Sunday, March 18, 2012


‘Have you ever been tortured?’
‘Beaten black and blue…hating it more when the tormentors pause, preferring the certainty of pain rather than the wait for the next assault…at first, you try to look at them in the eye, try to show defiance or beg for mercy, for some virtue learned by rote, glory or love or life…and then you realize it is nothing personal, a ritual, a pastime, you lose focus…you expect the punches, the cuts, the feel the nails being pulled out, you squirm when they insert stuff into your penis or anus…sleep-deprived, starved, solitary confinement, chilly wet or scalding hot, light or dark without idea of day or night or even season…you wonder if there is anything left for them…maybe, internal injuries, bleeding organs, ravaged mind…but they will not allow you to go brain dead…not that…’
‘You try to pray…if you are lucky, you get time to curse…you know it will continue…each second, minute, hour, day, year…no savior, no miracle…’
Each time I have heard my uncle Hosappan tell that story, it always started that way. The story never changed, only the setting.
When I heard it as a child, it was based in the jungles of south-east Asia where communists were shot at first sight. As I trudged past adolescence, youth and adulthood, he kept shifting to a new locale and background each time…Naxals in my backyard, in the city or our village, moving north past our borders to the Middle-east and Balkans, pimping in the cities of Western Europe and North America, caught unawares in unheard places of Central and South America, within drug cartels, back in Africa or Japan or China, surviving apartheid or racial purification, exterminating unwanted cultures, amongst tribes committing genocides protecting fiefdoms.
The story always remained the same. He was like a virtuoso playing the same piece or an artist painting the same landscape, over and over again, perfecting, or unraveling. As he moved the story to places further away from home, I wondered if he was trying to get to some truth within him. At times, while he told the tale and his light grey eyes looked at me intently, I had this unsettling feeling that he was trying to see if I recognized it as my own story.
‘The torture went on for days before they talked to him for the first time. Or maybe they were just improvising with their torture?’
‘They told him that they were going to start with his lover…the lover they had carefully preserved unblemished…they told him what they would do to her…unless…’
‘Unless…he retched then, quite amazed that it was the first time he retched till then…he coughed, vomited, spluttered, brought up the bile within him, soiled himself…when he heard that  from his torturers…unless…’
‘They took him to a big room. At the far end, he saw his lover seated on a chair, her legs and hands bound…she was gagged but not blindfolded…how he wished that she would be blindfolded…he saw her looking at him…saw relief in her eyes…his torturers had not lied…she seemed preserved unblemished…
There was an open door behind her leading to a balcony…light pouring in, the promise of the outside world paining him more than all that they had done to him…making him want to cry out…though he was voiceless, speechless…nearly deaf, dumb, mute…they had done that to him…but not blinded…still able to see her eyes on him…her tears, her love…’
‘They brought in the other prisoners then…old, young, men, women, kids…some untouched like his lover, some in the state that he was…they had told him what he had to do…’
‘He did it…followed their orders…one by one…tortured, maimed, killed…he could not look at her when he had to do all that…for her…but he knew what he would see in her eyes…he did not want to see love leave her eyes…’
‘Even that got over…he saw them going to her…he cried out…he begged…silently…’
‘But they had not lied…they had kept to their words…they untied her…they made her stand up…preserved unblemished…free…’
‘Even then, he could not look at her face…he knew that she must have been looking at him…with dead eyes…with him dead to her…he kept his eyes on the floor near her legs…’
‘He watched her move slowly…unsteadily…towards the door, the light, the promised outside world, the balcony…’
‘He watched her climb over the rails and jump from the balcony…she did not even cry when she fell to her death…they did not move…he did not move…they watched…he watched…’
‘Then…they released him…you are free, they said…to live…’
‘Free…to live…’
My uncle always ends with that death-chant, that dirge…

An Answer

Sreekumar was glad that she could not see his face in the dark even though he had turned towards her. It must have been close to two when she woke him. He could feel her lying close, her hand lying still on his chest for a while before tracing memories, her cool naked body touching.
After waking him, she had said, ‘I fell in love with you on that day you caught me crying. You looked so uncomfortable. You had joked, ‘Stop crying…what if someone comes…they will think I am the cause…’ I had laughed, or at least tried to laugh. I guess I fell in love because you made me laugh then.’
For a moment, he did wonder if that was a sufficient cause or reason but he could not ponder long about that or about what he would have preferred.
He directed his attention towards his own answer. It is not that she had asked him a question, not even a rhetorical one. The simple statement could have been accepted with silence in return but that did not seem right to him. She would not have complained. He liked to think that she was not that type. He believed that she might not need a reply or an answer, even though he felt the need to give one.
Was it Italy that made him fall in love with her? She had helped with his shopping for the trip, enjoyable but tough with his meager savings. She was there to send him off. Then, in all those beautiful places in Italy, he had felt a vacuum within, needing her with him more than ever. It could have been because of the discomfort and awe he felt in the foreign land or the beauty or just the atmosphere built up around centuries of stories or the inability to fit in and act the right way. Those six weeks away from her, with a single brief phone-call, seemed to be the answer he was looking for. So, was it just loneliness and isolation that made him love her? He wondered if she would find that comforting.
Was it on that stormy day with an extended power outage? They had walked together in the dark, moving slowly to the outside along that secluded path lit up by flashes of lightning. He touched her for the first time then. They clenched each other’s hands, feigning fright and probably copying familiar movie scenes of such a dark stormy romantic night. They held each other tightly, awkwardly hugging. He had let his hands stray on her body. He remember thinking if she would protest. A calculated risk or an assured reward, he must have decided. She had responded with equal fervor. Was it then that he realized that he loved her? Was it a result of passion or a prolonged need? That did not seem suitable even though it could be the right answer.
He went through the days and scanned each encounter. He tried to sort and make sense of the jumbled and the scattered. He reached that day when she was lying unresponsive before him, still warm to the touch, but with death’s chilly fingers near. He had touched her for the last time then. Was it then?
She still wakes him often, most often under a different guise, hardly recognizable. She avoids the special days, she likes to surprise, like then. He can make out that it is her when he feels her touch or her hand in his. Each time, he faces her ready to give an answer but the answer escapes each time.  

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


Sheila and Kris (Krishna, Christopher…?) woke up chirpy and eager at the break of dawn on the day of the advertisement shooting. At six, Sheila sat up on the bed, parted the curtains, peeked at the brightening spring sky and then fell back against her husband, snuggling and cuddling, burying her face against his neck, unable to smother her giggles. Kris loved her like that, all excited, nervous and full of life. He hugged her tight.
That they were full of life that morning is amazing and strange. For nearly four days, since they heard of their selection, they had hardly slept. Adrenalin-charged, they had rushed around, both trying out and buying a set of new clothes for their day in front of the camera. They washed the new clothes and ironed till the creases stood out like a knife’s edge. They had scrubbed and cleaned each other, shaved, oiled, shampooed. Sheila had gone to a salon for pedicure, manicure and a ‘special-facial’. The advertisement people had told them not to cut their hair. Kris had a ‘head n shoulder’ massage at his local barber. On those four days, they talked excitedly about the audition, the unsuccessful fellow-competitors and their surprise on being selected and, of course, about how it would be like on the main day. Every night, at least twice or thrice, she asked him if her giggles would pose a problem. Each time, he assured her that she would do just fine. The tension and excitement invariably led to intense sessions of love-making, tender, demanding, repeated and inexhaustible. They had never felt so young.
On the day of the shooting, they took an auto-rickshaw to the studio. They walked from the gate to the studio, nervous but taking in the hustle and bustle of the professionals, the glamorous and the wannabes. At the studio, they were given the clothes for the shoot. He got a rumpled pair of kurta-pyjamas and she got a shapeless nightdress. They changed into those clothes that resembled the ones they wore at home and then sat still in front of the make-up artistes who gave them a harried and disheveled appearance. On the way to the set, Sheila held Kris’s hand. She giggled and received Kris’ stare in return, though his smiling eyes comforted her. She let out another giggle and then maintained her composure till the end of the shot. The director was appreciative of their efforts and also thanked them briefly for doing it in just two takes. Their act lasted for twenty seconds before editing and eleven after. Sheila and Kris could make out that it was for some financial firm’s product or plan. They were supposed to be the couple that didn’t follow the right financial route. The couple that planned well had professional models in that role and they looked really good. Kris and Sheila were allowed to hang around and watch the show, away from the lights and well within the shadows. They held onto each other’s hands, taking in the amazing bodies and looks, never bored with the repeated takes.
Around half past eleven, after receiving their pay they left the studio. They took an auto-rickshaw back home. They were hungry and excited. Kris asked her if he could have a beer and she gave her consent on the condition that he would get her meat kebabs. He dropped her at home before going out to get the beer, the kebabs and something for lunch, maybe butter-naan and gravy. She wanted to eat at home, she said, and he knew why.
At home, she switched on their old cranky PC and typed a short story based on their experiences in the last few days. In the story, the couple that played their part in the advertisement felt the deep gulf between them and the other successful couple. She wrote about how that divide affected the lives of that poor couple, subtle changes to each one’s character finally manifesting into seemingly irreconcilable marital problems. She ended that story with that marriage facing disaster. She thought of adding a happy twist, like a meeting with the other couple and the comforting realization that lives on the other side of divide need not be as great as they thought. But she decided against that twist and stuck to the tragic ending. She quickly edited and posted the story on her blog. By the time Kris returned, she had already received a few of the usual appreciative comments. She switched off the PC and went to her husband.
She got the plates and a bottle of cold water. She unpacked the kebabs and the lunch. Kris poured out a glass of beer and took a long drink, the froth lining his upper lip. He watched her take a piece of kebab, dip it in the mint sauce and then biting one end of the kebab, teasing him with it, offering the other end and herself. He snarled playfully, leaned forward, took the offered end of the kebab, mixing the mint sauce on her lips and his beer froth and kissed her passionately. She burst into giggles.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Her Smile

My life has revolved around her smile.
That sounds false but grand, quite like a smart-ass opening line of a story and so obviously fictitious. Let it be so.
That life started in the late eighties. The daily commute by train to work in the city used to take a few hours then. I can’t remember if it was a hot or rainy day but I know that I was sitting at the window, as usual, sleeping or lazily staring out at the countryside. I could list the stations, even those where the express do not stop, the time between stations, the crossings and the trains that went by, the houses that would show first sign of life as I pass by and those that would be lit up on my way back. I rarely talked to the other passengers and most often, paid no attention to those who sat nearby. But I did notice on that day.
At the first stop after mine, she entered and sat next to me. I gave her a casual glance. She was a young mother, at least five or six years younger than me, with a baby few months old. She kept the baby bag and her handbag, between us, on the seat. I resumed my purposeless stare out of the window. But that day, probably because I had glanced at her, I broke my routine and looked at the others too.
On the opposite berth, facing me, there was a lady at the window and her husband sat next to her. The lady read a book studiously, pointedly ignoring the young mother and the baby. She must have thought that the young mother would cling on for help if she paid the slightest attention. While the lady was awake and reading, her husband read a book and frequently went near the compartment door for a smoke. When his wife was dozing, I saw the husband looking at the young mother. Once or twice, he leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, his fingers close to the young woman’s legs, his smoky breath reaching us on the other berth. He saw me observing him and then stopped leaning forward. Two college-boys sat next to that man. They kept chattering to a set of college-girls across the aisle.
On our berth, it was me at the window, this young mother and her bags next and then a man at the indeterminate crossover between middle-age and old-age. I heard him talking to the young mother, calling her ‘Moley’ (daughter) quite often, asking the usual details about home, her husband and so on. I hardly heard her replies or maybe, she evaded. Once when I turned to that side, I saw him caress the baby’s cheeks with his gnarled fingers, making some gargling sound for the sake of the baby, and his wrinkled hand slid slowly to the mother’s hands that held the baby. He saw me looking at him, at his disgusting drooling lips. He nearly winked at me. I gave him a cold stare that seemed to do the trick. He moved away and tried to converse with the college-kids.
After that, I returned to my pointless stare out of the window. I did not even turn my head towards the young mother when she shifted her bags to the space between her and the geriatric. Once or twice, when she had to feed the baby, I could hear move around on the seat such that she was seated cross-legged, facing the window and me, her knees near my right thigh and hip, a shawl or her dupatta covering her partly from the view of the opposite berth. I could hear the rustling of her clothes, the shifting and opening of her top and bra, the baby suckling at the right breast and then being shifted to the left. In those moments, I sat with my right leg crossed over the left knee, my right hand on the right knee, providing an ineffective shield, staring outside all the time. I must have looked like a sentry guard, as comical as those stony-eyed impassive guards at historical monuments. All I needed was a big tall hat and some funny uniform.
She got off at a station before mine. I saw her struggling to get out of the compartment with her bags and the baby. I looked at her only when she stepped out onto the platform. I saw her turn her head to the left and then to the right, probably searching for the father of her child or husband or porter. She was still waiting there when the train started to move. When my seat passed her, she looked at me and smiled. The train left the station before I could smile back at her.
For months after that, that smile kept haunting me. I knew that I was too old for infatuations but still too young not to be haunted by such. It might sound vacuous or presumptuous if I say now that I knew then that the smile would not just go away like that.
Nearly six months after that journey, on a busy recruitment day for clerical staff, I saw her again. She was a nervous candidate, too nervous for a smile, even looking quite haggard and troubled. During the interview, she showed herself to be the most eager candidate though not really the most capable. I threw my weight in the selection process and she got one of the available posts. Since she was not assigned to my department, our paths hardly crossed. On her kid’s second birthday, she distributed ladoo in office. When I took the offered sweet, I must have thanked her. She smiled at me, I remember. We did see each other in office, of course; even talked casually during office get-togethers or outings; and once, during the Monsoon, I had given lift in my office car to a group of office colleagues including her. But we never talked to each other, one-to-one, till the kid was about three or four. She requested me for help in getting her son admission to a good boys’ school. By chance, I could help her because the Rector there and I were well-acquainted with each other since my school days.
The next meeting I can remember is when she asked me if I could help her son with Math. He was failing in the subject, she said. I think I laughed at her request or maybe I didn’t.  I asked her to bring her son to the office on a Saturday, when we have half-day. I talked to the boy. It was not difficult to see that he had little interest in Math and also, had a bad set of teachers in that subject. But I sensed a more deep-rooted problem. The boy must have been entering his teens and it could have been growing up pains or a lack of authority and supervision at home. I also sensed that his mother was doing all that she could. I could offer little other than the name of a tuition teacher. I told her that my nephew found that teacher useful. She thanked me for talking to the boy. I do not know if the boy went for tuition or if he ever improved in Math.
Again, a few years went by before we had another such meeting. That time, the situation was quite grave. Her son, then in Plus 2 and in his late teens, and a group of friends had assaulted another student over some girl or some other silly issue. His mother made an appointment to see me. I met her during the lunch-hour. She told me that her son was facing expulsion from school. I felt like telling her that she should take such stuff to her husband, the boy’s father. From me, that would have seemed petulant and definitely quite inappropriate. Instead, I promised her that I would look into the matter, if I could. I remember talking to my old acquaintance, the Rector. I met the boy in the priest’s office. I do not know why I exploded. If I could have thrashed the boy, I would have. But I gave a verbal thrashing that surprised the boy and maybe even the priest. In brief, I told the boy to get his act together, to stop troubling his mother and to start caring for her instead. The priest reluctantly allowed the boy to continue with his studies in that school. Some years later, the priest told me that the boy had finally turned out well. The priest and I knew that it had nothing to do with me or my outburst that day. Good old time and self-interest must have changed the boy.
Three weeks back, the mother and I met once again. She came to my office to invite me for her son’s wedding. In our society, wedding invitations are considered seriously only if the parents together invite the guest. According to custom, the father should invite the men and the mother should invite the ladies. For a day or two, I wondered if I should go but then curiosity along with a sense of duty made me go for the wedding.
The wedding was quite grand and it seemed as if the boy had ‘caught’ a rich bride. There were at least fifteen hundred guests in that exclusive Hall. I was not the only guest who was not received by the hosts. Since that is common here, nobody felt slighted, I assumed. Most often, the parents of the bride and groom feel that their hospitality can end with the wedding invitation. During the wedding ceremony, the hosts were busy getting photographed with important guests and it was up to the guests to find their way around.
I made my way through the crowd to wish the boy and his bride. I don’t think he recognized me. His mother was not around then to remind him. During the ceremony, I had seen her on the stage standing next to a man who seemed to officiate as the father of the boy. The mother had maintained a low profile during the ceremony while that man and others hogged the limelight.
I thought of skipping the meal but I was dragged along by the rush of the crowd. I hurried through the meal. From the dining hall, I rushed to the car park and was on my way out when I saw the mother. She was standing outside, looking around, searching amongst the guests. She saw me and smiled. My car had already exited the premises before I could smile back at her.

Saturday, March 3, 2012


‘…it is tough to pinpoint creativity. Most believe that it has something to do with a new point of view or experience or expression. But, if you could erase familiar frames of reference, can a ‘new’ perspective of an ‘old’ experience be considered a part of creativity? Mind you, the emphasis here is on erasing that which is familiar and not really on the ‘new’ or the ‘old’.
Consider a short story. The traditional reader expects a snapshot of life, more or less linear with a connectivity that allows a gradual build-up of tension or understanding or a twist in the tale. But, instead of that, if there are distracting parts and contrasting themes that create a disorienting effect, and worse, if levity and gravity are indistinguishable…is it good or bad? Strangely, the befuddled mind of the reader is found to be more receptive to new threads of thought. That which enables the reader is the erasure of fixed frames of reference…that fixed sense of certainty or expectation borne via experience. Here, the author and the reader have dual roles, a blend of subjectivity and objectivity, and creativity depends on both…’
I hardly heard myself speak while I delivered the introductory lecture to the new batch of students at the Centre for Creative Studies. It felt like I had put the talk on automatic mode. I scanned the rows, studying the faces of new students, some senior students and a sprinkling of colleagues. I was surprised to see the Librarian Mr. Raman standing at the back, near the door. He kept staring at me and appeared fidgety. I went through the lecture, accepted the applause and responded to a few questions before excusing myself. Mr. Raman was still standing near the main door and I went to him.
‘Mr. Raman, is there anything the matter?’ I asked him.
‘Ah yes, I think so. Could you please come with me to the Library?’ he spoke softly, nearly whispering, and I nodded. He led the way and we remained silent en route.
Mr. Raman is a soft-spoken, reserved and rather morose individual. Some say that he became morose after his wife ran away with one of the students. But I remember him as such even before that event. At that time, he had seemed stoic and quite matter-of-fact about the situation. It must have helped to be connected with this Centre where nearly all mind their own business and where it would take a lot more for any event to be elevated to the status of a scandal. We are quite proud of our capacity to shock the outside world with creativity rather than be shocked ourselves. During a rare personal conversation, Mr. Raman had confided to me that the underlying reason for his wife’s elopement must be his obvious lack of imagination.
For an outsider, it might seem out-of-place for a Centre like ours to have an unimaginative Librarian. But the Library, like other libraries of any subject, is merely a depository. From classics to pulp fiction, from philosophical tracts to evangelical rants, from religious texts to pornography, the Library offers a place to check upon existing points of view. It is hardly creative or imaginative in itself and rarely inspires the same. In fact, instead of offering a new creative path, the Library functions as a block against traversing well-trodden paths.  
I am associated with the Library as the Faculty-in-Charge. Effectively, I am the middleman between the Library and the practitioners, the latter being the faculty and the students.
When we reached his office, Mr. Raman broke the silence, ‘There has been a type of desecration.’ He moved to his table where he had piles of books each nearly half a man’s height. I could see that the selection of books was from every possible topic: religion, romance, thriller, poetry, plays and others. He picked a book at random, flipped the pages to a bookmarked section and handed it over to me.
I could see in the margins of those pages a fine, neat handwriting. I flipped the pages to the next bookmarked section. I moved quickly through that book and then through some of the others. I realized that each part filled two pages, that is, the margins of the left and right pages. The parts were on the same theme but there was no strict chronological order and each could be considered as a stand-alone. Even at first glance, I could sense the various combinations and permutations giving birth to new, like the mix and match of chromosomes.
The theme itself was commonplace but the variations looked complete. Even if most of it were already there in published material, having such a mass in encyclopedic proportions from a single source made me terribly nervous.
The writing was about a man and a woman. There were no details about them. They could be married, casual partners or even strangers. Each part of a series or sub-theme described an ‘encounter’ wherein the two explore a new aspect of their relationship. The parts seem to cover the entire gamut of scenarios: distant, bitter, affectionate, reproachful, submissive, childlike fumbling, mature exploration, sick or old, demanding, forgetful and it went on and on. Some were asexual but most involved a fair amount of torrid stuff, rather explicit about every detail though quite natural given the situation.
In the margins of a sacred religious text, I found descriptions of ‘strip shows’ where the two undress in front of each other for the first time. In one series revolving around a scene where the male drops his pants, it starts with the woman exclaiming, ‘Oh, just like a boy....’ In one part of that series, the man reacts sensitively and unfavorably to this assessment and in another the man takes it in his stride. The reader is given various scenarios following that. In another series, the woman admits (falsely, truly, ambiguously…each explored in various parts), ‘Exactly as I had dreamt…’ and the scene develops from there.
The sheer multitude of stories and scenarios that came out of each scene or statement was awesome and at the same time frightening. With such a source, I wondered if I would ever find something new to add. And worse, even if I wanted to, would I be able to forget such a complete set…will I ever have my own frame of reference for any new experience?
‘Are these the defiled books?’ I asked Mr. Raman.
‘These are the books I have found. I am sure there are more. Lots more…’ his worrying words trailed off.
‘Who knows about it?’
‘Only you and I…’
‘And the author…or authors…I suppose…’
‘We will deal with that later…’
‘What should we do?’
‘We have to close the library, make some excuse…then we have to find all the books…’
‘And then…?’
‘I do not know…storing it would be dangerous…possibly destroy and replace if we can…’
‘But…destroy this…?’ Even Mr. Raman appreciated its worth.
‘Otherwise, it will destroy creativity…’
‘Oh God…it looks like a snake swallowing its own tail…’