Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Drawing Parallels

Kaushik woke just after six to the cawing of crows sitting on his bedroom window ledge. Off late, his body seemed to have timed itself to wake up at this time. There was still a long time before he needed to get ready for office.

Outside, sunlight was still frail. The sky was clear but ashen. It would take a brighter sun for it to become blue again. It had just turned June. One of these days, he would wake to a sky, grayed by monsoon clouds. A train honked (not many whistle these days) as it passed by on the tracks next to his building. From where he sat, he could see into the compartments. A few passengers sat scattered between empty seats, mostly milk and newspaper men, he surmised. In a couple of hours, there would be hardly any space inside these same compartments and he’d be sitting in one of them.

The newspaper lay obediently outside the apartment door. He picked it up and deposited it on the living room table, after having cursorily glanced through the headlines. There wasn’t much in it that interested him. The novel he was reading lay on the dining platform where he’d left it the previous night. The dining platform, a thick glass sheet held in place by two clamps on the wall and a thick steel column under it for support on the outer side, stood between the living room and the kitchen. The absence of a wall between the two created a pleasant illusion of more space than there really was. By the French windows in the living room were placed two large cushioned chairs, part of a sofa set. On one of these, Kaushik lowered himself and began to read. He liked the place. It wasn’t his of course – apartments in the centre of Mumbai were for Billionaires to own. He and Suresh had rented it together.

Suresh only woke up when Kaushik was almost ready to leave, more than an hour later.

“Yes Suresh, feeling better now?” Kaushik asked, grinning widely.

The previous evening, bored with lying around for several hours and unable to find alternatives, the two had decided that whiskey was the most appropriate response to the problem. Ashish and Ritankar had left in the late afternoon, having spent the day watching an Iranian film and then discussing it, after they’d come back from Café Ideal. So, anyway, a bottle of whiskey had been ordered, finished in due course and another ordered. This too was well on the way to being emptied, when Suresh’s stomach eventually gave out and poured out its contents through the wrong end.

The conversation had been interesting too.

“You know, my sister is coming to India for her summer break next month. I’ve asked her to get me a cell phone.” Suresh’s sister had enrolled for a Doctorate program in the United States, the previous year.

“Hmm. You’ve asked for a specific model?”


“Then? How will she know which one to get?”

“I told her to get any phone that slides or flips open”

“Ah. So that’s what you like, eh? A bit of style in front of the women?”

“No man. That’s not my style. That’s not my idea of coolness.”

“What is your idea of coolness then?”

“You know man”, Suresh shrugged, “Just like that”

Kaushik found the one hour train ride to office quite pleasant. He travelled, first class, on a low traffic route which meant he could almost always find a place to sit, often by the window. The IPod sang faithfully into his ears – eclectic music from around the world. Each week, he spent time on the internet searching for new artists and downloaded music from the most promising ones onto the IPod. Over a period of time, he had built up an enviable collection of alternative independent music this way. He was astonished to find how much of it came from Sweden. He also carried a novel with him – usually something light and breezy - there were too many distractions on a train for serious literature. At some point during the journey, he would close his eyes and doze off.

His office was a large elaborate building covered with tinted glass on the outside. It was lonely where it stood; there weren’t any structures of comparable dimensions around it. It was located a little outside Mumbai where the intense development of the city fell away into a more serene, intimate environment. They called the town New Mumbai. Kaushik worked on the topmost floor, the ninth. From it, he could see clusters of small barren hills on one side. They would be covered in green once the rains arrived. A month hence, on a clear day after a spell of monsoon, he would see the clean blue of the sky dotted with white fluffy clouds behind these hills, lush green then, and think of Tuscany. In another direction, he was also afforded a view of the creek which separated Mumbai from its poorer cousin. He liked to think of it as Mumbai’s Bosphorus. He’d never seen the real one and could only visualize it as much as his imagination and Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul permitted.

Kaushik hated his colleagues. There was not one in the entire lot that he could ever strike up an enjoyable conversation with. He’d tried it initially and failed miserably. Since then, he’d limited himself to short functional verbal exchanges with them.


“How was the weekend?”

“Was good. Enjoyed”

“Anything interesting?”

“Not really, just relaxing.”

It didn’t matter which side said what.

Ashish worked in the same office. After a couple of hours of taking care of the most pressing issues at hand, Kaushik descended to the fourth floor, where Ashish sat. The two of them spent some time at the cafeteria, undisturbed, for nobody else seemed to use the place during office hours. They exchanged notes from the remainder of their Sundays, cribbed about work and discussed ways of getting out. As always, the discussion eventually veered to Europe and its many charms; they recounted incidents from their brief visits to the continent.

Kaushik left office at six in the evening, leaving behind him another uneventful day. The Ipod sang and he read. Back home, he ate dinner with Suresh while watching TV. Later, he watched a film – a wonderful French film called ‘La gloire de mon père’ – (My Father’s Glory, translated in English), while Suresh continued watching TV. By midnight, he slept.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Two Lives

Kaushik, less heavy than he would be two years hence but still sufficiently stocked up for post-apocalyptic survival, went to Business School in the summer of 2006, two years after he’d finished his Bachelors in Engineering. The two colleges were of vastly differing statures, so much so, that he was perhaps the only human being in history to have studied in both. The Business School – IIM Lucknow, was considered amongst the best in the country, having mass produced future wearers of double-breasted suits for over two decades. The Engineering College, on the other hand, was a rather more modest affair, its greatest achievement being that it was the best of three colleges in the sleepy town of Dhule, located near the middle of the country and of nowhere, miles from any city of significance. In years to come, this would become the object of much friendly banter from his more illustrious Business School mates.

But, as he never missed an opportunity to point out to them, they were there and so was he. When his cab, led and followed by a continuous stream of other cabs, entered through the gates of IIM Lucknow, he felt he had left behind him an entire history of mediocrity and nobodyness. Understandably, it was the happiest Kaushik could remember himself being in a very long time.

There was a touch of apprehension too. He didn’t know if he actually fit in. In the months that led up to the start of the session, filled with self doubt and a need to lab test himself before plunging in, he had spent hours on Social Networking Sites, searching for would-be classmates and seniors, urgently pursuing conversations, whenever he found someone. The exercise proved inconclusive; most of the chit-chatting was amicable, even pleasant once in a while, but essentially cold. Like him, everyone else was testing the waters too – curious but wary, clinging to the safety of commonplace subjects. Kaushik slyly mentioned the existence of his blog. It was read and politely appreciated. A few years later, Kaushik, his tastes evolved manifold, re-read the material and was embarrassed to find how utterly juvenile it was.

And so, he carried his apprehension with him to Lucknow. The first couple of days, he wandered around the campus with his parents, as did most others. It was a large, lush place - narrow alleys leading up to short, pretty red brick buildings, widely spaced and surrounded by slender trees towering over dense undergrowth. A single tar road circled around the entire campus, bordered by a footpath dotted with cozy wooden benches. One could spend hours sitting on these benches, undisturbed and isolated, apart from the odd motorcycle whizzing past or a couple of students on a rejuvenating walk. The sense of peace and desertion was complete; it was difficult to believe there were nearly a thousand people inhabiting the place.

He was allotted a room in one of the newly constructed hostels. It would be a ten minute walk from there to the academic block, he surmised. Over the course of the two years he spent there, he realized it was more like a frenzied three minute sprint to reach the classroom in time. His room was small, clean and unimaginative, as hostel rooms are. There were scribbles on the walls and the doors, ranging from rants of megalomania to declarations of love, mostly copied from 70s and 80s rock songs. There was a small balcony too, although its effect was greatly reduced since his room was at ground level and all he could see outside was wild foliage. A solitary window opened onto this balcony from the room. It was covered with fine meshed wire to keep out the insects and mosquitoes, of which there were millions. Two shelves, hollows in the wall, a chair & desk, and a wooden bed. It was a five star suite compared to what he’d lived in, in the other college.

He met a few students, fellow hostellers; the conversations from the online chat rooms reinitiated face to face. A three day official induction began – the batch, three hundred of them crowded into a large hall, were told how special they were to be sitting there. They were told what they would go through in the two ensuing years and where that would lead. Intense rigour and competition were hinted at. Their dreams, already plump, were bloated further. They cheered.

The parents trickled out gradually. The session began. They learnt of the idiosyncrasies of their professors along with the obligatory legends and anecdotes. The pretty girls were spotted; courtships begun. Life became regular. It was then, that friendships were finally formed. This was when Kaushik first met Ritankar, Ashish and Suresh although they wouldn’t become close friends until much later.

In one lecture, every student was asked to make presentations on various topics. Kaushik waited his turn nervously. When it came, he walked onto the platform and started to speak. Somewhere in between, he cracked a joke, even as his palms and underarms sweated. It came off well and the class applauded. That was when he finally decided that he did indeed belong.

In later years, Kaushik often reflected on how little he remembered of those first few days. There were hardly any actual incidents and images his mind could recreate, just a vague, muddled sense of the time and place. All his concrete memories were from much later, when the lines between his friendships and casual acquaintances were firmly drawn and he knew where he stood.