Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Parties

It is the season of parties.
A lovely time, a lonely time.

There are parties with loved ones,
With one, or the other, gladly, or not.

There are parties with friends,
Perfect for the moment, expendables, or not.

There are parties to choose,
Excuses easy to say, and hear, or not.

There are parties for one,
A lifelong solitude, bitter, or not.

There are parties uninvited,
Names to note, and cross, or not.

It is the season of parties.
A lonely time, a lovely time.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Touch


On a Friday in early spring, I held Swapna’s hand for the first time. We were on the S-Bahn from Potsdam to Berlin. The train was crowded, mostly with our colleagues from the Institute, all eager to get to their families or to start the weekend partying or, like us, with plans to have a quiet dinner together. I spotted a vacant seat when the train stopped at Wannsee; I took her hand; I did not let go even after we were seated. I did open my fingers, giving her the option to remove her hand but she kept her palm on mine. I closed my fingers and gently squeezed her hand. There was a pause before she returned the same. I noted the hesitation and decided not to overdo it. We sat, like kids, happy holding hands. Around us, couples stood in close embrace, caressing and whispering, laughing and kissing. At Westkreuz, I got off to catch another train to Hohenzollerndam where I lived, and she proceeded to her apartment at Charlottenburg.
Meet you at eight, in front of your apartment, I told her when I let go her hand. She nodded with a smile, I remember.
That first touch took six months, and that too, after being aided by a whole set of favorable circumstances.
We joined the Institute, as post-docs, roughly around the same time. The Institute was new, situated in a small village on the outskirts of Potsdam, an initiative to develop and integrate areas of the erstwhile East Germany with the affluent west. There were no buses to that village, when we joined; just an hourly train to and from Potsdam Bahnof. Even that main terminus was a bare structure then, under renovation for the next year or so, with only a few small shops selling newspaper, coffee and bread. We were put up in the Institute guest house on campus for the first two months. Colleagues and travel advisories warned us of neo-Nazi activity in and around Potsdam and the village. We heard of attacks on foreigners in Dresden, Heidelberg and elsewhere. In the decade after the Wall came down, those acts of violence were not surprising; with unemployment rate inching to very uncomfortable levels, by German or any standard; huge divide between east and west; rapidly increasing number of blue- and white-collar workers from Eastern Europe and Asia; and, a large Turkish population that refused to ‘Germanize’. It was fertile ground for opportunistic racism to take root, a parasite feeding on minds confused by economic turmoil, and spreading in the guise of nationalism or religion or some similar supremacist stupidity. We joked about it, of course only to each other, that it felt like home, and compared the crazies in our hometowns back in India, the neo-Nazi clones who restricted our freedom there, buffoons in red, green, white or khaki comic outfits.
We were not unduly worried about the situation in the village because we rarely went out after dark. We depended on the lone supermarket in the village for our supplies. We played safe and went together, a twenty-minute walk from the Institute through desolate fields and village lanes. The gum-chewing ladies at the counter and the few middle-aged customers eyed us curiously while they chatted, and reciprocated amiably to our timid, soft guten-tag and danke-schön with the proper gruff guttural greeting. There must have been better local establishments in some hidden corner of that village; but then, villages, anywhere, find no need to advertise their best.
I warned Swapna that I would scoot real fast at the first sight of skin-heads and heavy boots. That is fine with me, she said. She could outrun me, I guess.
Those trips to the supermarket and chance encounters at the guest house, which conveniently extended to sharing each other’s cooking, brought us together. But, where did we meet for the first time? Since we worked in different departments, our paths in the Institute did not have to cross. Maybe, someone facilitated a casual introduction, at the canteen or the library. That detail has somehow slipped my memory. I do remember that we were not too keen about each other’s company initially.
Personal friction provided one reason for that. Loose talk or teasing that crossed limits probably started it; maybe, just crude jokes or offensive generalizations, poking at women or her ideals, which seemed clever and funny, at least to me. Or, did she go all highfalutin and irritate me with lessons on morality or decency? Unlikely, since she was not that sort; but, in those days, I was quite capable of inciting such fervor. When I left India for those foreign shores, for some reason not worth pondering about, I had decided not to get into any romantic involvement, transitory or not. Indirectly, that left me a little low on patience, charm and chivalry. I was not exactly churlish or boorish, but I was definitely avoidable and did not have to try hard to be so. We still met, off and on, even though we were not deeply interested. The fact that she was charming, intellectually and physically, must have penetrated my thick skull. I guess she was less exacting.
There was another reason for us to seek other company. The Institute had a lively mix of nationalities from all over Europe, the US, China and India. In some departments, like mine, the Germans were even outnumbered. Some feeling of international amity or heady expectations of fitting in with an eclectic crowd kept us away from each other in those first few weeks. As fellow-Indians, we must have seemed too familiar to each other even though we had little in common by way of language or customs or food. But, it did not take too long for us to realize that people of the same race tend to club together, intentionally or not, as in Hollywood movies.
Those supermarket visits on weekdays extended to weekend trips to Berlin, hunting for apartments to rent. She, unlike me, was trying to learn German and I let her do the talking, quite happy to be a dumb mute companion. We started to have lunch together in the Institute canteen. We talked about work, cribbed about bosses who gave us little leeway to be independent, and we used each other to let out steam.
Later, when we shifted to Berlin, we traveled together every morning, and most evenings. We met on weekends too. We did our shopping together, in malls and Asian stores, and frequently replenished our stock of books and videos at the American Library. We snacked at Turkish or Greek street-side stalls, or had the usual curry and bread at Indian restaurants. Our favorite was a cheap friendly Vietnamese place on the route from Zoo Bahnof to Charlottenburg.  And, we walked aimlessly, exploring parks, museums and streets of that lovely city. We never visited each other’s apartment, till that Friday.
I am quite sure my affection for Swapna would not have developed if we had been in a place that did not allow those long walks. We were comfortable with each other’s company, and with each passing month abroad, I valued it increasingly and I think she felt the same. She was fun and easy to be with.
Walking together, she would comment on some strange beautiful girl ahead of us, ‘Isn’t she really sexy? I wish I had her blond hair and blue eyes…’ and she would turn to me, ‘Right?’
I would agree, ‘Yupp, sexy ass.’
‘Arjun, for once, can you start at the top?’
‘I am not sure if she has a head-bath frequently…’
‘Are you sure she washes her ass?’
‘Don’t be gross, Swapna!’
‘I see… I am being gross…’
I would try to deflect her attention to some passing guy, ‘Hey, isn’t that your type? He looks Mediterranean. A bit too thin, though…’
‘Hmmm… lovely brown eyes, full lips, kissable indeed…’
‘And…?’ I would prod.
‘Don’t tell me you are checking out his ass too…’
We never flirted with each other. Till that Friday, we never touched even once. But then (was it on that Friday morning or the day before or many days earlier?) came the trigger that left me off-balance and desperate for human touch; very aware of the fact that I had been deprived of touch for eighteen months or more.
We were traveling to work on the 6:30 am S-Bahn to Potsdam as usual. The train compartment was quite empty. There were six or seven elderly ladies behind us at the tail-end, probably a club out to enjoy an early walk at Wannsee that lovely spring morning; some colleagues, and their cycles, in front at the other end; us near the middle; and, right in front of us, on the side-seat near the door, there were two ladies. One was a blue-collar worker, in denim overalls. The other looked delicate and demure, probably an office-secretary or a teacher or a housewife; her open coat revealed a dress with floral pattern, couple of buttons open at the top and the skirt barely reached the knee. The worker kissed the lady passionately, one hand caressing the lover’s neck at the nape while the other hand strayed all over, fingers trailing over neck and breasts, slipping into the blouse or beneath the skirt caressing the thigh. The lady clung on to the worker’s overall, her knuckles white as she bunched the denim material tightly in her fists, returning the kiss with equal fervor. We averted our gaze but the windows and doors of the train presented a kaleidoscope of that couple.
When they got off at Griebnitzsee, I let out, ‘Phew…’
I turned to Swapna. She had her face turned away, towards the window, but I could see her reflection and she was smiling. We did not talk about that, then or later.
On that Friday evening, I got to my apartment around seven, showered, brushed my teeth, and put on a freshly ironed formal shirt that was supposed to deflect attention from my wrinkled casual khakis and drab jacket. I was in front of her apartment block fifteen minutes before eight. She was ready and waiting. We went to a Chinese restaurant in that locality.
That night, she wore a beige blouse and a dark skirt. I tried to concentrate on her face, but I noted the way she tucked her hair behind the right ear; her thin gold chain set against her tanned neck and shoulder, and fairer chest; and the half-visible lucky pendant winking at me, nestled comfortably in a neckline that did not plunge deep enough. She must have noticed my effort to look straight. There was a slow, teasing smile in her eyes; she chewed her lower lip, probably to hold back a laugh; and, her dimple on the right cheek deepened. We had a nice dinner, without the usual teasing, without loud jokes, without discussion about work or the state of affairs anyplace anytime. We didn’t talk about ourselves, or us. But we talked, I just can’t remember what, we talked well, that’s all I can remember. It was nearly ten when we left. I walked with her to her apartment.
‘Will you come up…?’ she asked.
I nodded and followed her up two flights of stairs. Inside, we went to her kitchen.
She asked, ‘Tea…?’
I nodded again. We sat at the dining table, drank tea and talked. I think she told me something about her family. What did I say? Later, she washed the cups and I wiped.
‘Let me show you something…’ she took my hand and took me to a reading room. She had rented a furnished apartment and it came along with the owner’s collection of books that filled floor-to-ceiling shelves on two sides. We stood side by side, still holding hands, exploring that library of mostly German tomes but interspersed, there was a selective international collection, too – Mishima, serious American authors like Steinbeck and Hemingway, nearly the entire collection of Wodehouse, popular erotica from the continent, and morbid Russian stuff too, with only Chekhov having a slight grin in the midst of Tolstoy and Doestoevsky. We talked about that too. We moved to a sofa, sat side by side, half-turned towards the other. Her arm stretched towards me on the back of the sofa, her legs tucked beneath her, the skirt inadvertently hiked up revealing the back of her thighs. I too had an arm on the back of the sofa, next to hers. There was a lull in between; we smiled.
I leaned towards her and kissed her lips. I moved my hand from the sofa to the back of her head, and allowed it to stray on her neck and shoulder. I moved closer. I kissed her lips, and then her neck, before moving lower. I held her hand, shifted to her waist, moved up to her breast and then down to her thigh. I felt her stiffening. She had her arms against my chest. I leaned closer, crushing against her, letting her feel my whole body against her. She pushed at me. My grip tightened. I heard her say that I am hurting her but I kept kissing and fondling her. Then, I felt her twisting away from me. She slipped off the sofa, onto the carpeted floor and moved away backwards, looking scared, angry. There was something else in her eyes which I could not understand just then.
I moved towards her, whispering, ‘Come on, Swapna… don’t be like this.’
She said, hoarsely, ‘Go… please go…’
‘Hush, Swapna, come here…’
‘Go… please…’
I moved closer towards her.
‘I will scream…’
‘No, you won’t… come here, it is ok… you know me…’
I caught an ankle and pulled her towards me. She kicked at me with the other leg. I laughed. I pulled her legs towards me, her skirt moved up her thighs. I parted her legs. She pulled her skirt down with one hand, and leaning on the other she tried to sit up and gain some balance. She pushed against me and kicked at me. I lay on top, pinning her to the floor, holding her wrists tightly.
‘You bastard…’ she said. I could feel that it came from deep within, that low growl or harsh snarl.
I sat up and moved away from her.
‘Get out…’ she said.
I stood up, picked up my jacket, and without looking at her, walked out of the apartment, closing the front door behind me. I heard her race to the door, the sound of the key turning in the lock and the fumbling with the latch and bolt from within followed me out of that building.
After that Friday, we must have been on the same trains and at the canteen at the same time, but it is easy not to see people you do not want to see. Did I feel like saying sorry to her? Did I feel like talking to her? I remember thinking that she should make the first move. Did I worry about her telling others? I did not care. Did I miss her?
I felt strange and lonely in parks, claustrophobic in museums and preferred take-away meals to eating on my own at a restaurant. I stayed in Berlin for one more year before taking up a postdoc position in the US. She left the Institute a few months before me, to take up a faculty position in India. I got to know about that through an internet search.
I returned to India after four years. We were in the same city but worked in different institutes. Our paths crossed at various seminars, we walked past each other without a word, without a nod. There were no parks or museums or comfortable coffee-shops for any prolonged chance encounter, unless one was truly interested. My life revolved around my work and acquaintances. I married, divorced and continued to live like a monk, though not stupid enough to think like one. The research community is a small world, and I heard rumors about her dalliances or misalliances. Some sounded true, not that it mattered. There seemed to be a pattern common to both our lives, a vacant space, an emptiness not really a hole, just threads missing and, carefully or carelessly, avoided, unattended. Maybe, that was the stupid monk within me thinking like that.
About eight years after that Friday in Berlin, we were in Trieste for a month-long multidisciplinary summer school. We had rooms in the same guest house but hardly saw each other there. In the first week, during lunch, we sat at the same table once or twice, discussing classes and research topics with colleagues. She must have decided that it was more trouble maintaining distance. We had to talk to each other but the talk remained well within our scientific interests. Even when we talked, I did not look at her for too long, keeping my face averted, with a faraway gaze, as if I was thinking deeply about the research topics. She still tucked her hair behind the right ear, and I spotted my old rival, that lucky pendant.
The highlight of such summer schools is the weekends. The first weekend, I was supposed to go to Florence with a group that included her. But, on Friday night, after snacking on sandwich I had prepared with tinned meat, a bad case of fat-intolerance laid me flat, or should I say well-seated on a commode. Saturday morning started early, bright and blue. I was feeling weak, and my sphincter had little respite, but I decided against staying cooped up in my room on such a lovely day. I decided to go on a day-trip to Venice.
At seven, I was at the railway station. I found Swapna at the ticket counter.
I blurted out, ‘Why didn’t you go to Florence?’
She did not offer any explanation.
I did not have to ask her why.
It was awkward – the two of us standing there with tickets to Venice, with at least one wanting to tear the ticket or hoping the other would cancel the trip and return to whichever hole it belonged.
She asked me, ‘Why didn’t you go to Florence?’
‘Stomach bug,’ I admitted, and gave unnecessary details. That brought a smile to her face.
I decided to be an adult, ‘Do you mind if we travel together to Venice? Italian trains are notorious for pickpockets and bag-snatchers, and it’s good to have company.’
She was blunt, ‘You want me to guard your bag when you are in the toilet, right?’
I shrugged.
On the train to Venice, we talked about our favorite punching bag – nincompoops as bosses who tried to use us as slaves or automatons in some factory line-up. It was like old times. She told me that she wanted to resign and move elsewhere. I asked her if she knew of a place where the situation is any different. We cursed ourselves for not being geniuses, assuming that the system allowed such to be free of slime. We talked, or blankly stared outside at the neat fields and postcard-type villages; of course, that was when I was not in the toilet. At Venice, I felt much better, and the frequency of visits dwindled to a rather respectable rate.
‘It’s been my life-long dream to see all the public toilets in Venice,’ Swapna remarked after my second or third toilet-stop, she seemed quite fed up of guarding my backpack and waiting outside public utilities. ‘Wonder what people are thinking… maybe, that you are cottaging and I am your pimp.’
We were standing on a bridge, watching a gondola glide past carrying a bored boatman and a couple who tried to look ecstatic.
‘I see a front-page headline in the newspapers back home – Indian scientist killed in Venice, hit-and-run by gondola,’ I threatened.
‘Always wanted to die a romantic death… anyway, that sounds better than the one in the science pages – Indian scientist searching for dark matter in Italian toilets,’ she retorted.
Despite my disability, I amazed myself when I matched her spirit and energy. My Rough guide for Venice starts with a nice line, ‘Nobody arriving in Venice for the first time is seeing the city for the first time.’ Most visitors are usually familiar, well before their visit, with Canal Grande or the Piazza San Marco or Palazzo Ducale or the other Venetian sights through works of art or other studies. It was not our first visit to Venice but it was our first visit together and, for me, it was a Venice I had never seen. As in Berlin, we stayed away from tourist hotspots, did not feed pigeons and stayed away from the legions of visitors taking photos, like dogs peeing, marking another conquered territory. We chose narrow streets randomly, crossed bridges without reason, stood silent within cathedrals, watched Murano’s glass-blowers shape dreams and made full use of the day-ticket to hop onto boats, aimlessly going around.
‘There is some kind of weird romance in every crooked street,’ I remarked.
She did not respond, but I think she agreed that it was meant for couples holding hands, squeezing past other couples. Couples like us seemed incongruous there.
We had lunch at a small bar. I sipped lime-tea, still mindful of my delicate posterior, and she wolfed down couple of sandwiches. She made sure I enviously watched her every bite.
‘May you suffer soon what I suffer now,’ I cursed.
‘But surely, I can’t beat you at that,’ she spoke purposely with a full mouth.
She looked at the man at the counter, and they exchanged a conspiratorial wink. The man asked me if I would like another cup of lime tea. I nearly growled at him. Swapna laughed and the man smiled broadly.
We got back to Trieste before dark. We took the bus from the station. Instead of returning directly to the guest house, we got off mid-way, near the beach, and mingled with the sun-bathing crowd. We climbed up a small path to the top of a hill, overlooking the beach on one side and the port with sail-boats on the other. She stood next to me. I noticed that her hands lay freely by her side, not crossed over her chest in front, nor tucked into the pockets of her jeans. I wondered if her body language indicated that she was not closed to me. I thought about her palm on mine, like long back, her fingers returning my squeeze. It pained not to have that touch, particularly when she was there. We stood there for a long while, silent, till it was dark and time to return to our rooms. We went back to our old routine of avoiding each other.
During the first week at Trieste, I had got in touch with an old colleague who worked in the University of Naples. He invited me to his department and also requested me to give a talk to his group. I accepted the offer. That is a common custom in academic circles, of mutual back-scratching. It is tacitly understood that I would extend a similar invitation if I were to host or organize a conference in India, or even if he passes through India. His formal invitation stated that he would take care of my travel and stay, and also that I would be rewarded an honorarium for presenting a seminar. He seemed to be flush with funds just then; well, this was before the economy went bust everywhere. He asked me if there was anyone I could, or would like to, bring along. I told him about Swapna’s research and he expressed his interest in her work. I talked to her about his offer. She thought for a while before accepting. That trip was arranged for the third weekend.
We flew from Trieste to Naples, with a transit stop at Rome. We commented to each other about the differences, in appearance and behavior, between the north and the south of Italy. Unlike the near-Germanic Trieste, Naples had a volatile and dark edge. The traffic was less-orderly, the place was not as clean and the people seemed livelier. We were simply awed by the sprawling city, its architecture and town-planning.
‘Any idea why we never came here when we were in Berlin?’ Swapna asked.
‘I didn’t go anywhere,’ I replied.
‘Hmm… and I traveled only in the north.’
We were put up in a small but comfortable two-star hotel near the University. We got there late on Friday night, and we went to our respective rooms immediately. Next morning, we had breakfast in the room and, met at the foyer around half past eight. The professor came a few minutes later and took us to his department. We were there till one, with back-to-back talks and fruitful discussions with the professor, his colleagues and students.
At one, in the safe confines of his office, the old man grinned at us and said, ‘Now, you two are free.’ He gave us envelopes with our payment, in cash, and also handed over a city map. ‘Since you have only an afternoon in this city, why don’t you try the Museo Archeologico Nazionale?’
‘Is that where you send all your visitors?’ I joked.
‘It suits most of them,’ he said with a laugh, before adding, ‘if only they were like the exhibits and wouldn’t talk about their work.’
I was familiar with his frankness. Swapna had a piqued look which the old professor noticed. ‘Not you, my dear, your talk was very interesting.’ Then, he gave a very Italian expressive shrug along with a forlorn look towards me, ‘As for him, I am not sure if he said anything non-trivial.’
‘I shall wait for your talk, my friend, to extend the same courtesy,’ I said.
‘Let us hope that the tax-payer’s money is always there for us to waste,’ he said. We laughed and wished each other well. He took us to the tube station where we parted. He gave me a strong, affectionate handshake, and hugged Swapna.
We took the Line 2 train to the museum. We were quite impressed with the ancient Roman finds, especially the Farnese collection. We shared observations, and selected or skipped sections together rather than separate to follow our individual interests. We maintained a straight face in the Gabinetto Segreto. I asked Swapna if she remembered our visit to Beate Uhse’s museum in Berlin and whether that would one day have the same status; she nodded sagely. We acted snooty about the disarray and neglect; and, noted that it did not match ‘our Berlin ones’. It was nearly like old times. What was missing? I am not sure.
After racing through the museum, we had a late lunch at a pizzeria. It was a choice between that or a proper meal later. I tried for the latter but she was not keen. Even in Berlin, we rarely tried Italian restaurants, without our European colleagues, terribly unsure about getting the right antipasto, primo, secondo or even dessert. I assumed then that that was the reason for her reluctance. Anyway, pizzeria it was for us plebeians.
‘How could we have anything other than a pizza in its place of origin?’ Swapna said, trying to justify her decision, after we placed our order.
‘Pizza is definitely not a pizza unless served by an Italian woman,’ I said, eyeing the lady who took our order.
‘And, it has to be a woman like her, I guess,’ Swapna consented, acknowledging that forty-something Monica Bellucci look-alike wearing a short white dress that barely concealed the details of her black bra, pants and ample curves. Swapna warned gamely, ‘Don’t overdo it… unless you want to share your pizza with the Mafiosi… or end up on the pizza as garnishing…’
I noticed that Swapna was getting her fair share of attention from the Italian guys around and, instead of treating them with a glacial stare she seemed to enjoy it immensely.
‘You too better watch out for possessive Italian women,’ I said.
Later, when we paid the bill, we told the lady truthfully that a pizza had never tasted more delicious.
We decided to return early to our hotel, not too comfortable about roaming in the dark in that bewitching city. We did not say much in the train. It was a short walk from the station to our hotel. The shops were closed for the weekend. Youngsters monopolized the pavement; zipping past on roller blades; lovers leaning against the wall, merging with the graffiti, kissing and fondling.
At the hotel, I tried again, ‘Would you like to have dinner somewhere outside later?’
‘I am a bit tired,’ she said, ‘I think I will just have juice and biscuits and try to sleep early.’
‘Ok then, see you tomorrow morning. We will have to leave at seven. The flight is at nine, right?’
She nodded, and said, ‘Good night.’
‘Good night. Sleep well.’
We separated and went to our rooms. I watched reality TV, the only channel universally understood. I downed a few pegs of Glenfiddich, smoked double my daily quota, finished off a sandwich and coupe of packets of crisps. I felt awful. I showered and tried to sleep. At nine, or was it much later, I got up, dressed and stepped outside the hotel. The lovers had left and the dark, deserted street did not look appealing. I went back within. The concierge looked up, pursed his lips, not too pleased with my movements, but he did not say anything. I guess he misunderstood my intentions or purpose. I climbed up the stairs to our floor.
Instead of going to my room, I stood in front of hers. I knocked. There was no response. I thought I made out a darkening of the peep-hole or maybe, I have read too many spy novels. I knocked again. I was about to return to my room when she opened the door.
‘Were you sleeping?’ I asked.
‘Hmmm… yes…’ she said. Her hair seemed too tidy for that to be true. She made no move to remove the door-chain. I could see only part of her face. She stared at me, unblinking, looking scared, or nervous.
‘I couldn’t sleep,’ I said. She did not say anything. I continued, ‘Swapna, can we talk?’
I thought she would ask, ‘Talk what?’ but she remained silent.
I had to go on, feeling very odd standing outside her door, talking through four or six inches of space, ‘I loved you.’
I am not sure why I used the past tense. Including the present must not have gelled well with my position outside her door.
‘I loved you too,’ she surprised me with a reply.
‘Then, can’t you understand…?’ I asked. If there ever was a plaintive cry, it must have sounded like that.
‘I can understand,’ she said, too calmly, and then the knife stabbed deep, ‘but, I couldn’t love you after…’
‘Fair enough…’ I blurted out, too soon.
I felt like kicking myself for saying that. I should have defended myself and the passion of that moment. Or, that I have understood that she wanted something different, romantic or whatever. But I felt there was no point in doing so. I turned and moved towards my room.
I heard her say, ‘Can’t we be friends?’
I looked at that face peering from behind that door-chain. I shook my head.
I love her too much to be just her bloody friend.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

A Perfect Couple


At a crowded party, Ramesh stands alone at a table. He sips his drink slowly. A friend approaches him. They make small chat. They appreciate the hors-d’oeuvres, enquire about mutual acquaintances, make casual observations about the people around, comment on conversations they overhear and touch on topics, personal and professional. The friend does most of the talking.
‘Do you know why divorces are increasing?’ the friend asks. He continues, ‘Guys are just not as smart as the girls they marry.’
Ramesh nods politely.
The other goes on, ‘Look at my case. Hey, I studied well and went to the best colleges. I am street-smart and made lots of money. I wanted a housewife, and got that, that too from a bloody rich family with a bloody old name. But, hey, I am still the same old small-town chap. I can barely knot a tie, even now I can’t handle fork and knife, and bloody poetry and music, man, what the…! Man, she has class. We were as different as chalk and cheese, never had a chance. I envy you, man! You and your wife are perfect for each other!’
Ramesh remains silent. The friend waits expectantly for a response. Maybe, he wants Ramesh to console him, to say that he is not chalk, or that he is the cheese; at least, a modest shrug with regard to the compliment. He leaves after a while, to tackle the buffet meal, he says.
Ramesh stares blankly at the crowd. He mutters softly, ‘Yes, we are perfect for each other.’
He smiles. He recollects minor episodes of their early days. He remembers that they had been surprised with the initial surge of affection on both sides. He hardly knew his wife when they got married, having met her only a couple of times before the wedding. He had felt, even then, that they are a lovely match. Their family background, schooling and upbringing are roughly similar. They share a lot of interests, especially crime novels and BBC TV shows. They love shopping, that too, together. They are passionate, towards each other and about their career. The areas with mismatch of interests have never seemed too difficult. In their ten years together, their compatibility grew with each passing year. They have two kids, share responsibilities and work hard to build a great future for their family unit. They have had their problems, of course, and fixed most.
Ramesh does not feel like going for the main courses. He catches the attention of a passing waiter, replenishes his drink and the plate of appetizers.
A wry smile now develops on his face, lips slightly pursed, eyes narrowed, crinkled at the edges, not really with humor.
‘I am growing old. I can’t even remember those days clearly,’ he tells himself, not too softly. People at a table near him turn towards him. He smiles at them, points to the food and gestures that it is good. They nod, smile too, and return to their conversation.
Two weeks after their wedding, they returned to work. He used to leave home at half past seven in the morning and return around half past six in the evening. She preferred to start later since her work usually went on till late. She had a longer commute too but, on good days, she managed to get back before seven.
One night, she was delayed. Ramesh tried her mobile but it was switched off. He called her office but no one picked his call. He tried to watch television but it did not help. At eight, he put on his jacket, and stood outside their rented house. After half an hour, he moved towards the main road, inspecting each passing vehicle. He knew that there was no point in waiting outside but he could not sit within. She returned home at quarter past nine. Her boss dropped her off. She introduced them. Ramesh thanked her boss for giving her a lift. Her boss complimented them, for her hard work and for his understanding. When they were inside, Ramesh shouted at her. She apologized for not informing him about the delay and explained that she had been in an important meeting with a client.
A month later, on a weekend, they were at a mall near her office. Or did this episode happen earlier, he wondered, does not matter, he decided. They had gone for a matinee show, and then after some shopping they had had dinner at a nice Gujarati restaurant which served unlimited thali meals. At half past eight, or thereabouts, they were outside the mall, ready to go home.
‘I want to pick up a file from office,’ she said, ‘I will be back in five minutes.’
Ramesh waited. She came back after forty five minutes. During the rickshaw ride back home, she tried to calm him, telling him that a senior colleague had accosted her in office and that a discussion about a project had gone on and on.
He told her angrily, ‘Next time, you won’t find me waiting.’
He faced a similar situation a few weeks later, or was it many months later, he could not be sure. Once again, she did not return after ‘five minutes’. That time, he moved away from the meeting spot, hid behind a juice-stall and waited. She was back after thirty minutes. She did not seem surprised not to find him there. Unruffled, she caught an auto-rickshaw. After she had left, he raced to another and asked the driver of that to follow his wife’s rickshaw. The driver refused to ‘chase’ a woman. Ramesh explained calmly to the driver that he was ‘chasing’ his wife. The bemused driver raised his eyebrows but, without any further fuss, followed the other vehicle, and it was tough on roads congested with late-evening weekend traffic. Ramesh reached home a few minutes after his wife.
She said cheerfully, ‘See, I got here before you.’
Her job took her to big cities and small towns all over the country. They tried a schedule of phone-calls, to let Ramesh know that she was fine. But that never went according to plan. There were many nights when she was out late and could not keep in touch – working or traveling alone, in taxis, through areas avoided even by locals, on trains, staying at shady business hotels, meeting colleagues, factory workers and big honchos with dubious reputation. Ramesh slept little, worrying. Even when she called, his fears never really subsided, and awful dreams disturbed him. Morning newspaper and news channels on television fed fuel to that flaming fear. Cases of gang rape, murder and vicious assault followed him. Is it his wife… it could be his wife… it will be his wife, his paranoia worsened.       
At the party, he drinks and eats, absent-mindedly, oblivious to the music and the chatter around him. He thinks about those days when he went nearly crazy. He starts to sweat, even though he is standing beneath a vent of the air-conditioner. He feels uncomfortable. He tries to remember how he coped with the problem. Those memories and that period are fuzzy. It was not an overnight decision. He is sure that the desensitization took months.
Every day, he expects policemen at his door informing him, ‘Sir, your wife has been murdered.’ Or, that she has been brutalized and left barely alive.
Maybe, they would suspect him when he shows little surprise, he wonders. He knows that he would not feel anything when faced with such a situation.
It is late and some guests are leaving the party. Ramesh feels tired.
He goes to his wife, and says softly, ‘Hey cutie-pie, I am going home.’
She holds his hand and whispers, ‘You go ahead, love. I have to meet a few more people. What a bore! How will you go?’
‘I will take a taxi,’ he tells her. Expecting the drinks, they had come in a taxi.
‘I will do the same… that is, if I can’t get one of these goofies to give me a ride.’
‘See you…’
‘Sleep well…’
Outside, he feels better. He looks around for a taxi or a rickshaw. There are none available. He decides to walk home. It is a dark deserted road. He is calm and untroubled once again. He walks away from friends and acquaintances. He does not think about predators and preys. Silence follows him, not screams or cries for help. The danger that lurks in the shadows does not bother him.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Flower-girl


The flower-girl approached the ladies in the group of foreign tourists. She addressed the elderly as Amma (mother) or Ammamma (grandmother); the kindly ones of indeterminate age as Mami (aunty); and, those who looked young or appeared desperate to be so as Chechi (elder sister). The Europeans on their part seemed to be familiar with these expressions. Their well-thumbed travel books could possibly take credit for that. Or, it was the young girl’s friendly and reverential nature which conveyed the meaning.
Amma, carry flowers to temple… fresh from mountains. God of the cliff will give peace and joy for this.’
 That girl, of ten or so, probably younger or certainly no older than twelve, with round innocent eyes and an open smile, used some version of that sales talk with each lady. She managed to say that in English, haltingly, but with confidence.
‘How much is it?’ The lady would ask, charmed by the smile on that guileless face, and, of course, touched by the lingering sadness of poverty and hardship.
‘Fifty rupees,’ the little girl replied to each, without any change in expression or, when she allowed it, only to look more forlorn as if it pained her to charge them for those flowers. Each bouquet had a dozen or so flowers – hibiscus, jasmine and a few wild ones. She had no trouble selling her stock. After the group of tourists left for the hike up the hill to the temple on the cliff, the girl skipped and hopped towards the tea-shop, her plaited hair flopping around along with her loose limbs.
I was sitting outside sipping tea. I looked at her with stern eyes and admonished her, ‘Those flowers are from behind the shop, right? And you charged them so much? Don’t you know that guests should be treated like gods?’
She stopped in front of me, unsure for a while, probably wondering if she should reply to a stranger, and then retorted, ‘They don’t have a problem. I don’t have a problem. Why do you have a problem?’
I tried to make my face look more serious. She frowned and then stuck out her tongue before moving past me to the inside of the shop.
‘Monkey…!’ I shouted at her, trying hard not to smile at the imp.
I watched her go to the tea-shop owner Rajendran. He was standing near Vishnu’s table. She patted his arm. He turned around with an angry, irritated look. He gave her a hard whack on the shoulder. I looked at Vishnu. He returned my stare and shook his head to indicate that I should not interfere. I could not understand how he could sit there, unperturbed, unfeeling.
‘Why aren’t you in school?’ Rajendran asked the girl harshly.
‘I’m going. It’s only half past eight,’ she replied.
‘Can’t your idiot mother keep you in the house? Of course, how can she?’
I could make out the tears welling up in the little girl’s eyes. She held out the money towards the man.
‘You give that to your mother,’ he barked. I was beginning to hate that uncouth lout who stank of country liquor and the smoke of heady beedi (local cheroot). I was sitting outside the shop to avoid that stench. Vishnu didn’t seem to have a problem, smoking one of those pungent beedis himself.
Amma told me to give it to you,’ the girl said. After a brief pause, she continued, ‘Appa (father) will take it.’
He took the money from her and without counting slipped it into a box beneath the counter. He then went to the kitchen and returned with two parcels, a small one loosely covered with paper and the other, slightly larger, in a plastic bag. Without any change in his surly countenance, he gave her the small one first.
‘Don’t break the bangles,’ his voice still harsh. He then handed over the bigger parcel, ‘Give this to your mother, it’s some chicken curry from last night. Don’t let your father have a bite of that.’
The girl accepted both seriously, nodding her head vigorously. He raised his hand again, as if to whack her once again, ‘Now, go to school and stop fooling around.’
‘Yes, Raju Mama (uncle).’ Her broad smile came back on. She then turned to Vishnu and, pointing at me, asked with a whisper too loud, ‘Vishnu Mama, who is that?’
‘A friend,’ Vishnu made that sound real bad.
She skipped and hopped to the outside, past my bench. When she was at a safe distance, she showed her tongue at me once again and greeted, ‘Friend monkey Mama.’
I feigned as if I was about to throw my glass of tea at her. She laughed and I watched that little girl run away. Rajendran and Vishnu were still talking to each other, a little louder and a lot more agitated, and I heard the last part of their conversation.
‘Her mother came to me yesterday. That bastard husband of hers wants to send the kid to the Gulf, as domestic help,’ Rajendran said.
‘But she’s just a kid,’ Vishnu objected.
‘Not just that…’ the tea-shop owner did not complete.
Vishnu stared at the other, disbelief and anger writ on his face.
‘I don’t know what to do,’ Rajendran said.
Vishnu thought for a while before saying, ‘I will talk to Natarajan.’
‘You…?’
‘If not me, someone he will listen to…’
‘Who…?’
‘I will do it, I said, right?’ Vishnu sounded irritated.
‘Natarajan is out of town. I heard he’s gone to the city.’
‘We will wait then…’ Vishnu looked at the pre-occupied Rajendran and asked, ‘Did you hear what I said?’
‘Yes, yes, we will wait,’ the other mumbled. His mind was quite clearly elsewhere.
Vishnu paid for his tea and then with a pointed look at me paid for mine too.
‘What was all that about?’ I asked Vishnu when we were walking back to his mother’s house.
‘Nothing,’ he replied. We were still not on the best speaking terms.
‘Nothing…? Ok, nothing,’ I shrugged, as if I didn’t give a damn.
That took place on my fourth day in Vishnu’s village.
I saw the little girl again on the sixth day. She did not greet me. She did not even look at me. Some time in between, life had left those eyes.
In Vishnu’s village Kadalil, the locals believe that pain and nightmares should be told as stories. They think that ghosts lose power when the important and the unimportant details are packed together and exiled to the make-believe, banished from reality. I prefer to think of these stories as mummies preserved in a pyramid, embalmed bodies together with entangled lives or souls sent well to a better after-life beyond. That is supposed to explain why I am writing this tale.
These events happened last September when I gate-crashed into Vishnu’s holidays. We were having a lean time in office. Vishnu took leave to visit his village. I had nowhere to go and decided to surprise him. He took the long route with heavy nostalgia – a day and a half by train from Mumbai via the coast and then half a day in a bus. I left on the same day as Vishnu, but without his load and without informing him, of course. I took a flight to the capital and then a taxi to his village, and reached his mother’s place a day earlier than him. He looked rough and tired when he got there. Nostalgia has that effect on people. He showed little manners when I welcomed him into his own house. I brushed aside his displeasure. His mother and Sarada, the attractive and rather mysterious neighbor, seemed to be fine with my presence and they were the ones serving me handsome meals. Sarada introduced herself as Vishnu’s childhood friend. She said little else about herself or her four year old kid or her absent partner. During my stay, I realized that she was much more than a neighbor to Vishnu and his mother. But let me not digress too much since she has little to do with this particular tale.
On my third day there, the day after he landed, Vishnu took me on a long hike exploring the village and that was not out of amity. He knows that physical exertion is not my preferred state of action. When he decided to sulk less, he also briefed me about the village’s history or stories. The village itself may not be germane to the main plot but let me pack in that irrelevance too. This is what I found on the Net about the village.

“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 color 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.”

That last sentence about the main part of the village is an exaggeration. There is a single narrow road. From my vantage point at the tea-stall, I could survey the whole scene.
When one moves away from the hill with the temple on the cliff, there is a budget hotel, on the right, with half a dozen basic resting-rooms and a drab restaurant serving non-negotiable meals with a fixed menu. Next to that, there is Miss Anila’s establishment – a mean and very profitable monopoly consisting of a tailoring shop on the ground floor and separate beauty salons for men and women on the top floor. She is the village’s champion crusader, forever in the middle of an evangelical sermon against tobacco, liquor, corruption, prostitution and all the other human ills that plague that quiet village.
Adjacent to her building is the ‘English medicine’ doctor’s clinic. Then, there is the shack of the quack boasting ‘new-age’ ayurveda massage and homeopathy palliatives. A medical shop catering to ‘English’, ayurveda and homeopathy prescriptions is next in that line along with a ration outlet. A small lane separates those and the government hospital, a decrepit building in a shabby compound, with two wings for ‘in-patient’ and ‘out-patient’. That lane leads to a shed behind the hospital which serves as a mortuary.
A few paces further down the main road, the garrulous but genial Maryamma has her fish and meat shop. She is usually found outside her shop, spitting betel-juice or cursing the powers that control the prices and the customers. The stinking abattoir behind her shop shares a wall with the mortuary. During the last local elections, Maryamma was pitted against Miss Anila who accused the former of mixing meat from the two joints. Maryamma responded to that allegation with expletives and promises to start such a business after murdering her opponent. She defeated her bête noire quite comfortably in those elections. Though the result surprised outside commentators, it reflected the common sentiment amongst the villagers, ‘Priests and politicians are best when they mirror the masses.’
The government school and its playground are a little further ahead on that side of the road. Opposite to the school, on the other side of the road, there is a college and polytechnic run by the liquor baron Yeli (rat) Natarajan. He gained that sobriquet in his early days when he used to distil spirit with all kinds of scrap, including dead rats. Even looks-wise, he has an affinity towards rodents but, he is definitely far less lovable. His business dealings, at its best, exhibit a mixture of a banker’s sliminess and a lawyer’s sense of right and wrong. At his worst, he and his two close henchmen make Torquemada and gang seem like a bunch of gurgling babies. Only his weary eyes could endear him to anyone. Like those of a messiah leaving a job half-done, his too seems apologetic and tired for not offering more of his services which include nearly every illegal trade except drugs, terrorism and the under-aged. His tentacles also extend to most of the legal businesses there. He owns most of the land on that side of the road, including a sprawling resort spanning both banks of the river that runs through the village.
Still sticking to the left side of the road, opposite Maryamma’s shop, the bus depot, the village market and other small shops share space. Rajendran’s tea-stall leans against the depot’s wall. Then, there are three drinking establishments doing brisk business from nine till midnight catering to nearly the same clientele. The government outlet is right opposite the clinic, and the bar for ‘foreign’ liquor and the toddy-shop offering local stuff are on either side of that, as if to give support. Those two belong to Yeli Natarajan. After these bacchanalian joints and back near the foothill, there is an unobtrusive two-room police station and behind that, the village office. The occupants of these and the locals rarely trouble each other.
On my fifth day in the village, the day after the flower-girl called me ‘Friend monkey Mama’, I went to the tea-stall earlier than usual, around seven in the morning, but my visit was not for tea.
I got up with the lazy sun that morning. Standing a little away from the window, I peeped at Sarada next door. She was sweeping her courtyard. At some point, she looked towards my window, smiled at me and waved. I managed to raise my hand in greeting and also returned a sheepish smile before vanishing from there. I went to the kitchen and accosted Vishnu’s mother who gave me a glass of black coffee.
‘Where’s Vishnu?’ I asked her. His room, like mine, was on the first floor but in the opposite wing. On my way downstairs, I had checked if I could spoil his sleep but found only his well-made bed.
‘He’s gone out.’
‘So early…?’
‘Yes, he left at six.’
‘Where’s he gone?’
She did not reply. I guessed that Vishnu must have told her to keep me in the dark. He could be childish, most of the time.
I persisted, ‘Where…?’
She gave up, ‘Rajendran… the tea-shop guy?’
‘Yes…?’
‘He died last night.’
‘How…?’
‘Someone found him in the quarry…’
‘What happened? Did he fall?’
Her shrug indicated that a fall would be the most agreeable explanation. I left for the shop soon after.
Vishnu was not there at the tea-shop. The road and the depot were deserted. Nearly all the shops, except for a few market stalls and Maryamma’s shop, were still closed at that early hour. Maryamma was standing outside her shop surveying the area with a scowl. I went up to her and enquired if she had seen Vishnu. She told me that she had seen Vishnu darting between the mortuary and the police station. I decided to wait at the tea-shop.
A group of tourists came at eight, as usual. The little girl was not around to greet them. At nine, I saw Vishnu coming from the mortuary. He gave me a brief nod before racing towards the police station. I remained seated there on my bench. The place came alive gradually and people went about their business hardly acknowledging that one amongst them had died. At ten, like a daily ritual, there was the next installment in the fight between a man and his wife. The man stood swaying outside the bar with bloodshot eyes hardly open. His wife came onto the scene and asked him if he had taken her money yet again. She complained loudly that he had taken the money kept for their kids’ school-fees or medicines or whatever. The volume of her lamentation increased with each passing minute. When she started to beat her own chest and head, the man raised a hand and slapped her face. I nearly stood up to intervene or, at least, protest. But a hand on my shoulder restrained me.
I turned around to see Vishnu standing behind me, looking tired but otherwise impassive.
‘That bastard deserves a thrashing,’ I indicated the drunkard with a jerk of my head.
‘It’s not your fight,’ Vishnu said, disinterested.
I stared at him wondering how he could remain unbothered by the sight of that drunkard slapping his poor wife. I decided not to argue with him about that then and reverted to the main issue,
‘So, what happened to Rajendran?’
‘It seems he fell and smashed his head in the quarry.’ Vishnu didn’t sound convinced. ‘That’s what the police are saying… and the preliminary medical report agrees with that conclusion.’
‘What was he doing in that quarry?’ I asked.
‘Who cares…?’ Vishnu swore.
I decided to leave the topic for the moment. We had lots to do and Vishnu asked me to help him get stuff from the market for the last rites. Vishnu had to get the body released and then take care of the cremation, too. Sarada and a few other friends also pitched in. One of those friends, and not Vishnu or Sarada, told me that they – Vishnu, Sarada, Rajendran and the other friends there – had studied in the village school around the same time.
Rajendran was a bachelor and the only family he had was his sister, that little girl’s mother. I saw Rajendran’s sister before the cremation. She seemed to be in shock, silent, tears pouring down her thin face. A few mourners or curious observers gathered there raised the required wails and such. But that did not last long and an eerie quiet lay like a shroud over the place. I did not see the little girl anywhere, or her father.
We got back home around seven, took bath and had the first proper meal of the day. After that, we sat outside in the cool night air. Sarada faced her own courtyard where her son was playing. I sat between her and Vishnu’s mother. Vishnu lay on the ground with his hands behind his head.
Sarada asked Vishnu, ‘What happened?’
‘I don’t know for sure,’ Vishnu said. ‘I told that idiot I would talk to Natarajan. Why couldn’t he wait? I told him that I would talk to him about Parah (rock) Suresh.’
Parah Suresh…?’ I enquired.
‘That’s the girl’s father, Rajendran’s brother-in-law,’ Vishnu replied.
Parah…?’ I repeated.
The others remained silent for a while. Sarada then explained, ‘He uses a rock to bash the head of anyone who stands up to him… an animal.’
‘Was Rajendran killed?’ I asked Vishnu.
‘Then what…? He just fell in that quarry…?’ Vishnu retorted angrily.
‘Well, he used to drink, right?’ I tried to reason.
‘Yes, he used to drink,’ Vishnu said, ‘but even so, why should he go to that quarry five kilometers away… what for? To fly…?’
‘Did you tell the police about your suspicion?’ I asked.
The other three looked at me as if I had said something stupid.
‘Does Natarajan know?’ Vishnu’s mother asked her son.
‘He is out of station, expected back only tomorrow.’ Vishnu then looked at Sarada and I saw her responding with a brief nod.
During that stay, I learned quickly that much of the communication that took place around me was not meant for me. It was also clear that I was not supposed to quiz them about all the stuff they would not say in simple words. For example, why did Sarada seem to be the link between Natarajan and Vishnu? Normally, I would not have left it at that. Some people believe that others would do what is decent. I prefer to believe that if I left matters to others’ discretion, I would remain ignored. But just then, at the end of an exhausting day, I thought it would be prudent to let them have it their funny way.
We retired a short while later. I lay awake for a long while thinking about Rajendran and his niece. I made a mental note to ask Vishnu or Sarada about the girl. I drifted off to sleep cursing myself for forgetting that till then.
Next morning, after breakfast, we were back in Rajendran’s closed tea-stall. Vishnu had a few errands to take care of for his mother – rubber sheets to sell, money to be deposited in the co-operative bank and such. I waited at my seat outside the tea-stall watching the same old play on the same old stage. Life went on as usual. Like clockwork, the drunkard appeared outside the bar around ten in the only way he could face the world any day, swaying and inebriated. His wife too entered the scene at the right cue. The pleading gave way to loud wailing and the beating of the chest and the head ensued, as if by rote, and his slap too. It was all too much for me. I just couldn’t allow that show to go on.
I got up from my seat and approached the couple. I shouted at the man and gave him the full sermon within me. It took a while for him to shift his dazed drunken gaze towards me. He looked at me as if I was a madman. I focused on the man and I did not notice when his wife stopped wailing. I should have kept an eye on that aggrieved party and I realized that quickly when my back suffered a barrage of hard slaps. I turned around to face her flailing arms. She multitasked effectively, beating, shouting loudly and berating me. She accused me of abusing her and trying to harm her dear life, namely, her husband. It was my turn to have a dazed look. A highly amused crowd gathered around us. The woman refused to give up, and even seemed to gain in volume and indignation. I kept on moving backwards, trying to avoid her. I tried to reason with her. Or to be factually right, as I started on that endeavor that frail woman gave me a firm shove. I, along with my reasoning, went into free fall. I tripped and fell back into a shallow pit by the side of the road. It wasn’t much of a fall and I should have escaped with just an injured mind. But, caught unawares, I landed heavily and clumsily, feeling every pebble that greeted my backside and worse, twisted my ankle too. It would have been better if I had hit my head and passed out with a concussion. I would not have had to see that woman’s rather happy face before she walked away with her equally blissful comrade-in-arms. The crowd didn’t give up that easily. I really tickled their funny bone. Vishnu’s head also appeared in that milieu. I was kind of glad to see that he was not laughing, like the rest, though his disgruntled and irritated look was hardly comforting.
I raised my arm towards him and with much reluctance he stepped forward to help me get up. I stood up rather precariously on one foot. He half-carried me to the government hospital, muttering all the while how inconvenient and stupid I was and that I purposefully did all that I could do just to spoil his vacation. I told him to stop nagging. He nearly dumped me on the road.
At the hospital, it took a while for me to get the required tender loving care. I learned from an attendant that there were two doctors on duty and that one was attending to ‘an actually serious case’. I did not like the insinuation about my injury and I liked the situation even less when Vishnu refused to take me to the other available doctor. Finally, when I threatened to hop over on my own, he gave in and roughly carried me to that doctor’s room, as if he was trying to drive home some point with his callousness.
The other turned out to be a lady doctor, a dusky beauty who seemed even more attractive because she kept glaring rather viciously at Vishnu. They looked like two dogs baring their fangs at each other. I cleared my throat to get some attention. I explained about my delicate ankle. She did not seem terribly impressed with my delicate nature. In fact, she hardly asked anything. But she did manage to convey her thoughts with the way she treated me. She was competent at her job but some of her prods and squeezes were definitely unwarranted and so obviously malicious that it managed to extract a manly wail from me. Vishnu stayed rooted near the door, with his back towards us. I understood her need to vent anger at that insolent back and I would have been more sympathetic and even supportive if she had chosen some other way to attack.
Much later during that trip, I got to know from Sarada a little about the history between those two. That lady doctor is Natarajan’s daughter and in the distant past, she and Vishnu were lovers. They were intimate till the death of her brother.
‘Was it because of that goon, her father?’ I asked Sarada.
‘What about him?’
‘Did he put a stop to their affair?’
Sarada laughed and said, ‘You watch a lot of movies, huh? Natarajan isn’t the kind who settles grievances through his daughter. Further, his daughter is definitely not the type to get cowed down by a father.’
‘Yeah, that fits with what I experienced…’ I grimaced at the memory, ‘then, what happened?’
‘I don’t know,’ Sarada replied.
‘Oh, come on… don’t black me out on that too.’ I was quite fed up of being left out on all the interesting stuff.
‘No, really, I do not know. Do you think Vishnu or that girl will talk about that with anyone?’ she asked.
‘Hmm…’
Sarada noted my sulk with amusement. She offered, ‘I think they had a confrontation after her brother died. Probably, she abused him like her father. I guess you know that those two hate each other.’ She quickly gathered that I had been kept unfairly ignorant about the details of that affair too, ‘Well, Natarajan thinks that his son died because of Vishnu.’ She refused to divulge more about that but continued with the earlier thread, ‘Well, you know Vishnu… he is not really the benevolent, understanding type, right? He lashed back at them, without considering their loss. If I am not mistaken, he never tried to mend fences. She didn’t give him much time either. She married, and that of course made him hate her even more.’
I had to support my friend, ‘Ah! She deserves that hate then. Hope she married some oaf.’
Sarada seemed surprised with my response, ‘A nice loving guy actually. They have two kids. But, she is still the same volatile stuff. My guess is that she hates Vishnu even more because she has a lovely family.’
‘Crazy… and all very complicated.’
‘I agree.’ Sarada laughed. ‘But then, the interesting ones are always so, right?’
If I had known all that when I was in the doctor’s room, it would have helped me to remain calm and amused when the doctor tortured me firmly and slowly. Vishnu left the room after some time leaving me at her mercy. To be fair, she was good at her job and she mellowed down in his absence. In a jiffy, she had my leg immobile in plaster and then, dismissed me with a curt nod and the bare minimum in words. She managed a smile-cum-snarl when I thanked her. That half-smile was probably brought on after seeing me exit hopping on one leg. I expected Vishnu’s helping hand outside. I saw him leaning against a pillar in the front corridor, browsing through some leaflet. He looked up, saw me and continued to read his leaflet. I hopped over to the pillar. He gave me his usual irritated look. He left me leaning against that pillar and went to the pharmacy-cum-cashier to settle the bills.
When he returned, he looked as if he had seen a ghost. He looked worried, angry and agitated. His wild-eyed daze was unsettling. I think I saw tears too. I knew that that could not be because of me. I looked around.
I saw the little girl, Rajendran’s niece, standing at the end of that corridor, nearly hidden from my view. She was wearing a new, bright, gaudy dress. She was not smiling. There was lipstick on her mouth and some cheap makeup on her face. I looked at Vishnu, seeking some explanation.
‘Her mother is in the ward, thrashed black and blue…’ Vishnu managed to say through clenched teeth. His hands were trembling. I had seen that anger once before, when he faced a rotten real-estate goon in Mumbai and crazily challenged that man and his half-crazy mob to go ahead and kill him. His anger had seemed suicidal then and I sensed that it was building to that same state there. I felt a presence behind me and turned to find the lady doctor near us. She too was watching Vishnu. 
This tableau took place in the crowded front corridor of the hospital. It was interrupted when a man entered the hospital compound. He stood near the entrance, staring at the little girl.
‘So, there you are, you rascal,’ he shouted at the girl. I guessed that that man was her father, Parah Suresh. ‘Didn’t I tell you to stay put at the resort? And I had to learn from the guests that you had run away, you good for nothing.’ That man did not look at us or anyone else there. Those in his vicinity moved away.
Vishnu climbed down from the corridor and approached the man. I heard the doctor shout from behind me, ‘Vishnu, don’t…’
The next scene just rolled out as if in fast motion, crazily driven by adrenalin or some latent instinct of wild animals. Vishnu charged flinging himself against Suresh, catching the man unawares and the two went down in a heap. They rolled in the dusty courtyard, grappling for a hold, scratching, gouging and trading body blows. The man broke away from Vishnu’s hold, rolled away and then, they got up staring at each other.
Vishnu had clear disadvantages: a head shorter, twenty kilos lighter and also, without a lifetime of violence and sheer use of brawn. But Vishnu managed to impress me with his repertoire of punches and feints. As a friend, I wanted to step in and help him. Maybe, without a foot in plaster, I would have had fewer excuses not to; or, I would have told myself that it was not just Vishnu’s fight. I stood there embarrassed, feeling guilty about not doing anything about my own rage and feeling sad in a pathetic way while I watched Vishnu give and take blows. I also knew that an ineffective intervention could work against Vishnu because the brute could feel threatened and become even more vicious.
At first, Vishnu managed to use his agility and small build to parry and evade. But the blows he received started to have effect. He was tiring faster than his brawny opponent. The bigger man then used his bulk to good effect. He rushed Vishnu and crashed into him in a flying tackle, letting Vishnu’s torso bear the man’s full weight. Vishnu fell over backwards and his head hit the ground with a sickening thud. I closed my eyes and hoped that the big man would ease off and leave Vishnu alone. When I opened my eyes, I was glad to see that Vishnu was still breathing and conscious. But he was still down, curled up like a foetus, and the brute was giving brutal and savage kicks. Then, Parah Suresh stopped, and looked around the compound. He walked towards a small garden patch, dislodged a heavy rock from the garden’s boundary and came back with that. He gave Vishnu’s chest another kick. Then the brute squatted on one knee, raised the stone, ready to crush the skull before him.
‘Enough…!’ That order came from behind the crowd, in the direction of the compound’s entrance.
In the early stages of that fight, I had noticed when the lady doctor left her position for a short while. But later, while watching Vishnu get pulverized, I had failed to notice the arrival of a car with a middle-aged guy and two other men. Those two could have been mistaken for accountants but something in their eyes or their walk said differently. One seemed old, shriveled like a prune, stooping and disconcertingly slow in movement and the other was bespectacled, young and hefty. From the way the crowd parted for those three, I guessed that it must be Natarajan and his men.
Parah Suresh got up and moved away from Vishnu. He dropped the rock. Natarajan went up to the prone figure of Vishnu. He studied the bloodied face and beaten body with a great deal of amusement and satisfaction. He prodded Vishnu’s body with a foot,
‘You should stick to your pens and books, useless wimp,’ Natarajan snarled with hardly disguised hate and an equal measure of glee.
Vishnu showed a bit of life and spat out blood towards the older man.
‘Bastard…!’ Natarajan then looked up and found his daughter standing near me. He shouted at her, ‘Did you call me to save this piece of shit? What for…?’
Meanwhile, his two men had been talking to a person in the crowd, a man I did not know by name but who I had seen at Rajendran’s tea-shop. The two henchmen approached their boss. The older man whispered whatever they had learned of the situation. Natarajan took in the information and stood silent for a while. Then, he walked up to Parah Suresh. For a man so slight, his backhand slap seemed to have surprising power. The brute moved back and it was rather remarkable watching that bigger man fall to his knees, sniveling, crying and begging for mercy.
‘You want mercy…?’ Natarajan asked before giving the kneeling man another resounding slap. His two aides went to his side. The older one touched his boss’s elbow. Natarajan turned towards him. The older man shook his head slightly and that seemed to restrain Natarajan from taking on the task himself. He looked at his two aides and with just a brief turn of his hand indicated that they should take away Parah Suresh. That man continued to beg for mercy and hardly protested when the two men dragged him away.
Natarajan turned away and shifted his attention to Vishnu. The hate or dislike was still there on that face but there was something else too; maybe, that’s what respect for one’s enemy looks like. Under the watchful eyes of the doctor, Vishnu was taken inside on a stretcher. Vishnu was hardly in a position to protest about her presence near him but I think he still managed to snarl at her.
Natarajan’s eyes then shifted to the tiny form of the girl who had watched the whole episode impassively. His shoulders stooped and his eyes looked wearier than usual. He ran his hands over his face and hair, as if he was trying to rub away some ache there. He then turned around and walked away from there, head bowed, shoulders drooping and with heavy steps.
I stayed in that village for three more days. Vishnu was discharged from hospital after two days. He seemed rather glad to hear that I was leaving and made Sarada reserve a taxi to take me to the city airport. I told him that he looked best shaken, stirred and pulverized. I got to know from Sarada that the little girl’s mother would survive. I asked her if Natarajan would help that mother and kid. She shrugged and evaded the topic. That again was not for a passive onlooker like me to know.
On the ninth day, I left Kadalil. As I went past that main street, I saw the little girl sell flowers to a set of tourists. I shook my head and the mirage vanished. Her eyes followed me, the eyes of that girl who called me ‘Friend monkey Mama’, and the eyes of that girl left even more lifeless than dead.