Sunday, January 23, 2011

I See

  
I saw her enter the corridor, from the right, sashaying towards me, at fingers’ reach I took in that familiar perfume, watched her swaying hips and crisscrossing legs and straight back as she moved away, that twenty something. The antiseptic white walls, firm plastic seats, the dull much-washed green, the chrome of stainless-steel and the black around me could so easily be what others see, those beautiful colours with lovely names, amber, azure, crimson red, turquoise, jade, even your favourite amethyst.

I can see the light hair and I trace a path from the cheek to the jaw, up and behind the ear. I did that in our first French class. I sat behind you, to your right, stared at you like a dirty lecher. My friend and I were juvenile, I know, how we made a big deal of repeating ‘let’s eat at a brasserie’. For three days, you ignored me while you still talked to my friend. ‘I did not expect that from you,’ you said when I confronted you. ‘Grow up,’ was my defense. You and I expected a lot, didn’t we?

Where was I – behind the ear? I am standing right behind you. You entered my office, complaining of a stiff neck. ‘Massage lightly,’ I suggest. ‘How…?’ you ask. My thumbs at the centre, fingers reaching till the back of your ears, stroking your neck with adequate pressure and down till the upper back and shoulders. I repeated it five or six times while you kept your head tilted forward and eyes closed. I stopped on my own. You turned towards me. Your eyes looked sideways, outside those Venetian blinds and that door, checking if colleagues had seen us. You laughed nervously. ‘Where did you learn that?’ ‘Another girl…’ I boasted. With you, I could boast. Not once did you believe me.

How I wanted to hold you then. It took a few months for me to reach for your hand, to kiss the space between the third and fourth knuckle. Then, on a day not much later, I held your arms tightly, feeling your muscles straining against my grip, you were hysterical, you were mad with me. I can’t remember the reason. I felt like hitting you but you knew I wouldn’t. We just locked ourselves in, hungry, misunderstood, crazy. I can still see that rage in your eyes.

I prefer to see those eyes when you lie next to me. ‘These eyes…’ I study the softness, the trust, the creases, the laughter and the smile. Then, I see doubt and suspicion flicker within. Like a stranger at the door, disappearing into the night quickly but bringing the party to an end. You thought I saw another’s eyes, didn’t you? I didn’t, I am sure, I think.

Once, you refused to open your eyes and I really felt like hitting you. I could not speak but I was shouting a stupid I-love-you. Were you already deaf, then? I did not cry. I touched your creaseless twenty something forehead, your warm dry lips before the cold entered, when I switched off the ventilator and the doctor walked away. Damn it, woman, open your bloody eyes and look at me! I did not cry. I do not cry. I will not cry.

I see too much, you say. When you blow at your fingers, at my fingers, when you stand against the door with mischief in your eyes and when I let my hand move up from the toes or from the neck downwards, I see you, not too much, I say.

I see you sashaying towards me, playing hard-to-get, moving away, swaying, inviting.

I stood up and made my way to the nurses’ desk, my hand on the wall, with each step the blur shifting further. I ask the nurse at the counter, (is it the fat one or the old one?) ‘That girl…who walked by just now – who is she?’

‘Which girl?’ she asked. I stood there, leaning against the wall. I must have stood there for ten minutes. The nurse did not shoo me away to a hard seat.

I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned around to face my granddaughter. She brought me to the hospital, I remember. ‘Achacha (paternal grandfather), the doctor is ready…he says that you will be able to see like a twenty year old after the cataract operation…’

‘I see…enough…’

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Unofficial Mills & Boon Club

  
Small towns have small clubs. I remember telling you about small town guys some time back. This time, let me tell you about a small club called Unofficial Mills & Boon Club.

Three years after I joined as the 17th member, the club reached its peak with 121 members. Only 23 attended the last meeting though there are 76 members in the book. The founder-member is fond of telling the tale about how she was expelled from a convent school for having two M&Bs in her school-bag. For the generation after hers, it had lost its clandestine character but the books still offered hope and dreams. My first love introduced me to the first one. She told me that it is different, that there is a working class hero and a kid involved. I don’t remember the details. She left but my interest continued.

We meet for an hour at 2 pm, on 2nd and 4th Sundays, when we are least likely to be missed at home. In the early days, a rumour spread in town that our club is about free love and loose morals. In those days, girls in jeans and men in shorts had to face the same.

Not much has changed since I joined. Marie or Glucose biscuits and black tea are served before the meeting starts. Someone usually jokes about how it matches with caviar and champagne. The first part of the meeting is a quick review of what people have read. Then, we discuss about what we would like to read in future issues. Once, we sent a letter with these suggestions to the publisher. Since it is an unofficial club, there was some confusion as to who should assume responsibility. In the last part of the meeting, members read their own attempts at writing about love the M&B way.      

I am a back-bencher in these meetings. I like to listen, remain silent and relax. At times, I don’t even listen. Swathi used to sit next to me. She joined a few years back. We rarely talk during the meetings. After the meeting, we walk together till the market where she turns right and I go straight. Given the state of the roads, it is tough to talk while walking. She has a nervous charming girlish smile. It is her delicate face that captivated me and, of course, her eyes. I am not sure when we started exchanging notes during the meeting.

I have a notebook for these meetings. We jot down our notes in this. We did not touch on home or work. We wrote about the places we have visited, the people we met there, about what we observed, about relationships and light anecdotes. We started writing about the places we wanted to visit and the kind of people we wanted to meet. I would write about Macau and the casinos. She would ask if I would go alone or with company, then she would ask for details about the game I would like to play, why blackjack and not roulette. She would then write about visiting Simla. I have never been there and I would ask for the details. The notebook would pass silently from one hand to the other.

Then, we wrote about a place where we were together. A cottage by Kodaikanal Lake, sitting on the porch at night, watching the hotel staff light a bonfire. We would go for a late-night walk around the lake, or stand against those thick trees with branches drooping to touch the water. I would try to write about what she would like to read. I would lie about what I liked. I guess she did the same. We wrote about marriage and how we would give space to each other. We never got to kids. At each meeting, we would continue from where we stopped or start on a fresh day, a new morning or another night there.

We kept on writing, meeting after meeting, till that day she stopped coming to the Club. I could have got her address and her phone number from the Club register but I did not. I wondered if I had written something wrong. I checked in my notebook, in our story. I could not find anything amiss. I was worried if she was sick. I waited for her to send a message to me.

After the second meeting without her, I found two men waiting for me outside the meeting room. One, a lean man with intense eyes introduced himself as Vishnu and the other as Arjun. The latter remained silent eyeing me suspiciously from head to toe.

Vishnu informed me that they are friends of Swathi’s family. I blurted, ‘Where’s she? Is anything wrong?’

‘She is missing. 3 weeks now…’ Vishnu replied. I leaned against the wall, numb and shocked. He continued, ‘It is not the first time…the last two times, she returned after a week or two. This time, too…we waited…we searched her room once again. We came across this, hidden quite well between old books.’ He gave me a thick diary. I scanned the pages. It was a love story she had written on her own. I could make out that it was written with the typical M&B formula and I smiled.

‘What are you smiling for?’ Arjun asked.

‘This is what this Club is about…’ I tried to explain.

‘Just a story, is it, and not about you?’ he queried rather aggressively. I shook my head but he did not look convinced. ‘It talks about a guy telling the girl to escape from her house…to him…’

‘Look, mister…’ I responded, then controlled my anger and turned to Vishnu, ‘why did you come here…to me?’

‘She gets out of her house…outside her room…only…for these meetings.’ Vishnu paused before continuing, ‘…we asked some of the members here and they told us that you are kind of close to Swathi…’

‘Too close…’ Arjun added. ‘What have you done to her, man?’

I stared at them, unable to speak, clenching my fists, rage controlled only by my own thoughts about Swathi.

Vishnu moved to stand between me and Arjun.

He told me, ‘I think you know where she is.’

‘No.’ I said and walked away from them.

A cottage by Kodaikanal Lake, sitting on the porch at night, watching the hotel staff light a bonfire. We would go for a late-night walk around the lake, or stand against those thick trees with branches drooping to touch the water. We would continue from where we stopped or start on a fresh day, a new morning or another night there.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Inconsequential

Note: This short story appeared on http://www.indianruminations.com/contents/fictions/inconsequential-arjun-kerala/ 


The local paper thrives on the inconsequential. Consider this on page 3.

Raju, age 27, stabbed to death. His parents, retired school-teachers, teach underprivileged kids at home. His elder sister is a homemaker and her husband is a lift technician working in the Middle-East. The younger unmarried sister is a clerk in a government office. There is a picture of their modest house in a respectable lower middle-class locality. ‘Poker’ Raju was a notorious rowdy. The title of the news-item is ‘Poker Poked’.   

The paper mentions that at the age of seventeen this youth with a decent background turned into a cold-blooded hit-man. The ‘overnight transformation’ could be a result of careless upbringing or abuse or mental imbalance or extreme provocation, the report conjectures without details.

I asked him about that once. Raju replied nonchalantly, ‘You are good at accounting. I am good at what I do.’

Regarding his nickname he said, ‘It’s a bit like the one given by parents, just another’s whim. Personally, I would have preferred ‘Stiletto’ Raju. That sounds Italian, huh?’

Raju used to intimidate his victims with a stiletto. He would make the victim place both hands, with fingers splayed, on a table. Using the stiletto he would try to poke between the fingers with increasing rapidity. After the hands, he would shift to the toes and the groin. ‘I am not really good at this game,’ he sheepishly admitted.

I got to know him six years back during Radha Aunty’s case. She is a widow and a close friend of my mother. She called me to her house one lazy Sunday afternoon. She served tea and lightly buttered cucumber sandwiches, hesitated and fidgeted, hum-hawed and pulled at threads of a cushion, and after a long while I got her request which could be summarized as ‘I need someone ready to dirty his hands.’

Through a friend, I arranged a meeting between Poker Raju and Aunty. She served him tea and freshly-baked cookies. His sharp and dark features contrasted well with her fair and chubby countenance. With him, surprisingly, she displayed efficient professionalism. I was present while they negotiated the price. She gave him a name and address. No reason was mentioned to me or Raju. It was after all her grievance and not ours – property or financial problem; violation of son or daughter; physical or mental threat; marital issues or tussle with relatives; something less or more severe. Some go to court, some confront on their own, some lie low trying to forgive or forget, and others deal with it this way. That’s all.

Raju then asked me if I wanted to be present, remaining concealed though, during the job. I was curious. I said yes. It was over rather fast. He exhibited his skills, or lack of it, with his stiletto. ‘Operation successful but patient died,’ he quipped at the end. He was joking – the man was only nearly dead but a bloody mess.

I have used his services a few times over the years. Yesterday, he was supposed to finish a problem that has troubled me greatly. I made the mistake of waiting and hoping. But, problems are like cancer. Finally, at wits’ end, I told Poker Raju what I wanted.

Raju completed the first part well. He abducted the man, his wife and kid-daughter and brought them to an old deserted building on the city-outskirts.

I instructed Raju to kill the wife and daughter first, in front of the man. For the first time, he broke our contract. He took the wife and the kid to another room. There, he knocked them unconscious but did not kill them. Hearing their horrible cries before the silence that followed, the man assumed that his wife and kid had been killed. Still, he begged for mercy. Raju returned and started with his stiletto and, finished him off.

For me, Raju had failed. I had heard from others that Raju had, on recent jobs, shown signs of ‘softening’. That is dangerous.

Anticipating Raju’s failure, I had ‘contracted’ two new kids on the block who worked as a team. They were there, remaining concealed in that building.  While Raju cleared the dead man’s mess, I sent a message to the team.

They killed the wife, the kid and Poker Raju and, completed the job.

There are two kinds of people in this world: people like him; and, people like you and me.