and barely able to stand. Yet they fought on. Finally, one of them, punched hard on the nose fell and would not get up.

Someone threw a gun into the ring. “Finish him! Finish him!” they cried, even as the other side looked on in horror.

The man picked up the gun and stood over his motionless competitor. He took aim. Suddenly, the other man, swung his legs into his knees. He toppled and fell, the gun slipping out of his hands. Even as he fell, with one swift action, the other man reached for the gun and fired. On the chandelier that hung over them. The chandelier groaned and came crashing down, breaking into a million pieces of useless glass and burying both men underneath.

When they woke up, they lay in the local hospital, in their respective rooms. Their followers stood teary eyed all around them. As their eyes gradually focussed on the real world again, they heard chants of relief and gratitude.

“He’s come back to us! He’s come back to us!”

They looked around quizzically at their bunch, failing to comprehend what all the noise was about. Who were these people anyway?

The doctors diagnosed them with loss of memory. They may regain it with time, they said. When they go back to their old familiar people, objects and places, they might.

The doctors’ instructions were followed. Back in their dens, the two spent time reading the local newspaper, sipping tea with biscuits and refusing to acknowledge anyone with familiarity.

All the clashes and violence and trade that had remained standstill while the two were still in hospital, returned with a vengeance. Each clan indicted the other for the state of their leader. The town watched and heard from behind closed doors and shuttered windows, as the war raged on the streets. Loss of property and life became irrelevant. Nobody knew where this would end.

Even as the war waged, close allies of the two men worked endlessly and tirelessly on them to regain their memory and take stock of the situation. Old stories were recounted in excruciating details, supplemented with photographs wherever possible. Nothing worked.

Unable to control the self destructive bloodshed on the streets any longer, the think tank of both sides decided their only hope was to make the two confront each other again. Recreating that epic battle in the restaurant could conceivably strike a chord inside their wayward minds.

The restaurant scene was recreated with painstaking detail. They searched and found everyone who had been present that day. Many had, of course, died in the meanwhile, but there was nothing that could be done about that. The same people, the same waiters, the same tables, the same time, the same date, the same clothes.

And so, they met again. The crowd cheered and jeered. “A fight till death” someone shouted.

“Yes! Yes! A fight till death!” echoed everyone else.

“He is your worst enemy! You want to kill him!” aides whispered into their ears.

“Maybe he is. But now, I don’t even know him!” they replied

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Waiting

He sat, waiting.

He stretched out his legs under the table one after the other, feeling the muted click at the knees. It meant nothing and felt like nothing but felt good. He’d been waiting for a while.

He looked around at people on the other tables. Friends, businessmen, lovers, to be lovers. Hot females. Well dressed females. Dumb males. It takes all sorts, he thought.

Nobody minded the ridiculously loud music. Nobody minded the clock slipping past midnight. Nobody minded the waiters and waitresses fleeting deftly around their tables, overhearing comfortably what they discussed. Nobody minded the city outside. It was Mumbai. It could have been New York.

He sipped some more beer. Licking the froth off his lips, he studied the mug, three quarters filled. D├ęcors changed. Menus changed. Even whisky glasses changed. But beer mugs never did. Anywhere.

He thought for a while about Nikita. And how not beautiful she was. Eyes too far apart, accentuated by brows that met. Oversized cheeks that seemed as if they were locked in a battle to stretch her face outwards on either side. The strange combination of a roundish face, short neck and broad shoulders. The slightly bulging belly which she refused to conceal through her choice of tight body hugging outfits. Nice legs though. And a nice girl. He really wished something worked out between them.

He picked up his mug and held it up against the dim yellow light bulb of the pub. Closing one eye, he looked into the side. The bulb looked a little yellower and the area around it a little darker. He moved the mug down slowly, waiting for the bulb to rise above the beer into clear glass. When it did, it revealed his sticky, oily fingerprints on the mug. He wiped them off with his palms as best as he could. Next, he tried to hold the mug at the exact position where the bulb would be half out of the liquid and found his hand shook too much. He sighed and put it back on the table.

On the table right in front, a couple (to be lovers) was regretting their decision to sit across the table. He wouldn’t have minded the girl himself. Outside, another couple stood waiting impatiently. They’d been waiting for some time. He didn’t mind that girl either. Not long to wait now.

He flipped out another cigarette and motioned to the waiter, who graciously offered him a lighter. He looked at his watch. It’d been two minutes since he’d seen it last. He waited for the second hand to move and just when he was about to decide there was something the matter with it, it did. It was as if time was waiting with him.

The couple moved out and the one waiting moved in. Lovers surely; nobody went on prospective dates after midnight. He hoped the girl, with her low cut green gown, would sit on the opposite side. She did not. Instinctively, he gazed down at his own attire and wondered how ridiculous he must look, all dressed up and alone. He straightened his shirt with his hand, dabbed at the mound that his trousers made over his crotch and looked around to check if anybody had noticed.

Still no sign of him.

He went back to his beer mug. The fizz rose to the top of the mug, each bubble in a race against the others to get there first. To them, I must be God; he contemplated this for a few seconds and then sipped a little.

He clearly felt the effects of the beer now. Not that it would make his speech disjointed or slurred or screw up his sense of straight lines. Alcohol never did that to him. It only made him make conversation. Made him enjoy conversations. And made him adore Fatih Akin.

The watch had moved another three minutes.

The crowd inside the pub had gradually thinned. Just four tables, including his, were occupied. Almost in sync, the music had imperceptibly melted into softer instrumental sounds; the place felt more intimate now. The couple in front of him were holding hands, he noticed. On a table behind him, another couple were readying to leave, struggling to keep their hands off each other. Some distance away, a group of four young men (college kids, probably) chattered away. He focused his stare on them, absolutely certain of what he was looking for. Soon enough, one of them stole a glance at one couple and the other. He made some comment and the others sniggered. Brothers!

The drink again. It was like the centre of his existence in this place. The pub and he had no business with each other. It was only the beer that brought them together. He gulped it down quickly till only a little, barely sufficient for one last swig, remained.

At long last, he came. He saw him walk up to his table in measured, confident strides, an irritating apologetic smile plastered across his face. Thank You Sir, the waiter whispered and placed his credit card and the processed bill on the table.

He picked up the card, nodded and left.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Mosquito Repellent

He sighed. Slapping the book shut, he placed it carefully next to the makeshift mattress on the floor which had, out of disinterest and laziness, become a permanent bed for him and a permanent fixture in the drawing room. The watch read 2 AM. He checked, one more time, the alarm he’d set for 7 the impending morning, then lifted himself up off the mattress and scrambled, as noiselessly as possible, to the washroom. The door, lamenting in its disrepair, creaked ruefully. Relieving himself, he sighed again, his tool throbbing in ecstasy as it finally shed the weight of its restraint and with it, more than an hour’s torment.


Before switching off the lights, he stole a quick glance around the room, taking in the discolored white walls and the multitudes of haphazardly scattered newspapers, magazines, open biscuit and wafer packs, polythene bags, shoes and the enormous television set on the floor. It was only Tuesday; it would be another four days before the maid came and cleared some of the mess. On the mattress right next to his, his roommate was already fast asleep. On the other side of him, through the Indian High-rise version of a French window (that slid open unto a cramped balcony), he could see the twinkling lights of the Mumbai night; the city desperately holding onto its conscious being even as the consciousness of those that actually provide relevance to its existence, the people, slowly melted into dreams and dreamlessness. He switched off the light, switched on the liquid mosquito repellent and lay down on his bed.


For the first few moments, he stared into the vacant darkness, more aware than ever of the grunts from the ill-oiled ceiling fan and occasional honks of late night automobiles. The red glow from the mosquito repellent lit up the switchboard around it, investing it with a faintly surreal presence. As his retinas expanded to take in more of the darkness and thus, resurrect his sight, the room gradually reconstructed itself around him. In the meanwhile, the roommate had commenced snoring with involuntary abandon. He’d noticed for some time now that darkness was in some weird manner, a catalyst for the snores, as if it dissipated the subconscious’s embarrassment and inhibitions in the light.


He reflected on the long, tiring day that had been. Fourteen unfruitful, uninteresting hours in office. There was more to come next day; he was to fly to another city to meet people with whom he’d have to discuss the developments of today. I need to get some sleep, he said to himself and closed his eyes.


For some reason he couldn’t sleep. Maybe because of the snoring right next to him, but he didn’t think so. Over the months, he’d grown used to it. No, that wasn’t the case. Somehow, a strange feeling that something was not quite right infested his mind. He opened his eyes and inspected the room. Everything seemed to be in order. But he couldn’t sleep.


So, he stared out of the window into the distance. From where he lay, all he could see was the upper crust of the city and city’s halo permeating the sky above. There was no moon. And he noticed the mosquito repellent’s red glow reflected outside the windowpane from within, a metaphysical twin brother suspended from the heavens. He chuckled at his own half baked poeticism. Maybe I’ll write about this someday, he thought. He resumed looking into the distance, searching for more objects that could become subjects in his, as yet, fictional essay.


Some distance from the balcony, a wire cable was strung across his view. On it were perched dozens of sleeping pigeons. An independent, carefree life? He mused. No, too commonplace, too inelegant. Intermittently, he noted sudden twitches and jerks on the pigeon’s wings, involuntary in all probability. It is not the tools at one’s disposal that decides freedom, it is the conscious use of them? Bullshit, what’s with freedom today?


He came back to the red glow. It appeared to be shuddering a little, an illusion borne out of the slight trembling of the windowpane due to the wind outside, but nonetheless adding to its mystique. Perhaps, the reflection wants to rid itself of the burden of its existence? Now that would be absolute freedom, wouldn’t it? What the fuck!


All at once, the feeling of something not quite right came back to him. The glow had shifted up a little bit. Had it? He stole a quick glance at the mosquito repellent inside the room. It was still exactly where it always was. Obviously. He turned back to the glow outside. It appeared to have shifted up further. What was this? He appraised the entire room, not really knowing what he was looking for. Whatever it was, he did not find it. Maybe, I’ve been reading too much Murakami, he thought. He looked at his roommate, still fast asleep; he realized now that the snoring had stopped.


The glow had shifted further up, almost touching the roof of his balcony. There could not possibly be any doubt now; it definitely was moving. Even as he stared at it, the glow shuddered one final time and vanished into the floor above. He turned around, with wide, frantic eyes. The repellent was still there.


What should I do? He thought about getting up and going out into the balcony. Or switching off the repellent. Or just walking about for a while. But he found he couldn’t move. Not that some invisible force had paralyzed him, it was just that he couldn’t bring himself to move. So, he just lay there.


Nothing more happened. In a while, he drifted off to sleep. It had been a long, tiring day.