Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Good Two Years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi” Kaushik said, “Up early?”

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

“Yeah, well,” he mumbled in response.

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

Saturday, November 20, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s the matter dude?”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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