Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Virtuous Lonely

Kaushik shook his head again. “I am not sure, you’ll all get drunk and what will I do? Sit and watch?”

Lecture sessions for the 5th semester had ended. There were 15 days to go before exams began and Kaushik, like the previous 4 occasions, planned to spend them at home in Ahmedabad. He’d always maintained that being home afforded him the time and peace to prepare better for his exams, away from friends who wanted to study together and those that wanted to be together but not study. He’d already booked seats on a bus to Ahmedabad. And now, his friends were asking him to stay on for another day.

The idea of Bhang had been floated a few days back by one of them. The rest had latched onto it immediately. “I know where to get it!” one of them had said. And thus it was agreed that on the day classes ended, they would spend the evening drinking bhang-infested milk.

Kaushik and six of his closest friends had decided to move out of the college hostel at the beginning of that year. It was like a custom there – when one reached the third year, one moved out, unable to restrict the revelry and debauchery to the confines of the hostel’s regulations. Since Kaushik and his friends didn’t partake in these activities, that he then considered vile, it was not actually necessary for them to move out. However, they had decided to do so anyway, hoping to get away from the noise and filth. They had found themselves a nice place fairly close to the college campus, a two-storeyed tenement with spacious rooms and presentable toilets. It had a small neglected compound around it where grass and mushrooms grew wildly. They often played cricket there with stringent restrictions on how fast a ball could be delivered and how hard and in what directions it could be hit.

“Come on Kaushik, it is just one extra day! You can always transfer your bus tickets to tomorrow. None of us has ever had Bhang before this; we don’t know what’ll happen! One sober guy in the group could be important!”

Kaushik had declared he would like to be excused from this particular adventure at the outset. They had tried convincing him for a while.

“It’s not getting drunk Kaushik, it is Bhang! Lord Shiva’s own drink!”

“It has nothing to do with Bhang and Lord Shiva, I just don’t enjoy getting inebriated!”

Since it was clear after a while that Kaushik wouldn’t budge, they asked him to just stay and be with them instead. This too, Kaushik was now trying to avoid.

Eventually though, he gave in.

“OK. I’ll stay. But mind you, don’t force me to have any of that stuff.”

For the first hour, nothing happened. They all drank full glasses of Bhang while Kaushik watched. Nothing happened. They looked quizzically at each other and wondered what was wrong.

“Is there more?”

“Yes. But shouldn’t we wait for a little longer? I’ve heard the effects take time to kick in.”

“One hour! Can’t take that long, can it?”

“Yeah probably not.”

They drank another glass. Nothing.

“Let’s go sit on the terrace for a while. The night air might help.”

The terrace was actually the roof of the house, bordered by a knee-high parapet, open where a rusty iron ladder formed the entrance from below. They sat in a circle in the center of the terrace, after one of them pointed out the perils of sitting on the parapet if the Bhang did indeed take effect. Kaushik alone sat there, away from the rest, humming to himself.

The alleys around the house were deserted. Tenement such as theirs lined these alleys and he could see lights in some of them. The others were completely dark and Kaushik surmised their inhabitants were already asleep. It was only 10 in the evening; Dhule slept early. The temple, of which they now had a direct view unlike from the college hostel, was empty too. Its bells chimed occasionally and feebly, swaying in the erratic wind. He heard laughter and turned to his friends.

Two of them sat face to face now, encircled by the rest. They were babbling.

“You go”, one of them said.

“No, you go first.”

“No, you go!”

“No! No! No! You first!”

Between each sentence they laughed in high pitched voices, the rest of them joining in. Kaushik was certain they’d forgotten by this time what it was that they had to go for.

“We’ve got to go downstairs guys,” Kaushik told them, “You don’t look too good.”

They protested but eventually gave in. By the time they climbed down, they couldn’t control their laughter anymore. Nobody spoke. They just looked at each other and broke into hysterical laughter.

Five minutes later, one of them vomited. He hadn’t had time to realize what was happening and vomited on himself and on the mattress on which he sat. The vomit, Kaushik noted, was strange and green like herbal paste, only thinner and smellier.

“Listen, you go to sleep. I’ll get you to your room,” Kaushik said, pulling the boy to his feet, “We’ll see about the mess later.”

Two hours on, everyone except Kaushik had vomited. The same green substance. The whole place was submerged in it. Some of them had attempted to get to the toilet but had failed halfway. For a long time, one of them, Sunil, had appeared in control. He had even helped Kaushik drag the others to bed. When the first two had vomited, Kaushik had suggested they should abandon the room for the night and clean up the mess in the morning. After three more had gone down in corridors and in other rooms where they’d tried to force themselves to sleep, Kaushik sighed. “We’ll have to clean some of this up tonight.” He told Sunil.

So the two got a broom and a bucket out and began cleaning. An hour later, the floors were wet and slippery but clean except at the edges where the walls met them. The wash basin, into which someone of them had emptied his stomach, was choked and there was nothing that could be done about it. The rooms still stank like hell but they had no fresheners to spray. They would just have to live with it.

“That’s all we can do, I guess.” Sunil said.

“Yes, when the others wake up in the morning, they’ll have to clear some of their own mess.”

That was when Sunil vomited too. He graciously sprinted to the basin to do so, only marginally compounding a problem they weren’t going to solve right then anyway. He collapsed onto his bed after that and didn’t budge until later afternoon the next day.

Kaushik went back to the terrace, unable to get used to the stench. The breeze was chillier now. He climbed down, found himself a blanket, and climbed back up again. He wondered what would have happened if he’d drunk that stuff too. He was aware it couldn’t have been much worse than what it already was but he was glad he hadn’t. Years later, long after that horrible smell remained only hazily in his memory, he tried recounting the episode to others and found it strange that he did not remember any conversation. They’d blathered on for half the night and he’d retained no memory of it. When he spoke to some of those present there that day, he found they remembered far more, inebriated, than he did, sober.

He spent the rest of night on the terrace, without thought, staring at nothing and sleeping fitfully, and only climbed down next day when the Sun was high and strong enough to prickle his skin. He found he was still the only one awake.


“I’ve decided,” Kaushik announced between sips of Suleimaani Chaai, “to write a novel.” Ritankar nodded thoughtfully. “Oh man! Look at that babe entering!” exclaimed Ashish. They turned and looked.

Suleimaani Chaai was one of the many delights for which they frequented The Prithvi Café. It is black tea with very little sugar and is served, with a piece of sliced lemon and a few Pudina leaves floating inside, in short translucent glasses similar to those that can be found in every tea stall anywhere in India. The choice of glass is intentional – it is much appreciated for its earthiness by the liberals and intellectuals who haunt the Café in faded kurtas and jeans and a dirty half-torn bag slung on one shoulder. The Pudina leaves keep sticking to one’s lips when one sips from the glass and have to be peeled off with one’s fingers. The Chaai tastes magnificent.

Then there are the women. A lot of them come dressed in faded kurtas and jeans too, but they look enchanting since, unlike the men, they don’t carry three-day beards. On weekends, uber-rich businessmen bring their families to watch plays being performed in Prithvi Theatre, which is housed in the same premises. These families usually include a young daughter or two with perfect bodies, dressed in latest chic. Fifteen minutes before a performance, they all form a queue outside the entrance to the theatre since there are no seat numbers on tickets and therefore the best spots have to be fought for. The young boys at the café eye the queue with relish.

In the beginning, the theatre was the main attraction for Kaushik, Ritankar and Ashish. This was in their first months in Mumbai, when they were only starting to discover the pleasures of the city. Theatre performances were rare in the cities they’d been brought up and studied in and watching a play in the dark, intimate environs of Prithvi’s small amphitheatre - the proximity of the performers and their voices, pure and unfiltered by electronics - exhilarated them. After the performances, they’d spend time at the café gushing over what they’d witnessed., Soon, they exhausted Prithvi’s regular catalogue - a rather limited one, and found they would now have to wait for the occasional new production to arrive. They continued spending time at the café anyway, in love with the stone tables and benches, the yellow lights of bulbs, with enormous colourfully embroidered plastic shades over them, hanging from an iron frame, and occasional glimpses of stars and the moon through the branches of the coconut tree that loomed above.

In the last days before Kaushik quit his first job, he started coming to Prithvi in the afternoons on weekdays, slinking out of office for a few hours. In daylight, the place looked different -vulnerable in its now visible layers of old, fragrant dust and dried leaves on the floor and tables, more inviting. Most tables remained empty and the ones taken, were by theatre groups planning and rehearsing their stories and characters.

“Yes, you must.” Ritankar said.

“I must what?” asked Kaushik.

“Write that novel.”

“Oh. I’d forgotten where we were amidst all that distraction.”

“You can tell us the basic plot or something?” continued Ritankar.

“Oh I don’t know. I’ll just write the kind of stuff that I’ve written in the past – those mood pieces, you know. And I’ll see if they can be loosely bunched together into some sort of a theme…nothing concrete, really.”


“And maybe I’ll call it something vague like ‘Closing the Barn Door’ or something, so it sounds symbolic and important.”

“I was just reading the other day,” Ashish butted in, “Berlusconi seems to be at it again.”

In Lucknow, as their final year neared its end and they became increasingly convinced that a successful 30 year career was not up their alley, Kaushik, Ashish and Raakesh came up with the idea of writing a novel together. “Each one writes on paragraph and then lets the next guy carry it from there. Nobody will have any clue where the thing will end, should be an interesting experiment.” Ashish had said. Kaushik and Raakesh had agreed. It fell upon Kaushik to start and he did so, choosing to write an opening paragraph so open that it hardly mattered what the next one would be. The next one was never written.

A year later, when Ritankar and Kaushik had just bought a handheld camera to take to Europe, Ashish suggested they make a short film. “It’ll be in first person, the protagonist and cinematographer will be the same.” The story was of a guy exiting an apartment and then walking for a while, taking a bus or a train – (“might be difficult, we’ll need permissions for those”) – and somewhere during all this, realizing he’s left something behind. So he’ll hurry back to that apartment again and we’ll find he’s actually committed a murder and has returned to remove some evidence he’d overlooked earlier. It had sounded like a pretty interesting idea, at least something to shoot and practice with. They’d worked on details with great interest for the rest of the day at the end of which they had a dozen ideas and nothing on paper. They’d decided to develop on the idea individually through the week and meet again next weekend. That was the end of that.

Since then, Kaushik had figured he was better off thinking and writing on his own and that he didn’t much care for what Ashish thought of his ideas or he of Ashish’s.

“Aha! What has Berlusconi done now?” said Kaushik, waving to the waiter to get them more Chaai and readying himself for an interesting conversation.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


“It’s good,” Ashish said in his whispery adolescent voice, “but I think there’s a little bit of unnecessary metaphor mongering in certain places”

“Really? Like where?” asked Ritankar.

“Oh, you know, there are sections where you can see it could’ve been written in a more straightforward manner, but it isn’t.”

Ritankar looked at Kaushik, caught and held his gaze, noticing his lips begin to curl slightly. Kaushik let his eyes twinkle – he had found about a year ago that he could will them to, while he debated in his head whether or not he should pursue the subject further. Eventually, he decided against it and looked away instead. Ritankar, who always looked to Ashish and Kaushik to provide requisite humour at the appropriate moments, since witticisms and rejoinders did not come as readily to him as the other two - a problem further aggravated by the slight stammer he carried, shrugged and lit another cigarette.

Ashish made comments such as this fairly often, their vagueness reeking of puerility and desperate wannabeism (a term Raakesh and Kaushik used as a generalization for all those they did not enjoy the company of; verb: to wannabe, adjective: wannabeesque). Most times, however, it turned out he had sound logic to back himself, although not reasoned out completely and, therefore, he found it difficult to explain them with clarity. When they were only getting to know each other, Ritankar and Kaushik were put off by it. In time, however, they came to accept it, even appreciate it, for it allowed them to think and figure out stuff on their own.

On this occasion, they were discussing ‘The Road’ and, unlike other times, they thought Ashish was speaking shit.

“The bottle’s empty. I’ll get the next one.” Kaushik said, rising from the couch and walking to the refrigerator.

It was past midnight and Kaushik’s apartment had been and looked like it had been through a lot in the past few hours. Two enormous mattresses covered most of the main area; this is where they would doze off when they would be unable to keep their eyes open any longer. Packets of biscuit and assorted snacks lounged on the floor after they’d been pushed off the dining table by newer entrants. The kitchen sink was choked with dirty plates and bits of uneaten food which they hadn’t bothered to clear before shoving the plates in. In the other room, the aged loudspeakers sang The National’s latest album. The yellow light of the bulb, diffused by the smoked glass over it, fell softly over the scene and invested in it a romance that morning would take away.

Kaushik wrestled with the wine bottle for a few moments before handing it to Ashish.

“I can’t do this. You go.”

“Feel like watching a film?” Ashish asked with clenched teeth, as he wrenched at the cork; only half of it came off, torn cleanly from the rest which still sat prettily inside the bottle’s neck.

“Damn! This is some shit wine, this!”

“What do we do about it now?” Ritankar said.

“It happened to me once,” Kaushik said, “and I pushed that little piece into the bottle. It was fine after that, although the piece kept floating up and choking the bottle so the wine flowed out like whiskey. And it tasted a little more of wood than intended, perhaps.”

“Might come in handy in the future, this information,” Ashish commented, “when we have wine that tastes of wood in some restaurant and they tell us it is because they allowed it to breathe in special oak barrels or some shit like that, we can get all worked up and ask if they dropped the cork inside.”

Ritankar started to laugh in his hiccupy little way, his palms journeying to cover his mouth. Kaushik grinned and pointed towards both, “Bloody Amateurs!” he said in his best British accent.

“So, what about the film? We watching one?” Ashish said.

Ritankar shrugged. He shrugged a lot. Kaushik pondered for a second or two before answering in the negative. “Let’s just talk. If we start watching a movie, we’ll fall asleep,” he said.


They sipped their wines pensively.

“You know, I watched this movie recently, I forget the name…” Kaushik began. “…was made by that chap Moodysson – the one who made that film we watched the other day, Tilsammans…”

“Fucking Amal?” Ritankar prompted.

“No, not that. I saw that one ages ago.”

“You saw Lilya 4ever?” Ritankar said, his eyes widening.

“Ah, yes. Lilya 4ever. Wonderful movie.”

“That’s an awesome film dude! I saw it when I was in Chennai! I think I cried when it ended”, Ritankar said.

Kaushik glanced at Ashish and found him raise an eyebrow.

“Well, I don’t think I did anything as dramatic as that,” Kushal said, “but yes, it is a brilliant film.”

The Nationals ran out at this point and were replaced by The Twilight Sad. Kaushik had discovered them during the week – a Scottish band that played a queer concoction of folk and rock and sounded, almost willfully, Scottish unlike, say, Arab Strap.

Aand so you make it yerr own, they sang

But this wherre yerr arrms can’t go…

And a little later,

So wherre arre yerr maannerrs…

"It's an awesome accent, this!" Ashish said.

Kaushik chuckled. "Yeah, but at least you can pick up what's being said. With the Irish..."

"That reminds me," said Ritankar, "I finally managed to watch The Wind That Shakes The Barley."

"Ah. Isn't it a magnificent film!"

"Yes, it is brilliant."

Now that they were on the subject, Kaushik recounted the episode of the Irishman in Ventimiglia again. Ritankar nodded and Ashish listened with polite interest. It was an unsaid pact between the three. They had all, at some point, gone back to narrating the same stories from their short times in Europe over and over, and the others had smiled and exclaimed as if it were the first time, following it up with a repeat of one of their own stories.

Ashish told them about the time he was on a train from Venice to some place in Southern Italy and had to share the cabin with a young couple, newly married, travelling with the man’s parents. They graciously allowed him to sit although they could’ve refused for they had made reservations and Ashish had not. They also introduced themselves and showed great interest when Ashish told them he was from India. Their English was horrendous. The conversation remained warm and monosyllabic, driven forward more by nods and smiles than actual words. When it was time to sleep, the girl snuggled close against her man and gestured to Ashish to lie down in the space she spared. And so Ashish spent the night there, cramped but happy that his back frequently brushed against hers and that he had another story to carry home.

And then Ritankar started with the story of the gregarious woman, keeper of a makeshift general store inside a caravan, outside the station of Milazzo.

“Her husband looked like a real Mafiosi, man!” Kaushik said, when Ritankar finished, “Pony tail, wide forehead, sleeveless black tees and tattoos all over his bare arms.”

“He probably was one” Ashish said.

“Yeah, probably.”

And they talked of the Cosa Nostra and the ‘Ndrangheta and The Godfather.

“Bonasera, Bonasera,” wheezed Kaushik as he scratched his chin with the back of his hand and then gestured with them expansively, “What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully”

Brando’s dialogue was thus reproduced faithfully and without context. But so were any number of them on most Saturday nights. They continued on, discussing the extraordinary sense of drama the Italians possessed, as if they wished their lives could resemble their operas.

“All I need is a small cottage somewhere on the Italian coast, east or west doesn’t matter.” Ashish said, “And I am willing to spend the rest of my life there, idling.”

“I wouldn’t mind Spain either, if it comes to that, although I’ve never been there.” Kaushik said.

By 4 AM, they had begun to doze in fits and starts, trying to keep the conversation going, but finding it increasingly difficult. The Twilight Sad had finished too; the world was unnaturally quiet.

They fell asleep, promising each other that they’d wake up early and go to Café Ideal, fully aware that they wouldn’t.


Kaushik woke with a start, his eyes immediately wide open, although as yet unseeing. He was aware he had been dreaming. He’d noticed over the years that he always felt unnaturally alert when he woke from a disturbing dream, as if he had consciously recognized its nature and had willfully wrenched himself out of it.

He found he lay facing the window. Its glass panels were shut and he heard muted rain. The incandescent yellows of the streetlights across the train tracks floated spectrally against the darkness. Everything was eerily still. Kaushik checked his watch; it read 2AM. He sighed and turned over to face the other side. Suresh was away for a week and he had the apartment to himself.

He had only vague memories of what he’d dreamt other than that it had to do with ghosts and the dead. He seemed to recollect an enormous dark castle, recognizable, for he had dreamt of it a few times during the last decade and was aware it appeared very similar to the one he’d imagined when he’d read ‘The Three Investigators and the Secret of the Terror Castle’ as a thirteen year old. He found it strange that his dreams should choose this one, created from imagination, rather than the numerous ones he’d seen in horror films.

He cursed himself, out loud, for bringing up the subject of horror films at this time. Instantly and inevitably, images from those queued up in his brain. He remembered how, as a kid, whenever he woke from a bad dream, he clutched his mother's arm and felt magically safe. "What will you do when I die?" His mother had once quipped, "You should cut my dead arms and keep it with you to put you to sleep." He had sudden visions of lying on an enormous bed covered by a glowing white sheet clutching a solitary arm. The grotesqueness of the vision unnerved him further and he frantically searched for more pleasing memories of limbs, finally arriving, gratefully, at the bewitching image of Eva Green as Bertolucci's magnificent version of Venus de Milo in The Dreamers.

He stole a quick glance at the door and found it slightly ajar, the diffused red of the mosquito repellant right next to it. He imagined what he’d do if an apparition or two were to walk in through there. He fancied himself sitting up straight, his back supported by the wall behind him, calmly light a cigarette, of which there were none in the house, and say “Right, so you’re here to kill me? Mind if I smoke?”

He was wide awake by this time and perspiring lightly from these visions. He sat up, drank some water from the bottle placed on the windowsill, opened the window and stared outside. Apart from the line of yellow lights, he now spotted a few stray whites, lit windows, against the night sky. There was virtually no sound, most notably, that of local trains plying their trade. The last one would’ve passed more than an hour ago. There were no cars on the road. It was as if the city had decided to pack up and leave and they’d forgotten to tell him. The rain had stopped; the rhythmic pitter patter replaced by the occasional solitary drop slipping off slanted roofs and exploding sweetly down below.

He hadn’t put on his glasses or switched on the light in the hope that he would soon by overcome by sleep again, this time deeper and more pleasant. Now, having stayed up for a half hour looking out the window, he realized it was unlikely to happen. So, he gave his eyes their aid and the room, its presence. He walked around the apartment for a while, unable to decide what to do. He rummaged inside the refrigerator and found pieces of cheese, leftovers from the weekend’s wining and revelry. He chewed on those for a while, practicing shadow cricket shots with his hands, setting a particularly tall target for himself to reach in very little time and then reaching it with extravagant strokes, muttering excited commentary as he did so.

The novel he was reading lay on the table – Chabon’s ‘The Mysteries of Pittsburgh’. He was halfway through it when he’d had to put it down that evening for dinner. He picked it up now and started to read from it, slow and unsure for a page or two whether he actually wanted to get into it at 3 in the morning, before the disarming beat of Chabon’s words found their way through his defense.

He read till he finished the novel, exhilarated and jealous, for he wondered if he’d ever be able to produce prose like this. It was near 5AM and the nearby mosque’s loudspeakers were halfway through the day’s first prayer. He lay down in bed again, anxious to salvage whatever he could of his sleep from the next two hours. It wouldn’t be his best day in office, he knew.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Café Harbour View

The Gateway of India stands near the southern tip of Mumbai and looks out westward to the Arabian Sea. The sea also flanks the Gateway’s sides – narrow channels of water brushing against stones and a makeshift pier. From the pier, steamers and cruises ply towards the South up to Goa, passing through tiny, sleepy beach towns that offer Mumbai’s populace quiet weekend getaway options. One of these is the town of Mandva, barely inhabited, which owes its disproportionate popularity in pop culture to the iconic Agneepath – one of Amitabh Bachchan’s most beloved films. Kaushik, Ashish and Ritankar had once taken a steamer back to Mumbai from Mandva. Throughout the journey, they had reeled off dialogues from the film at the slightest pretext. They had decided that they would return some day, dressed in all-whites like Bachchan had done, including the blazer, shoes and the rims of their glasses.

Even from up close, the Gateway of India appears strangely unimpressive, almost feeble. The unquestionable grandeur of the Taj Mahal Hotel behind it accentuates the Gateway’s lack of stature. From steamers approaching Mumbai, the Taj Mahal hotel can be spotted from miles out; the Gateway not until much later, when it is only a few hundred meters away.

Nevertheless, thousands of tourists flock to the Gateway each day, year after year. The spacious square, in the centre of which the Gateway stands, teems with people throughout the day, even when the Sun is at its angriest. A dozen photographers walk around, carrying decade old cameras and a colour printer inside a bag on their shoulders, nudging every tourist group, especially those from foreign lands, to pose for pictures.

A narrow street leads away from the Gateway and runs by the sea, separated by a wide parapet. Two minutes into its journey, the street leaves behind the noise and commotion and chooses to pass by old bungalows and three storey apartments instead. Most of the structures, simple and elegant, are from before Independence and the European design and décor is evident. Wide verandahs look straight out to sea; old men and women, a lot of them Parsis, spend their days there, swinging gently in their armchairs.

It is on this street that one stumbles upon the Strand Hotel. From the outside, the hotel appears somewhat dilapidated, an impression that is reinforced once one walks inside. Over the entrance, on a stained white translucent sheet, behind which tasteless tube lights flicker, the name is written in large red fonts, the ends of the ‘S’ curved around twice for style. Right next to this signboard, another smaller wooden plate has the words ‘Café Harbour View’ on it.

A cramped elevator that lurches violently before it moves, much like Mumbai’s local trains, takes one to the terrace where the café is.

Once at the terrace, the scene alters considerably. The tables, about a dozen of them, are widely spaced. A cool breeze blows in from the sea, which is visible in breathtaking panorama. Dozens of boats, private yachts, commercial vessels and steamers lie scattered in the harbor, simmering in the afternoon sun. Towards evening, when the sky darkens, twinkling lights from ships anchored far out at sea become visible; their presence betrayed in the setting sun after they’d remained undetected in daylight.

There is a ‘No Smoking’ sign pasted on one of the walls but nobody heeds it. If requested, the waiters bring cigarette packs from a shop downstairs. Ashtrays are not offered; cigarette stubs litter the floor. The presence of ashtrays, they explain, is considered evidence when the occasional friendly Police raid occurs, whereas cigarette stubs and ashes are not.

The service is embarrassingly poor. It takes ages for food to arrive. Sometimes, it doesn’t arrive at all. If one looks up and searches for a waiter, there are none to be found. After waiting a few minutes for one to appear, it is wiser to walk into the kitchen oneself, where the waiters huddle together, chatting. On seeing a customer appearing thus, they are not flustered in the least, and calmly note the order being placed.

Gratifyingly, the beer is rarely delayed. And since nobody goes to Harbour View for a quick bite, everybody waits patiently to be served.

Kaushik was told of Café Harbour View by a colleague in office, who he rarely otherwise listened to. But the colleague insisted that Kaushik check it out and one day, when he was in the general area, Kaushik decided to. He went there in the late afternoon, towards the beginning of the summer months. They placed an enormous umbrella, stuck at the top of an iron stand, over his table. Once in its shade, the wind from the sea took effect, and it became most pleasant. They also planted a table fan near him which blew full into his face. It made him gasp for air and lighting a cigarette impossible. He asked them to remove it and ordered beer. He spent close to four hours there, that day.

The next weekend, Ritankar and Ashish were introduced to the place.

Around that time, Kaushik also learnt of Couchsurfing – the online network of travelers that allowed its members to approach other members in cities they were travelling to and spend a few days with them. It was just after he and Ritankar were back from Europe and Kaushik cursed himself for not discovering the community earlier. He registered on it, as did, Ritankar and Ashish, although those two never actually used it. By the end of one year, he’d met more than a dozen travelers from around the world. Initially, it was only men, young and old, that sent him meeting requests. Ashish and Kaushik quipped regularly how even this ploy of theirs wasn’t working; they had earlier joked how this was perhaps the only way they were going to have women visiting their apartment, although none of them was sure what good it would do to them. Ritankar rarely partook in such bouts of crassness for he was reticent in these matters. A few months later, however, once a few men had passed through and Kaushik’s credibility was sufficiently established, the women started to appear, although they always came with a boyfriend in tow. There was one from New Zealand about whom they gushed for weeks afterwards.

Kaushik suggested these people places to visit in Mumbai and the country and showed them around the city when he had time. He was exhilarated with the whole thing. He met people from countries he was unlikely to ever travel to and learnt of those lands. He told them of India, although he got bored with repetition after a while. Gradually, he started to avoid showing them around the city, sick and tired of visiting the same landmarks, and let Suresh handle that part of the business.

Many times, he took them to Harbour View in the evenings and after a long day’s walking around, they relaxed and chatted. Some of Kaushik’s fondest memories of these people were formed there.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


The shrill, curt sound of the doorbell half woke Kaushik. Instinctively, he brought his left wrist close to his face so it touched the nose and tried to read the time. He always slept with his watch still wrapped around the wrist. It looked like 4 AM, but he couldn’t be sure without his glasses. He sensed it was still dark outside. Making no attempt to move, he allowed his woozy consciousness time to determine whether the sound belonged in this world or in his dreams. 4 AM wasn’t what one called usual doorbell ringing hour. Besides, if indeed it had rung, it would ring again.

It did. Kaushik started to get up but heard footsteps and the door unlock. He sank back into the softness of his bed, glad that he had, in Suresh, a flatmate who slept light and that he could now go back to sleep without being unduly disturbed.

He was out of luck. Soon, he felt someone shaking him by the shoulder. He heard Suresh’s voice:

“Hey man, wake up!”

“What’s the matter?” Kaushik mumbled, followed by an irritated click of the tongue.

“Wake up man! Your Mom and Dad are here!”


“Yes, your Mom and Dad are here. Get up man!”

Kaushik got up wearily and dragged himself to the drawing room, his mind still largely vacant and unable to register what was happening. They were there alright, his Mom and Dad, instead of 500 kilometers away in Ahmedabad, where Kaushik expected them to be. The door was still open; a small suitcase lay across it. Outside, a man, shabby and unknown, stood peering in uncertainly, brushing his hair with both hands.

Kaushik’s Mom and Dad smiled warmly, thrilled to see their son, even though somewhat disheveled. Kaushik’s face contorted - eyelids flapping agitatedly over barely open eyes, forehead creased to help the eyes focus, cheeks stretched upwards to accommodate the extra skin the forehead demanded, lips gradually widening in an effort to resemble a smile and the cheeks stretching further as a result. It gave him the appearance of an indiscriminately overfed Oriental.

“Who’s that guy?” Kaushik asked.

“Oh, he’s Rajesh, the driver. Your Dad didn’t want to drive on the highway at night.”

“Why’s he standing there, then?”

“He’s a little sleepy, you know. We told him to come up with us. If you have some spare bedding, he needn’t sleep in the car.”

“Yes, we have it.” Kaushik said. He turned to Rajesh, the driver, and asked him to come inside.

Suresh, all this while, unsure what the appropriate thing for him to do was, stood in a corner shifting his weight from one foot to the other. He ached to go back to bed again; there were precious few hours left until he’d have to get up and ready for work.

“Suresh, you can go back to sleep if you want to.” Kaushik told him, half embarrassed. He knew the feeling; when Suresh’s parents had once visited them for a few days, Kaushik had hung around for a day before hastily packing a few things and moving to Ashish’s place for the interim.

“No, I think we should make two beds here. The driver and I can sleep here. You and your parents can rest inside. That way, I won’t disturb you when I wake up to go to office later.”

“Yes, we could do that. Let’s get the mattresses out then.”

The ritual of surprises had gone on for years between Kaushik and his parents. He no longer recalled when it had started. But he remembered dozens of them, over the years – on birthdays, his parents’ anniversary, new years, without reason even. On his mother’s birthday, Kaushik and his Dad would order cake and buy gifts in secret. They’d sneak those into the house when she wasn’t there and hide it in places where she’d be unlikely to stumble upon them. In subsequent years, since she now specifically searched for the packages, they kept it with a neighbor. At midnight, after pretending to go to bed much earlier, Kaushik and his Dad would lay the cake on the table and wake his mother up and they would have a small celebration. When midnight became too expected, they moved it to 3 AM and then later, until one on occasion, they didn’t wish her until the following evening, by which time she was on the verge of tears, convinced that her husband and son had forgotten.

The same custom was replicated on Kaushik’s birthday and his Dad’s, by the other two members of the family.

When Kaushik left home to study in Dhule, it appeared the ritual would slowly fade away from their lives. Instead, it gained in strength. Every once in a while, Kaushik would decide to bunk college for a week and board a bus to Ahmedabad, without informing his parents. He would reach Ahmedabad early in the morning, bleary eyed but excited, beaming with anticipation even before he’d knocked on the door. Inevitably, it was his mother, who opened the door, for it was still too early for his father to have woken up. She would squeal with delight when she saw him, kiss him on both cheeks and then rush to wake his father, shouting “He’s here! He’s here!”. His father’s reaction would be a little less hysterical. They would embrace and his Dad would comment that Kaushik should be using more deodorant.

Sitting inside, they could hear the snores of either Suresh or the driver from the other room. In Kaushik’s experiences, Suresh wasn’t much of a snorer and he, therefore, surmised it was the driver.

It was Wednesday. Kaushik’s Dad oversaw business in one of the hundreds of small manufacturing units run by enterprising Gujaratis in Ahmedabad. The unit was located in an industrial area and planned weekly power cuts shifted throughout the year. All the factories scheduled their weekly offs in accordance. At this time of the year, it was on Wednesdays.

“Yesterday evening, I came back home and we were thinking what we should do on my day off,” his Dad explained, “And your mother said we could go for a long drive early in the morning and return by late afternoon, and then maybe have dinner at a restaurant in the evening.”

His Mom butted in, “And then your Dad said how about starting for Mumbai yesterday evening itself, spending half a day with you and then returning to Ahmedabad.”

“Oh. So you are here for only half a day?”

“Yes, we’ll leave after lunch. Just thought it would be fun coming here like this.”

Kaushik laughed. He was, at that point, towards the latter half of his six month break from work. He hadn’t told his parents he’d quit for a long time, not even, when he’d travelled to Europe. It was on his next visit to Ahmedabad after he’d come back that he had eventually broken them the news. They had taken it better than Kaushik had expected. Nevertheless, as the days went by, they grew more anxious. Kaushik’s mother called him several times during the day on one pretext or the other, her heart aching that her son was spending entire days alone and unoccupied, although he insisted he was having a good time and there was nothing to be so concerned about.

This surprise visit, Kaushik sensed, was their anxiousness brimming over.

Kaushik’s Dad, now halfway through his fifties, was a dark, pot bellied man who had aged better than his peers. He still retained a head full of silken, largely black, hair and the lines on his face were yet to dig deep. A thick black moustache hid his upper lip almost completely. He must have been quite unremarkable in appearance as a young man, although the only evidence Kaushik had of this was in the grainy, black and white photographs he was shown. But at this age, while his friends struggled with baldness, rheumatic knees and weakening eyesight, he was fit and intact.

Kaushik’s Mother, on the other hand, must have been an attractive woman in her youth. She was still very presentable for her age, although she had put on a bit of weight and her joints creaked with arthritis. After marriage, she had to move to Ahmedabad; Kaushik’s Dad had migrated there in search of work half a decade earlier, leaving behind him the disintegrating West Bengal of the 1970s. Now, close to three decades later, she still spoke Hindi and Gujarati with a Bengali accent. She had never worked professionally, happy to make a home and raise her son, instead. Her world view was simplistic but she was capable of the occasional inspired observation, perhaps without being aware herself of just how inspired they were. She had once pointed out, about a year ago, how all of Kaushik’s friends had always been transient.

“You seek to befriend people who you think know more than you do. That is good. But you grow tired of them once you feel your knowledge and understanding has surpassed theirs. And then, you just move on”, she had said.

Kaushik was amazed by how accurate the observation was. even though it was put in so plaintive a manner. He wondered how she could be aware of this and yet look forward to and talk about his future marriage and life afterwards without the least bit of apprehension.

Although, he had continued the unannounced visits home through the years, Kaushik’s parents had never visited him before this. Not while he was in Dhule for four years, nor while he was in Lucknow for two. They had, of course, paid him the occasional visit but they had always informed him first. He had taken this as a sign of his parents’ acknowledgement of his having reached an age where he would begin to have a life beyond the one they knew of. That the number of secrets he kept from them could only increase in the future. Kaushik was immensely grateful to his parents for this; it had saved him the sticky situation of having to actually explain it to them. He had debated if he should stop his own surprise visits to them; acknowledge that they too had the right to a private life, but every time he did go, they appeared so utterly overjoyed, that he decided to carry on with them.

And now this. He wondered what to make of it. Was it that he had been mistaken all these years in presuming what he had and that the real reasons were merely logistical? Or was it that their perception of all the secrets he now kept from them, the life he now lived had gradually become so disturbing that they had to come see for themselves? They knew he enjoyed the odd bit of alcohol once in a while; he had told them himself. Since then, they had always quizzed him on how regular his drinking habits were. “How many times a month? More than once?” He always evaded a straight answer, aware that the true number, though sufficiently low to be a cause for even the mildest alarm was still too high for them. Perhaps they had decided to drop in like this to check? There was one empty bottle of beer on the kitchen platform, Kaushik found, when surveyed the apartment once his parents were settled comfortably into bed. The bottle was coated with dust. He decided there was no reason to remove it.

So then, why had they come? Hadn’t Kaushik himself thought a few moments before that it was because they were concerned he was lonely and despondent without work? Could it be that it was a combination of these reasons? Was he a little miffed that they had come? He wasn’t sure.

Possibly, in some corner of their sub consciousness, the odd misgiving had always lingered, without their having realized it. It may have played a part in their decision to come, but Kaushik knew that even if it did, it did so behind the scenes, moving surreptitiously between those other thoughts and emotions they could access. He knew they loved him too much to ever doubt him seriously.

As a kid, Kaushik had insisted upon sleeping by his mother’s side. He enjoyed the touch of her arms; warm from the wrist to the elbows, slightly colder above it. Through the night, he slept with one hand gently rubbing her arms. When he grew up a little, his parents suggested to him that he start sleeping on his own bed. He tried but could not. His mother would sit next to him until he fell asleep but he would wake up soon after she was gone. Kaushik would stare at the ceiling for a while, angry that his mother no longer loved him like before. Eventually, he would take his pillow and barge into his parents’ bedroom and tell them that there were cockroaches in the other room and he was afraid. Instead of sending him back and making him learn the hard way, his parents would, uncomplainingly, make space for him between then and he would lie there blissfully for the rest of the night.

Kaushik was into his teens before he finally rid himself of this habit. By the time he grew up enough to understand what this might have meant to his parents, how much it might have taken away from their own lives and needs, there was nothing he could do.

His parents smiled through this and other sacrifices and continued to love him. It did not even occur to them that they should hold it against Kaushik. Kaushik wondered if he’d do the same for his own kids, when they came around. He found it hard to believe that he would.

The morning passed by cheerfully. They had breakfast together, chatted about this and that. Towards noon, they went to a pricey restaurant for lunch; Kaushik was eager to demonstrate to them the secure state of his immediate finances. A couple of hours later, they were on their way back to Ahmedabad, no more or less worried about their son’s future. Kaushik returned home to make up for the morning’s lost sleep.

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Smarter Man

Kaushik returned home around 8 in the evening. The journey back worked like clockwork. He and Ashish left office together at a quarter past six and walked to the railway station across the road. There they chatted for a few minutes until a train arrived and they exchanged curt goodbyes. They traveled in opposite directions. Kaushik changed trains a couple of stops later, walking to the end of one platform and crossing the tracks to another where the other train waited. An hour later, he was home. He’d been doing this for months now, the routine broken only when the odd bit of work kept him in office for longer.

The first thing he did when he reached home was switch on the laptop. It took a while for the machine to boot; age was catching up with it. While it did, he took a shower and changed into more comfortable wear. On most days, the woman who cooked food for them had already done so and left; she had a spare key. He checked what she’d prepared although he wouldn’t eat it until much later. His parents would almost certainly call before that and his mother would ask what he would have dinner. Sometimes, when the woman came in late, he asked her for a cup of tea.

He glanced through the list of friends online on his IM. Most of them were people Kaushik hardly ever talked to. He looked for the regulars - Rahul, a classmate from Lucknow, with whom he had the most outrageous conversations – they had developed a language all their own, which consisted of literal translations of Hindi sentences and phrases to English. Over time, it had evolved to a level where it almost sounded like code – if one didn’t have the key, one couldn’t even begin to decipher it. Sometimes, he also found Raakesh and they chatted about their latest efforts in reading or producing literature. Once in a while, he spotted a lady or two, of which there were very few on his list, and he debated whether he should attempt a conversation.

Kaushik’s first experiences in online chatting dated back to the early 2000s, while he was still in engineering college. Like most of his friends then, he had become a regular visitor to cyber cafés. There, he had chosen a ludicrous screen name for himself – a grandiose epithet prefixed to his name. He’d tried King and Royal and Greatest and Macho and found those were already registered. Eventually, he’d settled on Emperor. He thought it quite elegant. Every time he logged in, he had scrounged public chatrooms for females, sent messages to all of them and then waited with growing desperation for one to respond. Whenever one of them did, his face broke into a smile and he turned to his friends on adjacent machines and boasted about it. Those that were out of luck for the day then huddled around him and they all chatted to the girl together. Over time, they developed newer techniques of soliciting responses; the simple ‘Hi’ and ‘How are you’ having long since stopped working.

By the time he went to B School, those days were behind him and he was too embarrassed to share the ID with anyone. He later discovered he needn’t have been, for there were several others in the same boat. Ashish, it emerged, had managed to lay his hands on Greatest. Nevertheless, Kaushik created a fresh, more presentable account name so he could laugh at everyone else.

With or without epithets, Kaushik always preferred chatting over phone calls. The chat window redefined Time. A response could come or be sent five minutes later and still qualify as a response. A bunch of such responses strung together could become a legitimate conversation. He needn’t suffer the dismay of thinking of a suitable repartee too late. His friend Shrinivas, geeky and entertaining, had once told him there was a word for it – ‘esprit de l’escalier’. There could never be an esprit de l’escalier on a chat window. He could construct far more convoluted sentences than could ever be done face to face. He could quickly search for information and quotes and reproduce it as if from memory. It allowed him to be wittier. It allowed him to be many different persons at once. With Rahul he could make a mess of two languages, with Raakesh he could discuss the greatest works of literature, with the girls he could show off his command over language and humour, all at the same time. Chats made him feel cleverer than he actually was.

An hour of chatting later, he usually watched a film. Occasionally, if the film turned out to be bland and boring, he went back to the IM, while the film played itself out in the background. Today, it was a good one.