Thursday, December 22, 2011

Exposure


Note: Wish you all Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

‘What was your first exposure to sex?’
I mimicked the fat man’s whisper along with his gurgling near-orgasmic giggles.
‘And did he stop at that? Oh no, as an accompaniment to his act he kept on nudging me heartily in the ribs, laughing before each sentence while he told me all about his exposure…what the…’
I was narrating to my friends the harrowing experience on the plane. I continued with my lament,
‘My bleeding luck…I was literally between the devil and the deep sea! On one side, I had this hyperactive fat man; and on the other side, a nun with an enviable mustache. Excuse me for being politically incorrect…but there is a limit to one’s bad luck, right? I can’t even decide who was worse. This nun…I could feel her disapproval when my eyes tracked the derriere of the buxom airhostess. And, during lunch, she pointed at my tray and asked me, ‘Young man, aren’t you having the fruit?’ I had to finish off the fruit bowl…compared to that, the fat man’s sexual exposure was definitely an improvement.’
I looked around and the laughing faces of my friends hardly provided the balm for my traumatized mind and soul. Winston asked me,
‘So, what was his first exposure to sex?’
I mimicked the fat man once again and also gave Winston who was driving the car a few well-placed nudges in the ribs to recreate the scene,
‘Betty, man…of Archie comics…not Veronica, mind you…Betty boiled my young fifteen year old blood and kept it on simmer, man…what do you think of Betty, man?’
‘Betty…at fifteen…?’ Winston gave a hoot of laughter. From the back seat, Swapna and Josephine also joined in his mirth. It was Josephine who changed track and asked me,
‘And…what did you tell him about your first exposure to sex?’

xxx---xxx---xxx

Josephine, Swapna, Winston and I studied together in the same class from kindergarten till primary six – seems like eons back.
Josephine – she used to be a petite girl with an infectious smile – was Swapna’s main rival for the top rank. Though rivals in studies, they maintained a close friendship. Swapna then was an attractive dusky girl with lovely dark eyes and a powerful forehand for tennis and stinging slaps on our bottoms. Winston had the face of an angel and the heart of the devil. He was my chief comrade-in-arms. As far as studies were concerned, we rarely troubled the girls’ ambition to be on top (other than in math where we trounced the girls regularly). I guess they must have been on top in our extracurricular activities too and decided most of our joint actions. Girls feel terribly insecure in any other position, Winston used to say.    
In class, Josephine and Winston were paired together. That could have been based on race or religion or social class. Swapna and I were considered to be born for each other since we were the only Indians. Of course, there was Muthu but he was the son of a labourer and therefore, not even considered. A primary class is a good place to learn about social structure, practices and hierarchy. Our pairing was taken quite seriously by the rest of the class and to be a sport, we played along. In primary three, when I composed my first love poem, I strayed a little and gave the poem to Josephine rather than Swapna. I must have had this urge to share my love. Winston was ruled out, of course; and, Swapna seemed formidable with her forehand. Josephine did receive it well – she gave me a delightful smile, held my hand for a while and it remained our first dark secret. That was all I wanted from love at that point of time. I do not know if Winston and Swapna engaged in anything hanky-panky like this. Swapna would have been tight-lipped about any indiscretion and Winston would have followed suit, more out of fear of her rather than due to any sense of decorum.
In primary five, we started showing signs of dissatisfaction with each other and also began exploring beyond our own circle. It coincided with the entry in our lives of two staff members.
Mr. Omar was our Math teacher. Winston and I considered him to be very stiff and old. We could not understand why Swapna and Josephine decided that he must be Adonis. He wore black pants (the same one, we decided) and starched, crisply ironed, half-sleeved cotton shirts (he slips his hands in the sleeves without removing the shirt from the hanger, we declared to the girls). Thinking back, he must have been in his late twenties. But then, for Winston and me, he was a stereotype of a Math teacher. We made fun of his evenly-measured steps, careful slow speech and writing, perfectly symmetrical pencil mustache and, worst of all, a refusal to be perturbed by any disturbance from our side. We tried to convince the girls that he was either a weird mutant or a robot and that he even drew margins on his bed before sleeping on the proper side without deviating in any way.
Then, there was his antithesis – Miss Lim, our school dentist. When my perfect set of milk teeth gave way to a crooked crowded bunch, it was she who consoled me in those tough formative years. She was so young, so lovely, so delicate and so full of life. Winston tried to pull rank by saying that she belonged to his community. After a few days of hot battle, cold war and mature thought, we openly declared that we would share her. The girls kept their teeth to themselves while we exhibited ours to Miss Lim and tried to extract every bit of mileage from their rotten nature. Only a man would brave a painful, silly deed (like war or a duel or a visit to the dentist) for the sake of a woman, Winston and I proved that truism.
In primary five and six, our gang still held together even though our affections and infatuations without the group raged a continuing war on our unity. During one vacation, we raided the vacant school boarding house. We rummaged in cupboards and drawers for secrets (Swapna and Josephine were particularly interested in that) and loads of cash (Winston and I focused on that). All that we managed was a delightful time getting dirty with dust and cobwebs.
In school, we waited for the free periods when a teacher was absent. Most often, we were allowed to play outside on the school grounds. The four of us used these opportunities to explore the area beyond the school. To the north, there was a hilly climb and the scenic view from the top was worth the effort. Josephine did not like the hard climb but Swapna usually goaded her to follow. To the south, there was the road leading to town and our homes and we stayed away from that direction. To the east, there were paddy fields. It was muddy and filthy and the girls preferred to stay away from that direction too. Once, I slipped on the path through the paddy plots and fell in, and I was in deep shit or manure, literally. I tried to pull in the laughing fool but Winston stood at a safe distance, not even offering a helping hand. To the west of the school, there was our favourite spot in the middle of a rubber plantation – a clearing within a circle of granite boulders with velvet mossy ground under the canopy of huge trees.
In primary six, during a free period before lunch in the early part of March, we raced to that spot. We had an hour at our disposal and we planned to stake claim over our fiefdom and have a picnic lunch. As part of our usual game, we approached the area by stealth, ready to vanquish all our imaginary villains and demons. On that day, we saw that we were not the first to reach the clearing. From behind the rocks, we watched the scene within.
Mr. Omar was bare-chested and seated on the ground. Miss Lim sat next to him with her head against his shoulder. They whispered to each other, laughed and seemed happy. He kissed her lips, cheeks, neck and then unbuttoned her light summer blouse. It was not a Mr. Omar we knew. This man seemed like a boy unpacking a wonderful gift. He opened her blouse slowly, admiring her naked body. She laughed at his youthful amazement while he unclasped the front hooks of her bra, and kissed her breasts and nipples. Strangely, she seemed like the senior partner in the act. We watched them make love, hearing every cry of joy and whispered endearments.
We left that stage quietly at the end when the couple collapsed against each other, in a tight embrace and breathing hard. We hardly talked till we reached school. I cannot remember if we talked about the episode but some time that week, the four of us together reported that incident to the Headmaster of the school.
For some reason, we thought it was right to do so even though we received a severe reprimand for straying from the school campus. It is usually easy to find a reason to make any action seem so right. The one good thing about growing old is to be recognized as a sinner, to lose that garb of innocence, a mask for vicious and childish righteousness.
 Those two adults were discreetly removed from the staff and the matter never even reached our parents or the rest of the school. We heard that Mr. Omar had to leave town in search of another job. We lost track of Miss Lim.

xxx---xxx---xxx

I guess that was our collective answer to Josephine’s earlier question. There was not much talk in the car for a while after that.
Mid-way through primary six, my family relocated to India and I lost track of my friends and that life. I got back in touch with them much later when I met Winston by chance at a casino in Macau.
By then, he was already into his second divorce. He told me how he lost his virginity at fourteen, how the girl’s parents wanted to get him arrested and how he managed to escape only because the girl made the mistake of loving him. By twenty-four, he was a fixed-income trader in a bulge-bracket investment firm. By thirty two, he was a managing director. At thirty-four, he was chucked out of the firm when he misused his position and brought heavy unexpected losses. His private life was definitely more reckless. Maybe, he was always like that but I think his manic nature developed later. I never asked him if he had been affected by our childhood experience.
It was Winston who filled me in on the other two. Swapna had married beneath her station and after her wedding, she moved to her husband’s town. She had to cut off all connections to her family and friends, by force or by choice. She was a competent cardiologist, an abused wife, a mother of one stillborn kid and a recluse on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Fortunately, her husband met with an accident two years back and she has slowly started coming back to normal life. Josephine, that petite girl, became a barrister practicing in the capital and a fearless human rights activist. She married a colleague, has two kids and seemed to be the only one leading a proper life. It was Josephine who contacted us a month back with a near shriek on the phone.
‘Guess what I found on the Internet…I was checking hospitals in our old town…our Miss Lim is still there. I have even got her residential address.’
None of us asked Josephine why she had been searching for Miss Lim. We had all been searching, I guess. Anyway, that explains why we decided to get together, visit our old town and meet Miss Lim. In the car, racing to our destination, we shared our hopes.
I hoped that Mr. Omar and Miss Lim had got together later after facing stiff resistance over their interfaith marriage. I reasoned that, in those days, society was more tolerant and it must have been possible.
Swapna hoped that Mr. Omar had died but only after the two lovers were reunited. We asked her why she wanted him dead. Love stories have the best ending that way, was her morbid reply.
Josephine hoped that we would enter Miss Lim’s house and Miss Lim would call for her husband and then, Mr. Omar would enter the scene to greet us. She hoped to see the two holding each other’s hand and then, forgiving us.
Winston laughed and asked Josephine what she expected to get out of forgiveness. She did not reply for a while and then said,
‘I want them to forgive. I want to forget their love. Their love has haunted me every single day, to the extent of making me frigid. I feel as if I squeezed life out of something precious. I feel as if I have no right to life myself.’
Even her proper life was just an illusion, it seems. With the glint of near-madness in his eyes, no one asked Winston what he hoped for in Miss Lim’s place.
We got to our old town around four in the evening. The place had changed a lot. We asked our way to Miss Lim’s residence. We parked the car in the street and Josephine led the way to the door. A little girl of five or six opened the door, raced inside calling to her mother that there are four strangers at the door.
We watched the little girl return with her mother, Miss Lim. We introduced ourselves. She remembered us. She said with a laugh,
‘How can I forget?’
She served us tea and cakes. She invited us for dinner and told us that her husband would be back from his club around seven. I decided to broach the topic,
‘Miss Lim, we…’
‘It should be Mrs. Chung actually. I have not changed my maiden name – it is such a bother changing one’s name in every employment register.’
‘Mrs. Chung…?’ one of us echoed.
It turned out to be a simple tale at the end. Miss Lim had married Mr. Chung and they have three kids. She told us that Mr. Omar had migrated to Australia, married a colleague, have two kids and live happily there. Mr. Omar was her friend on Facebook, she said.
We left her place after tea. We thanked her for the dinner invitation but declined the offer. We did not say much to each other that night.
I remember feeling breathless then, as if I had been punched in my guts. It seemed like I had spent days and months and years perfecting a love letter and at the end, the woman I loved had laughed at my letter – like a cherished thought rendered meaningless and exiled without hope of return or hope of utterance.



Saturday, December 3, 2011

Another Dull Day

Note: This short story was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2012 (http://www.commonwealthwriters.org/commonwealth-short-story-2012/)



Life has been really dull this year.  Even the monsoon came at the right time.  All we have had are deaths and weddings and babies, they keep coming and going. 
The year before last, ‘Cut-throat’ Kuttan the stingy vegetable-stall guy…he chopped his wife and three of his four kids with a machete and finally, he hanged himself from a hook right above those bloody bodies.  Poor guy, he could not bear the shame after his eldest daughter ran away from home with some Romeo.  He had loved his kids so much and he had worked hard for his family but that daughter forgot all about that.  Then, last autumn, Rajan Swamy…he stabbed his wife and smashed her head in with a grinding stone.  I knew he would do something crazy.  He chased me once, on the Main Street of all places, and that too for no reason at all.  I had only looked at his wife.  Everyone used to look at her, especially all those guys who sit in the Club reading room waiting for lunch or recovering after a late-night binge.  What a sight she was…white jasmine flowers on her head…with her sari slipping from the shoulder all the time…and she had…what a belly!  There were so many policemen here, measuring every splatter of blood, talking to all, treating us villagers as if we were all killers. 
The temple priest had told us then that these are bad times.  A few weeks after that murder, a strange old woman had come to the Devi (goddess) temple.  She looked poor but she paid one thousand and one rupees for the day-long pooja (religious ritual).  She asked for the pooja to be done in the name of Devi and with Devi’s nakshatram (astrological star).  I too do it in the name of Devi, the five-rupee two-minute pooja of course, but that is because I do not know my birthday or nakshatram…no one knows, it seems.  Now, that is not the case with this old woman.  She had told the temple-priest that she is from across the river.  We made some inquiries, here and across the river and in the neighbouring villages too. No one has seen or heard of that old woman, before or after she came to the Devi temple.  The temple priest told me that she must have been the Devi herself.  Maniyan laughed when I told him what the priest had said.  He rarely laughs these days.  She must have been Devi...I am sure. 
Anyway, nothing happens out here these days.  It is the same with business, just the usual.  The tea-shop guy complains that business is dull.  But he dilutes the milk too much and only regulars like us go to him.  Thankappan, the rubber-trader in the shop next to ours – he is always grumbling about bad business.  He stands in front of the shop, scowls at the dark clouds, spits betel juice at every puddle.  He is trying to irritate the rain gods, I think.  Well, can’t blame him…rubber is like gold these days and a rainy day surely spoils his collection.  He has bought a new car, re-tiled his house and the new banker is always there in his shop with new plans and loans.  He and his money are a bit like me and my dreams, smiling when I have it and scowling when others get it.  I like to be in his shop when I am free, watching him and his calculations or helping his customers pile rubber sheets on to the weighing machine.  He allows me to place the weights on the balance – he knows that I do it well for him.  I do the balancing act while he does the punching on the old chunky calculator, checking and rechecking, before billing on small strips of paper.  At times, I pass a helpful comment to the customer about their rubber sheets – how or why the sheets could be better with the right amount of acid or a few more days of drying.  I have heard Thankappan say the same.  He reduces a kilo or two from the total weight to compensate for the badly-prepared sheets.  Once in a while, he slips me five or ten rupees for my help.  I don’t do it too often.  Those same customers come to our shop and I don’t want our business to suffer.  Who knows, people might hold a grudge, go elsewhere or even skip a haircut.  People do anything for money.
Today, like every other day, I opened the barber shop at seven.  I swept the floor; cleaned the scissors, razors and combs; wiped the mirrors; laid out the fresh sheets and towels I had brought from home after washing and ironing; and, dusted the seats inside and the bench outside for waiting customers.  I placed the board with the notice from the Barbers’ Union about barbers’ hardship and the need for solidarity.  Below that notice, there is a sheet with the Union approved charges (Any Hair Cut – 20 rupees, Face Shave – 10 rupees, Armpit Shave – ‘O’, some wise guy had cut out the ‘N’ and left only the ‘O’).  I peeked at the centre-folds of the old film magazines on the bench…those big breasts, fleshy thighs and tight clothes.  I was far from those pictures well before Maniyan and his father arrived at half past seven.  As usual, Maniyan’s father entered the shop, lit the lamp and started praying loud and long.  Maniyan and I waited outside the shop till the prayer was over. 
After every customer, I have to sweep the floor, clean the chair and air the sheet outside.  There is space for two seats in the shop and when I am inside cleaning, Maniyan or his father stands outside.  Maniyan’s father chats with Thankappan or the waiting customers.  Maniyan does not join in any of those discussions on politics or social problems.  I listen only when it is local gossip.
  Around nine, I run home to help Maniyan’s mother carry stuff to the market. I have a hurried breakfast then.  I like to eat alone, standing in the kitchen with Maniyan’s mother, the fresh smell of her powder, boiling milk, first cooking and wood-smoke in the air.  She gives me more to eat when the others are not there…even half a glass of milk and not just black tea.  Today, after breakfast, I de-husked a dozen coconuts before we set off to the market.  She had some vegetable to sell…bitter-gourd, spinach and green chilly for half a dozen people. I carried the basket with a few stems of tapioca, those de-husked coconuts and couple of jackfruit.  These days, coconut and jackfruit fetch a good price, and I have heard in the market that the price is nearly the same in the city.  After leaving Maniyan’s mother at the market, I returned to my tasks at the shop. 
Saturday mornings are usually quite busy.  Today, the first customers were the old butcher and his two assistants. The butcher asked us,
‘Hai…I have not opened shop today…aren’t you all going for the wedding?’ He was referring to Councilor Ibrahim’s daughter’s wedding in the Town-hall.  The old man continued, ‘There are five buses from here to town, and everyone’s going…’ 
Maniyan’s father had been invited too and if it had been Tuesday, our off-day, I could have gone on that trip.
The old man chatted while his two assistants got their hair cut.  A few times, he leaned towards me and whispered,
‘Mutton biriyani, chicken fry…there will be mutton biriyani and chicken fry…Hai…mutton biriyani, chicken fry…’ 
He kept on chanting that over and over like a prayer.  I don’t think he heard me sigh and swallow saliva.  I do not like him.  He likes to tease me a bit too much.   When it was his turn, he gave Maniyan’s father precise instructions about how he wanted the hair cut, at the sides and the back, with his sideburns and even the hair on his ears.  I felt like telling the old man that he had more hair on his ears than on his head.  After his haircut, the old butcher requested for an armpit shave.  Maniyan’s father pointed at the board and shook his head.  The old butcher pleaded,
‘Hai, after all these years, where can I go for my armpit? Come on…’
‘Maniyan…’ his father sharply ordered and allotted the job to his son. The old man removed his shirt and stood in from of Maniyan, raising each arm in turn.
‘In the city, women get it shaved down there, you know…’ one of the assistants said.
‘Ah! Do you want everything shaved off, too?’ Maniyan’s father asked with a smile reaching for a razor.
‘As it is, his wife has problems…’ the other assistant joined in the tease.
‘Leave the butchering to us…’ the old butcher guffawed, inspecting both armpits closely and patting Maniyan on the shoulder after the job was done.
‘Excuse me…’ a woman enquired from outside the shop, standing on the road a little away from the entrance.  It was Molly Teacher, the school-teacher, and her little son.  
The men became silent and the old butcher quickly put on his shirt.  He paid for the three and as I was entering the shop to clean, he winked at me and the rascal silently mouthed his chant,
‘Mutton biriyani, chicken fry...’ 
The three left after greeting the teacher with a respectful nod.  I cursed silently at that retreating back.
‘Teacher, leave him here…you go to the market and come back after fifteen minutes.’ Maniyan’s father told Molly Teacher.  The lady pushed the reluctant child towards the shop, promised a sweet and told him to behave well. 
‘Summer cut…it is so hot this rainy season…he gets a cold when it grows long…must be the sweat…’ she told Maniyan’s father before leaving for the market. 
He placed an extra cushion on the chair, lifted the kid to that seat and chatted to the kid affectionately while cutting his hair.  He used to talk like that to Maniyan.
Before Maniyan started working in his father’s shop, I did the armpits and an occasional face.  I was never allowed to do the haircutting.  At that time, Maniyan was in the Polytechnic studying to be a lift technician.  After he had got good marks in the school-leaving exams, Maniyan’s father had approached the AVR family for financial help and they had assured him assistance for his son’s Polytechnic course. They are the biggest landowners and businessmen on this side of the river.  We had assumed that they might later provide funds for a Gulf visa, too. 
Long back, Maniyan’s father had thought of going to the Gulf.  But then, his daughter fell ill.  She was a bit loose in the head but she and I were good friends.  Maniyan loved to tease us saying that we are twins.  She had big black round eyes like mine, the same protruding forehead, fleshy hanging lower lip, squat body and broad flat nose, too.  Maniyan’s father spent his life’s savings on that dying kid and he had to depend on the AVR family for his last dream, to give Maniyan a life unlike his.
‘My son will be a technician…not a bloody barber like me.’ He would shout happily after his customary peg or two at night, his light eyes sparkling with delight, at times even hugging his son.  They look quite similar with the same light eyes and handsome sharp features.  He must have been trying to see himself in his son.  Maniyan’s mother would smile at her husband’s happiness, but never laugh with him, actually scared to think about her son’s future. 
‘Too much dreaming will spoil dreams,’ she says, ‘and too much laughter will bring sorrow.’
Maniyan’s father has a long relationship with the AVR family.  His maternal grandfather was their barber and that was during the time of the industrious A.V. Ramanathan.  Maniyan’s grandmother worked as a maid in that house till she got pregnant.  They got a plot of land from AVR as a gift for services rendered. That is where we live now.
Later, Maniyan’s father was their barber too, and I went with him as ‘cleaning assistant’ on those monthly haircut days.  We worked silently and non-stop from eight till noon, attending to all the males in that household – the family members first and then the servants and the other dependents.  We were served lunch, at the back, where we worked.  I have never been inside that huge house.  Maniyan told me a secret long back.  He told me that he had sneaked in couple of times and it was not as fantastic as it looks from outside.  I don’t believe his secret, he must be teasing, but I have not told anyone. 
Even now, they have a few elephants, a dozen buses plying in our village and neighbouring routes, two or three movie theatres in town and most of the children and grandchildren are abroad.  They come in all kinds of cars during the harvest festival.  I have heard Maniyan’s father talk about the festival celebrations in that house during his childhood days.  For 14 days, feasts were served for the family and all the others, with more than hundred eating at every meal. 
Only once did I hear him say quite bitterly that he was never allowed to play with the kids of that house, even though he looked like them, with light-eyes and sharp features.  In that drunken rage, I heard him say,
‘Bastards then…bastards now…’
Then, his bitter rage lasted just for a while.  Before dinner was served, he apologized to his wife and son.  Maniyan and his father were real close and I used to envy Maniyan, I think.  Maybe not envy…it is tough to envy without experience…
In my case, I can vaguely remember a tired thin mother but little else.  In my dreams, I am two or three years old when my mother and I land here, homeless and starving, and in that dream, my mother is a good woman and she dies young.  In the movies I watch every Tuesday afternoon at Sree Murugan Theatre, the dreams are always colourful, delightful and look so good.  I suppose I want my dreams to sound or look a little real.  I have not asked anyone, not even Manian, about my parents.  What is the point in asking about people who were never there?  I am happy here with Maniyan’s parents.  I call them ‘Maniyan’s father’ and ‘Maniyan’s mother’.  When I was a kid, Maniyan used to take me to school but I was never good with studies.  He tried to teach me.  He gave up saying that my big black round eyes can see everything other than textbooks.  I just wanted to stay at home and help Maniyan’s parents on their land or at the barber shop and that’s all I have ever wanted to do.
These days, when I pray at the temple, I ask Devi if it is my envy which changed everything. 
Eighteen months back, Maniyan discontinued his studies at the Polytechnic and started working in his father’s shop.  The AVR family discontinued funds for his studies quite suddenly.   Maniyan’s father also stopped going to the AVR house, as their barber or for any other reason. Since then, life at home has been quite bad.  Maniyan’s father still drinks the same amount but he is always so angry with Maniyan. 
Six weeks back, on that hot night before the rains, I saw him walking around the house late at night, with a razor in his hand.  I hid my head under the sheet but through a hole I saw him stand near his son’s sleeping form, and I think I heard him mutter harshly,
‘Like father…like son…’
I do not know what he meant.  I was really scared.  I thought about all those murders that had happened in our village.  I stayed awake all night.  Early next morning, I raced to the river for a quick bath and then prayed for long at the temple.  On my way back, I saw Maniyan’s father lying beneath the big comforting banyan tree near the temple, an arm hiding his face from the rising sun and I think he was crying.  These days, his prayer in the shop lasts much longer.  I too pray a lot for him at the Devi temple.  But, with each sunset, the prayers seem to lose strength. 
Today, after Molly Teacher’s kid and a few others, there was a lull till about eleven.  At half past ten, I went to the tea-shop and got two glasses of tea for Maniyan and his father.  They had just finished their tea when Senan, one of the drivers in the AVR household, rushed in.  He asked for an ‘urgent’ haircut and face shave.
‘I am going to the airport this afternoon…Rohinikutty is coming from US…’ he said, nearly bursting with self-importance. 
This Rohini used to live in our village for a few years.  Her parents live abroad.  If she was not so aloof, she would have been every guy’s heart-throb.  I have seen her a few times and she behaved like a real snob.  Once, I told Maniyan,
‘That girl thinks she is some princess…so haughty…she can’t even smile…’
‘Why should she smile at people she doesn’t know?’ Maniyan defended that snob. I think they studied together in school. ‘If she smiles, you will say that she is a flirt…and you and the other guys will look at her the way you look at Rajan Swamy’s wife.  Don’t pass judgement on people you do not know…’
I still think a flirt is any day better than a snob.  But then, I did not argue with Maniyan.  I didn’t like this Rohini at all…even though she is so beautiful, the best in the AVR family, the best this village has seen.
Maniyan’s father started with Senan’s haircut.  Maniyan and I stood outside the shop.
‘From here, she went to US, you know…my Sarasamma aunty went with her as maid, you know…’ Senan continued, ‘my aunt came in an earlier flight yesterday…Rohinikutty stopped over in London and stayed with her brother…’
 The three of us did not have to ask him any questions.  Even if we had told him to shut up, he would have continued. 
‘Sarasamma aunty told me last night that she went as a maid…but only after she got there did she realize that she had to be a mid-wife or a nurse…’ Senan sniggered at his aunt’s fate with disgust and amusement in equal measure, ‘do you know that Rohinikutty was pregnant when she went to US?  If my aunt had known before leaving, she would not have gone, you know…Tchah!  My aunt will never stand by such things, you know, even if they gave her lots of money, you know…but then, for Rohinikutty’s sake, she stayed there for so long without even saying a word outside, you know…’
Maniyan’s father gave the finishing touches to the haircut. Then, he applied lather to Senan’s face, picked up the razor, paused for a while, looking at his hand. It was trembling. He asked Senan,
‘Is Rohinikutty coming with the child?’
‘Tchah! What child? Her parents wanted her to abort but she refused. But, after delivery, they convinced her to give it away.’
‘Gave it away? Where? There?’ Maniyan’s father asked.  He kept on looking at the razor, unable to control his trembling hand.  
‘Who cares…somewhere…come on…I haven’t got whole day, you know…she is coming with her husband…they got her married over there, you know…all very hush-hush…with such money, such looks, which man will worry about her past…I wouldn’t care, you know… shave fast…I want to be there on time…I wonder if she will remember me…will she bring something for me…at least a bottle of whiskey…or perfume…not the usual Gulf-wallah perfume, you know…’ Senan continued, leaning back against the head-rest, closing his eyes, chattering on and on.
‘Maniyan…’ his father's voice was hoarse when he ordered his son to take over the shaving.  I watched Maniyan and his father stare at each other, two sets of light eyes, one set brimming with tears, the other with rage.  Maniyan shook his head, refusing the razor.  He sat on the bench with his back towards the shop, still holding back his tears.  Maniyan’s father extended the razor towards me and stepped outside the shop.  I think he was also trying to hold back his tears.  I do not know why they get so emotional about abandoned kids.
I went inside with the razor, feeling happy to be entrusted with a shaving job after such a long time. 
Around two, I saw the old butcher return after the wedding trip. He saw me, scowled and shook his clenched fist at me,
‘It is all because of you, your envy…they served only mutton biriyani…no chicken fry…such stingy idiots…and I got only bones, no meat…all because of your drooling… your envy…’
I felt like laughing at him.  But I did not. Too much laughter will bring sadness.  It was a good day and I did not want to spoil it.
Around late evening, when we were closing shop, we saw Rohini going past us in her car with that Senan putting on such airs, as if he was driving royalty.  Rohini is still a snob.  She did not look at us.
The rest of the day was like any other day. Nothing happens out here.

Buried Gods



I am not fond of history and certainly not fond of people who cite history as a reasonable excuse for present actions. But it is difficult to evade that subject.
A few days back, I read an article by Mallika Sarabhai in The Week (issue: November 21, 2011) titled ‘Whose history is it anyway?’ The title captures my deepest doubts about the subject. The article deals with the Somnath temple and the people responsible for the current version of its history. I was not interested in understanding if ‘the’ history revolves around acts of looting or whether the British manipulated history and used popular sentiment to divide and rule.
My interest in that article was probably roused by another recent touch with history which made me think about a different set of issues. Why do we accept the destruction of a temple (religious or social institution of any faith) if we are not familiar with those gods? When we resurrect gods buried in the past, are the buried gods and the resurrected gods the same? Let me try to explain how or why I went on that tangential track.
Recently, I visited the village of my friend Vishnu. As a reluctant, lazy and conveniently rational traveler, the history and culture of places have always seemed irrelevant to me because I believe the human mind is roughly universal – the same anywhere and at anytime. Further, the need to know such trivia usually fizzles out when a place and its people provide me with decent meals and good accommodation. I did have that in Vishnu’s village but, I could not evade the history of that place.
Where should I start? The ideal place to start in this village is at the temple on the cliff. The official name of the village (as given on maps) has changed thrice in the last two decades with every generation of politicians following the whim and fancy of the masses without. For the villagers, the name has always been Kadalil (In the Sea) and the pedantic amongst them use the unabbreviated version Kadalil Thazhvaaram (Valley in the Sea). Standing near the temple on the cliff, it is easy to understand that name.
The cliff extends like the rim of a cup around the valley. On one side of the cliff, there is the blue expanse of the sea; and on the other side, there is the green carpet of the valley. On bright sunny days, due to some strange mirage, the sea seems to rise to the level of the rim and the valley appears like a sunken island precariously waiting to be flooded.
There is a single path, about three-man wide, from the temple to the beach. The path takes a winding route through a deceptive mixture of sandy slopes, rocky ledges, thorny bushes and waist-high grass. The rustling of the growth along with the whisper of the wind, the scratching and the scraping of small animals and reptiles, and the fluttering wings or the wild erratic flight of birds and their insistent calls accompany one from the bare rocky top to the beach. The variegated beach extends an alluring invite with its white sands striped strangely with red and black as if a painter had slashed the white canvas viciously and repeatedly in a fit of rage. The sea lies like a lagoon, the colour changing from light blue to turquoise and then dark opaque blue and the depths seem amenable for a long walk into the sea untroubled by the deep. An old wooden board explains that this appearance is fickle and warns of rapids, undercurrents and swarms of poisonous jelly-fish. The villagers claim that that there used to be fishing villages all around and that the beach was pristine white then but now, it is a lovely long but strangely deserted variegated beach.
On the other side of the cliff, there is the village in the valley. From the temple, it is a gradual descent through deep and thick forests interspersed with rubber and spice plantations. Descending further, those plantations give way to agricultural plots with coconut, palm, betel and fruit trees and then, paddy-fields, tapioca and vegetable cultivation. A river flows bisecting the valley, winding, meandering and losing itself in the hills beyond where there are deep caves, mines and tunnels, some still active with the search for precious stones and minerals. In the main part of the village, agriculture has given way to some small industries, shops, hotels, bars, medical facilities and educational institutions. But that is of today and should not concern us here.
The present and the past of this village should be understood in the context of events that took place a few centuries back. The exact dates are unclear from the tattered incomplete texts that remain of those times. Even those texts were probably written many years after the actual events, recording tales passed from mouth to mouth. But those documents written in prose and poetry seem to record the relevant history of the village.
This village was rich even then, utilizing well its natural resources and industrious lot. The landowners and the workforce co-existed with reasonable mutual benefit and peace prevailed, though grudgingly, allowing for nearly all-inclusive prosperity.
The texts that remain of those days talk nearly exclusively about two families that dominated the village on the two sides of the river. The families are referred to as Ekkara (this river bank) and Akkara (that river bank). The two shared a common religion, caste, beliefs and colour. But they lived with open hostility and fierce competition for the riches of the land. Marriages between the two families were not permitted even though it would have been economically advantageous. The records do not mention any early wars between the two families. Maybe, they were more than sufficiently rich or probably too lazy to engage in wasteful fights. Or, it was an understanding with the rulers of the land. The last scenario seems most likely because a village that filled the coffers of the state must have been under the close scrutiny of its rulers.
Like most old historical texts, there is very little mention of the others in and around the village, the majority – the priests, the scavengers, the traders, the labourers, the tribal people populating the deep forests and, the outsiders and the mercenaries that came and went with new ideas and services. It is dry reading mostly, with verbose accounts of the families, their achievements and brave deeds and of course endless passages about the benevolence of the rulers and their charity, good-will and careful administration. 
One of the popular texts amongst the lot is a poem, or rather the little that remains of a poem, about two lovers. I expected it to be a Romeo and Juliet story with the boy and the girl belonging to the two hostile families and the conflicts or heartbreak that followed. There are two sections which describe briefly the man and the woman and if there were sections that told their story, it has been lost.
The young woman belongs to one of these two main families (it is not specified). In the part about her, she emerges after an early morning bath, looking at the rising sun, its crimson rays playing on her wet young body, and then she turns to the hills and the temple, praying to the land and the gods. She is described from head to toe with delicate intimate details. In the last part, she is described as (let me quote from a translated summary in prose) ‘staring deep into those green depths, as into a lover’s eyes, her cheeks flushed and her lips parted and swollen as if ravaged by a million kisses, and with unblinking eyes, unafraid of the wild stare, giving herself to that watchful protective stare’. One prosaic interpretation says that it depicts her bhakti towards the gods and the power of the land. Even today, some of the village women (young and old) follow the custom of enacting the scene every month on the day of the quarter moon.
There are just two stanzas that remain of the man. It is possible that he never got much space even in the full original text. The first stanza describes him rather unflatteringly – medium height (‘about twice a good banana cluster’…that must be about the average height of five feet eight inches, I gather); trim, athletic and well-muscled but not overpowering or commanding. I suspect that the superlatives are probably reserved for the men of the ruling class or the big families. The first stanza goes on to describe a handsome face. It pays a lot of attention to his deep-set wild eyes, penetrating look, the fire and passion within and all that. The second stanza describes him as an outsider or a castaway, with ideas so different and outrageous, dangerous to any society, untamed and bound by no sense of morality or decency. But, nothing remains of his later actions or even about the conclusion of that love-play. Some people here believe that in every month, on the day of the quarter-moon, a wild looking young man appears on the hill, looking down at the village.
As mentioned earlier, the texts mainly deal with the two families and their ruler. These texts mention that the ruler visited the village at least twice or thrice a year, staying there for nearly a week. Without any show of partiality, the ruler stayed with both families enjoying their hospitality and riches. His entourage was accommodated jointly by the two families. His ministers and administrators dealt with the business deals and taxes while allowing the ruler to relax and enjoy a vacation in that beautiful land. The two families competed with each other in pleasing the ruler, filling chests with gold and precious stones, preparing lavish meals and presenting creative shows to cheer the five senses. The inner rooms were decked with finery and every available luxury. In that part of the household, the ruler was served by the attractive and the desirable alone, boys, girls and women, young and old, well-chosen from within the family, ornamented and dressed for the occasion to heighten passion and to satisfy any and every fantasy of the ruler. The texts mention these visits of great importance with reverence and awe.
These texts also describe the celebrations that included the whole village in a carnival-like atmosphere, with scenes of bonhomie between the men of the families and the common folk alongside the soldiers and the rest of the ruler’s entourage, with barrels of alcohol emptied fast, dance and song and other revelry extending throughout the night.
Then, the last visit and the days after are also described in great detail. On the second day of that last visit, a day with the quarter-moon, the ruler was found murdered in the inner rooms.
The women and the boys of the inner rooms were questioned. A young woman was found in the ruler’s chamber, unconscious and viciously raped – probably the companion chosen by the ruler for that night, for her innocence, charm and beauty (the description matches well with the young woman in the love poem). She was tortured further and killed by her interrogators but she never divulged the identity of the killer or how the killer entered those chambers. Some of the texts depict the killer as her rapist. In some, the young woman confesses to be the killer but that seems to be a subterfuge on her part for her lover’s sake. The killer remained elusive. In most of the texts, it is speculated that the killer did not take her away because he never expected the kind of backlash that followed.
In the days that followed, fresh batches of soldiers kept coming to this village, unleashing dreadful violence and killing. The two families were gutted and ravaged mercilessly. In that madness, even the temple and the god was not spared – razed and crushed to the ground, buried for ages. 
After the soldiers left the village, the families continued with the search, torturing and murdering their own and those outside. From the village, people were gathered and taken to the beach. It is said that the pristine white sands got scarred black with the burning and the blood that flowed stained it red. It was a period of vengeance against all and the witch-hunt was particularly brutal against outsiders in that land, against the kind who could disrupt the peace and harmony of the land with new ideas.
The temple was rebuilt many generations later and a new powerful idol was installed. Even today, people go there to exorcise the inner thoughts that they should do without. People afflicted with deep-set worries and conflicting passions are brought here and the afflicted stay near the temple for six weeks observing a strict and austere life. At the end of their penance, they have to walk down the path to the variegated beach and have a bath in those fickle waters. It is believed that the exorcised would survive. On the day of the quarter moon, some men in the village still follow a custom of chasing a young man dressed as an outsider, up the hills, to the cliff and away from the village. It is believed that the new god protects the village from wild ideas and strange people.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Poetic End



My friend Ashok used to have this habit of conversing in such a way that the most important point enters in a parenthesis, like an afterthought, without emphasis and most susceptible to be ignored.
When he shifted from the house next to mine, he told me:
‘It is an unlucky house. I realized it when my dog ran away, a few days before my father died in that house, and when I sprained my back couple of months later my fears were confirmed.’
 His habit prevailed when he invited me for his wedding. On a rainy evening couple of years back we were into the third or fourth pitcher of beer in a pub. I remember that we had a heated argument about George Bush Jr. (after one of us had mentioned some redeeming feature, I suppose) and then we had discussed at length about the similar state of affairs in our respective offices in Academia and the financial industry. Somewhere in between, he slipped it in:
‘I am getting married next Friday…come if you can…it is at the Club Hall, I think…’
If I had caught it then and there, rather than recollecting it vaguely on the morning of the wedding, I would have told Ashok:
‘I don’t think you should marry.’
If asked why I said so, I would have replied:
‘You are too fair.’
I guess that is supposed to mean:
‘Ashok, you are not assertive or submissive; you believe in a mature and understanding relationship between two equals; you are actually willing to accept tantrums and frenzied fits even though you will not exhibit the same…’
Anyway, none of the above was said and I did attend his wedding.
Of his friends, I turned out to be the only one who had not missed his ‘concealed’ invitation. And, since I was the only friend introduced to her, his wife Rachna assumed that I must be a bosom buddy. Ashok introduced her to me as:
‘She is a poet.’
I nearly groaned loudly. From experience I know that creative artists and scientists are tolerable only if they are truly great. Of the mediocre lot, the males are fine when they are very young and their enthusiasm could be blamed on excessive testosterones. With age and wisdom, the males usually end up looking like toads with an air of profound latent intelligence waiting to croak the usual rhyme, rhythm and substance. Meanwhile, the females of that species are typically unaffected by age. I have noticed that they can be classified into three categories. The best try to be another Sylvia Plath forever searching for an appropriate gas stove to air their dainty head. The majority act like dopey-eyed minstrels without even being doped. And, those in the third category exhibit multiple personalities raising plaintive but obscure cries through their writing for a true lover or a better world. But during a break from writing, these behave like well-adjusted partners in humdrum suburbia totally oblivious of their most recent actions and thoughts while writing.
I do not think Rachna noticed my apprehension while I tried to place her in one of these three categories. But I could not concentrate on that task while she smiled sweetly and talked affectionately to her husband’s one and only friend. I was so distracted by her charming behavior that I ended up inviting Ashok and Rachna for a lunch in a posh restaurant and we planned to meet after a fortnight.
Thirteen days after the wedding, I phoned their residence to confirm the lunch appointment on the next day. Rachna picked up the call. She told me that Ashok had gone out shopping and that they looked forward to our meeting. She sounded distraught and, acting against my better instinct, I asked:
‘Are you fine?’
‘Yes,’ she replied rather hesitantly. Then without any prompt from me, she added, ‘He still sleeps on a separate bed.’
‘Ah!’ I managed that profound non-poetic exclamation.
‘He wants me to kiss him there,’ she continued.
‘Oh!’ I was at my wits’ end.
Fortunately, she had to end the session to attend to some urgent business in the kitchen.
For the next few hours, I thought deeply about my plan of action.
I pictured myself confronting Ashok in the toilet of the posh restaurant.
‘Did you ask your wife to kiss you there?’ I would ask.
‘Where…?’ He would ask.
I tried out more sensible questions in my head. Finally, I decided that my advice, if any, should be extempore rather than prepared.
The next day, we met at the posh restaurant. The food was good and the service was impeccable but of the three participants, only one seemed to be enjoying the lunch.
Rachna was her usual self, smiling sweetly and talking affectionately to Ashok and myself. Ashok seemed distraught throughout the meal. I also noticed that he had dropped his old habit while conversing. Habits wilt under duress, I remembered from an old text. Anyway, I was also in a confused state during the meal. My state was the result of the brief tête-à-tête with Ashok in the gents’ toilet before we sat for lunch. There, I had asked him:
‘So, how’s life, man?’
‘Good,’ he replied unconvincingly.
‘Ah!’ my familiar prompt.
‘Actually not good,’ he continued more convincingly.
‘Oh!’ I had reached the limit of my extempore speech.
‘She still sleeps on a separate bed.’ The fact that they admitted the same sounded comforting but then came the twist:
‘She wants me to kiss her there.’
‘Where…?’ I nearly blurted out.
That lunch got over blandly without any other notable incident. I decided to keep my distance from that couple.
We still met each other twice or thrice a year and in every such meeting, the situation was roughly the same. Though the accusation changed with each meeting, both confided to me the same accusation against each other.
Two days back, the play reached its climax. I received a call from Rachna with the succinct message:
‘He is trying to kill me.’
I thought of minding my own business. But curiosity, if not concern, made me meet Ashok that day.
‘So, how’s life, man?’
‘Good,’ the familiar lines from the script. ‘Actually, it is not good.’
‘Ah!’
 ‘She is trying to kill me.’
‘Oh!’
Last night, Ashok called me from a police station.
‘Rachna jumped to her death from the balcony,’ he said.
‘Oh!’
‘She left a note for the police.’ I could imagine what she had to say in her note.
I could not think of a way to help him evade her grave accusation. I nearly missed the last bit of information from Ashok,
‘She wrote it as a poem. The police are trying to understand it.’
‘Ah!’ I sighed with relief.