Monday, August 7, 2017

get-together

There's a school get-together this weekend.

Three political groups will drink together,
All for one and one for all, such saints, such friends,
Ready to kiss left, right or the all-weather center,
For a job, a transfer, some deal or development.
You will hear them whisper, "I have a problem, this guy..."
"He can be removed." "Forever...?" "Forever."

They will talk of their secular past
In anonymous black shorts and white shirts.
Notice the smirk, the glint in the eye,
How they waited to display their colour,
The believers, the atheists, the dividers.
Religion, its divisions, sub-divisions,
Origin, connections, who-screwed-who,
Hundred and counting, they knew all the labels.
My label: "Low. Penniless, then and now.
Useless. Not worth the time. Discard."

Families are allowed this time.
They will compare jobs, wives, kids.
"Man, that's an ass." "Hers?" "No, his."
It's serious business. Each one has its use.
The oncologist to the union guy,
The government guy to the corporate guy,
In every country other than Venezuela,
They are there, on call on WhatsApp.
They are the society. They call all the shots.

Forty will gather. Not forty one.
One will sit at home, never on call.

war movies

I hate war movies.
We don't shed a tear
When foot soldiers die like fire-flies
As if that's their only role.
We keep it for the officers
Who last till the end.
We don't even get irritated
When the political leaders
Don't die don't die don't die
Not even in their leather armchair
Writing their memoir about a war
They led from the front
The war that hid
Their scams and incompetence.
I hate war movies.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The One With You


I went through the reservation chart pasted by the door of the train compartment. The TTE (train ticket examiner) smiled.
‘You have the compartment nearly all to yourself, sir…just the two at the other end.’
‘What a pity!’ I said with feigned grief. The last thing I wanted was bad company, say, a noisy family with kids and packs of food.
‘I will try to get you interesting company, if I find any.’
We laughed together at the usual promise. I entered the compartment.
I got some work done before dinner. The attendant made my bed, or should I say berth, after that. He seemed happy with the tip. He warned me that there would still be a collection round the next morning. He wished me good night and left. I returned to my work.
He did not return that night, not even to lay the bed for the other who got in at the next station, around half past ten.
‘Are you a writer?’
‘Not really…just time-pass,’ I said.
It was not the first time and it would not be the last, but some company just hits off on the right note, how exactly I can’t say, but like the other similar encounters, I knew it would be a good long night of chatting.
We talked about books. We did not have much in common. It was worse in music. “Hotel California” came up, and the talk of satanic verses around that. Movies and television shows turned out to be “our thing”. It was good ol’ English stuff mostly, some domestic stuff thrown in to discuss plagiarism. We did not touch politics, not until later and even then it was not exactly about politics.
We laughed a lot. It was the laugh that really made me connect, with hindsight. Sincere, it reached the eyes and those were beautiful eyes.
I knew we would get to the personal stuff. How many times have I confessed all my sins to some poor soul traveling with me? It always started with family and ended with love.
This time, it started with love. This time, the other took the lead.
‘I was very young then, just into my teens, and love was not even a top priority then. She came to me.’
I watched those eyes. A small laugh entered those, quickly followed by sadness, the two lingered. I listened for long without uttering a word.
‘We were in some crowd, a cultural festival or something of that sort. Even today, I remember the way she looked at me. It was as if she had always known me, it was also as if she had known we could never be together. Her smile had joy and sorrow. She held my hand. I guess you know how that feels, when a love’s hand is in yours, the soft grip firmly hanging on, how it tugs at your heart.’
I nodded.
‘When did you first fall in love? How was it?’
‘Eighteen, nineteen…’ I said, ‘I think I fell in love because I felt it was time I fell in love. Either that or I thought she seemed like a worthy catch.’
‘It was somewhat like that for me…after her. There was the first lust at first. All I can remember is her body. I had a name for her then. When we met, she knew my name and all that I had was a name which I couldn’t use because it was so obviously lust-fuelled.’
We laughed.
‘Then, I had what I might call my first love. No woman has ever been so honest. Sadly, for me not for her, it remained absolutely platonic. I just could not think of her sexually. But I would still call it my first love.’
I enjoyed listening without having to say much about myself, watching the eyes light up, dim, and the hands so expressive.
‘Then, there was the one who must have been a true love. I blamed myself when she died. I later blamed her for keeping me away.’
I was confused. Which her? But, I did not interrupt.
‘There was the comic tragedy after that,’ the laugh turned bitter, ‘to be expected to love a woman I knew I could never love. God, that was cruel.’
We slipped into a long silence.
Then it came, the question, out of the blue. ‘What do you ask when you meet someone?’
‘How are you?’ I said.
‘You should ask…who is the one with you?’
‘What do you mean?’ I asked.
‘Do you know why people are scared of ghosts?’
I shook my head.
‘They never leave you. She never left me. At times, it is like she is me. People have noticed it. When I am so different, kind and angry and sincere and so trustworthy, I really am not like that usually. Give me that paper.’
I handed over the day-old newspaper tucked in the side-pocket of my backpack.
‘Look at his eyes,’ I looked at that frequent face, ‘the smile, even his anger, never reaches there. It is so empty. He is a person with no one with him. All you can see is a vacuum, the lingering danger, the darker stuff yet to be unleashed.’
‘What’s or who’s in my eyes?’ I asked.
‘You tell me.’
We laughed.
Did we sleep that night? Did we touch? We did not have to.
The next morning, the attendant woke me up with my breakfast. The other berth was empty by then. I stood up and stretched while the attendant arranged the tray and laid out my breakfast. The TTE appeared.
‘I will be getting off next station. Sorry I could not find you decent company this time too.’
We laughed.
I was surprised. I had heard the sincere laugh from last night. I turned to look at myself in the mirror. I saw sadness along with the smile in my eyes.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Coffee With Another

Everything would have been fine if I had not been thirty minutes early. But, she had mentioned in our last call that she might finish off her tasks early.

There I was, on the opposite side of the road, in front of Shalimar Hotel, staring at the Fidalgo, our agreed meeting point. I saw my wife sitting within Fidalgo coffee shop, with a strange man. I did not know what to do. I do not know how long I stood there staring at them.

I did not hear the woman's words till she repeated it. I do not know how long she had stood by my side staring at the same scene.

'Is that your wife?' she asked, her head tilting towards them.
I nodded.
'That's my husband,' she said. There was anger in her eyes. 'We should do something.'
'What?'
'Let's have coffee too,' she said.

We went to the coffee-shop of Shalimar Hotel. Minus the two glass walls and the road, we could have been two couples sitting at the same table, my wife and that man, this woman and I. I ordered a latte. She had an expresso and a slice of apple pie. I did wonder how she could eat at such a moment.

Fifteen or twenty minutes went by. Then, the man turned his head. He saw us. He got up angrily, his chair falling backwards. My wife saw me too. The man came out of Fidalgo, raced across the road, not minding the traffic screeching to a halt or the loud curses. He entered Shalimar. He came to our table, mad with rage, nearly frothing at his mouth.

'What the f***?' he snarled at me and his wife. His wife got up defiantly. Before she could say a word, he said, "Don't you utter a word!"

He grabbed her hand and they walked away. My wife got to the table then.

All she had to say was, 'Aha! So, she left you to pay the bill, huh? I too had to pay. That creep had two chicken puffs, one samosa and a chai. What do you have to say about that?'

Reference: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-40473553

Quote from the reference: "I'm a 52-year-old, white, college educated, atheist, left-wing, married woman ... and there's no way I would have a one-on-one meal/drink with a man who was not my husband. Not even a Starbucks."

Moral of the story: Enjoy coffee on your own. If your spouse agrees to pay, take her/him along.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

tsk tsk tsk


When I was not trying to understand "kafkaesque",
I engaged in Mittyesque daydreams.

That is in the past.

Now, and forever,
It will be the opposite.

I never really believed
The state would ever work for me.
But when the judiciary destroyed
My last hope, I gave up.

When every atom
Brought only pain,
Family, friends, community, state,
Law, justice, bloody-f***ing-all...

Only one fantasy remained,
Painless death.
But,
No more of the Mittyesque!

Till life grinds to a halt
Today, tomorrow, who-cares-when,
Without a hope of a hope.

Don't tell me that that is kafkaesque.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Our Summer


I have never experienced a summer like this. Last year, it was hot but there was water.
If heads should roll for all the bad stuff that has happened, it should be in the government. I could go on and on about that but who cares. I wrote letters to everyone, to the residents’ association, to the engineers in the water authority, even to the Chief Minister. I told them they should ensure fair distribution of water to all rather than be satisfied serving the majority. They should have listened. I had thought of mentioning that people were close to breaking point. But, who cares!
I was not surprised when a man hacked his neighbours, a family of three. He had not got water supply for three weeks while they had not faced any problem because their house was at a slightly lower level. The water authority could have adjusted the valves.
Then, there was that lady who stabbed her husband. She used to get water from the “water kiosk”, the 5000-liter storage tanks placed in every ghetto like ours. She had to carry buckets to her house thirty meters away, a tortuous distance in the scorching sun. No one had helped her. She must have snapped. The newspapers suggest she also had other problems with her husband and his mother. They also say she has no recollection of what she did.
I hardly sleep at night. The thin mattress on the metal bed burns. There’s too little water to drink. The humidity is high but there’s no rain. Everywhere, there’s the stink of sweat, not just the people, the sheets, the curtains, even the walls. I stand by the window most of the night.
Compared to my place, the doctor’s is heaven. The first time, he came over for a “home-visit”. He must have realized that it would be impossible to get anything done there. Now, I go to his office every Wednesday. This is my third visit. His office is in an extension to his house. He does not have a receptionist or secretary. He does not follow a fixed schedule, like the court. I do not mind waiting, that suits me just fine. The “waiting room” is the veranda attached to the consultation room. It’s quite cool there, there’s a floor fan in addition to a ceiling fan, and there’s a water cooler too. There are two or three steel chairs but we prefer to sit on the broad platform or railing around the veranda. By “we”, I mean the four of us, the regulars on Wednesday. That too is like the court. People get clubbed together by appointment date.
The stout lady always sits near the exit. Then, it is her. The first time, she said her name is Sheila. The second time it was Susan. Today, we did not touch on names. I sit next to her. Then, it is the muscular guy. Those two come with us, but they never utter a word, to us or to each other. They could be twins, always in khaki pants, black leather shoes and white cotton shirt with sleeves rolled to the elbows. We think they are spies. We call her Smiley and him Daddy Harry, our inventive mix of Mata Hari and Dirty Harry. They sit expressionless, blankly staring outside or at the wall. They make it seem as if they don’t listen to us. We don’t care if they do.
We never talk about the summer or the heat. The first time we talked about food. She is a vegetarian but she cooks non-vegetarian food. She promised to make mutton chops for me, her specialty. The second time we talked about how reserved we usually are, never ever taking the initiative to meet or talk to people. I admitted that I had once poured my heart out to a stranger in a train. ‘We all do that, don’t we?’ she said. ‘But, this is not like that, is it?’ she asked. I told her, ‘No, definitely not.’
Today, she looked worried. I asked her what was bothering her.
‘Just a vivid dream,’ she said. Then she described her dream. ‘I was in an airport. I had some problem at the baggage-screening counter. By the time that was over, I realized I was late. I went to collect my bags. But, I could not find my bags. I could not even remember how many bags and which bags I had brought. I picked up one bag thinking that it’s mine but someone claimed it as theirs. I woke up then, feeling so confused.’
‘Let’s not talk about that,’ she pleaded. ‘Tell me something, something nice.’
After a while, I said, ‘The night after our last meeting, I thought of a trip…with you.’
She stared at me for a while, as if she was studying my face to make out if I was lying. I wasn’t. She did not say anything. I continued.
‘We went to a hill-station…’ I described the place, our trip there, how we camped outdoors. She kept on staring at me. She did not lower her eyes even when I described how we made love. At the end, I asked her, ‘Have you ever thought of me…like that?’
She nodded. This time, it was my turn to study her face. I am rather good at deciphering a poker face. She was lying. I preferred that to any truth she could have said.
We got a few more minutes before the doctor released his victim and summoned me. He gave a broad smile to her and told her, ‘You next, ok? Today, it’s gents first.’ She smiled back.
The doctor is a friendly guy. I am not sure if his reports are friendly but then, like everything else in life, life is more enjoyable without any thought of the consequences of one’s actions.
‘What a summer, right?’ the doctor said. I am quite sure he has not air-conditioned his office purposely, just to make us sweat it out.
‘Have you ever experienced such a summer before?’ I responded.
He thought for a while. ‘There was such a summer when I was a kid, I think,’ he slipped into deep thought. ‘When you are a kid, summers don’t bother you. What do you think?’ I let it pass as rhetorical.
He continued, ‘He had a lovely time. Day started early. Games, friends, naughty stuff…he met his first girlfriend then.’ The doctor laughed, embarrassed. ‘Then, there were mangoes. He was rather good at climbing trees. Raw mangoes with salt and chilly, ripe ones, his face all sticky…he fell and broke his hand. He did not mind it. She brought mangoes for him every day. He really had a lovely summer.’
‘It’s funny when you refer to yourself as he,’ I noted.
‘It is, isn’t it? People sometimes prefer to remember their best and worst times like that…as if it happened to someone else,’ the doctor said. ‘Anyway, let’s get back to business…shall we? Where were we last time?’
I waited for him to answer his own question.
‘Ah yes, you were talking about the guy who murdered his neighbours, hacked to pieces…brrrrrr…’ he gave a mock shiver. I joined in.
‘You told me that he later, that is after the deed, waited for the police in the victim’s house. They found him in the drawing room,’ the doctor said, ‘drinking water. That’s what you said, right?’
‘I guess so,’ I said.
‘I don’t get it. How did you get that information?’ the doctor asked. ‘I have checked all the newspapers. Not one has that detail.’
I shrugged.
‘Do you remember his face?’ the doctor asked.
I thought for a while. I shook my head.
‘You saw him drinking water. But you can’t see his face?’ the doctor asked.
I nodded.
‘You know why, don’t you?’ he prodded.
Once again, I slipped into thought.
‘Doctor, what are you suggesting? That I am he?’ I asked, incredulous.
He shrugged but did not say anything.
‘Next, you will say that the lady outside is the one who stabbed her husband a dozen times?’ I argued.
He kept a blank face. It seemed like he was trying to lie about a lie that was not really a lie.

The Bakery


I felt like an old poacher, without a gun, on unfamiliar territory. It used to be a hunting ground, when it was a hideaway, before it became a copycat coffee-shop, before there were too many friends, virtual and real, when communication needed thought. Casual encounters must have been rare even then. I can recall, at best, a look or two, a rare smile. Now, that is not even a dream, the weight of experience is a drag on such quick wit.
It’s been a while since my last visit. It hurts to be here, why, I do not know, I do know. The owner nodded at me, asked about my family, I enquired about his health, his son stood near, scowling, he should smile more at old-timers. As I stood in the queue, I eyed my old standing space, waiting for me, or another.
I saw a best friend of old; she looked through me; that was not unexpected. Most people there seem busy, that’s not new; it’s always been a crime, a shame, to have time. If we had talked, we would have promised to meet again, not really a false promise, with too little hope. If we met again, we would have wondered when we became strangers. Or not wondered at all.
A young lady at the counter seemed familiar; she reminded me of a girl I knew, not too well, a dusky fickle Gemini with deep dimples. She moved away, looking uncomfortable with my attention; how could I clarify. 
I smiled, inwardly, at two couples. There was always a Che Guevara and a Joan Baez, in t-shirts and old jeans, with wild hair and borrowed air. In a few years, they would become the other, dressed in formals, talking softly between clicks on their laptop or smartphone. Some will be sad, disillusioned and lost by then; most will have dreams, opportunities, expensive lingerie and a vacation at the Majora in the Maldives. The bakery always had a privileged touch, even when the puffs were five rupees and two could share couple of parotta and beef curry for twenty. There is too much body-spray now, yet the body stinks, too little cigarette smoke, not enough soda. How do they rebel now–by going organic, by exchanging a few characters as protest, wanting to be a billionaire by twenty five?
Don’t get me wrong. I would not have noted all this if I had not met her.
She was two years my senior in school. Her younger sister was my classmate and a good mate. It was the younger one who spread the rumour that I was deeply in love with a girl in our class, the last one I would go after, but the rumour stuck. We acted in a drama once, the older one and me. She was my mother, I the black sheep of the family. She slapped me, hard, the audience went quiet, it was that real, she got the best actor award and I nearly cried. Was that before or after that day I jumped out of a bus, ran to her and offered to carry two heavy bags of shopping? She had let me. That was fine then. We walked side by side, hardly talked. I deposited the shopped bags, she invited me inside, her parents and that imp of a sister stood by her. I said, next time. She said, thank you.
We noticed each other at the same instant. She said my name, without hesitation. I smiled, raised my hand to my cheek. She laughed. She asked about the old love that never was. I asked about her sister. She collected her coffee, I a chocolate pastry. I took her to my old spot. We hardly talked. She sipped her coffee. I took a bite of my pastry. I looked at her. How did I offer the pastry–a gesture with my eyes? Did we think about the baggage we carried, or about the weight of indiscretion? Did I make a move to get her another spoon, or did I not? She took the plastic spoon from my hand and had a small portion. I watched her lips and tongue take in the rich chocolate, the spoon in her mouth, the delicate suck on that. Back to me, then to her, we made the pastry last a dozen or more small turns.
Someone there must have noted our few-moments-stand. They might say we thanked each other at the end. She did not. I did not. I did.
The message in parenthesis, the present isn’t bad at all, or the future, with hope in such a past.


Thursday, May 25, 2017

Kiss of Life



I was at that fuel outlet opposite AG's office, he said. Stuck there actually. Some VVIP was expected. There was a rally. People in traditional dress, banners about true culture, true heritage, true values. Third anniversary or something.

His voice was weak and muffled, like Marlon Brando in Godfather after receiving a dozen bullets.

A policeman had told me to stand outside my car, he continued, security protocol what-not. My wife had gone to Spencer's to get something.

It all happened so fast, he remembered.

A drunkard walked towards me, towards the fuel pump, stumbling, swaying. I saw him lighting what remained of a beedi. I looked at the attendants. I too must have had their shocked scared look. That drunkard took a slow puff. He threw the matchstick and stub towards us. The air seemed so thick with the fumes of fuel.

Someone shouted. I jumped. I do not know how. The last time I jumped like that was in primary six, when I caught that ball near the boundary, you remember, he said.

You caught it on the wrong side, I reminded him.

Anyway, there I was, in slow motion, reaching for those two items. Man, I caught it. I landed on the ground hard but I hardly felt that.

The attendants did not have time to clap. There was a loud siren, red beacon, an open vehicle, a man in white waved.

Then, I saw my wife. I do not know what came over me. It must have been the near-death experience. I ran to her. I caught hold of her, kissed her, her leaning back, man, a deep kiss, you know, like that kiss in Life magazine.

Then, it was all a blur. One moment I heard mata ki jai. Next it was kuthey...patti...adikkada...maaro.

Well, here I am, he sighed.

I would not have believed him in any other setting. But, the general ward in General Hospital was convincing, that too with his wife feeding him through a straw.

I looked at his wife. How did you escape, I asked.

She smiled and looked at her husband.

Ah, he exclaimed, she is a quick thinker. She announced that I was abusing her, that I was in no way related to her. That's why the policemen came to the party, he grimaced.

Ah, I nodded.

Otherwise, who would have fed me, he asked.

He thought for a while. Then asked, do you know what really hit me bad?

None of the media outlets will even mention my case. Not even a line. Man, that's why I called you. You have to tell the world. Write about it.

Are you crazy, I asked, I would rather kiss your wife in public.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Incomplete (unedited) Notes : Colombo



Note 1:
---------

My next sentence will make you exclaim, "There he goes again...on his fave topic..."

I tried to convert notes I had for local currency at a foreign exchange and I was told, "Sorry, this has been demonetized. We can't accept it."

Bah!

There I was in a foreign land. I thought I could survive with the British pound notes I had from an old trip in pre-Modi-al times. And, they were telling me that those notes with the great Queen E had no value!

Surely, I was paying for the sins of my politicians.

Like all those poor foreigners here in Nov-Dec of last year who had to find ways to make ends meet, I had to find ways to survive. I thought of escort services. Selling a short dark guy (who the ones in power in our Heartland view as foreigners) turns out to be similar to selling tasty beef cutlets in our Heartland. Then, I thought of selling my stories since my friends keep telling me that they are ready to give me cash if I would stop feeding my stories to them.

Well, I survived (barely)...you wouldn't want to know how.

The experience made me wonder, "We were not even original when we demonetized."

The only good thing about foreign travel is that you don't hear about India. So, what's been happening?


Note 2:
---------

Colombo is about 360 kms from Trivandrum, as far away as Kerala's northern border.

1) It is a good place to visit if you want to have a day-long siesta between a full breakfast and a full dinner (ok, put in an hour or two of walking on lovely pavements between those meals). There's enough to do at night. It is a small city and accessible, people are friendly, safe too.

2) I love places with contrasts. The zebra-crossings actually work (that is, for the pedestrians). But, the tuk-tuks (that is, autos) rarely have meters and they usually charge some random multiple of LKR 100. On trip advisor and blogs, you will hear Westerners talking about crowded and chaotic roads near the markets. If you are from Kerala, it would just seem like home. There is too much of construction going on. I hear that real-estate prices are as bad as Mumbai. The best parts of the city are those built by colonial powers.



3) There are just too many Chinese there, even state-owned Chinese construction companies with all-Chinese crew. Feels odd so close to home. It even shows on TV - poor old NDTV was erratic, the Chinese channels never faced any disruption.

More later...


Note 3:
---------

It is tough to be a tourist when one dislikes tourists.

Then, what does one do?

I stayed away from religious sites. Even when I used to go temples, I hated it when outsiders stepped into my club.

As a rule, I always stay away from natural beauty and wildlife. That is the best way to preserve that, I believe strongly. I hate backpackers who hike and leave their droppings there.

Ideally, every place should have designated places for tourists, for example, malls, casinos, resorts, all-in-one hotels.

Colombo has all that except malls. Quite a drag actually. It has the usual "high-class ethnic" shops that cater to tourists or "foreign-returnees" who have no idea about the value of the local currency/products and are ready to shell out in terms of dollars just to seem foreign.

There's another reason why I dislike tourists. They turn up for the breakfast buffet all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, all ready to put a full tank's fuel before invading beautiful places. They are there at 6 am, 7 am, anytime, till the buffet closes.

On the first morning, it was the Chinese who controlled the area. I thought they were too loud at breakfast time. I had to re-calibrate on the third morning when it was the turn of the Indians. The Chinese women then looked demure, even their men seemed reserved.

It was lovely to see Indian men pile their plates with ham, sausages, eggs, not even glancing at idli, poori, chutney and bhajji. After all, when they returned home, they had to chase all meat-eaters. The Indian women looked well-fed and harassed but they matched their males' consumption.

The hotel staff tried hard to find a table for me. They really loved me for not being part of any tourist pack and for just being a sleepy-head. I was the missing link between the tourists and the corporate travelers, a breed slowly becoming extinct.


Note 4:
---------

This should have been the Prologue.

On a Monday, around 10:30, I went to the local office of SriLankan Airlines.

I went to the lady facing the entrance, a mature lady who reminded me of many school-teachers that scared the pants off me. I reminded myself that I am now as mature as she is.

I told her that I want to holiday in Colombo. She took me to the travel desk of SriLankan Holidays. A young capable lady sternly told me to sit down and asked me what I wanted. I told her that I want air tickets and hotel booking.

She took out a map and nearly started a lecture on the best route for a fantastic time in Sri Lanka.

I interrupted her, "I want just Colombo."

She screwed up her eyes. She tried to reason, "Sir, it will work out to be more expensive if you go there and try to arrange this tour there."

I decided to enlighten her, "Oh no, I don't want to budge from Colombo."

Her eyes came back to normal size. The intelligence in those bright eyes flickered brightly as the grey cells behind that realized the IQ of the person sitting in front of her.

"You want to spend all your time in Colombo?" There was no doubt that she had not come across another human being who had done that, that is, waste a whole trip in Colombo.

I nodded.

"Ok," she said. She suggested a hotel. I told her the two hotels I wanted to split my stay. She had heard of one. She looked at me for clarification. I told her, "The two hotels are in two parts and I can cover the small city without too much effort, that is, if I step out of the hotel."

"Ok," she said, quite resigned to the fact that she would not have to use her ingenuity to give me a great trip.

Her fingers went at lightning speed over the keyboard.

I looked at the ceiling and said, "My cousin used to work in this office, maybe she still works here. Her mother's name is...(I gave my Aunt's name)."

The young lady stared at me for a while before saying, "That's me."

So, that is how I found a long lost cousin.

Of course, she knew the rest of my family quite well. She knew of me, which is usually not the case with most people who know my family. Most people do not know that my parents have a son.

By noon, I had the FX, the air tickets and by evening, she delivered the hotel reservations with confirmed pick-and-drop from-to airport. She brought a big bag of goodies too, fruits for the others, cakes and savoury for me. If you are trying to find lost relatives, I suggest that you stick to the nice ones like this girl.

I got the visa online rather than on arrival just to save $5 which I planned to waste elsewhere. (If you go on a trip, do shell out a bit more for that luxury limo to pick you up and drop you off. It is such a bore to land in some place without someone holding a placard reminding you of your own name.)

I left that Thursday morning for Colombo.


Note 5:
---------

Tourists in Kerala usually get to experience the God's Own Hartal/Bandh. (Contact Aditi for details.)

For me, a local, it was actually a first. Usually, like every local, I used such days for total rest. I had never ever experienced the inconvenience caused by this.

Trust my luck - the Congress-led front and the Modi-led group out here like bhai-bhai called for a dawn-to-dusk hartal on the day of my flight.

So, I arranged for a taxi to get me to the airport before 6 am (even though no one expected the trouble-makers to start exercising their hooliganism before having breakfast). I had to get up at 3 am instead of the carefully planned 6 am.

And, there I was, seated inside the airport 5.5 hours before the flight!

The security personnel at the gate were very understanding. They understood my "Saab, kya karoon, bahar woh goonda log..."

Inside, I watched the community I live with.

First, there were these large groups of Muslims. The ladies wore some type of uniform with black purdah and a fluorescent green headgear. They were escorted by men in white without any visual marker.

Then, came along huge groups from the North. The ladies again wore some type of marker in addition to modestly covered heads, like prominently displayed sindoor and mangalsutras. The men again were without any markers.

The third party was a Christian priest. He wore a black headgear with various symbols on it. He also wore a brown costume. He seemed unmarried and celibate.

By that time, I had realized that there weren't really anyone like me out there. That is something we forget about our society. Whenever we scream about social injustice and how the social fabric seems to be altered for the worse, we forget that most of the people/groups are fine with it, and that we belong to a minority that never really mattered or worse, barely exists.

Anyway, back to community-watching.

Guess who came along next. The CM of Kerala with two or three to trip him or to catch him if he trips. Then came along the Leader of the Opposition. I wanted to protest, "Oye, you called a hartal and you spoiled my sleep and you are leaving town!? How dare you!?" Another minister ran behind those two to catch the same flight.

Then came along an attractive lady who looked very familiar. I stared once. Twice. I looked at her companion briefly. Ah yes, she is a famous playback singer's wife.

Thus, I whiled away 5.5 hours.

Now, on that flight, most were like me, blue-collar workers who worked for employers they hated. I was the only one who got out at Colombo, apart from a family of four who were Sri Lankan citizens. The rest were going to the Middle-east. On that flight, there were just three ladies and two Westerners (a middle-aged guy with a young male escort).

Guess who was the creep on that flight (there is always one). Yes, that middle-aged Westerner. He reminded me of Arthur C. Clarke. He tried to take photos of the air-hostesses.

Us blue-collar ones loudly munched the pav-bhaji and slurped apple juice. Yours truly got a lovely smile from an air-hostess for that. No flight is worth flying without that bonus.


Note 6:
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When you check-in at a hotel you usually have the Moses moment. That is when the receptionist gives you the password for WiFi. Even Moses would not have received the 10 or more Commandments (he must have deleted a few, I am sure, even God should be censored) with greater delight or reverence.

So, when the receptionists at 2 hotels gave me the information and I responded rather nonchalantly, "I don't need it", you can imagine the scene. The receptionists took a step back wondering if I should actually be allowed to stay. Other customers moved away as if I have STD or a force-field (from Star Wars or Star Trek) repulsing all.

Well, it is no secret that my reaction to those who need WiFi or the internet during vacation is quite similar.

These days, it is very easy to get a mobile connection. There is a counter at the Trivandrum airport where one can get SIM activated and charged for use in Sri Lanka and the Middle East. So, as soon as I landed in Colombo, I called up the folks back home and gave them my new number.

They already had 2 sets of instructions. One, do not call me unless there was some disaster. Two, when I call, speak only sweet nothings, that is, do not unload petty troubles onto my delicate ears. In brief, use the phone how the phone (and the telegraph) was used in the 70s and 80s. Remember those brief messages: "Congrats Son Passed Away First In Exams" or "Wife Delivers Your Baby All Happy Send Money".

Coming back to the internet. If you have it, you will use it. You will take selfies. You will have to look good for that.

People will need photos. You will have to visit places worth a photograph. You will have to include a good restaurant, some decent shops and a few famous tourist spots.

You might say that it is useful to get around, with Google Maps, Uber, Ola et al.

Let me explain my modus operandi.

I guess you know that I usually cover most places from my chair rather than through actual travel. Lonely Planet guides are so useful for that teleportation.

When I do travel, I do spend a day or two with my Lonely Planet guide, its maps and also do some internet research for information suited to personal needs (I am sure you won't want to know more about that too). I make a list of all the wonderful places and all the great restaurants people usually visit.

There, at destination, I walk or use the tuk-tuk. I first go to the most obscure points in my list, places which would make the tuk-tuk driver ask, "Why do you want to go there?" or "Is there really a Ceylon Tea supermarket there?" "Oh yes, it's on Dean Street a little away from Odel..." There's nothing more pleasing than surprising a local with one's own knowledge of his/her place!

Then, the tuk-tuk (or my feet) would take me all around the city, and I would go past all those wonderful places and all those great restaurants which I had noted to avoid.

I just love that moment of discovery when the place I knew quite intimately through a map comes to life. There's always a skirt or a touching scene which I would have to note down in my black pocketbook.

So, why do you need the internet?

Here, let me add a few notes about tuk-tuks too. Those in Colombo reminded me of those in Goa. In both places, the cost per kilometre is roughly the same. In Goa, the minimum used to be INR 50, and they charged multiples of that. In Colombo, the cost per kilometre is supposed to be LKR 50 but it is always some multiple of LKR 100 (1 INR = 2.4 LKR roughly).

Always ask what the trip would cost before getting in. You could try bargaining, just for fun. Come to think of it, a meter would actually be a bore. They would just ride all around town to hike up the cost.

Every hotel has a regular set of tuk-tuk drivers. As in India, there are usually 3 types. The friendly guy who will even find out your kid's name will charge the most. The serious but helpful guy who will try to do something extra for you (like taking you to his choice of gem or tea stores) would still charge a lot. The third one is the surly guy who got out of bed after getting a kick from his wife, he charges the least.

You don't need the internet to deal with these chaps and in a small city like Colombo everything is just a LKR 100-300 tuk-tuk ride away.

Finally, with regard to photos in Colombo, be careful. There are too many places which seem like posh homes but turn out to be military establishments. My first hotel was close to a place called Union Place and that was like Delhi Cantt. Taking photos over there might get you into a spot of trouble. From there, I took a smaller road to Slave Island. The establishments became non-military and less posh. I bought half a kilo of banana for LKR 100 from a poor Tamil trader. Next door, I got a bottle of mineral water and 2 small packets of biscuit for LKR 170. A few steps away, there was the local version of Burger King quite unimaginatively called Burger's King. A photo of that would have been nice but since I couldn't take photos at Union Place, I felt it wouldn't be right to take photos of poorer Muslim and Tamil traders.

On the famous Galle Road, I poked my nose at a gate named Temple Trees and nearly touched the nose of a guy with an AK47. Well, it was the PM's residence.

The Indian high commission and US consulate are close to that. I thought of asking the Indian High Commissioner why our flag wasn't flying high on our building.

A nice store which sells pirated DVDs is also nearby. That is one thing I like about Colombo-the respectability given to my kind of shops. I was tempted but I did not allow myself that pleasure. I am paranoid about Customs. What if a Customs guy asked me, "Why do you have a pirated DVD of One Hundred Years of Servitude?"

Since some of you just can't function without photos, let me include a corridor of the Old Dutch Hospital Complex. The Ministry of Crab is in this complex - that is the restaurant of Sangakkara and Jayawardene. I did not go there, of course. It is right opposite to the World Trade Center (also given). As mentioned in another post, the old colonial stuff looks best.




Note 7:
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This is about giggling in foreign lands.

What is the greatest danger you might face when abroad? Yes, you guessed right - meeting people you might know.

In Goa, I loved to haunt the lovely boulevard D.B. Marg from Kala Akademi to Miramar. I have a cousin living in that lovely Miramar area - this is the vanilla-type cousin one avoids and not the sweets-bearing type one likes to find. So, I used to hop from one tree to the next making sure my cousin was not on my path. The only plus point was that that cousin would hop too from tree to tree to avoid me. There was the danger of us meeting at the same tree.

When I set off to Colombo, I was given a list of people who lived there, close friends who had come home for lunch quite recently.

Imagine contacting such people. They would have to invite me for lunch. I would have to turn up at their place around noon and waste precious hours there, it is a waste even when there's great food because just try to balance the money you spent on the vacation with that meal.

Then, there would be a faux pas or two.

"Hi Swathi, lovely to meet you again. I still remember the lovely mutta appam you made last time," you greet your friend's wife.
"Sorry, I am Sathi," the friend's wife coldly replies.
"Sathi?" You turn to your friend.
"Swathi and I got divorced," friend explains.
"Oh sorry, I didn't know you got married a second time," you say.
"Third, actually," the friend's wife is near rigor mortis.
"Whoa, man! Way to go!" you exclaim.
Anyway, there would be those hours of forced feigned bonhomie. You know that your friend thinks, "God! Why is he here?"
You too pray, "God! Why am I here?"

And, all the while, you feel God's presence and the sly giggling from that corner, who else can put you in such a situation?

Moral of the story: when you are abroad, please avoid respectable joints where you might meet people you know. Of course, if you meet them in less respectable places, they might actually be worth knowing.

Now, let us deal with dangers you might face in 5-star hotels. No, it does not happen in the shower stall even though Psycho would like you to think so. It happens in the lift.

Early morning, en route to breakfast, who shares the lift with you? Nope, not Salma Hayek in a red bikini. But a man two sizes too large for the lift in a swimming trunk a size or two too small. I leave it to you to picture the front and the back.

Late evening, you have another type. Men in evening wear ready for a black-tie affair, tuxedo, gelled hair perfectly polished, gleaming from top down to the black shoes. In my best informals, I feel like a half-naked fakir. So, there I would be, standing next to him, trying hard not to giggle. How I want to tell him, "Man! You look like a penguin!"

I survived all that. I visited the famous Galle Face Green just to be with people like me, people without a tomorrow, people happy to have a sunset. Even that won't last. In the distance, I can see the horizon being altered. High-rises will come up, a new financial city built by the Chinese.

I giggle hysterically. It is not just our politicians who replace the green with concrete.





Note 8:
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I landed in a new plane on a new runway. The first flight on that runway actually. I saw ministers and sheikhs celebrating. When big-shots are around, small fry are never allowed to escape without inconvenience. We, the passengers and crew, were herded to a hall where we were force-fed a complimentary special meal. Most of the passengers were transit passengers and so, it turned out that I was the only one who actually faced any inconvenience. I hate it when people keep me away from a 5-star hotel room for which the meter is already running.

I have always had a problem with special meals.

During post-graduation, in a place infested with non-veggies but ruled by veggies, a special meal used to be pulao and raita. Yes, I know you are waiting for more. No, that was it. I used to beg them to give me non-special meals. It was worse when they got imaginative and served a special meal of curd rice and palak muck (which resembles what cows produce) or bisibelebath (which resembles what cows consume).

There, in Colombo, I think I was given kiribath (tasteless rice-milk cake), lunimaris (a pungent condiment), a spicy fish masala with too much mint or something (its taste lingered in my burps till the next day's breakfast), jaggery and tea/coffee.

If you are offering someone a meal, try to make them smile, not wince.

A basic special meal should have two main courses (that is, a non-veg curry and a dry non-veg dish), two side courses (a salad/raita and a vegetable mix), two additionals (bread/cake and rice) and at least two desserts. Coffee/tea and soup, oh just include it, will you. That is the bare minimum one should give a guest to make his/her lips twitch favourably.


Note 9:
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By the power of suggestion, you must now be thinking that I am a 5-star guy. Even though I stated in some of my posts that I slept rough too, I like every other mere mortal have been trying to make you focus on my 5-star life.

Where should I stay? For me, that's usually THE most important issue. Meeting the Queen and even eating are minor issues compared to that. For some, it is not so, I know.

If you ask for a suggestion, most people will tell you that you should stay at the Galle Face Hotel. If I am not mistaken, the hotel opened in 1864 and remains grand!

One dear ol' friend (who also suggested that I should watch a cricket match while sipping arrack and also have a Lampreis at the Dutch Burgher Union) highly recommended that hotel. He talked about sleeping with Noel Coward and Carrie Fisher (come to think of it, both could have slept with me, by their inclination, I mean). He also talked about grand rooms with four-poster beds. He is that kind of chap. Easily impressionable. Only after persistent questioning did he admit that the plumbing could be improved. Anyway, I never take a room with a four-poster bed unless I am with a lady who knows how to use it a la Fifty Shades of Grey Part Femme.

Colombo hotels are not exactly cheap during season. Well, I always holiday off-season. The hotel room remains the same, you see. And, one hopes to see fewer tourists during off-season. But, with Colombo, I think rates might remain high because the Chinese are getting there and, Indians too. People from two huge countries with large populations with reducing number of places to visit. Who wants Kerala or Goa if the priests are going to decide how to have fun, who wants the rest of India where hugs and non-veg are frowned upon. Sri Lanka could make a lot of money. Sundays and holidays can be a bore but otherwise it seems like what Goa and Kerala could have been without the idiots.

From outside, most of the 5-star Colombo hotels looked similar. Only the Taj seemed to have some area with trees. Well, your choice will depend on what you plan to do there. If you are on corporate money, the Galle Face or the Taj Samudra or the Hilton would be good. If you want to talk big, those and similar hotels around the same area will suit you. I think those come in over-$150/$200 per night range.

I usually depend a lot on online reviews, particularly those on tripadvisor. I have learned that the most trustworthy group are middle-class Westerners. They seem to know the value of money. They will choose clean rooms that cost $100 or less, inclusive of a decent, less-crowded but not-so grand breakfast. The difference between those budget rooms and rooms in a mid-level 5-star hotel which costs $40 more per night will be: no slippers, no robes, no toothbrush or shaving blade, one soap bar instead of two, no stocked mini-bar (which only the crazy or the rich or the lazy use, I think) and maybe, a whiff of bad odour from the drains.







Note 10:
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In the movie "Up In The Air" (one of my faves not just because the character Ryan Bingham played by George Clooney gets described as "...you are a parenthesis..."),

Ryan Bingham: [giving a motivational speech] How much does your life weigh?

Trips often make you wonder about that question.

If money or the lack of it can ruin a trip's mood (via demonetization or just by the conversion of one's life saving into a few dollar bills after division by 65!), it is that question which could really decide the fate of the trip.

After arrival, give a few hours in the hotel room, make fists with your toes, stretch those back muscles, sip a beer or a mug of black tea and release the tension.

You feel the weight of life reducing.

Home, loved ones, favourite activities are offloaded. You might feel lonely. Let us admit it, a break is good for all.

Slowly, you give up your nationality, patriotism, security number, interest in current affairs and fake news. Whoa!

You feel like a new-born baby, an orphan or a tiny tot with tremendous possibilities.

You lose interest in all that's happening around you. You decide to be interested only in yourself.

Strangely, that selfish character is the most harmless creature.


Note 11:
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Out here, the Water Authority has started rationing which means that we wouldn't get even the little we used to get.

I wonder why they woke up just now. Whole of February and March (even till last Sunday), they were celebrating all kinds of festivals, wasting water.

ps. A friend recently advised that I should stick to travelogues rather than political rambling. But, how long can I stay away from matters that mean something to me even though it means little to my friends?

pps. Ok, let me make this a travelogue. There was no water problem in Colombo. Every hotel room had the 'green' advisory though. There was also no body odour wherever I went. Even in one of the Taj hotels in Goa, the wonderful Taj service had a problem - the staff could make one gag, especially when they are helpful during breakfast, still wearing the uniform from the previous night. One could wait for the shift to change, I guess.


Note 12:
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One of the problems of going on a trip is that my magazine subscription/reading goes for a toss.

I read the Economist quite religiously even though they try to avoid India as much as possible because they think the alleged Snapchat thought that India is irrelevant or, more likely, because our desi trolls are best avoided.

I thought I could catch up on my reading after the trip.

But, so much is happening these days that I need not bother with the 3 issues (one for the week when I was preparing for the trip, one for the week I was away and one for the week I am lazily recovering) I have to cover.

Trump and Syria was forgotten when Trump and MOAB happened and that's now irrelevant with Trump and North Korea. Turkey is going the Modi way. Today, Britain has called a snap general election. People everywhere are not voting for jobs or economic change. They are showing their true base nature.

I think we too need a snap general elections. Just to get into the next issue of the Economist. Till then, I am going to procrastinate about reading the issues I still have to read. All for laziness and lazy for all.


Note 13:
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I left Colombo on a Tuesday. That Friday, a 90-odd-meter-high garbage landfill collapsed killing more than 20 people. Lots of houses were destroyed in that area.

I did not see that part of Colombo. I saw a remarkably clean city. If I had stayed till that weekend, I would have seen a more familiar scene - stinking garbage on the streets.

Today's paper reports another tragedy. Belgium bluebell forest is being destroyed by the people/tourists who loved it and trampled on it.


Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Conch And The Drum


Chenda – cylindrical percussion instrument
Shanku – conch

“Ado, Chenda!” (“Hey you, Drum!”) C. Krishnan shouted, waving his hands in the air.
I thought we met by chance in that crowded mall in Dubai. I was surprised and flattered. His two bestsellers have won numerous awards.
“Krishnan,” I mumbled.
“CK,” he corrected, “I was CK in school too, remember?”
I vaguely recalled an attention-seeking frontbencher. I was at the opposite end of the spectrum even then, till the second term of class twelve when Madhevan Master ‘promoted’ me to the front for underperforming.
CK treated me to coffee. We talked about old times, his version of it mostly. He signed and gifted his two novels. It did not strike me as odd then. Writers carry their tomes at all times, I thought, to spread the good word and all.
A week later, he invited me for dinner at his place. I knew close encounters at short intervals meant trouble, usually a request for money or help, but I could not think of anything he might want from me. My feeble excuses were brushed aside. The night before the dinner, I tried to read his first novel. That was like cramming for an exam of an unaudited course. The foreword, by a reputed writer, explained: ‘…exquisite literary symphony transports us to a strange world of unimaginable harsh experiences treated with subtlety, brevity and sensitivity’. The first few pages were quite good, I recognized the names of flowers and trees but I lost my way through that thicket. The foreword did warn of contrasts and symbols, fertile foliage versus barren desert and whatnot.
I got to his apartment early. Once inside, I confessed I had not read his books.
He laughed. “I didn’t expect you to read it,” he said.
Dinner was good, his family too. He got to the point after dinner.     
“I want you,” he said. The dramatic pause got the shocked look from me. He smiled. “I want your story.”
I laughed. He continued to smile politely. Still laughing, I said, “No.”
He explained patiently, “Novels, and even movies, based on ‘true stories’ are the ‘in-thing’. My first was based on my life in the Gulf. For the second novel, I chose another ‘migrant worker’ like us,” including air quotes. Leaning forward, he whispered, “He made a lot.”
I surprised myself. For once, I stuck to my decision.
He bargained with percentages, told me to think about it, and finally at the door, he said, “You are still the same, Chenda.”
Back home, and for days, I thought about all that.
Maybe, I was being smart. There is a rule in gambling: when you win big twice, scoot. After two bestsellers, his third would tempt fate.
What would he have written? That follows me around, a perpetual speech-bubble over my head. A companion too pops up: Your life, Chenda? Ha!
I guess ‘my story’ would begin in the one-room thatched hut where I was born, in the corner of Madhevan Master’s land, a stone’s throw from the village railway station. Or, CK might use a non-linear timeline, proceeding to the hut with a flashback from my first residence in the Gulf, the workers’ barracks with bunk-beds crushing close, one dirty stinking toilet for twenty or more and open shower-stalls outside. I was the fourth of eight kids. Eldest sister died of pneumonia when I was six; another was never right in the head; there was the dreamer, he dreamt with others’ money and never had a worry till they found him dead in the backwaters. My parents, siblings and I helped out in Madhevan Master’s place: bathing and feeding the livestock, watering and tilling the land, cleaning lamps, utensils and such. Master made his kids do a lot too, CK might skip that detail. CK might conjecture about how my parents managed to litter in the crowded dark smoky hut. He would touch upon the wild abandon of early morning ablution in the fields or near the backwaters. It was definitely so when a dog had to be shooed away or when a creepy slithering noise was too close for comfort. People like to read ‘real’ stuff, he said. He might contrast that rustic charm with a scene of wild abandon in the workers’ camp, say, when there was a cholera scare and the whole lot suffered diarrhoea for days. We had a kerosene lamp in the hut. There was a street-lamp with a sixty-watt bulb near the railway station. The village elders had their gossip sessions there. After evening prayer at Master’s house, I studied with his kids, around the evening lamp, under a tube-light. I enjoyed Onam (a harvest festival) in Master’s house, seated with his kids in the first round of the feast, then playing kabaddi, carroms, cricket and football with them.  CK might say my family feasted in the hut, on leftovers from Master’s house, and that I stood, a lone longing outcast, watching rich kids have a life.
The evening prayers and study-time were supervised by Madhevan Master’s mother. She passed the ‘seventh-class’ in the British era, in an English-medium missionary school. One day, I was in the store-room next to the kitchen, cleaning and polishing brass items. She was sitting on the ground near the back door, preparing a betel quid and watching me work. I must have been ten years old.
Out of the blue, she demanded, “Tell me seventeen table, till twenty.”
“Seventeen one seventeen, seventeen two thirty four…” I had a method for that. Till ten, I could manage in the head. After that, as I said one part, I added for the next. I was good in addition.
“Seventeen thirteen?” she interrupted.
I hesitated for too long.
“Seventeen ten?” she prompted.
“One seventy,” I said.
“Seventeen three…?”
“Fifty one…” I got her suggestion. With a broad smile, I delivered, “seventeen thirteen two twenty one.”
“Idiot…” Her light eyes never left me. “Are you in English or Malayalam medium?”
“English medium,” I said proudly.
“Recite ‘Daffodils’…”
I stared at her blankly.
The old lady recited the poem. I should have found it surreal, an old lady in a godforsaken Kerala village reciting an English poem, that too not in the staccato fashion in which we recited poetry in school, but as she was taught by an Irish teacher.
After she was through, she told me, “Learn that properly.” That became a routine. In that kitchen, I have recited ‘Daffodils’, ‘Lochinvar’, ‘The Lady of Shallot’, ‘The Highwayman’…even that did not seem surreal.
She ended that day’s lesson with, “Which monkey teaches you Math and English?”
She knew very well that it was her son. Madhevan Master was a very good teacher, the old-school type. He could make us grasp Math without too much difficulty. With English, he used to say, “Oh you good-for-nothing country…” He did not really mean it, I think. He understood our limitations. The dual task of enjoying English and also speaking it the English way was beyond us. He tried hard though. “Roll your r’s…lips, circle…woh-tur, not vaa-tter…woh-mun, not vee-men…”
It was Madhevan Master who enrolled me in school. He gave me my name. Chankunni became Shankar Unni. He called me Shanku. In the Gulf, when I started working with foreigners, that got westernized. Thanx, Shanx.
CK might skip all that but not the day I became Chenda.
It was just another day till the Math class. The students could sense there was something wrong with Madhevan Master. We kept our head down and tried hard not to be noticed. My best friend, ‘Peepee’ Philip, that rascal chose that period to show me a centrefold he had salvaged from an elder brother’s collection. How could I not look at the cleavage and the thighs? Master must have noticed my distraction. He was not interested in the source. He ordered me to approach him. “You good-for-nothing rascal, you want to be a clown instead of studying hard, is it? I will show you how to be a clown.” I do not know for how long it lasted but it went on and on. He started with the cane, on my palm, on the knuckles, on the back of my thighs, on my buttocks, I yelped, jumped and cried, the cane broke when it missed me and hit the table, he then hit me with his right hand, on the back, on my arms, then with his left, back to the right. When he stopped, there was pin-drop silence in that school. I did not know what to do, to crumble down, to cry, or to go and hold the man who looked more beaten than I was. Master walked out and left the school compound. I went back to my seat, trying not to whimper or cry. It was Peepee the rascal who christened me, “Ado Chenda!” That name stuck, though no one used it when Master was around. Peepee also gave me that centrefold as consolation prize.
My parents seemed troubled that night. I heard them talk in the dark. “Poor Master…” my father said. “That naughty girl…why does she give him so much trouble?” my mother said. They were talking about Master’s eldest daughter. She had got into some trouble, with man and money.
That night, or the next, I saw my father creep up to the dark backyard of Master’s house. He was Master’s procurer of whiskey. They sat in the dark, Master on a chair, my father on the ground, my father rolled beedi (cheroot), they smoked, had a drink or two, passed a plate of tapioca and fish curry between them, spoke little.
  I did well in school, went to college, managed a first in BA, passed the written exam for bank officers and was thrilled when I got the interview call. My father took me to Madhevan Master’s house. My father stood inside, next to Master’s wooden reclining chair. I stood outside near a window, by Master’s side.
“Shanku, you have to go abroad,” Master said.
I nodded. My elder brother could have gone instead but I was the smart one, the one with the best chance, to get my brothers and sisters married and decently settled, to find a place for my parents and also manage something for myself. I was disappointed, of course, but at that point in life, I wanted to get rich fast.
I was nearly twenty years old and the village champion, not just in studies, in the local ‘triathlon’ too. The triathlon involved: twice-digging the ground around coconut trees with a hoe (more the number of trees more the points); climbing the tree, plucking coconuts and de-husking with bare hands (one caught the coconut by the top and brought its bottom hard on the ground to make the husk come apart); and finally carrying the load of husk to the backwater, swimming across with it to the finishing line.
My main problem then was that I was a virgin in love, and Peepee the self-proclaimed ladies’ man was giving me hell. I met Shailaja at a temple utsavam (festival) in a nearby village. Her family was in Madhevan Master’s class and I dreamt of being good enough for her. She was a year or two junior to me, gorgeous, her bewitching flirtatious eyes had me drooling. Peepee introduced me to her. She said, “You don’t have to introduce him, who doesn’t know the champion.” I treated her, and Peepee, to Rasna and cake. That cost me two rupees, the money for the bus back home. Peepee lost his at a street-gambler’s stall. We walked home that night. During the fireworks at the temple, I stood behind Shailaja. More than once, our legs and hands touched. I held her waist. I felt her derriere. She did not move away. She had a naughty smile. I could have walked all night. I cannot share that with CK, never even bragged to Peepee. It is possible they knew more about my life than I did.
Life went in a blur. CK might expand on this part. The recruitment agent sent me to Singapore, with the praise, “best for your high skills”. Till date, I have not figured out if I was legally or illegally employed there. I was in food services, then sanitation and finally construction; lived in a cramped dormitory with forty, the unseen underbelly of a glittering city. It was my ‘high skills’ that got me into trouble. My colleagues there got to know that I know English. They had no clue about the documents and contracts they signed, not even the blank payslips which must have been fudged by the contractors. They were not interested in workers’ rights or in raising a complaint. They were just curious. I explained the documents they were signing. That led to a bit of unrest. The government rounded up all the workers with illegal permits. I was labelled as the ‘chief instigator’. I got fifty lashes of the rattan. On the flight out of Singapore, I was seated next to a fourteen-year-old boy from Kerala. He had gone on a tourist visa to while away his two-month school vacation with family friends. Two weeks into his vacation, he had been told to leave the country within two days, with the rest of us illegal migrants. He did not blame me for that spoiled vacation. He was more worried about what he would do in Madras if no one turned up to receive him. He stuck by me till he saw a friend waiting for him at Madras airport. Unlike him, I could not go home. For months, I stayed in Madras and Bombay, did odd-jobs, acquaintances from my Singapore days gave me space to sleep. My agent was not the worst sort. He finally got me a job in the Gulf, in construction. By then, I had been away from home for twenty months, and my saving was zero. I went to Gulf swearing that I would speak any language but English. The conditions there were worse than that in Singapore but I managed to save and send money home, and after three years I got leave to go home. I was about twenty five.
My family had shifted from the hut to a small house on a small plot. My two younger sisters had got married, each with fifteen sovereigns of gold and twenty thousand rupees. One younger brother was a driver, another in politics.
I got married to Shailaja during that break. Peepee played the broker’s role. Her family, to my surprise, was happy with my proposal. My parents did not say anything for or against it. They must have thought I decided everything in the house. Madhevan Master was against the alliance. That was the only time I defied him. I returned to Gulf after the three-month stay. My first child was born about nine months after the wedding.
English once again changed the course of my life. I worked for a company with interests in construction, real estate development, gold, shops, entertainment business, well, a whole lot of stuff. The workers rarely saw the rich sheikhs or even the next level of managers. Our life revolved around overseers, engineers and labour contractors. Big foreign companies got interested in the company. There were rumours of big bankers from America doing backroom deals in gold like how we bought pirated stuff in the bazaar. One day, the sheikhs and the top managers gave some Americans a guided tour of the construction site. It was a huge residential and commercial project on reclaimed land, an artificial oasis possible only with billions of money and thousands of cheap migrants. The pyramids were built the same way. The tour was stage-managed well and even the workers looked good that day. Two days later, the Americans turned up for a surprise check, without the sheikh and his managers in tow. Even the engineers were not on site when they arrived. The security guards were too scared to stop them from roaming around. One of the Americans speculated about the costs, another who sounded like a technical expert surveyed the progress, the third was more interested in the human resources. They tried to get details from the overseer. They could have got more from a camel instead. I heard one say, “How do we trust this lot?” I looked around at my lot, the grimy faces on tired bodies with ingratiating smiles for the foreigners. I approached the foreigners and offered to get chairs and cool drinks for them. They politely declined the offer and ignored me. I focused on my work. It was like fishing in the backwaters back home. One finally bit the bait. He moved towards me and enquired about the workers. Another quizzed about the work culture. I gave a good sales pitch. I did not talk about how we lived. I told them about our good work, the speed with which the project was proceeding, even gave a glowing report about the overseers, engineers and other experts. The overseer kept staring at me. I do not know how the Americans took it. I do not think it changed any of their decisions. Two months later, I was shifted from the construction site. I worked in shops and sales, the pay almost the same, with as much backbreaking work in the sun. It was not a rags-to-riches story, CK might say it differently. I met some of the top-level guys. One of the owners, a middle-aged sheikh, was fond of me and took me to Eastern Europe on his frequent trips there. I learned Arabic and German. He had a mansion and a wife there, and lots of business concerns. On the first trip itself, he warned me not to fool around with girls. I told him I was married with a kid. Does that help, he wondered aloud with a smile.
When my first child was about three, I got a call from Madhevan Master. My father must have been standing next to him. Master told me to return home urgently. I did not ask why. International calls were exorbitant. My boss sanctioned a two-month leave. Shailaja was three months pregnant. She was still with my parents. Her brother was there when I got home. In front of me, in the living room of my parents’ small house, he thrashed Shailaja, slapped her face, hit her back and arms, and at the same time begged me to forgive his family for giving me such a wife. I asked him, and my parents, to give me some time with Shailaja. I took her to our bedroom, closed the door. I heard my mother say, “Monay (son), don’t do anything.” Shailaja stood in front of me, wide-eyed, looking miserable. She reminded me of the day I became Chenda. I must have looked like her.
I did not know what to do. We stood staring at each other for a long while.
“Do you still want to be my wife?” I asked her.
“I have always been your wife,” she said, “only yours.”  
What could I say to that? That was true. She took care of the house, the kid, my parents and the money. She took care of me when I was around. I should not have left her alone for so long. She held back her tears till I held her.
That leave was tough. Even Madhevan Master found it difficult to talk to me. Peepee admitted that the whole village knew I had been cuckolded.
“I swear, I didn’t know about the first one,” he said. CK might know about all this.
For the first time, I felt relief when that leave got over. I do not know if the news reached the Gulf. Just as in the village, no one asked, no one poked. The situation would have been a lot different if I had been jobless. I had lots of friends, lost quite a few too. People borrowed money, some returned. I focused on my work and made my subordinates work as much. I did not hunger for promotion or recognition and never challenged my bosses. When the market went bust, I survived. CK might be interested in that. My pay was cut. It was a miserable time. I had to decide the fate of some friends. One had a heart attack, another committed suicide with family. We were crops grown in the harshest sun, on the worst soil. Business recovered, pay increased. I got more of office work. I could go home for couple of weeks every year. I was there when my third child was born.
At the hospital, soon after delivery, the head nurse took me inside to be with the mother and baby.
I stared at Shailaja, she looked tired but those naughty eyes looked at me and then the baby. She blurted out, “This little monkey is definitely yours.”
What could I do other than laugh and hug the mother and child? I went out and hugged my two older kids and my parents too.
My relationship with Madhevan Master remained more or less the same through the years. Master and his wife Lakshmiamma never got along with Shailaja. I used to take my wife and kids when I went to visit Master. I remember one visit when my eldest was about six. He refused to go near Master and started bawling when Master approached him to give a five-rupee coin.
Lakshmiamma commented, “He must have heard about the beatings his father got.”
Master did not say anything. He returned to his armchair. I found the five-rupee coin where my kid had dropped it and kept it for myself. When we were kids, Master gave each kid a one-rupee coin on the day of the Onam feast. When I did well in the school-leaving exams, he gave me a two-rupee coin and a pen. I lost that pen when I had to leave Singapore in a hurry but I still have all the coins.
During that visit, there was another awkward incident. Master’s wife wanted to give us a jackfruit. I stripped to my undershorts, climbed a tree and brought down a few jackfruits in a jiffy. My kids were rather thrilled to see me climb. Master and Lakshmiamma looked terribly embarrassed when Shailaja expressed her displeasure with a fat face. Shailaja did not allow me to touch her for a few days. That was the last time I took my wife and kids to Master’s house.
Whenever I go there, I carry some gifts for them. I also carry a towel, shorts, kayli (sarong) and t-shirt in a bag. That is for outside work. I also help Lakshmiamma in the kitchen, polish old brass items. I have lunch with them. Master asks about my work and current affairs. Lakshmiamma always laughs at the way I sit next to him like a nervous schoolboy.
Their kids have shifted to the city. The old couple still does as much as they can on their land. On one visit, my eldest must have been in high school then, I found banana samplings stored in the outhouse. Grass had grown wild on the land. Master told me that the workers had been playing truant, even after being offered good pay and a daily quota of liquor. I changed into my work-clothes, went to the field with a hoe and a bottle of water. I had put on weight in those years in air-conditioned offices. I was surprised when I sweated profusely and my chest pounded wildly. I felt light in the head. Phlegm filled my airways. I coughed and spat. It took an hour of that to get into the old rhythm; bent a little at the waist, the hoe falling on its own weight, a pull, over and over. I tilled the land, it started to look like how it was when my father and I used to work in those fields, I planted the samplings, caressed the old trees, I could have cried and spoken to them. My father used to work even when he was sick. He spat blood once. It is tough to be a romantic on such soil. I heard my father say, not to me, of the plants and the crops, “These kids, fickle and stubborn, they can disappoint or give you good cheer, the careless seed gives more at times.” I never really understood that.
We worked all day. Master helped me plant and spread manure. Lakshmiamma brought porridge water for us. They stayed close, doing whatever they could.  We had a worker’s lunch of rice, fish curry and vegetables out in the field. They did not take their customary siesta. We rested for a while and got back to work. By half past five, it was done. I had a quick bath, poured pails of water over me at the well, dressed. Lakshmiamma brought tea and vayanaela appam (a sweet made of jaggery and flour steamed in a leaf wrapping). I sat on the steps near the front door. Master smoked a beedi. He offered me one. That was a first. I saved it for later.
“Do you remember Heaney’s ‘Digging’?” he asked. I nodded. “Recite it,” he said.
All those years in the desert heat, burning and sweating, mumbling words to myself and the memory of a boy reciting poetry to an old woman helped me stay alive. My colleagues said I was being lordly. I recited ‘Digging’. Master leaned back in his armchair. Lakshmiamma sat on the chair next to him.
When I finished, he said, “I like your take, sounds like the father’s reading the son’s poem.”
I did not tell him that his mother had once remarked that I recited ‘Lochinvar’ from the viewpoint of the bridegroom.
That day, on the way back home, I stopped at Peepee’s place for a quick peg and to finish off Master’s beedi. I got home around half past seven. The kids were bemused by my tired but jubilant self. Shailaja was in the kitchen. She curled her nose, “You stink of sweat, beedi and liquor. Go and shower before dinner.” I nodded with a stupid smile. She said, “Once a chenda always a chenda.”
I wonder if CK would have written about all that from my viewpoint.
On my most recent visit, Master asked me to accompany him to his eldest daughter’s house in the city for some function. Lakshmiamma had already gone the previous day. His eldest daughter was married to a senior bureaucrat, the second to a doctor in the US, the sons too were abroad. It was the eldest daughter Saraswathi who got me the beating of my life long back. I drove Master’s car. We got there around eleven. Master held on to me till the front door but I managed to slink away. I went by the side of the house to the back. A maid was washing utensils. Another was cooking. Lakshmiamma was supervising. She saw me and smiled. I asked her if I could help. She told me to go to the front and sit like a good boy. Saraswathi came into the kitchen and shooed her mother off to meet the guests. Lakshmiamma went reluctantly. Saraswathi saw me and said, “Ah Chankunni, God sent you at the right moment. We are short of coconuts.” I removed my shirt and changed into my work clothes. I de-husked and grated coconuts, and cleaned a few lamps. I took over the washing of vessels. Around half past two, the maids and I sat down to eat. I sat near the back door, the steel plate on the floor. I was tired and hungry. I had had only coffee and a few biscuits at home that morning. I leaned forward to eat.
“Shanku!” Master shouted at me.
Master stared at me angrily, at my seating place and the plate on the floor. He kicked my plate of food. I stood up.
Lakshmiamma came to the kitchen. She pleaded softly to Master to calm down, told him that the guests should not hear.
“Did you serve him there?” Master asked his wife.
“I was with you in front,” she said apologetically.
Master turned to me and said, “Get ready. I want to go home.” His wife tried to stop him but he had made up his mind.
We did not go straight home. He told me to drive to the beach. It was hot there, even with the promise of rain in the air. Master bought two packets of groundnuts. I had thought of going to a restaurant, I was famished, but if Master insisted on paying for my meal, it would not have seemed right. I did not want to see Master hand out anything more than his two- and five-rupee coins, not that I thought he had only that. We sat in the car, stared at the sea. His right hand rested on my shoulder. His fingers played a beat on my muscles.
“Ado, Chenda!”
He said it softly, with a laugh rumbling deep within. I laughed. Till then, I had not known he knew that nickname. Later that night, lying next to Shailaja, my hands on her derriere, I laughed again.

I guess CK would have written about my poverty, my struggles and all the ups and downs. But how does one write about the madness of working or the feel of those drumming fingers or that of my wife’s derriere?