Sunday, December 1, 2019

Never Together Ever Again



We were glad when our son got admission to our daughter's college. The kids moaned and protested about having each other "breathing down the neck again". The senior promised to let loose her batchmates on the fresher. Boys or girls, his only doubt.

When we dropped them off at the college, we stayed in that town for three days. The last night, the four of us had dinner at the Chinese restaurant near the college gate. We tried to be cheerful and tried harder not to cry.

I was the first to cry. "Dragon Chicken always makes me cry," I said.

She nodded with tear-filled eyes.

The kids did not seem embarrassed. I expected some remark from my son. At least, "Bet your parents were tougher." Instead, he kept his head down and chased a button mushroom on his plate with a fork. His sister did not have to kick him.

We did not take the bus from the gate to the hostel complex. It was a long, silent walk. She held her son's hand. My daughter slipped her arm through mine.

"Do you have to go tonight?" my daughter asked. Tough guy couldn't ask that, of course.

Farewell was a quick affair. Quick packing, quick hugs. Silly jokes, nervous laughter.

I think both of us noticed that the kids had the same expression when we got into the taxi and waved goodbye. They had the look that says we will never be together ever again.

En route to the airport, we did not talk. I rubbed my left upper arm, took deep breaths, stared blankly at the road. Next to me, she too must have done something like that.

Every kid has such moments. I had mine when my parents were in their eighties. Not when they were around fifty, like us.

But then, it was not the first time for our kids.

About five years back, they went out of town for a week for some cultural or sports competition. They seemed out of sorts before they left with their school team.

"Will you be here when we come back?" my daughter asked.

"Of course, idiot," I laughed.

"Both of you?" my son probed.

We were shocked. But, we made it seem like a good joke.

Two years back, just before our daughter left for college, we had gone on a short trip to Trichy. We stayed in adjacent rooms in the best hotel in town, with very thin walls. The TV in the kids' room was on till midnight. After that was switched off, we could hear them talk. We were still awake around one.

"He should have a heart attack or something really critical," my son said.

"Shut up," his sister growled.

"Every book and film suggests that," he continued.

"That's fiction," she said.

"Are you saying that even that won't make them love each other?"

She did not reply.

"Stay together?" he pleaded.

"Without us, not even that," she sounded very sure.

I do not know how they reached that conclusion.

If we were shocked then, or earlier, it was because we thought we had managed to deceive them too. Everyone, even our parents and siblings and close friends, thinks we are the ideal couple.

We are good at that. Like the best actors, we never draw attention to ourselves. The roles and the play are more important. It helps that we can be natural with our kids. With each other, to the outside world, we let small touches and brief glances do the trick.

Long back, when the kids were little, we were in Bangalore walking on M.G. Road. I remember the way people looked at us. Maybe, I had slipped an arm around her waist or we had leaned towards each other to share something or she had held my hand. We were one helluva couple. That's what their looks said. That was much before these social media days. Now, at least online, every couple appears so.

We engaged in explicit PDA only once. We were in a movie-hall. We had left the kids with our parents. A much-younger couple in the row before ours were kissing. Some men protested about that. "Ee vrithikkedu evide paadilla (This filthy behaviour isn't allowed here)," they snarled menacingly. Lots of people shook their heads, in agreement or otherwise. I do not know what came over me. "Malayalathil ethiney vrithikkedu yennano parayunnathu (Do you call this filthy behaviour in Malayalam)?" I asked the men politely. "Englishil snogging yennu parayum (In English, it is called snogging)." Then, I turned to her and kissed her, she returned it long and deep. A few couples joined us in that counter-protest. The men left the hall. That turned out to be the best part of that movie-show.

We do not know how the kids figured it out. Inevitable, I guess, given close proximity. They are smart too.

They have never talked to us about these doubts, or conclusions. (Even we have never talked about it.) I don't think it has anything to do with respecting our privacy or whatever. It must have seemed a pointless exercise.

"Do you love each other?" the kids could ask.
"Define love," we will reply.
"Without us, will you two remain together?" they will come to the point.
"Can't think of a life without you kids," we will evade like practiced politicians.
"Are you passionate about each other?"
"Passionate as in fiction?"
"Come on, you know what we mean."
"Come on, don't be schoolkids."

They could ask better questions.

"Do you consider each other as priority number one?" or "Do you race back home from work to be with each other?"

We will have good answers. If nothing works, we will say, "Get real."

Or will we say:

"We are too old to be romantic (Kids, romantic, not romance, ok? The latter's an easy act, the former is a philosophy.) and we are too young to love for senior citizen benefits."?

Maybe, the kids are right. Maybe, we need a lesson on mortality. We have had our ups and down, nothing drastic though. Not too sure a critical situation will change anything.

Will they ask, "Was it always like this? Surely, you two must have been different when you got married?"

"Can't remember."

We were like every other young couple. Curious, excited, ambitious, principled but with rational pragmatism (which love story admits that last one?).

In the early years, we even wasted time on dumb charades with the usual reasons for insecurity: "the other", suspicion, possessiveness. I think I used to tease her with some Zahroof. Or was it Matthew? She wasn't teasing, definitely not amused, whenever she poked me with Faru.

But, long before we had our daughter, we realized that that was just a smokescreen or diversion. Filling the void with something. Temporary relief. Before emptiness swallowed us whole.

With each passing year, was it disillusionment or plain realization? Just another blow to the chin. Face it, bear it, move on. One of many dreams to be left behind with our youth.

If we were bitter or angry or stifled or dissatisfied, it wasn't for long. Role-play, complacency, lethargy and resignation took over. Lethargy is the best of the lot.

We are still attractive. I think it's pointless to look elsewhere. If she won't do, no one else will do either. It's really not about her. I don't know if she too thinks so. I don't know if she has had other lovers. Or if she wants to. Unlikely. I might not notice. Her kids would. But then, those rascals might let her. They are our kids after all.

We are good parents. No doubt about that. Strangely, I might be a good husband too. I care for her. I worry about her. I might die for her. (But then, strangers die for us every day in some foolish tussle for god-knows-what.) We talk. Discuss. We gel well. But my thoughts end there.

What is missing? Imagination? Is that what love is all about?

Maybe, that's just simplifying matters.

We got home, or what should be home. The empty nest felt really empty.

We immersed ourselves in work and social functions and books and movies. Thank god there are these streaming channels for binge-watching. News help too. We hate the same people. We are alike in lots of ways. (Oh, we are different in lots of ways too. But, that's expected.) Maybe, that's one reason. We know each other a bit too well.

Days and weeks passed. We are experts in procrastinating about anything that has to do with just the two of us.

The kids call frequently. At times, they seem surprised. More often, just resigned. Lethargic to do anything different. Like us.

A few days back, she said, "How about a trip?"

Maybe, we are playacting as usual. After all, everyone 'happy' is busy travelling, 'experiencing new places together'.

Europe? Sri Lanka? Far East? Mauritius? South Africa? Machu Pichu? Kashmir? We laughed. We cursed. We laughed again.

We chose Kodaikanal. It is nearby. We had gone there for our honeymoon.

Why not say goodbye where we first said hello?

We checked in at the hotel by the lake. Was it the same old suite?

The food is good. Real-estate development has spoiled the place but we are not too disappointed. We walked around the lake the first day. Just one helluva couple.

She woke me up at 5:30 am the second night.

"What?" my hangover mumbled.

"I want to go for a jog," she said. Was she recreating our honeymoon?

"You crazy or what?" I remember asking her that then. Not this time though.

Then, on that early morning of our honeymoon, we got into a race instead of a jog. I chose a type of interval racing--sprinting and walking. She stuck to the pace of a mile-runner. We managed to cover five kilometers. She came first.

Twenty or so years later, we settled into a slow jog at first. I can walk fast but when it comes to jogging, I have a handicap.

After two hundred meters, she increased the pace. She used to be a long-distance runner. I was a sprinter.

Not again, I thought.

I accepted the challenge and sprinted ahead, saying "Bah" to her. I had to walk after four hundred meters. She caught up with me after six hundred meters, replied with her own "Bah!" I continued to walk. I let her increase the lead by two hundred meters. I sprinted again. She increased her pace. We collapsed around the mile mark.

I felt like vomiting. She too looked a bit green in the gills.

"Bloody old age," we cursed.

The hotel staff did not laugh at us when we got back. One helluva couple. Strays must have dragged in better stuff.

We collapsed on the bed. Took hot shower an hour later, separately. We were fine at breakfast. When we returned to our room, we collapsed on the bed again.

I raised one leg. Tried to stretch it. I told her to get up and lean against it, to push it towards my chest.

"Your tummy is in the way."

"Jokes will be very injurious to your health."

She helped with one, then the other leg.

I groaned. She too groaned.

"My bloody back," I said.

"I am going to the Spa for a massage," she said.

I don't know what got into me. I sat up.

"Let me."

She seemed unsure. Stared at me for a long while. Then she lay down on her tummy.

I started with her neck, ears, scalp. (I 'cracked' the cartilage of her ears. I learned that from a barber up north. She did not let me 'crack' her nose, or her neck.) Then shoulders, arms. I removed her blouse. I worked on her back. I rubbed, pounded, even kissed. I removed the bra. I moved lower. Removed her trousers. Worked each toe, calves, ankles, thighs. Removed her panties. Kneaded her bottoms.

It was time to say, "Turn over."

On our honeymoon, I asked her to turn over. When I massaged her front, facing her, me naked too by then, by her side or straddling her, something had happened.

If only I could remember it exactly. Should I ask her if she remembers what had happened that day? Or will she hold that against me? Does that matter? If it was good, why didn't we try it again the last twenty odd years? What happened then? Or did something happen even before I asked her to turn over? Was it something she or I imagined then? What is the point in remembering that? Did I imagine anything now? Did she?

When she turns over, will we stare blankly at each other?

Or, will we see a spark of imagination in our eyes?


Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Another Rotten Day

Yesterday turned out to be a rotten day.

(No, it was not because of the usual water supply problem. That has been resolved. The Water Authority and the Minister for Water Resources have decided that my family can be ignored. We belong to the insignificant minority. It is such a relief when a case is closed so amicably.)

I received summons from my kids' school.

I had to meet the Principal (message on mobile said, "...to deal with a delicate matter...").

My better half wondered, "Is he (son, not Principal) the delicate matter? Or is she (daughter)?"

I asked her to come along for moral support. She gave the usual mother-talk about the eternal bond between mothers and kids, "I carried them for nine months...that is, eighteen months, mind you...you promised to bear everything thereafter." I am sure I am not daft to make a promise like that. But has anyone won a battle against that nine-month-mother-talk?

I took my time outside the Principal's office. Reels of déjà vu rolled, flashback in black-n-white and technicolor too.

"Ah yes, come in..." the Principal said. Four words, four swings of the paddle.

My son was already in his office, assigned to a corner. He looked like one in quarantine silently protesting his incarceration.

"Ah good sir, thank you for coming," the Principal said.

"Ah," I replied. The Principal frowned. He clearly had the patent on Ah.

"Ah!" he reclaimed possession. "Do you know why I had to call you?"

"Nah," I tried. He frowned again.

"He has spoiled the delicate fabric of this social community," the Principal announced.

"He?"

The Principal's squint-eyed stare made it clear that I was not to interrupt his judgement or execution.

He reached for a sheet of paper.

"Read this, good sir. Ah. This is what your son chose for the school's elocution competition. Ah. This poem by some unknown good-for-nothing."

I read it.

"You might know your mother
But never be too sure 
About your father."

I didn't have to read the rest.

I looked at my son. He returned a blank-eyed stare. Finally, I could understand the last scene in "The Omen" where the much-tortured Gregory Peck tries to kill his son Damien.

"Ah sir, now..."

I must have gone pale or looked terribly daft (the better half says that I am terribly good at it). I remember waking up from that reverie with the Principal looking down on me.

"Ah good sir. I thought we lost you there. Don't let this affect you so. Let us forget this whole matter."

"Nah," I said.

"Ah sir, I have decided. Say no more." The Principal told my son to go back to class. He dismissed me too.

Thus, I did not have to tell him that I am the unknown good-for-nothing. My son must have discovered my 'pome' among the boxes of old stuff. He has inherited that from my better half. She has this knack for finding my carefully hidden personal diaries. I tried to cure her once. On our first wedding anniversary, I noted in my diary, "She is such a pain." She found it. I had to endure two years of marriage counselling. I was cured of every desire to cure her.

Back to the 'pome'. I was very young when I wrote it. I had just discovered Philip Larkin's "This Be The Verse" and Allen Ginsberg's "Howl". My 'pome' was supposed to be a clarion call against patriarchy, caste-system and every other social ill that allowed some creeps to seem like well-endowed creeps.

Outside the Principal's office, my son tugged at my sleeve. "Great act, old man."

I whacked his head.

A lady-teacher appeared there out of thin air right then, made a clucking sound with her tongue or wherever.

My son scooted from the scene. I too tried. She blocked my way.

"Ah sir."

"Nah, naht agaaain." I howled internally.

"You are just the man I have been looking for."

When a woman says that, you can be sure the horror is about to begin soon.

"Sir, I have to talk to you about your daughter."

"She too, Bruteh!" my innards groaned. Why is it that teachers inspire stream of consciousness?

"Have you and your Mrs noticed that she has been acting differently lately?"

"It is a congenital condition," my brain noted.

"She seems so lost, so uncared for. She was such a good student. She is still good. But she seems lost."

"She gets that from moi. I too feel lost," I muttered silently.

"I asked her if her parents help her with her studies and other activities. She told me no."

"She told us to stay away," I wanted to say.

"I asked her if her parents make her feel secure with a promise of foreign education after school. She told me that you told her to get in somewhere good and cheap or be a home nurse and take care of her old parents. Surely, you did not say that."

"My parents told me that. Why can't I?" I wanted to cry about my deprived childhood.

"It seems you don't encourage her in any way. You don't even mention on social media about her success in studies or extracurricular activities."

"She promised to kill us if we did that." How could I tell that to a teacher?

"Ah. Please, sir. I have seen too many good kids end up badly. Please change your ways."

"Oh." I managed to say finally.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Hush


Alone.
Silent.
Tired.

The sun has not set
But there's darkness
An oily shroud wraps us.

The rascals are laughing
They claim to have light
Aren't they burning?

Hush.
Hush.
Hush.


Friday, October 4, 2019

wonder

there are people

who can stare at beauty
wonder
about god

and then torture and kill

or support with silence

and have an excuse

who can still stare
if it is blood
on the ground.



Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Kadalil Thaazhvaaram


A cliff stands in between
My valley
And the sea above with a sinking sun.

Not a thing separates
My people
And the idiots, there's not a thinking one.


Thursday, August 15, 2019

writer's block


Nothing changed. Not the times. Not the people. Not the place.

Awareness screwed up everything.

I didn't give a fuck who the PM was back then. Not too sure half the country cared either. That may not be true. There must have been the same proportion who cared for such stuff. After all, thousands or was it lakhs or millions were ready to massacre and kill even then...no, not just ready, they had killed and raped and buggered...for...exactly, that is the question...for god-fucking-what?

Now, why did I think of killing and raping and buggering when I wanted to tell a love story?

Yes, that is when I fell in love with her.

(To be continued...)

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

paradise lost


it's been two days
just two days
nothing
compared to eternity of left-right-boot-shot
i've been a prisoner
just a prisoner
nothing
compared to what's to come o what's to come
i've not heard
just not heard
nothing
compared to vacuum within without where are you

Saturday, July 27, 2019

open relationship


He: I love you.

She: You talking to me?

He: Don't eavesdrop when I am talking on the phone.

She: Go to another room when you want to talk to your love. Not in the bedroom.

He: Geez...

She: I love you too.

He: Did you say something?

She: Shoo...

He: So, you can phone in our bedroom and I can't? Ok, ok, I am going.

She: Not to you, silly. He was hanging around.


Sunday, July 21, 2019

daddy


"You should let them fly the coop," a family friend advised. I wanted to ask if I had restrained her in any way.

There were the bitter moments when I thought I should not have helped her in any way. I had written letters to the MEA with regard to the complications concerning her passport and sorted it out. I had written to everyone I knew who could help her settle out there.

It was the gentler moments that hurt me more; taking her shopping for bags and clothes; and, the quiet dinner later.

I saw daddies there, with my kind of look, helping daughters find the right bag or winter-wear; smiling, sliding into the shadows, holding back the tears, listening to the excited young lady across the table, the lady who was still his little girl.

It is nothing new, I consoled myself then. 

The fight the day before her flight was expected.

At 10 pm, at the airport, she waved and went inside the terminal. I walked back to the parking lot, alone. I knew then I had lost her.

Even she must have realized it when she whispered, "I love you, my darling husband."

Saturday, July 20, 2019

rights


A democracy
With beggars for rights, left nought,
Is not that, never!

Friday, July 19, 2019

chance


Given second chance,
The same life I would have tried.
That's tragicomic.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

halo


"Is that all," It asked,
"Too little faith, or too much?"
Its halo flickered.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

ask


Lick me there, she said.
I licked, here and there. (O where?)
Ask! For right climax.

choke-hold


In between her legs,
It could have been erotic,
But for her choke-hold.

love with bad luck


She brought bad luck too.
Perfectly balanced the love.
Thus, fact not fiction.
 

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Sunday, March 17, 2019

true crime


I love crime fiction.

Couple of weeks back, I read Michael Connelly's "The Late Show" which introduces a new "hero"--Renee Ballard. I didn't like her. Lately, even Connelly's tried-and-tested Bosch novels have been as comfortable as Malayalam movies with ageing superstars. Quite tragic and definitely a bore.

Yesterday, I started reading Ian Rankin's "Rather Be The Devil". My now-declared-former hero Rebus has quit smoking and seems to be having lung problems. His daughter has a kid and he seems to have an understanding partner. Geez! If Holmes and Watson had got into a same-sex marriage, I would have felt less sick.

This year has been bad for my fiction too. I have not written a story this year. That should be good news for my friends, much-tortured or not, if there are any.

One reason for that is that I have been involved in a true crime. It has left me tortured, sleepless and totally hopeless. And barely alive.

Recap 1: Since January 24, 2019, we have hardly got water. Well, to be exact, we got on 3 days (February 9-11). Then, we got a total of 600 liters on March 1 and 2. Today early morning, March 17, we got 85 liters in 1 hour.

We got plenty of lies though. We were told that the water shortage was because of power failure at the water treatment plant. Then, it was because of Attukal Pongala. Then, the trump card---global warming and water crisis. We believed all that, especially the last, even when we had anecdotal evidence of people in other areas having enough and more water to waste. Well, even our neighbours were wasting plenty.

Yesterday, we got to know the real reason. They diverted water from our line, which was already insufficiently supplied, to a new government Eye hospital. Who are the "they"? The government---Water Authority, politicians, Corporation, etc.

Instead of taking a new line from the Mains, they decided to save time and pennies by taking from a residential line where most would still get enough. Most, not all.

Recap 2: We have survived the last 2 months by begging for water from our Councilor. It feels like God's gift. We have written to the CM, the MP, the MLA and the Collector. The CM forwarded it to the MD of Water Authority. The MLA promised to get us water immediately. We communicated with Water Authority too. We thought we were heard when they installed one of two valves required for better distribution in this line. But even before the first valve was tried and tested, the Residents Association got the police to do a hit job in 3 days. That "valve-project" was left unfinished.

That was not the first time the Residents Association used the police to "hit" us. Not the first time it resulted in reducing our water supply. Not the first time it has worked to the advantage of its Committee members and preferred residents.

Who knows if the Water Authority ever intended to install the more important second valve? Who knows the current state of the first valve? Has it been opened totally? Or has it been kept partially closed so that the near and dear ones of the Residents Association get water but not us?

There was the stink of caste in the air.

I wrote again to the MP, the MLA and the Collector. No response.

The stink got stronger.

There is a bit of irony in that. The MP has in recent times raised quite a few protests about Churchill and his views on Hinduism being partly barbaric. If the MP does not consider caste to be barbaric, and if he cannot take a stand against discrimination based on caste, then should he be talking about Churchill?

As in crime fiction, one of the smaller villains turned out to be a good guy, relatively. In 2017, during a water crisis of a smaller magnitude brought about by drought, one Asst Exec Engineer of the Water Authority was brutal but frank. He told my old parents to carry water in buckets from a tank 50 meters from our house. He told my parents that if people in a shanty/slum area of Trivandrum have to do that, why can't they? He also told us that our water problems could end if someone or anyone at the top gave him orders to correct the situation. How true.

No one above him was/is interested. How true.

Most crime fiction fails to be considered as literature. One of the reasons is that the formula for crime fiction includes a satisfying ending. The criminal has to be identified. The hero has to be successful, at least partly.

True crime and great crime fiction do not have that restriction.

The criminals live happily ever after. And the hero gets b*ggered.

Of course, in great crime fiction and in true crime too, the narrator cannot be trusted totally.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

MAD play

I know that all of you have been worried about two nuclear neighbours going into Mutually Agreed Destruction mode.

Out here, I have had other petty troubles. Since January 24, we have received water for only 3-4 days, that is, about 2500 liters in 38 days.

On February 7, I sent my last and final prayer to the Chief Minister (cc'ed MLA, MP and Collector). I told them that the Water Authority had thought of installing a valve but were scared of hooligans in the area who would violently oppose any reduction in their water supply (they need more than 1000 liters a day).

On February 26, a valve was installed and kept in a semi-open state. And as a result of that, we got about 600 liters of water in 2 days (that is included in the 2500 liters in 38 days). The hooligans tried to block on February 25 and 26.

The hooligans did another surgical strike.

On March 2, the valve was opened totally, and everyone is back to square one.

Please note: only Indians are involved in this MAD neighbourly play.


Saturday, February 16, 2019

doggerel


it feels good
to be off-
line
to be off-
off-
line 2
u dont give a damn
i dont give a damn
wtf who cares
i m busy
u 2 better be
this aint goodbye
i n my friends
never say goodbye
v will meet
v will say cheers
v dont give a damn
wtf who cares

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

This Year's Trip---Part 1



A middle-aged man sat by a window of a first-class a/c cabin. A young lady in her early twenties sat diagonally opposite near the door.
He ignored her and kept on staring outside, not really seeing the people on the railway platform. Then, as if he had remembered something suddenly, he opened his backpack and took out a diary. He flipped through the pages. He smiled, smirked rather, probably wondering if he had actually written those words. He raced through the entries.
A date in 2012: 7:10 pm---Waiting for the bus to Kodaikanal. This trip is going to be about observation…a storyteller’s sabbatical… (There were observations and with each one an associated story.)
A date in 2013: 7:10 pm---In the train and waiting to leave. This trip is about visiting the past and moving on…(Walking on a beach, alone in a taxi, standing on the rampart of a fort staring at the sea beneath…with memories of a past long dead…wondering how to move on, wondering how to enjoy the sublime in solitude…)
A date in 2014: 7:10 pm---In the train and waiting to leave. This trip is about having fun. (There were two foreign ladies with him on that trip…they claimed to be just colleagues…he suspected they were lovers…he told them he was a widower first and then divorced…)
A date in 2015: 7:10 pm---In the train and waiting to leave. This trip is about connecting with people. (There was a high-ranking bureaucrat in the cabin. They talked for nearly two hours about the state of the nation. The bureaucrat talked about his family too and then inquired about his. He replied that he was divorced and then a widower too.)
He laughed. He stared outside again, probably wondering what it was actually…divorced, widower, both or neither?
A date in 2016: 7:10 pm---In the train and waiting to leave. This trip is about being open to all, without inhibition. (Once again he talked to the companions, in the train and in Goa---a naval officer with roots in Pakistan, a CPI politician, a newly-wed lady in a club, two men from Thane busting rolls of cash in a casino and a young lady who latched on to them…no one asked him about his family status.)
There was no entry in 2017.
He looked at his watch. 7:03 pm. He wrote in the diary.
A date in 2018: 7:10 pm---In the train and waiting to leave. This trip is about nothing and no one. I am not going to trouble anyone with my company.
The train left Trivandrum at 7:20 pm. The TTE came soon after. The TTE asked the lady if she wanted to shift, to a coupe perhaps, for more privacy. She politely declined the offer and said thanks. The older man had some problem in showing a suitable identity card. He gave his wallet to the TTE and pointed at the cards in it, as if he was telling the TTE to choose. He did not speak.
He had got his ticket by courier. There was a note with it (Be on the train), along with a copy of a letter with his signature and handwriting. He had placed the ticket and the note in his memory-card pouch. It was as big as a pocket diary, an improvised visiting cards folder. Instead of visiting cards, it had notes to aid memory. 7 am: Brush teeth. Go to toilet. Have breakfast. Water plants…10 pm: Check all taps. Close all doors. Check all switches. Brush teeth. Urinate. Sleep. There were entries with dates too: Telephone bill…Electricity bill… Water bill…The ticket and the note was in that section. There were no notes about what to do at the destination.
Soup was served around 8 pm. He noticed that the young lady liked the soup with lots of pepper…like him. They did not speak. She took a sip and started coughing. Instinctively he raised his hand as if to pat her head. He lowered his hand. She must have seen his action. She focused on the soup.
Dinner was served at 9 pm. Later, he wrote in his diary…9:30 pm: I wanted to talk to the girl but that must be a thing of the past. I should not trouble her  
She read a book. He stared outside at the darkness and the images that whizzed past, houses with low-watt bulbs, shadows and silhouettes, drooping trees.
He mumbled to himself, “Pettah, Veli, Kochuveli, Kaniyapuram, Kazhakkoottam, Murukkumpuzha, Perunguzhi, Chirayinkil, Kadakkavvoor, Akathumuri…”
He stopped suddenly as if he could not understand why he said that or as if he did not know the rest of the stations.
An attendant came to prepare the lower berths for the night. The older man asked for an extra pillow. The lady too requested for the same. Sitting on the freshly-made bed, he opened his pouch. He checked the switches, went to the toilet and returned. He lay down to sleep.
At 10:30 pm, the train reached Ernakulam and two more entered the cabin, a middle-aged lady and a young man of about twenty. They spoke to the young lady in hushed tones. The older lady took the lower berth and the other two the upper berths. 
The man had looked at them when they entered the cabin. He closed his eyes and tried to sleep. His diary entries told him that he rarely slept well in trains.
He must have slept well this year. He woke up with a start around half past seven when morning coffee and biscuits were served. He looked confused. He opened the pouch, read the entries, calmed down, had coffee and biscuits, and then went to the toilet. He returned and took his seat by the window. The young ones had climbed down from the top berths. The two ladies sat near the door. The young man took the place by the other window.
The older man wrote in his diary…8:30 am: In the past, we would have covered everything by now, where we lived, what we did, even if we had relatives in common. Not this year.
Breakfast was served at 9 am. No one spoke.
He returned to his diary…9:30 am: It is weird when four people sit in silence. The girl has looked at me once or twice. That lady, must be their mother…why was she staring at me? Maybe, she was staring outside, thinking about something. But, did her eyes fill? Was that anger or sadness? They do not know I can see them reflected in the window. Or, maybe, they do know. The young man has been staring outside the whole time, like me. He is definitely angry. Something about him seems so familiar. Is it the way he stares outside, with one eye partially closed, head tiled to the side? Maybe, that is not so uncommon. Even I do that.
Around 10:15, the two ladies and the young man got ready to leave. They collected their smartphones, wires and other possessions. They took out the suitcases from beneath the lower berths. The young lady took out his suitcase too. She took his diary and placed it in his backpack. He thought of protesting but did not. He sat looking confused.
At 10:30, the train reached Madgaon.
The young lady told him, “This is our station, Appa.”


click here to read Part 2

This Year's Trip---Part 2



There was a car waiting to take them to a resort in South Goa. The older man got in front, the other three behind. They did not speak.
That remained more or less the same throughout their four-night stay at the resort. The man got a cottage for himself and the others shared one. They did not talk much, that is, to the man. In their cottage, the mother and the two kids shared their anger, frustration, sadness and, even if they were not keen to admit it, joy too.
They took the man with them for all meals. Apart from the unnatural silence at their table, they looked like a normal well-settled family. At other times, the man preferred to be by himself in his cottage. He followed the routine dictated by the memory cards. Morning and evening, one of the kids took him for a long walk on the beach. On the third day, they hired a car and went on a day-trip further south. The kids wanted to explore some beaches. The odd couple got off near a hiking trail. They hiked up to a hill-top, taking it slowly, silently.
The view from there was sublime. They sat on the ground, shared a bottle of water, had sandwich.
“Do you remember our first time here?” she asked.
He looked irritated and seemed to hold back some angry retort. He did not reply for a long while.
“All I know is that I wouldn’t want to be here and see this without…” he said, staring ahead. Again, he seemed to be holding back some thought or words or maybe he was uncomfortable completing that statement with a formal “company” or the informal “you”.
He half-turned towards her. She turned towards him. He looked at her hand. He raised his hand but lowered it immediately.
“I am sorry,” he said. There were tears in his eyes.
“Me too,” she said. She turned to stare at the abyss in front.
Six months before that trip, the daughter had received a letter from him, after a gap of twenty years. Twenty years back, it had been an apologetic scrawl telling her to be strong and to remember that he would always be there for her and her brother. For twenty years that promise remained just words. He was not there for them. This new letter was more formal, quite matter-of-fact and unsentimental.
My dear daughter, I have been to a doctor. It seems I am losing my memory. I would like to meet you. Could you please come to this address? Your loving Appa. His residential address was given below.
She did not tell her mother or even her brother. She was not sure about their response. She expected anger or obstinate denial. She did not want remorse or sorrow either. She was not even sure what she herself felt. For a month, she did nothing.
Then, one Sunday, she went to his one-bedroom apartment. He opened the door reluctantly and stared at her blankly. She handed him his note. He read it. He let her in. He prepared a fresh pot of tea and opened a packet of Marie biscuits and placed it on a plate. They sat in front of the TV. An old British crime video was playing, one of P.D. James’ Dalgliesh mysteries.
She tried talking to him. But that seemed to irritate him. They remained silent.
He opened his pouch of memory cards and flipped through them.
“I am sorry,” he said softly a little while later. She turned to him to say something. But he stopped her by raising a finger to his lips. “I can’t understand what you say. Worse, I won’t remember what you say.” He paused. “I do not remember writing that letter. But I seem to have placed a memory card in this pouch to remind me what I should do if you turned up.”
He stood up, went and picked up an envelope placed on top of the TV and handed it over to her. It was dated two weeks earlier.
My dear daughter, I am running out of time. Can I ask you for one last favour? I would like to go with my family on a last trip. Let it be like the trip we enjoyed last. Your loving Appa.
She did not protest or agree. She was with him for an hour.
She made three such, silent, visits before she picked up the courage to tell her mother and brother. Her brother was furious. Her mother was strangely calm, in front of them.
She continued with her silent visits. It was always more or less the same, the tea, the biscuits, the same PD James show or another like it, and the weird companionable silence. Somehow, through that silence, they came to an understanding. She would not visit him too frequently and never give or take more than that hour. That seemed to suit him.
It took her mother and brother two months to agree on the trip. She made the arrangements for the trip, sent the ticket to him with the note for his memory cards pouch. They met on the train and the other two joined them at Ernakulam.
He was a careful man. For a year, he had planned and made arrangements. His last will and testament was ready. He read up on the subject of finance for those in their final years. There was very little material on the section of society who suffered from dementia or memory-loss. He talked to bankers and set up a trust to manage his considerable savings and investments. Everything would go after his demise to the family he had last met twenty years back. He planned for his final days. He tried to put in a clause about packing him off to the Netherlands or some merciful place where a clinic would give him a quick assisted release. He learned that it was still a grey legal area.
He then made arrangements for a life without memory. He sold his big house and settled with minimal stuff in a more manageable apartment. He prepared his pouch of memory cards. He placed pictures and reminders around the apartment to help him with his daily routine. He found an agency, their services did not come cheap, to take care of cleaning the apartment, delivering provisions and the occasional takeaway. They even took him on long drives once a week. He did not want any company. He did not want anyone to talk to him. He kept a diary. He knew others would pry and read it. He wrote for them.
 He also left a brief note, apart from the will, to be delivered to his family after his death.
My beloved wife, daughter and son, It is possible you have already figured out what I write here and you despise me even more. I had to feign the loss of memory. Yes, I was selfish. But, I could not think of another way to be with you all before I go. Any other way would have had us bogged down in history. I could have left without telling you. But I have to tell you that I was always with you. Loving you always...


click here to read Part 1

Sunday, December 23, 2018

nod n stare


I said something to my friend.

She nodded but did not reply.

I said something else.

She did not even nod.

I said goodbye to the Internet.

And tried to find a friend.

But it is the same story everywhere.

So I nod at times.

I stare blankly most of the time.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

No One



“Death leaves a heartache no one can heal, love leaves a memory no one can steal.”
“That quote is from an Irish headstone,” Vivek said. “To tell you the truth, I think I have said that because every other speaker here today must have had an apt quotation.”
There were indulgent chuckles from the audience.
Vivek continued, “Maybe it has nothing to do with the topic: ‘What I have to tell the young ones’.” He paused. “Maybe not…” There was a longer pause. It seemed as if he was lost in thought. He stared intently at someone at the back of the auditorium.
...
Those who were there in that school auditorium that day so long ago still remember him. It was the main day of the school’s annual cultural festival. The extempore competition was in the morning. As usual it was a tedious affair with kids parroting more or less the same stuff, ten minutes per speaker, twenty in all, for three and a half hours with a single break in between. Kids from primary six to the senior-most in the twelfth-standard competed together—that was supposed to be the competition’s redeeming feature. Vivek was given the unenviable last slot at twenty past twelve because he was the previous year’s champion.
The judges were seated at a table in front and behind them the students of seven classes. The staff had seats by the side, some stood around leaning against the wall, others in the hallway, an eye on their wards, like cowboys protecting their herd or preventing any escape. The twenty speakers were secured in a classroom out of earshot of the proceedings, each one given the topic fifteen minutes before one’s slot.
There were some over-enthusiastic parents and reluctant visitors too. They were seated in the balcony of the hall.
At quarter past twelve, Vivek was given the go-ahead to proceed to the auditorium. He strolled casually. He nearly bumped into a person at a corner.
“Sorry,” both mumbled.
She was a visitor, in her early twenties.
“Are you escaping the torture?” Vivek asked.
She grabbed her throat, gasped for breath, tongue protruded out and her head lolled sideways.
He laughed. “I am next,” he said. “And, I have something to say to you.”
She stared at him. Even he looked surprised with what he had said.
“You better hurry along then,” she said. She moved towards him, adjusted his tie and then stepped back. He nodded at her before running to the auditorium. She retraced her steps to the hallway. She stood next to Vivek’s Math teacher, Mrs Varghese, her mother.
Vivek had a peculiar style of delivering a speech. Where one expected him to raise his voice and force an issue into the crowd’s collective consciousness, he moved away from the mike and spoke softly, so softly that people leaned forward even though his voice still reached the furthest corners of the auditorium. He moved closer to the mike, within a hand-span’s distance, and spoke louder whenever he shifted between sub-topics, fitting in a sentence to summarize or to lighten the load with wit. It worked well. The audience not only woke up, he had their full attention.
The other nineteen speakers had already covered all the fine points one could think of with regard to that dry topic: ‘What I have to tell the young ones’. The young ones in the audience, and the old too, had had enough of what was expected of them to correct the course of their lives and the world in general. The speakers had followed the unwritten rules of the competition and of the school, and kept away from dangerous issues that could hurt sentiments.
Vivek was not exactly an enfant terrible in that school but he had a knack for violating unwritten rules. In one of the many staff meetings where he was the prime concern, Mrs Varghese defended her best Math student, “Let him be. Vivek is not the role model you would like but he is a good one.”
For the first seven minutes, Vivek spoke about three issues that troubled not just his school, issues everyone seemed to know but never discussed. He gave details and people flinched. The Principal exchanged furtive looks with his senior staff, also kept an eye on the external judges. Vivek was harsh and at the same time understanding. He did not claim to have any solution. He begged the young ones to “stay away from the path of many deaths, away from destroyed lives and loves”. While the adults there grew increasingly restless, the kids sat up with a fierce look of belief and determination as if they had been handed not just a voice and hope but a life-saver. Vivek told them not to be scared to report any type of harassment or abuse sexual or not, not to be lured into prostitution for easy money and not to fall prey to drugs for whatever reason. “Only we can save ourselves. There should be a constant vigil for the victims and against the predators. No one is alone.”
Then, he switched gears. He stepped closer to the mike, scanned the audience, smiled at them.
“And, finally, I want to talk to the young ones about something I should not talk about…love.”
The audience smiled. They seemed relieved to escape from horror to fantasy. He stepped back and spoke softly, with short pauses punctuating each strand of thought, as if to remind everyone there to breathe.
“Very soon, nearly all of you will fall prey to love. You will be addicted to it. It will take control over you mentally, physically, sexually and spiritually. You will feel lost.”
“Resist it.”
“For the sake of the one you love.”
“If I had spoken to you earlier this morning, my stand would have been different.”
“Then…”
“I realized I love her. I am in love with her.”
“I could not breathe.”
“But…”
“That was nothing compared to the pain that came next, the pain of responsibility.”
“Man is made to be selfish. Man is made for love too. That results in conflict, loss and pain.”
“For her sake, I have to resist love. Till the day she is safe with me.”
“Think about it, my young friends. Think about love. Think more about the responsibility that comes with any love.”
“This should be my last speech as a student of this school and I would like to leave hearing not your applause but the silence of your thought. I thank you.”
It was eerie. He walked away from the stage. The silence lasted minutes.
Vivek walked along the hallway to the back of the auditorium. He smiled at Mrs Vaghese. The young lady next to her seemed to be absorbed in a conversation with another teacher. Mrs Varghese scowled at Vivek.
“I am sure there will be a staff meeting about this,” she said.
He laughed.
Aaraada kutty?” she asked. (“Who is the kid?”)
Kutty teacher aagaamallo,” he replied. (“The kid could be a teacher.”)
She caught hold of his ear and gave it a twist. “PoDa,” she said. (“Get lost.”)
The Drama competition was in the afternoon, twenty-minute plays by the four Student Houses.
Vivek’s House put up a play about society’s double-standards or two-faced nature. It was a satire dressed up as a comedy of errors. Mrs Varghese was the teacher-in-charge of his House. Any other teacher would not have allowed the play or at the least would have censored most of the play.
Vivek’s was a ‘bit role’ as a patriarchal figure with multiple personality disorder. To the outside world, the man was gruff and authoritative. At home with his wife, it was a role-reversal. There was this memorable scene in which the stage was split into two halves by a wall with a door in the middle. He was at the door, half in half out, dealing with his colleagues outside, and inside coping with his wife’s demands. His voice was a rough baritone to one side and a husky seductive to his better half, even within sentences, a breathless or breath-taking effort. One side saw his macho side with curled up moustache, hiked up mundu (dhoti) and a hairy leg. The other side saw a sweet person with lowered mundu and a hint of a shaved leg. He left the audience speechless once again, though happily in splits this time.
At the end of the day, Vivek came across Mrs Varghese once again. She introduced him to her daughter Sonia. They exchanged very formal Hellos as if they were meeting for the first time. Sonia complimented him for his performances.
“I think the kids will be more influenced by your acting than your speech,” she said.
“All I know is that the Principal and most of the staff will be out for your neck,” her mother said.
He laughed.
“As long as you two are with me, I can face whatever the world throws at me,” he said.
“Oh, get lost, cheeky fellow. Don’t corrupt my little girl,” the older lady said.
He smiled at them, thanked them and took leave. It was quite evident he did not give a damn about the authorities. The smile was however tinged with a touch of sadness.
The school authorities wisely decided not to rock the boat and they reaped the fruits of that action. Vivek brought academic glory to the school in the Board exams and the entrance exams to elite institutes. In fact it was a wake-up call not just for that school but for the students of that small sleepy city. No more could they be diffident about their potential. No more could they claim to be disadvantaged. Vivek set the bar high and it encouraged his school and others in the city to improve and better his record.
Vivek should have left for the best universities abroad but due to his modest means he had to try his luck with the premier institutions in the country. There were highs and lows. At times when hard work and inspired efforts went waste, he slipped into long periods of despondency. He survived and continued to impress. But it was clear, especially to him, that the system had done its damage and that he had lost the opportunity to be among the best.
In those years, he had remained in touch with his former teacher. They exchanged long letters once or twice a year. One summer break, she invited him home for lunch. Sonia was there too, on a short leave. She was a manager in a foreign investment bank in its country headquarters at Bangalore. They too started writing letters to each other, once a month or so. It is pointless to wonder if that trajectory was a result of his conditions. Who knows if and when life is chaotic but determinate or just a haphazard mess?
The letters turned into e-mail exchange around the time he took a research position in Bangalore. They met once for a quick lunch. She took him to her office and introduced him to her colleagues. In couple of her e-mails, she had told Vivek about a senior manager who harassed ladies in the office. She introduced Vivek to that senior manager too.
“Ah yes, she has told me about you,” Vivek told the creep. Vivek’s words, grim smile and strong handshake seemed to perturb the man.
“What will I do without my macho knight in shining armour?” Sonia later told Vivek.
“Now I know why you had lunch with me,” he said.
Their busy work schedule did not leave much time for socializing. They did not party together or mix friends. They met at a Jethro Tull concert in the city but the two groups did not mingle. On phone or in e-mails, they talked about life without getting into the specifics of relationships.
They got together when Mrs Varghese came to stay with her for a week. They took him with them for shopping at Commercial Street. He treated the ladies to a fine Chinese lunch at Silver Wok on Richmond Road. For the first time, they talked about personal matters. Mrs Varghese told him that her Syrian Catholic family had kicked her out when she had a baby with a Hindu Nair. They were married briefly.
“He was young and before he got old he realized that it was simpler for him to return to his roots and marry properly,” Mrs Varghese explained in her usual matter-of-fact way. “I guess I would have done the same if I didn’t have her.”
“I was unwanted then and now,” Sonia said, feigning sorrow.
“True, I should not have spoiled you so much,” her mother retorted.
“I second that,” Vivek said.
“Judas,” Sonia snarled at him.
They laughed.
“What about you, Vivek?” Mrs Varghese asked.
“Ah, poor unwanted moi,” it was Vivek’s turn.
“Come on, tell all,” Sonia prodded.
“Well, I tried a relationship for a while. It did not work out. She left me,” he said.
“What did you do to her?” the two ladies said almost together.
“Now who is Judas?”
“Seriously…you must have done something,” Sonia reaffirmed her doubts.
“She died,” he said.
They remained silent for a while.
“You rascal, you cooked up that one, didn’t you?” Mrs Varghese said.
He grinned.
Sonia punched his arm.
“Did you fib about that?” she asked sounding quite appalled.
“Us story-tellers never tell,” he said.
“Oh, I will never trust another word you say,” Sonia said.
Then, there were the Berlin years.
Sonia’s creep of a senior manager was not deterred by Vivek’s show. She reported him to HR. As expected, she lost her job. She had already been thinking of a change of scene and decided that this was the signal to get on with it. She enrolled for a Masters course in Economics in a London university, followed that in quick time with a PhD. She fell in love with a German and they shifted base to Berlin.
Vivek was already in Berlin by then. He too had decided not to get stuck in a rut. He got a grant to work in German academia and that was later converted to a long-term tenure at a prestigious institute near Berlin. Berlin suited him in many ways.
Vivek had kept in touch with the ladies, though less frequently. Life was already a bit too full for Sonia. She and her mother were not on the best of terms for a while when Sonia was pregnant with her first kid. But that chill thawed quickly when the baby was born. Mrs Varghese came to take care of her child and grandchild. She stayed with Sonia and her partner Susanna.
Vivek visited them with gifts for the new-born girl and her mothers and her grandmother. He helped Susanna with the cooking and the washing. In the kitchen, they talked about a shared passion for crime novels and photography. She was a friendly jovial character who could turn nasty on feminist issues. Vivek never let go of any opportunity to tease out that dark self.
“Vivek, don’t you dare trouble my girl,” Sonia shouted from the living room while breastfeeding the baby.
“Don’t worry,” Susanna said from the kitchen, “he is great in the kitchen. Hey, do you think we should keep him?”
“A throupie with a Platonic third,” Sonia hooted with laughter.
“The baby will have too many mother figures,” Mrs Varghese noted.
Mrs Varghese stayed with the couple for six months. Vivek went with her on a couple of museum tours. She was passionate about concerts too but he stayed away from that claiming not to have the proper costume for such an outing. The ladies once invited Vivek to join them for a picnic at Grunewald.
Mrs Varghese and Vivek went for a long post-lunch walk. The couple stayed back with the baby to snooze in the sun.
Vivek offered his arm. After a momentary hesitation, she held him. They walked silently for a while.
“Why did you have a cold war with Sonia?” he asked.
“Oh, just being a mother, I guess,” she replied.
“You were not against it, were you?”
“To be truthful, I was.”
“Hmmm…”
“Go on, ask, how could I be against it with my background, right?”
“Hmmm…”
“Vivek, breaking one wall does not break all. That is what I realized. And, I used maternal instincts as my defence. I told myself that I was just concerned about her future.”
“Took you a while to realize her future is ok if she is happy, huh?” Vivek said.
“Yes,” she replied.
“I knew you would come around,” he said.
“Did you?”
They slipped into silence once again.
“Do you know that I blamed you in one of those fits of anger?” she said.
“Me? What did I do?”
“Remember that old play of yours? I was quite sure that affected her…”
They laughed.
“But it was your speech that was supposed to affect her, right?” she asked.
“Ma’am!” he protested.
“Vivek, my dear boy, don’t think I am a fool.”
They chuckled and walked. They returned to the couple.
Later, Vivek was left alone with Sonia and the baby when Susanna and Mrs Varghese went to freshen themselves.
“You two looked like a dear old couple,” Sonia remarked.
“Ah, the jealous daughter speaks,” he said.
“Vivek, my old man, don’t think I am a fool.”
He looked at her amazed.
“What? You think I didn’t realize you had the hots for your teacher,” she said
He laughed and pretended to box her.
“Are you abusing my girl?” Susanna said from a distance.
“Oh, just doing what you two should,” he replied.
They all laughed and prepared to leave.
Life continued as usual. That juggernaut of priorities and opportunities rolled over old dying roots, the old laughs and companions preserved as fossils in sepia records to be discarded during some spring-cleaning.
Sonia and Susanna had one more baby. They kick-started their careers when the kids started going to playschool. Mrs Varghese took up a teaching position in Dubai. Every vacation she travelled to new places. En route whenever possible she visited her daughter’s family but never overstayed. There were minor hiccups like ill-health and job-loss during the financial crisis. Old acquaintances washed away with a lot of water under the bridge. Before they realized it, two decades had gone past and even the babies were ready to leave home.
They got to know about Vivek’s death through a Facebook post. It was a lovely eulogy by a junior in school and received a great deal of likes and emojis. None of those passers-by knew him outside their old school. One comment mentioned that cultural festival so long ago. Another remembered his quote but reproduced it inaccurately.
“Death leaves no one a heartache to heal, love leaves no one a memory to steal.”
Maybe Vivek thought so too…maybe not.