Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Community Centre

Like other Saturdays, as the shadows lengthened, a curious stillness gripped the campus. On other days, this was the time when the place appeared most alive - the health conscious ventured out in appropriate gear for their evening jog, excited voices and the sound of studs thudding against the earth rose from the football field, a steady flow of bikes whizzed in and out of campus and the canteen and the coffee shop benches remained full.

Come Saturday, it all appeared muted. A significant number were asleep in their rooms, in preparation for the long night ahead. Several others were engaged in assignments and project discussions in the library and meeting halls, the usual past midnight schedules for such activities brought forward. Those going out to the city had left much earlier, eager to return before the clock struck ten.

The Community Centre, a short white building, stands about 50 meters from the Students’ mess. It was intended to serve as a facility for mass addresses, cultural programs and lectures, as evidenced by the raised platform at one end. It is, however, rarely used as such. Instead, it has become the venue that hosts the ‘Insti Party’.

Around 10 PM, the place started to fill up, although it wouldn’t start overflowing until near midnight. Kaushik, as ever, was amongst the earliest. Most of his close friends, the ones he went to the party with, were non-alcoholics but spirited revelers. When the music started to blare and the whiskey started to flow, they too would prance around, like everyone else, with wild abandon. Kaushik found this utterly weird; he could never do that until he was well outside the confines of sobriety. The ladies always came in late, letting enough time pass for the place to fill up entirely, so they could get resounding receptions.

The alcohol was stocked in staggering quantities, vodka and whiskey, and it was free. It was distributed in transparent plastic glasses that made wonderful crunching sounds when they were crumpled after being drained off the liquid they held. The expenses eventually did get added on to their monthly food bills, but since they would be added whether or not they partook in the plunder, it hardly mattered.

The music was as an extraordinary mixture of Punjabi Hip-hop, Hindi film songs and heavy metal. Even Pink Floyd and The Doors made an appearance. Kaushik couldn’t ever fathom how one could use ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ or ‘This is the End’ on the dance floor, but when those songs played, as they inevitably did, he too shook a leg and sang at the top of his voice. The crowd favourites were Metallica and The Guns N Roses. Everyone seemed to remember their songs by rote. And whatever bits they did not, they filled with hysterical shrieking. Right next to the enormous speakers, a bunch of boys and girls, their legs spread apart, stood with their eyes closed, their waists and necks shaking violently, evidently to the music. By the time the night ended, they would be up on the platform screaming and singing and drowning out the actual songs.

At some point during all this, Kaushik managed to break away from the group of friends he’d arrived with. They were not the people he was looking for when his head swum. And so, he gradually extricated himself from the bunch, moving around the place in widening circles that eventually took him outside, away from the noise and the strobe lights. He sought out Raakesh, the lanky long haired fellow from Tamil Nadu, and they set off for a cup of coffee.

Raakesh spoke little Hindi. Before Lucknow, he had never ventured outside Tamil Nadu and had, therefore, never had to use it. In his time at Lucknow, he picked up a handful of popular Hindi slang and decided it was as far as he would like to get himself acquainted with the language. He harbored ambitions, well founded, of becoming an author one day but rarely managed to produce anything beyond a page or two. It is this shared goal and abject failure in achieving it that, in a way, brought together Kaushik and Raakesh. That, and the pleasure they derived out of deriding people in general.

“Just need to get the Booker off my chest man! Once that’s out of the way, I can start concentrating on writing without pressure”, they would quip.

“Yeah…after that the Nobel is only a matter of time, I guess.”

And so it went.

Their walk to the coffee shop inevitably turned into a walk around the entire campus. Coffee cup in hand, they would stagger on ahead, the cool breeze of the night wafting through their perspiring bodies. The thump from the woofers followed them for a time, beyond which, only the constant buzz of insects remained. The road, more deserted than ever, led away into the darkness, dissipated by the feeble glow of the yellow street lamps. During the winters, when a dense fog descended thickly over the campus, the lights appeared like hazy blurbs in the distance, as if one was looking at them through teardrops.

They talked of literature. They were both still in that phase where they had not yet ventured beyond the early 1900s – and so, they spoke of Dostoevsky and Faulkner and Woolfe and Kafka. When Kaushik would reflect on those conversations later, or whatever little he could remember of them, he found it strange how little they actually discussed. Their conversations simply sifted carelessly through a maze of novels, each naming one and then waiting to name another. They were conversations that were two parallel monologues spoken to a wall.

“Just finished with Notes from Underground.”

“You liked it?”

“Yes, it was awesome, wasn’t it?”

“Oh yes. I’ve nearly finished The Way of All Flesh, by the way”

“Hmm. Will borrow it from you after you’re done.”

“Sure. I’ll complete The Castle after this. Been lying around half-finished for a while now. Might as well get it over with.”


It was a pattern that Kaushik would later find replicated in his conversations on films with Ritankar and Ashish. He wondered if this was because they could not or because they were simply too wrapped up in their own thoughts for other opinions to matter.

An hour later, they returned to the Community Centre. Most of the people had exited by now; they sat on the road and on the concrete near the entrance, smoking and chatting. From a distance, Kaushik, much sobered but with eyes still glazed, peered hard but couldn’t identify individuals. He suspected they couldn’t recognize him either. They waved to each other and smiled broadly anyway. Inside, bland white lights had been turned on. A few lay scattered about the floor, still grooving softly to what remained, in their heads, of the music that had long since stopped playing.

A year from then, the novelty of the ‘Insti Parties’ would have worn off considerably. People would make only brief appearances. Some would skip it altogether. A few would even have project discussions during those hours. Only a faithful few would trudge to the Community Centre, Saturday after Saturday. Kaushik and Raakesh would be among those.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Coffee & Cigarettes

Kaushik woke up first, as he usually did. He opened his eyes but didn’t yet look for his glasses, which he kept under the bed when he slept. He could hear the sound of rain outside. The stale aftertaste of wine and cigarettes still lingered in his mouth. He turned towards the window. The view outside seemed grayer than usual. On clear days, although his vision still couldn’t create definite shapes unaided, he could differentiate between the white & grey of concrete structures from the green hazes of trees. Today, everything was covered in an unwavering shade of gray. He closed his eyes and remained motionless for a while. With the rain as heavy as this, Café Ideal was out of question and he didn’t need to hurry the others up.

On the bed next to his, Suresh slept without sound. The crows at the window were quieter than usual. He thought about walking up to the window with his arms flailing to scare them away but decided not to. Finally, he put on his glasses.

It poured so hard Kaushik could see the wind blowing through it, ruffling the rain like it would, a curtain. The sky was uniformly dark, perhaps darker at the edges. It would be a long rainy day.

In the other room, Ashish, Ritankar and Kartik slept soundly on the mattresses on the floor. They wouldn’t wake up till much later. Empty packets of wafers lay on the floor. The wine bottles and glasses were neatly placed on the kitchen platform. Kaushik had made sure they were outside the reaches of the unconscious limbs of his friends before he went to sleep the previous night. The wineglasses, in particular, were dear to him. He’d bought them for fairly cheap at a departmental store that did not specialize in glassware. He had browsed through several other stores unsuccessfully before he found these. They were round and huge with cavernous mouths and, as he had learnt on his visit to the vineyards in Nasik, meant only for red wine. Buying separate sets for red, white and sparkling wines was, however, out of question and these were used, irrespective of the drink, including even whiskey and beer on occasion.

He wrapped the leftover food and the wafer packets in newspapers and deposited them in the trash can outside. On the sofa, he found two packets of cigarettes. One contained two sticks and the other, ashes of the rest. He lit one and sat watching the rain. Sometime later, he checked mail on his laptop. Nothing of consequence had arrived. He hadn’t expected anything either since he’d checked it only the night before. For a quarter of an hour, he played Bridge online, while his computer downloaded pirated films he’d queued. Then, he went downstairs to breakfast at the untidy little restaurant just outside the apartment premises.

He called home from there while he sipped coffee, after the morning snack was tucked in. His Mom and Dad were thrilled to hear his voice this early in the morning since to them this was probably a sign of no alcohol the previous night. Kaushik chuckled to himself after he disconnected the call. His conversations with his parents were mostly repetitive – the same answers to the same questions. They often complained to each other about it, although both sides were aware that there wasn’t much that could be done to alter the situation. The rain persisted. In a couple of hours, the others would be up and they’d spend the day indulging in interesting and inconsequential conversation. They would discuss a film and then another and then an actor or a director, draw comparisons. With Kartik around, they would bitch about legends of the Indian film industry – people that they respected greatly but loved bitching about anyway. Eventually, even these conversations ended up being the same. Kaushik didn’t tire of these, however. Not yet, anyway.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Picasso's Studio

They came back to their hotel room at around 8 in the evening. From the lovely little park across the hotel floated in the carefree sounds of children at play and old men’s banter while they played chess and carom on the park benches. Lovers walked casually and without purpose holding each other close, oblivious of distractions.

It was Kaushik and Ritankar’s last evening in Paris. They were tired and exhilarated. They had made up their minds to not use cabs and had, therefore, walked an incredible number of kilometers. In the mornings, their limbs woke with the sweet ache and soreness of the day before. It made the warmth of the morning baths more soothing than any other they could remember.

Their room was damp and unventilated, an attic of sorts converted into a room with two beds and a wooden shelf. A single bulb lit the place enough for them to find their way around. The smell of cigarettes hung thickly in the air. They had found the place by pure chance. They had stopped at a café to ask where they could find one and had been told that there was one available there itself. The man at the counter had then taken them through a door at the back which opened onto a disheveled courtyard strewn with discarded bricks and cement slabs. In one corner, an iron ladder made its way up to a door. This door led into the room. The room contained no attached toilet; there was one in the courtyard, inexplicably Indian style.

They weren’t spoilt for choice or finances and had decided to take it, forty Euros a night. The next day, they had paid the forty Euros and asked if they could keep the place for the next two nights. The man at the café had agreed.

“We’re staying for three nights. No discounts?”

The man had shrugged expansively.

“It is cheap”, he said.

“Room is small”, they countered.

They had exchanged smiles and left it at that.

“So, what do we do now…finish the beer and sleep?” Kaushik asked.

“Yes, we could do that. Or, we could go out a little later and have some food”

“Yes, we should eat something, I guess.”

“Anyway, let’s finish the beer first.”

They opened their cans and lit a cigarette. Kaushik walked to the small mirror, built over a decaying wash basin, and appraised his hair. He wasn’t pleased with what he saw and spent the next few minutes trying to sort it out with his fingers. Both had forgotten to bring their combs for the trip. They had decided against buying one when they were told at a store that it would cost them eighty cents.

“Fifty rupees for a comb!” Ritankar had exclaimed. “Fuck it.”

Ritankar leafed through the enormous Lonely Planet while Kaushik stared at the mirror.

“It seems Picasso’s studio is not very far from here”, he said.

They were in Montmartre. They couldn’t believe their luck when they realized that they were, when they got off the metro from the Airport, at Barbès – Rochechouart, near where they had booked a hostel room. The hostel had, expectedly, deemed them no-shows by that time, they being six hours late after missing their connecting flight to Paris from Istanbul. And therefore, the room in the attic.

“It is shown on the map?” Kushal asked.

“Yes, right here.”

“If we’d done that walking tour Ashish told us about, we’d have seen it.”

“Yes. No matter, we did well enough without that.”

They sipped their beers thoughtfully.

“We could still go there, if you want” Kushal said.

“Yes, it is an option”

Suddenly, their eyes lit up.

“Yes, let’s do it! Let’s find Picasso’s studio ourselves!”

“Check the map! What’s the nearest metro station? We’ll get there and then walk!”

“Its Blanche, just three stops from Barbès.”

Forty minutes later, they were at the underground station of Blanche.

They climbed up a flight of stairs that from the bottom looked like it opened onto a regular sidewalk. It did not. It opened almost directly in the middle of a boulevard onto a small space for those on foot to wait. Asphalt flanked them on both sides. And on the right, towering above them was the astonishing spectacle of the Moulin Rouge. So unexpected and resplendent was the sight that they stood speechless for a good minute or two.

“Oh my God!” Ritankar finally managed to break the silence.

“I don’t care if we don’t find Picasso’s studio now. This is enough as far as I am concerned!”

The giant wheel swung gracefully around tracing a path of vivid reds and yellows. The famous name shone a bright red on the semi circular façade. Rows of small windows on the upper storey hid modestly behind the dizzying display of light, submerged in the deep red hues. Hundreds of people stood in line at the entrance, waiting for their turn to enter. A faint whiff of music drifted out from inside. They thought of Nicole Kidman.

To one side, a large circular platform stood elevated about two feet from the ground. The top was covered with strong meshed rods. It was possibly an air vent for the metro lines underneath. On it, young women strode up one by one, goaded by their friends and boyfriends, to do their own versions of Marilyn Monroe. A bunch of policemen stood to one side, laughing and occasionally whistling with the crowd gathered around whenever a skirt rose more than intended.

Shiny Happy People.

Next to the Moulin Rouge, a dark street travelled into the innards of Montmartre, climbing eventually to the magnificent Sacre Coeur, as all streets in Montmartre did. The map led them through this street in search of Picasso’s studio. They had spent nearly an hour outside Moulin Rouge, gazing at everything they could. They’d debated whether they should go inside; the seventy five Euro entry charge had been instrumental in their deciding not to. Walking for a few minutes through the street, the chatter and noise slowly receded, replaced by a silence unusual of Montmartre.

They turned a corner and spotted a café. Three or four young men, friends, were engaged in conversation outside. They leaned with their backs against the wall and occasionally squatted and stretched their arms – unmistakable signs of pleasant drunkenness.

“Bonjour” Ritankar greeted them.


“We are looking for Picasso’s house or studio here. Do you know where it is?”



They didn’t know the place. Kaushik showed them the map and the spot they’d encircled. The men studied the map intently and consulted with each other. Their English was inevitably poor and they offered directions with their hands, repeating “This way” throughout. They didn’t look very confident.

They asked several others on the way, climbing towards the summit all the time. The streets remained vibrant. Brightly lit cafes appeared at every corner, animated and beautiful people inside and outside them. More walked them by on the street. They spoke in loud voices and broke into dance, if they heard a song they liked, while passing by a café – the spirit of Bohemia alive and kicking. Nobody, however, knew where Picasso had lived. Montmartre, apparently, had forgotten one of its most famous residents.

On their way back, well after midnight, they lost their way and walked around in circles for an hour before a policeman offered them directions. The joy and abandon of the streets and alleys did not spill out on to the main boulevards. They were empty and lonely. Neon signs shone above shuttered windows. Near their hotel, a group of black guys played football on the street. When they spotted the two figures walking past, they stopped their game and greeted them. Kaushik and Ritankar smiled and nodded their heads in acknowledgement. In their room, they finished the rest of the beer, warm by now, and smoked a couple of cigarettes. Towards dawn, they drifted off to sleep.

The next morning, they were woken early by the alarms they’d set. They checked out of the hotel before nine and walked through Montmartre one last time. It had drizzled during the night and there was a slight chill in the air. Puddles of water glistened between the cobblestones as did stray beer bottles and piece of broken glass. Old men sat reading newspapers outside shops, not yet open. Perhaps they knew where Picasso’s studio was.

The Radical

Kaushik knocked, entered his boss’s cabin and made his way to the plush sofa in the corner.

“You wanted to talk to me Saurabh?”

Saurabh, a genial middle aged man who was beginning to discover the discomforts of a rapidly growing paunch and graying facial hair, turned towards him.

“Yes. Just give me a minute here.”

Kaushik waited. He thought he knew what this was going to be about and was prepared for it. He had been working with the guy for nearly a year. In all that time, he had hardly been any good use to his boss or the organization in general. Both knew this. In the beginning, they had tried hard to meet each others’ expectation of work and working styles. In a few months, they were doing their best to not get in each others’ way, comfortable in their independent existences.

While that hadn’t affected Saurabh too badly for he had other people to work with, Kaushik had grown increasingly disenchanted.

“Yes, so”, Saurabh said, turning to Kaushik again. Kaushik looked up from the magazine he was reading.

“The film seems to be doing alright.”

“Yes, looks like. Congratulations for managing its promotion so well. The film itself was good too, I guess”


Saurabh nodded his head, unsure how to continue.

“I, sort of, had something to discuss with you Kaushik”

“Before that, I have something to tell you”

“Alright, go on”

“I am quitting”

Saurabh stared at him intently.

“You are? That’s a, well, surprise”

Kaushik shrugged.

“You have found another job then?”

“No. I will look for one now”


That evening, he went to the pictures with Ritankar and Ashish. He told them afterwards during dinner. They did not comment. Just nodded and concentrated on the food. He had of course hinted at this for some time now. That didn’t mean they had believed him but now that he had done it, they couldn’t very well act shocked.

“You should’ve held out for a bit dude. There aren’t many jobs around at the moment…”

“We’ll see. The worst that can happen is I spend the next few months without work. Eventually, something has to come up. Obviously, I am not going to starve to death.”

“Of course”

“So anyway, now that I have some free time, I was wondering if a trip to Europe makes sense”

“A trip to Europe? Now? What about money?”

“I checked my accounts. I have enough for a two-three week trip and to get by for a few months after that”


“Well then, you two care to join me?”

Ashish would not. Ritankar would. A month of planning and paperwork later, they would be on their way.

Later that night, he lay in bed and reflected on the day. The next day in office would be marvelous. He imagined people cowering inside their cabins when he walked in. He would amble around like he owned the place and nobody could touch him. Their powers over him wouldn’t mean a thing anymore. He also thought about how he should set about getting out of the potential mess that he had maneuvered himself into. He had often discussed with Ritankar and Ashish how one day they’d have to do something like this if they were indeed serious about their aspirations of making films and authoring novels. He had taken the first step now.

The next day, he talked to Kartik. Kartik had worked as a scriptwriter in his office. The two had become good friends, instantly picking each other out for their common interests in film and its making. He was a heavyset dark man with curly hair and a loud voice. None of his scripts had ever been made into films by the company. Exasperated, he too had quit recently.

“Damn man! You quit too! Who’s going to sponsor all the booze now?”

“We still have Ritankar.”

“Anyway, let’s discuss this over drinks at Pop Tates tonight?”

“Sure, let’s.”

Pop Tates, in Andheri - a wealthy Mumbai suburb, is a popular hangout during the last days of a month for boys and girls with rich dads, when their allowances begin to run out. Off late though, it is increasingly flocked by members of the earning upper middle class in search of high life. The bar, noisy and claustrophobic, is tucked into one corner of a busy street. The noise of automobiles from the street mingles with those from the loudspeakers. In the midst of all of this, people sit at tables and have intimate conversations at the top of their voices. The draught beer is excellent.

“So, you want to assist a director now?”

“Yes, if I can. I understand you know a few. You should get me in touch with them”

Kartik nodded.

“I can do that. But really, assisting a director? Fuck man! What will we do if IIM grads start getting into all this shit? “

“If I am to make films, do I have an option?”

“You know, assisting a director’s not a permanent job. When a project ends, you got to search for another. And even on a project, you get barely 20K a month…that must be peanuts for you. Can’t even imagine how much you get paid…used to, in that shithole”

“We’ll see.”

A month later, the trip to Europe happened. When he returned, Kartik introduced him to a few important men in the film industry, acquaintances of his. Kaushik spoke to them with interest but found himself unable to discuss opportunities to work with them. All the while, he continued to consume dozens of films and literature a week, unoccupied as he was throughout the day. He wrote several scripts, even novels, in his head and made a few entries in his blog.

By the time he found another job, one that paid as much as the one before, half a year had gone. In all this time, he realized how comfortable he was with a life like this. If the money didn’t run out, he could live like this forever.