Thursday, December 16, 2010

Short Story - The Story That Can't Be Told

I walk into the railway station still cursing the traffic under my breath. The clock on the wall with a white dial and square black numbers and hands shows a time well after midnight. The platforms appear deserted except for the odd porter hurrying along, smelling of dried sweat on decayed leather. I hear the sound of running water on utensil, sometimes flat and sometimes gradually dampening, punctuated by a harsh clamour of the most recently washed joining the rest of the pile. It mixes with the occasional lonely hoot of a locomotive on its way to the shed. I ask a passing porter and he informs me that the last train of the night has already passed.

I find an empty bench in an unlit corner. A dog lies on its side next to it; it’s left ear flaps lazily when I place my suitcase on the bench. I stretch my legs out in front and tug my tee a few times near the belly so it lies loosely and creased, camouflaging the paunch. The weather is balmy. A faint breeze rises and falls. In the distance, infinite lines of semaphore signals trace the path of railway tracks.

There is no open tea stall in sight. I close my eyes and try to sleep. Perhaps, I do. I am not sure. When I open my eyes again, everything is the same. I decide to stroll on the platform in the hope of finding an errant hawker still peddling stale readymade tea from a steel cylinder. Even if I do not, I say to myself, it will let time pass more unobtrusively.

To my right, the platform ends sooner. So I walk in that direction first. I consider briefly, if I should carry the suitcase, but decide against it. It is dark under the bench and it is unlikely that, even if someone were to pass by it, the suitcase will be noticed. The glimmer of lights from the platform on the track beside me, move with me. I walk for a while, gazing intently and continuously at them, until it makes me a little dizzy. Have you ever felt a bizarre restless desire, without reason, to jump onto the tracks just when a train is about to pass? Just to see what happens? Happens to me all the time. I have to turn away and look elsewhere until it passes. Presently, the platform ends and I turn back.

It is not until I am almost at the other end of the platform, that I notice it. Through a fissure in the parapet wall that lines one side of the platform to mark the perimeters of the railway station, I see a line of square white lights. The light disappears by the time I register it. I step back and forth a few times, until I locate it again. I move closer to the wall. The lights reveal themselves to be from windows of a train compartment. On each side of it, I see the ends of adjacent compartments. Through the windows, I spot human outlines. It is a train! The porter was wrong! There still is a train tonight! I rush back to my bench and pick up the suitcase. The dog, I notice, has slipped away.

Of the long line of ticket counters, only one is open at this hour. A pleasant young girl smiles sleepily from behind the grilled window. I ask her for tickets and she explains to me that there are no more trains for the rest of the night. “But you are making a mistake!” I tell her, “there is another train! I have seen it just now!” She looks bemused. “No Sir,” she explains again, “there is no train.” “What rubbish!” I scream, “are you stupid? I have seen it myself, I said!” Her forehead creases. “What train, Sir,” she asks, “where have you seen it?”

I tell her. She looks at me strangely. “You want tickets for that train?” she asks. I am thoroughly exasperated by now. “Yes yes,” I say, “that very train! Is there a problem?” “No, just that…”she starts to say and then pauses. “Wait”, she says, “I will consult the station master.”

I throw my hands up but she does not see it, for she is gone by then. I wait impatiently. She returns, and I can say this confidently since I’ve been watching the clock all the while, seven minutes later. “Has the Station Master agreed to offer me a ticket?” I ask her testily. She busies herself with typing whatever it is that she needs to type for a ticket to be produced. After she hands it to me and I glance at it to confirm the requisite details, I ask her if she will tell me how to get to the train. “I saw it through a crack in the wall. I didn’t have time to find a route.” I tell her. She offers me directions. As I am about to leave, she says, “There’s another train in just less than three hours Sir. Are you sure you don’t want to wait for that one?” I don’t even bother to answer. I look back once and see her smiling sadly at me.

The train is scantily populated, as befits the time. I walk past a few compartments before entering one. It appears empty. I pick a seat and stuff my suitcase under it. Then I pace the entire compartment a couple of times. It is indeed empty. The train begins to move.

I drift off to sleep. I do not know if I dream, since I never remember them when I wake up. But when I do, I find another man sitting opposite me. He is a middle aged man, quite unremarkable, except for his strange choice of attire. He wears a woolen overcoat, under which, I catch glimpses of a sweater. A muffler is coiled around his neck and he holds one glove in the other gloved hand. When he realized I am awake, he smiles feebly and greets me.

“Are you alright?” I ask him, “it isn’t that cold, is it?”

“No,” he says, “I always put these on when I travel at night.”

I nod disinterestedly. Outside, a full moon shines brightly. I wonder why it has escaped my notice so far. It seems to be a cloudless night, although it is difficult to say, since the lights inside the compartment reflect off the glass and obscure the view. The other man has dozed off. I get up and walk to the toilet. When I come out, I find one of the doors to the compartment unlatched. It creaks softly. I open it wide and stare outside. A full wind blows into my face and I shut my eyes for a few seconds. The train, I sense, is moving at great speed.

The view outside is surreal. The train is blazing its way through a bridge. The sky is indeed clear, and bathed in moonlight. The moon is a perfect circle, and occasionally, small wisps of cloud flow across it. When they do, they look like paper burnt at the edges. I look for stars, expecting to find whole clusters of them, but find only one, that shines brilliantly a little to the left of the moon. I am not sure if it is, in fact, a star. It could be - probably is - Venus. Below, everything is pitch-black. I wonder what this bridge crosses over. The train is still over it – bridge of great length. Almost as if it were crossing an ocean. But that couldn’t be – there wasn’t an ocean on this route. I made a mental note to check what it could be when I reached my destination in the morning.

I lean out of the train and count the compartments. There are twelve. The light of the moon, strangely, does not touch the land. Everything lies in darkness. Just the train with its luminescent windows. I wonder what this scene must look like from a vantage point outside the train. A stark moon. One shining planet. And the train as a streak of white light suspended in the darkness.

I see a face appear at the door of the next compartment. It belongs to an old woman. She wears a scarf that hides her hair. The scarf flutters in the wind. I smile at her. She smiles back. I resume staring at the moon.

Through the corner of my eye, I detect movement. I turn and find that the lady has taken her scarf off and her hair, long and grey, blow eerily behind her. She is staring at me. I don’t know what you say. So I smile again. She whispers something, but I can’t hear her. The wind carries her voice in the opposite direction. Then she jumps.

I am so shocked, I become paralyzed. It is perhaps that I even stopped breathing momentarily, for when I regain my composure, I find my chest heaving, drawing in great gusts of air. I keep staring at the door, where the lady was until a few minutes ago, almost hoping that I hallucinated and that she will appear again. Or maybe, if I hallucinated, there wasn’t a lady at all. Another face peeps out. It is not the old lady. It is a young woman, extremely pretty, and she smiles at me before I can. I smile and then remember about the old woman and start to tell her what I have seen. She shakes her head and waves her hand before I am through the first sentence. Then she jumps.

And now I notice the macabre spectacle. On each side, at every door, I see faces. They appear, stay there mutely for a few seconds and jump. A dozen bodies together, almost in unison. Their faces are replaced by others’ and then they jump. Thus it continues. I am so struck by horror, I cannot take my eyes of it. I realize I do not even see what I see. Indeed, my vision appears from that vantage point of my imagination, and I see from there, in addition to the moon, Venus and the train, bodies, their backs lit by the train lights, in free fall. Then they disappear.

Someone places a hand on my shoulder. I turn to find the man who was sitting next to me. “No! No!” I scream, “don’t push me!” He shakes his head and pulls me in, instead. He drags me to my seat. From inside his overcoat, he produces a flask. The brandy flows warmly into my stomach. The sound of the train comes back to me. It is still on the bridge and still at great speed.

“What train is this? What is happening? Did you see what is happening outside? Did you see!” I sputter

“Yes, I know.” He says.

I gulp down more brandy.

“You shouldn’t have forced yourself on this train.” His voice is deep and rich.

“What train is this? What train is this! Oh my God!”

“It is the train of suicides,” He says, “on every full moon.” He continues to speak for a few more minutes.

“What? The Government! What rubbish!” It seems my voice returns to me, “that is just bullshit! Such a thing could never exist!”

“But it does.”

“No, it doesn’t! If it did, everybody would know!”

He smiles wanly. “Well, everybody does.”

“And…and, who are you then? Why are you here?”

“Oh,” he says and places a hand firmly on my shoulder, “I am here to make sure nobody has a change of heart.”

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Short Story - The Stories of Borges

The first Borges I read was when a friend sent me an electronic version, doubtless not paid for, of Death and the Compass. Such an impression did it have upon me, that I hurried to a bookstore the same evening in search of more. They told me they did not stock Borges and had not done so in twenty years. I returned home dejected but determined to find it elsewhere the next day.

In those days, I lived in Ahmedabad, a city of somewhat meager literary ambition. Over the course of the next few days, I found out just how meager its ambitions really were, for nowhere in the entire city could be found even a scrap of paper with the name Borges on it. Indeed, it appeared as if my lips were the first from which anyone had heard that name escape. The closest someone came, was when one bookstore owner, with eyes lit up, scurried to the musty innards of his store and returned with a copy of A Clockwork Orange by Burgess.

There were, of course, versions of his work available online. My friend sent me a few more. But I believed, and still believe, reading from an odorless computer screen can never substitute the romance of a creased copy in hand. Can you imagine sitting at an idyllic café, without work, and lazily stare into a computer for hours? I can. It looks absurd.

Anyway, I read one or two more of what my friend sent. It only strengthened my conviction that a printed copy must be found. I could’ve ordered a copy online from Amazon, but at that stage, I was a student and dependent wholly on the pocket money that my parents doled out, and that money was lesser than even the cost of shipping Amazon quoted. So I waited till it was time to visit Kolkata again, a few months later.

My luck turned, as I’d expected it would, almost the minute I entered Kolkata's renowned College Street. This was after all the place where, once earlier, I’d found a copy of the Communist Manifesto’s original 1848 publication. The first store I asked at, the storekeeper shrugged ruefully and said they’d just sold their last copy yesterday. There must be other stores, I asked. Yes, there must be, he answered and pointed towards the dark alley that wove further in. There are a million stores in there. Lanes and by-lanes. Labyrinths, he added and winked. I smiled and moved on.

I finally found success in the fourth store, tucked away in the remotest corner of College Street, where the smell of books had, over the years, permeated the walls and the rusted iron shutters. The owner, a wizened old man, nodded when he heard the name and then bent down and disappeared under the counter. I waited patiently, the sound of shuffling and scratching provided evidence that the man was still under the counter and had not disappeared into the pages of a book like in some Borgesian fantasy. Presently he rose again, with a book in each hand, which he then slammed against one another to rid them of the gathered dust, which rose in dirty wisps starkly illuminated in the forlorn ray of light that trickled in through a termite hole in one of the boarded windows. Labyrinths, read the cover of one and The Book of Sand and Shakespeare’s Memory, read the other. They were Penguin Classic publications, both, which were fine in themselves, but since my hopes were raised considerably higher by this time, I enquired if perhaps an older, more exotic publication of the same works could be found. The man shook his head sadly and just as I was about to leave, he said that he once did have a copy of the original Viking Penguin publication of Collected Fictions, in which the stories of Shakespeare’s Memory first appeared. Unsure of what my reaction to this piece of information should be, I merely shrugged. “A man bought it from me three years ago,” he continued. “My bad luck” I said, intending it as a final word in, what I at that point considered a futile conversation.

“Terrible luck, in fact,” he said, “you know what he found in that book?”

I waited for him to continue since I gathered this was a rhetoric question and one that he couldn’t possibly expect me to know the answer to.

He pondered over something for nearly a minute before speaking again.

“But before that, tell me, have you read any of the stories from Shakespeare’s Memory?”

I told him I had not.

“Will you please read the one called Blue Tigers right now? It is important for the story I have to narrate.”

I looked at him quizzically, gauging if he intended all this as some sort of inexplicable joke. He looked earnestly back at me. I opened the book in question and studied the Table of Contents. Blue Tigers, it informed me, was only 12 pages long. I looked at the watch and shrugged.

“Alright,” I said, “I will read it if you will offer me a place to sit.”

He disappeared under the counter again and returned with a metal folding chair that creaked open.

I read. When I’d finished, I looked up to find the man staring intently at me.

“It’s a wonderful story. And perhaps his only one set in India?” I said.

“Yes, yes, it’s a great story!” he said impatiently, “but now I must continue my story.”

I asked if he could offer me a cup of tea to go with his narration. He responded with the usual exuberance of a Bengali on the subject of tea, shouting into the interiors of the store to an, as yet, invisible assistant to prepare two cups. It arrived almost immediately, accompanied by a plate of crumbling dog biscuits and a packet of cigarettes. He lit one and asked me if I’d like one. In those days, I did not smoke.

Then he narrated his story:

It is about that copy of the original publication of Collected Stories I mentioned earlier. A man, of considerable means I later learnt, bought it from me about three years ago. When I handed the copy over to him, he flipped casually through it, like most people do when they buy a book. As the pages fluttered past the grasp of his left thumb and into right thumb’s, something fell out and down to the floor. He picked it up and we studied it. It was a small, almost completely round stone, blue in colour. It is strange that such a thing should not cause a noticeable bump while inside the book, but evidently it had not. As we examined it, it fell to the floor again. The man bent down to pick it up again and when he straightened again, I saw his eyes were flashing. I asked him if something was the matter. He simply held up his open palm. In it, I saw incredulously, were now three stones instead of one. He dropped them again, this time intentionally. This time, his palm rose from behind the counter before he did. In it were now so many stones, all the same size, that I couldn’t at once count how many. Blue Tigers, I whispered in a quivering voice and he nodded gravely. The magical stones blue stones that multiply at will! He said. He pulled out a wallet from his trouser pocket and extracted five hundred rupee notes from it. He handed them to me, without word. I accepted. Then he walked out.

The man stopped and sipped once more from his cup.

“What an extraordinary story!” I said, still skeptical, “and this man, he never returned, did he?”

“He did return. Two years later.” The man said, “One day, I found the same man standing near the entrance of this store again. He was the same man, but for one remarkable change. Running down his cheek and through to his neck was a deep angry scar.”

Form of the Sword now?” I said half jokingly.

“Ah, you have read it,” the man said, ignoring the sarcasm, “that is good.”

“Sure is,” I said, “or I might’ve had to sit here and read it now.”

The man continued.

I asked him what had happened to him. And this is the story he narrated to me:

That day, after we found those stones in the book, I went back home in a daze. I had, of course, decided by then that I would pursue this for as long as it took. So, I read that story, Blue Tigers, again, to check if there is any indication in it of which village on the foothills of the Himalayas, it was set in. There’s isn’t. But the descriptions sounded fairly close to either the Garhwal or the Kumaon region and so, I set out as soon as I could, for Dehradun. From there I went to Rudraprayag, choosing it above others for my fascination with it ever since I read Corbett’s story of the man-eating leopard. Anyway, from Rudraprayag, I travelled through the hills into every village that the locals named, and everywhere I went, I asked if they had ever heard of the existence of such mystical blue stones as were in my pocket. For seven months, I travelled and found not a single soul who could help me. At the end of those seven months, I returned to Dehradun, severely ill and dejected. While I recuperated, I pondered about what could be done next. I re-read Blue Tigers. It got me no further. I decided I would drop the stones into a river and return to Kolkata. That evening, in a long time, I found myself relaxed and in an agreeable mood. I had a few drinks at the bar and returned to my hotel late at night and that is when I remembered Corbett again. Wasn’t there a story in which he describes mysterious lights up a mountain in the dark? Almost exactly the kind of superstition the villagers of Borges’s village harboured? I spent the night unable to sleep. The next day, I searched the city frantically for a bookstore that stocked the works of Corbett. I found one fairly easily; Corbett is still a popular fellow in that part of the country, evidently. Had I been adept at the internet, I might’ve saved myself the trouble of reading through his books again, but since I was not, I had to do it the hard way. I read whatever I could sitting at the store, and brought the rest back to the hotel with me. Eventually, I found what I was looking for, in The Talla Desh Man-eater story, in The Temple Tigers collection. Corbett mentions sighting mysterious lights going up a hillside at night and the villagers’ singular reactions to them.

The next day, I travelled to Almora and from there to Talla Desh. Throughout the journey, I could barely sit still with excitement. If indeed it was true that it was the same village that the two men describe, how incredible would that be!

I was right! The first person I showed the blue stones to in Talla Desh, looked at me wide-eyed and refused to answer my questions. The same thing happened with half a dozen other people. By and by, I found a saintly man who, though distressed at the sight of the stones, agreed to speak to me. He told me the name of the village I sought and how I could get there. When I reached there, it was of course summer, and the hillsides looked very different from what one would’ve visualized them through Borges’s words. I did not waste any time there and showed them the stones. Remarkably, none of them shrank away like the people of Talla Desh. They looked at me and smiled and their eyes became sad. I explained to them the sequence of events that had led me here. They nodded gravely but said nothing. That evening, there was a knock on my door and I found an old, grizzled lady standing outside. I invited her in. The first words she spoke were a name. Vincent Moon, she said. Vincent Moon? I asked, disbelievingly. She repeated the name. “But how can that be?” I asked, “Vincent Moon isn’t a real person! He’s just…he’s just…” She did not let me finish, “Vincent Moon” she said again, this time more vehemently. Then she traced a line down her throat and said “Scar. Vincent Moon. Scar.” For the rest of the night, she had my full attention. This was her story:

Many years ago, a man called Vincent Moon had come to their village. He had a large scar running down his face, which the villagers deeply distrusted. He had asked to be taken to the top of the mountain, where the blue stones were. Everybody had refused. He spent a year with them, trying to convince them to partake in his adventure, until one night, he had sneaked up there, alone, and returned with a handful of those stones. Within a month he had gone crazy and another month later they had found his battered body in the undergrowth at the bottom of the mountain. He had climbed up again and evidently jumped. They had sold off all his stuff to pawnshops and wherever else they could; he also had various books with him. They had never found the stones.

This is the story she told me. I surmised one of those books was the Collected Stories and a stray blue stone had somehow made its way into it. The complete truth, nobody would ever know. Vincent Moon? From Form of the Sword? A friend of Borges’s? A character of Borges’s imagination somehow magically come alive? And he had evidently arrived having read Blue Tigers. So Borges had written the story before that. How could that be? Was it that Moon had come in the same quest that I had? Perhaps Moon had found the blue stone in the book before he had arrived, just as I had! Was there a whole universe of Borges’s characters that actually existed in some unknown dimension?

At this point, the old bookstore owner said, the man had finished his story. The tea cups were empty by now; at their bottoms, globs of soppy wet biscuits remained. I was still skeptical, but it was a darn good story. In those days, I had only begun to think of myself as a writer, and I found it important to appreciate the exquisiteness of the yarn either the old bookstore owner or that other man with the scar on his face had woven.

“But,” I said, “what about the scar he carried? Where did that come from?”

“I asked him. But he wouldn’t tell me. “It’s a secret I will never tell anybody” He said”

I walked out of College Street some time later, my head full of wondrous imaginations. Ever since I’d decided to start writing seriously, I’d always sought ways of acknowledging the inspiration I’d derived from the authors I’d read and admired. So far, I’d been largely unsuccessful, offering shoddy and direct references that meant nothing. And now there was this story. But it needed an end. Or at least, some semblance of an end. I walked past a bar and realized I was drenched in sweat. I decided to go in for some beer.

The place was almost empty, except for the bartender, a shabby waiter and a man on a barstool hunched over a glass of whiskey. The place smelt faintly of vomit. I made my way to a barstool and ordered a beer. The other man sat to my left. He turned his head towards me and glanced disinterestedly, and resumed looking into his glass. I wished him afternoon. He turned again, this time completely and smiled. An old, dry scar ran down the left side of his face and throat and disappeared into his shirt collar. The beer arrived. After two sips, I whispered to myself to check if my voice had returned. Then I addressed him again.

“Excuse me, Sir. Can I speak to you for a minute?”

“Yes?” He said, in a rich baritone.

Haltingly, I recounted my encounter with the old bookstore owner. He listened gravely, occasionally furrowing his brows and shaking his head, as if to say this was not exactly how it had happened. When I finished, he turned to the bartender and ordered another glass.

“Yes, it was I” he said.


“So, you thought that old man was making it up, didn’t you?”

“Well, yes, sort of”

“Do you think I am made all of it up?”

“I…I am not sure. I don’t know.”

He smiled. We stared silently at each other for a while. Then he spoke again.

“You know, I did reach Talla Desh. After that, well, who knows?”

I remained silent.

“It is a fitting tribute, but, don’t you think?”

“To Borges?”


“I suppose so.”

The bartender reappeared and filled my mug. I had so many questions in my head, I didn't know what to say to the man. Presently, he spoke himself.

“I know you want to ask me more. But you are not sure how, is it not? Well, tell you what, I will tell you the story of the scar myself. Perhaps it is true, perhaps it is not. After the point up to which you’ve heard the story, and whether or not that itself is true is a matter of conjecture, but let us play along for now – after that point, I realized there wasn’t much else I could do. The stones had taken up too much of my time, and I was afraid I would lose my sanity too. So I returned to Delhi. I put the stones in a bag and gave it away to a beggar. But I needed a story – you see, I had ambitions of becoming a writer then. And I wondered how I would end it. Of course, I could’ve ended it anywhere, for such a story is hardly expected to have a conventional end anyway. But I wanted to give it one. As an experiment, you see. A ridiculous tale with a conventional end. So I worked out the rest of the story in my head. I travel to Argentina and look for Vincent Moon. He is dead, yes, but if he has indeed existed, he must’ve left some traces. A family or a business. Something. In Argentina, I somehow – I never did manage to flesh this out, or maybe I don't want to tell you – stumble upon a mythical town, inaccessible to all, where Borges still lives with all his characters. Moon is there too. And Borges tell mes that it was in fact he who is writing this story and that it is I who am a part of his imagination. I refuse to believe it and want to return. He tells me that the only way out is if I allow myself to become a character in one of his other stories, in which case, he can end my story there and I become redundant and he has no further need of me. I choose Moon. Magically, a scar appears on my face. And I return" He paused.

"So?"I asked.

"So? Well, if this was to be the story, I would actually need the scar, I thought. And so I made myself this.” He ran his index finger over it.

The silence hung between us. We finished our drinks. I paid my bill and began to leave. Then I turned and asked him, “And why did you not write the story then?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I just couldn’t. As you can see, this still wasn't a conventional end. I couldn't come up with one. Maybe I am not a writer, after all.”

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Short Story - The Ferris Wheel

But for the gigantic Ferris wheel that towered over it, the town was utterly unremarkable. A handful of brick houses, painted white and with grilled square windows, lay scattered about, perimetered by short thick boundary walls that kept the stray dogs away. A solitary road, covered in dust with disuse, passed through the town and continued on, on either side, in a straight line across the unending, barren plains. No vehicle had been seen on this road for many years; the wizened elders of the town spoke wistfully of a time when each day, in the early morning light, a long line of trucks, came and went, and the kids ran behind them for as long as they could, and sometimes came back with lozenges that the drivers had offered them. Not even a mailman came now, for everyone the townsfolk knew lived in the town, and there was no need for a letter to be written or received.

Nobody remembered how the Ferris wheel had come to be there. It had been there for as far back as the oldest memories would go. It belonged to the family that had a different last name than everyone else’s and had been passed on from generation to generation like an heirloom. In the evenings, the wheel was lit up with a million yellow-red bulbs, and the entire town made its way to it for a ride. They waited patiently for their turn to arrive, indeed often allowed the kids to break line and run up ahead of them in the queue; after sundown, when the children were no longer allowed on it, the elders rode the wheel and stared into the moonlit distances with tears in their eyes. There were no tickets; the family was recompensed with free food and a place to live.

The family, two middle aged men, their wives and the old invalid patriarch, lived in a cottage right next to the wheel. Throughout the day, the two men toiled on the wheel, cleaning and oiling and fixing, while the wives cooked their meals and looked after the patriarch. The patriarch, whom the rest of the village had rarely seen since the incident, remained in bed throughout, moaning occasionally whenever a sharp spasm shot through his wasted muscles and bones. On some evenings, when the weather was pleasant and the patriarch was in a good mood, the two men, his adopted sons, carried his cot outside so he could see his beloved Ferris wheel. On such days, the queue below the wheel appeared shorter than usual and nobody rode after sundown. They had, several times, asked the family to not bring the patriarch so near the wheel again, but his two sons had remained defiant. There was one time when the entire town threatened to never ride the wheel again and stop offering them food. For ten days, they did not; the brothers still spent the day working at the wheel but in the evening when nobody arrived, they took turns to ride the wheel themselves with their wives, while their father lay on the cot below, watching them. The lack of food, it appeared, did not bother them. On the eleventh day, the kids returned with their mothers, and a couple of days later, so did the fathers.

Though there were various versions of the story of what happened to the patriarch all those years ago, they varied only in the minor details. The story went thus:

The patriarch was six years old when it happened. In those days, he was like any other kid his age, oblivious and happy. It was his father who worked the wheel then. The boy hadn’t ever been on the wheel till then, of course, for kids below the age of six weren’t allowed on it. On his sixth birthday, like had been the tradition in the family for many generations, he was bathed with rose-scented water, and odes of the family’s unknown, mysterious religion were sung. His father then spent the rest of the day with him, explaining to him the many intricacies of the wheel and that he was now as much the owner of it as his father. When the hour came, they placed him in one of the gondolas, to the sounds of conch shells blown into.

But then, something strange started to happen. The moment he entered the gondola, the wheel began to move by itself. It moved slowly at first, and the father tried to stop it with his hands, for he thought it was merely a stray gust of wind that had caused the movement. But it didn’t stall. It continued to move and pick up speed. By the time the gondola was halfway up, the wheel had begun to rotate as fast as anyone had ever seen it. The boy began to cry. The people, gathered below, who had stood staring up until then, unable to comprehend what they were witnessing, eventually snapped back into action. They shut the power supply and when somebody suggested that putting an obstacle in its way might help, they found a long sturdy ladder and dragged it to the wheel, so its sides brushed against the wheel’s. The wheel did not stop. Each time the gondola with the boy in it came down to its lowest point, they caught glimpses of him trapped inside, staring back at them.

For two hours the wheel rotated thus, and would not stop. And then they saw the grilled gate of the gondola swing open and the next second, the boy jumped. In a few minutes, the wheel came to a standstill. The boy lay in a pool of blood, miraculously alive but robbed of the use of his legs forever.

That the boy, now the patriarch, had the devil in him was unanimously agreed upon.

He moved around on crutches for a few years. He even tried convincing his father that he could still help with the wheel. His father refused to let him touch the wheel, but agreed that he could collect the bread and other food that the people brought for them. He did it for one day, forcing himself to not look at the wheel, for whenever he did, he could see kids like him on it, and it made him cry. The next day, nobody turned up. It emerged that the town would have nothing to do with the wheel if the boy was to be present near it, in plain sight. That evening, he told his father that he would stay indoors. He went to bed later in the night and never got out of it since.

By and by his father died. The town became worried that, with him, the Ferris wheel and their evenings riding it would die too. But then, one morning, they found two teenage boys cleaning the wheel. When asked who they were, they said they were adopted sons of the patriarch. The Ferris wheel survived.

It had been twenty years since.

One day, the town woke up to torrential rains. They looked out of their windows in amazement, for it hadn’t rained in three years. They poked their hands tentatively out; the raindrops were exploded in their palms in small, frosty bursts. The sky had turned an unnatural grey and in the distance, lightning spread like fissures on parched soil. The clouds hung so low, they seemed to touch the top of the Ferris wheel.

The rain fell for a month and nobody ventured outside their homes. Then, all at once, it stopped raining one morning. The clouds turned paler, and a red glow seeped into them from the horizons. Immediately, everyone rushed to the Ferris wheel. They found the two brothers sitting on the soggy soil and staring at the wheel. It wouldn't start, they said. The motor had remained submerged in water for too long. They'd drained the water out and tried everything they could, but it wouldn't start. The town hung around the wheel for the rest of the day, staring suspiciously at its parts and offering suggestions. Nothing worked. The wheel stayed resolutely still.

The next morning, the Patriarch woke up to an unnatural stillness - a stillness that seemed to him like it pervaded the world and not just his cottage. And there was a smell – a damp pungent smell, which made his nostrils itch. It was a smell he had smelled in his most terrible dreams, in which he had visions of the Ferris wheel on fire or disintegrating into the ground. He did not move for a long time, waiting for a common sound, a whiff of the usual arid breeze that would pierce the stillness. None came. The crutches, unused for decades, stood by the bedside. He looked at them and sighed. He felt nervous but not agitated. Perhaps, he had seen this in one of his dreams.

He walked out to a crimson sky, with patches of fire, out of which bellowed out black smoke. On both sides, the barren plains were obscured by huge columns of smoke escaping the earth, the same colour as the smoke in the sky. The town was burnt to ashes. All that remained was his cottage and the Ferris wheel.

He smiled. The ends of the crutches dug into the black soil as he made his way to the wheel. When he reached the wheel, he turned and looked back at the devastation. Then he helped himself into a gondola. The wheel began to turn.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Good Two Years

In addition to the whiskey and vodka, there was also wine to mark the occasion. The open spaces of a shapeless grassy lawn behind the hostel buildings was chosen, for it was estimated that the crowd would far exceed the average and could not, therefore, be contained in the cramped confines of the Community Centre. It was March. Winter had melted away slowly and its meager existence was now evident only in the agreeable chill of the evening breeze.

The day had been spent running frantically around campus, returning books, handing over keys and signing documents. Outside each hostel room, a pile of papers, notepads, plastic waste and bottles of alcohol lay in a heap; the doors to the rooms, all open, since inside could be found only packed cartons that were ready to be shipped and unwieldy to be stolen, swung in the strong wind of that morning, and crashed into the heap periodically, toppling the highest objects from their perch. Loud music blared from some of the rooms; Ozzy Osbourne’s “Mama, I’m coming home’ appeared to be greatly in favour. Kaushik wondered if someone would play Altaf Raja’s ‘Tum to thehre pardesi’ to counter this unnecessary western predilection. In the end, nobody did. Now that would have been something.

As always, Kaushik was one of the first to reach the lawn. He spotted a few small groups scattered around but did not find anyone he wished to be in the company of. He walked around for a while, familiarizing himself with the dimensions of the scene, seeking unobtrusive corners that could be utilized later in the evening when he was in need of a few moments of relative aloofness or a place to puke. He was determined to avoid the alcohol counters at least until one good friend turned up.

A DJ, well known evidently, had been paid for and brought from Delhi, for the night. His wares, when he began to peddle them, did not appear very different from what they’d been hearing all through their time on campus. It did not matter, however, for before long they were all too drunk to notice. After a few glasses of whiskey, Kaushik, having found another willing friend, tasted the wine. White. He wasn’t aware what kind and, after two tentative sips, decided not to bother finding out. Near the middle of the evening, as always, the whiskey would run out and sometime thereafter, the vodka, while the wine would remain almost untouched.

The ladies, it appeared, had collectively decided to wear gowns for the occasion. They came, in swinging, shining, bunches of reds, blacks and blues, their bare arms folded bewitchingly below the breasts. The conversations in the lawns stopped momentarily and the music became suddenly audible again. Kaushik chuckled inadvertently, too conspicuously, for the guy next to him looked towards him and smiled. “Yeah man. We’re such miserable losers.” He said.

Raakesh was nowhere to be found. Kaushik strolled around the lawn, the whiskey glass never empty, looking for him. He ran into the same people all the time, and each time, they hugged and said, “Man, it has been a good two years here, has it not?” Sometimes, he found himself in the middle of a group indulged in wild dance and they forced him to match steps for a few minutes. He did, and when he was confident they weren’t looking, slipped away quietly and resumed looking for Raakesh. Ritika had appeared in a ravishing red gown and he ensured he was always aware where she was so he could steal glances every once in a while. He never, however, passed too close to her, afraid she might notice.

He gave up after nearly an hour. Raakesh had, evidently, not turned up. He would come to know later, when he would chat online with Raakesh the next time, that he’d been smoking pot and drinking all afternoon and had passed out well before the farewell celebrations had begun. They would chat often in subsequent years but never meet. But since Raakesh did not turn up on that last day, Kaushik would never recall the last time they did meet - an occasion that had not registered as one of enough consequence to assign to memory, for he couldn’t have known it would be the last.

Kaushik spent the remainder of the evening drifting from one group to another. He danced with them in short, outrageous bursts, and then when he felt too tired, broke away and walked about. When the whiskey ran out, he turned to vodka and then, ruefully, to wine. Once in a while, he stumbled into a sloshed bunch engaged in animated, tearful, conversation. It reminded him of Dhule. These were men and women, who would, a couple of months down the line, walk into fancy organizations, discuss serious corporate issues with solemn countenances and earn abundantly, in some cases, obscenely. But right now, they were just people who had had too much to drink.

Well after 3 AM, when most of the congregation had been reduced to a mass of human beings sprawled on the grass, with their arms held up, lazily swaying to the still preposterously loud music, he heard Ritika’s voice behind him. “Hey, Kaushik,” she said.

He was still standing, with a whiskey glass full of wine, staring intently at the stars in the sky which looked to him like they were all merging into each other in what he fantasized was a celestial orgy. He turned slowly, deliberately, for his body had lost its appetite for rapid movement much earlier in the evening. One of the sodium lamps traced a defused white path just below her waist.

“Hi” Kaushik said, “Up early?”

She smiled and embraced him. “Man, it has been a good two years here, has it not?” She said.

“Yeah, well,” he mumbled in response.

He let one arm hang limply by his side, for he was not sure what to do with it, while with the other he still held the whiskey glass. He breathed deeply, searching for a smell that he could remember for the rest of his life, and write about, but found nothing.

Saturday, November 20, 2010


Stromboli was never part of the plan. They had intended to spend two days in Florence and then travel to Rome where they’d already booked beds at a youth hostel. From there, they’d return to India three days later. However, before Florence was Venice, in the itinerary, and when they reached Venice, it took them less than two hours to realize that they couldn’t possibly stay there for the two days they’d expected to. It was far too expensive and there were too many people around, many of them wearing ‘I love NY’ tees. And so they fled Venice just after lunchtime on the same day and thus found themselves in possession of two additional days. They picked the Aeolian Islands to spend those two days in.

When they reached Milazzo, from where they were to take a ferry to one of the islands, they still weren’t sure which one they would go to. The best islands also seemed the farthest from the Sicilian coast and since they had to be back in Milazzo in time to catch a train late that night, travelling too far was risky. Eventually, they chose Lipari, the largest and one of the closest.

The ferry ride was their first encounter with the deep, sparkling blue waters of the Sicilian coast. A man and his wife sat next to Kaushik on the ferry and they asked him if he was Sri Lankan. When he told them he was Indian, they appeared to become even more interested. “My wife and I weesh tu traavel tu Eendia!” he exclaimed, “whaat ees the best time tu viseet?” Kaushik considered if it would be appropriate to respond in the same accent but decided against it, since he figured it could offend them. “Between November and February”, he told them and returned to the book he was reading. A few months later, when he went to an Italian restaurant in Mumbai with Ritankar and Ashish, and the owner, an elderly Italian, came to their table to speak to them, Kaushik looked on while Ashish conducted the entire conversation in that accent. Evidently, the elderly Italian did not take offence.

Lipari did not even look like a volcanic island. From a distance, it looked large and low, the hills on it resembling tabletop mountains rather than the volcanic peaks they’d imagined. By the time, the ferry rolled into the pier, slipping deftly between two other ferries, Ritankar had already announced that they’d have to find another island. “This is just ugly, dude,” he said, “I can’t spend too much time here.”

Fifteen minutes and a cup, each, of espresso later, they set out finding ferries to Stromboli. Ritankar was keener on Panarea, one of the smallest islands in the bunch, and one that the Lonely Planet declared as the least crowded, but Kaushik argued that the sight of live flowing lava was an experience worth more than a lonely isolated island.

And now they were stuck in Stromboli. They’d reached the island just after noon. The weather had already begun to worsen then. The first thing they’d done was check for ferries back to Milazzo. There was one at four, they were told. They bought tickets for it. Four in the afternoon arrived but the ferry did not. Somebody said there’d be another one at five. That didn’t arrive either, although the rain did. The lady at the counter announced, ruefully, that the weather was too tricky to sail in the open sea and there wouldn’t be another ferry till the next morning. She offered them tickets for the first ferry the next day, which they duly bought.

There was also the problem of cash. They didn’t have enough to pay a hotel bill for one night. They asked around for an ATM. There was only one on the entire island. It had run out of cash. It wouldn’t be refilled until the first ferry arrived the next morning with the requisite wads of notes on it.

Ritankar, Kaushik realized, had become unusually quiet, occasionally, shaking his head and muttering under his breath.

“What’s the matter dude?”


“Oh come on, you’re still cross that we chose Stromboli and not Panarea?”

“I don’t know what your fixation with a live Volcano is”

“It’s a pointless argument, man. I am sorry I got you here. But if it makes you feel any better, we’d probably have gotten stuck at Panarea too!”

Ritankar nodded. “Well, we’ve got to find someplace for the night, now”

They walked together in silence through the narrow, winding alleyways that rose and fell gracefully, offering tantalizing glimpses of the ocean, which, incredibly, retained its blue under the gloomy sky. The volcanic peak loomed above them; smoke and haze rose from its peak and mixed with the dark clouds above. On both sides of them, houses were built in closely knit clusters, into the mountainside, and they were all, extraordinarily, painted white. “They must paint it once every month.” Kaushik commented. Through the gaps between the houses, they could see the black sands of the beach.

“I must say,” Kaushik said, “the place does look gorgeous.”

“I think it is very artificial. These white coloured, shapeless houses.”

“But that’s the point Ritankar! They are so incongruous, so out of place here, its surreal, like in a dream”

Ritankar muttered something under his breath which Kaushik did not understand and chose not to ask him to repeat.

They found a house where the owner agreed to offer them a spare room for the night. They explained to him they did not have cash and could only pay by card. He shook his head a few times as if to deny and when they shrugged and began to lift their backpacks again, he asked them to wait. He returned, a few minutes later, and led them to the adjacent grocery store, which is where their card was swiped. “But, what did you put in the bill?” Kaushik asked. “Oh, nothing,” the man said, dismissively, “some food. I use it for dinner tonight.”

“Now that we’re here,” Ritankar said, “why don’t we ask about that guided tour to the top of the peak in the night?”

“Yes, I’ve been thinking about that too.”

They found that the tour had been cancelled for the day. “Wind tu much. Not good,” they were told.

The rain had stopped. There were fleeting, shifting specks of blue in the sky. They found a café by the sea, playing pleasant Italian pop they did not recognize. They entered and ordered beer. The woman at the cash counter was a blonde, middle aged but attractive. There were prominent creases on both ends of her lips, which seemed to pull the edges of the lips down with them a little. It reminded Kaushik of Jeanne Moreau. The crowd bulged towards evening and thinned out barely an hour later. Kaushik and Ritankar shifted to whiskey after a while, for there was a chill in the air, and sat through all this. They spoke little. The music continued to be warm but not intrusive.

“It isn’t such a bad place, after all” Ritankar said at one point. Kaushik did not comment.

The next morning, they woke up to a stark blue sky, except above the peak, which, as it always did, remained partly shrouded in the ashen smoke and haze. They hurried down to the pier and found the ferry hadn’t yet arrived. There wasn’t any money left for breakfast. That’d have to wait until they were back in Milazzo. They waited, with growing impatience, for an hour before walking to the ticket counter to ask what the problem was. The forecast was for rough weather till afternoon, it turned out, and therefore, services would resume only after that.

“But it is fucking glorious weather!” Ritankar said, “I could walk on water to Milazzo in this!”

They spent the day sitting in the sun, on the black sand. Occasionally, the mountain grumbled, and they looked up anxiously. They hadn’t noticed it the previous day, mistaking it for thunder. The locals appeared unflustered. They too grew used to it after a while. Once, near noon, Ritankar asked Kaushik if he had any small change left, while he fumbled inside his own pockets. Their combined wealth came to seven Euros and a bit more. “Let’s go buy something, whatever’s available for this much.” Ritankar suggested. They could either have a Panini each, or a beer each. They chose beer.

At four, the ferry arrived. That evening, they took the train from Milazzo to Rome. They shared the couchette with an old woman and a middle aged, balding man. The man pointed to the copy of On the Road on Kaushik’s lap and said, “I wrote that book twenty years ago.” They stared at him incredulously and he realized something was wrong. “Oh,” he corrected, “I mean I read it. My English is not so good.”

They spent three wonderful days in Rome, soaking in the staggering grandeur, but in their hearts they knew their best experiences of the trip were behind them. The joy they’d found in those first days in Montmartre, in the Cinque Terre and in those hours at Montefioralle, even Rome could not match.

It was only later, when they’d narrated their stories a dozen times after their return to India, that they realized Stromboli had been equally special.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


After they exited from the exam centre on the last day, they would slip away, in ones and twos, towards the back of the campus, where a crumbling wall serves as a boundary between the college and dirty undergrowth and sewerage. A short walk in the mud would get them to a near forgotten by-lane which winds through clusters of houses interspersed with nothingness for a kilometer before ending right in the middle of Dhule’s busiest market. There they would wait till the last of them arrived and then collect all their bags and suitcases from the stationary shop nearby, where they had deposited all of it the previous day. That was the plan.

It was all necessitated by love. With six months to go before they’d graduate and be gone, one of them fell for a girl in college. That in itself, however, was not reason enough for the matter to precipitate into the strife that it had, for there were several dozen others who were already in love with said girl. It was that the girl decided to reciprocate. The boy offered her a bar of chocolate and she smiled and accepted it. Then, she tore the wrapper and took a bite and then offered the remainder of the bar to him. The two had never spoken to each other before then.

That evening there was a knock at the door. Kaushik opened it. Two boys, friends of theirs, walked in. These two, everyone knew, were the messengers, the bottom rung, of the campus’s tough-guys gang. They explained to Kaushik and the rest of his friends that the leader of their gang was himself smitten by the girl and that he was not currently looking for competition. The lover-boy reiterated his unshakeable love. Kaushik pointed out, laughing half-heartedly and backslapping one of them with the intention of conveying that he meant it as a harmless wisecrack although he was fully aware that it would not be considered so, but unable to let pass the opportunity, that the gang leader’s only attempt at conversation with the girl had ended in her slapping him full on one cheek, and then the other. After a few moments of silence, which allowed everyone in the room to draw closer, one of the two messengers punched the lover boy in the stomach.

Now, the campus and its goons, over the years have developed a code of conduct and propriety, which they follow to every last detail. This explains why it was the lover boy who got punched instead of Kaushik. Over the course of four years, each student is rated by the then existing gang on a moving scale based on how many members of the gang are friends with the individual, if there have ever been ugly run-ins between him and them and how indiscrete he has been in foul-mouthing them. Whenever the opportunity arose to beat someone up, the gang referred to this scale and only when there were sufficient delinquencies and a sufficient number of them found him despicable, was he beaten up. Kaushik, by virtue of his near invisibility, had always been near the better end of the scale. If these messengers went back to their bosses and explained to them that they were involved in a brawl with Kaushik and that he had to be dealt with, there was absolutely no chance the case would be taken up. The lover boy, on the other hand, stood no chance. Thus, the punch in the wrong stomach.

The punch was returned with a punch to a face, which resulted in a nosebleed. The other messenger started to throw a kick but was surrounded by the half dozen inhabitants of the house by then. While they went to work on the poor boy, Kaushik wrapped his arms around the boy with the bleeding nose, ostensibly to keep him from entering the action, although with that nose it was unlikely he even attempt it. Later, when the two boys were gone, the rest cornered Kaushik and asked why he hadn’t involved himself in the action.

“I was making sure the other guy didn’t get into it! I held him so hard the air must’ve been squeezed out of his lungs!”

“Bullshit,” someone said, “it is just that you don’t have any balls. Not even tiny pea sized ones. You’re a fucking embarrassment!”

Kaushik looked at the group with steady eyes, which he narrowed, so the tears would be less visible, and thought it over. He knew what they said was right. He just didn’t see what was wrong with what he’d done. Yes, he’d avoided a fight. So?

“Oh, just fuck off, all of you,” he said, “now they’re going to come after all of us anyway.”

Strangely, they didn’t. Not immediately. They spent the night - all of them wide awake - plotting their defence when the inevitable knock on the door came. It did not. They did not attend classes for an entire week, staying confined to the house and venturing out only for food and always in groups. By the tenth day, everybody was fed up with the waiting. They’d resume classes, they decided, but all together. They’d spent the entire day in college and only when everybody’d finished their lectures would they return home, together. For the rest of the semester, their attendances were the best they’d ever managed.

Slowly life returned to normal. It had been decided, evidently, that retribution would wait till the last day of college. This, too, was a ritual. Every year, after the last exam was done, there was a massacre outside the campus gates. Dozens of students gathered, armed with hockey sticks and cricket bats, and scores were settled and resettled until the police siren was heard and everyone fled. And so, Kaushik and his friends spent the rest of the year leading regular lives and discussing details of the plan to escape through the walls on the other side of the campus. The lover boy never spoke to the girl again.

After they’d collected their bags and suitcases, they went to a restaurant on the outskirts of the city for dinner. They had never been there before; the usual hangouts were too risky. They spent two hours there, continually glancing at the entrance and the clock, and chatting absent-mindedly. Afterwards, they arrived at the bus station together; all of them had buses to catch to some place or the other. They waited in a dark corner keeping wary watch on the road for known faces. Kaushik’s bus was the first to leave. He embraced his friends and they all promised each other they’d be back in Dhule after a couple of months for a get-together.

He later learnt that all of them had escaped without incident. None of them ever returned to Dhule again.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Before I Sleep

Once every month, Kaushik visited his parents in Ahmedabad and spent a weekend with them. On the preceding Fridays, instead of his usual backpack, he carried a duffel bag to office, so he could go straight to the train station in the evening. This was such a Friday.

His colleagues nodded and smiled with their eyes on the bag and made the requisite observations.

“Going to Ahmedabad tonight?”


“By air? Or train?”

“Train. I avoid flights to Ahmedabad. They reach after midnight and make a mess of my sleep and my parents’.”

“How long does the train take?”

“Seven hours, thereabouts.” Then he added, “Miles to go while I sleep, evidently,” and smiled benevolently in response to his colleagues’ blank expressions.

He left office earlier than usual, his bag swaying proudly from one shoulder. He knew he would reach the train station early, so early in fact, that he could make another trip to office and still be back in time. But he knew of a cozy little restaurant near the station and enjoyed spending a couple of hours there. It was a place he had discovered many years ago and had then forgotten and lost until recently when he had stumbled upon it once again. He had wondered how it could have so completely slipped his mind, for he had been a regular visitor there, in a time when he considered saving fifty rupees on a meal important. When this was not the city he lived in, but travelled frequently to, necessitated by work and B School admission interviews. And each time he came, it was here that he had his dinner before boarding the train back home. So when he found the restaurant again, he resumed the ritual.

It is a place that revels in its incongruity. A tastefully tiled courtyard, open at the top, overseen by three resplendent sodium-vapour lamps. More than a dozen rickety steel tables, most of them unoccupied and visibly rusted at the edges, spread around the area, trapped between quartets of dust-coated finely carved bamboo chairs. Men in faded maroon shirts and khaki trousers, the ends of their shirts heavily crumpled from being tucked in earlier and now irrevocably stained with oil and grime from being repeatedly used as makeshift napkins, tending to the orders of the handful of customers.

It was a warm night and Kaushik chose a seat next to one of the standing fans. It blew his hair into frenzy and reminded him that he must have a haircut in Ahmedabad. The fan emitted a continuous creaking sound, evidently from a lack of maintenance and lubrication, and it tore into the sweet melodies of Belle & Sebastian that were presented to him through the IPod. He wondered if he should shift to Joy Division and turn up the volume so the fan would become inaudible or at least less conspicuous in the industrial clamour. He sighed and asked to be shown to another table instead. He ordered a Dosa and a Coke and settled down to reminisce about Ahmedabad.

Ahmedabad, he had always lamented, was a city without character. It just lay there in the heat and sand, a cluster of short plain buildings with wealthy, peaceful people in them whose principal pastime was eating vegetarian food in expensive restaurants. It was a city that, if lived in, offered all that was nice and comfortable but never any romance. One could live in Ahmedabad for decades and then simply get up and leave, inconvenienced only by the movement of one’s belongings. It was not a city one could write about. Kaushik was certain there would never be great literature produced for it in the way that there was and could be for Mumbai or Kolkata. It was like having to write about a bunch of regular people with regular jobs and good money instead of a struggling artist in Paris or even a cheerful farmer in the Italian countryside.

It was ten years ago that Kaushik had left for Dhule. He had, since, become a visitor to the city of his childhood. He had returned briefly after his graduation, for two years, and found all his friends either gone or no longer friends. He had spent those two years forging new friendships and had then moved to Lucknow. Now another four years had passed and all that remained of his life in Ahmedabad, were his Mom and Dad.

Kaushik reached the train station with a half hour still to spare. He found a bench on which an old bespectacled man sat clutching a walking stick and speaking to a middle aged man, ostensibly his son, who stood next to him. Kaushik sat down on the other edge of the bench and placed his bag in between. The two men turned briefly towards him and then resumed their conversation.

The platform bustled with purpose and emergency. Presently, a local train arrived and a mad rush ensued. At the end of it, most of the people on the platform had emptied out into the train and when the train left, the place settled itself into a different, calmer pace. Kaushik had often noticed how people waiting for long distance trains behave differently from those waiting for local short distance ones. When Kaushik’s train arrived, people moved with more composure, secure in their knowledge that their seats were reserved and there wasn’t the need to win them over the trampled bodies of fellow travelers and competitors. After he’d located his seat and rid his, now aching, shoulder of the bag, he exited the train again and peered over the reservation chart pasted on the compartment’s door. He scoured the sheet for his name and when he found it, looked at the names immediately above and below his. It was his Dad who had first suggested this to him as a method to find out if he could hope for the company of women on the train. He now religiously followed it.

He was pleased to note that there was a Nisha Chaturvedi, female 24, on the seat opposite his. Over the years, when he had found himself in similar circumstances - and there had been many - he had rarely ever even bothered to introduce himself. Most of the females had turned out to be unattractive and married and they usually carried a baby or a self help book in their arms. And yet, he waited expectantly each time, eager to catch the first glimpse of these unknown women, letting his mind create hopeless fantasies of one day finding a Julie Delpy on the train, reading Georges Bataille.

Kaushik often wondered what he would do if were actually to find a girl like that. Would he have the courage to propose what Ethan Hawke had proposed? Or even the courage to at least start a conversation? And if he did, how would the girl react? Wouldn’t she look at him incredulously and ask him to fuck off? And how would he feel if she were to do that?

When he was only beginning to watch foreign language films, he found it weird that in so many films, when a man proposed intimacy with a woman who was not similarly disposed, the woman, instead of reacting with shock and hysteria, tenderly pushed him away, with gentle apologies even, sometimes even allowing his lips to brush lightly with hers. Kaushik found it, at the time, a case of downright western callousness and immorality. And then he became interested in Ritika and spent those hours thinking about how he could approach her and what she would say. It was then that he realized how incredibly compassionate the reactions of the women in those films were. It is perhaps one of hardest things for a man to do – to profess his love and attraction to a woman and thereby willfully place himself in a situation where he and his ego are so thoroughly exposed, so pathetically defenseless. A situation where even the slightest hint of mockery and disgust in the woman’s reaction could bruise his self esteem so badly, so indelibly. And under those circumstances, to allow a man to salvage his pride, to offer him a graceful way out. So incredibly compassionate those women were indeed!

He felt the train shudder and then move slowly. He sighed. Nisha Chaturvedi hadn’t appeared. She would possibly aboard at the next station, still an hour away, by which time he would have almost certainly dozed off. He rummaged in his bag and found the novel he was carrying, opened it, read a few lines and then shut it again. His thoughts drifted back to Ahmedabad. His Dad would be waiting for him at the station the next morning. He would comment how Kaushik had put on even more weight, an observation that his Mom would echo when he reached home. He would just smile and mumble something about how he did not care. Tea would be ready and so would be breakfast and the three of them would spend a pleasant hour together, after which his Dad, whose weekly break occurred in the middle of the week, would leave for work.

It occurred to him suddenly, what would have happened if, instead of their marriage being arranged as it was by their respective families, his Mom and Dad had met on their own all those years ago. Would they have fallen in love with each other? If his Dad had proposed marriage to her, would she have reacted hysterically or tenderly pushed him away?

He tried to recall incidents from his past, the oldest that his memory would allow him to fetch, of the two. For a very long time, he knew, he was completely oblivious to the possibility of love between his Mom and Dad. For him, they existed in order to love him and that was all there was to it. That there could be a relationship between the two of them, that need not include him, did not even occur to him until he was into his teens. One day, he clearly remembered, his Dad asked his Mom if she wished to have a pair of Diamond earrings and Kaushik stared at the two of them uncomprehendingly for it had never crossed his mind that his Dad could care for his Mom enough to buy her gifts as, or even more, expensive than the ones he bought for his son. The next day they went shopping for the earrings; Kaushik was with them. This, he found, was his earliest definite memory of them as purely a man and a woman capable of finding joy and happiness in a world without him.

He picked up the novel and began reading again. By the time the train entered the next station, he was fast asleep.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Closely Watched Films

Kaushik grew up watching and revering Amitabh Bachchan. His father deified him for Kaushik, describing his films and acting in every superlative he knew. His mother did not care much either way, happy in the Bengalis’ indivisible love for Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen.

Every fortnight, his father would come home with a rented VCR and two tapes – one Bachchan and one Uttam – Suchitra. The films were watched huddled around a 14 inch colour television set. The first film was always Bachchan’s since Kaushik would have to be put to bed by ten. His mother would keep hurrying away to the kitchen whenever the pressure cooker whistled and sometimes his father would call out to her for a cup of tea and she would return with it. Kaushik would sit through all this, staring at the screen with rapt attention, waiting for the next action set piece to begin. When it would, Kaushik would scramble up to his feet and kick and punch the air with sounds of ‘Bhishoom Bhishoom’. Sometimes he would punch his Dad on the arms and he would grab a squealing Kaushik and pull him down to his lap and hold him tightly and tickle him and Kaushik would love it. In movies where Bachchan died in the end, and there were several of those, Kaushik would become glum and his Dad would promise to show him another film where Bachchan does not die. He would go to bed after that, his mother by his side, and when he was asleep, his Mom and Dad would watch the Uttam – Suchitra film.

In those days, the entire family visited Kolkata for a week or two every year. Kaushik loved going there, for they usually stayed at one of his Uncle’s house – his Dad’s elder brother – and he had a large television set and a VCR of his own. He did not see Bachchan films there, but instead he saw magic tricks his Uncle had recorded during TV programmes and Satyajit Ray’s ‘Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne’ and ‘Felu Da’ films.

It wasn’t until he was past fifteen that he started to realize that he was watching the same films over and over and they were starting to bore him a little. He asked his Uncle if there were other films he could watch and his Uncle would speak animatedly of the latest Magic show they’d shown on television. At first, he continued to sit through those but soon he learnt the art of wiggling his way out ot them. “I want to read a book now” he would say, waving an Enid Blyton and scampering off to another room.

His father realized what was going on and Kaushik noticed that now there were three tapes being brought with the VCR – a Chinese Martial Arts film in addition to the other two. “Enter the Dragon!” or “Fist of Fury!” or “36th Chamber of Shaolin!” his Dad would announce when he returned from work and they would settle down to watch it soon after. His Mom would now sometimes make tea for him as well. Of course, he was now allowed to stay awake well after midnight since two films needed to be watched and slowly, Uttam Suchitra faded away into oblivion for there just wasn’t enough time for a third.

It was around that time that English films and Coca Cola came back to India. And Schwarzenegger rode into Kaushik’s life, shotgun in hand on a motorcycle, and wearing leather jackets and dark glasses and it was ‘Hasta la vista, baby’ to Bruce Lee and his ilk. These movies, of course, were somewhat more risky in that there was gore and scantily clad women involved, and Kaushik’s Dad went to the theatre alone first to check if Kaushik could be allowed to watch. Once in a while, he would take Kaushik on the condition that he would walk out of the theatre, when asked, for a few minutes in the middle of the movie like during Jamie Lee’s striptease in True Lies. He would do as asked. One time, his Dad allowed one of his friends to sample a film since he was busy and Kaushik got to sit through an entire James Bond film, while his mother muttered under her breath next to him.

Dhule brought with it porn. He learnt to revel in the terrible odour and creaky chairs that permeated shady video theatres. He learnt to not let his concentration flag even as those around him moaned and groaned in the darkness, although he never did that himself, choosing to wait until he got back to his hostel room. He began to read Sydney Sheldon and Harold Robbins too and for those years, all literature and film became for him means to a single purpose.

By the time he graduated and returned home, however, he had begun to tire of them. He still watched porn, of course, but it seemed to him it had become more a matter of need and continuity than actual excitement. He shifted to Maclean and Forsyth in the written word, but about films he did not know what else he could do and, therefore, he eventually stopped watching them altogether, except for the odd one that appeared on TV.

In Lucknow, while he walked around campus and into classrooms with novels in hand, Kafka and Hemingway and Conrad, he scoffed at those that displayed interest in films. “They’re just a waste of time”, Kaushik said to himself. What good would films do to him? He’d rather spend that time reading or playing cricket. One of the first times he spoke to Ritankar, they discussed literature, but when Ritankar brought up the subject of films, Kaushik made excuses and turned away.

And then one day, Ritankar forced him to watch ‘Apocalypse Now’. And he stared at the screen spellbound by the extraordinary translation of Conrad’s vision. Afterwards, while he mumbled on about the greatness of the film, Ritankar asked him if he’d seen ‘The Godfather’ films and he nodded his head even though he had not. The same day he returned to his room and spent the night watching all three. He then watched ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ and ‘Scent of a Woman’ and ‘Heat’ and Pacino replaced Bachchan, for whom his feelings by this time were less of reverence than of adoration in any case, in his head.

“Bergman, Godard and Truffaut, they are the real stuff,” another friend told him. He found their films unavailable on the campus LAN and therefore had to wait till he visited home during a term break. There, he convinced his Dad they needed an unlimited downloads broadband connection and when that arrived, he downloaded films by all three, and spent the rest of the break watching those. He found ‘Week End’ fascinating although he understood very little of it. When he returned to campus, he sought out the friend and asked him what else he would recommend. “If you liked ‘Week End’,” he said, “you will probably enjoy Last Year At Marienbad.” Kaushik was in a trance when he watched. A few months later, when he was beginning to discover hints of superiority in his behavior with other, less informed, people, he realized the only thing similar between ‘Week End’ and ‘Last Year At Marienbad’ was that he had understood neither. He watched them again.

The next windfall came when the Post Graduation program ended and Kaushik returned home for a three month break before he would move to Mumbai for work. He decided he’d had enough of the French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism and that he would now devote himself to contemporary cinema. He discovered ‘Sex & Lucia’ and for a brief period, Paz Vega became more beautiful to him than Penelope Cruz, until he watched Volver. Sex & Lucia led him through Julio Medem to ‘Lovers of the Arctic Circle’. He spoke to Ritankar and Ashish about the film and found they had not watched it. He was thrilled that he finally had a film that he alone could recommend.

He began to detect hints of snobbishness creep into his conversations. “Oh! You haven’t seen Head On? Dude, you must absolutely see it!”. He warmed to the romance of Europe. He cursed himself for not going there when he had the chance, for the International Student Exchange program. Ashish did go and when he told them stories from his time there, Kaushik listened wide-eyed and jealous.

Once they were all settled in Mumbai, Kaushik sought out film appreciation groups and special screenings, better placed as he was in a film production company than Ritankar or Ashish. They enrolled to every club they could find and each Sunday morning at ten they began to go to a movie screening, red eyed and disheveled from the previous night’s drinking. In the afternoons, there was another club that exhibited films in a pub and they went there too. Occasionally, an obscure film released in theatres and they bought tickets for it, incredulous that such films could release in theatres – ‘Edge of Heaven’, ‘Turtles can Fly’, ‘Secret of the grain’. Kaushik became friends with Kartik and found himself being invited to special screenings of independent film directors he was in awe of. He contemplated becoming a filmmaker himself. He spent hours in office conceptualizing stories and camera angles. He looked forward to returning home each evening so he could watch a film and to weekends when he could discuss those and watch more.

He often reflected on how much films had affected his life. His world view expanded. He realized he couldn’t be very happy living the rest of his life in clusters of five day weeks. And he drifted apart from his friends of Dhule and to an extent, his parents, for he couldn’t bring himself to find conversations with them engaging anymore.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Stone Wall, Stone Fence

It was on a cold winter night when Raakesh told Kaushik he would not take up a job. “I’ll do something, maybe try and be a journalist”, he said. Afterwards they strolled around the campus, covered in a thick veil of radiant fog. The vapour from their coffee rose and mingled with the fog, as did their own breaths.

Ever since they’d become friends, Raakesh often hinted at not wanting to carry on with the mistake he’d made. “This MBA stuff, it repels me,” he would say, “I can’t see myself doing this, being surrounded by people such as these. I just can’t.” Kaushik, unsure of what his own feelings in the matter were, remained silent on these occasions. He knew that he too was not thrilled at the prospect of spending years in an elaborate office in formalwear, but in the apparent absence of immediate alternatives, he was loathe to make a choice. He felt curiously envious and, at the same time, relieved each time Raakesh renewed his vow – relieved that it was Raakesh and not he. Raakesh, in the meanwhile, continued to take his exams and prepare sufficiently before them to get by, forever threatening that the next time he would not.

Somewhere in the most isolated corner of the campus when the thuds of the woofers in the Community Centre no longer bothered them, they stopped walking. They sweated lightly inside their jackets. Raakesh still carried ‘The remembrance of things past’, tattered and yellowed with its years in the library, in one hand. For some reason, he had taken it with him to the Insti party. “I came straight from the library,” he’d said by way of explanation.

Two years from then, when Ritankar and Kaushik stood before the grave of Proust in Paris, Kaushik would recount the episode to Ritankar. “Oh, that library version had about twenty pages torn off it. I had to stop reading it because of that.”, Ritankar would say in response.

They stood there for a while, silent, for they could think of nothing to discuss in particular, but unwilling to return to the din or to their rooms. Kaushik leaned against a tree trunk.

“So then, journalism, son?” Kaushik said.

“Yes son, that seems to be the idea.”

“But how do you plan to get in? An MBA degree, even one from the IIMs, does not help much in these matters, I gather.”

“I don’t know son, honestly,” Raakesh flushed, “but there must be a way. I’ll get into a separate course on journalism if need be.”

“A separate course? That is an extra year son, yes?”

Raakesh nodded, a little exasperated. Why must he think of all this now?

“What about the enormous loan you’ve run up here? How do you pay that back?”

“Maybe I will not, son.”

They started to walk again.

“So son, any new efforts coming up?” Raakesh asked.

“I think so son, yes. A short piece about a prisoner and his life. Will probably write it at some point tomorrow. You, of course, will be informed when it goes up on the blog.”

“Of course.”

“You? Anything in the offing? Besides the love poems to be pushed under the door?”

“Yes son, rubbing it in, it seems!” Raakesh paused, “No, nothing really. I am afraid the Booker will have to wait for a while.”

“Listen, lets go to the canteen. I would like some tea, a bowl of noodles too, perhaps.” Kaushik said.

“Sure son, lets. What time is it?”

“Ten minutes to two. Early days yet. We’ve plans for Counter Strike at three. Another hour to pass.’

The canteen was largely deserted; occasionally people appeared in ones and twos, and carried their tea cups, once those arrived, outside. Nobody sat at a table. Outside the canteen, there was a clearing, that looked like it had been commissioned as an ampitheatre but construction was abandoned halfway, and this is where most people sat with their teas. Raakesh and Kaushik chose to sit inside, happy with the warmth and the isolation.

“These computer games you play son, I never understand what is so interesting about them.”

“Perhaps not as interesting as a course in journalism son, yes. But whatever little there is, it is more immediate one feels.” Kaushik chuckled, pleased to have constructed, verbally, a somewhat more convoluted sentence than he usually did. Conversations in English were something he’d never had before he came to Lucknow, and he still found himself fumbling with the spoken word once in a while.

“Really son, that is just a ridiculous comment. What has one got to do with the other?”

“I know son,” Kaushik conceded, “just popped up in my head and I said it. Nothing to get so peeved about.”

Raakesh would indeed take up a course in journalism a few months later and then find himself employed with a well-known English daily, as a Sports Correspondent. In the first few months, he would cover minor Snooker and Table Tennis tournaments and fill his reports with references from The Dante, Homer and the Bible. He would then show those to Kaushik and they would have a good laugh.

On this night, the two would separate after an hour at the canteen. Kaushik would go back to his room and play Counter Strike under the alias of Che Guevara on the campus LAN with a bunch of friends. Raakesh would go back to weed.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


It was the first time they were both together in front of the camera. The camera, placed on the parapet that separated Montefioralle from the lush Tuscan landscape, stared at them motionlessly, while they sat on a wooden bench and gazed at the unending countryside that the camera couldn’t see. There was nobody else in sight.

They remained silent for a long time. The camera heard the peaceful sound of birds and occasionally, the church bells toll. A light rain fell and the cobbled streets and ancient stone walls glistened. Tiny droplets fell on their shirts, darkening the colour where they fell and then spread, lightened and became undetectable. The glow of their cigarettes reddened when they drew in smoke.

“I wonder how they capture that sound of paper and tobacco burning when people smoke in films.” Kaushik said aloud.

“I don’t know. I think they use unfiltered cigarettes.” Ritankar said.

Kaushik nodded and stole a glance at the camera, then looked away again. The church bells chimed again.

“How about we describe what we see in front of us, the magnificence that lies there unseen to those watching through the camera?” Kaushik said.

Ritankar did not respond and continued to stare into the distance. They heard the fleeting sound of a car passing by on the highway behind them, hidden by the walls of the church.

“Look at them hills yonder,” Kaushik began, “green, wonderful. Oh bliss.” He sighed. “Those clouds brooding over them, perhaps drawn to their beauty as much as we. Those tiny houses with red roofs down in Greve clustered together like in a dream. Oh, that smoke rising from the chimney over there, snow white against the green grey.” He paused, shook his head thoughtfully and looked straight at the camera. “I wish you could see what I can see.” He clucked his tongue, “Oh nature, why art thou so cruel!”

Ritankar smiled but did not comment.

“This must be right up there with the best of our trip”, he said after long minutes had passed.

“Yes. With Cinque Terre and the Père Lachaise.”

“I hope the Aeolian Islands turn out alright. That should cap everything off nicely. And Rome, obviously.”

“I think this is going to be the best scene of our travelogue,” Kaushik mused, “if we do manage to compile one.” He added.

Ritankar stood up and strolled around for a bit, moving out of sight of the camera. Kaushik took a sip of water from the bottle he’d carried and settled back into the bench again.

“Must be twenty minutes since the camera started rolling,” Ritankar called out from where he stood, a few metres away, staring up at a streetlamp.

“Yes, must be. Why?”

“No. I guess we beat Hunger. That was seventeen minutes, wasn’t it?”

Kaushik laughed. “Yes, thereabouts. We weren’t that intense though, were we?”

Two years hence, Kaushik’s hard drive would crash and take with it everything they’d shot. In that time, they would’ve watched the videos once and never have worked on them.

“What time is it?” Ritankar asked.

“One. You want to leave? We’ve got to get back to Greve by three.”

“Lets walk through the village one more time. Then we can leave.”

Kaushik walked away from the line of sight of the camera and then detoured to it from its blind side. He switched it off and picked it up. “This should be fun to watch.” He said.

On their way down to Greve, they walked by the cemetery compound again – a small space enclosed by a thick wall that rose up to their chests. On the other side, over the wall, Tuscany rose and fell in all its glory. Stone plaques, some with faded photographs on them, stood in a four uniform columns. They read out some of the names under their breath, fearful that a raised voice might disturb the exquisite equilibrium of the place. They mulled over the paradox of what they felt – extreme calm and a warm melancholia.

It was only when they’d descended to Greve and sat in what appeared to be the only café in town, sipping warm steaming cups of cappuccino, that Kaushik finally spoke aloud.

“Not a bad place to die.”He said.