VOICELESS

New Nonentities

December 26, 2010

V OICELESS

New Nonentities

December 26, 2010

c 2010 Swapna & New Nonentities a.k.a. Arjun All rights reserved Certain parts are based on real life. The rest can be considered to be autobiography.

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Preface
It is that time of the year when one has to think of new resolutions to make and break; a time to recollect forgotten thoughts. With that in mind, I collected my writing and, bound the scrap with old twine and a blunt needle. This is the result. Most of the articles are old and rarely read. For the sake of variety and completeness, I included 3 new but popular articles. These 3 (placed near the end in the chapter with the imaginative title New) deal with the ways I got married and the woman in my life. So, is that how it happened? No. A few months back, Swapna asked me to be a kaishaku during hara-kiri. I accepted that responsibility with pleasure. Prior to hara-kiri, Swapna released a collection.

Musing
[Click here to download]

A good deed has the habit of returning, like a boomerang, to trouble you. A few days back, Swapna asked me,“Can I be your kaishaku when you commit hara-kiri?” “Yes,” I mumbled and prepared this collection. “Hey, include three of mine in your collection, will you?” Swapna insisted. I have included those three under a chapter titled Swapna. S WAPNA & A RJUN December 26, 2010

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Free for All?
Effingo ergo sum (I copy, therefore I am) Internet

Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) Descartes

Scene 1 Long long ago . . . at a State Inter-Schools Cultural & Athletic Meet . . . Adarsh and Jacob are best-friend and they look alike. They have the same athletic build, complexion, hair-style, thin rectangular spectacles and since they study in different schools, they compete against each other in the same events. Jacob is declared the Individual champion having won the gold in two cultural and three athletic events. After that result is announced, Jacob sees Adarsh being surrounded by a large group of students from other schools, mostly girls. Later, Jacob asked Adarsh, “What was happening over there, buddy?” Adarsh replied, “They thought I am you.” Jacob exclaimed, “You rascal!” and then continued, “Did they really get fooled?” Adarsh said, “Oh, yes! Thanks for giving me my five minutes of glory, pal.” They laughed together and, being good friends, planned other practical jokes.

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That night, Jacob asked himself, “What about my five minutes of fame?” and then reasoned, “Anyway, he did it in my name. And, he can deal with girls better than me.” Scene 2 Still long ago . . . in a college . . . at a lecture by a famous physicist . . . During question hour, Sreekumar tried to exhibit his scholarship and asked a well-rehearsed question about quantum mechanics (EPR paradox, hidden variables or whatever). The lecture was on a different topic, of course. The speaker replied with a smile and thinly-veiled sarcasm, “I think you know more than me about that subject.” Later, outside the lecture-hall, Sreekumar told a batch-mate who had missed the lecture, “He agreed with my idea.” *** These two scenes on a very minor stage depict: (a) identity theft and (b) throwing and/or misusing big names/labels. I remembered these two scenes while thinking about a different set of issues/questions:

1. Will I feel bad if my blogs are copied and distributed elsewhere by another for profit or non-profit? When I am writing for free, I do not know the answer. Here, I have to bear in mind that I am not good at marketing. I know the answer if I am writing for profit - a simple yes. 2. After all, even reading or commenting on a book with a price cannot be the same as reading or commenting on a free blog. When I have to pay to read, I have to be more responsible. Do you agree? 3. Whenever I try creative writing, I find it tough not to use others’ thoughts (received via books, movies, experiences, anecdotes, etc.). Where possible, I try to give a reference. Like most of my virtues, this is also derived from what I do to others and a fear - the fear of being found out and losing credibility. I could use effective reasoning and convince myself that credibility and integrity are naïve thoughts; most people are not bothered about the source. Should I give a reference for every borrowed thought? By giving a reference, am I trying to gain credibility by throwing

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names? In scientific writing, references have a clear purpose. But, there too, references are at times misused to promote one’s unrelated work or that of a network of 1friends’ or that of peer reviewers. 4. Which gives me more pleasure - a person reading my anonymous writing or a person reading my writing because I have some label (disputed Nobel Prize/Jnanpith Award winner, someone’s friend, another’s ex-lover, Jack the Ripper, etc.)? 5. If someone copies your work and that leads to a lot of ‘indirect’ readers, will you be happy or sad?

Author’s note: As long as I am confused, if someone copies my work I will not protest to any authority; I might visit that person, kiss that face or smack that face with a cricket bat.

Acknowledgements
For hosting this virtual existence, I thank:

• Blogger.com: New Nonentities. • Blogger.com: Gathered Thoughts - Swapna. • Sulekha.com: swapna3ss. • Sulekha.com: NewNonentities.

To those friends who helped with their comments: I thank you for your time and consideration. I would have liked to name those who have supported my writing in the past few months but I am not sure if they will be pleased to be associated with me now. Anyway, words should not try to do what actions should speak . . . S WAPNA & A RJUN December 26, 2010

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Contents
Preface Free for All? Acknowledgements 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 The Last Time I Wrote About Love The Angry Man Sleepless Nights Speechless Better Luck Next Kid Will You Marry Me? The Machete Murders A Family and a Smiling Man at Suicide Point Itihasa of an Integral Part v vii xi 1 14 18 21 27 30 33 40 41 44 59 60 63 67 70

10 The Lady with a Smile 11 Weird Jungle 12 Arrival Of The Alpha Female 13 Love Dies 14 Two Sides of the Coin 15 Catharsis Before A Wedding

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16 The Hijack on August 13th 17 Lovers & Liars 18 After The Assassination 19 One week married, four days alone 20 Shame You All 21 I’ll have a Double 22 4% Deal 23 A Walking Tour 24 The Problem to State 25 My Father is a Good Man 26 I Miss Competition 27 Chennai, here I am . . . 28 Path of No Return 29 The Blogger I Never Forgot 30 Sati and Siva - Love and Frailty 31 Epidemic 32 Stochastic Resonance 33 The Space Between 34 The Other 35 24 Hours in an Urban Reality Show 36 Why I Left You 37 Online Popularity & Benoit Mandelbrot

75 83 84 85 88 90 94 115 119 122 127 131 134 140 143 151 152 161 167 176 188 191

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CONTENTS

38 First Class Travel 39 After I Said ‘Have A Great Sunday!’ 40 Emotions - One True, Four False 41 My Football Days 42 Two Bridges To This Station 43 Terms & Conditions for the Nouveau Blogger 44 Baseless Accusations 45 Brazil (1986) - Heroes’ Death 46 On Writing 47 Tear 48 Movie Review: Up in the Air 49 Movie Review: Two Movies by Adoor 50 Book review: Solar by Ian McEwan 51 Book review: Montalbano series by Camilleri 52 Who am I? 53 Berlin Diary 53.1 Waiting for Trouble near Westkreuz . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 53.2 Shrinking Hope near Innsbrucker Platz . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 53.3 Soliciting with Ice-cream near Ku’damm . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 54 Swapna 54.1 The Only One That Remains . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 54.2 Gigolo . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 54.3 Lonely with Passion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 55 New 55.1

195 200 201 203 206 212 214 218 220 222 224 226 228 231 234 236 236 238 242 245 245 247 248 250 250

Love marriage . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

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55.2 55.3

Arranged Marriage . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . The Tenth Woman . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

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The Last Time I Wrote About Love
The last time I wrote about love, she laughed at me. Then, I was studying at a college in a small village about 250 km from Delhi. It used to take more than 52 hours to reach Delhi by train from my hometown. From Delhi to the village, the travel time used to be 5 to 6 hours. I preferred to take the direct bus but the decision depended on how late the train arrived at Delhi. There was a bus at 22:00 and when I missed that, I had to wait at ISBT till the 05:30 bus. There were terrorists even then and the police did not allow anyone to sleep or leave their baggage unattended. I could also go by the 20:30 train from Old Delhi station to another village 26 km from the campus. Reaching the campus from there involved an hour’s ride in a jeep at around 03:00 with dense fog and a driver, in a bhang/alcohol induced stupor, spurred on with nudges to the ribs. Life was not that bad in the college. The students rarely went out of the campus other than for the essential visits to the bus stand, the dhaba for paratha-anda bhurjee, that for hot chai-jalebi on a winter’s night, the hospital with the nurses or the balika vidyapeeth where the computer teacher was a beautiful unmarried Susan. In my second year, I ventured out to find a typist. I found the typist’s shop at around 10:00 on a dusty Saturday morning. I had fallen in love for the first time and I had written my first love poem. The poem had three sections written separately and feverishly for three earlier ‘one-night crushes’. But, it seemed like a good idea to join the ‘feelings’ for my first love. It also seemed like a good idea to send that as an entry for her approval and also, as an entry for the British Council All-India Poetry Competition. The latter required a typed entry and thus, entered the typist into my life. They were everywhere in those days. In fact, this typist resembled the one in my neighbourhood back home - a middle-aged educated man, a small shop with three typewriters, three tables, four chairs and two trainees (probably students learning typewriting on a holiday). At the back of that shop, and behind the man, a flimsy curtain barred the way leading to the typist’s house and family.

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The typist saw me standing outside, looking nervous and uncertain like a virgin in a brothel. He lowered his spectacles from his forehead, studied me from head to toe for a minute or two, gauged my intentions and with a twirl of his hand beckoned me to sit beside his table. I entered without a word, took out an envelope with the manuscript from my cloth-bag and extended it to him. He blew on the flap, licked his thumb and took out the three sheets of my handwritten love poem. “How many copies?” he asked. “Two.” I had planned for one but I had money for two. I wanted my first love to read every word. “When should I come to collect . . . ” “You will have to read this to me,” the man interrupted, “your handwriting is nice to look at but impossible to read.” I looked around the shop. I tilted my head in the direction of the trainees and begged silently to the typist. “It’s Ok.” He leaned forward. “They hardly know English.” I read and he typed. It was the first time I was reading my poetry aloud and to others. He guided and manoeuvered, and after the first stanza, I was reading well. We would stop when he had to use the whitener and correct a mistake. He did not suggest any corrections to my text. Once in a while, he even said “Wah!” My first audience and I felt great. I still cherish that. I do not care whether his true intentions were mercenary. I have written lots since that day, never to be seen by others but in my mind I still read to him everything. It was past 11:00 when I read the last lines:

Solitude’s Wrath

Which angel scattered diamonds upon this field O wicked one! Why do you charm me so? Life seems so light with its wish to join you, But the gentle air alone caresses and beckons. Regal trees in slow waltz to Nature’s measures,

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Gilded crowns lighten the green expanse. O let us tread a measure, my beloved pretty one, Entertain this heart, control its childish raptures. Shafts of light in hazy blue - lanterns of the Path Memory slips away to that distant time When with such a sight we delighted, But now, your hand not in mine, I face Solitude’s wrath.

When I stopped at the end and gave a sigh of relief, I heard her laugh. The curtain at the back parted and she entered the room with a tray carrying four glasses of chai. The typist gestured to me and I hardly hesitated before taking a glass. The typist took his glass, signalled with his little finger that he is going inside for ‘1’ and left the room. “O dear sir, drink thy cup or should I wait so?” I heard her whisper by my side. I glared at her for mocking my words. I kept on glaring but I saw only her eyes, those beautiful eyes, maybe also her lips, and her smiling face, nothing more, I swear; at least, not then. What was she then - her name Shreya, a girl in her final year at school (at Susan’s balika vidyapeeth, strangely), two or three years younger than me, staying with her uncle and family. Her parents were abroad and kind of separated. She had two siblings, one married and both abroad, too. I got to know this later. Predictably, I lost my first love (and I swore I would never send my poetry to any woman - unless, I could not think of a better way to end a relationship) and never heard from the organizers of the Poetry Competition. But every fortnight, on Saturday morning, I would go to the typist’s shop and get two copies typed of whatever I had written. I waited patiently for the few moments with my critic. I guess I needed her more than she needed me. She did not share any of my beliefs, fears and passion. Many years later, in one of our worst moments, she told me why, “For you, everything is just a phase.” It was true. I was like a non-addicted chain smoker who had never experienced a nicotine rush. I wanted to wage wars, fight for justice, protest against something but I was just the clichéd pseudo-rebel really without a cause.

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Even my writing life had its phases. In middle-school, it was Tagore, Wordsworth and the lot. I knew the Lake District better than my village. I was full of vales, dales, dew, doe-eyed beauty and patriotism. In high-school, I stumbled on Tolstoy, Chekhov, Wilde and Marquez. But, I still wrote like before. Without experience, I barely understood (and in that stage, the above juvenile venture happened). I had a brief dalliance with Che (when I tried to grow a moustache); howling mad days with the Beat generation (when I did not cut my hair); a calm spiritual one with Richard Bach followed by Castaneda and a bit of the Upanishads (I think Pirsig’s Zen started that). Then, a lovely mother of a dull friend tried to introduce me to existentialism telling me that a ‘sin-free’ life is beyond human nature. It was Shreya who introduced me to crime novels (that phase continued till the end of my marriage) and she made me try M&B. I dreamt of being tall, dark and handsome (I had a 33% chance of success, Shreya calculated) sharing champagne and a fireplace, if not my bed, with a woman. When the concerned women married tall, fair and handsome men, I lost interest and decided to stick to crime. In my third year, Shreya joined a college in Delhi. But, she used to come to her uncle’s place for Diwali and Holi. I didn’t have anywhere to go and home was too far away. She had a great relationship with people in that village, dada-dadi-chacha-chachi everywhere. During my third year Holi vacation, she took me to raddi-chacha and his typical secondhand bookshop in a university-village. I found a treasure for five rupees - Piaggio’s Differential Equations. Shreya asked me to take her through the book, “if not everything, something,” she said. With the permission of her uncle, I held tuition classes on those holidays. I tried my best to share my interest and she did well. I think we enjoyed each other’s company, too. I was even invited once for lunch. At the end of the fifth class, when we decided to stop after going through the basics of partial differential equations in chapter four, she told me, “You are a lousy teacher.” “For you, I am a lousy poet, a lousy teacher . . . ” I retorted angrily. “All that I meant was . . . you don’t have the patience to explain. You expect your student to know the subject before you teach.” “The power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy except in those happy dispositions

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where it is almost superfluous.” I quoted Gibbon. “Bull-shit!” she said, “It was nice anyway.” she added grudgingly. I have wondered about how I was given access to her by her uncle. But, in those days, I was a guy a girl could take home to her parents - as a friend, of course. Somehow, girls’ folks found me ‘asexual’. We ‘got sexual’ only once, during her Diwali holidays in my final year. We were alone in the dining room after lunch while her uncle, aunt and cousins rested elsewhere in the house. “Have older women made passes at you, touched you?” she asked. “No,” I replied too quickly and uncomfortably. “You must not have noticed.” “Shreya, that I would notice. Why do you ask?” She shrugged. “There was a nice man in the train.” “Old man?” “Not very old.” “Did he trouble you?” “No.” “What’s troubling you then?” “Nothing . . . I fantasized about him last night.” Then and now, I have never been open to discussions about such matters, even with guys. I believe that everyone should grow up without any help and with their own warped sense of sexuality. But, at that point, bravado, curiosity or a mixture of both made me ask, “Have you thought . . . about . . . me?”

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“Long back,” came her prompt reply. “Oh!” During my college days, we never met outside her uncle’s house. I never invited her to the college. Nor did we try to meet in Delhi. But, we did see each other once in Delhi. Once a month, I would catch the first bus to Delhi - to take a break and to breathe the sweet city air. I would reach Delhi around 10:00, feeling like an old soggy pair of socks, probably smelling like that too. I would take an auto-rickshaw from ISBT to Connaught Place and there, to Nirula’s ice-cream parlour to have a double chocolate ice-cream soda. I was familiar with the waiters and the school-kids kept their distance. On one of those visits, I saw her there with a baby-faced guy. I did not want to skip my drink but I tried to avoid her. I must have stood out like a sore thumb, if not a country bumpkin, in that place. She came over with baby-face, “Adarsh, what are you doing here?” “Drinking soda.” She introduced me to the guy, I have forgotten his name, and he did not seem very pleased to share her and a table with me. But, we did talk like adults and during the interval, he excused himself with “to refresh” and gave me a pointed look. I have always had a thick skin when it comes to other guys. Together alone, I asked, “Who is Farex baby?” “He is smart.” “How long?” “Six months.” “When did it start?” “Cute, you sound jealous.” “You wish!”

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I completed my ‘time’ in college and took up a research position in Bangalore. Before leaving college and that place, I met her uncle and family. I even touched her uncle’s feet and he hugged me with genuine affection. While taking leave, I gave a note to him, “That is the telephone number at my parent’s place - that will not change.” In my second year at Bangalore, when I returned to the hostel after a tiring day of research and volleyball, a colleague told me, “There was a call.” “Whose?” “She said that she is your wife.” “Did she leave her number?” “No.” In Bangalore, I had managed to lead a good life but on the edge of penury. The closest I came to a meaningful relationship was a close acquaintance - fortunately, she was a vegetarian and quite happy when I treated her at a decent but cheap place to curd rice, bisibele bath and free pickle. But, a recurring nightmare prompted me to end the affair. In that nightmare, I am married to this acquaintance; and, after my strenuous efforts on the ‘first night’ she enquires “Theerno, chetta?” (“Darling, over?”) It took two months for ‘my wife’ to call again. This time, fortunately, I was there in the hostel. “Adarsh here.” I said gruffly. “Hey, it’s me.” “Shreya, you idiot! Where are you?” “Here, in Bangalore.” She had joined a course for MBA. In the months that followed, we met often though not regularly. She had discarded Farex baby for a professor. I asked her why she was going

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after ‘my type’. She did not answer. At that time, my first love popped into my life once again, a brief tempestuous fling before she married someone respectable. I borrowed money from Shreya to finance my affair. I managed to repay when my fellowship was increased in the fourth year and I felt rich for the first time - I could go to M.G. Road more than once a month. Shreya got a good job after her two-year course. She took me to Karavalli along with a nice girl-friend of hers with whom I flirted outrageously. Mid-way through the meal, the friend asked me, “You two - are you an item?” I looked at Shreya but she kept a blank face, “We are too good friends for that.” I replied. Shreya smiled. I felt as if my life had been sucked dry. Was I thinking about some North-South divide? Did I think that Shreya would never want to settle in my hometown where I thought I had my roots, ancestral property, what-not? Was I trying to keep Shreya as a friend - I wanted that role at least? Another year went by and I got a fellowship from abroad. I got the news by e-mail. I remember that Thursday evening - it was raining heavily and there were reports that M.G. Road and the area around Ulsoor Lake, where Shreya lived, was water-logged. I desperately wanted to surprise Shreya and celebrate with her. But, I received her call around five in the evening. “Adarsh . . . please come.” “Where are you?” “Apartment . . . ” “Are you Ok?” “Sick . . . ” I asked a colleague to help me but he told me that it is too dangerous to go on his motorcy-

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cle. I asked the Administrative Officer of the Institute whether he could help me. He owed me a favour. When his wife died in an accident, I went with him to the mortuary, shielded him from the arduous task of dealing with the helpers and the officials, even bribing to ‘process’ his wife’s body quickly. He arranged for an Institute car to drop me at Shreya’s apartment. It took a while for Shreya to come to the door. She was shivering, looking extremely weak and dirty, and her house-coat seemed stained with vomit. Even in that state close to fainting, her eyes contained an apology and she was crying, too. I half-carried her inside. I took her to the bathroom. It was really a mess out there. I filled a bucket with warm water, washed her face and made her rinse her mouth. I got her a fresh nightdress from the cupboard and told her to change her clothes. Once she looked reasonably fresh, I took her back to her bed. I changed the sheets and then, tucked her in. Using her phone, I called my sister, a doctor. Probably just flu along with a stomach bug; rest, fluids, food and rest, my sister suggested. While she rested, I cleaned the place, washed her clothes, cooked for both of us. I woke her up at regular intervals - “to refuel”, I told her. Outside, it continued to rain. It remained so till Saturday morning. I was sleeping on the sofa in the drawing room and I woke up in the early hours to find her sitting by my side. She looked much better. “Can I lie here for a while?” she asked. She snuggled against my chest and we slept. By the time I woke up, she had already had a bath, looked fresh and rather healthy, and she had oats and coffee ready for me. “Do you remember our first fight?” she asked in her usual abrupt fashion. I nodded. On that occasion, it was I who had been sick - bronchial asthma compounded with viral flu. When she tried to fuss over me, I told her “I know how to look after myself”. I went back to my hostel to rest. But I waited for her hoping that she would bring something good to eat, a good soup, maybe. She did not come to me till the next morning. When she did, I told her to get lost. Unfortunately, she listened to me. Later, a colleague told me that she had come the previous night - rather late though, after sulking probably - but did not want to disturb me. I guess it was the first time we really showed some ‘real emotion’ to each other - and so, we stayed away from each other for a month or two.

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“Why?” I asked in reply to her question. She shrugged. She was sitting close to me. I held her hand and kissed her for the first time - I remember kissing the space between the second and third knuckle of her right hand. I held her arms and drew her close to me. Then, I kissed her on her lips. Just the plain oldfashioned kiss - starting at the middle, light touches here and there and then to the side, exploring together, parting the lips a little, kissing deeper. There are some during which you wait for the end; there are some which make you wish for a strip of Wrigley’s (I do not know about the young these days but my generation used to carry Wrigley’s rather than condoms - just being realistic, I suppose). Then, there are those kisses which you will label as the kiss of your life. And the first one with that woman is usually the best - when there are barriers to demolish. When we parted after the kiss, we still held each other. I traced a finger over her left cheek. I looked at that face and thought, “God! I need this woman.” Then she said, “Adarsh?” “Huh?” “I cannot have sex with you.” I was still holding her. I cannot remember whether my grip tightened or loosened. “I am engaged to be married . . . ” she continued. “What?!” I exclaimed and then, pushed her away. She gave me the details, it was the same professor, she said. I listened quietly. When I felt rage ready to spill over, I went to the bathroom, washed my face and bashed my right fist into the concrete wall. I watched the middle knuckle swelling. And then, I felt that I was in control of myself. We continued chatting, even touching upon the kiss,

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“It was . . . ” she hesitated. “Lousy?” I fished for a compliment. She just smiled. Her wedding happened a week before I left the country. I took the newly-wed couple for a good lunch at Silver Wok. Pati patni aur woh - just that the three of us seemed unsure about which role to take. But, I wished them well. We made no promise to keep in touch. Nice women get lousy husbands. But, wonderful (and lousy) women unfortunately get great guys. I got married after two years. When I got married, most of my friends were married too. Only when I got divorced did I hear about friends who had divorced or were in the process. Then, even those re-married. I decided to remain single, to concentrate on my career, I reasoned. Is there anything to say about my marriage? No, I guess not, she is a nice woman. I had switched fields and I was rising fast in an investment bank. What did I do? When the margin from old products was not enough to beat hedging errors, I cooked up new exotic products. As long as the customer was not sure about how to price, I made a profit irrespective of whether it was a bull or a bear market, recession or boom time. There were always enough fools around to cheat. I was in the midst of a rather big deal when my phone buzzed and I saw that it was her call. I remembered her husband, switched off the mobile and finished the meeting. Then I took the team to a wine bar and celebrated. I got home late with a pleasant lady, feeling rather lonely till she left at the break of dawn. It was Saturday, around 6 am. I switched on my mobile and remembered that I should return her call. “Shreya?” “Adarsh.” “What’s up?”

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“He died last night.” I think she disconnected or maybe, I did. It took more than three years for me to get her talking. What do you expect? I didn’t go for the funeral. I didn’t send a note. I didn’t call either. It took me a year to show up at her place. Right at the door, blocking my entry, that’s when she told me, “For you, everything is just a phase.” I nearly retorted, “For you, too.” But, she was right. And, I was wrong, I knew. I left her place. But, she called me later, that is, two years later. We agreed to meet for lunch. She was doing very well, career-wise. Same with me, too - though, I could feel the beginning of the end of that career. Her husband had been “fine for breakfast, in a coma by lunch, thanks to an aneurysm or something”. When the doctors had told her that her husband was brain-dead and advised her to pull the plug, that’s when she had called me three years back from the hospital. “That’s all”, she concluded. After that, did we keep in touch regularly? Did I think about her? No and yes, always, as usual. I left my job, went back to my hometown and realized that I had no reason to be there. But, I stayed. Two years passed before I got her next call with the message, “My uncle died this morning.” Her uncle, my typist . . . I managed to catch the flight to Delhi, with a stopover at Mumbai. I think the bus ride from Delhi to the village still takes 5 hours or so. I am writing this in the plane. I do not know what the ending will be - maybe, she has married once again; maybe, I will propose a long time too late; maybe, she is sick; maybe, the bus will meet with an accident; maybe, it’s just another meeting between her calls.

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It is not the ending that matters, to me or to her. It is never the ending that actually matters. I will show this to her. I will read it to her. Her uncle would have liked it. The last time I wrote about love, she laughed at me.

2
The Angry Man
When his right fist crashed into his boss’ nose, he felt the jolt in his whole arm along with the crunch and squishy mixing of cartilage, flesh and splintering bone in the other’s face. In those few seconds, as in a slow motion picture, he watched globs of blood splattering and his boss’ face registering surprise, pain and slippery consciousness. Thirty minutes before that, he had phoned his boss from his desk, “I have to go home. It’s urgent.” “Sure . . . but, is today’s report ready?” said his boss in reply. “Yes, I have mailed it to you and Mark.” Mark was their boss in London. “Oh . . . you have sent it? I must have missed that mail . . . ” his boss had sounded miffed. He had breached protocol. He was supposed to complete the work and explain all the technical details to his boss; and then, his boss completes the task as usual by presenting the same details to Mark. He had tried to rush the matter, “Yes, Mark has already replied . . . says everything looks great . . . ” “Oh, really . . . let me talk to him . . . could you wait for a few minutes?” his boss had told him. He was still waiting. He had got three more calls from home during that time begging him to get home urgently. He had gone near his boss’ office couple of times, seen his boss doodling on a piece of paper, feet on his desk, chatting and laughing on the phone. His boss had gestured to him to wait. Back at his desk, he had clenched his fist and dreamt. He had dreamt of crashing that fist into his boss’ nose. He thought of leaving without waiting any longer but he could not risk

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losing his job. Forty three minutes after he raised his request, he saw his boss walking casually to the toilet and a few minutes later, with small talk and a show of camaraderie to the colleagues on the way, his boss finally reached his desk, “Ah . . . are you still here? I talked to Mark . . . everything is fine . . . ” He thanked his boss and scooted from the office. Half-way to his house from the office, at the junction where he had to cut across the main road, his car was stopped by a policeman. “You cannot go. A VIP’s car is coming . . . ” “Sir, can I just cross the main road? It’s an emergency at home . . . I just have to cross the road, that’s all . . . ” “No . . . the VIP is expected in a few minutes . . . ” Three local youths standing at a wayside tea-stall, smoking cigarettes and drinking tea, laughed at his frustration. “Oy . . . look at blackie . . . blackie cannot cross . . . ” “Not blackie, man . . . just brownie . . . brown faggot . . . ” The third one sang a song about brown maggots and black crows. It took him ten strides and three seconds to cover the distance to those youths. He had a jack in his right hand and a heavy spanner in the left. He gave the singer a whack on the head with a left swing; and, with a right upper cut, he cracked the jaw of the second youth. The one who had started it all tried to run but he lunged forward and caught him with a tackle. They landed hard on the ground. He pummeled the sides till the youth lost consciousness. Then, he walked back to the car to wait for the VIP. He kept looking straight while he saw those images in his head. The boys left the scene after they finished their smoke and concluded that they had had enough fun at his expense. His hands were holding the steering wheel tightly. He wiped sweat off his forehead and armpits.

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After twenty minutes, the policeman came to him, “Look, why don’t you park the car somewhere here, cross the road and catch a taxi on the other side?” He took the advice. On the other side of the road, he did not find a taxi till he reached the next junction about seven hundred metres from where he left his car. The taxi-driver was sleeping on the back seat. He woke the driver and told him the destination. The disgruntled driver got out of the back-seat, leaned against the front door, “Sorry, boss . . . problem with the engine . . . ” “Please, brother . . . there is an emergency at home.” “Hey, am I your brother? Don’t call me your brother. Boss, I told you, right? There is a problem with the engine . . . ” He felt his fingers digging like claws into the driver’s neck; the thumb on one side and the four on the other side digging deep, nearly circling the air-pipe, ready to pull it out. In his eyes, the driver could see the eyes of a duelist, the eyes of a man ready to kill, ready to die, willing to settle for nothing less. He closed his eyes and he wanted to keep dreaming. But, he was too tired, too angry, too worried; even to dream . . . The problem with the engine disappeared after he offered three times the usual fare. He sat in the back and tried to avoid the driver’s eyes in the rear-view mirror. When he reached his house, his young wife came running to him, looking haggard and deeply worried. She was holding their baby tight, their little baby boy. “I do not know what’s wrong with him. I took him to the hospital this morning for the usual shots and injection . . . after that, Oh God . . . he has not stopped crying. I have been carrying him since then but he won’t stop crying . . . shall we take him to the doctor . . . Oh God! What’s wrong with him?” He took the baby, cradling him in the crook of his left arm. The baby continued crying, as if in deep agony; the baby’s cheeks suffused with red; and quite visibly, tired and angry. He looked at his child, at the little bundle in his arms, and felt as if all the barricades made out of strength, will and sense were collapsing within. He did not know what to do. He held his wife close to him, trying to look calm, and he told her, “Let me change my clothes . . . let’s take him to the doctor . . . ”

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In their bedroom, he laid the baby on the bed, still cuddling and not wanting to let go of the poor little baby even for a minute. The baby stopped crying and gurgled with relief, looking at his mother and father. His tired parents looked at him worried. The baby gave another gurgle of delight and this time, smiled, too. “What happened to him?” his mother asked his father. “I don’t know.” Author’s notes:

1 There is one thing I enjoy more than writing - tracing the source of thoughts or stories. About his book ‘Immortality’, Kundera says: “there are fewer gestures in the world than there are individuals,” therefore “a gesture is more individual than an individual.” For me, Milan Kundera’s ‘gestures’ serve as a metaphor for thoughts. 2 Given the Mittyesque roots of my story, the source was obvious: one of the best short stories I have read - James Thurber’s ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ [1941]. 3 Why did the baby stop crying? Elementary! The baby cried when the ‘new’ parents carried him and lovingly held him tight against them; and, unfortunately, pressed the spot on the bum where the baby was injected that morning. 4 This is based on a true life incident. I was the baby. I still cry. I still gurgle with delight. But now, I cannot smile.

3
Sleepless Nights
“Can I sleep with you?” the young boy asked the woman 15 years older than him. She gave him an understanding smile. An onlooker intervened, “There isn’t enough space here - go to your own bed.” The young boy spent a sleepless night without even realizing that he would never ask a woman that question ever again; or that, for the rest of his life, he would never get such an excuse. Later, he realized that that incident had left two lasting impressions. First, that taught him to deal with children as people worthy of being kept at a safe distance. Second, he was troubled by the everlasting doubt, “If I had slept with her, would I have become a writer like Mario Vargas Llosa?” “Can I jog with you?” the young lady asked the adolescent boy 4 years younger than her. She was fit and energetic, a badminton champion at the State-level. He was a laid-back athlete with a best time of 11.7 seconds for 100-metres-dash and his morning exercise schedule included a casual stroll and long moments of thought. She asked him that question when he had boasted that night about being a regular morning jogger on a 5-km circuit. She took his silence for an aye and told him to wake her up at 5 am. He spent a sleepless night with worry, shame, adrenalin and testosterones waging a cruel war within. For the first and last time in his life, he knocked at a young lady’s bedroom door at 5 am; and, wished that she would not open the door. “Can we sleep in separate bedrooms?” the young man practiced that question studying his reflection in the mirror. It was the night before the first night. He was not worried about the day ahead: the tiresome wedding, the unavoidable mushy vegetarian feast or the long hours of feigned geniality. He was not even worried about sex or the improbability of that after a long exhausting day. He spent a sleepless night dreading that first night on the following day when he would have to share his own bedroom for the whole night. He had read in great books that the English had, during the golden age when they could afford enough rooms, lived without such worries. “Can men cause sleepless nights?” the middle-aged man pondered alone. “Yes,” he recollected two incidents.

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The first incident took place in Naples. He was invited to give a lecture at the University. Following the custom of academia, he gave a forgettable lecture for which he was paid handsomely and then, collected maps and directions to see the famous city. En route to the nearest subway, he was nearly mowed down by a silver Ferrari. Though shaken, he stared at the beautiful lady sitting next to the driver-cum-owner. Before the advent of expensive motorcars and its drivers, Shakespeare mistakenly thought ‘hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’. The driver felt grievously injured with the divided attention he received and made the universal gesture of the throat getting cut from ear to ear. This shook our hero more than the near-accident. Instead of seeing Naples, he locked himself in his hotel room expecting that driver to pay a bloody visit. He wasted that sleepless night reading a crime novel about ‘a headless body in a topless bar’. The second incident took place on a campus near Delhi. Three ruffians, with a remarkable resemblance to the Neapolitan driver, accosted him near the staff quarters. A sheet of paper was thrust at him and he was told to sign. He signed without protest. He made out that it was some signature campaign concerning ‘Ayodhya’. The ruffians were not in the mood to explain their position. Later that day, he met another set of ruffians who resembled the former lot. Again, a sheet of paper was thrust at him and he was told to sign. This time, he protested, “I have already signed.” The dark reply was, “Acha, you signed with them . . . ” Neither were they in the mood to explain their position. He realized that he would soon join the long list of martyrs who met their fate with blessed ignorance. On that sleepless night, he read Wilfred Owen’s poem on ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ (a quotation by the Roman poet Horace, meaning ‘It is sweet and becoming to die for one’s country’). With wisdom fighting a losing battle against advancing senility, his sleepless nights had been a rarity till recently. Seven days back, he wrote to a dear friend, “I am leaving these blogs.” She asked him kindly, “Why? Is it because you have no readers?” He replied with rare wisdom, “No, I have finally read my own blogs.” It had taken less than a day to complete that task. It will take many sleepless nights for him to recover. Introspection is a great theoretical idea but in practice, it is an awful path to self-realization. References: [1]“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”

The correct quotation is “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned/ Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.” by William Congreve in The Mourning Bride of 1697.

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[2] "Dulce et decorum est" by Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

One of the best known poems of the First World War. Wilfred Owen died fighting for England in WW I, a week before armistice. My favourite lines in that poem are:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace Behind the wagon that we flung him in, And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin; If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori.

[3]“Headless Body In Topless Bar”

The New York Post penned this famous headline in 1983.

4
Speechless
Steffi Graf married Andre Agassi a few days after I landed in Berlin. I had two reasons to be in Berlin. I have discussed the first and main reason elsewhere when I wrote about love and here, that reason is not important. The second and more pertinent reason is that I wanted a speechless life. Why? For thirty years or more, I had been a linguistic chameleon. Till my teens I spoke mainly Malay since my friends were Malay or Iban. I also achieved distinction in writing Jawi. Then, to pass exams here, I had to learn English, my mother tongue and the national language. In the years that followed, out of necessity or love, I picked up Tamil, Kannada and shuddh-gaali (pacha-theri, pure unadulterated vernacular useful for survival) from the north and the south. Language is a weapon for power, to form clubs and to exclude. Sometimes, it is used to communicate, I know. I was usually not offended during business meetings when the language would switch over to that of the majority. I tried my best to gel with them. When the level is intentionally notched up above my level of comprehension, I take the hint and switch-off. It is not a difficult game to play and everyone, including me, has participated as the predator or as the prey at one time or the other. While being that chameleon, I realized that I had another gift, too. I could forget a language just as easily as I could pick up a language. A part of my brain seems to be reserved for this, a slate or a memory drive for writing, erasing and writing again repeatedly without damage. When I realized that, I had to acknowledge the fact that language, and therefore speech, could be irrelevant. That is one of the reasons why I decided to live in Berlin and refused to learn German. Berlin was ideal for this experiment. It is also a beautiful and dynamic city; and, it offered enough escape routes, if necessary.

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I was not there as a tourist with a return ticket but there to live for years. Some decide to go into the wild. I need contact with people to feel exhilaratingly claustrophobic, boxed-in and smothered. Without city air, I would suffocate. But, I did not want to talk and I did not want to understand what others talked all around me. At work, I had to talk at times but it was not essential for my work. I could not speak in the train; in the supermarket and the street-side café or beer-garden; in the museum, the cinema, the opera-house or the library; and, not even in the police station or the foreign office where I had to renew my stay permit every year. I managed - there were irritants, of course, but there were enough nice people who were ready to understand what I wanted to communicate, without talking. Fortunately, my barber was one of those people. There, the barber is not called a barber but a friseur. It was in my third month in Berlin that I found that shop, located a few blocks from my apartment, and I mustered enough courage to go inside for the much-delayed haircut. The chief-friseur and proprietor of the business was a German, mid-thirties, with a friendly but strict smile that reminded me of my class teacher in grade three, buxom and rather unapproachable. The chief took measure of my hirsute mess with a long careful look and then assigned the junior, the only other friseur, to attend to my case. Fortune was still knock-knock-knocking on my door. The junior-friseur was not a German and seemed flexible enough to try sign-lingo with me. After a few failed attempts, I managed to register for the combo of hair-wash and haircut. I did not really need the wash since I had shampooed and cleaned my hair thoroughly at home that morning. The friseur handled my head gently from behind during the washing, shampooing, final washing and drying. I felt her long fingers massaging my scalp and her long nails which never scratched. I kept my eyes closed. Once that was done, she adjusted the chair for the haircut. She stood close and in front of me. She held my hair in the front between her forefinger and thumb and with her eyes and a slight pout in her lovely full lips, she enquired about the required length. I indicated with my right forefinger a length sufficient to postpone the next visit for just three weeks from then. She must have been around my age if I had been a few years younger; east European, probably from one of those countries which had recently gained independence; two or three inches shorter than me if I kept my head high; slim and athletic; and, on that first

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day, she wore a black t-shirt and low-slung jeans. The t-shirt went well with her fair skin, black eyes with a tinge of blue and specks of brown, and the Celtic butterfly tattoo on the lower back. The haircut went as well as the hair-wash, in spirit if not in deed. She took her time, using just one hairdressing scissor and one comb. She used her fingers to measure and trim, to smooth and set. She moved effortlessly from front to back, left to right. We looked at each other once in a while, face to face or in the many mirrors, smiling only when the chief-friseur was favourably engaged nowhere near. The hair-wash and haircut lasted 20 minutes, every three weeks, on Saturday mornings. On one of those days, we exchanged names like a talisman, or at least a memento. Hers is Delia. I do not know when we became lovers. Well, if this was fiction, I would have made that sentence sound true. We never became lovers. In fact, we met outside that shop only twice. The first time, I met her at the Spar supermarket adjacent to my apartment block. It was close to 1 pm on that Saturday winter afternoon and I was desperate to get home for lunch. I was trying to count the exact change for the figure displayed at the counter. The nice lady at the counter was familiar with my dumb ways and waited patiently with a comfortable grandmotherly smile. I gave her my usual apologetic look and my best smile and, also directed the same at the person behind me in the queue. It took me a moment or two for me to realize that I was looking at Delia. I paid my bill, collected the bags and left quickly. I waited outside. When she came out and saw me waiting, she smiled. I did not know what to do. It was either due to the confusion in my mind or a rumble in my tummy that I gestured to her about eating at the Koreanische restaurant next to the supermarket. She nodded in agreement. We shared soup, kimchi, noodles and bulgogi. I have wondered since then about what we would have talked if we could have talked. I would have described the green hills, the plains with the carpet of coconut trees, backwaters, beaches, education and healthcare, God’s own country, Onam and the wonderful cuisine, secular mixture of cultures, maybe even about my family back home. She would have educated me, I suppose, about the Orthodox Church and the influence of Moslem culture, the great years of communism, caviar, science and the great academies, ballet, all those great masters, authors, painters, composers, sharing food at Christmas

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and Easter, the land rich with natural resources, the entrepreneurs, the calm plains and the beautiful lakes, holidays at the Black Sea or the Mediterranean. I guess we would not have talked about why we chose to be away from those places we called home. We had a long lunch without a word or a touch. When we looked at each other, we just searched in each other’s face and eyes. The other senses tend to work better when you are speechless. We shared the bill and when we parted outside, she held my hand for a while. Winter turned to spring and the other seasons followed. Months went by and I kept my appointments with my friseur. It was on a hot summer Saturday that I found that the shop had closed. Or rather, the shop was being refurbished for some other business. I walked back home and did not leave the apartment that weekend. I felt lost without my barber. Or maybe, I was just disappointed that I had to find a new one. During the early days of the winter that followed, I was on leave on a Thursday. I wanted to visit a photography exhibition that afternoon and attend a concert that night. The exhibition was not exceptional and I was free by 4 pm. It was getting dark and I had a couple of hours to kill before the concert. I walked to a cemetery. Though not in the same league as the Pere Lachaise or the Highgate, there are two or three in Berlin which are great places to walk or sit and think. I used to go there around noon and I usually had company to clear leaves and check the stories etched on gravestones. On that day, it was deserted. I searched for a famous man’s grave. It was behind one of those handsome gravestones that I saw my friseur outside the shop for the second time. Delia looked weak and scared of someone. Her eyes kept looking around. When I got close, even in the fading light, I could see that her lovely lips had a nasty cut and that her left cheek was slightly bruised and her clothes seemed dirty. She leaned towards me and I held her. I would have liked to see her smile but she looked as if she had not smiled for quite some time. She did not cry, though. She had a small backpack with her. She said with a weak voice, “Hilfe, bitte.” I knew those important words which were unnecessary at that time. I knew that she needed help but of what kind I was not sure other than to know that I was not the one she really needed.

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I could only think of two avenues for help. My boss could help but he is like me, earnest, indifferent and insensitive, a rather self-centered person. He is the type who asks at the end of a seminar, “Have you said anything which is not trivial?” The next and only choice was Susannah, a colleague I liked a lot. I had been to her place for dinner couple of times. She is an armchair liberal and quite useless with practical matters. But, her partner Gudrun seemed to be the right person for Delia since she is involved with various organizations concerned with human rights violation and all that. Susannah and Gudrun lived about 2 kms from Wannsee station and we could get there by the S-Bahn train. From a phone-booth, I tried to contact them but nobody picked up the phone, and I assumed that they were still at work. We waited in the cemetery till it was dark before going to the nearest station. We tried to be inconspicuous but a dark-skinned guy walking around with a disheveled beautiful fair lady is not a common sight anywhere. In the train, we took the bogey right behind the driver. I usually do that when I return late from work. My Lonely Planet advises me to do that. It’s got nothing to do with racism. There is no dearth of hoodlums in any part of the world and every place has a local version of skinheads and neo-Nazis. When we reached Wannsee, it was about quarter to six. We walked fast, eager to reach the apparent safety of my colleague’s house. Sick with tension, I had thought of approaching the police but Delia seemed reluctant. The road was deserted and we hardly came across any cars on that route. We were a kilometer from the house when a car went past us, stopped a few meters in front and two men got out. They approached us with one holding something that looked like a gun. I would have suggested running if I thought it would be of any use. Anyway, Delia looked spent, defeated and she just crumpled on that sidewalk. I knew that I had to face the two men and fight. Altruism usually has a simple explanation. I had a greater chance of living if I did not fight but if I lived after the fight, I could live without guilt. The two men casually walked towards me. I had seen a lot of movies in which the good guy puts up a good street-fight. I was tougher and fitter in those days. I lasted about a minute on my feet. One of those men moved quickly and I tried to follow him. The other then came behind me and immobilized me with a choke-hold. The first hit on the solar plexus left me breathless. By reflex, I raised my hands which were guarding my groin. Predictably, the next kick was to the groin. I nearly lost consciousness but I was still

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standing. After a few more well-aimed punches to my sides, I slipped to the ground. They kicked me a few times as an afterthought. I realized that these guys were not mere street-fighters. They did not leave any visible injury. From that foetal position, I watched one of them drag Delia to the car. The other leaned towards me, roughly grabbed my hair and whispered in my ear, “Talk . . . kill.” I knew those words, too. I did talk to Gudrun and Susannah. Through them, I talked to the police. But, the talking did not do any good. Maybe, those men were Delia’s husband and some relative, the police suggested weakly. None of us wanted to admit the bitter truth. There’s too much traffic of that kind, invisible and if not, we prefer to turn a blind eye. I have looked for Delia on the street, amongst cheer-leaders, in resorts, at air-terminals, ports and railway stations. But there are no traffic lights on those avenues used to transport that kind of cheap but profitable cargo. I remained speechless. Author’s note: This is fiction. Isn’t it?

5
Better Luck Next Kid
“Look at the bright side - it’s just a 5 minute walk from your house to the Court. It takes one hour for me to get here and more than hundred rupees, not that that will get you anything these days.” I am now quite used to his style of delivery with the frequent changes of pitch or volume to emphasize each and every part of a sentence. I met him here at my lawyer’s office two and a half years back and I guess you could call us well-acquainted. I call him Sasi and when he is not around, my lawyer refers to him as Pickaxe Sasi. In the local papers, he is a ‘quotation killer’. I once asked him for a rough quote. When he told me the price for a human head, I remarked, “Isn’t that cheap?” “Demand and supply,” he replied. Another time, I asked him if he is not scared to die. “Today or tomorrow, who cares?” And after some thought, he added rather reluctantly, “I am not that careless. Be with the right people, kill the wrong people. Leave the rest to the system. It works.” I have been visiting this office quite regularly for the last three years. It is a nondescript and small office packed with files, 2 tables and 5 chairs. It is on the first floor of a commercial building situated right next to a drainage canal and the unbearable stink stays on my skin for days after each visit. My lawyer is rather good but he has no qualms about keeping his clients waiting for long hours in his office while he attends to some other case.

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In the first six months of those three years, I was distraught, depressed and defeated. I survived that phase but my wife didn’t. I had to survive for the sake of the other kids. As Sasi says, “Life can be shitty, close your nose and keep your head high. What the heck, you have got only one.” I tried quoting to him what I remembered of Confucius, “You will live a 1000 lives and this could be the only one you will remember.” I cannot print his reply, even without the emphasized parts. My son’s case has been going on for three years. Initially, I could only think of what he and his group had done. The papers did not allow me to forget the crime and the victims, the kids especially. I could hardly recognize the photo the papers printed, he looked like a killer. And, my honest gaffe was often repeated, “. . . he did something evil.” In the first two years, my lawyer expressed hope and told me that my son might get away with a few years or utmost a life sentence. We played all the trump cards that we had manslaughter, accidental victims, background of the intended victims, right religion, right caste, right class, right background and upbringing, even remorse and the possibility for quick rehabilitation. But unfortunately, nearly everyone in my son’s group had the same credentials. A few months back, my lawyer confided that I should get ready for the worst. Today, he will be sentenced and my son had requested me not to be there in court. That is why I am here, with Sasi, waiting in the lawyer’s office. My other kids have turned out ok. My other son is influenced by Lady Gaga and Bono. With my daughter, I have to argue about low-slung jeans, piercing and tattoos. We still have meals together and there is enough money for the occasional visit to the fake KFC for tubs of chicken broast. This son had bad luck. He turned out to be like me. I was younger than him when I started off with Flower Power and sang on the streets with my group of friends, ‘give peace a chance’. Disillusionment followed fast and we tried to

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be rebels or fashionable anarchists. We wanted to target nuclear power stations but there weren’t any in the immediate neighbourhood. We tried to stay away from the unavoidable political affiliations. We had our gurus and the godfathers but they were smart enough to prompt only from outside the stage. During a period of unrest in the country, a powerful students’ group in Delhi taunted our manhood by sending a pack of bangles to our union. We would have showed our machismo with country bombs, knives and cycle chains but the jeep in which we traveled broke down somewhere on the outskirts of Rohtak. We spent the night finishing off two bottles of Old Monk and when the jeep got repaired the next day, none of us were in the mood to go to Delhi. A year later, we made it to a two-paragraph column on page 5 of a Saturday mid-day paper. We were even given a name, Urban Naxals. Since the paper was sympathetic to our ideals of bridging the huge class-divide, the paper also referred to us, in the second paragraph, as Robin Hoods. I left that group when I found my uncle’s name in a list of victims. I knew that my uncle was bankrupt and that he borrowed heavily from my father and others to keep up his lavish lifestyle. That group lasted for a few seasons and for some reason, without any victims. I was brought out of my reverie when Sasi tapped on my shoulder. My lawyer was climbing the stairs to the office. I stood up and waited at the door. My lawyer looked at me and shook his head. “Your son and another got death. The judge concluded that they are the leaders. The country needs an example, it seems.” I was ready for that, I think. Sasi placed his hand on my shoulder and said, “Better luck next kid.”

6
Will You Marry Me?
In the summer of 1985, a girl asked me that question for the first time. To be fair, the question was, “Will you marry girls like us?” I was accompanying four girls 3-5 years older than me. It was more precarious than that. I was in a cable car on its way to Sentosa (an island and a tourist attraction in Singapore). The question was posed by a beautiful and voluptuous Sri Lankan girl. I stared at her intensely and thought about two other facts of life. One, I suffer from vertigo. Two, the 1983 cable car disaster when two cable cars on its way to Sentosa plunged 55 metres into the sea and seven were killed, about which I had read in the Reader’s Digest. I managed a polite and succinct reply, “No.” The trauma caused by that reply lasted more than fifteen years. My recovery was partly helped by a ‘get-tough’ education. I was taught Socrates by priests and I learned that ‘As to marriage or celibacy, let a man take which course he will, he will be sure to repent.’ Coming from a family with the wrong background, I had only one course to avoid the other. In that same school, I was taught logic in primary school. I learned about the 3 questions to get a “Yes.”

- Q1: Will you answer the three questions with a Yes or a No? - Student: Teacher, if she does not agree? - Teacher: Boy, do you really want to marry such a girl? - Q2: Will you give the same answer to this question and the next? - Q3: Will you marry me?

Due to unforeseen circumstances, my first date was an arranged affair and it coincided with the ceremony called ‘viewing-the-prospective-bride’ (pennu kaanal). The elders agreed that we were suitable material. Even the stars and the bank accounts agreed. We were allowed to go to the only park in town. In the sun, she reminded me of Smita Patil. In the shade, she looked like Ingrid Bergman. I asked her my well-compiled 19 questions and realized that she is my soul-mate. I asked the 20th question, “Will you marry me?” She gave the polite and succinct reply, “No.”

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Before long, I was involved in my second such ceremony. I did not raise any question this time. It is unnecessary, I had been warned. And therefore, everything went smoothly and almost successfully. That night, I happened to talk to an old and dear attractive friend who had just returned that evening from New York. We spoke over the phone late into the night. When the clock was about to strike one, she told me, “I always thought we would be an item.” I was sleepy and replied, “Me too.” Then, this friend asked me, “Will you marry me?” We slept on that question. That morning, I got up early and tried to resume the conversation with my friend. Her strict and unhelpful mother told me to try much later in the day. I thought very carefully. I called up the ‘prospective-nearly-fixed-bride’ and told her that I am otherwise engaged. I did admire her sang-froid. Much later that day, I got through to my friend and gave her a resounding, “Yes.” She asked, with sang-froid still in the air, “Yes what?” I jogged her memory, “Yes to your question about marriage, you fool.” She replied, “We talked a lot of nonsense, didn’t we?” Lesser men would have drowned themselves in a vat of alcohol. I tried to reason with my family that I was ready for the next ceremony. They told me that they were not. They also advised me to have a change of scene. It might be good for my health if not theirs, they suggested. I left for Berlin. There, I led a lonely life till I was spooked by a lady with a Celtic butterfly tattoo on the lower back. On a rare sunny blue day on which the cactus flower bloom was a bright yellow, we were walking in a park by a lake. The scene would have made Van Gogh cut off his right ear or Wordsworth prance on the vale like a senile seven year old. Such a setting is fine when you enjoy solitude or soporific matrimony. Many brave men before me have fallen from grace on such a scene, I knew. My head was tilting to the right and hers to the right too, ready for a long and tender kiss (philematologists have studied why we did that the right way, read this 2003 article in the famous scientific journal Nature [click here]). Without going on my knees, I crooned to that amazing lady, “Will you marry me?” She replied, “Enschuldigung, ich verstehe nicht (Sorry, I don’t understand).” I knew enough German to translate but I did not. By the time I returned from Berlin, unattached and free, my family had recovered and they arranged the next ceremony. For some unknown reason, I convinced my folks that I should go alone; and surprisingly, they acquiesced. There are certain homes which resonate with your inner spirits and you can even hear

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banshees wailing and in that girl’s house, they seemed to be lamenting my protracted bachelorhood. The prayer (puja) room was next to the living room and I was made to bow to a wide assortment of Gods of various faiths. I sat next to a seat on which was placed the photo of a famous swami with a funny hairdo. I prefer the bearded variety in orange robes that refer to every woman as Ma. For the first half-hour, I met the uncles and aunties. They quizzed me about my physical activities and academic qualifications. Then, the eatables came along with the older generation. I fielded every question very well and also, consumed well. At the end of the first hour, the younger generation came in along with the prospective-bride. She sat on a seat opposite to mine, maintained a chaste silence accompanied by a beatific smile. Next to me sat an intelligent girl, a cousin probably. She and I got along famously and discussed the poetry of Housman and e.e.cummings; then, we shifted to movies covering the psychosexual in The Silence of the Lambs to the courtroom scene in To Kill a Mockingbird. We went on for more than fifteen minutes. I nearly asked that girl, “Will you marry me?” I then noticed that my prospective-bride had left the room. I did marry another using illogical means but to avoid copyright infringement, I will not write about that. Now, I request humbly and sincerely for an honest poll. Though my experiences do not provide an adequate sample for a proper statistical inference, I am certain that I preferred it when the woman did the asking. What is your preference? Should the man or the woman ask the question “Will you marry me?” Try to forget your better half (if any). If your preference contradicts experience, you can always try it out once again your way. The future of your kids and the institution of marriage depend on your answer.

7
The Machete Murders
Report in the newspaper ’Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo’ Ariyilla Nagar. July 9, 2010. A sustained effort by the city police to nab the suspect in the triple-murder case known as ‘Machete Murders’ bore fruit, with last night’s arrest of the suspect. Commissioner Prasad held a brief press conference late last night in which he revealed that the suspect is being interrogated and that the arrest took place at the suspect’s residence in Ariyilla Nagar. The commissioner did not reveal the identity of the suspect and he mentioned that all the details will be released once the suspect has been charged. The triple ‘Machete Murders’ case involved the brutal decapitation, in a period of nine weeks, of the headmaster of a reputed city school, a world-renowned neurosurgeon and the managing director of a MNC based in the city. The murder of the three well-respected individuals had created an atmosphere of fear and helplessness in the city and the citizens along with various political organizations had staged two hartals and various protests. The city MP released a high-brow tweet last night as a sign of solidarity with the netizens, ‘relieved our protests managed to murder city’. In a statement released to the press, Commisioner Prasad has stated that he is now in-charge of the case and he lauded the efforts of Inspector Shankar who was the lead-investigator and prime-force behind the investigation. Shankar was not available for comment and a reliable source revealed that he is recovering from minor injuries suffered during the investigation.

The Case Of The Machete Murders by Mrs. Srividya Shankar I am Srividya Shankar, the proud wife of Inspector Shankar, the principal investigator in the Serious Crimes Unit. Here, I will try to provide a thorough description of the case of the Machete Murders. Please excuse me when I am overly verbose. It is my first attempt after all and possibly my last too, once he gets to know.

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For long, I have dreamt of being Dr. Watson to my Holmes. I have always followed my husband’s cases with keen interest. I guess I should mention right here that Shankar has never responded favourably in any fashion, and worse, he has tried to impede any interest from my side. But I will touch upon that a little later. To understand the case of the Machete Murders, it is important to understand Shankar and his life. Ours was an arranged marriage. On the tenth day after our wedding, we kissed for the first time. We made a pact to leave our old baggage at the door. Does the past really matter? Now, with hindsight, it seems to matter. I might sound like the new-age freaks who advise on marriage and parenting, but we did build our partnership on trust, respect and understanding; at least, mostly. We have two kids, Lakshmi and Shiva, aged 14 and 11 respectively. He spoils them rotten but he is a good father. Our daughter is like him and my son is more like me; but as Shankar says, we have the duty to make our daughter be like the mother and the son to be like him; and, that will be our failing, he also says. Let them be, that is the advice we get. With anyone you love, how can you let them be? I know that I am trying to make it sound like a fairy-tale. It is never so, is it? Initially, I had problems sitting at home, being a homely wife; and then, the usual ‘in-law’ problems. When will it be politically incorrect to use that term? Both of us have the clichéd ‘love to hate, hate to love’ relationship with our respective in-laws. I know that I will also be so, if given the chance. I will also try to make my daughter-in-law a daughter who will have to listen to me and she will know that I put up with her because I love my son. As for my son-in-law, I hope I do not have to see him that often, especially if I have to cook for him. But, everything is fine now, like a fairy-tale. Except when he is on a really serious case . . . When he is on a case, he is a man I would rather not know. Once, soon after our wedding, my husband’s mentor Commisioner Prasad spoke to me in private. He told me that Shankar is very sensitive. I suppose he was telling me that my husband could ‘snap’. Ironical, isn’t it, about who snapped at last? During the last case involving a ‘Ripper’, once when he shouted at the kids without reason, I confronted him later in the bedroom. I asked him why he cares more about the murdered whores than us, his family who loves him. He did not hit me but he crushed me hard against the wall with his body, his face close to mine and snarled that it is because he lives

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with the horror that evil could visit those he loves, anytime. I saw madness in his eyes. He is not at all nice then. During those months in which he is haunted by a case, we do not even make love, if at all it is just brutal sex. Why am I writing all this? I should not, I know. I was a house-wife, or is it home-maker these days, till the second child was three. Then, I joined as faculty in the multi-disciplinary institute in the city. It feels good to have time and a life of your own. Our parents help a lot with the kids. It allows me to stay late when I have to complete some line of research. Typically, both Shankar and I get back home before eight with enough time for the four of us to eat together and catch up on each others’ lives. Now, let me briefly go through the machete murders. On May 10, 2010, the city was surprised with heavy thunder shower that started around 14:00. By 18:30, it was dark and in several areas of the city, including the area around the Passion School, there was power-outage due to trees that had fallen on electric lines. The murderer, with a carry-bag on the left shoulder, entered the premises of the Passion School unnoticed at 18:45 and went directly to the office of the headmaster who was known to work late. The murderer knocked on the door of the headmaster’s office and entered the room after the headmaster asked the visitor to enter. The headmaster was sitting at his desk, with a bright lamp-cum-torch, behind a pile of Geography answer papers waiting to be marked. They were alone in the building. The murderer asked the headmaster, “Do you remember Ashwin Gangadharan?” Despite the dim light of that torch, the murderer could see recognition enter the headmaster’s eyes. Then, without any further hesitation, with two steps to get near enough, the murderer took out the machete from the carry-bag, and brought it with a mighty and strong swing to and through the headmaster’s neck. The murderer then exited the premises. Ashwin studied in that school 20 years back. In the ninth grade, he was abused by a teacher, a paedophile. Ashwin did not reveal this at home but he brought it to the attention of the headmaster. The headmaster reprimanded the teacher in private but allowed him to continue as a teacher in that school. Then, the headmaster called Ashwin’s father to the school, informed him that his son should leave the school because he is a homosexual. Nobody thought of asking Ashwin whether it is true or not, definitely not in those days. Ashwin committed suicide that night. His father died within a year. Nobody knew about this. The modus operandi remained the same for the other two murders of Dr. Sathyaraj and Mr. Ramesh which occurred on June 14, 2010 and July 8, 2010 respectively. Dr Sathyaraj was

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killed in the secluded underground parking area of his apartment block and Mr. Ramesh was murdered in his penthouse apartment. In these two cases too, if anyone else had been around, the murderer would have pretended to be an acquaintance and aborted the mission, at least on that date. How much time did it take? Utmost two to three minutes no dialogue, no contact, no wasted words, no clues. Dr. Sathyaraj, during his college days, had been a frequent visitor at the residence of a family-friend, Mr. Gangadharan. In that year in which Ashwin and his father died, Sathyaraj became a constant presence and a source of support for the mother and daughter. One day, he abused that trust and raped the girl, aged 17. Her mother later told her to bear the pain; to treat it like a physical injury; to forget the incident. Nobody knew about this, too. Mr. Ramesh was a vice-president and not a M.D. when a smart lady with a Ph.D. came to work for him. They built a great team - the technical expert who trained, guided and signed-off on technical work with nearly zero-tolerance for errors, and the non-technical manager in charge of administration, appraisal and kissing the right ass. Ramesh never abused her, not physically. It was easy for him to place the stumbling blocks, to destroy her role and career. When she had had enough, she resigned. Of course, nobody knew about this. Petty misdemeanours, that’s what they committed, according to everyone. Any wrong is just a petty misdemeanour these days. It’s good to know, isn’t it, that if you commit a ‘misdemeanour’, the grim reaper could visit you anytime? When the headmaster was murdered and my husband Shankar took the case, the situation at home got predictably bad. As the days went by without any developments, bad turned to worse. Then, when Sathyaraj was killed, I could see my family crumbling before me. The kids rarely came out of their rooms. They tried to avoid their parents. My husband and I hardly talked. He rarely came home. When he did, I could feel his rage pouring out of his silent menacing self like lava pouring out of a volcano ready to erupt. But, this time, he wouldn’t touch me in any way. At night, I could feel him sitting beside me, and in the darkness feel him looking at me like you would look at a pet you have to put down. He was readying a gulf to separate, it seemed. I heard him cry in the bathroom one night. The next day, Ramesh was murdered. I could have left my handkerchief at the last scene or some other clue. But I think this note to my husband is more suitable. He must be wondering why I have not taken my own life. I do not know myself. Ironically, I do believe that one does not have the right to destroy

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life. I do not know whether he will destroy this letter but I do not think he will allow a monster to go free. How could I do this to him and our kids? The kids will manage and they are in his good hands. Then, him . . . this is what I can say truthfully, I wish I did not have to do this. When I want to sleep, I try to tell myself that he, my loving husband, the smart intelligent Inspector Shankar somehow knew. I do not know how but I think he knows about Ashwin, my brother; about Srividya, the 17-year old girl and the destroyed Ph.D. Anyway, this is our last communication. We will not talk or see each other ever again. Will he curse me? Do you think I am smiling, being smug and trying to act wise? Do you think I am smiling? Excerpt from the Interview of Inspector Shankar by Commisioner Prasad on July 9, 2010.

Prasad: When did you know that the killer is your wife Mrs. Srividya Shankar? Shankar: Yesterday. Prasad: Did you suspect her prior to that? Shankar: No. Prasad: In the nine weeks during which the three murders occurred, didn’t you have any reason to suspect your wife? Shankar: No. Prasad: Are you sure? Shankar: Do you think I assisted her? Is that what you think of me? Prasad: Shankar, wouldn’t you ask the same question if you are the interviewer? Shankar: Yes, sir. Prasad: So, let me repeat. During those nine weeks, and with hindsight, did you have any reason to suspect your wife? Shankar: No, sir. From the material unearthed during the investigation, I found no clue that linked the murders with my wife, that is, till yesterday. This is also clear in the investigation reports I submitted daily to you. In addition, in the investigation team meetings in which you also participated, there was never any reason or clue for me or anyone to suspect Mrs. Srividya Shankar, my wife.

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Excerpt from the Assessment Report Of Inspector Shankar by Commisioner Prasad Based on the lengthy interview with Inspector Shankar and his assisting officers and, based on the thorough study of the investigation reports, there is no hard evidence to indicate that Inspector Shankar was aware about the murderous activities of his wife or had any grounds to suspect his wife, Mrs. Srividya Shankar. I recommend that Inspector Sharma should resume work and that the temporary suspension be revoked. As a personal and confidential remark, I would like to add that based on thirty years of my service and, based on my deep affection for Shankar and knowing that his past experience and work has been of the highest calibre, I find it impossible to believe that he did not suspect his wife. Selection of Comments from another site reader A: There seems to be a close resemblance with the Malayalam movie ‘Kariyila Kattu Pole’. But, there are differences too. Maybe, there is a case for going through this lesser work of yours where the focus seems to be elsewhere, hopefully somewhere. Please try to avoid piracy of any kind and to any extent. reader B: You are a psycho, man, because yoU wasted MY time, loads of MY time, you nincompoop (even that is a compliment for you). This your attempt at pseudo-psychology? Stick to love, will you? By the way, have you forgotten about Suspense! God, if only blogs had peer-review before submission. BTW, did you forget to also say REDRUM REDRUM REDRUM (from Stephen King’s The Shining, remember) ??? Climb a pole and sit on it, man! reader C: Hi, it’s me . . . can we forget our ‘misdemeanours’. . . fresh start??? Yours, xxx. What’s that they say in Morse? .. / .-.. — ...- . / -.– — ..- (Di-dit, Di-dah-di-dit Dah-dahdah Di-di-di-dah Dit, Dah-di-dah-dah Dah-dah-dah Di-di-dah). reader D: you have definitely got it right . . . i mean, the power of a woman’s forehand swing . . . tell those wimps to stop going to the gym and to carry a kid or two . . . fyi, i defeated my hubby in arm-wrestling last night . . . whooopppeee . . . reader E: I don’t get it. Did the husband kill the wife? I truly enjoyed reading the ending.

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reader F: Is this fiction? If not, I would love to have you for supper. Kind regards, Hannibal Lecter

8
A Family and a Smiling Man at Suicide Point
He stood near the edge of Suicide Point, a popular tourist spot. He leaned forward cautiously, holding the barricade tightly, studying the crags and the vast expanse below and ahead. He felt like a king viewing his dominion. Forty-five, successful, a father, a husband, it seemed to him that he had achieved nearly all. He took a few steps away from the edge and twirled on his toes trying to dance to some forgotten song. When he looked up, he recognized the man standing ten feet away from him. He tensed, reached for his daughter’s hand. He wondered why the man was smiling. His pretty wife was looking through the telescope when he was at the edge. With a brief sideways glance, she had taken in her husband’s pleasure. On most days, she shared his content. At that moment, she tried to find some other source. Later, she would wonder whether it was a mother’s instinct which made her turn her head. She saw her husband staring at a man, tense and pulling her daughter towards and in front of him. She reached for her daughter’s other hand, pulling her kid towards her. Was that man smiling at her, she wondered. His cute daughter was bored with the place. She wanted to get back to her new friends at the resort. While her parents looked at space, she studied the other tourists there. Like her parents, they seemed odd, she felt. In front of her, she saw a man watching her father. She smiled at him. Though odd, he looked nice when he smiled back at her. She felt her parents tugging at her hands. Over-protection, she thought. The man smiled at the daughter. She looked like a nice kid. He waited for her father to turn and recognize him. He watched the father pull his daughter towards him as if to explain or to plead. He also noticed the pretty mother trying to pull the daughter away. Instinct of a mother or a wife, he wondered. He smiled at the thought. The man brought out a gun from within his coat and shot the father and the husband, twice, dead and not smiling.

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Itihasa of an Integral Part
“The word for “history” in Sanskrit, itihasa, could be translated as “That’s what happened,” giving the impression of an only slightly more modest equivalent of von Ranke’s phrase for positivist history: “Wie es [eigentlich] gewesen ist” (“The way it [really] happened”). But the iti in the word is most often used as the Sanskrit equivalent of “end quote,” as in “Let’s go [iti],” he said. Itihasa thus implies not so much what happened as what people said happened (“That’s what he said happened”) - narratives, inevitably subjective narratives.”

Wendy Doniger, in The Hindus, An Alternative History

*** Location: “If you take the ship departing at 17:00 from Kochi to Trivandrum, you will stop at this island for dinner.” Background: “We were annexed by a kingdom a few centuries before they were occupied by Travancore (one of the three princely states that formed Kerala). We were never an integral part of Travancore. We are an integral part of India. But, actually, nobody wants us as an integral part except the non-existent kingdom of Travancore.” Disputes: “83% of this island is disputed territory. Some big guy did some big thing out here long back. The majority wants to recreate those times hoping that the big guy will return.” Population: “We are followers of the bard M. Jackson. We are black hoping to turn white.” Language: “Each locality has its own version of the mother tongue. We do not need language to communicate, we need liquor. When we speak English, we sound like the Irish. Have you heard the Irish speak? I have not.”

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Food: “A famous person during a visit exclaimed, ‘Holy Cow!’ He heard the echo, ‘Chilly Beef!’ That famous person married for the third time leaving many men and women of this island heartbroken.” Famous People: “Most famous people here are called Shree/Shreemati 420. The other famous people do not want to be associated with us. They are offended when we are not offended with whatever they say. Also, they cannot find a group to say, ‘A million people here say . . . ’ Five or more people here never say the same thing. The rest of the country tried to copy that calling it section 144.” Freedom: “We even allow people to say, ‘We will hound them out of India, like what we did to M.F. Hussain.’ I know, it sounds like sedition, right? But, still . . . ” Judiciary: “This is our strongest department. On entry, ‘Young man, we will take a few years of your productive life.’ On exit, ‘Old man, we deal with faith not facts.’ They alone can show contempt.” Politics: “We never ask, ‘Who is standing for election?’ We ask, ‘Who was in office till now?’ We try to learn from the mistakes of the past. Every dog has its day, we strongly believe.” Faith: “We used to be a Buddhist state, sedentary peace-loving egalitarian folk. Then, a group came with karma and division of labour. After relocating people to their respective ghettos, they philosophized that in theory and spirit, but not in practice, people could migrate from one ghetto to the next. Other groups and faiths too arrived on these shores. Some kissed the right ass and progressed. In the 20th century, they even kissed the left ass and tried not to regress. Right through the ages, people in small groups and of the same social class, irrespective of faith still managed to be egalitarian. Altruism is humbug, we all agree.” Literature: “Nearly 99% of the population read the stories before watching it as a TV soap opera. 99% of the rest copy world literature or pretend to read it.” Cinema: “We used to make great art movies. People outside without understanding used to call it ‘porn-dy’. The current films can be appreciated only in multiplexes - you have to view 30 minutes of 4 movies to have 2 hours of time-pass.” Sports: “We used to be athletic. Now, we are thinking of playing cricket at the IPL.”

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Social Dynamics: “This society is like a sand-pile at its angle of repose, a critical system. Add one small grain of sand and you can start avalanches of varying sizes.” Social Fabric: “A mature interacting group behaves like an elastic system. Bend it a little and it will spring back. Bend it too vigorously, you will cross a threshold, defects will stream in to stay forever. We are always in that new plastic state with immature inelastic ideas.” Relationships: “In the good old days, women wanted men to look at them.” Industry: “We allow only labour-friendly industries such as tourism and IT-enabled services. We promote migration to countries without any idea about human rights.” Export & Import: “We import nearly everything. We export everything that we do not import.” USP: “Best place to simply sit back and enjoy. Most tourists and citizens do that. Most paedophiles and goons also do that here.” Law & Order: “Excellent . . . just don’t be at the wrong place at the wrong time . . . ” Other Important Details: “You should note the following really important points about this integral part of India: (a) . . . ” Author’s note:

• This is history. • Everything is fiction. • This is a commissioned piece, part of a project to record the voices of this integral part before it is silenced forever. There was a strict brief: exactly 897 words [including the title, the quotation and this note (151 words)].

10
The Lady with a Smile
1. Scene of the Crime The dead young woman had a trace of a lingering smile on what remained of her battered face. “What could have made her smile?” Inspector Arvind muttered to himself rather than to his colleagues, constables Winston and Kutty. They were on the rock on which the lady’s body had been found at seven that morning. Arvind looked around from that rock jutting out onto the river. The scene appeared rather poetic though such a thought seemed incongruous at that moment. To him, the river seemed furiously careless; swollen with the recent rains; troubled by eddies, rapids and uneven depths; after being raped and tortured by illegal sand-mining. A hundred metres upstream, near the temple steps where there used to be wide shallow sandy bathing places, wild green growth had invaded along with impassive jagged rocks marking the route like traffic signals leading the new and unsuspecting to deadly depths. An empty sand-miners’ boat was tied to a tree there. The green trees, the muddy river and the blue skies mirrored the false calm of the dead body. Arvind felt, shamefully, that the body completed the scene very well - a once-beautiful lady lying on those rocks, her white sari in place quite correctly. Rather too correctly, he observed. Her right hand still clutched a betel leaf with temple offerings. A smudge of sandalwood paste could be seen on her forehead along with raw flesh and darkening blood. “Looks like it wasn’t sexual abuse, right?” Arvind asked his colleagues. As usual, they treated it as a rhetorical question. With many years of experience between them, the two kept questions for suspects; and, expected statements and orders between colleagues.

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Arvind waited for a while before continuing with his soliloquy, “Someone left her with care. Of course, after bashing the left side of her face to pulp. She must have been facing her killer and even standing quite close. Same height probably, since the blows are from the side. To get bashed on the left, the killer must be right-handed, right?” Winston, the baby-faced giant, hitched up his pants above his huge pot-belly and tried to suppress a yawn. The tall scrawny Kutty rubbed his pock-marked face and simultaneously scratched his groin languorously. Feeling that it was time they chipped in, Kutty said, “Rajappan the butcher found the body. He reported it along with the barber Sethu. This Sethu says that he was on his way to open his shop when he came across Rajappan in this area. Well, that’s what he says . . . ” “At seven, on a Tuesday when the barber shop is closed . . . and his shop is on the opposite side . . . ?” Winston added his own suspicions. “And, Rajappan had gone to the river for a wash . . . wash indeed . . . when there are better spots near his house a kilometre upstream ...” There were two plots of land overlooking that area - one, an uninhabited rubber plantation which extended for a few acres; and the other, a small plot with a hut. There was a muddy path between the two plots and this appeared to be the only way from the rock to the main road. There was no point searching for footprints now after the whole world seemed to have trampled on that area that morning. Arvind pointed at the hut. Winston offered, “That’s Maniyan’s hut, the rubber tapper. A real trouble-maker . . . we booked him once or twice for stealing rubber sheets. We should bring him in. And his wife . . . she is one great piece . . . ” Kutty silenced him with a glare. “Do you know the victim?” Arvind asked turning back towards the body. His constables asked back together, “Don’t you know?” Kutty tried to defuse his senior’s stare by adding, “She is . . . was . . . Prasad Master’s daughter, Bharathi.”

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“Ah!” Arvind looked at the battered face once again. He had seen her at the temple once or twice. He had admired her slim curvaceous young body, with equal portions of guilt and pleasure, while he prayed to the Gods to save him from this rural posting. She had smiled at him. Her smile had seemed a trifle cold, he remembered. Arvind had even gone to her father’s house once, during his first week six months back, but he had not seen her there then. Arvind’s mentor in college, on hearing that he was leaving for this village, had told him to meet Prasad Master, a retired teacher and ‘a great scholar’. Arvind found the teacher to be a straightforward decent human being, too. Though he was invited to visit at any time, Arvind never returned because he did not want to awaken the ghosts of his aspiration. Arvind’s father died in an accident a few days after he enrolled for a Ph.D. in literature. Following that disaster, he had to find a job to take care of his family and he managed to enter the police force. On his record, his IQ and athletic strong body were noted as his pluses; and, his below-par height of five-eight and an inclination to ‘think too long alone’ were among the minuses. If he had had some ‘influence’ or money, he could have tried for a posting in some place other than this village police station previously manned by the two veteran constables. Before his arrival in the village, Winston and Kutty spread a rumour there that Arvind’s ‘specialty’ was ‘terrorist networks’ and that ‘he made even the crazy talk sense’. This helped in a way and the crimes had so far remained petty in the last six months and ‘catchable if necessary’. On one lazy afternoon, the two constables found Arvind reading a book of poetry in office. From the displeasure or disgust on their faces, Arvind realized that he should consign such books to those beneath his mattress at home. He also decided that visiting Prasad Master would be inappropriate for his image in that village. “She must have been taking this short-cut from the temple to her house.” Winston interrupted his reverie. “If she had gone to the temple . . . it must have happened between 05:30 and 07:00 . . . Who would kill at that hour? Rather careless, that . . . ” Kutty added. “Uncontrollable rage while killing and then care to cover her body well after the deed . . . Find out if she had a lover. Ask the tea-shop owner if he heard anything.” Arvind said knowing that the tea-shop is the nerve-centre of the village. “Also, grab some of those sand-miners.” In his early days there, he had wanted to arrest

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the whole lot but the common sentiment in the village was ‘it helped a lot of the poor come ashore’, the ‘it’ being illegal sand-mining. “Those temple ruffians, too . . . ?” Kutty suggested referring to a group of unemployed disillusioned youth who treated the stage in front of the temple as their ‘hang-out’ for card-games, siesta and liquor. Arvind nodded and added, “Maybe, even the priests . . . ” A young woman walking alone on a deserted path from the temple . . . “A thick stick or a rock must have been used to bash her face in. It must be in the river.” Winston said, scowling at the river. “There is no point in trying to recover, is there? You two, arrange for the rest of the formalities. I will go and inform her parents, what a bloody task!” Arvind left the scene feeling that the poetry had left long back. He took stock of the area while walking past the rubber plantation to Prasad Master’s house, about five hundred metres from the scene of the crime. Arvind’s ‘task’ at the teacher’s house was painful as expected. The mother collapsed in front of him and her youngest daughter tried to support without breaking down herself. The father lay unmoving in an arm-chair, with eyes closed and tears flowing down his sunken cheeks. The victim’s younger brother angrily told Arvind ‘to kill the killer’. The elder sister stood quietly while listening to her husband describe to Arvind, rather profusely, about the victim’s activities that morning. When Arvind left that house, he wondered why the brotherin-law knew so much about the victim. On his way to the police station, Arvind studied the list in his hand - he had ten people and another assorted lot in three groups, too. One of them was most likely to be the killer. Or, was it someone not on the scene at the moment?

2. Questions & Answers

On what remained of that Tuesday, Arvind and the two constables Winston and Kutty interviewed nearly all the people other than the family, allowing the family to grieve in relative peace.

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They tried to interview without prejudice or any presumptions. Winston offered Rajappan the butcher stating that the person who discovered the crime usually turned out to be the perpetrator. The other two suspected that a personal grudge was blinding Winston but they did not voice their doubts. Kutty tried to sell Sethu’s name on the same grounds. Winston knew why Kutty raised the barber’s name but he kept quiet. Arvind would have preferred to put cuffs on the brother-in-law because it had to be someone close to the victim; or the sand-miners, because he hated them. Arvind told the constables to deal with the tea-shop owner. Though he was on pleasant terms with the village-folk, he was still an outsider. He knew that even the constables filtered that which he should hear and that which he need not hear. He had realized that there was something about Rajappan and Sethu that his juniors were not telling him. Arvind started with Maniyan, the rubber tapper, whose house was near the scene. In the police station, a sullen belligerent Maniyan informed him that he had left his house around five. He had cycled to a plantation five kilometers from his house and after completing on various plots in that area, he had tea at a nearby shop at six forty-five. Then, he had started on the second phase of collecting and delivering the rubber milk. Arvind checked out this alibi and did not find anything amiss. Maniyan also told him that he did not work on the plantation next to his own plot. He had fought with the owner, he replied looking quite smug. “Every day, God-willingly if it does not rain, I work and return to my house only at ten. Everyone knows that . . . ” Maniyan informed implying that Arvind must be a damn fool to waste his time talking to him. He also told Arvind that he had never met the victim apart from seeing her around in the village. Next, Arvind interviewed Maniyan’s wife at the hut. He waited near the river till he saw Maniyan leave the hut around mid-afternoon, probably for his customary tipple. Arvind introduced himself and she brought out a steel chair for him to sit. He had to struggle hard not to stare at her voluptuous body. She could be said to be pretty if not beautiful, with a small upturned nose and a delicate mouth with full pouting lips, her kohl-lined fair eyes seemed to entice. She was definitely a woman who knew her charms. She stood five steps from him, watching him like a cat. “Where were you between five and seven yesterday morning?” Arvind blurted. “Here.”

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“Was your husband here?” he checked. “No, he had gone for work.” “Do you know the woman who was killed?” “No, sir . . . I have seen her around, of course.” Arvind detected a hesitation and made a mental note. “Did you see her yesterday?” “No. I did not go near the river.” “Did you see anyone going to the river?” “Rajappan went there, around seven. He wanted to take bath, I think.” “Did you see him before he went to the river?” “Yes . . . ” “Where . . . ?” He asked expectantly. “Here.” “Here?” Arvind stuttered. She told him with an amused tone that Rajappan had been there with her from six till seven. Then, she offered to get Arvind a glass of tea or buttermilk. Arvind declined the offer. “Has she come to this house?” Arvind asked. Now, it was her turn to feel flustered. She replied, “She came here once . . . preached to me about morals. I gave her an earful. Who does she think she is?” Arvind left the hut. He decided that he should talk to his juniors before he interviewed anyone else.

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It was around tea-time when he got back to the police station. Winston was out trying to get some of the sand-miners. Arvind sat on Kutty’s table and asked him, “What’s going on between Winston, Rajappan and Maniyan’s wife?” Kutty remained quiet but seeing his boss’ tightly drawn face, he did not try to evade the question, “Nothing, sir. Rajappan succeeded where Winston failed, that’s all.” “How long has this been going on?” “I don’t know . . . heard about it long back.” “Is this common knowledge in the village?” “I guess so.” “And, does he know, I mean, Maniyan?” “Of course . . . I suppose he gets what he wants. I think even Rajappan’s wife knows. They always get to know such things.” Arvind was at a loss for words. He remembered what Maniyan’s wife had said about the victim, “. . . preached to me about morals . . . ” Maybe, there was a gulf, created by smalltown morals, between him and the villagers . . . Arvind left the station and walked over to the butcher’s shop. Rajappan was cleaning the knives and the shop, and getting ready to close the shop for the day. Standing a little away from the dirty water and the stink of offal, Arvind went through his story. He did not learn anything new. Rajappan told Arvind that he did not know the dead lady personally. He refused to admit that he had been to Maniyan’s hut even after Arvind told him that Maniyan’s wife had admitted the same. Arvind asked Rajappan whether he had touched the dead body or arranged the lady’s clothes after he found the body. Rajappan replied, “Why should I? I know a dead body when I see one. I touch only dead animals. And I don’t touch the clothes of dead women.” Arvind went back to the station where he found Winston taking care of some paperwork. Kutty was not in the station.

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Arvind stood near the constable, “Winston, why did Kutty pick out Sethu’s name?” “I don’t know, sir.” “You don’t know, do you?” Arvind’s mood was getting darker by the minute. “Do you know how it is like to get posted far from your village for the rest of your miserable career?” “I am not sure, sir . . . I mean, people say that Sethu is a homo. Kutty does not like that kind of people . . . ” “Was Sethu meeting someone there, near the rubber plantation?” “There is an old shed in that rubber plantation. I have heard that lovers meet there . . . ” “Who is Sethu’s lover?” “I don’t know, sir . . . ” “Which are the houses in that area?” “There is Maniyan’s house, of course . . . then, Prasad Master’s house after the plantation. There are only two more houses after that before the paddy fields. One is empty, they are abroad; in the other, there is an old lady and her servant girl.” Arvind left the station once again and walked this time in the opposite direction to the barber’s shop. When he opened the swing-door, “The shop is closed.” Sethu said with his back to the door, sweeping the hair on the floor. “I will take only a few minutes.” Sethu looked up and saw Arvind in one of the mirrors. He turned around immediately, offered a chair and said, “Sorry sir, haircut or shave?” “No, I am here about the murder.” “Oh, that . . . ”

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Sethu told Arvind that he had gone for a morning walk and that he met Rajappan near the rubber plantation. Rajappan had looked shaken and so, Sethu had enquired if there was anything wrong with him. When Rajappan told him about the dead body, he had advised him to report it at the station. He had gone along. “Didn’t you want to see the dead lady or go near the river?” Arvind asked. “For what . . . ?” Arvind left the barber’s shop without asking Sethu about his lover or about any meeting. Before dusk, Arvind and the two constables gathered some of the sand-miners. They had not done any sand-mining that day, they said, because of the murder, they added like a complaint. Arvind tried to act tough and roughed up the leader, releasing old pent up anger but all he got back was the retort, “Sir, are you trying to scare us? If you are really that bothered about what we do, why don’t you catch the big fish?” The leader laughed. “That murdered lady . . . she also tried the same stunt with us, threatening to finish us. As if she can . . . ” “But, you did finish her?” “Sir, have you been watching too many movies? When we do not worry about you, will we worry about such small fry?” There was nothing more to get out of them. Around six, Arvind walked to the temple alone. As usual, there were a few young men playing rummy, not even bothering to get up or hide the cash when Arvind walked up to the stage. He had seen most of them before. He knew that at least two were post-graduates like him. The youth were just a shade better than the sand-miners when it came to insolence. Yes, they had seen the lady often at the temple. No, she was not the type they liked, they said and further added, though you seem to have liked her, sir. Arvind asked them if they had had any confrontation with her. That bitch was itching for a bite, they replied nonchalantly, she had tried to provoke them . . . said she would report their stealing . . . or their gambling . . . or some other stuff.

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Arvind could imagine what the other stuff could be. He also knew that youth like these lived to get into trouble, to get at least that attention from their society. The dead lady seemed to have gone against nearly all that came on her path. Did she go fatally wrong with one of them, Arvind wondered. Before closing for the day, he met his constables once again. “Tomorrow, we will tackle the family. What did you get out of the tea-owner?” Winston replied, “It’s really strange.” Kutty added, “He told us that nobody talks about her. She must be the only one in the village about whom nobody talks.”

3. The Meaning of Her Smile

On the day after the murder, Arvind woke up at five thinking about his two initial doubts: the smile and the loving hand. He got ready and left his rented house at around half past five. He walked to the temple. His last visit to the temple must have been a month or two earlier and the two priests looked new to the place. There were two or three ladies praying. He watched the main priest complete the main puja at that hour and while collecting the offering, he requested the main priest for five minutes of his time. He learned that the main priest and his assistant had joined six weeks back; and, that they were just getting to know the village-folk. They had seen the murdered lady Bharathi in the temple but neither of them knew her any better. Arvind tried to probe further but the priest excused himself stating his temple duties. Arvind approached the temple accountant-cum-officer who was giving puja chits to a lady in the temple’s office-room. The officer had a perpetual disgruntled look as if he was doing a favour to God by sitting there. Arvind gathered that the officer did not think it necessary to talk to the villagers except to collect donations. In the temple compound, a lady was sweeping the ground. She was more accommodating. The lady stood at a ‘safe distance’ from Arvind and talked in whispers and, at all

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times, kept a lookout for the main priest or the officer. From the lady, Arvind learned that Bharathi, the murdered lady, used to visit regularly and that her visits were more frequent before the former priests left the place. She and the former priests used to talk a lot together, she confided. The lady regretfully conceded that she did not know why the priests decided to leave. Arvind thanked the lady and left the temple premises via the temple steps leading to the river. Arvind followed the path that Bharathi had taken. He knew that police sniffer dogs had been used on that path but without any success. He reached the rock where the lady was found. He looked at the area more carefully. He realized that if the killer had taken the muddy path past Maniyan’s hut, the killer would have been seen by someone. As he looked around, he realized that a person familiar with the place had another route too. Though treacherous and dangerous, a person familiar with the place could go downstream by hopping onto the rocks that dotted the river at irregular intervals. Arvind nervously took that path. He knew that he would meet a watery and bloody death if he made a slight mistake in any jump. It seemed to take ages for him but he knew that it would be less arduous for a local. At each rock, he inspected the area for any clue or evidence. He got lucky on the eleventh rock. He found a handkerchief snagged in a wedge on that rock. There were a few red smudges on that as if blood had been wiped. He slipped it into a plastic cover. When he was about fifty metres from the murder site, he realized that the next step was onto a plot and that it was that of Prasad Master. “Was it someone from this house or someone from outside?” Arvind asked himself. It was then close to half past seven. He went to Prasad Master’s house. It appeared empty. The policeman had expected the usual lot of morning relatives and friends or at least the arrangements for the last rites. He knocked at the door. After some time, the two daughters came to the door together. The elder one told him that their parents had gone to a hospital and that father had not been well. They did not invite him inside. Arvind tried to ask a few questions but did not get anything substantial from them. Arvind felt, rather angrily, that Bharathi must have done all the talking in that house. The son-in-law then appeared and invited Arvind to step inside. Arvind curtly told the

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son-in-law to come to the station, at half past eight, along with Bharathi’s brother. Arvind walked to the station, thinking about all that he had heard so far. Kutty and Winston were there at the station and he told them that he wanted to tackle the son alone. Meanwhile, he wanted the son-in-law to sweat it out waiting at the station. The son and the son-in-law reported at the station ten minutes before the scheduled time. The son appeared nervous rather than angry that morning. He tried to look at Arvind eye-to-eye. Involuntarily, he kept biting and chewing his lower lip. “Sethu mentioned your meeting - at what time did you two meet?” Arvind decided to bluff with the opening hand. “What?” the son pretended as if he had not heard properly. Arvind remained silent, tapping his fingers on the table as if to indicate that he was losing patience. He stopped smiling and started scowling. He remembered that the ragging in his college hostel had been quite similar. “At six thirty,” the son whispered. “And, your sister Bharathi knew about it . . . and she did not like your relationship . . . ” Arvind was hoping that his second bluff would hold, too. “Sethu should not have told you that,” the young man was on the verge of crying, “after all, she is dead. It is not nice to talk ill of the dead.” “Did she threaten to expose you two?” “Yes, but we promised not to meet ever again. That was supposed to be our last meeting.” “But, the two of you killed her, instead.” “No! That is not true. You are like the rest of them, aren’t you? For you, our kind should be the killers, the evil ones?” the young man was ready to sob. Arvind did not bother to correct the young man. He proceeded to get the details about the meeting in the plantation. Then, he kept the son waiting in his office, went to the outer office. He gave Winston the details and told him to corroborate with Sethu’s version. Make Sethu give his version, Arvind told Winston and the latter nodded.

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Arvind then returned to his office and questioned the young man about his sisters. He enquired if Bharathi had had any lover. The young man replied that she did not even have close friends. Arvind asked him if the other two sisters were also similar to Bharathi. They are totally different, not so bold or outgoing, the young man said. Arvind tried to ask about his brother-in-law but he felt that the guard was up. And, though he tried to break the defenses, the young man did not utter anything worth noting about his brother-in-law and sisters. Winston returned and indicated to Arvind with a nod that Sethu’s version matched well. Arvind let the young man leave. He made the son-in-law wait for another hour before calling him in. “Why didn’t you go with your father-in-law to the hospital?” Arvind asked the son-in-law. “Father told me to stay with the girls.” “Of the three, Bharathi seems to have been your favourite.” Arvind was fishing with meager bait, he knew. “What are you talking about?” “I have heard that you were more close to her than your own wife.” Arvind lied. “That’s nonsense. You are new to this place. You should believe only half of what you hear.” The son-in-law sounded agitated. “So, there is a half-truth in what I said. Tell me, did she accuse you of abusing her or the younger one?” “Who told you that? It is not true. Ask my wife or the younger one. They will tell you that I treat my wife’s sisters like my own sisters.” “But, she did accuse you?” The son-in-law looked at Arvind desperately, hesitating, probably thinking about the right answer to get out of the mess. Finally, he said, “Yes.” Arvind spent the rest of the morning questioning, trying to get more but the son-in-law’s story was similar to the others.

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Bharathi the accuser; and in this case, Arvind was not sure whether the accusation was a lie or true. He also knew that it was impossible to know the truth. People do not reveal such truth and worse, such accusation sticks and stinks; like shit on one’s sole. The son-in-law had a perfect alibi - he was in the house with the others, he tried to argue. But, without outsiders to confirm, the alibi did not amount to much. Around one, Arvind let the son-in-law leave after asking the final question, “Was she a pleasant character?” “She could smile . . . I will never forget her smile.” The son-in-law said with a smirk. Arvind did not leave for lunch. When Winston and Kutty poked their head in to check on their boss, they found him staring blankly at a wall. They decided to let him be and attended to other work. At half past four, Arvind told them that he was going to Prasad Master’s house. He left after telling them that he understood the smile and the loving hand. That was the motive and the clue, he said. Kutty and Winston did not tell their boss what was on their mind; that it was a waste of time to dwell on such crap. When he got to the house, it still looked deserted. Arvind knocked on the door. It took a while before the youngest daughter came to the door. She told him that her father was lying inside. He went with her to an inner room which served as the dining area. A bed shared the space with the dining table and chairs. Prasad Master was lying on that bed, staring outside. On seeing the policeman, he tried to get up. His wife came into the room from the kitchen and helped him. The two daughters stood near the door to the kitchen. The son and son-in-law were not there. “Yesterday, he fainted and his fever got worse,” the wife explained. She gave a sob and went back to the kitchen. The daughters followed her. “Poor woman . . . she still can’t call it by the right name . . . cancer.” He told Arvind that he had been diagnosed with cancer a few weeks back. Then, he asked Arvind if they could get Bharathi’s body soon. Arvind told him that it might take a day or two. Though he had met the scholar only once before Arvind felt a deep affection for the other. He did not know how to start.

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From his pocket, he brought out the only evidence, the plastic cover containing the handkerchief, and placed it next to Prasad Master’s hand. The teacher looked at for a while before saying, “Ah! You have found that. Where did you find it?” Arvind described the location. Instead of asking questions, he remained silent. Like a student waiting for a class to start. “When I got to know that I had cancer, I knew I had very little time to correct the problem. One who creates an evil has the responsibility to destroy that, too.” The teacher paused to drink water. “Wherever she went, whoever she met, she tried to destroy them with her set of morals and her righteous indignation. I do not know if she realized the kind of havoc she was causing all around her. In her family, in the village, in the temple, everywhere . . . ” He continued with a choked voice, “When she was born and she smiled for the first time, I was the happiest man alive . . . I never realized that I would feel like the most cursed man . . . to see her remove the smile from others . . . as if, only she had the right . . . to smile.” Arvind knew that he could lose the only evidence very easily. But, he also knew that he would not and that the scholar before him would not allow him to do so. “Do you know what she did when I confronted her on that rock? She smiled. Do you know the meaning of that smile?” Prasad Master looked at Arvind, laughed mirthlessly and quoted words which Arvind recognized from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, “You are my creator, but I am your master - obey!”

11
Weird Jungle
An old man with his palm on a young boy’s lap, Pray, did someone tell the prey he is prey? A retired tired with own child banging at the gate, Is it time to feed the impatient vulture? A couple waiting for an anniversary to make love, Why did they forget to be animals? Young adults measuring future on a faulty balance, Do they feel when teeth sink into fresh kill? Teens announcing friends as laissez-faire, Hush, isn’t it an old deception to hunt? Even babies forget to feign innocence, Why did the prey turn predator so soon?

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12
Arrival Of The Alpha Female
There is something about small places. When I need to scavenge for stories, I use my time in my village rather than that in the antiseptic towers of Powai. A 100-strong research institute living in their own world provided a better canvas than a MNC with 4000 heads. Maybe, it’s got something to do with my roots where apparently, anyone knows everyone; the surveillance would beat London’s hidden cameras; and with each activity, there is advice, rules, restrictions and more rules and restrictions. But, for most small-town guys and girls in this part of the world, life is like wearing a two-piece yellow polka-dot bikini beneath coarse-cotton black veils. You just had to know where the pools are located. And if the ‘pool rule’ dictated a one-piece suit, you shrug and go topless. Contrary to the common perception, there are fewer rules, fewer gods and fewer reasons to worry in small places. That’s what my group and I thought till last month - till we heard about her arrival, the arrival of our alpha female. My group is a motley crew truly representative of my society - what’s that nice word, microcosm, right? There are eight of us. In calendar years, our average age is 40 plus 50minus-40-or-so. Between us, we have had to attend 10 weddings, provide support for a bachelor and 2 divorces. Collectively, we support 13 kids (including the two adopted, the one with dubious paternity) - all loved and cared cute brats protesting a troubled childhood. We are definitely not bosom buddies and try to meet utmost once or twice a year. We have other friends to provide entertainment, card games, sports and beer, picnics and what-not to scratch each other’s back. My group did not have a common religion or ideology (one tried to be a commie but quit the scene when he realized that even the poor are too rich to be fooled; another entertained right-wing thoughts till he got entangled in a ‘mixed’ marriage). Our only claim to a common economic background is a school with a rather strict rule for uniform ‘Footwear compulsory’.

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But, since the days of one-bounce cricket a few decades back, we have never lost touch and we remained as a group. Early on, we formulated the only rule for the group, ‘Do not even think of making a pass at our sisters.’ Even womanizers should have ethics, we reasoned. Our laissez faire philosophy of being womanizers remained just a theory. There was only one period of restless disloyalty and forgetfulness - that period post puberty when girls distracted us for the first time. Later, most of us admitted that the first love was not true love but just an embarrassment. With advancing years, age along with wisdom and wives brought us back together. It is a sad fact that we cannot stand each other’s wives (and some even their own). The feeling is happily reciprocated by the better-halves. In one instance, my own wife staged a version of coitus-interruptus with the statement, “Why do you hang around with those?” I parried this frontal attack with dead silence and a threat to sleep on the floor or elsewhere, and she accepted both with unsettling equanimity. Why do I hang around with these? There is a reason which keeps us together - we grew up together and more importantly, we know what each one did last summer, winter, autumn and spring. Each time we meet, we register in our memory the problems that we face in the present; the niggling worries about the immediate future; and, refresh our memory about past misdeeds that have to remain hidden from lesser mortals, that is, kith and kin. Even the one in the group who resembles Narayana Murthy (mentor-emeritus of Infosys) can be reduced to a mass of giggles, shy protestation or nervous hiccupping. There is another matter which binds us together, the one matter alone which we have kept hidden from each other - each one’s relationship with her, our alpha female. Let me tell you that I have talked to lots of men of various generations and nationalities regarding this and I feel that I would not be wrong to state this generalization, especially about men from small places: every man has an alpha female. For our group, and possibly for quite a few others of my generation in this small part of the world, she is the one. Is she a queen bee or a black widow? Is she an Amazonian in whose presence we go weak in the knees? Is she a mixture of various ‘-esque’: an unlikely Greta-Garbo-esque Arundhati Roy, a Kafka-esque unknown with the charm of Aung San Suu Kyi, a Juno-esque with the grace and letters of Nadine Gordimer and the intelligent delicate smile of Ingrid

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Bergman? She is an intellectual, an artist with sublime creativity, a woman with passionate and volatile integrity, eschewing hollow words/people with disgust, flicking aside norms of the hoi-polloi blocking her path. In the age before mobiles, we knew immediately when she ‘appeared at hang-outs’. She dressed with careless common but captivating fashion bewitching in a cotton sari or groovy in jeans, T-shirt and bra-less. She could be exquisite dressed in complete Bharathanatyam regalia for a standout performance. We knew about her close-encounters with authority, her many affairs and disposals. We took pride in the fact that she never discarded us. We never shared what she did with each one of us. Last month, one of us received a message from her, “In town on the 20th of June; please arrange with others for a meeting. It’s urgent - old matters I have to settle finally - with the eight of you. Let’s meet at 3 pm.” So, here we are (from four continents, seven countries), on this Sunday afternoon: most disheveled, some dishabille, all distraught and distant; or in plain words, bloody tense. We know that our family life (our suburban lives with rural roots seeking all paths for upward mobility) is at stake, and probably our career and ambition too. On his own, each one knew what could happen, what she might want to settle and more importantly, that each one of us would still do anything for her. And so, here we are in this small place, at 3 pm on the 20th of June, waiting for her. *** ’My name is Dalton Russell. Pay strict attention to what I say because I choose my words carefully and I never repeat myself. I’ve told you my name: that’s the Who. The Where could most readily be described as a prison cell. But there’s a vast difference between being stuck in a tiny cell and being in prison. The What is easy: recently I planned and set in motion events to execute the perfect bank robbery. That’s also the When. As for the Why: beyond the obvious financial motivation, it’s exceedingly simple... because I can. Which leaves us only with the How; and therein, as the Bard would tell us, lies the rub.’

from The Inside Man (director: Spike Lee)

13
Love Dies
A few days back, my friend and I were looking at photos on the Net. On one thumbnail, I felt my friend stiffen with tension. Though she was looking at the photo, her mind seemed to be far away. “What happened?” I asked. “This photo reminds me of a college . . . the hostels . . . I visited that college recently . . . ” she replied haltingly. She was touching the screen and tracing that photo with her right index finger. [I noted that the photo belongs to Raghuram Ekambaram a.k.a. kolipakkam - click here to see the photo.] Then, she continued, “The hostels are shaped like E. This looks so much like the center wing. Do you know . . . on one of those wings on the side of that E, the twelfth and last room used to be 113 on the ground floor and 213 on the top floor.” “Used to be?” I queried. “Yes, those rooms were demolished.” “Why?” “Some time back, a student who stayed in 113 got into a fight with the local people. It was rare, you know, for students to mix with people outside the campus. Some say that it was a business deal or a local love affair that went awry. One night, a group of locals came to that student’s room and hacked him to pieces. The college authorities hushed the case real fast. That room remained empty that year but it was allotted to a new student in the next academic year. On the very first day, when that new student opened the steel cupboard to place his stuff, he found within . . . a severed right hand.”

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“Aw . . . come on . . . ” I exclaimed. She countered, “I know . . . Anyway, students then on refused to stay in 113 or 213 . . . in the other hostels on campus, too . . . and, the college did demolish. I have seen the old photos with the twelfth rooms on that wing. It is not there now.” “You goofie, every college has such tales. My college had the old chowki (chowkidaar or caretaker) in the red-and-yellow-shawl. This old chowki died in my first year in college. He was found dead near the X-ray lab a few days before Holi - an old man who was alone in life and death, and always with a red-and-yellow-shawl around his frail body. He used to be really friendly with students. During my second winter there, a student who was studying late at night left his room, to go to the loo, after latching the door. When he returned and unlatched the door, he found an old man inside, an old man in a red-andyellow-shawl. Every winter, we used to have at least one student seeing him.” I laughed and she joined in, too. After some time, I could feel that she had slipped away from me once again. “Hey . . . are you there?” I enquired, touching her hair and tucking it in behind her ear. “Can I tell you something . . . maybe, just another laughing matter . . . it might help, I guess . . . to laugh, I mean . . . ” she asked me. “Shoot.” “I went there recently for recruitment. I heard another story in that college . . . ” “Ah . . . at least, you have called it a story . . . ” “Shut up, will you? Listen . . . ” Then, she told me the following:

On one Sunday evening long back, two students went together to the Saraswathi temple on campus. He (let me call him Arjun, she said) was not very religious, circled the deity, finished his prayer fast and sat on the cool marble temple steps waiting for her (let her be Swapna, she added). She joined him after some time. She looked weak and tired. “What happened, Swapna?” Arjun enquired.

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“Just a mild headache . . . I am ok . . . must be migraine . . . sitting here will help . . . ” and she added shyly, “with you.” After some time, she asked him, “Arjun, these steps are very cold, aren’t they?” “Not really . . . are you feeling feverish?” “No . . . but . . . I think I should go back to the hostel.” He went with her till the gate of the ladies’ hostel. Before parting, he said “You know, I have been thinking of getting married . . . asked my mother to find me a girl as soon as I leave and join that company.” It was an old joke between them. Every time, she would reply with “I have been thinking of going away after college . . . meeting new people, forgetting the old ones and allowing them to forget . . . ” The college rules did not allow them to touch each other in public but there’s a lot that looks can do, too. Anyway, this time, she just smiled without saying those words and went inside. Next day, on Monday, Arjun did not see Swapna in the morning classes. He asked the other girls in his batch. She went with her father, one girl told him. He felt angry with Swapna for not informing him. Later, that day, Arjun received a call at the Warden’s house (those were the days before the mobile and even hostel-phones). It was Swapna’s father. Arjun could not hear him well and then, he heard Swapna’s voice on the line. “Arjun, can you please come . . . ?” Swapna’s father came back on the line and told him, now more clearly, the name of a hospital. He left immediately and met Swapna’s father outside the ICU. “Her headache got bad. She called us and we brought her here. A few minutes after calling you, she became unconscious. The doctors tell me that they are draining her brain . . . aneurysm, haemorrage, something . . . ” That night, Arjun waited outside the ICU. According to the hospital rules, visitors were not supposed to hang around near the ICU. But, he waited near the ICU. The doctors and the other staff probably understood and did not make him leave. He did not leave his post that night or the next day. Swapna’s family waited in the waiting room on the ground floor. On Tuesday, around 3 pm, a doctor approached him and told him to come back with Swapna’s father. They were told that Swapna is brain-dead.

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Arjun took Swapna’s father back to his family, then went up again and requested the doctor for a moment with Swapna. In the ICU, Arjun stood next to her bed, touched her for the first time and said, “I love you, you know that, don’t you?” That was the first time they used that word. Arjun left the hospital without saying a word to Swapna’s family. Swapna never had the chance to face the five stages of dying (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) and Arjun felt that he had all the time for that. A few days or a few weeks later, he realized that he was beginning to forget her. He felt angry with himself. But, no anger could hide the fact that the dead have no place and that only the living matter. Swapna’s family tried to contact him. But Arjun had left that college and that city. He disappeared. Some say that there are days when the steps of the Sarawathi temple feel unnaturally cold.

At this point, her story ended, or I thought that it had. But, my friend continued: “When I went to that college, a famous author was there for her book-release. The author read excerpts and at one place, she read from her book . . . love never dies . . . ” Then, that author did something strange. We saw her pointing at someone at the back. We turned to look but we could not figure out at who she was pointing her finger. The author was talking to someone there . . . “Could you please repeat the question? Can you tell me your names, please?” the author said. Then, the author addressed everyone, “Interesting question from the two at the back. Arjun and Swapna would like to know if there is anyone here who actually believes that love never dies.” Those who were familiar with that old story also knew that Arjun and Swapna always returned to mock those words.” I held my friend in my arms . . . tightly . . . there is no point in hoping to hold her when she is not there anymore, right?

14
Two Sides of the Coin
Recently, I was asked the question: what do you do for a living? I told the half-truth: I have retired. Today, I thought of coming clean. I will briefly tell you about my business. If you read till the end, there is a prize to be won (t&c apply, not tlc). What is my business? It is called ‘Two Sides of the Coin’ - we offer the better alternative. The business is best explained with examples. First, consider politics. We get 40% of our revenue from politics. Every politician wants to have an own group. Language, religion, race and ethnicity are so easily exhausted. Think of the many permutations and combinations. Here, our task is to make today’s bhumiputr tomorrow’s foreigner. Even ruffians and anarchists want to be divided and subdivided. Go to any street-corner and look at the goondas hanging around in spotless white or saffron or green or chic red or dull khaki and the way they mix and match. Those are our customers - we give them an identity, the USP and a life-long mission. And, we do it for a modest fee. Given the volume of business, the pennies will do. Second, consider religion. I have a sentimental attachment to this - I started my business with this. When I started, I had only one guru to follow - history. It is still really hot. In politics, everything is transparent and people know the truth. But with religion, the work has to be clandestine and involves a great deal of subterfuge. There is very little to be made with inter-religious divisions. That is so obvious, isn’t it? We make money from creating intra-religious divisions and in this advanced age, it is the sub-divisions that really sell. Split and split again. If a caste or sub-caste involves people who used to tap coconut trees for toddy, divide them into groups based on whether they were the first or the second to come down the coconut tree, i.e., to leave their ‘ancestral’ occupation.

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If your group consists of people who landed by ship from some other land, differentiate between those who came on the deck and those who were in the first-class cabins. Irrespective of whether you are an upper-caste or a lower-caste, we will help you find your own group. We help even atheists find their ‘special’ group: the rationalists, the ones who say I-wentto-space-and-did-not-see-God, the tricky kind with is-there-God-is-a-non-question and so on. Even those who fight against the caste-system come to us and we give each group a meaningful identity, for e.g. the against-caste-but-against-reservation group who are not keen about every dog having its day, the against-caste-but-want-benefits-based-on-caste group and so on. I have been asked the question: why do you say ‘two sides’ when there seem to be many sides? Everyone wants the other side to be the side. Just another side will not sell. Some try to challenge us by bringing in emotions and concepts like love, altruism, jealousy, patriotism and so on. We do not deal with love but if it is love marriage, then it is an institution ready for our attention. Even lovers like to have their own elite group and we help in creating the group that they desire. The same idea holds good with the other concepts. Most of our business is based on groups and institutions. We rarely deal with individuals. But, recently, we had a client with the following requirement: his wife wanted at least two persons as her husband. We gave him multiple personality - with different styles, techniques and even philosophy of life. We even allowed for spontaneity. Divide and rule, that is our mission. If you have reached so far, there is only one question in your mind - what is the prize? The prize is: anything you want! To get the prize, just answer the following (only the winners will get a response) and the gift is yours: Name a group which cannot be divided?

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Author’s note: This is to celebrate tomorrow’s Bharat Bandh - if I am to believe the newspapers, normal life will be paralyzed from midnight to midnight and the government has endorsed it. And, it is time to retire.

15
Catharsis Before A Wedding
I have never been in a fast Porsche on the expressway but life, in the last few days, appears to be in that mode with blurred vision, weightlessness and adrenalin overdose along with ruffled premature grey hair and excessive hair-loss. I am on vacation to attend a wedding. This morning, I woke up at 4:00 feeling cold and sweating at the same time. As usual, I gathered from the bedside drawer my morning dosage of valzaar, clopilet, atacor, betaloc and other hearty stuff. I had been promised a long day and a memorable night too. Even now, I can feel sweat trickling down my neck and back while thinking about the past few days and also, the days ahead. It is now 5:30 and I can hear people waking up, sneezing, blowing their nose vigorously or loudly clearing their throats, chest and every air sac. All around me, water closets are getting flushed; the dirty are scrubbing themselves clean as if for the first time; morning ragas on TV and Eminem on the boom-box compete with babies practising asynchronous crying; the old and the young are scrambling for their fair share of morning coffee and other wedding goodies. How I longed for the calm at an undertaker’s, a requiem or a simple dirge and a sober lot to match my mood and the occasion. But, what I get is the laughter and the noise, the hustling and the bustling, the merry-making and the cacophony, and the entire house in a stressful mess. I have found this silent spot beneath the staircase leading to the terrace. I need catharsis. I need to pour my encrypted thoughts and recollection of recent events into well-sorted bytes. When did it start? Was it five or ten days back, or two or three weeks back, I am not sure. My parents told me to take leave on that day. My mother gave me a fresh and dry-cleaned set of jubba-mundu (kurta-dhoti in the North, I suppose). I had been to a beauty-salon the previous day for the necessary trimming, cleansing and polishing. I was ready an hour before the visit scheduled at 10:00. Or rather, I tried to be ready while I struggled - to subdue increasing tension and a frequently complaining bladder, to adjust the foreverloosening mundu and to straighten the so-easily crumpled jubba.

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My team gathered for the last-minute prayer and discussion of strategy. The final team of eleven consisted of me in the lead role, my parents, a pair of maternal and paternal uncles and aunts, a sibling and a cousin and their respective spouses. The drawing-cum-dining room and the kitchen were well-covered for any offensive or defensive play. The other party arrived on time at 10:25 and the brief delay of 25 minutes indicated that they are courteous and worthy of respect. To be on the safe side, they had arrived 5 minutes before rahu-kaalam on that Friday (though it is usually applied to the time of departure and not that of arrival). As they were piling out of an SUV and a Mercedes Benz E class (not commercial vehicles, we noted, but were these borrowed, we wondered), our immediate task was to identify the key person to be marked. By the time they reached the front stairs, our team had figured out that person, their key negotiator - a rather fat middle-aged man, probably an experienced uncle or a friend of the family, exceedingly jovial, busy with introductions and busier eyes taking in the size of the property and depth of the foundation. Their negotiator asked my maternal uncle, indicating the land and the house with a broad sweep of his hand, “Ithellam nangalude alle?” (“This is ours, isn’t it?” as if he was already part of the family.) My uncle replied to this frontal attack with an equally ambiguous nod. The negotiator nodded cheerfully and before entering the house, added firmly “Nalla sthalam. Makkalkku flats kettam.” (“Good property. Kids can build flats.”) As required I had stayed inside the house, in the drawing-cum-dining area, close to the door leading to the kitchen. I was ready to invite the men and the women with a very welcoming smile and namaskaar. The women sat near the dining area and the men took the front. The girl who had come for the ‘payyan-kaanal’ (‘viewing the prospective groom’) sat along with the men alone on the sofa for two. I sat next to her on the sofa after my paternal uncle indicated to me that I should do so. The girl looked beautiful in a gorgeous sari, with a blouse that seemed to be on the verge of being an off-shoulder top and, I couldn’t believe it, noodle bra straps. She caught me looking and smiled knowingly. I nearly blushed. I loved that confident smile and I fell in love with her.

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My maternal uncle and one of her uncles exchanged the jathakam (horoscope or birthcharts). In our society, that is the ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card. If the match does not work out for other reasons, either party could say that the horoscope did not match and bring the affair to an end without any needless and hurtful explanation. The parents and the kids were further insulated, legally and emotionally, because the negotiation is usually conducted by proxy, that is, by the others. My aunts brought the refreshments and I served as per custom. As soon as the cups were half-empty, the negotiation started in a more earnest fashion. I paid little attention since my thoughts were elsewhere, or rather, were lingering over that person so tantalizingly close. At one stage, I heard the negotiator ask my father, “In which clubs do you have membership?” My father recited the names of three eminent clubs. My parents had taken membership in two of those five months after I was conceived; and the third, when I turned eighteen and the standard of respectability was being raised in our society. The negotiator looked impressed, “Very good . . . you know . . . these stupid folk with stupid castes . . . each generation has a different set of brahmins . . . stupid I say. But . . . but I say . . . but, these club memberships are everlasting like plastic. These are guaranteed, I say. Guarantee about the actual caste about economic status and also culture, education, company and background . . . I myself a Platinum in two of these clubs.” I switched off for a while and when I returned, the negotiator was asking my maternal uncle, “Boy has gold, right?” “Yes, he has 100 pavan.” (A pavan is a sovereign, that is, 8 grams.) The negotiator’s wife made an attack from the back, “Our neighbour’s son got married last week. Fantastic wedding they held in the best hall in this city. But somehow, the feast was gloomy. Even though the boy came with a kilo of gold. Nothing like proper gold to make people happy, right?” My paternal aunt then muttered that the boy here, that is me, will not make people gloomy.

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I did not pay attention to the remaining details regarding that barter but I think it was settled at 1.5 kg. Anyway, I heard the negotiator finishing the deal with, “These days, gold is the only safe haven, I say. In our times, it was fine if the boy had a government job. But now even governments can’t be trusted. Only gold, I say. Anyway, it is all for the good of these kids. They can sleep well, you know. Or, you know what they can do . . . I say!” He chortled with delight at his own joke, nudged his marker (my maternal uncle sitting next to him) in the ribs. It was then around 11:10. The negotiator looked at the rest of his group and we saw them exchange glances signalling that the meeting could be concluded. ˇ “Ok, so that’s it then, right? Tchah, such fools we areEwe forgot about these kids. Why don’t you kids go and talk a little?” I led the way and she followed me to my room. She sat erect in my chair. And I sat on the bed crossing my legs at the ankles. She, like the negotiator, did not believe in beating around the bush. “I have a green card. Will you be able to come with me?” “Yes, of course.” “Do you like cooking?” “Yes. I can cook Indian very well. And you?” I enquired. “Only Chinese. Only on weekends. Do you want to have kids?” “Yes. And you?” “Two. Hopefully, both organic. No test tube, no Caeserian; but I want my hubby next to me when I deliver. Do you have any pending affairs?” “No. And you?” “I don’t think so. Are you a virgin?” “Yes.” I nearly blurted out “And you?” but I didn’t.

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“Good. Did you want a love marriage?” “Who? Me?” “I think love is better when arranged well.” “Me too.” “Do you have anything to ask?” she offered. “Do you like movies?” “Not much. But I liked Kill Bill.” she said. “Ah!” I sighed with pleasure, quite content. Well, that was the last day of my peaceful life. Then, we started the process of inviting those close and dear, those near and far, the unknown and the not-yet-dead essential lot. There was very little time to arrange everything. And the guy’s side had to be really careful. On two or three occasions, the negotiator and his wife made surprise checks with regard to the hall; the final settlement with car, gold and property, all included; the proposed catering agency; the decorations and the menu for the wedding and the reception parties before and after the wedding. With each day, the number of people in the house also increased exponentially. Whenever she was free, she would call and check up on me. I tried to mask my nervousness and tiredness by thinking of those noodle bra straps. It’s now 6:30. In four hours, I will be married. This catharsis has helped to soothe my nerves. Maybe, if I get the jitters tonight when I have to carry the glass of milk and the banana to share with her, I might try to record my thoughts once again. Author’s note: Roughly quoting Andrea Camilleri -"This (blog) is made up . . . There is no doubt, however, that the (blog) is born of a specific reality."

16
The Hijack on August 13th
Records show that the IC flight leaving from Mumbai (dep. 05:30) to Trivandrum (arr. 09:00) via Kochi on August 13th had: 9 crew members and 148 passengers (with 34 foreigners of non-Indian origin). Only 6 of those 157 knew that they might not see another sunrise. The flight was on time. Since August 10th , security-check started 2.5 hours before the flight, 30 minutes earlier than usual. There were more officers on duty and the inspection of baggage and persons seemed to be more thorough. A mother of two was heard complaining, “Do I look the type who would blast a plane?” An officer replied without expression, “I do not know the type, madam. Sorry for the inconvenience.” The mother muttered, “Sorry - these kids . . . ” and went to collect her screened baggage. At the departure gate, the situation was normal - chaotic with multiple queues, the harried officials, the important crew, the hyperactive kids, the tired, the clean-and-fresh, the noisy, the grumpy, the walkers, the slouchers, the ones-with-at-least-three-newspapers, the old and energetic, the old and wheel-chaired, the-ones-who-Q-for-every-announcement - everything as usual. Any one of them, apart from the kids probably, could be a terrorist or an accomplice. After security-check, a passenger can visit the restrooms, the refreshment and book shops, the various departure gates and the lounges, the areas under maintenance and take multiple routes via stairs, lifts or escalators. After crossing the last security officer at the gate and till a passenger or a crew member reaches his or her place in the plane, it is possible for him or her to be in close proximity with airline officials, bus drivers, grounds-men, cleaning staff and other possibly-screened persons who walk near the gate or the plane. For a non-expert, it seems like a nightmare to ensure security. At 5:45, the plane got ready to move. The doors were closed; the passengers were seated, buckled and requested to switch off electronic devices; and, the crew was about to begin

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with the safety precautions. In the first class section, a tall, elegant and well-suited man of about 30 got up from his seat. An airhostess immediately came to his side to request him to remain seated. He leaned forward and whispered to her, “I am wearing a bomb . . . take me to the pilot now . . . do as I say . . . ” The young airhostess felt weak and nervous. What could she do but take him to the cockpit? The man entered the cockpit with the airhostess and he addressed the crew in a clear well-educated tone without over-emphasis or harshness, “I am wearing a bomb . . . listen carefully . . . I am not going to repeat.” The Captain and his two colleagues there, with a total of 60 years experience, had dreaded such a situation, especially since 9/11. If the terrorist had waved a gun at them or looked like how terrorists are supposed to look like, the Captain or his colleagues might have decided to call it a bluff and tried their luck in overpowering the man. But here, with this man, they didn’t want to take any chances. In fact, they felt that there were no chances left and that it was just a matter of time and convenience for the terrorists. But, even when you face Death, you hope He is on his way to face another, don’t you? The terrorist continued with his instructions, “Tell Control room that the plane has been hijacked and that a bomb is ready to explode. Tell them that you have to park in the space at the east end of the airport - next to the slums. Tell them that you are moving now and tell them not to cause any kind of delay. Then, switch off that link.” The Captain followed the man’s instructions. Control room tried to ask for details but he switched off. “Now, address the passengers. Tell them that the plane has been hijacked. Tell them that my men, who are also wearing bombs, will be collecting every mobile, wallet and handbag. Tell them not to move and to be quiet, very quiet. Tell them to keep all windows closed. If anyone does not follow these instructions, everyone dies at once.” You can imagine how 150 people in a confined situation would react to this. But, when 4 men with guns - 1 more in first class, 1 in the front of economy class and 2 at the back stood up and looked around, it is difficult to describe the shock and fear in each face, the total silence and the state of paralysis. The 4 men were young and tough. They looked like successful professionals. Three were in casual formals and only one wore jeans and

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sported an unshaven look. The 4 men quietly went about the business of collecting all the mobile phones and other stuff. It took them less than 5 minutes. In those 5 minutes, two events happened. It is human to be reckless and stupid. The college student on seat 12B sent out a nervous SMS, “hi jak hlp pls” to his dad. For the student, it was not at all a lucky day. When he looked up, he saw the unshaven terrorist looking down at him. The latter took the mobile from him, looked at the message and smashed the butt of the gun against the boy’s nose and mouth, shattering bones and teeth. The terrorist then pointed the gun at the boy’s forehead and said, “Do not even cry.” The SMS message did not bring help but it reached the media in 30 minutes. The terrorists had expected such a ’leak’. In fact, their ‘man on the ground’ would also take care of that important step, not leaving news to chance. The second event was occurring outside. As soon as the Control room received the Captain’s call, a commando unit and its supporting logistics unit got into action. The latter was the first in action, clearing all personnel from that part of the airport, putting up screens, surveillance systems and also increasing intelligence officers to go through video footage of the last one hour. Under the cover of those screens, apparent confusion and early morning light, four commandos ‘attached’ themselves to the plane - two under the wings, two beneath the front door, mostly on the left side. Intelligence had informed them that the plane might park at the east end with its right side towards the slums - that is, towards the outside world and the cameras of the media. The commandos risked being seen by some unknown ‘man on the ground’. But, this was the only chance for them to ‘stick’ to the plane before it moved to the open area. The commandos now had to wait for some opportunity, if any, and for more information. Known to them, there were only two sources of information. Since August 10th , every flight to destinations frequented by foreigners had two air marshals and usually, the marshals themselves did not know each other. A secret known to more than two people hardly remains a secret, does it? The terrorists knew that there were two marshals on-board though they did not their identity. It is mainly to ferret out such people that they plant specially trained people among the civilians, and they refer to them as the ‘eyes’. The ‘eyes’ at times have a more deadly function - to choose the right moment and to be the detonator. While collecting the mobiles and personal stuff, the terrorists also got a slip of paper from the last row on the right with the message, “(1) 17E. (2) TBC.” (note: TBC - to be confirmed)

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One of those 4 young terrorists walked casually from the back to row 17 and shot the young man in seat 17E from behind, at the base of the skull killing immediately. There were some screams and cries but when the 4 terrorists raised their guns, silence was restored. The shooter retrieved the dead marshal’s gun and a transmitter attached beneath the collar of the shirt. The other marshal - still TBC - was on seat 24C and before the killing he had seen the terrorist reading the message near the last row. He was on the lookout for the ‘eyes’ and desperate to relay that information to Intelligence. The marshal was inconspicuous, in ordinary dress of checked shirt-pant-black Bata shoes, looked like a lower-middle-class Malayalee returning to his family from the Middle-east. On seat 24B, next to the marshal, the passenger was an ordinary man named Aneesh around 40, graying, old athletic body with muscles going to fat carelessly, beginnings of a pot belly, spectacled, in ordinary dress too. Aneesh had been wondering about his neighbour’s mumbling. To Aneesh, it sounded like the man was praying “Daivame kathu kolka . . . ” but in between, he had also heard him say, “one cockpit . . . two each aisle . . . one front, one middle, two back . . . ” and again interlaced with prayer, “. . . eyes . . . right . . . last row . . . tbc” The marshal must have been looked desperate or when he turned his head to study those in the last row on the right, he must have caught the attention of the ‘eyes’. The marshal too sensed that he might have committed a blunder. He leaned forward as if to tie his laces. Aneesh felt the man slip something into his shoes. The man whispered to Aneesh, “. . . spy in the last row . . . right side . . . find . . . use this to tell.” Then, he sat up, rested his head backwards, eyes closed, mumbling a prayer. Aneesh saw one of the terrorists, the guy with the stubble, look towards him or maybe, towards his neighbour. He saw the terrorist give a quick glance to somewhere behind on the right side. The terrorist walked quickly towards row 24, stood in front and shot the marshal in seat 24C between the eyes. When Aneesh was splattered with human stuff, he vomited over himself, drenching his shirt, pants and shoes. The only emotion the terrorist showed was when he looked at Aneesh with disgust. The terrorist proceeded to relieve the dead marshal of his gun. He could not find any transmitter. The terrorist wanted to search Aneesh but he felt squeamish searching Aneesh in that state. He must have also felt that Aneesh was not the kind to carry anything.

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The terrorist with the stubble ordered Aneesh to move to the back of the plane. Aneesh looked terrified and with wet squelching shoes, he walked to the back. In the last row on the right, he saw three passengers - an old Muslim man at the window who was also mumbling some prayer, a young man in the middle - who looked like any of these 4 terrorists - lightly holding the old man’s sleeve, and a woman of around 50 or 60. She smiled at him with sweet crinkling eyes, trying to give him courage. She reminded him of his dead grandmother and Aneesh felt like crying. When Aneesh moved towards the toilet, the terrorist said, “No. Strip here. . . in the pantry.” Aneesh removed his wet spectacles, shirt, vest and pant. He then retched. The terrorist told him to use the toilet. There Aneesh vomited noisily and violently. He picked up the button-sized transmitter the marshal had slipped into his shoes. To the stinking wet transmitter he whispered, “. . . last row . . . right side . . . old woman . . . ” Then he threw the transmitter into the toilet and flushed the waste. Aneesh tried to wipe his face and body with tissue. The terrorist opened the toilet door and told him to stand outside. Aneesh stood in the pantry, behind a curtain, barefoot and with just his underwear. He sniffed, prayed and kept crying as if with shame, shock or fear. Meanwhile, the other three terrorists had rearranged the passengers. The 34 foreigners were now sitting together near the right door in the front. The terrorists’ plan was simple. Starting in two hours and stretching over forty-eight hours, they would kill a foreigner every hour or so, and mostly during daytime for better visibility. They would dump the body from the right door, visible to the outside world and especially to the media that would have gathered. If they were attacked at any moment, they would set off the bomb. They hoped for the longer version - from August 13th (8 am) till August 15th (8 am), and then, they would set off the final fireworks for Independence Day. It was now close to 06:15 and the plane had taxied to the east end. The commandos ’attached’ to the plane had already been updated with the information from the marshal and also that from Aneesh. The number of terrorists within troubled them. With six inside, the mission could easily become a failure. To rule out a disaster, they had to avoid any exchange of fire, especially with suicidal bombers. These terrorists sounded like they were not just suicidal fanatics but also professional killers. Ideally, at the time of entry, the commandos wanted to face only 3 or 4 inside. With each minute spent waiting, they knew that the death-count would just increase. They had to provoke some error without triggering off a disaster. At 06:24, the tall terrorist in the cockpit saw an armoured van approaching from the left, stopping 100 metres away from the plane. He told the Captain, “Tell Control room to

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remove that vehicle now . . . after collecting three bodies: two policemen . . . and one civilian for which they alone are responsible.” After that message was delivered, the tall terrorist stepped outside the cockpit and told his colleague in the front area, “Get those two bodies and chuck them out. Bring someone to teach a lesson.” “Foreigner?” “No point in wasting them. The media will not be ready. Get someone expendable.” Noticing Aneesh standing at the far end, the tall man asked, “Who is that?” “A stinker.” “Get him.” The other terrorist went to the pantry at the back, prodded Aneesh with his gun and ordered him to move to the front. Aneesh kept crying, dragging his feet and begging for his life. The other passengers tried to avoid his touch. Meanwhile, the terrorists had opened the front door on the left and dumped the bodies of the two marshals. The tall terrorist ordered Aneesh to move fast and to stand still at the edge of the door. He wanted the people in the van to observe this man alive for ten or twenty seconds before killing. At the door, Aneesh wondered whether he should jump to safety. He knew that they would just use him as target practice. Anyway, even if he got away, they would kill one or two or many more. He lowered his head - wondering for how long he could continue to act. Then, Aneesh saw a commando just below him, ready to swing in. The commando gestured with the thumbs-up sign. Even Aneesh knew that there were too many terrorists well inside the plane. Aneesh shook his head slightly and very briefly as if to say, “Not yet.” The commando replied with a nod, smiled and winked. At that time, unknown to Aneesh, there were two commandos above and one more below. All this at the door happened in about 5 seconds. Aneesh let his knees crumple as if in a faint. He started to fall inside backwards. The tall terrorist and the one with the stubble

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jumped forward to grab him, ready to shoot at once, dump and close the door. When they grabbed him, they realized that Aneesh had soiled himself. “Shit!” The tall man exclaimed. It must have been due to that revulsion that the terrorists lost their balance for a moment trying to support Aneesh. This was exactly what Aneesh wanted. With his 84 kg weight and a solid hold on the two terrorists’ clothes; after tightening his shoulder muscles like that for a rugby lunge and tackle; and, with a powerful thrust on the edge, Aneesh jumped forward through the door and into open air carrying the two terrorists along. He heard two loud pops near both his ears and a little later, crash-landing on the tarmac falling on top of the two dead terrorists. Then, he fainted for real. Once again, unknown to Aneesh, there had been two snipers in the armoured van. When Aneesh dragged them into open air, the two terrorists were immediately shot multiple times during the fall. At nearly the same time, the 4 commandos entered inside in a flash and killed the 3 terrorists with two shots each. The old lady in the last row had also been fatally hit on the forehead seemingly by a stray bullet. Apart from the marshals, the old lady was supposed to be the collateral damage. Much later, Aneesh was still in the V.I.P. lounge. He had had a much-needed shower and he was given a T-shirt, a pair of trousers and new underwear - all possibly from the airport shop. He had been debriefed. Initially, the officials were even suspicious of him:

- What is your name? - Aneesh. - Surname? - None. - Nationality? - Indian. - Which state do you belong to? - I don’t know. - Which language do you speak? - English. - I repeat, are you Indian?

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- Ain’t I?

At that point, a senior ranked person of the armed forces entered the room and interrupted the interview. He came to the interview table. Aneesh tried to get up despite feeling very tired. The officer said, “Thank you, sir, and that’s from my entire commando unit. I have just one question. How did you know that it was the old woman?” “The old woman was smiling a bit too well at that time.” Aneesh replied reluctantly. Aneesh kept quiet for a while and then asked, “Sir, is it possible not to reveal my bit?” The officer smiled and nodded and left. The interview then proceeded more smoothly. After that, there in the V.I.P. lounge, Aneesh watched news on TV - some passengers were being interviewed: “Did you at any moment think that you would die?” “Die? No. We are proud and brave Indians - we would have fought like tigers. We are fighters till the end - we will survive anything.” “Did you notice how the commandos shot the old woman?” “Oh yes, they should get better training. I am planning to bring it to the attention of civil rights groups.” “What was the worst moment?” “There was this man - a cry baby. Oh God, he was pathetic. Did the terrorists kill him? To tell you the truth, we hoped they would kill him - such a disgusting fellow and definitely unworthy to be an Indian.” Aneesh remembered his question to the interviewer, “Will I be hounded by the media?” The quick reply was “Why would they? For them, you are not even a dead coward.”

17
Lovers & Liars
We are lovers and liars We tease, taunt, tickle, caress, arouse, With excuses and sweet lies whispered, Treacherous foreplay and faked orgasms A regular bonnie-n-clyde holding hands. I am the betrayed underachiever, My concubine the unfortunate discard; The impotent and the barren, the rage and the silence; With blunt talons I want to claw and kill, She is the boxer ko’d with no comebacks. At dawn and dusk, we walk on sublime paths, Past graffiti and billboards with convenient truth, In deserted parks with shrubs and weeds, Where lovers kissed there are self-righteous carcasses. We prefer honest liars, giving all without promises. We are liars but lovers.

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After The Assassination
Note: binagupta on Sulekha introduced this as ‘Challenge is for 110 words short story Theme: Traveling with Strangers - must have twist’ May 23, 1991 Joined NLC. She entered bus at Nagercoil. Could not talk. Beautiful eyes, lovely smile. Chidambaram bus-stand was dark, deserted; the bus driver refused to continue. There were rumours. About gangsters, murdering party members, black posters with crosshair, “We’ve an eye on you.” I carried our suitcases. She held a handle, nearly touching. Could not talk. Got a bus after two hours, reached Neyveli around nine, relieved, ready to smile. From the bus, she waved to a handsome young man. I left the bus-stand without looking at her. July 15, 1991 Saw her at Indian Coffee House. She came to my table. (no more entries in that diary)

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One week married, four days alone
Disclaimer: This is again from that folder with old writing - others’ writing (in earlier blogs, I had posted the one on writing and the other on football ). How old was she when she wrote this? 25 or 26? This is not really a tale or a blog. It is not even Xmas eve or Monday. But, it is a grey evening. And, her thoughts float in the still lonely air. Xmas eve. Monday. Grey evening. Harpestry on FM radio. Romantic? It would have been so if I had his company. One week married and four days alone. A loud cousin had warned me about Monday weddings. Not that I listen to such gobbledygook. Not last week. The wedding was a success. My brother and uncles had done a splendid job. Even he smiled. By that evening, things started to change. The reception at his place was too sober, too silent. I didn’t mind it because I was scared of the moment when my people would leave and I would be left all alone to fend against his crowd. Should I go to the bedroom or the kitchen? How long can I hide in the bathroom? These worries turned out to be unnecessary. Soon after my folks left, his folks went to some club to relax, leaving us with a few of his friends. There I was alone in his house while he entertained his friends. The friends left around half past ten. We had a quiet dinner at eleven. I thought I fell in love with him that night. He was great. We had not planned to do it. Around two, both of us rolled against each other and it just followed naturally. Couple of months back, I had asked myself “How long will a guy and a girl stay together in a room without sex?” Two hours, it seems. The next day went by fast - another party, visiting those deemed near and dear and then packing. On Wednesday morning, we left; a heady experience that - leaving behind the known and the loved with a new love on a silent train. Most of our relatives assumed that

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we were going on a honeymoon. I wanted to be with him, wherever. At the station, there were the usual mixture of tears and naughty comments. Heard one of his cousins suggest, “Be tough with her.” Around five pm, he received a call on his mobile. Without any change in his expression, he told me at the end of that conversation, “Have to go to headquarters tomorrow evening. Hope you will understand?” “Yes.” A disappointment doesn’t become one till it is mouthed, does it? On Thursday, we used the few hours available to set up the house and clean. We tried to make love. But neither of us seemed too keen. Around seven pm, he left. On Friday, I joined for work. I got complimented. I hid my thoughts from my boss and colleagues. I got through the day half there half elsewhere. A lonely Friday, a lonely weekend, a lonely Monday followed. And more to come, I suppose, sans compliment, sans thought, sans dream. But I understand, don’t I? I shall understand. I am not the first woman in that state, right? On Saturday evening, I was walking on Main Street, watching couples walk past me. And, the spinsters; I was one of them a week back, the sadness or the naughtiness or the determination in their eyes. No more of that, just blank eyes, mechanical pragmatic moves, chores. Have I already started hiding skeletons in the closet? On Sunday afternoon, I went to a mall, to spoil myself, to ward off a nasty depression. There, I met Praveen. He asked me to have coffee with him at ‘our old joint’. I thought it would be childish not to go. Over mundane conversation and sugarless coffee, I realized how much I loathed him. I had actually forgotten. The sentences became more and more blunt. By the time of the cordial ending, we knew we would never talk to each other again. My first long love, my first long torture, my first long mistake, I think I could not suppress my mirthless laugh. That night, I did not even think about my husband. I was busy trying to stay away from self-pity, my unmarried days’ companion. Self-pity and pragmatism do not mix well. This morning, close to lunch-time, I received a call from Atul, half way around the world. He was a ‘brother’ a decade back, then a stranger worth three meetings. I told him about

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my wedding. He replied curtly, strangely perturbed, and I knew what was coming. “I always thought we had something going.” He must have been between dances, lonely for ten minutes at a party. Not really skeletons, are they? Today, I unpacked my cassettes. This book, too. Back to the old days, right? No. I love my husband. I really do. I do understand him and why he had to go. If there was a chance, he would have stayed. I suppose so. I suppose I do love him.

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Shame You All
I risk losing your attention by beginning with a cliché. But, that’s how fights start in my village these days. It’s either with the groan “It all started when . . . ah! . . . that idiot doctor . . . ” or the growl “On that dark night . . . who . . . damn you . . . wrote that . . . ” Opinions predictably turn into accusations, names of strangers are confused with that of relatives and friends; sometimes within a minute, usually extending hours; these fights had to happen. If it has to enter history books, for once let it be facts. In May that year, Dr. Jose joined the Census Panel which was preparing the questionnaire for the census. Along with the customary questions regarding sex, age, property, profession, income, virility, religion, caste and family, question number 11 asked, “Have you ever been treated for mental illness?” The census was completed before Onam. It took three weeks for the panel to study using computers extensively for statistical analysis. They released a report which included the line, “One in each generation of every family suffers from mental illness.” The immediate response was to quip “As if we didn’t know.” Someone then pointed out some similarity with the plot of a late 80’s movie called Thaniyavarthanam. People familiar with that movie raised the concern, “But, that was for a family, that too only the male and they made him mad, right? Here . . . ?” Reports indicate that at least four families shifted from the village before November. By late-November, seven marriages were cancelled. In one case, the marriage vows were exchanged but the feast was cancelled. A scuffle broke out between the well-wishers of the bride and the bridegroom. The bride suffered severe concussion following a blow to the head and the marriage was annulled. In early December, a reliable source revealed that question number 11 was due to Dr. Jose,

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also adding that Dr. Jose moonlighted as a psychiatrist. New Year’s Eve celebrations were subdued that year and during that night, unknown persons pelted stones and certain unsavoury items at Dr. Jose’s house. To add to the woes of the village, the incident of the nasty writing happened around then. In the village, the temple and the mosque are situated, side by side, opposite to the fish market and the church is situated to the right of the market - somewhat like Palayam, Trivandrum. There is a small space in the middle where a board has been placed for pinning important notices (such as the census report). It was definitely a dark night when someone wrote on that board, in crooked and barely legible bold letters, “shame you all”. The morning after, a large group gathered in front of the board. The majority did not know English and classified the writing as gibberish. Then, a learned person in that group muttered, “Tchah! Who . . . is making fun of . . . our institution . . . insulting our sentiments. Damn!” People, depending on their affiliation, felt that their religion or their market had been defiled. The riots that followed that incident lasted only a week. The intermittent fights that followed the riots understandably injured and killed more. Those are the facts. Some claim that Dr. Jose has a Ph.D. in Chemistry. He tried to incite further trouble by asking, “Who isn’t mad here?” He’s left the village. An unconfirmed source has revealed that the police are working on anagrams and that they suspect Shankunni. He’s the ten year old son of Soman, the rubber trader. Suspected of being influenced by outside elements, Shankunni has been dismissed from the village school. Those who spied on Shankunni’s notebooks found more hurtful stuff. “shame you all”, “a seamy hullo”, “my halal esou” . . . “omallahyesu” . . . this had to stop.

21
I’ll have a Double
I wish I could write well - for you, to you, my . . . ? I know what you are not but I don’t know what you are to me. There is a reason. I abuse those I love, I place my friends on the rack but I am kind and courteous to those I don’t give a damn. Which do you want me to be? I tried to woo you. I did not succeed. I keep reading between your lines for a message just for me. I think of you as my Rosanne but I know that this Cyrano has only got a big ego. I wish I could avoid the double negative “I don’t never go”. I wanted to write a great story for us to last forever but for now, let me stick to my petty troubles of today. Early morning, a stranger and I (or, our respective families) missed a double indemnity. Instead of walking, I had opted for an unhealthy drive to the milk-booth. I remember putting the right-turn-signal at a sufficient distance but I do admit that I did not pay much attention to the rear-view mirrors at that early hour. When I took the turn, I missed hitting a speedy overtaking motorcycle by a narrow whisker. The ruffled gentleman, a few decades younger than me, confronted me with accusations and threats. Little did he know that I have been entertaining psychopathic murderous thoughts and that I have been itching for a fight. But, I surprised myself and the guy with “Sorry”. Before you accuse me of being decent, my parting thought was “Let him stew in hell wondering why I told him sorry.” One of us could have become a martyr so easily, the patron saint of road-rage. One of the reasons for the psychopathic state of this Neanderthal is the ongoing struggle to communicate effectively using modern means and that too, with and without single or double meaning. I do admit that I am a linguistic mongrel but how am I to react to comments or messages with random letters, for example, consider ‘LOL BFF LHSX’. And, those brief messages with smile-y-s? I like to read a sentence and try to guess whether it has subtle irony or idiotic slapstick humour without these visual aids, I mean, the excessive emoticons. The situation gets worse with the inadvertent double entendre when one sends the wrong emoticon/smiley (:-* or :P or :D) to the wrong recipient (your colleague abroad or your better half or the best half with whom you believe you have a ’consensual flirtatious relationship’

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[David Davidar]). What always remain on hard-drive are the lasting consequences and not the actual or implied messages. Unfortunately, these things just don’t go (like shit on your sole, excuse my English and no pun intended) and worse, it’s usually double jeopardy (‘it’s déjà vu all over again’, said Yogi Berra). I blame the Yanks for these emoticons, especially the hearty and friendly type who slap you on your back on the first meeting and greet you as if you are a long lost friend with whom you share (hope to share) everything but (including) underwear if you are of the same (opposite) sex. I prefer the Brits, especially those with a penchant for stiff upper-lip double talk and circumlocution. I do not say “balmy weather, old chum” but like the Brits of my own class, I treat people standing on the wrong side of the escalator with the skill of professional footballers - a dirty look along with a barely concealed snarl followed by a quick kick at the ankles and then exhibit a countenance of such angelic sangfroid. Before you accuse me of being an Anglophile, let me confess that I have clogged many an artery on double dates with jolly Germans sharing eisbein, sauerkraut and pitchers of beer. I stay away from the serious ones, German or not. As for the French, I am still trying to figure out ‘Je t’aime . . . moi non plus’. Back to my early morning trials - today’s edition of The Hindu has an editorial titled ‘Double Standards’ referring to Obama’s action with regard to the BP oil spill and inaction with regard to Union Carbide’s Anderson. Where were the protesters, the media, the government and the opposition during the last 25 years? Why should Obama even think about extraditing an American national to a banana republic where justice delayed is not justice denied? Who is responsible for this situation? Say “I am”. If you say anything else, I will call you double faced. I do not like to think too much about such matters - of the people, by the people, for the people. I believed in the judicial system till it treated me with contempt (and the old judges who condemn as if they are doing you a favour, “Young man, I am taking just a few years of your life.”). I believed once but I no longer live that fool’s life. Now, I kill time cursing the stars and my double helix. I know I can lose my last penny with a double dip recession. For economists, it is like roulette - yes or no, black or white, both are good bets and the stakes are high. There is of course the black swan, the dealer’s zero. For others, it is more like Russian roulette. I am still trying to recover from the shock of the first two sets of yesterday’s Federer-Falla fight. I do not like underdogs, including myself. How many times did I pray for Falla to

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commit double faults? What is left are pettier troubles - how to share a double bed for the usual price; and, how to claim that a double chin makes a well-rounded figure. As for double u, that’s the way I like to see you - after a few pegs of Glenfiddich (whichever year, in a cut glass highball tumbler or a plastic cup - ‘do I look like I give a damn?’ [Casino Royale]). While I have the double, I like to hear Oberstleutnant Anton Grubitz say in that wonderful movie The Lives of Others (Das Leben Der Anderen):

‘I have to show you something: ‘Prison Conditions for Subversive Artists: Based on Character Profile’. Pretty scientific, eh? And look at this: ‘Dissertation Supervisor, A. Grubitz’. That’s great, isn’t it? I only gave him a B. They shouldn’t think getting a doctorate with me is easy. But his is first-class. Did you know that there are just five types of artists? Your guy, Dreyman, is a Type 4, a ‘hysterical anthropocentrist.’ Can’t bear being alone, always talking, needing friends. That type should never be brought to trial. They thrive on that. Temporary detention is the best way to deal with them. Complete isolation and no set release date. No human contact the whole time, not even with the guards. Good treatment, no harassment, no abuse, no scandals, nothing they could write about later. After 10 months, we release. Suddenly, that guy won’t cause us any more trouble. Know what the best part is? Most type 4s we’ve processed in this way never write anything again. Or paint anything, or whatever artists do. And that without any use of force. Just like that. Kind of like a present.’

I know what you would like to ask me: “Why did you include that? Is it a double-edged argument or are you doing a double take?” No, my dear. Simply. Because I can. Simply - that reminds me of:

Why did the duck cross the road? Simply. Why did the duck cross the road and cross it back?

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It is a double-crosser. Why did the duck cross the road, cross it back and then enter a dirty pool? It is a dirty double-crosser. Why did the duck cross the road, cross it back, enter a dirty pool and then leave the pool to cross the road yet again? Simply.

This was an entry for the Annual P-J Competition eons back. (Note: P-J is ‘poor joke’ or in the vernacular ‘ulutha-wittu’.) The winning entry was:

What comes after 69? Mouthwash.

I don’t never go.

22
4% Deal
Let me try to tell you a true tale. Here, in this story, I have given all that I know about the characters. The place or setting could be anywhere. The time might have a constraint - it happened before cell-phones, laptops and messaging became popular . . . when time moved slower with pen and paper bearing the weight of hopes and thoughts the message crossed darkly but not deleted forever . . .

Not really a long time ago . . . *** Every year, before the monsoon, Sreekumar took two weeks’ furlough - from work, from family. He considered those two weeks out of the fifty-two in a year as his 4% deal. Friday, 5:30 pm His boss, the Dean, said, “Sreekumar, have a good break! Go somewhere and you know . . . ” the Dean chuckled and then continued, “What are you going to do, man? Don’t tell me that you have a few books to read in solitary confinement! Arre, you lock yourself in too much. So?”

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“Well . . . sir . . . actually . . . ” Prof. Sreekumar mumbled hoarsely with a voice that had been silent for most of that day. The Dean erupted, “You fool! I really do not know why you waste your life like this. How old are you . . . 35? And acting 75! Go . . . before you make me feel old.” Outside, Sreekumar went past boisterous students and their favourite instructors. They hardly noticed him, the ‘peon’ they called him, in his customary black trousers, white shirt hanging like a shroud, oily complexion, large spectacles and hair pasted onto his scalp. He went to his office, arranged the books on the shelf, filed a few papers and closed the window. He cleared his desk and left it bare. “For the next two weeks, goodbye,” he said quietly. His eyes ached. He tried straightening his back but gave up the effort, exhausted after the last few weeks of concentrated mindless work. He took his briefcase and umbrella, and left the University building. At 6:15, he reached his quarters, a mile away. He did not sit on the bed or anywhere knowing that he might fall asleep. He picked up a backpack, already packed and ready for flight. After bidding farewell to his family, with the usual give and take of instructions, he left at 6:30. He tried to run to the auto-rickshaw stand. The first one in the queue took him on, grudgingly though. “Railway station . . . fast . . . 7 o’clock train . . . ” he said getting the insolent reply, “What? Slept off?” The guilty customer remained silent. Later, he could remember jumping onto the moving train. He had asked someone at the door, “S3?” and got a nod. Further inside, he requested, “Berth 27, please, can you remove your luggage? Please, I have to lie down . . . ” He could remember climbing onto the upper berth, resting his head on his backpack, falling asleep still holding his umbrella and with his shoes still on. At some time during that night, a ticket examiner had nudged him awake with, “Dead? . . . No? . . . Ticket!” Saturday, 6:00 am He woke up thinking that he was screaming. He sat up on his berth. Below him, a family with two toddlers, both screaming, was frantically trying to evacuate with their be-

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longings. “What happened?” he asked from above. The harried father replied with the station’s name. Sreekumar felt like screaming, too, on hearing that the train had reached his destination. He gathered his meager belongings and managed to exit behind the family with two toddlers and an endless stream of bags. He transported his stiff body from the train to the nearby bus station. Apart from stranded commuters and queues of red banners, it was deserted. For the second time, he asked “What happened?” “Strike,” the surly reply rebuked the ignoramus for asking about the ordinary. He stood there immobile, his mind still working on the dredges of the dream from which he had been startled that morning. In that dream, he was reciting Emily Bronte’s poem ‘Remembrance’. He was near two parallel railway tracks. Then, in that dream, he was lying across one of those tracks. Train after train went past him on the other track and he waited for his, reciting the poem on and on. He smiled at the dream. He moved towards a make-shift tea-stall. There, while munching a bun and between swallows of hot tea, he enquired if there was any transport plying between that town and a hill-station a few hours from there. “Only trucks and private vehicles are running . . . try to catch a truck near the highway . . . try the dhaba . . . ” the helpful answers from a few full mouths. No one there suggested hitchhiking on private vehicles. He walked to that dhaba on the highway, about three kilometers from the bus station. By the time he got there, his grimy and sweaty clothes were sticking to his body like second skin. He learned that only one of the trucks there was going to that hill-station, though in a rather circuitous route with a few stops, and that truck’s driver told him that there was no place for him. Sreekumar pleaded with the driver that he did not need a seat up front, that he could sit on the sacks behind. He was informed, “You will be in a sack by the end of the journey.” Sreekumar replied that that would be fine, too. “Choose your own burial,” he was told. They bargained amicably about the fee for that. At 10:00, he was told to climb onto the back and to sit tightly in a corner. For the sake of appearance, he laid a few newspapers on the floor before taking seat. He secured his backpack and umbrella and found for himself a few good handholds and footholds. The driver proved to be a true specimen of his species - without care for the natural beauty outside,

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manhandling the gears and brake, screeching and swerving, overtaking dangerously and treating hairpin bends as suicidal as possible. In the first hour, Sreekumar was threatened by nausea. In the second hour, his muscles gave in and he lay back, feeling paralyzed from head to toe. After that, the journey did not produce anything new. With assured fatality, fatalism seemed sensible and when that failed, he tried to think about his good luck in the present state - the list was short -not wet, not stranded and the road trip had to end. The journey ended at 5 pm. The driver and his two aides climbed onto the back of the truck and woke Sreekumar, or rather, brought him to consciousness. “Saar, should I take you to hospital?” he was asked kindly. Or, he thought he was asked that because there was a humming in his ears. He felt punch drunk. He got down from the truck and sat on the ground for a while, a sorry figure hugging a back pack and an umbrella. After twenty minutes, he realized that he was at the market in that hill-station. Ten minutes later, he tried standing. A cycle rickshaw driver offered a ride. Sreekumar had had enough of rides on wheels. Tired, dirty and hungry, he started on his way, walking slowly and with increasing steadiness and purpose. At 6:30 pm, he reached the gates of the resort. A young security guard shooed him away. Sreekumar and the guard stood on either side of the gate staring at each other, saying nothing further. An older security guard came to this tableaux a few minutes later, looked at Sreekumar, recognized the backpack and the umbrella, and said, “Professor, sorry, sir. This idiot is new.” Sreekumar entered the grounds. Saturday, 6:30 pm Gopalakrishnan and his wife Aswathy were seated near a window in the foyer of that resort. They had had a long day of hiking. They planned to have a quick early dinner before going to their room with amorous hiking in mind, that is, if their body would allow. “Where is Sudarshana?” asked Gopal, reaching for a magazine and hoping that this wait would be brief. Aswathy replied, “She is calling home to find out when her lot will join her here. It is a shame that she had to come alone, with us, and now this strike . . . ” her voice trailed off.

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She, who was facing the entrance and the counter, stared at a man entering the building. “Isn’t that your friend?” she asked her husband. Gopal replied with little interest, flipping through the magazine, “Which one?” “That lecturer, I don’t remember his name. After our wedding, he took us out for a good lunch. And later, he refused to come to our house because he didn’t want to bore. Or was it . . . get bored? I think it is him . . . but he is looking . . . yuck!” By this time Sreekumar had reached the front-desk and Aswathy decided to stare in a more discreet manner. “Sreekumar . . . here . . . ?” Gopal queried with pleasure. He stood up, studied the bedraggled state of the man with a smile and then, shouted at the man when the latter moved away from the front-desk, “Abhey saala, Sreekumar.” Sreekumar raised his head wearily, looked at the source of the pleasantry and approached slowly, “Gopal” he acknowledged. Both decided against contact. “What have you been up to? Rolling in the market? How did you get here? Arrey, you remember Aswathy, right?” Gopal asked, without pause. Sreekumar wearily replied, “I cannot take friendship at the moment. See you tomorrow.” With that, he turned and proceeded to the lift. He waited for the lift, allowed a person to step out before stepping in. In his room, he undressed and put on a bath robe. He had already requested at the front-desk for Saradamma, the cleaning lady. When that lady appeared, he asked her, “Saradamma, could you please take care of this?” He handed over a plastic cover with his stinking clothes. “If you see Murali, please tell him to bring the food at 7:30. And if I do not answer the door, tell him to check if I have got out of the bath.” The cleaning lady said, “It is good to see you here again.” “Same here, same here . . . ” and then he added, “Is your grandchild still with you?” he handed over a packet for the kid and accepting that the lady left, nodding her head and smiling sadly. She was glad to see Sreekumar again but each time she hoped to find him in a better state. Meanwhile, downstairs, the person who had got out of the lift joined Gopal and Aswathy.

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Those two were comparing notes as to whose friends were the craziest, the rudest, the meanest . . . Both stopped abruptly and smiled guiltily when Sudarshana asked, “I hope I did not start that discussion.” “You are an angel compared to some we have just met,” Aswathy gave an accusing glance at her husband, “did you notice that chap who got into the lift?” “No, I was thinking about something else. Didn’t notice . . . ” Sudarshana said with a resigned tone. “So, when will they get here?” Gopal asked Sudarshana, trying to switch from the talk about his friend. “It seems this strike is going to be a serious affair. Since this afternoon, even private cars are being stopped, it seems.” Sudarshana replied, half-convinced. “Arre, don’t worry, they will be here in a day or two. Now, let’s go for dinner. I am starving. And I want to go to bed early today. Tired . . . ” Gopal tried to sound convincing. ”How did that guy get here?” Aswathy asked, not wanting to let go of the earlier topic. “My dear, do you want to go to his room and ask him?” Gopal retorted, slipping his arm around his wife’s waist. “Will I go to the Devil? Sudarshana, you should have seen him . . . ” Aswathy explained. Sudarshana smiled and followed her friends to the restaurant. She was thinking about how to make the best out of her situation. Maybe, this was the break she had been hoping for - to do absolutely nothing apart from what took her fancy. Lonely, maybe; but for a day or two, it might be good - the solitude. She could read. Maybe, even sketch. And, Gopal and Aswathy were not bad company either. She and the couple had reached a tacit agreement regarding the amount of time they will spend together. Sunday, 5:30 am Sreekumar woke up with an old dream. He sat up and leaned against the pillows. The good dinner and the comfortable bed had done him a lot of good. After his ablutions, he did some stretch exercises, tried a few sit-ups and push-ups. He went down to the main

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pool outside. It was empty. He stepped in and let his senses succumb to the morning chill. He pushed against the pool wall and swam slowly, like a cripple being helped by a physiotherapist. The months of neglect protested and he was not foolish to ignore that. He knew that he had lots to do to exercise his mind and body. He kept to the sides, allowing himself to gasp and rest at frequent intervals in that hour there. Then, he returned to his room to get ready for breakfast. At 7:30, he left his room. In the lift, he looked at himself in the mirror with a bit of surprise - clean shaven, rarely used trendy spectacles and his hair left in a ruffled state; casual cream-coloured khakis and a wine-red T-shirt. He went to the restaurant for the buffet breakfast. There, he started piling his plate. Murali, the head waiter, greeted him. The waiter then whispered to him, “A couple over there has been staring at you for some time, sir.” Sreekumar replied, “Friends, Murali, just friends.” With his heavy plate, he made his way to the table where Gopal, Aswathy and Sudarshana were having breakfast. They looked up as if they had noticed him just then. Sreekumar greeted them with, “Let me first apologize for my behavior yesterday. I hope you will give me a second chance . . . ” Gopal, who was familiar with his friend’s avatars, smiled and introduced the ladies. Aswathy, probably due to some awakened maternal instinct, forgot all grievances and beamed at the man who had taken a seat and started to devour food like a teenager. She encouraged Gopal to join in that boyhood custom. Sreekumar’s journey and old anecdotes provided topics for the morning chit-chat. When Sreekumar laid his fork and knife down, Murali flitted onto the scene, removed Sreekumar’s plate and left him with a mug of coffee, its aroma filling the air around the table. Sudarshana, who had largely remained silent till then asked, “How did you manage that special stuff?” “Would you like a mug, too?” Sudarshana nodded. Sreekumar caught Murali’s eye and indicated with a gesture. When her mug arrived, she asked, “Are you a regular over here?” “Not as regular as I would like.” Seeing her raised eyebrow, he added, “I can manage this only once a year.”

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“And for how long have you been doing it?” Aswathy asked. “Since I could afford it . . . ” the vague reply. After coffee, without any enquiries about each other’s plans for their stay, they parted. Sreekumar went to his room, collected his washed umbrella, packed his camera and left for a solitary walk, after collecting a packed lunch from Murali. Meanwhile, the other party had gone to their rooms. Gopal and Aswathy invited Sudarshana for a visit to an aunt’s house. The latter declined the offer politely, informed the couple her approximate whereabouts that day and went to her room. She planned to try sketching. She left her room carrying a college bag with the articles for sketching. She had seen a spot the previous day. It was a little away from the walkers’ trail, leading to the hill-top, but still within sight of the hotel. She settled down after laying a cloth on the grassy slope, still wet with morning dew. The mist was rising from nearby hills. She waited for the picture to impress on her mind - the trail leading to the hill top, through dense trees, and above the tree-line, a bald top with the gnarled remains of a single tree. She would have loved to go there. Something told her that the view from that tree was even better. But for that day, her sketch would be of that tree, she decided - about promises that lay ahead. If she had not been absorbed in capturing the details of the tree, she would have noticed a man on the other side of the tree, leaning against the trunk, remembering promises. Sunday, 4:30 pm Sudarshana and the couple, Gopal and Aswathy, were resting under a shade in the garden. Aswathy was complaining to Sudarshana about Gopal’s aunt “ . . . his aunt thinks that we should be taught how to have babies . . . ” Sudarshana thought about her day and smiled at her friend. Her sketch had not turned out well - too ambitious for a rusty talent but she was glad that she had tried, and confident that it would get better. She had returned to the hotel for lunch. She had called for room service. Later, she had what she described to Gopal and Aswathy as “a refreshing afternoon”. Gopal nodded sagely and Aswathy raised an eyebrow at that phrase.

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The couple had returned around 4:00 after the “boring” and “horrendous” visit, collected Sudarshana from her room and reached their current state of repose in the garden, munching samosas and sipping hot tea. They saw Sreekumar exiting from a building in a corner of the gardens, quite close to where this group was seated. He approached his acquaintances after reminding himself that he should try to be polite for a while and acknowledge their existence. “Gymming, macha?” Gopal enquired. “Just relaxing in the steam bath . . . ” He enquired about the couple’s day and got an account of their time with “agony aunt”. Then, he asked Sudarshana who seemed to have drifted away from the group with her own thoughts, “Did you finish your sketch?” “Didn’t know you are a peeping-Tom . . . ” she replied defensively, rather insecure about her sketching. “That tree over there, right?” Turning to the other two, Sreekumar explained, “I was on that hill. I saw her looking in my direction. I waved to her but she did not acknowledge. Then I tried jumping and all that, but she just turned away. This poor Devdas had to drown his sorrow in his tears.” He said this seriously, even though he did not expect the others to really believe his tease. “Oye Sudarshana, how cruel,” entered Aswathy. “I am sure he was not there.” Sudarshana retorted, though half-puzzled. “Aargh, I have become invisible.” Sreekumar gave a mock cry. Gopal asked, “Where were you, saala?” “I swear I was there.” Sreekumar then asked Aswathy if Gopal could join him for a drink. She replied, “Only one.” And when he enquired, “That’s a tight leash . . . one per day?” She clarified with a

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resigned tone, “One per session.” The men agreed and promised to be back soon. After the men left for spiritual pastures, Sudarshana spotted a piece of paper, neatly thricefolded to fit a shirt pocket, near the spot where Sreekumar had stood. She picked it up. “This must have slipped from his pocket . . . ” she said aloud. She placed it on the table. Aswathy eyed it with curiosity. Aswathy remarked to Sudarshana, “That Sreekumar . . . there’s something troubling him . . . I can see it in his eyes.” When Sudarshana did not bite the bait, she continued, “At first, I thought he is the kind who goes for the other woman . . . ” Sudarshana replied to that, “I am sure his other one wonders about his another one, too ...” Aswathy ignored that easy and flippant conjecture, “Then, I thought he is the kind who tells a woman “Yes, I was in love with you.” . . . but, it is not that . . . it is a lost love . . . I am sure . . . ” Sudarshana just smiled at her imaginative friend. “Is that Sreekumar’s?” Aswathy leaned forward and took the paper. Sudarshana did not even try to tell her friend that she should not pry. Aswathy opened one fold and read the writing on one quarter, reciting with emotion and the diction of a school-girl,

At the Wedding of my Love Stop! Raise your chaste lowered eyes, On this altar feel as fever of forever need dies. Burning our illicit love in that wedding fire, Add blood, sweat, us naked raw to that pyre.

“See, what did I tell you?” Aswathy exclaimed to her friend. She opened another fold. This time, she read silently. “What is it?” Sudarshana queried, now curious herself. Aswathy read with a low voice,

Bid adieu to naughty love of life

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I am now relation, my love, my wife. Stop! Raise your chaste lowered eyes You spies!

Sudarshana burst out laughing. “Well, I guess he knows you as well as you know him . . . ” she ragged her friend. Aswathy folded the paper neatly and placed it on the table. The men returned soon. Sudarshana handed over the paper to Sreekumar without a word. Aswathy maintained a regal composure and silence. Sreekumar had a dead-pan expression, too. The foursome decided to try a restaurant in town for dinner. There, when they were midway through the main course, two unsavoury characters entered the place in an inebriated state. They sat at a table close to the four, talking in a loud vulgar way with explicit comments about the ladies. Sreekumar told his fuming friend, “Gopal, don’t fall into the trap.” “Those bastards should be given a hiding, man.” Gopal replied, with clenched fists and his teeth gnashing. “Listen to me. Let’s leave, ok?” He called the waiter and settled the bill. The comments from the other table were getting louder and more vulgar. Gopal and the ladies stormed out. The group walked silently to their hotel. Sreekumar trailed behind the three like some pariah. At the hotel, they parted company. Gopal and the ladies went to the couple’s room. For ten minutes, they brought out the rage within. They realized that they were still hungry and ordered sandwiches. Murali brought them a tray of succulent sandwiches. They were still discussing their nasty experience. Murali set the table and before leaving, told the three, “You are lucky. Those men are crazy local thugs with no sense or fear of law. Three years back, they stabbed a guy in a similar situation, went to jail for two years. They will go back again. I think Professor sir was here at that time.” He left after that. Aswathy edged closer to Gopal, caressing his shoulders, as if searching for the stab he would have suffered. It was Sudarshana who finally broke the silence,

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“We treated Sreekumar quite dreadfully, didn’t we?” The other two nodded like obedient puppies. After a few minutes, Gopal told the ladies that he was going to apologize to Sreekumar and left the room. But he could not find Sreekumar. Gopal returned to his room, told the ladies the situation, for a while they sat gloomy before deciding to call it a night. Monday, 7:30 am Without waiting for the couple, Sudarshana went alone for breakfast. This time, Sreekumar was already there, having breakfast, reading a newspaper, his relaxed body showing the signs of physical exercise. His swimming was now facing the last hurdle - an old block, a breathing action he had never bothered to correct. Sudarshana brought her plate and asked him if she could join him. For a moment, he leaned back, just stared at her, as if he had to think a lot. After a while, she told him with a smile, “While you are trying to decide, let me take a seat.” They had a quiet breakfast and it was only when their mugs of coffee were brought to them, she asked, “Where were you last night? We wanted to apologize.” “For what . . . ?” “For preventing that fight . . . Murali told us about the thugs’ reputation.” “I had no choice. I don’t enjoy getting my clothes dirty.” Sreekumar answered with a smile. “Not even for the honour of ladies?” she countered. “Not if they pose a threat themselves . . . ” he argued. “Now, we are getting to the point . . . ” “I prefer to beat around the bush.” “How can the oppressed be a threat?”

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“The mock oppressed ready and waiting to be the oppressor . . . ” “Scared, you are,” she concluded. “Woman, you are,” he reasoned. With that, they raised the white napkins, as if calling for ceasefire, wiped mouth and left the table together. Outside the restaurant, they met Gopal and Aswathy. The apologies and other light banter followed. The couple had received an ‘urgent’ phone-call from the aunt demanding their presence at a larger family gathering. Aswathy forecasted another course on pregnancy. Gopal cursed himself, “I have the only relatives who do not believe in contraceptives,” and after some thought, “they are out to screw me . . . ” “Can I ask you for a favour?” Sudarshana asked Sreekumar once the couple had left the hotel. “Your command is my wish.” “I have heard that before. Can you take me to that tree on the hill?” For a while, Sreekumar’s face became blank and his eyes seemed to look through her, at someone behind her. “Do you always have to think so much when I ask you a question?” Sudarshana asked giving no hint that she had noticed the strange look. “Of course, my lady . . . But, you have to promise that you will fight any thug that will come in our way?” “Anything for you, my knight...!” They made plans to leave at 9 and return for lunch. Neither of them made any suggestion of a picnic. Sudarshana wondered for a while whether she had forced him into a situation he did not like. But felt consoled by remembering that Sreekumar had dismissed niceties with Gopal and Aswathy.

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As for Sreekumar, he was asking himself, “Why didn’t I say no?” Monday, 9:00 am Sudarshana realized soon enough that the trek uphill through the dense foliage was quite arduous. Birdsong competed with her grunts and groans. She thought she saw monkeys peering or were they squirrels or large cats or mongoose? The trees seemed alive, the ground too. At one point, she saw a pile of elephant dung. “Wild elephants?” she queried. Sreekumar offered studious silence instead of security. After fifteen minutes, she realized that her legs were beginning to cramp. He suggested some stretch-exercises. Sweaty and dirty, she cursed her morning wish. They hardly talked. He did not bother to be chivalrous. He allowed her to tackle on her own those dangerous ledges with steep falls, on that slippery muddy path. Worse, they seemed to be lost. For some reason, Sreekumar had decided to try a new route. He consoled her with an unconvincing “go up, come down, simple . . . how can we get lost?” “Don’t you know the way?” she asked. “Not really,” he admitted, “each time, I try a different starting point and path.” “Fantastic!” she taunted. “It’s good to be strangers - even with a path -

These banyan trees with peeling bark, Entwined vines, branches and roots, I prefer not to cross them twice To find them uprooted or with an axed notch; These naughty rascals the life within, Those peering eyes, lurking danger, The rustling leaves, chattering cries, They compare and mock, my many lives; I the husband-father, I the worker-boss,

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I the lonely voyeur, I trying to be me, They compare and mock, At them, I can smile But I prefer not to cross them twice -

It’s good to be strangers.” “So, what do I have? You the fool, me the lost?” she accused, feigning disinterest. He gave her a look of mock anger, squinted eyes, sulking mouth trying hard to suppress a smile. “Well, well, you the lost? What are you anyway?” he parried. She gave a mirthless laugh, “Nothing, right? A non-entity . . . ” He did not let go, and prodded, “I have to be the one who knows the way -

A serious wit or a man of steel, I should treat you like my image, Or a restrained selfless safe shadow; My words should rest with gravity, You will speak while you hear little; You can try to be the aggrieved, But you do not deceive me with frailty,

Why do I have to be the one who knows the way?” She looked at him with flaming eyes - tired and exasperated - not ready to let him have the final word, not realizing that she was biting his bait, “Tchah . . . stereotypes and misconceptions, thy name is man . . .

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These trees and I, for you An old used textbook chapter? Blue skies, green canopy, Vales and dale, brook and willow, My hair these vines, My arms these caressing tendrils, The birds and the bees, Remembering pulp romance? A few four letter words Used, misused. I am not a girl, a woman, a mother, A wife, a lover, a womb, a vagina, An idol to worship, serve or curse. Am I trying to shock you? I am not a role For your stage Or any stage. Of right, wrong, norm, deviant, Of values, debt, trust, loyalty, Of past or present memory, real or virtual, Of explanations, justifications, Of relations, love, friend, foe, Of utility, used, futility, fate, I want to be me too

Or, is that your domain alone?” “Good! We agree on one thing at least,” he said. When she did not reply, he continued “Fine words searching for meaning, like a search for the soul-mate,

Why are we born in chains? From one role to the next Isn’t that the old line?

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The face of love Fables and morals define Familiar features On an easy mould; That’s the tragedy Each role is an easy part. Give me one I pray, just one: Without barter, without give-n-take, Without promises, without vows, Without a black book of credits-debits; Friendship do you suggest, Russian roulette I suggest, Get away you blood-sucking parasites; Love do you suggest, Bluff I suggest, Get away you symbiotic dead. This is in the Scriptures It is in the Book of Trouble; But, this one I pray, just one: Not to share trouble, Not for stale jokes, Not to judge, not to weigh; One without pretense, One to trust, One with faith, One even Death cannot part; Is that Utopia? It is about the precious fragile, The dew on the flower on the branch On the tree on that hill on and on;

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For some, it’s their senses, their feelings, For some, it’s them, their own being, But it’s both, the being and the senses. When ‘you hold that one’, The senses take ‘hold’, With ‘you’ and ‘the one’ separate, Is that it? Feel the fragile within - ‘you’, ‘hold’, ‘one’, Stress each without strain, The fragile feel within - ‘one’, ‘you’, ‘hold’, That is not Utopia. That is not role play. It is tough to be real.

When I hold my soul-mate, will I let it go?” Sreekumar and Sudarshana resumed their journey and reached the edge of the tree-line at around 10:00. She was exhausted, exhilarated and gave a whoop of joy. He turned around from a little distance ahead, looked at her with a spreading smile and said, “You have bird-shit on your face and front.” She glared at him, searched in her bag for a mirror. She had left it behind at the hotel, along with the rest of her vanity kit. Sreekumar came close to her. He took a bundle of tissues from his backpack. He wiped her face, slowly, with a light caress, cleaning her cheek, her jaw, the right side of her neck, her collarbone, a few specks on the collar of her shirt; he opened a button and wiped the last below the collarbone, a little above the right rising heaving breast. Then, he used another set of tissues with water and cleansing soap. He buttoned her shirt at the end. They looked into each other’s eyes a few times but they did not speak. For some, this is a 4% deal. Some will call this a light and charming adventure or the beginning of a swift, fleeting love affair. For some, it is not 4%.

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They stood together, near the tree-line, where there is a brook, but with no willows. They reached the top, untroubled by seasons, the moss always velvet, the branches always gnarled, the view sublime. Sreekumar reclined against the tree. Sudarshana sat near, letting her hair loose against the wind, shielding her face. They hardly talked. Sreekumar napped or scribbled in a notebook. Sudarshana sketched eyes that spoke strangely. Monday, 5:00 pm Sreekumar and Sudarshana returned to their hotel at 2:00, had lunch in the restaurant and then, went to town for shopping. At the front-desk, they left a note with the message that they will be back by 5:00. Gopal and Aswathy returned at 4:40. Their day had turned out to be surprisingly good at the aunt’s place. The couple decided to wait in the foyer, meet their friends and then go to their room. Around 4:50, it started raining. Five minutes later, they saw Sreekumar and Sudarshana walking quickly, in the rain, for the cover of the hotel. He was carrying his umbrella, as usual, but it was not open. The four met near the entrance and exchanged brief notes about their day. Sreekumar and Sudarshana mentioned that they had had tea and heavy snacks at a delightful tuck-shop in town. The four decided to meet the next morning since no one was keen on dressing up for dinner at the restaurant. Around 10:00, that night, Aswathy asked the cuddling Gopal, “Why didn’t he open the umbrella?” Gopal thought of evading with a curt reply but he was curious, too. “Are you going to remain silent?” his wife prodded. “Sreekumar is a decent chap. He won’t touch her.” Aswathy turned and faced him with a look, ready to defend her friend. He added quickly, “Don’t you crucify me now. Why don’t you go and ask your friend?” Aswathy did just that. She slipped into a dressing gown, leaving Gopal punching the

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pillows. She went to Sudarshana’s room and knocked on the door. When Sudarshana opened the door, Aswathy asked, “Sudarshana, so sorry, but do you have a band-aid plaster? Gopal got hurt.” “I thought it is the girl who usually gets hurt . . . ” She has been with Sreekumar for too long, Aswathy thought. Sudarshana got her a bandage and saw that Aswathy was looking around the dimly-lit room. “Don’t worry, Aswathy, he is not hiding beneath my bed.” Blushing, Aswathy blurted, “Oh no, I didn’t think that. Gopal told me that Sreekumar won’t touch you.” “Yes, he won’t . . . ” Aswathy did not wait to understand whether that was an observation, a question, a challenge, an amused whatever it could be. Aswathy returned to her bedroom, removed her gown and crept in beside Gopal, hiding her face deep in the pillows. Gopal smiled in the dark but he decided to keep his mouth shut. Tuesday, 7:30 am Gopal, Aswathy and Sudarshana were having breakfast. Sudarshana informed them that her folks would be arriving that evening. Sreekumar entered the restaurant around 7:45 and joined them with a heavy plate. “Man, I am hungry. Nearly two hours in the pool. Fantastic.” “Sudarshana’s family is coming this evening.” Aswathy blurted. “Good. Good. Good.” His meal or the pending arrival of her family, no one cared to check. The usual talk ensued and when his mug of coffee arrived, he asked Sudarshana, “Is the sketch over?” “No.”

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“Do you want to go to the hill-top?” “Will you take me?” “Yes.” “We will be back by lunch-time,” Sudarshana told the couple. The rest of the days Sreekumar tried to correct his breathing motion but without any success. On one day, he joined the others for dinner. After 4 days, they left. He stayed on for another week and left wearing black pants, white shirt, with an umbrella in his hand and carrying a backpack. He looked at the gnarled tree. “Till next year, my love . . . ” Author’s note:

• 2/52 is definitely not 4%. • That reminds me of an interview question: if the interest rate is r %, in how many years will your money double? The answer is based on the ‘rule of 72’. The interview question is: Why 72 and not 69? • This question is typically used as a ‘loosener’, to make the candidate relax. And, at the end of the interview, the relaxed candidate would invariably ask the question, “Five years down the line, where will I be?” Well, there’s only one reply, right? “Not with me.”

23
A Walking Tour
Bangalore (circa 20th century) From Sadashiv Nagar to - [Shivaji Nagar or Majestic?] - (Bus number 100 or 104?) - does not really matter but good to get it right. From Shivaji Nagar bus depot, it is a short walk to St. Mark’s Rd. At the first cross-road, near the street with cheap furniture stores, a man is beating his wife to the ground. He does not kick but his slaps are loud. She is crying loud but she refuses to cower before him, getting up like a nearly KO-ed boxer, giving back with a guttural hoarse tongue. He kept on slapping, not her face but her arms and back. A young man in the gathering crowd, Iyengar says the stamp on his forehead, approaches the couple; to help, to break the fight. The wife turns on him; the husband ignores him; it is not his fight; the crowd laughs, agrees and cheers for the fighters. On St. Mark’s Rd, there is Koshy’s coffee-shop and there used to be the British Council Library on top. Further down the road, past the oil pump, there is a liquor shop that veterans trust. It is too quiet to listen to other’s stories in the Lib, but it is there at each table and the characters and tales are kept for later reference. Sit for a while at Koshy’s, in the middle or in a far corner never elsewhere, feel the old colonial railway waiting room. Listen to regulars and try to look like them. Hear about the drama guy’s cake-shop and his dogs and his friends; the new steak joint with rare meat and the way to cut and taste the blood; the latest writer, poet or painter, groovy stuff man; and, some look so damn earnest about the damn dams and the bloody poor. Even the regular irregulars there think of trying that lifestyle. Note it all down for reference. Across the road, at the Bengali sweet shop, a lady of fifty tries to be fifteen. A young couple outside argues, before the impassive magazine vendor. She says I want rosogolla. He says no, I hate Bengali women, they make me fall in love with them, I hate Bengali men they try to be men. She laughs, come on, she says, my Bengali man. A few steps from there, there’s Premier bookstore with the nice man who will let the poor

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reader browse for long hours, even whole books on multiple trips, and gives discount irrespective of the buyer’s English accent. On the left, there’s fiction. A girl and a boy definitely not size zero, share the narrow space with one foot on the floor, the other entwined while she looks for du Maurier from M and he searches for Neruda from a misplaced Steinbeck. He reads to her, from Neruda’s Lone Gentleman,

Young homosexuals and girls in love, and widows gone to seed, sleepless, delirious, and novice housewives pregnant some thirty hours, the hoarse cats cruising across my garden’s shadows like a necklace of throbbing, sexual oysters surround my solitary home like enemies entrenched against my soul, like conspirators in pyjamas exchanging long, thick kisses on the sly.

She nods with thoughts elsewhere, replies with a glassy stare, from Daphne’s Rebecca,

Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderly again . . .

They talk, giggle, disentangle and silently promise never to meet again. Further ahead on Church St., there’s the place which serves light phulka and heavy mutton curry. Before that, a famous video-turned-DVD-no-CD store (Habitat, is it?). Three young men and a lady browse together among those shelves. One man and that lady were desperate to get away, for sex, excuse the French, make love, it is called (right?). Meet them later many years later. They live happily ever after, with cute young kids, married to a rich another from their own different hometowns and religions. There are two kinds of men, the one who thinks about the morning after and the other who does not think. The second man belongs to the first kind. The other three laughs at his story that is yet to begin. Decent man, married, nasty divorce, lost half his pension, fell in love, married again, divorced, lost half of the remaining half of his pension. Well, he is still got a quarter to slice again, they console gleefully. The third man is a hybrid. He picks out three DVDs (Unbearable Lightness of Being, One Fine Day, Private Lessons) for an all-night session holding himself tight.

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Retrace your steps, walk up to MG Rd, past McDonald’s, now boarded and closed, where a couple discuss their divorce plans and how they should get together. The Spencer’s gave way to another chain. There’s a phone-booth in between where a man screams at his wife on an outdated phone, choose me or your job. Then, there’s that tall building with a pub on the 13th floor. Or, walk arm in arm, like the Wild West, to the cool shade within to steal a kiss or whisper sweet nothings. On Saturday nights, young drunk men shout from a balcony on the top floor, “Why am I with him and not her?” Hear the echoes down below. Further ahead, near the old Plaza theatre, a married couple stops. She wants to check out new saris at Deepam, she demands her due. He sweats, distracts her and quickly signals to the man in the alley, not now says the furtive signal. The man in the alley hides his package of pornography beneath the second-hand books. Two young men leaning against the railing stare at her sari-clad figure. She notices their stare, she glares, they continue to look from head to toe, lechers, she smiles; her innocent husband oblivious of this whole episode. At the junction, turn right and go along Brigade Rd. There are pubs on each side-street; each with its pseudo-theme - space-shuttle or hard rock or wannabe cool - with the same draught beer in same pitchers. It’s the same groups - small-town guys wide-eyed losing virginity, B-school guys with their college chums some a miserable reminder of fancy ideals or long hair-n-beard or borrowed philosophy, et al. Still on Brigade Rd, there are old kids with new jobs showing parents and relatives their brave new world. Some still try out the old small malls, the cake at Nilgiris, windowshopping at the expensive fruit stall, cheap shops with pirated stuff to get something for those who could not make the trip. On the left, there used to be dancing halls with women with vacant eyes and clothes considered scant in the old days; below, you might meet homely women in traditional Kerala saris and sandalwood paste on the forehead. Do not smile at them, it might cost you. Go past all that and to the left, there are more famous pubs, Karavalli restaurant for a fishy meal with expensive appam for that rare occasion and an ice-cream parlour. And, to the right, there is the old cheap Hotel Empire for late-night food, just do not be a vegan and just stick to the usual. Back on MG Rd, past Cauvery crafts shop and past the pub where guys dance with each other, it is a long straight road to Kids Kemp at the end or Strand bookshop somewhere on the right (it is after Oberoi, right?). That is past Standard Chartered Bank and the other offices. There is a way to go to Shoppers Stop from there. And, on that road, there is

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an Indian restaurant famous for chicken legs wrapped in silver. Listen to young working women there for lunch complain about bosses with drifting fingers and promotions in suspended animation. Before that and the tall building with a theatre and a rotating restaurant, there is a small lane with restaurants that promise to be affordable. Near the bottom of that lane, there is a place that serves Andhra thali; another more exclusive lot, with a common kitchen probably, for Andhra (fish curry and plain rice for INR 120), North Indian (try Sikander Raan), Chinese (lovers croon, “Oh, so shady, so nice”). The scene is not really different - suburbia, young loving couples, whole families, it might appear boring for the undiscerning but there’s a peculiar tale at each table. The Chinese joint in the middle of that lane serves good Chinese tea. At table one, one young man tells another about unrequited love and the pain that will last till the next day. Far from them, a couple; the man confesses his love, the woman says we were kids then, the man agrees. The woman cries, says she is in love, she does not know what to do, she begs. I love a man of another religion, she admits; I do not know what to do, she asks. The young man seeks revenge and advises her to stick to her love, to go against the odds. She listens to him, cries more. They leave together, like good friends. He is heart-broken and he does not know that there is one on table one, too. She is happy, she calls home, she cries and protests, tells her parents about her affair but for her parents who did everything for her, she will do whatever they have arranged for her. Now, with a full tummy, catch an autorickshaw and say ‘Sankey Tank’. It will cost twenty five rupees. But save for that luxury return journey. As you fly past the traffic policeman with a kindly face and a big moustache (killed in action, you heard) and the Golf course, you are ready to doze or think about your day spent scavenging for stories.

Author’s Note: This is not about Bangalore. It was the same story in Berlin or London or Mumbai or Delhi or Corsica or Trieste or any goddamn place. There’s only one comment worth hearing: whose story is it?

24
The Problem to State
I have to write this quickly. I wish I had the time to tell everything or to write this well. Did it start three weeks back? Or, when my team was dismissed eighteen months back? Eighteen months back, I had a meeting with the Minister. It was a brief meeting. It lasted one full sentence. “Your team is dismissed and the case is closed.” If he had looked defiant or smug or even apologetic, I would have lost my cool. But when I saw the defeated look on that face, I felt sad and even betrayed. I had walked out without a word. That case had started as a common case of large-scale corruption. But, the case turned out to be like Hydra of Lerna - for each head cut off, it grew two even more vicious heads. Corruption, money-laundering, the people involved could paralyze the executive, the judiciary and at every echelon of the State including the private sector. The violence and murder was so ruthless and if compared, even the famous terrorists might look like innocent suckling babies. But, when it was time for the final action, we were dismissed. A few team-mates even suggested vigilante action or about going to the press. But, we knew that it was wishful thinking - that it was an irrational ineffective thought (and embarrassingly sensational, too). Three weeks back, we re-grouped after another meeting with the Minister. Why did I say that it could have started eighteen months back? When we re-grouped, we were like hungry dogs, snarling and barely leashed. Maybe, the Minister knew that, too. The meeting with the Minister, three weeks back, was again brief. It lasted five sentences.

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The Minister started without any pleasantries, “We have received information from very reliable sources about a problem to State. Large funds, from an unknown source and to an unknown destination, are pouring in to destabilize and cause irreparable and everlasting damage. We do not know the nature of attack or the assailant. All that we know is that we are going to be the victims. Find out the problem and neutralize.” As for the team, I cannot divulge too many details. The team does not have any fancy name nor do we wear RayBan glasses. I was given the freedom to choose a ‘suitable’ lot from anywhere, viz. any state, any department. It was not some stupid national integration exercise. They are the suitable means to meet the ends. Our job does not require us to be politically correct. Is there any guiding HR policy? I can only give you an anecdote. A senior colleague briefed me about this incident, “We were in a crowded lift in the Admin block. That guy who joined with me, myself and that new recruit - that female, you know, that chubby friendly thirty-something who calls everyone, even you, beta. The other guy was standing next to her and started groping her. I thought of intervening. But then, I saw her hands caressing his ass, too. At that moment, I felt disgusted with her. But then, I saw her hand jerk upwards and I saw that guy spluttering and coughing, eyes filling up, screaming silently. Boss, she had pulled the hair between his buttocks.” I guess that’s our HR policy. I know that even I would not be spared. There might be a few helping hands too, I guess. Soon after the meeting with the Minister, the team had a meeting. The agenda was simple, “This is a brain-storming session. I have told you what the Minister said. That’s all we know. In this brief session, I want you to state a problem, your first thoughts and assessment if any, please . . . ” There was silence. I continued, “It must be staring at us on the front page of today’s paper. Come on . . . what could be the problem to State?” We were sitting in a circle and started clockwise. One said, “Cross-border terrorism including nuclear arsenal. The armed forces are prepared for this. Casualties can be large, but is it irreparable and everlasting?” Two said, “Kashmir and the other areas with such problems. Again, the problem is known and it could be managed.” Three said, “Same with Ayodhya and such cases. It is not new though it could really hurt. If the State does not know how to handle that, then we deserve to be damned.”

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Four said, “Internal power struggles, economic conflicts, the huge rich-poor divide. It is scary if the Naxals are aped in the cities. But jobs or money or infrastructure might do the trick, the rich and the poor think about money equally . . . probably even the middle-class . . . anyway, they will follow with no thoughts of their own . . . ” One entered the fray again, “Credit and banking bust . . . large-scale unemployment. But, is that a common problem now? Painful - yes; everlasting - not really; irreparable - no.” “Come on, what else is there on those front pages?” I goaded. Five said, “Identity theft and hacking, revenge of the plastic and the chips? I wonder if that will really affect lots or even be a huge security threat in India.” Three added, “Invasion. China. They are really growing muscle. I wonder why they would want India and all its problems, though.” Six said, “Break-down of moral values and old institutions, borrowed culture, sex, freedom, divorce, suicide. It is tame, right? Sorry . . . ” Four came back in, “Global warming, green or anti-green terrorism . . . but that is a global problem, isn’t it? Sure to be damned but who is bothered!” Six re-entered, “Hey, there is an advert on the front page. Some new institute . . . Education, man, how about that, I mean, the breakdown of that? Hey, we know that we are degrading everything, we are chasing mediocrity and we want to be the manager of mediocrity. Who wants R&D, even a proper higher education? Are there teachers who learn and teach? Do we compete with the best? A whole generation is being mutated right before our eyes and every future generation seems doomed . . . ” Two joined in, “What about good old corruption? Mafia - human traffic, land, sand, liquor . . . but that’s part of us, isn’t it? That’s just the good and the ugly, il buono il cattivo . . . we need the bad, il brutto . . . ” “Come on, ladies and gentlemen, what is the problem to State?”

25
My Father is a Good Man
Last weekend, at Chennai airport, I saw Shreya and her father - the girl I should not remember and the man I want to kill. For thirty one years, I have harboured that thought. But now, like a serious matter losing relevance, I have to write before the ink fades on that memory. What remains seems like a silent movie with shadows acting. At that time, we lived in Borneo - an island divided and administered by three countries: Indonesia (more than 70%), Malaysia (the two big states of Sarawak and Sabah) and Brunei. When I jog my memory, it is not the best or the worst which comes to mind but two rather irrelevant memories. I remember that, in those days, Brunei did not like to recruit Malayalis because of ‘their communist inclinations’. Around the same time, in Sarawak and Sabah, the government was facing the danger of secession and also, communist protests. The government had even passed an order declaring that communists would be shot-at-sight. Even with such conditions prevailing, the people from Kerala were not viewed with a single label. Thanks to that, my father worked as an engineer for the Sarawak government and he even received the medals for long-service and good-service from the Head of the State. My second memory is of the Iban, an indigeneous tribe of Sarawak. At one time, the Iban used to be a fearsome warrior race famous for headhunting and piracy. My father used to tell us that the Iban were a simple lot, quick to please and even quicker to anger; he called them the original human, worthy of trust and loyalty, before becoming primitive like us. We were occasionally invited by my father’s Iban sub-ordinates for simple meals at their longhouse. On one of those visits, to express their affection and respect, my father was presented with a parang, a sword more than 100 years old, well-designed for one handed

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use and probably, with a few human heads to its credit. I used to wish for that parang as my inheritance. The place where we lived was too small to be a town and too big to be a village. There were two Indian families and the rest consisted of Malays, Chinese and Iban. Shreya’s family was the other Indian family. Shreya was my classmate from lower kindergarten till primary three. Her father worked in my father’s office, in the clerical or accounts division, and both of them reported to a Chinese boss named Mr. Chung. I used to hear my parents discuss about ‘irregularities’ in the accounts division and about some confrontation between Mr. Chung and Shreya’s father. My parents and Shreya’s folks rarely socialized. But, my parents treated Shreya like a daughter. Since we were the only Indians in that town, she had to be my girlfriend. I did not complain because she was beautiful, dusky; with lovely black eyes and long lashes; and, she could smile and laugh the way I love. We never played doctor-and-nurseor-patient because she wanted to be the doctor all the time. I used to go to her house for books, jigsaw puzzles and her cycle. She used to play with me in our three-acre compound, treasure-hunting on the green slopes under the shade of huge wild trees. She allowed me to be the guide and her protector. Once, I asked her if she is a Tamil brahmin. A Tamil chettiyar, she proudly corrected. I asked her what it meant, brahmin or chettiyar. We were eight or nine then and neither of us knew. She asked me about what I am. I don’t know, I remember saying with a defeated low tone, my father told me that it is not worth knowing, I added weakly. In that village-town, my family used to be invited for a party nearly every other week. My parents got along well with nearly all. We used to have parties in my house too, including the day-long party on Diwali. I used to call Shreya but she could not come without her parents. Of those days, I also remember my mother arguing with my father’s ‘bad habit’ of not saying ‘no’ to those who ask for money. Every month, a week after pay-day, I would see my father being approached for small loans. The Iban used to return. Most of the others tried to return with chicken or meat, fruits or vegetable. My father used to take me with him to his office when he had to check on some work on holidays. I used to hear him shout and rage with his famous temper. But I knew that it was not really serious. Without my father’s knowledge, I used to receive sweets from his co-workers. They used to tell me that my father is a good man.

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It was a Friday when everything started. Shreya and I were resting inside a freshly-dug pit at the edge of the compound.

- Sree, I got a new jigsaw puzzle yesterday. - (envy and silence from me) - It is different . . . it allows for three different pictures . . . depending on how you start at the center . . . - Wow (curiosity won the battle). . . can I play with that . . . with you . . . - But, you have to show me one thing . . . - What? (what could I have) - Will you show me the headhunter’s sword . . . the Iban parang?

That evening, while my parents were entertaining some guests, I took my father’s parang from their bedroom cupboard and smuggled it out within my Yonex racket case. It was with great pride that I displayed the sword in her room. Shreya had to beg real hard before I allowed her to hold it in her hand, with my hand over hers to make sure that she did not drop it or hurt herself. We heard someone outside her room. I took the sword from her hand. I didn’t have enough time to put it away in its case or within the racket case. I hid the parang beneath Shreya’s bed. It was Shreya’s mother at the door and she informed me that I was wanted at my place. The next day, I went to Shreya’s house at around ten. Shreya told me that the sword had been there beneath the bed the previous night but that morning, the parang was missing. We searched together. When she cried, I wanted to cry too. At noon, I told her that I will return later that day to search the house more thoroughly. That afternoon, heavy equatorial rain caught us by surprise, and by evening, the villagetown seemed like one big muddy flooded playground. But, it was a common affair. At about six, it was quite dark outside when my father received a call from Mr. Chung for some urgent document. I begged my father to take me with him. We went in our old Beetle. At the office, I was told to remain in the car. My father entered the office through the front entrance. There is another entrance on the right, close to the back-gate, and I saw

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someone exiting the building that way. It was dark and raining. But, I caught a glimpse of the face in the bright search-light placed at the gate. It was Shreya’s father but I could not be sure. A few minutes later, I saw a police-van and an ambulance rush into that office compound. I sat in the car for a few more minutes while I watched more police cars enter the area. Curiosity got the better of me and I left the car. A constable prevented me from entering the building. A senior policeman there recognized me. Maybe, he had seen me at some party. He ordered one of the constables to take me home. He told me that my father would come later. Nobody asked me anything else. During the days that followed, I heard that my father had found Mr. Chung dead, hacked to pieces. The police were trying to get more details from him. I was assured that he would return to us soon and I believed that my father would return. I saw Shreya a few times but I did not tell her or even my mother about seeing Shreya’s father that night. It did not seem to matter and I did not want to cause any trouble for Shreya. In all that confusion, I even forgot about searching for my parang. A week or two later, I heard a Chinese lawyer talking to my disconsolate mother.

- I advised him to go with my story about an Iban. - (my mother was weeping) - I told him to say that he saw an Iban, one of those sub-ordinates, being reprimanded by Mr. Chung and in a flash of anger the Iban had chopped Mr. Chung. But he won’t listen to me . . . can you make him listen? - Don’t you know that he won’t agree to such stuff? - What la, you know it is going to be difficult . . .

A month later, I read the ‘whole’ story in the newspaper about how my father had a fight with Mr. Chung, how he killed him with his own parang which was found at the scene of the crime. My father was not even able to explain how the parang had reached that place. The rest of the columns described my father as a bad man, a hot-blooded man known to have fits of anger and even a suspected communist. It seems that he was ‘cool’ enough to take his son to the office and even ‘bold’ to call the police himself. The senior policeman came to our house to question my mother on one of those days. When he was leaving, I approached him. I told him about how I had lost the parang. I told

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him about seeing Shreya’s father. The policeman held my shoulders kindly. He told me that my ‘girlfriend’ had also phoned him to tell him about how the parang was lost.

- I do hope that you and your girlfriend have a better time ahead of you. But, do not tell stories like this, ok? Another person in my place might not take it lightly. - But, it is not a story . . . - Listen, young man. You are now accusing your girlfriend’s father? I know why you are saying that . . . maybe I should ask your girlfriend about that . . . stop it! Do you understand what I am saying? The next time, I will not be so kind . . .

My mother and I left the country a few days after the execution. I had stopped meeting Shreya long before that. I heard that Shreya and her folks also left for Australia a few months later. Last week, at Chennai airport, I saw Shreya and her father - the girl I could not forget and the man I wanted to kill. She came to me and said,

- Sree, it is me. Shreya, remember? - (silence) - Your father was a good man, Sree. - I know.

26
I Miss Competition
I miss competition. The half-crazy man sitting at an adjacent table in the restaurant, half-turned in his chair, told us that, “I miss competition. To die a gladiator rather than keep alive a drunken raconteur with false tales of old fights.” Most of us, customers and waiters, were watching the 2010 Commonwealth Games on the wall-mounted TV hoping and waiting to see the finals of the 100 metres sprint event. But we missed it, didn’t we? The half-crazy man stood up with disbelief and anger plainly visible on his face. He settled his bill at the counter leaving his dinner barely touched. On his way out, he came swaying to our table and leaned towards me. I could smell liquor and tobacco in his breath. “How could they do that? Don’t they know what it is like - the 100 metres sprint?” I remained silent and motionless. “Ah! Eight at the starting line, wild dogs barely domesticated, flared nostrils, the crouch, eyes focused on the string 100 metres away, the rhythm of the crowd, the thumping of the heart, springing from the starting block, do you remember Ben Johnson’s start, then 9, 10, 11 seconds, for us it is just that, seconds, for them, it is eternity, thoughts of victory, defeat, niggling worries, even domestic problems, drugs, steroids, alcohol, issues, everything, of course, the training of months, of focused thoughts, motion, just twenty, thirty strides, just five, ten breaths, you feel the air more than the ground, and then that string, how you stretch your neck forward to feel that liberating noose . . . ” Then, he stood up straight, remembered to breathe, turned around and left the place. I wiped spittle from my face and the waiter came and changed the plates, spoons and

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knives. Then, our meal was served and I did not think about the half-crazy man till later that night. We went to bed early and I was lying sleepless, remembering “I miss competition.” ˇ I thought of the competition of my lifeEnot any race or sports . . . I am not really the sporting kind. I remembered the debates with her. We competed against each other for five consecutive years, from Std. VIII till Std. XII, in the annual debate competition. That was the only event in our school where boys and girls from the five years (Std. VIII-XII) competed together. There were four houses and each house selected their four best speakers. It was a prestigious event with a trophy named after some big guy. It was held in the school auditorium and the audience was allowed to give a whole-hearted response. A speaker had to be ready for hearty applause, nasty comments, booing and hooting and, the dreaded chants of stop-get-lost. We were in the same grade but different divisions and we shared the same school bus. I remember that first competition in Std. VIII. I had seen her around but I had had no reason to talk to her (it was not cool, either). She looked like one of those characters in fairy-tales pony tail, smiling, petite, charming, prim and angelic. On stage, we made the perfect pair, the beauty and the beast. The topic for that year - corporal punishment - turned out to be one-sided (even then when it was the norm rather than the exception). I was against and her team had to speak for. It was a disaster because the for-side wanted defeat more than the against-side wanted success. When it was my turn, I had little to do by way of defeating arguments and I could leave reason aside and go for the emotional stranglehold. I took the stance of a defense lawyer, placed the image of a school-child in the dock, pleaded my case against merciless predators and by the end, I had the audience on their feet, baying for cruel teachers’ blood. The members of the staff were squirming in the seat. She spoke after me. She did not raise her voice. Damn, she sounded like Mother Theresa! She narrated an incident involving the most benign and motherly teacher in school and how even she had to send a student outside the class. Even she, that teacher, made that boy stand a few feet from the wall, bend at the waist and touch the wall with his nose. The

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whole school knew that it was me. She stuck to reason and arguments after that. At the end she asked softly, “Is there a student here who is like me - who thinks he/she can be a small devil at times and might face corporal punishment from a caring teacher - could you please stand up?” The same devils that had bayed for blood now stood up en masse seeking her endorsement. That’s what the common masses are like! Our team won that year and I won the best debater award. But, I knew that I had got it for the wrong reasons. I went to her and snarled, “Next time, I will defeat you.” In Std. IX, the topic was the death penalty with my team for that and she against. Then, my world was black and white without shades of grey. I had no reason or experience to suspect authority nor did I have any idea about subjectivity or relativity and I believed that justice could actually be absolute and true after much deliberation. During that year, she and I attended the second-language period in the other’s class (mine Malayalam and hers Hindi). The day before the debate, I took her seat during that period. I opened her bag since I wanted her diary or notebook with notes of her team’s plans. On top of her books and tiffin-box, I found a loosely covered pack of sanitary napkins. I closed her bag quickly and left it beneath her chair. We lost the debate that year. Much later, in life, I realized that I used her points whenever I talked against the death penalty. During that competition, I realized that she had opened my bag during that second-language period, looked at my diary and spied on my team’s strategy. I guess she knew that I would close her bag without searching for her diary. The next year we fell in love. Well, being in love was a different matter then. The phone in my house and hers was meant to be used, like telegrams, for emergencies. Though I tried to write poetry, I was not daft enough to show that to anyone. Her house was out of bounds. There was no way to talk to her in the school bus or at school or anywhere outside. Being in love meant that I did not look at any other girl and that my gang of friends was not allowed to talk about her or comment at her in my presence. She reciprocated my effort with a nod or a smile once in a while. By the time of that year’s competition, we were madly frustrated and raring to go at each other’s throat. The topic that year: separating the State from religion. I, the believer with nebulous and self-serving faith, managed to win speaking against. She, the atheist, speaking for ended up sounding like a rabid believer. We did shake hands after the event but we shook off all pretense of love, too. In Std. XI, the topic was censorship. My team had to speak for and hers against censorship

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of books, movies and what-not. For me, all that mattered was the competition. Ideology and principles came second to that. We were the team-leaders and took part in the toss. When she won the toss and chose to speak against censorship she added, “Only guys like him can speak for that.” The competition was bitter. Even the audience felt the animosity and remained aloof and silent. My team won that year. I cheered as loud as I could. But her silence was more deafening. I swore to hate her all my life. During the Christmas vacation, she phoned my house. My father called me to the phone with a surprised accusation, “A girl.” I stuttered to her, “Hello.” She said, “I just called to wish you Happy Birthday.” I replied, “Thanks . . . same to you.” Well, I was more used to greetings like Happy Holidays and none of my friends ever remembered my birthday. Anyway, she had delivered the message and disconnected. We resumed where we had left off. I avoided other girls religiously and she smiled. In Std. XII, the topic for the debate was communism. I had to speak for and spoke like Che though my guide at that point of time was Ayn Rand. She spoke with great fervour against communism though I could see her clench her fist behind her back, her nails probably drawing her own blood. We split the audience between us. The judges invited by that middle-class school tilted towards her side and she won. Since it was our last year in school, we bought cool-drinks for each other at the school canteen. We gargled and spat the first mouthful, trying to remove the bad taste of our speech. Then, we enjoyed the rest in quiet silence. Does this story end here? Or, did it end when we sat next to the half-crazy man who said, “I miss competition . . . ”

27
Chennai, here I am . . .
November 12, 2010. I reached Chennai at 4 am. I have decided to be there. I should have informed about my participation. But, I think it will be nice to surprise. Hi, I am NN . . . NN who? NN . . . Arjun . . . Arjun who? Never mind.

I checked in at my hotel at 4:30, took a nap till 5:00, performed one’s ablutions, dressed casually and stepped out onto the balcony. Morning mantras in the air, the lethargic rise of the morning sun shaking off the light cover of mist, women bending over at the waist and drawing kolam, I took this in as an auspicious start. I called the front desk and asked for a taxi. I had to see my old sights. The bus stop in front of the girl’s school; the theatre where I saw Poltergeist sitting between a drug-addict and a stoic reviewer who kept uttering “Ah . . . nice . . . ” after every horrific scene; St. Thomas Mount (I recollect that my last visit was at midnight . . . police had restricted entry after dark because of a simple murder there while I was in town). Everything has changed in Chennai, too. I got back to the hotel in time for breakfast. I have a day to lie back and think. One, I have to control myself. At such meetings, I usually make myself conspicuous with “So?”

I am an Indian woman with at least one husband, one kid and lots to do at home and office.

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So? I am old and friendly. So? I have won the Booker Prize and the Nobel Prize. So?

For the next 48 hours, I have to think about business models. Recently, I read a wonderful article called “Can Poetry Matter”: (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/print/1991/05/can-poetry-matter/5062/). Though this article is specifically about the decline of poetry in America, it is of relevance to other communities such as scientific communities and social networking sites with a philosophy or business model that includes creative writing. Since the creative writing pages here are within a social networking site, it is not surprising that these pages exhibit the characteristics of a “subculture publication”. Hence, there will always be personal connections between the reviewers and the authors they select. Most comments will tend to be positive. There will be clubs within clubs. It is expected and quite necessary for a business model that is based on social networking. Further, the business model deals with “blogs”. Bloggers are not readers and they are not expected to have the time or the inclination for reading. The creative writing/short stories/expressions pages should continue to meet such needs. With any social networking site of bloggers, the sheer mass of mediocrity will frighten away most readers. There will always be talented writers and they need honest opinion, feedback, criticism and proper reviews. Of course, they need readers, too. Instead, if they are given the usual applause with the usual hands, they will remain faithful bloggers, if not talented writers. Every generation of bloggers on any site will talk about the good old days and the good writers who disappeared. Every judge will claim that they are not really equipped to judge and hence, a bad judgement should be excused. Some will even claim that good socially networked people cannot make good creative writing pages and that they make only good former spouses. But, that is the usual background noise.

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I will have to think about the issues that would interest me. I would like to suggest that the review process should not be an anonymous process. There is no harm in knowing one’s judges, right? It will only lead to mutual respect, if any. At the least, I would be able to stay away from the blogs of my judges and try not to judge my judges in a proper fashion. For the first time in my life, I will participate without being a nuisance. I want to learn how to write. I want readers, proper criticism and some way for my writing to last for more than 24 hours. I don’t want anything else. I have no right to be a naysayer. For that, I have to be a social animal. Anyway, I shall wait with bated breath for the resolutions passed at this Meeting at Chennai. Till then, I shall not write. Ah! Why did I write this? Wish I knew . . . Now, let me lie back and think for 24 hours . . .

28
Path of No Return
The first time I saw her she guided me away from the path of no return. That was in the last week of January, 1985. I was on a ‘cruise’ from Cochin to the islands of Lakshadweep. The cruise itinerary included 4 islands; ‘fun and frolic’ on an island during the day; and, onboard the ship at night while crossing from one landmass to the next. The trip cost me four hundred rupees. While making the ‘deck’ reservation, I dreamt of sleeping on hammocks under starry skies. The ‘deck’ turned out to be a huge dormitory with rows and rows of berths within the cavernous hull. As neighbours, I had friendly agricultural merchants transporting their produce and purchases. On the first night, I tried to count the number of hands in each cluster (kola) of bananas hanging from frames and cross-beams. On the other days, I was tired after swimming, exploring and walking and did not need that to sleep. The common toilets and shower area were reasonably clean. The food served in the canteen was fine - for breakfast, bread and jam or uppu maavu; for dinner, ‘ration’ rice (found a dead baby cockroach only once) with vegetable and curry (looked like fish curry or maybe it was vegetable curry). I had lunch at government tourist hotels or small tuck-shops on the islands. Each day, the ship anchored in the deep at a safe distance from an island. At sunrise and sunset, the cruising lot was packed into a small motor boat for the journey to and from the island. I guess life-jackets were uncommon then. We never saw one. On the third day, we were returning to the ship against the tide (was it from Kalpeni or Kavaratti?). It was a terrifying ride. Today, I might compare it to an out-of-control bloody-scary roller-coaster ride. I have stood with awe on many beaches, delighted with the lashing waves and scared of the under-currents, whispering “Kadalamme, Rakshikkane” (“Mother Sea, Please Save”). But, in a small boat on the high seas with no sight of land to comfort, the violent deep inspires lesser and more common thoughts appreciating the true sublime magnificence.

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On the row in front of me, a young lady retched. Her husband held her tight with his left hand and held his own seat even tighter with his right. Two boys sitting next to me sang Hindu and Christian prayers. I lost my favourite cap to the wind and the rough seas. I held on to the boat, not even thinking of reaching for it, watching it bob away from me and disappear. I thought that it would be easy for me too, to escape like that, slipping and bobbing away, forever, to somewhere far away. I noticed her then. She was sitting two seats ahead of me and I could see her profile. Her hair roughly caressed by the wind covered her face; her light translucent blouse stuck to her skin like grease-paper; her face was serene, with a wisp of a smile not of amusement but plain secret delight, her eyes contained that smile too; her young untroubled face expressed freedom and hope; and, she did not seem to have any worries about mortality. I forgot my own fears and my plans to escape. I kept on looking at her, amazed and enthralled, till the boat reached the ship. In the rush to get inside the ship, I lost sight of her. I did not see her for the rest of that journey, maybe hidden in some place with a no-entry sign for me. Then, I saw her again a few weeks back, much closer to home. About forty kilometers from Trivandrum, in a backwater lake with a strip of land separating that and the sea, there is an island. It is a small island, roughly half a kilometer in radius. It is about a kilometer from a pier on the mainland. There is a small old temple in the middle of that island. The Trust that administers the temple has appointed a priest to conduct prayers on the first of every Malayalam month. But, devotees can visit on any day. This temple has two peculiar features and one strange belief associated with it. The first feature is that the sanctum sanctorum, with the deity, is never closed. The second feature is that there is only one way to enter this island - there is a boat (vanji) and a single boatman who can bring the devotee here from that pier on the mainland. The belief of devotees is that a person with true faith will not return from that island. The island is called Thirichu Ella Thuruthu (Island of No Return). I went there few weeks back. Maybe, I was like most people who visit knowing that they will return. But I felt that my own belief or faith, whatever it might be, was irrelevant.

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I guess I was standing on that pier wondering about that when I saw her again. She came out of the pay-and-use toilet there. To the right of that, and at a fair distance, there is a roofed waiting area. A man, with a kind and friendly face but with no inclination for small talk, runs a makeshift tea-stall in that waiting area. The stall has a gasoline stove, an old kettle, few glasses and plates, and two or three steel vessels with that day’s specialty. It was idli (with sambhar or chutney or chamandi podi, I guess) and vazhakka appam on that day. She asked the man for a glass of tea, strong. I heard her ask him about the boatman, too. I heard him reply that it would be best if we (the waiting devotees) went to the boatman’s house to inform the boatman that we are waiting. She asked him for directions to the boatman’s house. I watched her while she talked, while she sipped the hot tea. She looked older, of course. But, it was her, I knew. Those eyes, the smile, her small frame and the way she slips her hair behind the right ear. I studied her face and her body. She must have seen me by then but she did not look in my direction till I approached her. “Are you going to the boatman’s house? I am also waiting for him. Can I come along?” I enquired. “Yes, that would be nice,” she said and added out of custom or as if it was her place to be hospitable, “will you have some tea, too?” I shook my head and waited for her. Somewhere along the way, I asked her, “Were you at Lakshadweep about twenty five years back?” “No. I have never been there. Why do you ask me that?” “Never mind, I must have seen someone like you.” I said. Why is she hiding the truth? The boatman’s house was a hut. A lady was washing clothes outside near a well and beside her, a young man was brushing his teeth with umi-kari (roasted paddy husk and salt). “Is the boatman here?” I asked. The woman gave an angry look towards the hut, “Hopeless drunkard. Sleeping like a

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corpse . . . ” (“Mudiyanaya kudiyan. Shavathine ppole kidakkunnu . . . ”) I expected her to spit but she did not. “Will he come to the pier today morning?” my companion asked. “Who knows . . . wait till ten . . . that is his usual time.” It was only eight in the morning. I looked at the young man, “Can you take us there?” “After he dies . . . ” (“Angeru chathittu . . . ”) came the quick harsh reply from the lad. We walked back to the pier. It must have been our common predicament that made us stand together and talk. I pointed at a board nailed to a coconut tree near the edge of the pier. I asked her, “Can you read that?” We went closer. She read the writing on that board: The Gita, Chapter 8, verse 26:

sukla-krsne gati hy ete jagatah sasvate mate ekaya yaty anavrttim anyayavartate punah

“What does it mean?” I asked. She hesitated and thought for a while, “I am not really sure . . . well, I think it’s something like . . . there are two eternal paths for mortal beings . . . the day and the night are symbolic of that . . . it is given in the Scriptures . . . the two paths are the path of return through rebirth and the path of no return through union with God.” I told her, “Sounds like Greek to me.” She laughed. Watching her laugh, I was reminded of the young girl’s expression. She has changed. The smile still entered her eyes. But along with that, there was also sadness or weariness or the hard weight of experience or knowledge or . . .

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It brought back my initial thoughts about the purpose of my own trip. As if to extricate myself from that impasse via association or combined study, I asked her, “Why are you here?” She looked surprised with that question. A stranger asking a personal question, it must have sounded like that. She looked away from me, looked towards the island, at Thirichu Ella Thuruthu, and remained silent for a long time. I accepted her silence. It was after all none of my business. I sat on the ground, leaned against a coconut tree, watched her and thought. I should admit that my thoughts were not really virtuous. When I was young, I believed in going to temples with a virtuous mind; later, I stopped going because I could not manage that; then, I resumed going resigned to the fact that I could only be myself. I must have laughed at my petty thoughts. She looked at me and asked, “Do you believe in superstitions?” “Not really . . . ” I replied without hesitation. “I don’t. But recently, I think I found a reason to believe . . . ” I avoided wisecracks and wisely I kept quiet. She continued, “It started 12 years back.” “What?” I prompted. “Whenever I thought about one particular . . . thing, I faced a disaster.” “Aha! Tell me that you caused 9/11, 26/11, Bush, Lehman . . . ” I quipped. She looked at me with a serious face, clearly wondering whether she should continue. I raised my hands in apology and silently begged her to continue. How could she under-

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ˇ stand that I was trying to cover my own discomfort by jokingEher tale was sounding a bit too familiar. “Mostly personal tragedy . . . relationships breaking, job failure, accidents, long-lasting bad luck following a brief tease of good fortune, loss of wealth, loss of those near and dear . . . one by one, till there was nothing . . . at first, I looked at it as mere coincidence or at worst, improbable chance. I even checked and tested . . . brought disaster on myself voluntarily . . . through that thought . . . but I still refused to believe . . . ” “What happened then?” I asked. “Now, I have nothing left to lose . . . but . . . I lost even that thought . . . it is like its force is spent or that it had had enough of me . . . ” “What was it . . . that thought . . . what was it about?” “The only person I loved . . . I was not supposed to think about that . . . till I lost all . . . now I can . . . but, it is gone too . . . strangely, I seem to believe now . . . ” “This person . . . ?” I asked. “Dead . . . ” By then, I was not sure whether the voices had flipped. Was it me or was it her . . . who talked about the lost thought? We did not talk after that. At ten, the boatman did turn up, washed and cleaned but surly, smelling of yesterday’s liquor, still unsteady on his feet but steady enough to do his duty. Unlike our first boat journey, this ride was smooth gliding. I returned alone and I do not think I will see her again. The second time I thought I saw her she guided me to the path of no return.

29
The Blogger I Never Forgot
Today, I had reason to remember that blogger I forgot. I checked on this portal if that blogger’s blogs are still there, before I sent a note, after I realized who it is. I am surprised that I vaguely remember the last blog of that blogger even though I have totally erased the rest from my memory. It had been a rather abnormally hectic morning. Both my kids are in town and their spouses and kids too. I had to take my spouse for the six-monthly check-up, ‘over-all servicing’ as we call it. I was actually glad to reach my office by ten, though I had taken the morning off. Then, I had three hours of bliss with work and meetings. At one, I grabbed my usual sandwich and a cup of hot chocolate at the cafeteria and relaxed in the lounge. I flipped through the magazines on the table, munching and drinking without tasting. I chose the newspaper with a literary review in the supplementary pages. On top of the page, there was an obituary of a famous writer, ‘the son of the soil’, it claimed. The work and life of the dead writer was shrouded within the obituary writer’s opaque scholarship. On the right, in a box, I went through ‘the best 10 books’ of this month. I had read one out of those ten. Or rather, tried to read; I could not follow the modern English. In the middle, there was a scholarly essay about modern translations ‘without Victorian prudery’, certainly not my cup of tea. At the bottom, an article about ‘the elusive Garbo-Salinger of twenty first century literature’, with encomiums such as ‘a style like that of Mishima, Rushdie, Allende and Kerouac all rolled into one, blended but pure’, ‘a truly global voice breaking frontiers and barriers’. A photo, ‘a rare

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one’, along with a review of the latest book and excerpts from five different novels, and ‘each a new genre of its own’. I had not read those, not even tried. I stay away from that kind. I went through those brief excerpts. For a moment, I suspected my sense of déjà vu to be wishful thinking. Expressions, word-play, humour, the confusing voice, the play with a reader’s mind - a silhouette I once cherished. But, I doubted myself. After all, when we see someone famous we really like or when we read or see a great work, don’t we try to project ourselves onto them or that work, and don’t we try so very hard to feel that that is about us, too? But, I know that it is the blogger. The blogger I forgot. I do remember that I was the first to comment on that blogger’s blogs. I don’t remember what I said. The reply was gracious, a bit stiff as if shy of praise or doubting whether I had actually read the whole blog. I had not, I have to admit. But, that’s how it is. On a blog, ’to be or not to be’ is wasted tautology. I commented on those blogs rather frequently, whenever I chanced upon it, maybe once every five or ten blogs or so. I could feel rage in those words and at times, sheer disgust; and a search for something, or someone. Maybe, there was a need for insulting but true criticism; maybe, begging art to touch upon that work; maybe, waiting for a good reader. We used to send personal notes to each other. We even flirted, knowingly of course. I realized that I did not know whether I was still hetero- or whether I had turned bi-. I still have those notes along with the rest of my virtual memorabilia. That blogger knew a lot about me. I don’t think I really cared. The blogger used to post frequently when we used to exchange notes. Today, I checked; 100 blogs were posted in thirteen months! Well, the notes dwindled, the blogs too got rarer and I had other things in mind. Then, that blogger disappeared after posting the last blog. When I read that last blog, I hated it, I felt used. I did not comment. I did not send a note. It didn’t help that I was feeling down and out. It was about us, about what we could have done, about what I meant to that blogger. Of course, it was well-disguised - only I know the truth, thank God. I read the rest of that newspaper article. The blogger had received his first award, for a short story, and I noted that it was awarded a month after that last blog was posted. Then, a collection of short stories followed, it seems. The first novel came out nine months after

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the disappearance. I wonder whether that would have happened without disappearing from my blog world. I hope I had helped in some way. I took that article to my office. The company has blocked most social networking sites but for some reason, this portal has escaped their attention so far. I think the blogger’s account is still active. I logged in and read that last blog. Then, I sent a note to that blogger with the text and subject line having the same content, the blogger’s full name. I read the blogger’s last blog once again, titled ’The Blogger I Never Forgot’. Author’s notes: I believe that there are very few thoughts which have not been thought before in a better way. I plagiarize; therefore I am. What about this? I am sure that there are various sources but the primary one seems to be M.C. Escher’s Drawing Hands (For Escher’s work, the official site seems to be: http://www.mcescher.com/. The 1948 lithograph Drawing Hands is shown in the Picture Gallery under “Back in Holland 1941 - 1954”.)

30
Sati and Siva - Love and Frailty
Author’s note: Till date, I have tried not to venture into the genre of religion and mythology because of three reasons. One, I know that I will fail to capture the essence, meaning, symbols and intricately weaved complex contradictions contained in the original texts. Two, you and I are not mature enough to tackle the original subject. Three, it’s tough not to sound like a preacher unless I pretend to be a scholar; and, I know that I am neither. A few years back, I was captivated by the legend of Sati and Siva1 and the brief tale that follows is based on the same. I have done little other than to remove wonderful details in the name of simplicity and there might be some details included which are ‘proceeding from the heat oppressed brain’, as the Bard would put it. If you spot levity, please bear with that congenital handicap of mine. *** It was the glorious age after the fall of Man when the gods had to think about creation. And it was not an easy matter (then or now) to bring together the two best candidates. Brahma had to compel Daksha to give his daughter Sati in marriage to Siva, the Great God and ascetic. Sati herself was the reincarnation of the Great Goddess. She became Daksha’s daughter on one condition: ‘if ever in future Daksha should show her less respect, she would cast off her body and withdraw into her inmost self, or take up another shape’. Pre-conditions always return to hurt. But, that pre-condition is not part of this tale. Brahma was fortunate to find in Sati a willing accomplice in the plot to domesticate the ascetic. From a young age, Sati was devoted to Siva. To conquer the Supreme Ascetic, she became an ascetic. With severe austerities, her intention was not to withdraw herself but rather to draw Siva to herself. I have not read the Siva Purana. I remember reading about the original story in ‘Siva: the Siva Purana Retold’ by Ramesh Menon and ‘The Presence of Siva’ by Stella Kramrisch. In fact, I have not even read these books completely. I have also plagiarized ‘frailty’ from the section titled ‘Sati’s Frailty’ (page 310) in Kramrisch’s book.
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Brahma did not consider himself fortunate with the entrusted task of convincing Siva that his time is up and Brahma nearly cried, “For God’s sake, you just cannot continue like this - every man has to marry, all the other gods have done so and they cannot let you go free!” Siva, stroking his blue neck, was actually confused. Just the thought of marriage added a few creases to that fair handsome face. He knew of Sati, of course. Which guy would not know the girl in the neighbourhood especially one like Sati, the dark beautiful enchanting devoted Uma. But, “Me married? I need freedom not bondage. I am neither here nor there, I have Yoga. What use do I have for a loving wife?” But then, he thought of his devotees, “They need it - for them, it would be meaningful.” He kept stroking his blue neck, possibly feeling choked with the thought of what lies ahead. He thought a great deal more and then he made the common request of prospective bridegrooms, “She must work (and, be a Yogini) when I work (that is, when I practice Yoga) and of course . . . ” shrugging slightly and smiling a little, “she must be a loving woman when I indulge in love.” Brahma gave the clichéd huge sigh of relief. “Hold on . . . ” Siva said. “Oh . . . oh!” Brahma thought “Here it comes . . . the demands . . . ” Then, Siva demanded for that which no man before or since that day has ever asked, “The day she doubts my words, I will abandon her.” Another set of pre-conditions! Brahma agreed with Siva’s demand but he did not think that it would be a good idea to share that with Sati.

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What’s the next scene? The guy had to meet the girl, of course. Siva interrupted Sati’s intense meditation and asked her, “Girl, what do you want?” It was the glorious age when the girl stammered and stuttered. Siva understood what she was trying to say and granted himself to her. She found her voice then and said, like most decent girls, “You have to ask my father, you know?” “I know.” Siva replied with a smile. Well, there were the usual “Are you good enough for my daughter?” kind of looks from Daksha but Siva was not a proposal you could refuse, as the Godfather might say. The wedding happened, Siva and Sati ‘knotted’ and all that. One helluva couple, everyone blessed! It was tough for Siva to live that life of contradiction, a husband and an ascetic. But only He could do so. He loved her like no man has loved a woman before or after that time emotional, physical, erotic, spiritual, gentle, playful, understanding, trusting, respecting and, Sati reciprocated with equal fervour. Siva told her stories, played games and tried to share with his life-partner his philosophy, his experiences and his mission in life. The honeymoon period got over and it was quite natural that Sati expressed her discontent once or twice. She was not really comfortable with his ways and thoughts, especially about maya and all that. Then, his abode was not exactly cool; rather cold, wet and unsheltered, wasn’t it? Spring turned into summer and on of one those hot days, while they were taking a stroll in the forest, they came across Rama who was searching for Sita. Siva recognized Rama and Siva bowed - after all, it was Siva who crowned Lord Vishnu as the Lord Of The Universe. But, for Sati, Siva was The Lord and she wondered why her lord should bow to this strange man. She asked Siva,

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“Why are YOU bowing to him?” “He is Rama.” Siva replied curtly hoping that Sati would take the hint and shut up - for their sake. “Who? That guy? Surely, you are joking . . . ” Siva leaned against a tree, tired and spent, defeated and devastated. For the last time, he gave her a loving look. But, in that bright light, Sati did not catch the change in his expression. She persisted, “Come on . . . tell me, won’t you . . . he can’t be Rama?” “He is. He is searching for Sita, the woman he loves dearly.” “Let me test that.” With that she left him. Sati disguised herself as Sita and approached Rama, “Rama! You have found me, your Sita!” Rama, with a small smile entering his sad eyes, greeted her, “O Sati - stop fooling around!” Sati realized her blunder, blushed (it was a cliché even then) and rushed back to Siva, hiding her face against his body, in shame. “Why did I doubt your words, my Love, my Lord?” Siva caressed her hair. He could not speak. How he wanted to get over this with a consoling “Never mind, my Love.” But, that’s for mere mortals like you and me. He could not. That’s where the tale ended for me. But, the nightmares started then - my thoughts about the pain Siva had to endure. He had to stick to what he had told Brahma. He had to abandon her. The day Sati doubted Siva, Siva had to abandon his love for her. But, he was still there with her pretending to be the

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same man, telling the same stories, playing the same games, acting the husband’s role. But he was never there - really with her. I do not know whether Sati sensed the Great God’s act. But, He is the Supreme Actor - he who guides us with the contradiction of maya and truth. But I was worried about Siva . . . Imagine this man - quite well-set in his bachelor ways and with immense responsibilities. Agreed that he expressed common doubts about marriage but once he was in, he was definitely in, the best husband a woman could want. Then, he faces the two big blows. First, the minor blow, his wife doubts him - the breakdown of trust and respect. Every modern counselor knows that you can talk about mending bridges, but the damage caused by doubt is to the foundation and the collapse is imminent. Second, he lives with her pretending to be the same husband - seemingly unaffected. He knows that the edifice is crumbling. Just imagine his agony. Imagine him lying next to the woman he cannot love any more in the current form. It is cruel - that act till the end. O Siva! Author’s note: So, that’s the tale which haunts me. At times, it seems like reality. Now, let’s leave that. It’s unlikely that I will try to write about religion or mythology in the near future and so, let me try another kind of teaser.

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My Q & Your A Finally, let me leave you with an exercise. Kindly read the prayer and the passages that follow the prayer. I will leave a question at the end. A common man’s prayer (you may delete the lines with names2 ):

Vigneswara! Hold my hand, To write, To live; Sri Rama! You knew: To rule All of the people All of the time; About Niti and Nyaya; Sita; A life Without A break; Sita knew: You, Your duty, Your love; We killed Sita, Wish we knew; Sri Krishna! I held your hand, That with butter; When I am weak, Tired, defeated, I let go, To those who are unfamiliar with the characters involved, try Google/Bing to get an idea about the names but are the stories really necessary?
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I forget You never let go; You had to leave Her and nearly all, You left a mystery To misunderstand, I can only try To touch your feet With my head, Try to be Arjun Till desolate death; Primal MahaDeva! Father, The Man; MahaDevi! Mother, The Woman; Seeking a son.

In an old notebook, I found the following two passages (I think it is from the ‘Life and Teachings of Narayana Guru’ by Nataraja Guru):

1. Whichever the religion It suffices If it makes a better man.

2. A man’s religion is a matter of his personal conviction . . . Each man, therefore, may be supposed to belong to a different religion, and no two people belong to the same religion. On the other hand, all the religions of the world agree in spirit, the most essential part of religion. All religions represent values of Truth or Duty.

I have been a fanatic, an agnostic, an atheist - when I thought I knew. I found that life is simpler without that thought.

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My question:

Did you need to ’believe in a particular religion’ to read that? If your answer is yes, I failed. And, I shall try to pray better next time.

31
Epidemic
Rajesh Kumar (Inspector General, Central Jail) entered his office along with his trusted officers and he looked at the high pile of files in the EXECUTED and TO BE EXECUTED bins. He slumped in his chair, head in his hands, wishing for a brief private moment to cry. “Sir, it’s nearly uncontrollable, spreading fast, like an epidemic,” said cherubic Ajith. Jose added, “We have separated them, sir. We have to even convert the non-death-row side of the jail. We have created various wings: for politicians, doctors, scientists, engineers, homemakers, husbands, wives, kids. We are running out of notice boards and rooms.” Rajesh enquired tiredly, “I don’t understand . . . are you segregating them by their profession or what?” Ajith and Jose nearly replied together, “By crime, sir! According to whom they killed!” “Ah! Of course . . . ” Rajesh sighed. “Sir, this is the last execution for today. The appeal for pardon has been rejected.” Ajith said handing over a file. “This is that guy who tried to kill you,” Jose added, “tough decision, death sentence for a failed murder attempt. Now, judges are trying to eradicate all criminals. They are scared of being the next victim; or, trying to stop the spread of this disease.” Rajesh took the file and looked inside. He signed at the bottom, approving the execution of his illegitimate son, the son uncared and unknown.

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32
Stochastic Resonance
I was nearly dead when I went to the house of Chaathan. The illness started soon after my birthday, I remember. After ten days of misdiagnosis in the hands of the Campus doctor, I was barely conscious of the shivering with high fever, vomiting bile and difficulty in breathing along with an unbearable pain in my chest. I begged my friend (the one who was my ‘side-y’ in the hostel) to take me to Delhi, to my cousin’s place in Dhaula Kuan. I guess the proper treatment started then. I remember the doctor asking my cousin, “How did he reach this state of pneumonia without being diagnosed?” The days that followed are hazy. Daily injections blackened my upper arms, steroids and antibiotics became my staple diet, x-rays to monitor progress and consultation with doctors at AIIMS interrupted fitful sleep. I think I saw the silhouette of my folks standing near the bed with lowered heads. Was it after the first or second week that I left Delhi, returned to my hometown and went to the house of Chaathan? The journey used to take couple of hours to reach there. The first part was on the highway from Trivandrum to Kottayam and that took an hour or so. The rest of the journey was on a narrow road climbing high into deep and dark hilly forest. I think it was a cousin who gave me those details, the one who was cured of jaundice in that place. I do not remember the journey or my first sight of that house. I do not even remember how many days had elapsed till I regained consciousness there, in that house of Chaathan. When I regained consciousness and opened my eyes, I saw a lady wiping my face and body with a hot towel. She is beautiful. Though I thought she was old then she must have been in the thirties or late twenties. I guess I always remember her as I saw her then - concerned dark eyes, gentle dusky face, pious and sensual in the traditional two-piece sari-set (mundum neriyathu) and, with each touch I felt she was holding me firmly in a comforting embrace. I call her appachi (aunt).

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I saw her turn her head and I followed her look. I saw Chaathan for the first time. He was standing near the entrance of that room. He is tall with a body lean and muscular from sheer hard work, with a visage of indeterminate age, salt-and-pepper-hair and deep light-brown eyes staring intensely. In the years that followed, I realized that my time in the house of Chaathan was like a permanent tattoo, a mark etched on my mind and actions. I yearned for that and probably tried to mimic or recreate. I remember most the minute and trivial details. In the house, Chaathan wore a mundu (dhoti) and when he went out for business or pleasure, a well-pressed jubba (kurta) too. For kkrishi (farming), he used to wear just a thorthu (light cotton towel). I used to watch him wash his own clothes, meticulously hang the clothes on the washing line and then ‘iron’ the dried clothes by pressing with his strong brown hands. I observed all that in the days that followed. On that first occasion, he told appachi “Give him hot rice and fish curry, the worst is over.” He left my room without another look or comment. I realized soon that both of them were not accustomed to having unnecessary conversation. Though appachi was always approachable, she would often counter my incessant chatter with a smile. Chaathan was fine and normal most of the time but there were dark brooding moments when it was wise to let him be. I realized early that they loved to read and discuss, explore fantasy and science together and it seemed like their passion allowed anything. After a day or two, I was well-enough to roam in that house. It is not a large house. There is a large area in the middle where Chaathan sat in a reclining chair which had a cloth back. Balan, the all-in-all help, used to sit on the floor near Chaathan’s chair and roll beedis for him. My bedroom was in the west wing along with three empty rooms. In the east wing, there is the master bedroom and the dining-cum-kitchen area. The bathroom and the toilet are a little away from the house, behind and shielded by trees. The house of Chaathan did not have doors. I asked appachi about that and she replied rather confusingly, ˇ “Doors need locks, and keyholes to spy andEwhen you really want to get out, you might

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find yourself locked within?” Seeing the puzzled look on my face, she added with a less-serious tone, “This house is too small for doors, isn’t it?” When I was well-enough, I started taking my meals in the dining area which was adjacent to the kitchen, with the smell of cooking and wood-smoke clearing my head. One evening, I saw Chaathan with a tattered paperback book in his hand and I realized that it was a book that I carried in my backpack for ‘sleepless moments’. It was No Orchids For Miss Blandish by James Hadley Chase. I was having podi-ari kanji (rice porridge), appachi was sitting on the floor fixing a murukkaan (paan) for herself and Chaathan, smoking a beedi, started reading the book aloud, his deep voice resonating in that room. Even now, I can hear that story being read well into the night.

It began on a summer afternoon in July, a month of intense heat, rainless skies and scorching, dust-laden winds . . . Miss Blandish watched him come across the room. She saw his new confidence and she guessed what it was to mean to her. Shuddering, she shut her eyes . . . Some people could cope with this because they believe in God. I haven’t believed in anything except having a good time . . .

One night, I was restless, finding it difficult to sleep and I got up to drink the cool water in the kujam (long-stemmed clay vessel). I stood near the bedroom-window for a long time. The moon had gone and I could hardly see anything. I heard a sound behind me and I turned around. A young man, probably about appachi’s age, was standing inside the room. Even in the dark, I could see his eyes, fierce and wild. He approached me slowly. When he was at an arm’s distance, he reached out and clasped my neck with a strong hand that smelled of sandalwood. My back was pressed against the window ledge. I was shivering violently and I wondered whether the fever was returning. We stood like that for a few long minutes. When he released my neck, I crumpled to the floor. I lay there without looking up. When I did, he was gone. I stood up, trying hard to control the shivering, drank some more water and waited for a while till I could walk steadily. Then, I left my room to go to Chaathan’s room in the east

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wing. Light from a lamp was streaming from his room. The polished floor had a bronze hue in that light but felt cold to touch. I stopped at the entrance of his room and looked inside. Chaathan and appachi were in a close embrace on the bed. I could see appachi’s naked back while they kissed deeply. Chaathan, who was facing the entrance, saw me before I could move away. Without breaking away from the kiss, he looked me over from head to toe, taking in the mild shivering and my sweaty state and probably, the panic on my face too. He gave me a slight nod and lifted his palm a little as if to indicate that he would be with me in five minutes or so. I went back to my room and sat in the dark. It was definitely more than five minutes before Chaathan came to my room. He switched on the light. His calm composure was soothing. He stood near the entrance, looked around my room carefully, breathing deeply and wiping the sweat on his body with a thorthu. Before I could say anything, he asked me, “Did he come?” When I nodded, he continued, “Are you scared?” For some reason, I replied, “No.” Chaathan smiled with amusement, “Aren’t you scared of the living? You should be. As for the dead, they are not that bad. Don’t worry. Try to sleep.” As was his custom, he left immediately without waiting for my response. But, I did sleep well after that. Next morning, when I went for breakfast, nobody mentioned anything about the previous night. Later that day, I overheard Chaathan telling appachi and Balan, “He is the right one. Not a believer or a disbeliever, without beliefs or doubts. He is like a

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fresh book waiting for the writing.” I do not know whether they were talking about me. I was then quite fit and ready to venture outside. That day, I stayed within the compound, walking on the sand in the courtyard, scrawling and sketching with my toes and erasing just as quickly, or resting beneath the canopy formed by a maavu (mango tree), a plaavu (jackfruit tree) and a beautiful aal maram (banyan tree). Next morning when I woke up, I saw a youth standing at the entrance of my room. He looked a few years younger than me but that could have been because of his slight build, impish face and an ever-ready buck-tooth mischievous grin. He introduced himself quickly as Kundra, as if that said everything. He told me to meet him outside after breakfast and the morning bath. Then, he slipped out quickly not waiting for any confirmation from my side. But, I was there and Kundra was waiting for me, eating a mango lustily with the syrup dripping down the side of his arms. He held out another one for me but I declined the offer. Then, he rummaged in the waistband of his mundu and came out with a handful of roasted cashew-nuts, and I accepted that greedily. Finally, I had a companion who could chatter more than me. On the days that followed, he was my guide on that land. He told me about the houses outside that estate, the workers’ homes and the bigger houses that lay empty. Chaathan seemed to be in control everywhere, benevolent or otherwise, sharing their lives in every way. He told me that Chaathan’s younger brother had been appachi’s husband. Chaathan’s brother was found dead near the temple with sandalwood paste on one hand and blood on the other. He whispered that there is a rumour that Chaathan had killed his brother. Kundra took me everywhere. We explored the hills on one side of the house, the rubber plantation, climbed on top of big boulders perched precariously on rocks, collected wild pineapple growing near the rocks and he showed me the cracks where snakes lived. Even the sacred king cobra that leaves a golden trail, he said. On the other side of the house, there were coconut trees, the banana plantation, the fruit trees and pepper creepers on teak, rosewood and mahogany trees with tendrils hanging within reach.

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There is a narrow way downhill on that side to go to the temple and the river. The path ends on a small hill where the temple is located. The hill shields a place called moonattumukku (three rivers’ junction) and this is the bathing place for women. A turn in the river shields this place from the bathing place for men situated fifty meters downstream and the way to that is via the steps at the back of the temple. On our third or fourth day, Kundra showed me a hiding place on a small ledge right above the ladies’ bathing place. We watched the women bathe. I saw a young woman bathing alone far from the rest and she stood out, a captivating beauty with graceful movements. I looked at Kundra. He seemed bored after finding little that could interest him. He lay on his back and dozed. I wondered, “How could he sleep after seeing her? Can’t he see her?” I turned back to that woman. She was looking directly at me and she gave me an amused smile. I moved away from the ledge, shook Kundra awake and ran away from that place. But, I did not tell Kundra about that young woman. The next day, Kundra did not come. I ventured out alone but I did not go near the river. When I returned, I saw Balan in the courtyard. I asked him, “Do you know where Kundra lives?” The wizened face looked at me for a while from behind thick beedi smoke before replying, “Kundra? My son went to the city a few years back.” I was not sure whether I had recovered from the illness or whether my body and mind were still weak and susceptible. That night, I was once again restless. Light from a half-moon gave me shadows to chase. I fell asleep when the half-moon disappeared behind some clouds. A touch woke me up or was it the smell of jasmine? I sat up on the bed. The young woman I had seen bathing was lying next to me. I thought I would start shivering. If she had smiled again, I would have. But she didn’t. I looked at her face and wondered whether I deserved her. I didn’t know what to do. She touched my face and then my chest. It seemed like she was spreading some balm on those areas which had doubled up in pain so recently. She knew that I was inexperienced and she guided me. We undressed slowly and made love. When she

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left, my first thought was about how I could convince my batch-mates that I had lost my virginity. In the days that followed, I spent time walking and eating, regaining strength, helping Chaathan in the fields and talking to him and appachi in the dining area. On one of those days, he asked me, “Do you know about resonance?” I recited from memory, “A peak in the signal-to-noise ratio as we change the frequency of the input signal, and it occurs when the frequency matches the natural frequency of the system.” “And, do you know about stochastic resonance?” “No,” I replied. “It is also a peak in the signal-to-noise ratio. But, it occurs as we change the input noise intensity. It is a phenomenon where the presence of noise in a nonlinear system is better for output signal quality than its absence.” Why was he telling me this? Chaathan continued, “We are more accustomed to linear response where things add up and intuition works most often. But, when we see a wave build up and travel like a solitary wave or a soliton, an immutable and non-dissipating entity, we feel that it is impossible. But it is possible if you step into the nonlinear world.” He paused and smoked silently for a while before adding, “We have an issue with noise, too. We would like to deal with the signal alone. The noise is unavoidable but we treat it like a distraction to be reduced. But, are we aware about every signal and can we really differentiate noise and signal without uncertainty?” Once again, he let these words play upon my senses and strangely, I felt I was beginning to understand him.

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“Everything about us and around us is nonlinear and a dirty mixture of signal and noise, especially the mind, the body, thoughts and emotions. When can we perceive more than others? Be free, from constraints; feed the noise, without bias or filtering, in the right environment; let the nonlinear system do the rest. That is when we will sense beyond what we usually sense, when the output signal gets truly magnified with increasing intensity of random feeds.” I had a lot of questions but I realized that Chaathan had slipped out of that mood into one of gloomy silence. I slipped away and thought a lot that night. Next day, Chaathan, appachi and Balan sat with me for breakfast. None of us spoke. It was time for me to leave. I kept my head down and finished the food on my plate. When I raised my head, I saw that Kundra and the young woman were also in the room. Then, the others I had seen in that region started appearing in the room. Even the man with the fierce eyes stood outside with that group while I bid farewell. I slept on the trip from there. I remember very little of what happened after I left the house of Chaathan and till I reached Delhi once again. I have not gone to the house of Chaathan after those days. Years have passed and whenever I have asked others, they shrug and feign ignorance about Chaathan. Nobody likes to talk about that and most have hinted strongly that I should avoid such talk. Recently, I was talking to my mother about those days. I thought I should try to ask her once again about Chaathan. But, I stopped myself when she started as usual, “When you lost consciousness in Delhi, even the doctors lost hope. Only God knows what brought you back from that state when you were nearly dead . . . ” Some memories have to remain private. Author’s note: Under the guise of fiction, I might have abused reality and the physical sciences, especially the three-decade-old multi-disciplinary subject of stochastic resonance. I could be excused because I hate one and love the other. I am reminded of a foreword in a Physics Ph.D. thesis: ’Any resemblance to reality is purely coincidental.’ And, I do believe that any hypotheses should not cause Pauli’s complaint: ’It’s not even wrong.’

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I have been warned many times about abusing article-length and proper communication. I wish I could put the blame on small towns and villages where time dilates and space is truly warped. I know that it seems like a death-wish.

33
The Space Between
The space between us is three strides length; For you, the world above, the nether regions and my head; For me, there is one world; On the first step, I am a voyeur; Then, on the second, passion and desire; At last, two brutal savages being one. I’ve heard of poets, fine words; And I know that I do not know the names of this or that; I do not have the time to view dew on leaves or on the grass I trample; I do not sense or feel the early morning mist like a shroud or a fine veil; I am a scholar denied schooling, I am a nearly landless farmer. I the landlord and he the tapper, on every other day, it is the other way; I curse if it had rained that night and there’s little but grief; but otherwise, There is no early morning light when I wipe those damp cups, of damn dew, upturned for the night to be set right for the latex to fall and fill; Two passes upon that rough land,

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To wipe, to cut; Then, After breaking fast with her, I stinking of rubber and mud, She too with an earthy touch; To collect with a pail for fresh milk and a shoulder bag for wasted rubber; I have to press sheets, hang these and the old ones to dry, each one a hundred’s note, a million dreams, or more, while I feel mighty rich, I laugh for a while at least. I cycle to the trader with my load, I hate to store or invest, We book our profit every morn, we are never sure if there’s another; too many rogues and thieves, too many vultures perched on trees, With death in plenty and dearth of luck hovering above us if we care to look at the bloody stupid world we have left. There is work till half past noon, upon that land, so moodily fertile; I do not talk to the trees or to my kids; I plant, I grow and I let them go, I do not talk to the trees, that’s for the romantic, the plain loony kind; I do not caress the land

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or my woman; I shovel, I dig, deep within, I spit, I sweat and I curse with relief, I lie on top, breathing hard, resting in the shade; I do not caress the land, that’s for tourists of the temporary kind, the only kind. At half past noon, we quit; She does not let me touch the pail at the well, as if her hands are cleaner, as if she smells not of smoke, grime and sweat; pail after pail, she draws, I lean against the wall, watch her body relax and strain, fluid motion in careless abandon; she smiles at the spy but she will not let me close. I clean and scrub with new husk and old soap, there’s enough for her bath after mine; I wait for her, to sit beside, to serve, to eat, without a word or other trash. With heavy body and not so tired mind, we lie for a while; I have to have her then, but it’s all for her then,

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I hear her beg, command, I hear her happy moan, cry, but it’s all about her, then; Then, hush and sleep till three or so. She knows I am a beast lying in wait, senses raw, ragged, on the edge; I like her like that, indebted and satisfied; I shall have her later, after we have fed the neighbour’s cats, and there’s that last bark from somewhere, while the wide-eyed owl looks over my ass, there might be ghosts and gods at the window But we do not care, about them. But that’s way ahead, There are lots to do from tea till supper; We the landlord and we the tapper, On every day, It is that way; Before the last light We make a pass upon our land, upturning those cups from damn damp dew; hoping that at dawn we will be there to set it right. It’s a fickle world, you and I and them; the space between us is three strides length; at times, even none.

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The space between us is three strides length; for you, the world above, the nether regions and my head; for me, there is one world; on the first step, I am a voyeur; then, on the second, passion and desire; at last, two brutal savages being one. I’ve heard of poets, fine words; and I know that I do not know the names of this or that; I do not have the time to view dew on leaves or on the grass I trample; I do not sense or feel the early morning mist like a shroud or a fine veil; I am a scholar denied schooling, I am a nearly landless farmer. I the landlord and he the tapper, on every other day, it is the other way; I curse if it had rained that night and there’s little but grief; but otherwise, there is no early morning light when I wipe those damp cups, of damn dew, upturned for the night to be set right for the latex to fall and fill; two passes upon that rough land, to wipe, to cut; then, after breaking fast with her, I stinking of rubber and mud, she too with an earthy touch; to collect with a pail for fresh milk and a shoulder bag for wasted rubber; I have to press sheets, hang these and the old ones to dry, each one a hundred’s note, a million dreams, or more, while I feel mighty rich, I laugh for a while at least. I cycle to the trader with my load, I hate to store or invest, we book our profit every morn, we are never sure if there’s another; too many rogues and thieves, too many vultures perched on trees, with death in plenty and dearth of luck hovering above us if we care to look at the bloody stupid world we have left. There is work till half past noon, upon that land, so moodily fertile; I do not talk to the trees or to my kids; I plant, I grow and I let them go, I do not talk to the trees, that’s for the romantic, the plain loony kind; I do not caress the land or my woman; I shovel, I dig, deep within, I spit, I sweat and I curse with relief, I lie on top, breathing hard, resting in the shade; I do not caress the land, that’s for tourists of the temporary kind, the only kind. At half past noon, we quit; she does not let me touch the pail at the well, as if her hands are cleaner, as if she smells not of smoke, grime and sweat; pail after pail, she draws, I lean against the wall, watch her body relax and strain, fluid motion in careless abandon; she smiles at the spy but she will not let me close. I clean and scrub with new husk and old soap, there’s enough for her bath after mine; I wait for her, to sit beside, to serve, to eat, without a word or other trash. With heavy body and not so tired mind, we lie for a while; I have to have her then, but it’s all for her then, I hear her beg, command, I hear her happy moan, cry, but it’s all about her,

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then; then, hush and sleep till three or so. She knows I am a beast lying in wait, senses raw, ragged, on the edge; I like her like that, indebted and satisfied; I shall have her later, after we have fed the neighbour’s cats, and there’s that last bark from somewhere, while the wide-eyed owl looks over my ass, there might be ghosts and gods at the window but we do not care, about them. But that’s way ahead, there are lots to do from tea till supper; we the landlord and we the tapper, on every day, it is that way; before the last light we make a pass upon our land, upturning those cups from damn damp dew; hoping that at dawn we will be there to set it right. It’s a fickle world, you and I and them; the space between us is three strides length; at times, even none.

34
The Other
(Common and uninteresting confidential conversations: a 10-15 minute drama unsuitable for public viewing.) *** Swapna Arjun, her husband Dr. Shyam, their clinical psychologist A man (twenties) & his father (fifties) A woman (thirties) & her daughter (early teens)

The stage is divided into two by a partition. There is a single door on that partition between the waiting room (on the left) and the doctor’s office (on the right and occupying 75% of the stage). In the waiting room, there is a single row of 6 chairs facing the partition. There is also a noisy table-fan placed on a small table. The waiting room is otherwise empty. A woman and her daughter occupy seats 2 and 1 respectively. Arjun enters the waiting room leaving his shoes and wet umbrella outside. He takes seat 6. A man and his father enter the room, and occupy seats 4 and 5 respectively. The man is in a tense and rather disheveled state. The other four appear calm and welldressed. All of them appear to be troubled by mosquitoes and the noisy fan. Apart from that, the five people remain seated and stare blankly at the wall in front of them. Once in a while, the man rises, walks up to the noisy fan, tries to adjust the speed or gives it a thump hoping to reduce the noise.

The woman (addressing the three men): Excuse me. Arjun (the only one who turns towards her): Yes?

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The woman: Do you know how much to give the doctor? Arjun: I asked him. He will tell you. The woman: First time. (Arjun does not respond. She turns to her daughter.) Molu, when the doctor asks you questions, please answer, ok? (She hesitates. The daughter does not respond.) Molu, speak to him, ok . . . just answer his questions, that’s all. (She now lowers her voice.) Tell the doctor that Daddy works abroad. (She places her hand on her daughter’s arm.) Don’t mention about Uncle staying with us, ok? It does not matter but there’s no need to talk about him, right, molu? (The daughter turns away from her mother after removing her mother’s hand on her arm. The two then continue to stare at the door.) The man’s father (to Arjun): What is the exact time? Arjun: 4:16. The man’s father: I hope we get to see him before six. When did the last one enter? (No one responds. He then addresses the door.) He takes so much time. (Then, he turns to Arjun again.) Are you next? Arjun: No, they are next. (With a small turn of his head, he indicates the woman and her daughter.) The man’s father (to Arjun, more urgently): What is the exact time? The man (speaks rather sharply from seat 4): Appa, keep quiet!

The five people then continue to stare at the wall silently. The light fades on that part of the scene and the other side brightens. There is a desk, a large chair for the doctor and two smaller chairs for patients on the opposite side. There is a computer and the table for that on the right of the doctor. The room is not disorderly but there are lots of books, files and loose paper. Some kids’ toys can also be seen. The doctor is talking to Swapna. When the light brightens, we are also able to hear their conversation gradually. Dr. Shyam stoops a little, even while sitting. His face is pleasant and friendly.

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During their conversation, Swapna is demure and maintains eye-contact all the time. She does not interrupt the doctor when he speaks. Her hands remain at her side. Her legs are crossed at the ankle and her posture is elegant. She does not fidget.

Dr. Shyam: Good . . . we have covered a lot, haven’t we? Swapna: Do you really think that we still have a chance? Dr. Shyam: Yes. And, that is not because I really like you two. Swapna: But, it is not getting better. In fact, the situation seems to be worsening . . . Dr. Shyam (laughs): I would have been worried if the situation had not worsened . . . it looks as if you two are at least responding in some way, right? Swapna (shakes her head): But, we have not changed our stand at all . . . Dr. Shyam: Look . . . we have had these separate sessions for me . . . for us . . . to understand the problem. Now, the three of us, at least, agree on what happened. Do you remember how it was in the beginning . . . even that was not clear . . . Swapna (nods her head): Where do we go from here? Dr. Shyam: I think we can start having joint sessions. Swapna: That’s not going to be pleasant . . . Dr. Shyam: Anything new at home? Swapna (nods her head but keeps quiet) Dr. Shyam: What happened? Swapna (hesitates but she does not turn her head away): We tried to make love, have sex, whatever . . . Dr. Shyam: Some argument . . .

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Swapna: I just couldn’t . . . the thought of him sleeping with her . . . that hit me like a blow to the stomach . . . Dr. Shyam: He is not sleeping with her now, is he? (He pauses till she nods in agreement.) At that time, both of you had mutually consented for a divorce, wanted to try living separately before filing for the divorce, am I correct? You even went abroad . . . Swapna: But, I did not sleep with anyone . . . Dr. Shyam: True. And, your husband did not sleep with just anyone. He met a woman he really admired and the two of them got close mentally and physically. But, for some reason, that did not work out and after eight months, that affair ended. Were you here then? Swapna: No. I returned after Lehman collapsed, after I got laid off. We started meeting again . . . and we wanted to give it another try . . . Dr. Shyam: What happened then? Swapna: We started living together once again. Dr. Shyam: Your husband told you about the affair before that, right? Swapna (nods her head): Yes. Dr. Shyam: If Lehman had not collapsed, you might not have returned at all other than for the case, right? Swapna (nods her head) Dr. Shyam: Anyway, after your husband tells you about his affair, you think a lot about it. But, you still wanted to try living together. Correct? Swapna (nods her head): Yes. Dr. Shyam: Then, what happened? Swapna (remains silent)

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Dr. Shyam: In the first week together, you come across a photo of that lady in one of his personal diaries. Swapna (protests): I was cleaning. Dr. Shyam: The fights start then? Swapna: I asked him why he wanted to keep her even now. Dr. Shyam: Her or, her photo? Swapna (she ignores the doctor’s question): He does not even apologize. He does not even wait for the divorce . . . cannot even wait . . . he does not even say sorry for his infidelity. Dr. Shyam: You two were separated . . . you were away . . . Swapna: Does that justify his infidelity? Dr. Shyam: Is there anything to be justified? If someone were to tell you that staying away is a kind of infidelity, what would you say? Swapna: Are you on his side? Dr. Shyam (laughs): Then, I would get paid by him only, right? (He pauses.) Let’s leave that. Before that . . . I asked you a question . . . what was it . . . ah, yes . . . do you think that he still keeps her or her photo? Swapna: It is worse. He wants me to accept her. What kind of woman does he think I am? I am not willing to share my bed or my husband with any woman. I do not want such a husband. When we sleep together, he must be thinking about her, I am sure. Dr. Shyam: He does not think about you? Swapna: How do I know? But, I know that he thinks about her quite often. Dr. Shyam: You know that? Swapna: A wife can make out such things.

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Dr. Shyam: Ah . . . it is possible that he fantasizes about her . . . Swapna: So, he told you that he does, is that so? Dr. Shyam: If he had told me, do you think I would admit that? (He pauses for a while.) Isn’t it normal for married people to fantasize about people other than their spouses? How about you? Don’t tell me that you have never thought of Hrithik Roshan or Brad Pitt or some Greek god? Swapna (laughs) Dr. Shyam (laughing along): Why? Don’t you fantasize? Swapna: I was laughing at the Greek gods . . . I prefer normal men . . . Balraj Sahni or Humphrey Bogart or (she appears to be thinking) . . . Dr. Shyam: Or, Arjun? Swapna (nods her head and smiles): Yes. Dr. Shyam (looks at his watch): Let’s call it a day, ok? Next time, let’s have a joint session. Trust me. You two are doing great.

Both of them rise. Swapna takes an envelope from her bag and gives it to Dr. Shyam. The doctor slips it into a drawer. Then, the two come out through the door to the other side. The whole stage is now bright. When the doctor enters the waiting room, the 5 people there stand. The doctor goes towards the woman and her daughter on seats 1 and 2.

Dr. Shyam: Ah, good! You have come with your daughter. Very good! Look, do you mind if I see this man first? (He points towards Arjun) Just for a few minutes to arrange the next meeting. Is that ok? (The woman nods her head vigorously.)

The doctor then goes back to his office. Swapna does not take a seat but stands near the exit. Arjun goes to her.

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Arjun: Will you wait? Swapna (nods her head and says softly): Yes.

Arjun then enters the doctor’s office. Swapna keeps standing in that corner. The woman turns to her as if to offer her a seat or to engage her in conversation. Ignoring her, Swapna stares at the door. Then, except for Swapna, the action there continues to be the same as before, with mosquitoes and the noisy fan. The light dims in the waiting room and the office brightens. Arjun has taken a seat and he is leaning forward with his arms on the doctor’s desk.

Dr. Shyam: I was telling Swapna that we can have joint sessions from next time. Arjun: Will it help? She has not changed her mind one bit. Dr. Shyam: Have you? These fights will not disappear so fast. Arjun (edgy and embarrassed): So, she told you about yesterday? Dr. Shyam (he remains silent and keeps looking at Arjun) Arjun: I am still not comfortable about discussing my bedroom matters with strangers . . . or doctors. Dr. Shyam: Does she tell strangers? Arjun: How should I know . . . I guess not . . . Dr. Shyam: Do you talk to her about your . . . bedroom matters? Arjun (exasperated): Doc, there is nothing to talk about . . . that is one of the problems, remember? Dr. Shyam: Do you talk to her about the lady?

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Arjun: Talk? Her photo is enough for Swapna to see red. The only time I could talk about her was the time I told her about that blasted affair. Dr. Shyam: Do you regret that it has ended? Arjun: Doc, it has ended, period. I don’t cry over spilt milk. If only she . . . my wife . . . could understand that . . . Dr. Shyam: Maybe, your wife thinks that you would like to keep that lady, too . . . Arjun (laughing nervously): What . . . a ménage à trois? When I can’t even keep one in bed? Do you think I am crazy? Dr. Shyam: No. But, don’t you think your wife could feel a bit jittery about your feelings for that lady? Arjun: Doc, jittery is an understatement. For her, that lady should not even exist. Not even a memory. I get so mad when I hear those crazy demands . . . burn her photos, never think about her, that’s all she has to say . . . that lady is . . . I mean, was . . . part of my life. I will not discard any part of my life, period. Dr. Shyam: It won’t hurt anyone, will it . . . if you forget . . . erase that part? Arjun (rather agitated): You are beginning to sound like her, doc. Can’t you understand? It is the past . . . can I erase that? Even if it amounts to nothing . . . even if I could . . . will I have to erase something else after that? Myself? Dr. Shyam: Don’t worry, I understand you, Arjun. And, you will make her understand. Give her some time. Arjun (tired and downcast): It’s been more than a year. Dr. Shyam: Hey, just some more time, ok? Trust me, both of you will understand each other better soon. Arjun: I hope so, doc. Just getting tired of it all . . . Dr. Shyam: So, let’s meet together next time. I will call you about the exact appointment, ok? Till then, think about what we talked about . . .

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Arjun nods his head and stands up. He hands over some folded money to the doctor who puts that in the drawer. When he is near the door, Arjun turns to the doctor.

Arjun: Doc, what were your conclusions from the Rorschach tests? Dr. Shyam: Ah! The tests you don’t believe, right? (The two laugh.) Arjun: I studied about all those ink-blots . . . thanks to the Net . . . about what you expect me to see in those stains . . . Dr. Shyam (laughs): Did your Net tell you that one of them . . . what was it . . . ah, yes . . . looks like a naked gymnast with one leg up, correct? Arjun (laughs): Just kidding . . . but, a joke to a shrink can be dangerous, right? Dr. Shyam (laughs along and after observing that Arjun was waiting, as if, for something): Are you nervous about the psychological assessment? Arjun (sheepishly): Not really. Dr. Shyam: Here, let me show you the preliminary report . . . I hope you will be satisfied with that . . . even though you do not believe in what I do . . .

The doctor searches in a couple of files. Finds a sheet of paper and hands it over to Arjun.

Arjun (reading aloud bits and pieces): . . . seen in detail, in mental status examination and in diagnostic testing . . . do not manifest features suggesting any psychiatric illness or abnormality . . . there is poor frustration tolerance and mild impulsivity . . . intellectually bright and judgement in non-emotional matters are also good.

Arjun gives the sheet of paper back to Dr. Shyam, shakes hands with the doctor and leaves the office. The woman and her daughter enter the doctor’s office. Swapna and Arjun exit the stage together.

35
24 Hours in an Urban Reality Show
One 19:00 - Yesterday at 7 pm, as I turned the key in the lock, I prayed for a dark and empty apartment. It was dark inside. I checked each room. The apartment was empty too. I could smile. I had drawn the curtains that morning and it was still that way, like mute spectators seemingly untouched by anything from within or without. I stood by the closed French windows, looking at the other apartments, at families gathering, at kids and their parents following each other. I wondered whether anyone there was watching me. I did not open the windows to let in the sound from outside. It had been a hard day with a crucial presentation. The academic lot in the project wanted the grant at any cost, those from the company wanted just the program and I wanted to write the right numerical program for the right scientific problem. At the end of the day, their symbiosis won and I was discarded as a parasite. Hunger made me come out of that reverie. I checked the contents of the fridge. There was some old cooked stuff which I did not feel like warming or eating. Anyway, I wanted to cook and relax. From what was available, I leisurely made a basic meal: fried chicken breast along with chopped spicy sausages, roast chilly potato wedges, sautéed beans and carrots and there was enough sweet yoghurt in the tub. I split the stuff into two portions. 20:15 - At quarter past eight, I ate my share. I was washing the dishes and sipping Amaretto Disaronno when my wife entered the flat. She came over to the kitchen, stood by the door and said, “Hi, smells real good.” “Your portion should still be warm.”

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In our first year, we had agreed to dispense with the formality of waiting for each other or checking up on one’s arrival. “I would have loved to have,” she leaned against the dining table, stretching, “but I had a heavy sandwich for tea.” I kept quiet. I felt that there was more to come from her. “I have to catch a night flight. There’s an important meeting at HQ tomorrow.” “Again . . . ?” I blurted. “What do you mean by ’again’? I told you that I am ready to sit at home, didn’t I?” “For what . . . ? Hey, it’s fine with me. Don’t get worked up about that.” “Yeah, right . . . it must be convenient for you.” I stared at her. I could feel my body stiffen, hands clenching, nails sinking into flesh and a dirty feeling curdling in my gut. I snarled, “Spit it out . . . whatever . . . ” “When you reply to your friends, do check the send-list . . . or, did you include me intentionally?” “What are you talking about?” “Don’t you remember the e-mail you sent yesterday . . . to her . . . your friend who is like a sister . . . ?" Each emphasis sounded like an obscenity. I did remember sending that e-mail in a hurry but I could not remember adding my wife as a recipient. It must have ‘dropped-in’ from the frequently-used-list since their surnames are a close match, if not their character. “Well, you saw my e-mail . . . is there anything in that for you to bitch about?” “You don’t even remember, do you . . . just last week, you told me that you are not in touch with her.”

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“But, there is nothing in our e-mail. It was just the usual Hi . . . Bye, right?” “I didn’t check if it was Hi . . . Bye or Wham . . . Bam.” “It was a good idea, wasn’t it, not to tell you the truth?” I retorted. “I bet you sent that to me just to hurt me . . . to make me worried, to spoil my day in office.” “Whatever!” She stormed to the bedroom and I stayed in the drawing room. I could hear her packing and getting ready to leave. 21:30 - At half past nine, she was at the door. She came back to me, sat next to me on the sofa and reached towards me. I moved back to avoid her touch. “You can’t even hold me these days, can you?” “If I did, I would be treating you as a prostitute.” She got up and left, thankfully not banging the front door this time. I sat there, with my eyes closed, for a long time. 23:00 - It must have been around eleven when I went back to the kitchen and put her portion in the fridge. I remembered what my parents used to tell me about their fights. They used to throw dishes out through the window. Even when they could ill-afford to do so. They have been married, quite happily, for nearly sixty years. Moral of the story: Dishes are thrown out through the window in happy homes.

Two

00:00 - Around midnight, I realized that there was no point lying in bed waiting for sleep. All that came were murderous thoughts. I decided to go for a walk to clear my head. It is a pleasure to walk in the middle of a city road at that time of the night, to look at the moon philosophically while it returns a cold empty stare, and to smoke that rare joint without passively taking in exhaust fumes.

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On one of those rare occasions when my wife and I shared the guest bedroom, she complained about how men, and not women, had the luck to do all that. It is true, I admitted. It is not safe enough for women to have such pleasures. I had walked past the school and the Party office. I was near the dangerous turn on that road leading to the University. In the moonlight, I could see that there were some people on the footpath, huddled close to the short wall. At about twenty meters, I could make out that there were three - a young woman in her early twenties, a young baby in her arms and a girl barely in her teens. The woman and the girl were sharing a meal from one clay pot. When they saw me, the young girl tried to hide a small cloth-bag furtively. As I got closer, I could see that the bag barely covered a water-melon. Probably, that was their prized possession of that day. They are migrants or gypsies or whatever people call them these days. I have heard that there are vans which pick up these people and deposit them at the state border. It makes this place look good, I am told. I did not even want to think about their life or the dangers these women faced. I have heard that there is an appropriate term in physics: dark matter - invisible matter that makes up most of the mass in the universe. In reality, unlike physics, people are like me and try not to observe. I was then five meters from them. I saw briefly the bright headlights of a large speeding car swerving dangerously at the sharp turn. Before I could utter a cry, the car was nearly on us. What happened next took just a few seconds. To my right, I could see the girl jump over the short wall. Though she had tried to throw her precious bag in that direction, it went vertically without any horizontal flight. The woman and her baby stood fixed. I grabbed the woman and jumped over the wall, with the baby crushed between us. There was a loud crash behind us and a squelching splattering sound also. I landed on my back on soft wet ground. Though jarred by the impact and scratched and cut at a few places, I was fine. The woman moved quickly away from me. She and her baby looked more or less undamaged. The girl crawled to them. She seemed angry and ready to take on the driver but the woman held her tight. They disappeared into the night.

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I jumped over the wall back onto the road. I could not help admiring the BMW and its wide wheels. It had gone a distance on the footpath, then crashed through a drainage slab and ended up immobile with one of those large wheels stuck in the large drain. I moved towards the car. The watermelon had landed on the car and splattered in the front. The left front window was lowered and I saw a girl lean out, retching violently. The doors on that side were too close to the wall and could not be opened. On the driver’s side too, the windows were lowered. I heard a male having a slurred conversation on a mobile, “Dad . . . the car is stuck . . . we hit something . . . damn it, dad . . . who cares . . . something or someone . . . just heard a sick sound . . . dad . . . please come . . . can you hear me . . . damn . . . ” The driver stepped out of the car. He was drunk, sobbing and young. I was right behind him and he had not seen me. I do not know what came over me then. I grabbed him by his neck and pushed his head inside the car through the window. I reached inside through the door, for the button, and raised the window till the young man’s head was securely trapped in a narrow gap, choking him a little. Through the window, I could see inside the car. The girl in the front wanted to scream but I hushed her and thankfully she kept quiet with her mouth and eyes wide open. A very young couple was lying on the back seat quite oblivious of the outside world. Drunk or doped, they were sleeping like babies, drooling spit on each other’s laps. I was seething with rage, partly due to them and the rest from my own life. I reached for the young man’s waist and stripped him of his wide belt. I held the buckle and wrapped the belt a few times around my hand to leave enough for a good short whip. Then, with that, I smacked him hard ten or twenty times. That is deterrence or retributive justice or a good lesson or whatever. The only kind of justice such people will ever face. I knew I was also letting out a lot of other stuff. I was too tired to feel ashamed but not too tired not to feel good. 01:00 - All this took place in a few minutes. I left the place quickly and got home by one. I had a hot shower and later, ate a bar of chocolate, drank a large peg of Glenfiddich and listened to Dido croon to me and only me. 03:00 - At three, I fell asleep on the sofa.

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Moral of the story: If you drive after drinking or doping, angry men walking on the road can be a nuisance.

Three

06:00 - At six, I opened my eyes briefly and sent the message ‘hi today sick thx’ to my boss. He must have been expecting it. Then, after switching off my mobile and shifting to my undisturbed bedroom, I slept soundly. 10:00 - I ran out of luck, once again. I was woken up, at ten, by a friend. His arrival was heralded by the musical car reverse horn playing ‘Bad Moon Rising’. Then, he tried to play ‘Spanish Rose’ with my door-bell. “Hi.” I greeted weakly. “Hey man, holiday, huh?” He pushed me aside and entered. “Yeah . . . ” “Is the Mrs. around?” “No . . . she had to leave early for work this morning. You should have called . . . we could have planned . . . ” “Man, you would have scooted.” It hurts to have friends who know you rather well. I have two types of friends: the friends who contact me only when they are on holiday; and, the friends who do not contact me even when they are on holiday. I prefer the latter. This guy belongs to the first category and worse, he is also what people call a best-friend. I try my best to avoid him but he has the habit of turning up and leaving me with trouble. The last time was at my wedding. He graced the occasion without invitation. The main part of the five-minute ceremony which is the tying of the thaali (mangalsutra) was about to happen when a young boy-child came to me, looked at me and cried with anguish,

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“Appa!” The priest and the bride sighed at the same time. Standing there, with the chain to put my bride on leash, I wondered about how people dealt with such minor inconveniences. Then, I saw my friend rush to us, “Mone (son), come here,” and then to my bride, “he gets confused at times.” Later, during that event, I saw him sharing a hip-flask with my father-in-law and brotherin-law. These two new relatives, like many others in my place, are usually long on spirits and short on sense. The three of them appeared to be bosom-buddies. That first night, before tucking me in with their relative, the two in-laws asked me in private, “Your friend is a jolly good fellow. But, we could not understand one thing. He asked us the meaning of 6.9 (six point nine). He said that it is a good time interrupted by a period. What did he mean by that? He told us that you would know all about that.” I feigned ignorance. That’s all that my friend did on that occasion. He has mellowed with age. Today, my friend looked nearly normal. Probably, that was because he was raiding the fridge. He took out my wife’s portion of what I had made last night and between large bites, “Man, good stuff . . . ” “Ah . . . you should try her traditional stuff . . . that is her specialty . . . ” I elaborated. “Yummy . . . your wife is a great cook . . . ” “We were celebrating last night . . . ” I lied again. “What was the occasion?” “Do you need an occasion?” I gave a sly wink. He guffawed with pleasure and a full mouth.

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Truth, I have realized, is insufficient and unnecessary for most relationships. “How is your wife?” I asked. “In production . . . thought of having the second before menopause . . . ” “But, she is very young.” “I meant mine.” “Ah!” I agreed. We talked about foreign trips and vacation plans, mine definitely fictitious, his probably true. Then, he talked about his latest venture, building holiday homes for himself from Chennai to Kanyakumari and then up till the Konkan coast. “Managing a single large house is so difficult . . . especially when you are old . . . so, I want small holiday homes . . . and I want to go from one to the other by speed-boat.” he tried to sell the idea passionately. I kept quiet. These days, friends have very little to talk about other than real-estate. I also realized why he is my friend. There is very little we need from each other. “How about you, man? Is this a rented place?” Another emphasis treated like an obscenity. “Yes, it’s rented. Why have anything which I can’t discard in an hour!” I philosophized. “Your wife?” he challenged. “Including my wife . . . ” He eyed me warily. And, as if to change the line of thought or to raid another fridge, he suggested, “Hey man, let’s go to Seetha’s place. She is in town.” Seetha is . . . was my first love. “Ok.” I replied.

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We left immediately. Moral of the story: A good friend is indeed a friend not in need.

Four

12:00 - We reached Seetha’s house around noon. Seetha’s parents greeted us cautiously. We waited for her to finish her mid-day bath. Her father and I studied the tiles on the floor, and when we came up for air, exchanged ambiguous smiles that would have made Mona Lisa jealous. My friend quizzed her mother about some shared acquaintances. After twenty long minutes, Seetha came in like a breath of fresh air and her parents left her alone with us. She looked the same as she did twenty years back, still that 30-to-40 look which used to look great in that 15-to-25 stage. I looked at myself in a mirror on the wall, still the same 45-to-55 look, too. There was one difference with the old days. She refused to look me in the eye. Probably, that was because my friend monopolized the dialogue. She was also into real-estate. I studied her house. Chrome, leather and prints in sepia; more chic than the Ikea stuff in the Living; and not as personal as the stuff in Country Home. Her drawing room was as big as my apartment plus half the car-park. She had done well, without me, I concluded without envy. 13:00 - Around one, she realized that my friend did not intend to leave without a meal at her place. She is on a diet, she claimed. We shared her misery with a frugal meal of rice, dal and a measly portion of vegetable curry. 13:30 - At half-past-one, we were back in the drawing room and I felt lost in that great expanse. Seetha went to a room inside and returned with some old letters. She said to me, “Look what I found when I was clearing old junk.” I did not have to look long to recognize that stuff. Old letters, greeting cards, flowery handwriting and poems composed for her. There were so many, too many. Seetha sat next

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to me and read a few of those personal lines to my friend. I laughed with them and felt sad. I am not sure whether I loved her then. At one time, I did love the idea of falling in love with her. After the laughter died down, my friend and I took leave. We went to a restaurant and had a proper lunch. Moral of the story: When you write love letters, do not use ink that lasts.

Five

15:00 - My friend dropped me at my place at around three and left me in peace. I sank into my arm-chair, enjoyed the solitary air and dozed till four. 16:00 - I had a mug of black tea with heaps of sugar. I logged onto my computer and checked e-mail. The inbox had a few friendly notes which I kept for later. I studied the spam more closely. There were the usual - cheap vicodin, enlarged organs and the like. I deleted all but the one with the subject, ‘yellow convertible’. I opened that e-mail:

A father asked his son on his fourth birthday, “What do you want for your birthday, son?” “A yellow convertible, Papa!” the son replied. “Fine, son . . . I promise that you will have that on your eighteenth birthday.” This was repeated on every birthday. On the eighteenth birthday, the son asked for the same once again. The father said, “This morning, I saw a nasty accident involving a yellow convertible. Sorry, son . . . I cannot get you that.” What is the moral of the story? Never ask for a yellow convertible, ask for a red convertible.

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Nodding my head in agreement, I shifted to a social-networking portal and tried to be anti-social, enjoying virtual company and comfortable honesty. 18:30 - Around half past six, I received a phone-call from my wife. We exchanged cordial greetings. She promised to return the next day. We made plans to go out for dinner. She filled me in on all the details about her trip. At the end, she asked, “How was your day at work?” “I took leave.” “Why?” “Simply . . . ” “What did you do?” the volume was increasing with each emphasis. “I was here most of the time.” “And . . . ” my wife persisted. “Seetha is in town. I went to her house for lunch.” She kept quiet. I clarified with a lie which sounded good, “Just a simple lunch - pulao, mutton curry, vegetable kofta and grilled paneer which was out of this world. And payasam for dessert . . . ada payasam . . . ” “Sounds like a feast. Were there other guests?” “No.” “She made all that . . . for you . . . ?” my wife asked. “I don’t know. Maybe not . . . ” I was testing truth but it didn’t sound as good. She kept quiet for some more time.

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“Seetha asked about you.” I lied. “How is she?” “Looks the same . . . ” I admitted the truth. She kept quiet and I kept quiet too. I felt Solitude shift on the sofa from my right arm to the left side. I do not like that side of Loneliness’ face. 19:00 - The clock-wall ticked loudly complaining that it is seven pm once again. Author’s Notes:

• Before I submitted my first research paper for publication, my mentor suggested that I could split the 19-page dense article into two or three. Listening to good practical advice has never been my forte. • I did think of splitting this into three: Modern Marital Mishaps, Dangerous Drunk Driving, Long Lost Love or another attempted alliteration. I could have posted two under Current Affairs and one in Travel. • The question that remains: where do I put it? Current Affairs? I chose ‘Creative’ because it is the closest to a ‘Non-Creative’ account of mundane and common stuff without twists, turns, suspense or thrill. • As for morals, I can only repeat Bertolt Brecht’s words in ‘The Threepenny Opera’, ‘Food comes first, then morals.’ Anyway, it is a myth. People tend to believe myths. As for stories with a moral, the less said the better.

36
Why I Left You
Twenty five years back, a teacher presented to me the novel Roots (by Alex Haley). From what’s given on the cover, I know that the book is about a man’s search for his own roots starting with an 18th century African slave named Kunta Kinte. I have not yet read that book and maybe, that is because I wanted to embark on that personal journey myself without another’s help or thoughts or prejudices. I started that task when I was in my twenties. I constructed family trees, tracing branches and even pruning when I had to. Each member gave me stories begging to be told but I knew that I could not use them or give them dialogues they had never used. There were the legitimate and the illegitimate; the aristocrats and the paupers; the educated and the illiterate; the physicians, the farmers, the labourers; and then, the unknown or the crazy or the irrelevant. One day, some descendant might put me in one of those boxes. For now, that life is just irrelevant. In that massive tree, there were two people who really stood out - the one and only famous person in my family; and the second, the only criminal. One had used his life nearly to the full and the other had wasted nearly all. But, these two had one common feature. They left their wife. The famous person was a great man, a good man too, a social reformer and a teacher. His students were mostly those who had stepped a few paces away from bonded labour. From the numerous books about him, I learned that he started when he was in his twenties and with remarkable purpose and clarity continued and extended his work for over fifty years. In the initial phase, he used his education and conviction to give the downtrodden community the right to pray and learn. When he gained the faith and respect of many, he asked them to get rid of damaging beliefs and rituals. He taught philosophy but stressed more on practical matters like the importance of personal hygiene and healthcare and, the need for faith, trust and respect in social institutions including marriage. He laid a lot of emphasis on education and secular ideas based on inclusion rather than differentiation.

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In every stage, he tried to make people go beyond what he could teach; to go beyond the idols he had himself installed. I realized why he deserves to be called a Guru. Sadly, very few follow his simple teachings today - even in his, I mean, my family. There was one incident in his life which intrigued me. When he was about twenty, he got married. His wife belonged to a family of similar background as his. Apart from that, there is very little known about her, not even her age or education. A few days after the wedding, he left his house and his wife. He never returned to that life ever again, remained a celibate and immersed himself in social work. I searched in many books, essays, biographies and critical studies but I could not find any information about that aspect of his life. In one, there was a brief mention about a meeting many years later. During a public gathering, she came to him to ask for his blessing, just like a student with a revered teacher. In my mind, I could imagine that meeting. He would have recognized her and they would have shared a look of regret and deep longing. In my story, the man had left his wife because he knew that he had to give up that life for the sake of the society he was trying to rescue. When I am drunk and depressed, and closer to my true nature, I cursed that great man and even abused by calling him an impotent, a cheat or a crazy idiot. One day, I meet an old lady, a relative of the Guru’s wife. In her house, I try to explain my ‘research’. She tells me that the Guru’s wife stayed in that same house, but died young in a boat accident. Then, she tells me, “There’s a lot of old stuff in the attic (thattu) . . . stuff which people forgot to discard. Since she did not have any kids, after her sudden death, there might be some of her stuff.” After two hours in that dusty place, I find a small old steel trunk. Inside, there are some clothes but no books or diaries. Near the bottom, between the folds of an underskirt (pavada), there is a folded piece of paper. I open it and read the first sentence, “Have you wondered why I left you and why I have to send this without anyone’s knowledge, to be a coward unable to express his love for you?” I close the letter and slip it into my pocket. I do not tell the old lady about the letter and I

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leave that house. If I tried, I could prolong that dream about meeting that relative or finding a long lost letter. But, even in my dream, I do not read that letter any further. I use it to light a cigarette and let it burn on my palm. I grind the ash in my palm, hardly feeling the burn. It was like doing the last rites. In that dream, I hear my own voice, “It’s their story . . . not mine to tell . . . will I ever talk about why I left you?” As for the life of the criminal, did I not tell you that that life is irrelevant?

37
Online Popularity & Benoit Mandelbrot
Please note: First, I am not an author here; if at all anything, a reporter or a reviewer or, worse but true, a copier. There are two parts. • The first part gives the summary of a recent scientific study trying to characterize and model the dynamics of online popularity. One of the main conclusions is that the dynamics of information networks is ‘scale-free’. This is typical in a wide range of ‘critical’ physical, economic and social systems, such as avalanches, earthquakes, stock market crashes and human communication. Having mentioned that, it is impossible to avoid the next part. • Benoit Mandelbrot, the father of fractal geometry, died on October 14, 2010. The fractal geometry he developed would be used to measure natural phenomena like clouds or coastlines that once were believed to be non-measurable. He applied the theory to physics, biology, finance and many other fields of study. Part 1: Characterizing and modeling the dynamics of online popularity by Ratkiewicz et al. (Physical Review Letters, Vol. 105, No. 15. (Oct 2010), 158701.) (http://arxiv.org/abs/1005.2704) It is believed that online popularity has enormous impact on opinions, culture, policy and profits. The authors study the dynamics of popularity of two information networks: (1) the Wikipedia and (2) the web space of Chile. As popularity proxies they have chosen the traffic of a document, expressed by the number of clicks to that page generated by a specific population of users, and the number of hyperlinks pointing to a document. Given either of these proxies, they study its relative variation in a time unit, that is, its logarithmic derivative. Note that: if x(t) is the quantity being studied at time t, its logarithmic derivative is [x(t) - x(t-1)]/ x(t).

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They find that the dynamics of popularity are characterized by bursts in its relative variation or logarithmic derivative (hereafter, simply labeled as f). Observations:

• Almost all pages experience a burst in f near the beginning of their life. • Many pages receive little attention thereafter. • Some pages maintain a nearly constant positive f indicating an exponential growth. • A number of pages continue to experience intermittent bursts in f later in their life. • In all cases, they observe heavy-tail behaviour. Such heavy-tailed burst magnitude distributions suggest a dynamics lacking a characteristic scale.

Model Researchers have used various models to describe the heterogeneous statistical properties of the Web (with distributions characterized by fat-tails roughly following power-law behaviour) and some models are based on the rich-get-richer mechanism. The models based on rich-get-richer mechanism have two main ingredients:

(1) We need a growing network. But growth alone cannot explain. When a new node is created on the network, it is not sufficient to assume that it will link randomly and democratically. Though the senior nodes will have a clear advantage (since these nodes had the longest time to collect links and the poorest node will be the last to join), the distributions that result from such an assumption follow an exponential rather than a fat-tailed power law. (2) We also need preferential attachment and need to discard any democratic (random) character. We attach a greater probability to link to those nodes which are already heavily linked.

The authors of this paper feel that this is not sufficient. They include a third ingredient: occurrence of exogenous factors that shift the attention of users and suddenly increase the popularity of specific topics because of events such as an actor winning a prize, political elections, rescue missions, scandals, etc.

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With their rank-shift model, they introduce a new parameter, by which they can shift forward the ranking/popularity of a node. As a layperson in a network, at the end of the day, the message to take home is: (a) you are part of a growing network; (b) if you are smart, you will believe in preferential attachment and link to those who are very popular; (c) if you want to be smarter, create exogenous factors that will suddenly attract attention of any sort. Due to selfish interests, I would like to explore: (i) the dynamics of pages that receive little attention and the proximity factor (do friends of friends (of friends of . . . ) contribute to that initial burst; (ii) dynamics of tightly-knit close or ‘gated’ online communities and the formation of such in open dynamic networks; (iii) a symmetric rank-shift model which allows for exogenous factors that could reduce ranking via a burst of unpopularity due to variants of untouchability, blocking and censorship, unpopular views and opinions, democratic decisions of the majority to ostracize, etc.; and so on and so forth. Part 2: Obituary of Benoit Mandelbrot On the 18th of October, in the inside pages of The Hindu, I found this column about Benoît Mandelbrot (mathematician, born 20 November 1924; died 14 October 2010): Date:18/10/2010 URL: http://www.thehindu.com/2010/10/18/stories/2010101861860900.htm

Mandelbrot, father of fractal geometry, dead
WASHINGTON: Benoit Mandelbrot, a French-American mathematician who explored a new class of mathematical shapes known as “fractals,” has died at age 85 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, The New York Times reported on Saturday. His wife Aliette told the newspaper he died of pancreatic cancer. His seminal book, “The Fractal Geometry of Nature,” published in 1982, argued that irregular mathematical objects once dismissed as “pathological” were a reflection of nature. The fractal geometry he developed would be used to measure natural phenomena like clouds or coastlines that once were believed to be unmeasurable. He applied the theory to physics, biology, finance and many other fields of study. “Fractals are easy to explain, it’s like a romanesco cauliflower, which is to say that each small part

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of it is exactly the same as the entire cauliflower itself,” Catherine Hill, a statistician at the Gustave Roussy Institute, told AFP. “It’s a curve that reproduces itself to infinity. Every time you zoom in further, you find the same curve,” she said. David Mumford, a professor of mathematics at Brown University, told the Times that Mr. Mandelbrot had effectively revolutionised his field. “Applied mathematics had been concentrating for a century on phenomena which were smooth, but many things were not like that: the more you blew them up with a microscope the more complexity you found,” the paper quoted him as saying. A professor emeritus at Yale University, Mr. Mandelbrot was born in Poland but as a child moved with his family to France where he was educated. - AFP c Copyright 2000 - 2009 The Hindu Please refer to the following obituary in The Guardian for more details: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/oct/17/benoit-mandelbrot-obituary Here, I do assume that his work has definitely touched everyone. Can you finish graduate studies or any kind of research without encountering the work of Mandelbrot? I can still remember how thrilled I was when I found a ‘Devil’s staircase’ (or, at least, something that looked exactly like that) in a dynamical system some time in the last millenium. [For a definition of Devil’s staircase, please refer to http://mathworld.wolfram.com/DevilsStaircase.html.] Or, if you have kids, didn’t they ask you at least once, surely: “Amma/Appa, how does a world with a dimension of 0.63 look like?” or “O gee, Pop/Mom! Look at that . . . it is made out of itself . . . every small part looks like the big part . . . is it a fractal?” Well, if they have not, they should go to a different school.

38
First Class Travel
“Your journey starts now . . . ” The young travel agent said that to Sree in the office of Luxury Tours & Travels and he sounded like a TV compère of a game-show. Sree, a thirty-year-old handsome man in a well-tailored expensive suit, was inspecting the travel documents placed within a custom-made leather travelling case. He raised his head to look at the young man. He maintained an impassive face typical of aristocracy. But, he barely managed to suppress the brief smirk that expressed disdain and minor revulsion. The fare for his trip demanded luxury. The young man’s words; nervous chewing of gum; missing top button and cheap tie; off-the-shelf suit probably used by other staff, too; with all that, the young man appeared sub-standard, if not mocking. “Where is the reservation for the Ritz?” Sree asked the young man. The latter made an angry gesture to an unobtrusive secretary. She collected the case in a fluster, went to her desk, inserted the missing document and re-checked the contents. When she returned with the case, Sree asked with an exasperated tone, “Should I check this again?” She tried to apologize but he gave a dismissive wave. The young man escorted him to an S-class Mercedes Benz even though Sree ignored the other’s presence. A prim and proper chauffeur in a grey uniform opened the rear door for him after greeting him with a polite smile and an obsequious bow. At the Mumbai international airport, a person was waiting to escort Sree to the special VIP lounge past the security-check zone. He hardly noticed the queues for the economy class and the normal first-class. His baggage, check-in and other requisites would be taken care of, he was informed.

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In the lounge, Sree browsed through international journals while a middle-aged man with hennaed beard served him café latte and his choice of snacks. Sree watched that man retire to a corner where he coughed and sneezed a few times after covering his mouth with a handkerchief. A few minutes later, when the manager of the lounge observed that Sree had not touched his plate or cup, he came to enquire. Sree raised the query, “Do you allow sick people to serve?” The manager apologized before he himself cleared the table and then, served coffee and snacks. Later, discretely but within earshot of Sree, the manager admonished the middleaged man and told him to take off for the rest of the day. In the plane, an air steward attended to his needs and helped him settle in the luxury first-class cabin. It was in an area above the normal first-class. When he went to the toilet, after his first meal, he noticed an air hostess guiding a young boy from the toilets in this section to the lower-classes below. Sree raised an eyebrow at the lady. His steward who appeared then berated her for her lapse. In this class, luxury was not supposed to accommodate mere or dire necessities or even base comforts. She tried to explain some plausible reason for bringing the boy there due to urgency and crowded toilets below but Sree silenced her with a slow look from head to toe pausing at her breast to study her nameplate and her name, Anu. At London, a Rolls Royce Silver Ghost took him to the Hotel Ritz. Apart from this chauffeurdriven car he also had a Jaguar or a Bugatti at his disposal, he was informed, for driving on his own to the country or elsewhere. At the hotel, he was assigned a suite and a butler. The front office manager escorted him to the lift, “Sir, if there is anything you need, please let us know.” Dinner on that first day was a black-tie affair. There, he was joined by his companion, a beautiful 23-year-old named Susannah. She was in a two-piece ensemble with a silk blouse and a full satin skirt and it complemented his dinner suit very well. He was there for four nights and five days. Private auctions and exhibitions, special shows at Museums, concerts for the select few; splurging at boutiques, even allowing a brief stroll with the common in Soho and Oxford Street before moving to the comforting spaces of Mayfair; a dinner at some manor hosted by a business tycoon, an exhibition match for charity with the top tennis players; and, a speedy trip to the Mediterranean, to gamble and party, with her by his side.

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Hectic but refreshing, and when it was time to leave, the first class journey seemed like it had never started. *** On the sixth day, Sree got back to Mumbai around noon, the return journey by economy class. There was no one waiting to receive him. He collected his luggage from the carousel, waited in the long line at immigration and stood near the exit, watching people enter taxis and big cars or being greeted by loved ones. A man, with rolled-up long sleeves and khakis, standing next to a tempo-van in the Parking Area waved at him. Sree pushed his trolley to the van and loaded the luggage on his own. The man got in after him at the rear. There were two long-seats facing each other and Sree sat opposite to the man. A young woman, the man’s colleague, sat next to Sree. The young woman said to Sree, “We have got the reports from everywhere. You have put on a good show!” “Thank you, Miss.” Sree replied. “Please sign this form,” he was told. The form, on the letterhead of a well-known company, contained:

“We thank you for participating in this research program to help us understand better the adaptability of millions of upwardly-mobile luxury-aspiring people in this country. We are extremely pleased that you fitted well in the new environment and responded correctly to situations and irritants. Your services are hereby terminated and as reward for successful completion as per terms and conditions of the program, we give you one lakh rupees.”

Below that, Sree added, “Received with thanks.” He signed at the bottom. The man then gave him a plastic cover with his own old clothes and shoes. Sree changed into those, put the clothes that he had worn in that plastic bag and handed it back to the man. The man went through an inventory and checked if Sree had returned everything. Then, the man gave him a thin bundle with 100 thousand-rupee notes.

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Sree was dropped near his crowded Co-operative Housing Society in Kalina. His father used to work at the airport and most of his neighbours were airport or airline employees. On the way to his house, he met a middle-aged man with hennaed beard. Sree stooped and touched his feet, “Baba, forgive me.” “Your father explained everything to me a few days back. I am just sad that you had to do something like that.” They hugged each other with affection. Sree then proceeded to his house. His mother and siblings greeted him quietly in the small front room. His father kept his head down and barely acknowledged his arrival. Sree slipped the bundle of notes into his mother’s hands. “We can now settle the loan and avoid foreclosure; we have at least that,” Sree told her. His girl-friend, who had not changed her air hostess uniform after that day’s shift, was standing near the kitchen. She brought him a glass of water. He drank the water, kept the glass on the rickety dining table and told her, “Let’s go out.” They left the house together. He borrowed his friend’s motorcycle and they went to a park at Powai, a reasonably luxurious far-away place for them. “Anu, I am sorry. I had to be a jerk. It was all or nothing.” “It’s ok, Sree. I understand. You had to do it, right?” “Bloody toilet, bloody first-class, bloody luxury . . . ” They sat quietly, holding each other. He then lay on the grass with his head on her lap. He caressed her face. She lowered her head and kissed him. After a while, she asked, “Sree, did you . . . you . . . women . . . ?” It sounded like a pleading. “One . . . Susa . . . ” Anu kept her hand over his mouth not letting him complete. He could have lied, he knew. But, she would have known, he thought. Anu tried to hold back her tears and she avoided looking at him. But, she held him tighter. He buried his head against her young body, crying out of shame. Was that shame for participating in that program or was it for enjoying the trip, he was not sure. He wondered if Anu would ever forget it or even forgive him. He knew that they would

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continue to love each other, marry and live together. Time might heal or if that cliché failed, he felt that they will try to remember all the good things and try to forget all the bad things. And, some of those things will be common, he hoped. It may even turn out to be a first class travel. Author’s note: This is fiction. The author has twisted the existing luxury of real places to suit the non-existing needs of his fantasy.

39
After I Said ‘Have A Great Sunday!’
Tell me about your best Sunday morning. Let me tell you about mine. I sat facing the French windows while I had the full English breakfast. Mumbai! This is what I will remember. I can see Marine Drive, joggers and walkers, a few lazy cars on empty streets, maybe even Church Gate, the fishing village, the blue-green sea, the azure sky shaking off early morning haziness. I heard her open the bathroom door and I went towards her. She was ready to leave. I would have liked her beautiful body next to me for a few minutes more. I indicated breakfast but she smiled and shook her head. I wondered if I should give a tip. I guess that was included in her price. ‘Have a great Sunday!’ I told her. I heard something crashing outside and a few pop sounds. She opened the door. Both of us stared into the mad eyes of a heavily-weaponed man wearing a balaclava. She screamed. I saw my future in fast forward. I never think about my death. Alive, a survivor in some tabloid, in the hands of my wife who would have returned from her hometown, with a tale about her man and his woman. After I said ’Have a great Sunday!’, there was little left to say. Author’s notes: This story-line sounds very familiar. If you know, kindly tell me. Did this origin elsewhere? Well, that would be telling, right? Anyway, I have always wanted to write a story where the notes are of comparable length.

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40
Emotions - One True, Four False
Hate Thirty years could not erase his mean smile and that loud whisper ringing in her ears, “Your child will not live to celebrate its 30th birthday.” He had continued, “That clean kill will be awfully good, like an anticipated serendipity. That will be your prize for being an angelic devil, for making me pure dirt.” Love She had tried a true lie, “I love you.” “Now, isn’t that a new cliché?” he had mocked. She suffered the same nightmare every night - her quiet scream echoing the eloquent silence; his tense calm malevolent look in endless mirrors; two people, once lovers and honest liars, now tainted, poisoning with searing icy hot kisses. Greed Greed for money and high status, he had accused. True. But, she had also wanted a child and security - for him, those words meant a friendly takeover of his life. Bohemian is fine . . . as a phase of life, not whole life . . . she had tried telling. He had looked at her like a Jew looking at kosher ham. Philandering It was not her affair with his best-friend that made him see red. The fact that it was an open

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secret amongst their friends caused that. They “ . . . turned a blind eye on ‘it’ . . . expected ‘it’ to end . . . a one-night stand,” their clearly ambiguous excuses. Overnight, his half-empty life became the neat mess of an unmarried cuckold. Jealousy Today, it’s her son’s 30th birthday. Her husband had insisted on a grand party, a deaf listener to her pleas. During the party, she noticed her old lover. She felt her life turn upside down when she felt jealousy instead of fear. A beautiful woman was holding her old lover’s arm, like she used to. Author’s note:

• I used a nice web-site for oxymorons: http://www.oxymoronlist.com/.

41
My Football Days
I was in the playing eleven for one league match. Twenty minutes into the first half, I received a kick from behind on my calf and at that same moment, the rival forward I was trying to tackle smashed the ball into my groin with tremendous force. I watched the rest of that match from the sidelines. My team had five from my family, six if you count me; four first-cousins, including the captain Biju and the centre-forward Aju; and Shaji, a rather distant cousin but a close friend of my cousins. I used to hang around with those three though they are a few years older than me. It seemed to be the best way to enter the team. I used to look forward to those visits to my paternal grandparents’ place during extended school holidays. The house consisted of two single-storey buildings separated by a small sandy courtyard. When I see Malayalam movies, I wonder why they never show houses like that rather than the grand ones with pond and what-not. Every village house I knew looked like my grandparents’ house. Every nook and corner of that house would be filled with people. Rather dingy dark rooms with old smells, a toilet to be avoided, small groups whispering, few loud ones omnipresent, these I remember. My mother and sisters complaining, not about the direct in-laws, but about the other women and their kids who had entered that house like them via marriage; a fair competition between those in the same category, I suppose. My grandparents used to proudly watch their kids arrive in cars. At dusk, my grandmother used to gather the kids for the evening prayer, Rama Rama bhagyama, or something that sounded like that. Meals were rushed affairs between games. For me, and my cousins, life revolved around football. Every evening, a big crowd including most of my family members would gather around the ground next to our house. Our main rivals were from the same neighbourhood. The toss decided the team that played bare-chested. Some had football boots, most played barefoot; most had shorts but some still played the old way with lungi folded and expertly tucked in.

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The captain of the rival team was a guy named Sasi. He was a tall chap, standing well above six feet, barrel-chested, athletic, fair, light-eyed, aquiline features. I have heard my cousins say, “Kuravande veettil aaro purathuninnu mathilu chaadi . . . ” (“Some outsider must have jumped the wall of that low-caste’s house . . . ”). After scoring a goal against us, he would go near the sidelines where my family was gathered and standing in front of them, taunt us with a roar. We also knew that he was putting on a show for the benefit of our cousin, Indira. Indira is my most beautiful cousin and Biju’s elder sister. Since she was my father’s sister’s daughter, I could have married her if I had been her age or older. She treated me like a kid-brother while I teased and ogled. Aju, the son of another paternal aunt, could not view her as anything but a sister. The distant cousin Shaji was right for her by way of age and family lineage. Only two obstacles stood in his path. The main one was that his father was much richer than hers; the minor one being his ugliness and her revulsion towards him. But, whenever he talked to her, it was obvious that he considered her as his by default. I was there when Aju caught her with our rival, Sasi. They had been talking and standing close, Aju told us. Biju confronted Indira and warned her to stay away from Sasi. Why, she asked her younger brother. He is not suitable for us, Biju told his sister, he is poor and though he belongs to our caste, he is of a lower sub-caste. She stared at us without saying a word. We thought she would listen to us and we decided to keep this from the elders. But, the next day, after his team defeated us he strutted in front of her and she smiled at him. We planned our attack well. We knew that he returned to his house from his Club at around nine at night. Two days after the last taunt, the four of us waited in a well-shaded part of that route. We were in briefs; our bodies oiled and greased. We attacked Sasi that night with iron bars, thick sticks and cycle chains. I had a thick stick and I think I managed to hit him once on the head and chest. Shaji was the most ferocious and he used an iron rod against the knees and ankles. When Sasi lost consciousness, we stopped hitting and left the place. The next morning, news came to us from various quarters. Then and now, the elders have never questioned us about that day’s incident (“annaththe sambhavam”). Sasi was in hospital for a long time. The police questioned him. When he could speak, he told them that he could not recognize his attackers. We knew his intentions and why he decided not to sneak on us but we could do little after that. My studies took me away from my land. Then, my grandparents died and I had even

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fewer reasons to visit frequently. I used to get the family news. Indira married our rival Sasi. He managed to become a clerk in some government office. A few months back, on one of my rare visits to that place, I met Indira and her beautiful kids. She insisted that I should visit her house and her kids tugged and pulled me there. I sat with Sasi in the front-room, discussing local politics and World Cup football, having tea and sharing a plate of biscuits. He walked with a limp and used a walking stick, his nose had a broken skewness and the left side of his face had a slight droop as if patched badly. He caught me looking and smiled; those light-eyes taunting me like then, my football days.

42
Two Bridges To This Station
We haunt a million places. Ask Jean-Paul in that café or Isabel with dreamy eyes; the local Romeo on the beach or the Juliet on those snowy slopes; ask them where they wish to be. It is the same there, for you or me, him or her. How we wish we were in another’s place, when the wallet’s empty or the mood’s foul, when the rains don’t stop or the sun is hot. But, it is really the same there.

We do not belong there, in that place without clocks, with a shaded path to an unknown station.

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On those walls, there is a scrawl over ours but our seat is there in that empty station with the scarred ground.

We arrive with the last train, mid-morning and south-bound. The north-bound trains don’t stop here anymore.

The locals pass by, without a glance; for the gossips have gathered at the gate or the market, at the tea-stall or the backyard wall. They are there for proper yarn, stranger than ours, when clocks come alive and merrily cry, “Cuckold! Cuckold!” or there’s blood and stones on the street and a dead cuckoo.

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There are braggart’s tales of conquests and passionate lies, about when they spied the white cotton petticoat, they slept against a bare broad chest, the kisses and more, on shaded river steps or beneath the bower.

We are shy and we choose narrower paths to our close secrets.

Those paths lead to the first bridge sagging with old tales. An uncle drunk drowned in these waters, a cousin stuck mowed down by the last north-bound train.

On the right, there’s always the blue-green calm.

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On the left, dark clouds hover but we are not scared.

There’s another bridge which tries to hide the world beyond. It’s a new bridge with one tale to tell.

If you go to the edge, you can spy. Over the coconut trees and the yellow bloom, there’s our old friend in his boat, barely seen through misty eyes.

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His mother was a witch or a soothsayer, an astrologer or a priestess; her son like us denied all. He pushes the pole against the river bed, his two-helpers lying prone upon that cargo of husk. We used to play together when we were friends with him, there’s a chipped tooth to remember that and there’s another deeper scar.

That dry lonely stump in the middle was green then, as green as that island with the temple, where we wished to go.

He refused us that ride, “Not all places are the same that’s for lovers who will be together.” I kicked and punched and screamed, “We will be together.” I cried against his silence, “Tell me why.”

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To stand on that island pier, to be in that cottage, to pray at the temple, to be together, that’s not for all.

I am here, she is with Him. There are two bridges to this station, there are two forever separated.

... . ...

43
Terms & Conditions for the Nouveau Blogger
I am still knocking at the Gates Of Blogdoom. I have company. A few have left, discouraged, but they will be back. Where can they go? To kill time we discussed about what we should do, that is, if we gain access. Minutes of the discussion, scrawled on our fig leaves, are:

1. Be an adult. If you fall in love with a fellow-blogger, be ready to find out that he/she is actually Hillary Clinton and/or Osama Bin Laden. 2. Never assume that you are anonymous. On blogosphere, like elsewhere on the Net, refrain from activities that your mother should not see. 3. Itemize, that is, if you want your viewer to go beyond line 1. 4. Forget composition classes in school. In a blog, a paragraph should not have more than 2 lines. 5. Use smileys/emoticons. It helps viewers laugh/cry with you. 6. If you are ’into’ creative writing, still use smileys/emoticons but just mix them up when you laugh, your viewer should cry. 7. Do not expect viewers to read between the lines. They can hardly read the lines. 8. You can be an active or a passive blogger. An active blogger will spend 60% of time commenting on one’s own blogs, 10% commenting on others’ blogs and 30% to post a blog; a passive blogger will spend 100% of time to post a blog. 9. System Administrators usually help passive bloggers by deleting their work after every third blog so that they can start with the same stuff all over again.

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10. Use a tool to see the time spent by a viewer on your blog. If the time is less than 3 seconds, the comment will be “Great stuff”; else if, time is greater than 3 seconds but less than 1 minute, the comment will be “What crap!”; else, the viewer has gone to sleep without switching off the internet connection. 11. Do unto bloggers as you wish they do unto you. 12. For bloggers, the 10 commandments still hold - but include these, too. More the merrier. 13. Never write the 13th blog/point/comment.

44
Baseless Accusations
Thank God, it’s Monday. The weekend was miserable and I am in no hurry to have another. It, misery, started on Friday night. I was at the community centre. There are two rooms there, marked ‘Gents’ and ‘Ladies’. I try to avoid the first room - liquor, cards, men and all that which follow the first three. Usually, my quota of community service is in the second room - on Friday, it was the day for salsa. I opted for the role of the helper rather than that of the partner. For some reason, I preferred to replenish bottles of drinking water and to mop sweat on the floor. Two of my acquaintances there - taking a break from the throes of ecstasy, exhaustion and exhilaration - accosted me and said, “You leave it hanging,” said one. “Cut it out,” the other added. It, my writing of course, was the reason for this accusation. For some time, my few readers accuse me of engaging in ‘high-brow’ writing. They tell me that I (mis)use mythology, history, humour, ambiguous endings, literary allusions, collage of multiple ideas/viewpoints on a single topic and include even touches of absurdist theatre. None accused me of brevity, though. Like most people on whose head the burden of wisdom is placed, I searched for the same on the Net. I found that I should read the work of the master of ambiguous endings, John Fowles (‘The Magus’ is highly recommended, it seems). I laboured through the many hits about the absurdist ‘Waiting for Godot’ by Samuel Beckett. It is good to sound wise about anything and everything. After all, none hear me when I tell them that I never got past page 22 of Joseph Heller’s ‘Catch 22’ or the first chapter of James Joyce’ ‘Ulysses’ - even after it was proclaimed to be the best book of the century. These accusations trouble me a great deal. I am a sensitive soul in dire straits, financially

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and emotionally, quite unable to handle such aspersions on my literary skills. When I tell them that I ‘leave it hanging’ because I have no clue how to continue, they do not listen. I left the community centre dejected, rejected. I slept early - with no desire to face this unjust world with open eyes. I woke up at seven and the morning seemed beautiful - blue sky, birds chirping, men spitting, women . . . The woman with whom I had spent the night was standing in front of the mirror. In the mirror, I could see her looking at me. I am a big fan of crime thrillers. But when a woman, an intimate partner till dusty death, looks at you with ‘dead eyes’, ‘smile never reaching the eyes’, ‘cold cruel reptilian gaze’, the sky darkens, birds go silent, men swallow. “What happened?” I would boldly ask this question to any woman in such a situation. That is, if she is not my wife. In fiction, a wife will stare for a while and then deep emotion, love, understanding, trust and respect will choke (ignite) her with tears (rage). In reality, the man will close his eyes and sleep a little longer. In a dream, my subconscious accused, “Insensitive male.” That is a harsh description of a man who is known among his peers as ‘Feminist’ (at a recent alumni get-together, the same lot used the same word while we were discussing Bill Clinton and Tiger Woods but then, they must have made a mistake). I know that I should have enquired but a wife should understand her man. A deep understanding is required especially if her man has reached that age when infidelity is unthinkable because he has to fear not pot-bellied husbands (probably in the same predicament) but hot-blooded sons with a gang of cold-blooded pals. It’s that age when it is not the fathers who protect their daughters from you but it is the grandfathers

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who guard their grandchildren against you; that age at which a man cannot think like he used to for two or three score years without being labeled ‘dirty old man’. I know that some of you might ask me with an accusing voice, “What happened next?” You might think that I ‘leave it hanging’ but I wish I knew the answer myself. The way I deal with such situations is to make myself scarce. Though I got my meals on time and I was allowed World Cup football, the atmosphere at home remained dark, brooding and moody till I read it on Sunday. It, being her post, made the air heavy with gloom, uncertainty and love. Do you remember that old ad in which a deep-voiced guy croons into a phone, “Hi Rashmi, it’s me”? I felt that her post said the same thing to me, with the appropriate gender modifications. Gloom? Well, the ‘her’ involved is not my wife. Uncertainty? I cannot understand her post. I want to borrow words similar to that in ‘Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo’ and tell her, “When you have to talk, talk, don’t be clever.” And, love? I wish I could. I know that you will accuse me of being unfaithful to her. But, let me try to explain why I cannot. Around the same time on that Sunday, I had an appointment with my physician. I was diagnosed with ‘pilapses synapticitis’, and the good doctor even read from his medical text - the one between the texts by Gray and Cunningham, I noticed with a tired mind - ‘affliction of the synapses causing lapses in the trigger of nerve impulses such as to produce out-of-sync expressions’. “Nothing serious,” the pedantic doctor consoled, “apart from tragic-comic mix-ups, inability to understand the outcome and/or gravity and/or requisites of a relationship and/or a situation and other related premature bodily functions.”

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“That is good news,” I agreed. It, my disability, might explain all the baseless accusations.

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Brazil (1986) - Heroes’ Death
Disclaimer: This is again from that folder with old writing - others’ writing (mentioned in an earlier blog). This seems to be a 24-year old ‘poem’ with a young boy’s lament. The ‘literary value’ is obviously minimal but it seems appropriate now with the 2010 World Cup producing so many ‘dead heroes’. I do share one passion with that young boy - as far as football is concerned, I am a patriotic Brazilian. Heroes’ Death An air so bright and gay, Perhaps, no other village to surpass, Ecstasy of joy rang through the people’s heart, Plentiful smiles and tears unseen. Glory and honour, a hero’s Desire, was granted to the deserving; Like a twinkling star, never to fade, The heroes went scintillating. And lo! Then there came the war, For what one knows not, For none speak of the dreadful war, For souls still chant dirges. But when the war had come, Heroes none turned their faces; But beaming a heroic form, and a prayer, They had gone for the war, armour-clad. The war went on - spring crept into winter, First, our young heroes braved a fight Too much for the dreadful villains; But, Luck soon crawled to the latter.

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As winter crept in, the coldness creeping into each warrior’s heart, And, these warriors were laid out in the cold, Cheated, with some treachery, None knows what, as none lived to say. Wives came, and children too, For their husbands and fathers; Searching among the strewn forms, Sending the vultures to flight. There on the battlefield, Or, an altar streamed with blood, Lay our young heroes, their forms Shed of all glory and honour they once adorned. Once they had vested the luminous garment, Of happiness; that light has faded. With the coming of the chilly dawn, To the gloomy dusk, Misery and Death linger. Ha! Are heroes to be dropped dead; As leaves on a tree, gloriously green once, The fallen rotten on the ground, trampled by many? O God! Let the heroes return and joy grow in this little village.

The young boy’s note: : This ‘poem’ was written at 03:07 (22.06.1986) just after the Brazil vs. France World Cup quarter final match in which Brazil was defeated. I am very much disappointed. Let this ‘poem’ be to the ‘dead heroes’ like Socrates, Zico, Careca and the whole Brazilian team.

46
On Writing
Disclaimer: I have a folder with old writing - others’ writing. Today, a wonderful wet soporific Sunday morning, while rummaging through old stuff I found this 17-year old ‘note’. I hear a young man’s naïve and refreshing voice. I should not have lost touch with him and maybe, it is that guilt which makes me want to share his ‘note’ with you. One could write a million words and never say anything of substance. Or, one could utter a few meaningful words and never be understood. If what is written ends with itself and the final full-stop, critics would find themselves bereft of a pastime. The author is after all a normal human being with his limitations concerning experience and understanding of life. But, at the moment of writing it is his inner depth which is being searched - this excludes the paper-mongers, the multitude, among whom the true writer has been made to fight for survival. Survival of the financed. Do people take the words without a remark? Do they think first, read between the lines, wonder why the writer is so? Or, do they try to perceive the theme, form opinions and ‘evaluate’ the work of art? Evaluate - which mortal has the right to evaluate another, or rather, competent enough to do so? In those words, the cry of the multitude is echoed - “I have seen all this before. Who are you to lecture - you, who have not fought the odds for someone or something?” The historian does not fight battles, the romantic poet need not be in passionate love, the humorist need not be a joker - it’s not their actions which make them write but their thoughts, principles, honesty and desire to know more. Like a baby who yearns to do things for the first time, and innocence like that of a young boy who asks his mother how he came into the world. But he is not a faultless creature. He is always searching for a non-existent state of Utopia. The purpose of his most morbid work would be like narrating the last night’s nightmare hoping its horror would fade away. He is always teaching the little he gets to know and he seems to be preaching! He sits in a dark one-window room, crouching over his book, feeling the comfort of the

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sweat-stained sides of his pen and frequently he goes to stand by the window overlooking a street filled with non-writers, he blames the smoke curling from his cigarette for producing tears; he watches, curses himself and starts to wonder how it’s like down there amidst others. Back to the comfort of his seat, he pours his thoughts yielding the pen like a sword, slashing the paper, more interested to mar than beautify. And finally, when it’s done with, he often crumples it and let it go flying to the wastepaper pile. Each roll a small world in itself - a world he, the creator, is not sure of and one he keeps checking and rewriting hoping the final draft is the truth. He knows it is not so. And in that moment of pain, the external world confirms it with rejection. That ends his foray into that external world - the one which he secretly loves, the one where he will never be loved and understood.

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Tear
Follow the tear from the mind meandering to the eye then on a lone path glistening rolling over creases and hollows to droop on the chin washing tearing relieving it drops into the flame of burning passion in my heart splutter smoke watering eyes again a cycle rolling till the mind breaks in fragments

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till all dissipates is it rest is it numb relief finally with You?

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Movie Review: Up in the Air
This movie gets a grade of 8 out of 10. Without George Clooney, this might possibly get a grade of 7; and, without him and the current economic recession, probably 6. Will I watch this movie again? Yes. In fact, I would like to finish this review fast, post it and watch the movie once again. Let me ask you a few questions: Which type of job should be outsourced? Restructuring a business, streamlining operations and telling people that their time is up (I am referring to companies but it might be suitable for personal relationships, too), right? HR or a decent manager could/should do it but it looks better if their hands are not dirtied. The protagonist of this movie, Ryan Bingham (Clooney), is an external consultant who is hired by companies to ‘lay-off’ people. His boss views the current economic recession as a boom time for their kind of work - fans of old Westerns would remember the undertaker licking his lips in greedy anticipation when the bad guys ride into town. Do you really believe motivational stuff? Ryan’s eldest sister approaches him to talk to their younger sister’s fiancé who gets cold-feet on the day of the wedding. He is beseeched to do what he usually does - to give a motivational speech for that occasion - even though Ryan protests saying that he usually speaks against marriage. There is a theory that most people read and agree with such motivational stuff not because they believe it but because it sounds good for them to use on unsuspecting others. Disclaimer: I distrust all swamis and astrologers; most do-gooders and the indignant lot; and, some who rely heavily on Transactional Analysis (Games People Play), The Road Less Traveled, HR tools like MyersBrigg Type Indicator and Ayn Rand (especially Alan Greenspan). If you are an Indian from Tier II/III cities, name the place which you associate with success, upward-mobility and status? It is the airport, isn’t it? Take a look at those proud parents; the cool-dude kids; the professionals with the ubiquitous Samsonite and laptop bag; the request for upgrading or the executive lounge for those who manage to find that card among the many other plastic loyalties. Ryan Bingham is one of those frequent flyers, too - lamenting the fact that he had to stay at home for 43 days the previous year.

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Movies like literature can be broadly classified into two broad categories: escape and interpretive. The latter has as its object pleasure plus understanding while the escape lot has pleasure as its only object. This movie is definitely an interpretive movie. The movie cannot boast of technical wizardry, memorable locations and unforgettable soundtrack. There are three main actors: charismatic George Clooney, beautiful and mature Vera Farmiga, beautiful and very young though capable Anna Kendrick. They and, of course, the director Jason Reitman have done a marvelous job. This brings me to the final question: Can you tell me a quote/movie-line which made you watch a movie once again? Maybe, “Here’s to looking at you, kid” (Casablanca). Or, “If you wanna shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.” (The Good, The Bad and The Ugly) and in the same vein “This is a 44 Magnum . . . do you feel lucky, punk?” (Dirty Harry) or maybe, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” (Gone With the Wind). Here, in Up in the Air, it’s when Ryan Bingham the hero is told:

“You are a parenthesis.”

Happy watching, cheerio! p.s. Clooney for Dummies: I became a fan after watching the romantic comedy One Fine Day (which I saw to see Michelle Pfeiffer). And, he just got better and better with movies like Syriana and Michael Clayton.

49
Movie Review: Two Movies by Adoor
Yesterday evening, I enjoyed a marathon session of cinema. I watched two movies by Adoor Gopalakrishnan: Naalu Pennungal (Four Women) and Oru Pennum Randaanum (One Woman And Two Men). Each film has four chapters based on stories written by Thakazhi Sivashankara Pillai. Let me begin with the ending of the two movies. The movie Naalu Pennungal ends with a woman saying:

‘. . . purushan illathe ottakku oru sthreekku jeevikkaan kazhiyanamallo . . . ’ [‘. . . a woman should be able to lead a life alone without a man . . . ’]

Oru Pennum Randaanum ends with a woman and three men (her husband and two ‘others’):

Woman’s husband: ‘Aaraadi ivan?’ [‘Who is he?’] Woman: ‘Ente kochinte achan.’ [‘Father of my child.’]

Why did I put in those scenes? If you have read those lines and not seen the movies, note down your immediate thoughts about what you think you can expect. Then, see the movies or read the stories and find out if your notes match the sensitivity and complexity portrayed. For those who are interested in knowing more about the movies or the writer, please follow the links provided above. I have read somewhere that Adoor himself considers these movies to be simple. But, it requires a master-craftsman like him to recreate Thakazhi’s stories for the screen. The beauty of the land, the harshness of the system, the troubles and hardship in society, the complexity of human relationships - these are depicted with a careful eye.

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For a movie-lover, two points stand out after watching these two movies:

• The two movies have strong roles for women and most of the stories are womencentric. This should be noted especially because the Malayalam cinema of recent years has hardly a role for women. • It would be nice to have more budget movies of this type, i.e., with strong short chapters. These short chapters or movies of 30-45 minute duration would be ideal for prime time TV, but I can only hope.

I am not really reviewing the movies here. Then, what am I trying to do out here? Personally, I had three reasons to go through these movies and old stories, and to write about the same:

• One, I love fiction (quite often, more than reality) and writing. I also know that there are very few thoughts which have not been thought before in a better way. When I write, I wonder whether my ‘modern’ thoughts have been expressed elsewhere in a ‘better’ way ages back. By ‘better’, I mean ‘more true’. When I read stories, the first question that comes to mind turns out to be: ‘is it truly narrated - sans commercial acceptability and values, sans schoolbook morals, sans fear of the moral police?’ The stories in these movies are truly and carefully depicted. • Two, when I need to scavenge for stories, I use my village. There are fewer rules, fewer gods and fewer reasons to worry in small places. In these two movies, the stories are based in villages and set in the period 1940-1960. Usually, I am more inclined to see a movie about life in a metro but I know that there is more life outside the metro. In these two movies, the social scene and human relationships are depicted without airbrushing. It allows us to see how society and human relationships have improved and where it has regressed. • Three, I wanted to record something that I would like to understand better. And, for once, I would like to share the experience with others. I am sure that this is not due to altruism. Maybe, I desire a group who will ‘cut the crap’. The stories in these two movies are, like life and unlike popular writing, natural.

50
Book review: Solar by Ian McEwan
You will enjoy this book. Get The Book Now! *** If you are not satisfied with the book review given above, continue1 . . . On the train from Potsdam to Berlin, I was listening to the BBC Radio comedy program Just A Minute on my walkman (yes, it was that long ago, in pre-iPod days) and when Stephen Fry said, “. . . my bottoms speak perfect German . . . ” I burst out laughing. I sensed the stares2 before I saw. But, how could I explain the joke to my fellow-passengers? When you read this book, you might find yourself in a similar situation. Ian McEwan’s Solar does not pretend to be a classic or a cerebral novel. But, on nearly every page, you will find and relish a passage about ‘current affairs’ (climate-change; physics; future of clean energy; humanities versus sciences; media; women in science; marriage; recession; institutions and funding;. . . ) or, where the author is even better, an observation about human nature. There is humour - subtle, slapstick, coarse, the full range. The author will play mind-games with you, making you feel unsure about what is right or wrong. You might even feel that he is pulling your leg - he does not spare anyone. If you are looking for information about the plot and story, buy the book or do a search on the Net. 2 I recently heard a story about Frau Dr. Merkel and colleagues who treated poor Mr. Papandreou to similar stares while he tried to barter a Greek tragedy for German aid and, at the end of a long pause with the accompanying music of falling euro, she nodded with a sigh, ”Aaaaaarrhsooooo . . . ”
1

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The book’s cover will tell you that it is a ‘story of one man’s greed and self-deception’. When you read this book, you might admit to yourself that you have on more than one occasion behaved or thought like that one man, ‘Beard, heartless scourge of the frail’. Michael Beard is the winner of ‘Cold Norton and District Baby Competition, birth to sixmonths class’ and also, the Nobel Prize for Physics. ‘He belonged to that class of men - vaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, clever - who were unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women. Or he believed he was, and thinking seemed to make it so.’ We find him initially, at the age of fifty-three, in a delicate situation with his fifth wife: ‘Beard was surprised to find how complicated it was to be the cuckold . . . No woman had ever looked or sounded so desirable as the wife he suddenly could not have.’ I read this book alone and I found that it is a book best read alone. For example, try reading this scene, with Beard and his first wife Massie, to your better-half: ‘. . . lay side by side on their backs in the dark while she broke the news that she was leaving him . . . What he experienced was a compound of joy and relief . . . caused a tear of gratitude to roll down his cheek. He also felt fierce impatience for her to be gone. It crossed his mind to offer to drive her to the station now, but there were no trains from Lewes at 3 a.m., and she had not packed . . . she saw the dampness around his eyes. Firmly and deliberately she whispered, ‘I will not be blackmailed, Michael. I will not, repeat not, be emotionally manipulated by you into staying.’. . . ’3 Is it a novel about ‘climate-change’? That4 is also there, of course. On this topic alone, we seem to be sure about the author’s stand. The general public is even provided with an excuse, Did your better-half ask you, “What are you trying to suggest?” Global warming is definitely the ‘hottest’ topic of the season - I cannot escape it. I hear it from my niece who is in primary school and also, from the chief economists in investment banks (when they are interested, you know that trouble is on its way). When I hear about carbon trading and carbon credits, I cannot suppress repressed guilt concerning sub-prime credit. And, when carbon-spewing industries can go about their business after buying carbon credits, it seems that someone has reached the conclusion that the minimum of the sum of quantities is equal to the sum of minimized quantities?
4 3

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‘. . . to take the matter seriously would be to think about it all the time. Everything else shrank before it . . . Daily life would not permit it.’ The arguments of those who deny the phenomena of global warming and the imperative need for ‘clean energy’ are shrugged aside with, ‘You ’re not convinced. Here’s the worst case. Suppose the near impossible - the thousand are wrong and the one is right, the data are all skewed, there’s no warming. It’s a mass delusion among scientists, or a plot. Then we still have the old stand-bys. Energy security, air pollution, peak oil.’ Yes, aren’t those reasons enough? The author treats science and scientists with a lot of understanding. The author has done his homework well and he expects at least a fraction of that effort from his readers. We will feel like nodding in agreement with ‘. . . he read up on the latest, on Bagger, Lambert and Gustavsson - of course! BLG was not a sandwich - and their Langrangian description of coincident M2-branes. God may or may not have played dice, but surely He was nowhere near this clever, or such a show-off. The material world simply could not be so complicated.’ And, probably scratch our heads while we read the unearthed citation for Michael Beard’s Nobel Prize5 . For those who require a commentary on self-help, a moral at the end of the story, a complex plot, strong and admirable characters and a pithy ending, this is not your book. Are there any other problems? None, methinks6 . I wait for Ian McEwan’s next book. Will it be based on the Cameron-Clegg matrimony & divorce; or, the post-euro EU; or, the rise & fall of emerging nations? The description of the Feynman Plaid seems to echo part of a result in topology ‘a turn of 4π is no turn at all’. 6 If you would like to be the bright and enthusiastic junior fellow or post-doc seeking a fellowship or a research position, stand up and say, ‘Sir, on page 217, the numbers 399 and 663 are not equivalent with π rotation; can it be 699 and 669?’ 2
5

51
Book review: Montalbano series by Camilleri
If You Think You Are Old, Read These Books; Or, Even Otherwise . . . Note from the reviewer: First, I will touch upon the question ‘Where does this book fit in?’ and this might be relevant if you are not a fan of crime fiction. Then, I will briefly touch upon Andrea Camilleri (age 85 and going stronger) and his wonderful character Detective Inspector Salvo Montalbano (age 56 in the recent ‘The Wings Of The Sphinx’). Here, I will use passages from this particular book to illustrate my case. I shall try not to reveal the plot or the story. I will also touch upon other details which you could look forward to while reading this or any book in the Montalbano series. Crime fiction can be roughly classified into three. One, those books where the emphasis is on the crime, the plot and the method of detection (Holmes, Poirot & Miss Marple, Dalgliesh, Morse are typical examples of master detectives). Two, those crime novels which use the structure of ‘a police procedural’ to focus on society, the current issues and the exploration of human nature (here, I recommend Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly, Val McDermid, Henning Mankell). Finally, an equal combination of the first two categories along with a motive for crime which astounds and enthralls (Umberto Eco’s ‘The Name Of The Rose’ is a likely example). The Montalbano series falls under category two. Camilleri uses sparkling wit, subtle and also slapstick humour, satire and an honest love for the good things in life to discuss the ills of society, crime and the true criminals, politics and of course, a poignant view of human relationships. Though the novels are typically based in Sicily, there is a universal nature to his discussions. Each book usually contains a barely concealed attack on ‘controlled’ media and Silvio Berlusconi, the powerful Italian politician. The reader can easily replace Berlusconi or the Italian media with the local bigwigs. The books in this series rarely exceed 300 pages. But, in between crime detection and entertaining comic dialogue, Camilleri finds space for simple observation:

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‘Actually, if one really thought about it, the television had been presenting the same news stories for years; the only things that changed were the names: the names of the towns in which the events were occurring and the names of the people involved. But the substance was always the same.’

What should you know about the author Andrea Camilleri? He was born in 1925. In 1994, Camilleri at the age of 69, published his first book in the bestselling Montalbano series. This series is based in a fictitious place called Vigata, the model for which is Camilleri’s own Sicilian birthplace. To honour Camilleri and the Montalbano series, his birthplace Porto Empedocle has changed its name to Porto Empedocle Vigata. Why do I envy the character Salvo Montalbano? At 56, he has -

• a volatile but trusting relationship with a long-term long-distance girlfriend Livia; • the sexy and intelligent Swedish blonde ‘Ingrid Sjostrom! His friend, confidante, and accomplice!’ with whom Montalbano shares an occasional platonic cuddle; • trustworthy colleagues including the half-wit Catarella who is the expert in computers, the good journalist-friend Nicolo Zito and Dr. Pasquano, a match for irascibility; • a wonderful cook and housekeeper Adelina; • Enzo’s trattoria which serves him the best (the unfortunate reader will be tortured with well-described meals, a la gourmet, and even enticed with recipes); • survived many battles against the establishment; • a lovely house by the beach; • ‘before going in . . . lit a cigarette. Smoking was not allowed inside. And he always conformed - perhaps with a curse - whenever he saw a non-smoking sign . . . On the other hand, where on earth was a poor bastard allowed to smoke these days? Not even in the toilets.’

The Montalbano series have been translated into English by Stephen Sartarelli and he has done a great job. He adds his own touch to the books with ‘Notes’ for the English reader unfamiliar with Italian/European politics and history, and Camilleri’s usage of Sicilian dialect and references to Italian literature. Of course, Camilleri leaves you with his own challenging note at the end:

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‘This novel is made up . . . There is no doubt, however, that the novel is born of a specific reality.’

For a proper review of Camilleri and his work, please refer to:

• ‘Paul Bailey on the late flowering of an Italian phenomenon’ in The Guardian. • Review including the list of his books and Author Q&A.

Or better, read the books . . . you will not regret!

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Who am I?
“I’m haunted, but I can’t see by what!” Spellbound

Thought of being an iconoclast, till I realized it’s a fashion; Thought of building a social network, but without wooing friends; If I think of something new, I might place it in a footnote. The point is to be missed, till you really look. It’s a tough game It’s a game for one or two.

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What others say:

“. . . I’m a lone wolf, unmarried, getting middle-aged, and not rich . . . when I get ˇ knocked off in a dark alley sometimeEnobody will feel that the bottom has dropped out of his or her life.” Raymond Chandler on Philip Marlowe A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally. Oscar Wilde There is a level of cowardice lower than that of the conformist: the fashionable nonconformist. Ayn Rand If you pretend to be good, the world takes you very seriously. If you pretend to be bad, it doesn’t. Such is the astounding stupidity of optimism. Oscar Wilde I am pessimistic about optimism. Blogger Anon. Having to read footnotes resembles having to go downstairs to answer the door while in the midst of making love. Noel Coward Maybe, the person at the door is a better companion than the one upstairs. Blogger Anon.

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Berlin Diary
53.1 Waiting for Trouble near Westkreuz
He stood at his doorway on this winter night, the light from his apartment sending out shadows creeping towards me, a dangerous menacing figure with an eerie halo, staring in my direction, legs apart and mean-looking, like one of those spaghetti-Western villains. But, he was the sheriff and I the villain. I had waited for the moon to hide behind clouds, for total darkness to provide cover for my crime. I broke the law every week, every Sunday, and I did not even try to learn how to put the right rubbish in the right bin. Biodegradable, cans, paper, glass . . . aye, that’s where I erred this time . . . glass. I realized that after my pack of bottles fell with a loud crash into the bin for metal. That disturbance brought him to his door. If I could have seen his face, I would have seen the anger in his eyes, the spit foaming at the side of his mouth, veins jutting out on his neck and forehead, livid face red and quivering. He is the janitor of my apartment block near Westkreuz. He lives on the ground floor. I hoped that the cold darkness would save me. He must have seen me. In a loud guttural voice, he said something sharply in German to me which I could not understand. I walked away from the scene of the crime, sticking to the shadows, never showing my back to him. I reached my apartment, breathing heavily and sweating in that freezing air, locked and bolted the door, waiting for him, waiting for certain trouble. I could not resuscitate appetite for dinner, poked at my frugal meal, if not to kill hunger, at least to kill time. I saw my blood in the ketchup and my battered face in the mashed potato.

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I was washing the vessels when the door-bell rang. Strangely, I felt calm, then. The waiting was over. I walked slowly to the door. My mind was blank. I was not even thinking about how to tackle the situation. My breathing was steady. I remember correcting a few wrinkles in the carpet on my way to the door. The life I knew was going to change forever, listening to BBC Radio on FM, waiting for the world to end and writing silly things, all that will have to go, I knew. But I did not think that then. I just walked to the door, calmly. I unlocked, unbolted and opened it. I stared at the person standing in front of my door. She looked very attractive with a nose-ring, young taut body and a marvelous smile. She said, “Enschuldigung . . . ” and I knew that it only meant “Excuse me . . . ” She said other things too which I did not have to understand. I stepped aside and let her enter. She went to my balcony and returned holding a piece of clothing. She lives in the apartment above mine. That clothing must be hers and it must have fallen by design, I hoped, or by mistake, I allowed. I let her do whatever she wanted. I let her say “Bye”. By the time I said “Bye” she had disappeared from my life. In a moment of uncertainty, she had come and gone. I was left waiting for the sheriff, that janitor, the mean one. There are too many mean guys and attractive girls. They come and go. I keep waiting for trouble in my apartment near Westkreuz.

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53.2

Shrinking Hope near Innsbrucker Platz

Somewhere near Innsbrucker Platz, I am in a courtyard crowded with greenery. I press the buzzer at the main entrance and announce my name. The door clicks open. The interior matches well with the neo-Gothic exterior. The moulding stone walls, in desperate need for renovation, seem to be ready for overhanging ghouls in each corner and crevice. I expect the door to creak open but it is well-oiled. But, the staircase fits the scene. Each groaning complaining step is amplified by echoes. I whisper “Hi there” and the echo says “Hullo”. I look up to see the source, a smiling face of an octogenarian of indeterminate sex about two flights above me. A slow climb takes me to that person, cloaked in heavy woolen, standing sideways on those steps, breathing heavily. I could not make out if ‘it’ was going up or down; or when ‘its’ journey had begun. I continue climbing leaving behind the creepy smiling physiognomy. While I climb, let me tell you why I am here; or, at least, how. Yesterday, at a traffic light, I met my hypochondriac pal-acquaintance-colleague-whatever John. He greeted me with a melancholic “Yow” and I reciprocated with a hearty “Hi”. He asked with a sadistic tone, “Howz life?” I replied truthfully, “Staying alive.” Then, John took a card from his wallet and told me, “my shrink, meet him”. Without another word, he crossed the road giving scant respect to the traffic light. When John reached the other side of the road, he turned and with a downcast dopey-eyed stare, his bass voice uttered in a staccato fashion, “There . . . Watch . . . Your . . . Step . . . ” So, ‘there’ I am. With no affliction or affection to brag about, I wonder if I will be good company for a shrink. Five flights of steps conquered, with tobacco ravaged lungs doing hiccups, I reach the single door on that level (white, new and slightly open) with no bell or peep-hole waiting for me to enter. This door creaks open and as soon as I stepped inside, it recoils back noiselessly and I hear locks being sprung. I am in a massive dark hall. I can see a gas lamp on a table at the far end and a downturned

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head. I tread softly on the uncarpeted wooden floor. With every step, the shadows dance more vigorously. When I reach the table, the ‘head’ reveals a blonde with dark eyes and lush pouting lips. She says, “Ah, you are here. Let me take you to the doctor.” She took the lamp and led the way to a narrow and steep spiral staircase. Cream chiffon blouse that seems to be draped rather than worn, a cleavage that never ends, blue jeans tight against wide hips and those legs . . . I nearly tripped. John’s voice whispered in my head, “Watch your step.” After 47 steps, I reach a room at the top . . . a room? Well, it is bigger than a closet with space enough for a table, a chair behind it with its back towards me and a dentist’s reclining seat by the side of the table with a sticker which said ‘Dr Shilly - Dentist’. I exclaimed to the angel, “Oh! There’s a mistake. I am here to meet Dr Keller, the psychologist.” The angel gestured at the chair where a large bulk of mass quivered. The angel left. The mass boomed, “I am Keller.” The mass rose to six and half feet, three or so in width and plenty in depth. The boom continued, “Swapped couches with my friend Dr Shilly.” I was shown that seat. He settled down in his chair facing me with a familiar creepy smile. Dr: What’s up? Me: Up? Dr: Excellent . . . continue . . . Me: I don’t know where to start. A week back . . . Dr: The further back the better. Me: It will cost more, won’t it? Dr: You could talk faster. Me: For three days, starting last Monday, I was friendly at work. It was really strange . . . a girl even told me that I am nice . . . Dr: Is that girl barmy? Me: I could be nice, right? Dr: Frustrations rise when reality clashes with fantasy. Me: I get the point. Dr: Anyway, lot of nice people end up here. Good, you are now receptive. Continue. Me: Last Thursday, I went to a cake shop and got a slice of Black Forest pastry. After the first bite, memories hit me hard and I cried.

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Dr: Some other place, some other time, a cherished moment with someone? Me: Yes. Dr: Did you finish the pastry? Me: Yes. Dr: Why? Me: It cost me 2.50 Euro. Dr: Then . . . ? Me: That same day, I went to a Chinese restaurant for dinner. Ordered steamed fish. Again, I cried. Dr: Another person, another place, another time? Me: A fish bone got caught in my throat. Dr: Ah! A pen is sometimes just a pen, so said Freud. Me: Two days back, in a U-Bahn, I was watching a family. A ponytailed father with religious tattoos on his arms; a mother in a purdah and chewing gum; and two kid daughters, the only ones who talked. Dr: How do you know she was chewing gum if she was wearing purdah? Me: I could hear. Dr: Ah . . . continue . . . Me: The father sat with his head in his hands, looking down, as if he was suffering from migraine or a bad hangover. Two sexy girls entered. He did not notice. Dr: Were you looking at him or the girls? Me: At him. Dr: Serious . . . continue . . . Me: Later that day, in a mall, I saw an elderly couple touch each other fondly. Dr: And, you want to reach that stage, I suppose . . . Me: Yes. Dr: Without the intermediate . . . ? Me: Well, I don’t mind if my wife chews cud. But if my senses go dead, what will I do? Dr: Start chewing gum, stay married, lots of things. What else? Me: I am feeling hopeless. Dr: Do you have a job? Me: Yes. Dr: Family? Me: Yes. Wife. Dr: Kids? Me: En route. Dr: Happily married? Me: Married happily. Dr: Why are you feeling hopeless?

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Me: That girl who told me that I am nice, she also said that I am hopeless. Dr: Clever one. Me: I thought you said that she is barmy. Dr: Anything else? Me: No. Dr: Sure . . . ? Me: My wallet is. Dr: Good. Come again. Me: Doc, how do you get down that staircase? Dr: I don’t. That’s for patients. I take the lift. With that, I left him, paid at the angel’s desk, met the octogenarian at the same place, and got out of the building. At a nearby traffic light, I met my cheerful pal-acquaintance-colleague-whatever Pierre. I greeted him half-heartedly “YooHoo”. He chirped, “HooYoo”. I taunted, “How’s life?” He let out a sigh. I took the card from my wallet and told him, “my shrink, meet him”. After crossing the road, I shouted “There . . . Watch . . . Your . . . Step . . . ” I felt lighter, happier and even hopeful.

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53.3

Soliciting with Ice-cream near Ku’damm

The second time I met her, she was standing near a newspaper-stand on one of those sidestreets off Ku’damm, quite close to the French Consulate. On the first occasion, chance had made us walk together from Beate Uhse’s Erotik-Museum up to the Deutsche Post. Nothing was said then. As she walked away from me that time, I took in the leather pants, the plunging cleavage and the swaying hips. The second time, I noticed her eyes, mouth and the lines on her face. I could picture her in some crowded small kitchen, kneading dough, brushing aside strands of hair and sweat from her forehead, attending to a husband sitting in his underwear and kids not too sure if they should seek attention. At the newspaper-stand, I circled around the meager International section. Then, I shifted and stood undecided in front of the soft porn magazines. I turned around and faced her with a surge of boldness. Did a tinge of amusement flit over those lips? She stood with her weight on the left stiletto and the right leg swayed lightly. She was not a smoker, I had already noted. Her left hand was in the back pocket and the right coyly hooked in the front. She raised her eyebrows at me in acknowledgement. After a few long seconds, she walked towards me slowly. I was surprised when I heard my voice ask her,

- Hot, isn’t it? - Yes, bloody hot. - Care to have ice-cream? - Where? Some hotel here or at your place? - Shall we try that place at the corner? - There? That ice-cream joint? - Do you have the time? - What the hell! My legs are aching.

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We made our way to the ice-cream parlour. She nodded at the waiters with familiarity and chose a discreet corner. We sat silently till the sundaes arrived. During that silence, I kept looking at a point on the left side of her neck. Instinctively, she tried to cover that side with her hand, and she asked me,

- Is the strap awry or is it my blouse . . . torn? - Pardon? - What are you staring at? - Oh! Sorry, I was looking at the mole on your neck. Is it natural? - Of course. - It’s cute. - Thanks.

She started to fidget with her spoon. After a few moments of uneasy silence, she blurted,

- What do you have in mind? - I would like company. - One of those Pretty Woman scenarios, is it? - Ha! Not so rich. An hour or two? A quiet dinner? - With this outfit, that would be tough. - How about take away? - No. - You can trust me . . . - I could, but it’s a silly idea. - Ok. Then, let’s sit here. Is that fine with you? - You are not joking, are you? - No. - If you want company, shall I call a few of my pals, too?

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- No. - But, there’s nothing to talk. - Maybe. - Look, this is weird . . . I think I will just get back to work, ok? - Alright. Let’s at least finish this ice-cream together . . . please . . .

54
Swapna
54.1 The Only One That Remains
Will I be awake or will I be dreaming? When I trace each curve, each thought upon you, With breath-like kisses I will let the ink dry, Below or atop, crushing your sweet love into me But will you excuse if I call the wrong name? Everything has a bright side, they say. Will I be alive buried or will I be dead free? When I watch a white night or a dark noon, On those verdant hills or that ground grey green snot, With serene skies or there where angry clouds hover But will you excuse if I tell her name’s Solitude? Everything is for the best, they say. I have no questions I need no answers, here. You cannot accuse, in jail, you cannot complain. I look through bars for a Muse on visitors’ day, You or Love, Life or Freedom, Nature or Solitude, Those fancy names mean little, here. Memory alone tucks me in with a lullaby. When I am awake and when I dream, I stare at the walls and the barred exit, Every minute ticks long by rote. But I have learned to be with shackles, And with my head on Memory’s lap, She feeds new-born stories, a shared fantasy.

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*** From dusk till dawn, haunting Memory beckons me; with moving images in black-and-white or colour; speeding on highways, shuffling into alleys, groping for an exit in a cul-de-sac while I trip on psychedelic ecstasy, I’m allowed three posters and three songs, On each day one of each for nine lives expired Can’t you hear the Muse knocking at the door?

Author’s note:

• Three posters: (a) Cupid (Amor Victorious), Caravaggio (b) Nighthawks, Edward Hopper (c) The Kiss, Rodin. • Three songs: (a) Meditation from Thais, Massenet (b) Moonlight Sonata, Beethoven (c) Jeu Le Taxi, Vanessa Paradis.

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54.2

Gigolo
You are late, I tell him, But with a sheepish grin, He holds me, my whim. There’s no gain If I complain, If all I want is sin. It is late, to drink or dine, Or to be civilized, We lie in the cold, say you’re mine, I recline and watch as he strips Is it fine when his nose drips, Is this act ritualized? It is not late, when it’s done, I wish I could pay, Than wait for morning sun, When I share eggs and toast And news and office boast, Alas, at the door, come home early, I say.

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54.3

Lonely with Passion
The gnarled trees reaching sinking silent screaming love in friendship’s quagmire.

The white cloud passes that special beautiful one now a past blemish

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On the tree love signs after the kiss the caress before accusing.

The shadows cover Loneliness on crumpled sheets with Passion all spent.

55
New
55.1 Love marriage
I realized that I love her through a rather insignificant event. On that day, I was approached by the department Secretary regarding a day-long excursion. If interested, I was supposed to put my name on a form. By accident or sheer absence of mind, I entered her name instead of mine. The Secretary and the others laughed at my mistake. She looked at me with an amused and a rather thrilled look. The love part was decided then. I woke up at around four in the afternoon and felt her warm body next to mine. I sat up against the pillows. She came closer and cuddled against me. I brushed aside her straight hair covering her face. I love to study her face at such moments, pleasant and peaceful, her lips and eyes, her long lashes, the sheen of sweat on her cheeks and neck, her breast rising against the sheet with each breath. I slipped my hand beneath the sheet and caressed her. She smiled in her sleep. I have to decide if I want to conclude this love-affair with a marriage. It’s not that I have had other affairs which did not end in marriage. It is just an idea, a type of philosophy that says - not all love affairs should end that way. For days and weeks, I have been filling and crossing a table of Pros and Cons; nothing earth-shattering, nothing really beyond the scope of compromise. But it is nice to think things through before the final leap. She knows me well now. She even knows how I discard my underwear. I know how she discards hers. It is a good thing to know. I know that I am trying to skirt the main issues with levity. We are well-adjusted professionally. We know the demands of our job and so, no nasty

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surprises there. Her cooking is improving but I love to cook and so, it is not really an issue. She is a vegetarian but ready to cook non-vegetarian for me. I should air the house well when I cook fish or other stuff with strong odour. She has already insisted on that during our meetings at my place. Fair enough. Culturally and socially, we complement each other in a lot of ways. We don’t share the same tastes. That is fine. I know about her religious and political inclinations. No nasty surprises there, either. She has friends I can barely tolerate; and I think it is the same with her regarding my friends. Thankfully, there aren’t any bosom buddies on either side clamouring for attention. No long lost loves either, to trouble after expiry date. Her folks are fine; financially, below mine. But, she and I are not going to depend on our parents and we don’t need to with our kind of paychecks. We already have enough for a few years even without a job. It is quite likely that my folks and her folks won’t get along that well, class-wise or religionwise or language-wise or whatever. Thankfully, we are on neutral territory at the moment. We might have to stay that way during the initial period of acclimatization. Kids might improve the situation between the two. Relatives will have to be kept at a distance. That is not going to cause any lasting heart-ache. There is only one big drawback associated with this - I can’t think of settling down in my home-town for quite some time. I have not met another girl who excites me like her, physically or mentally. That might be due to lack of experience or opportunity. But, after assessing my own potential (latent or obvious), I have to admit that she is a good deal. Till date, we have cared and loved. Hopefully, and probably, that will last. What was it my friend said? Ah yes, “Man, if you can wake up and manage to look at your spouse without disappointment or without getting shocked, that is enough, man.” I think she might be enough. I guess I should wake her up and shock her with my plans for ending our affair with a marriage. Will she say ‘No’? Doesn’t matter; I have to do what I have to do, what I want to do.

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55.2

Arranged Marriage

The first meeting was the best. I could hear the words in an old Malayalam movie, “Kittiyaal Ooty, pottiyaal chatty.” When I met her, I did not have to think about her family and all that. That had been vetted by my folks. Of course, I did ‘browse’ for basic compatibility. They seem ok - nothing to write home about, chalega. That’s all that you need with in-laws, right? She and I have met a few times. It is nearly-fixed, I think. The folks are negotiating and smoothing some wrinkles, stars and what-not. I do admit that I did fall for her looks. Nothing hanky-panky so far; well, I didn’t want her to run away crying rape or wolf or whatever. Compromise is supposed to be the name of the game, here. But, that is not really the issue; the biggest problem here is - getting the relevant details. So much time spent on that - time wasted. Coffee shops for expensive coffee and brownie, ice-cream parlours for sundae and unsatisfying sandwiches, a long car-ride, a movie with only shoulders touching, a walk in the park, a meeting at home; getting to know each other, coy matrimony, my foot; it was bloody diplomacy really in need of Wikileaks. It was like an extended job-interview. I had to probe and spot the tell-tale signs. If I am not mistaken, being stuck with the wrong spouse is rather like being stuck with the wrong employee. Gratuity and provident fund; an HR game with responsibility and head-aches, assured bonus and a lot of perks; a lawsuit if things go badly; non-cooperation at the wrong place at the wrong time; nearly everything except semi-annual assessment of performance (they say that that is expressed between the lines, mostly through non-cooperation). It was tough getting the information. When I sounded serious and asked her some really serious questions, she laughed. I defused the situation by joining in and pretended to be a good sport. Later, I heard her giggling with her siblings and cousins. I am still trying to understand the joke in:

• Are you interested in having kids? • Do you want me to take the AIDS test?

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• Have you taken the AIDS test? • Will you be with me for more than 75% of the year? • Is it ok with you if you and I take care of our kids rather than our parents? • Are there any pending affairs?

Then, she got serious and I laughed. She didn’t look very pleased and so I put on a serious face and answered ‘Yes’ to her questions:

• Will you come with me for Art of Living? • Can you get a job in Chennai? My sister and family are there, you know? • Can you stop smoking and drinking? • My parents and younger sister are going to Singapore and Malaysia on a package tour. Can we go with them for our honeymoon? • I do not want to deal with any pending affairs. Ok? • Are you interested in having kids?

I felt like prompting her to ask specific questions. She allowed me to say ‘Yes.’ without specifying the ‘When?’ That is why I thought she was joking. I would have loved it if I could have presented a twenty-twenty questionnaire; an asterisk and lots of fine print indicating that terms and conditions do apply and that any violation of contract would annul the contract with immediate effect. The same twenty questions to me and to her; hit it right or get out; pukka twenty-twenty format, minus the cheer-leaders. Why would anyone lie with such a questionnaire? I do hope the next generation gets through the decision-making part with simple and specific questionnaires. At worst, it will be a speed-date that ends with the first, the best meeting; otherwise, it will end in an ideal marriage.

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55.3

The Tenth Woman

Long long ago, at the cusp of puberty and senility, a reliable oracle informed me that the tenth woman in my life would be the woman. Since that day, I have kept a diary ready to record my failures and conquests. In that thick diary bursting with empty pages, I found lengthy and confusing notes which can be paraphrased as:

(1) Mrs. Robinson: The Graduate made it sexual. After that movie, every boy dreamt of entering or leaving puberty with an older woman. That scene of a kiss, ending with the mature woman letting out cigarette smoke, became an obsession. In reality, she turns out to be an inspiration; the first woman who seemed to treat you as a man and not as a kid. You hear her say, “I wish he was older.” You assume that you are the ‘he’ and try to grow up, for her sake. (2) Pen-pal: I guess they do it with Facebook these days. But, that’s free and also, full of obvious treachery, right? In the old days, you used an address book, envelopes, stamps, good writing paper, pen and a broker named Postman. At times, you got nice, childish and girly handwriting from a Jana of Brno and you replied with manly slanting cursive writing. She writes on page 2 and 3 about her boyfriend and on page 4, she gives you a cramped recipe with lots of potatoes and sausages. You talk to her about Milan. Milan, Italy? No. Milan, Kundera. When those letters stop, you move to Rosaline of Manila. You tell her about your ex-girlfriend named Jana of your neighbourhood. (3) Childhood friend: Like a sister, this is platonic. But, she is better than your sister. She is the first one who guesses that you smoke and drink beer. You tell her about the tenth woman. She calls you idiot. You hit her with a pillow. She is the only one who will ask you if you are homosexual. You tell her no, men are like toilet paper, use and flush, without looking. She hits you with a pillow. When you knock at her door and lie on her bed, shattered and heart-broken, she gives you a kick and tells you, “Grow up.” You hit her with a pillow once again, feel rejuvenated and get ready for the next one. (4) First crush: This is a tricky one. It usually starts after the ending. I mean, it is like a one-night stand without the woman and the sex. Conceptually, you experience the first rush of adrenalin. Warhol talked about fifteen minutes of fame. This is Everyman’s fifteen minutes of heart-break; absolutely essential. You don’t even

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lose your virginity. Utmost, you waste a notebook with a lot of doggerel which you later recycle for other crushing situations. (5) First love: It is best when it is unrequited love. You get a woman to hate for the rest of your life; if not hate, at least, an affair to embarrass you. Otherwise, it gets to be a bore, expensive too with gifts and cards and what-not. Popular literature and cultural hoo-hah will tell you that first love is true love and prolong the affair; at times, even ending with ill-judged matrimony. Anyway, preserve those old love letters. Wait till your spouse finds it. She will give a lot of meaning to those empty letters. (6) First wife: You have to tell her that she is the woman. The sensible ones know that a spouse is an equity-linked insurance policy. Usually, you get the principal amount; every year, you might get some bonus; you keep expecting a boom but you are ready to tackle the bust with admirable sang-froid. All the important details are in the fine-print. You don’t get what you really want; and, only a terrible loss could give substantial gains. But, it is essential, it is a custom, it is something which everyone gets into. Not a bad deal usually. (7) Other woman: Most often, it is just fiction. If not, this is usually a product of an over-heated brain or an under-cooled groin, as the Bard would say. Otherwise, it is a result of a misguided philosophy about relationships. You claim that you want an equal partnership. You claim that you want to explore new avenues. You claim that you want to experience real love. All you really want is a free lunch and something to kill time or make you feel important. If there are fools to believe you, so be it, amen. You are not the villain. She is the villain. You are just an anti-hero. That is what you think. It is usually more injurious and definitely more expensive than smoking. Just ask your lawyer if you can afford it. (8) The woman’s friend: This is definitely a platonic and a very important relationship. Most of your lady-friends fall into this category; unavoidable bore but essential. You hope that they will introduce you to that elusive one. They serve no other purpose. (9) Keep the ninth slot empty. If you fill it up, the next woman has to be the tenth woman. The search might be better than the find.

Voiceless New Nonentities?
Every book should have at least one page to read. —Book of Definitions Let this be that page. —Book of Suggestions Writers should be read, but neither seen nor heard. —Daphne du Maurier The man who writes about himself and his own time is the only man who writes about all people and all time. —George Bernard Shaw Your life story would not make a good book. Don’t even try. —Fran Lebowitz This is the sixth book I’ve written, which isn’t bad for a guy who’s only read two. —George Burns I have made this [letter] longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter. —Blaise Pascal I love talking about nothing. It is the only thing I know anything about. —Oscar Wilde Write without pay until somebody offers to pay. —Mark Twain Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia. —E. L. Doctorow

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Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for love, and then for a few close friends, and then for money. —Moliere Don’t get it right, just get it written. —James Thurber Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self. —Cyril Connolly The average Ph.D. thesis is nothing but a transference of bones from one graveyard to another. —J. Frank Dobie Voiceless? In search of a voice. —Second Author New Nonentities? Forget it. —First Author

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