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.