Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Being Bad

Appa, have you ever been bad?’ Smrithi, my ten year old daughter, asked during dinner.
Before I could reply, my wife butted in. ‘What have you been up to this time?’ she asked Smrithi.
‘Nothing…’ the young one mumbled but she withered under her mother’s unrelenting glare, ‘The Social Studies teacher is so boring. And not just that, she tells these stupid jokes we are supposed to find funny.’ She looked up at us. My wife had her impassive hangman’s look. I too tried to look serious. ‘Today, I was so bored. And when the teacher tortured us with another joke, I tried Appa’s laugh,’ she looked at me and I feigned ignorance, ‘you know, the way you laugh whenever Uncle Philip tries to tell a joke.’ My wife shifted her hangman’s eyes towards me. Smrithi continued, ‘Well, teacher walked out in a huff. Appa, wasn’t I bad?’
Once again, my wife did not let me answer. She scolded our daughter for behaving badly. I put in a nod once in a while.
Later, my daughter refused to let me off the hook, ‘Appa, have you ever been really bad?’
My wife sat with her arms crossed in front. I turned to face my daughter’s innocence. If she was a little older, I would have suspected her of laying a trap for me. It was not difficult to cook up some insignificant bad stuff and I think I performed my fatherly act quite well. I thought of putting in a moral at the end but decided against over-acting. My wife and daughter looked pleased with my performance.
I still remember similar incidents in my childhood and the tales my parents told me. I believed them then. Maybe, their stories were true. Truth does not really matter, does it? Can I tell anyone everything – il buono, il brutto, il cattivo of my life? I don’t think so. Not to my daughter, when she is young; definitely not to my wife, young or old. But, I would love to share - at least, some parts. I don’t know why. Will it make that hidden life more real? Or, is it to shift that from the bad bin to the one labeled ok, if not good?
But then, that’s part of love, isn’t it? I mean, hiding, or just not revealing, a huge part of one’s life. After all, it is best to know a love well.
One has to be ready, though. The bad stuff has the habit of revealing itself, like a dead body escaping weights and shackles to resurface in a pond. There is nothing much one can do then.
What if I had told my daughter, and my wife, something true? If lucky, they might think I made it up. Will they think that it is not really that bad? Maybe, like a lot of family stuff, it will be hushed up till the silence eats away at the memory, leaving little. What if I had told them this…?
After school, I went to a college far from home. I guess that last part was the operative part for me – far from home. There, I got to know the power of religion, caste, color, language, class and beliefs. I was not naïve. But the fervent, radical and senseless grouping of youngsters, the youngest around seventeen and the oldest barely twenty two, was overwhelming. The main clubs were based on simple stuff like region or language. It was awful to see the crème de la crème of society enforce a tacit apartheid. The chanting at the campus temple seemed loud and combative, and the display of saffron or sandalwood paste just ostentatious. In that small campus village, the Christians’ orthodox Sunday school and the Muslims’ mandatory prayer meetings appeared resentful and vindictive. The left-leaning intelligentsia lived in their cuckoo-land, copycats, so obviously false but still fashionable. There was even a large snooty clique that followed Ayn Rand. In one way or the other, each group believed in their superiority and in subjugating others.   
For a month, I tried to fit in. I found the situation sickening. I stopped going to class. I felt homesick but I stopped writing letters to my parents, to punish myself or them. Well, I was just full of contradictions. And sick of the groups around me. That is when I joined a club.
It had no name and no motto. It had no specific reason to exist. There was no blood-oath or stupid costume or symbol or tattoo. One night, couple of seniors woke me up around midnight and asked me politely if I would like to attend a meeting. There were no speeches or explanations. That first night, I remained on the sidelines. I watched and learned. After a few meetings, I got involved more actively. In my second year, I knew how to spot and enlist.
The meetings were secret and rarely decided well-in-advance. The venues were varied - classrooms, labs and even open fields on the periphery of the campus. We knew each other but we were invisible to the outside. I never heard of a desertion from within. And I never heard an accusation voiced from without. There were whispers and rumors but those remained just that.
We used to gather around midnight, forming a wide circle. Two or three took charge of the night’s proceedings. The abducted were brought in, bound and blindfolded – juniors, batch-mates, seniors, acquaintances, even friends from some rabid group. They were made to stand in the middle and freed of restraint. If there was any lighting, that was focused on their faces blinding them and keeping us in the dark. They rarely tried to escape, or refused to comply. Our threats must have sounded convincing. Who wants to squat naked over an ant-hill with one end of a pen up the rectum and the other end disturbing the ants? The rumors must have helped too.
It was essentially a session of ragging. Once, we had a Hindu, a Muslim and a Christian. They stood in a triangle, facing each other and within arm’s reach. They had to explain to each other their religion and how they were different. And at the same time, slap each other, once to the right, then to the left. They were unsure at first but then it became a slanging match between the three. It was fascinating. The slaps grew harder and louder while they tried to sound sure and right about their religion. In another session, we had a left-wing guy and an Ayn Rand enthusiast. They were told to strip naked. They faced each other, with the right hand raised in a mock neo-Nazi salute, and the left hand holding and rubbing the other’s penis. The left-wing guy had to explain the life and works of Marx or Lenin or Mao or Stalin or whoever, and the other explained the virtues of capitalism, selfishness and super-heroes. They sweated, stuttered, their faces suffused with guilt and even pleasure, unable to prevent their erection and subsequent ejaculation. Every session had that mixture of rigid, unquestioning belief about superiority along with guilt or savage bestiality. 
We were not trying to achieve anything. We knew that those youngsters would turn out to be average middle-class or upper-class adults with similar suburban lives. And that they would continue to voice their commonplace opinions and stick to their groups, including some, excluding most.
I do not know why we meet. But we carry on.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Finding Company

I wanted to be her first. At half past ten, this morning, I used the office phone to make the international call. I pictured her in bed, tousled hair, waking up with that lovely impish smile, her sleepy sexy voice whispering my name. I let the phone ring for a minute. I disconnected and tried again. I got through.
I heard her voice. ‘Max, a G&T for me, please… Max, stop that…’ There was loud booming noise in the background.
‘Arpita…?’ I tried my deep husky voice.
‘Arpita…!’ I used my shrill shout.
‘Hmm… Max, there is someone on the phone… now, be a darling and get me that G&T…’
‘Happy Birthday, Arpita…’ I tried once again.  
‘Awww… thanks for remembering,’ she sounded pleased. ‘Max, stop it… you are tickling me.’ I wanted to know how this Max was tickling her with a G&T.
‘Who is Max?’ I asked.
‘Who is Max?’ I shouted.
‘Max? He is my… by the way, who is this?’ she asked.
‘Arjun…? From school…?’ she queried.
‘Been a long time…’
‘Hey, I can’t hear, ok…and the band is about to play…’
‘Which band plays at 6 am?’ I thought loudly. ‘Aren’t you in Berlin?’
‘I am in San Francisco…hey…let me catch you later, ok?’
I felt relieved. A Max tickling her at night in some club sounded better than a Max tickling her at 6 am. I held onto the phone for a while listening to the disconnected tone.  I was also glad that I used the office phone for that long call.
I concentrated on my work till lunch-time when I got a call from my sister.
‘Hey, did you know…?’ she asked without preamble.
‘Know what…?’ I inspected the measly cucumber sandwich in my lunch box.
‘Chandrika is gay… Molly Aunty told me just now…’ my sister kept on jabbering.
Chandrika was my first love. At age ten, I asked her about her inner wear. She told her mother who told my mother. I got spanked. We were separated. At age thirty, we met again. We went out for a few dates. We even went shopping together, for inner wear and other stuff. She told her mother who told my mother. This time, they hoped that we would get married. But, we went our separate ways.
That news left me terribly distressed. If she had met with a fatal accident, it would have been less inconvenient. I was left without a first love and I could not think of a replacement.
I checked my Inbox. There were no personal mails… as usual. I kept on working.
At half past four, I took a break. I phoned Sharmila. She is some relative’s family friend’s daughter. Or, is it some family friend’s relative’s daughter? Couple of months back, she came to me for career counseling. I did that at her house twice and once at a coffee-shop. I suggested a movie once but she was busy that day. I wanted to hear her soft, bubbly voice.
An old gravelly voice came on the line, ‘Who is it?’
‘This is Arjun, aunty,’ I told her mother.
‘Ah, Arjun…’ I waited for her to continue but she did not.
‘Aunty, is Sharmila there?’ I asked.
‘She is in Macau.’
‘Has she gone there for work?’
‘Why didn’t you come for the wedding?’ she asked.
‘Ah…I was out of station…’ I lied and ended the call. I thought about the many reasons Sharmila must have had not to tell me about her wedding. That seemed easier than thinking that she had no reason at all.
Work got over before six. I left office at eight. It looked better that way. In these bad times, even the unemployed get home late.
I got to my door at nine, tired and sad without company. I rang the bell. My wife opened the door.
 ‘Ah, look at what the cat brought in…’ she teased. ‘Come on, now, another tough day…?’
I nodded my head and sat slumped at the dining table, too weary to change or wash. I hardly heard my wife’s rambling account of her day, till…
‘Guess who I met at the supermarket this morning,’ she sounded terribly pleased, ‘Gaurav… remember Gaurav… the guy who was after me in college? He lives in this area, you know. In fact, he used to work close to your office. He is now between jobs. Chucked out, it seems. You have not been chucked out, right?’ I shook my head. She continued, ‘He is married and has got three kids…’ Her voice was building up to the grand climax. ‘Guess what he did… he made a pass at me… he asked me to have lunch with him… I know that he is depressed and all that… but still… I laughed out loud… I just could not stop myself… he looked devastated.’ My wife laughed.
I laughed too. It felt nice to have the company of that guy who had a bad day, maybe worse than mine.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Made in Heaven

Nit Wit lives in a tough neighborhood. It is so tough people have given up on terrestrial hopes. They have to hang on to the designs of the stars above.
They do not start tasks or journeys when the gods frown gloomily in the inauspicious one and a half hours each day. At a very young age, kids are taught the mnemonics to calculate those hours.
Mother Saw Father Wearing The Turban Successfully,’ they chant and quickly compute – Monday 7:30-9:00, Saturday 9:00-10:30...
Teachers quiz them, ‘When is it on Tuesday?’
The kids are quick with the reasoning and ready with that life-saving detail, ‘Tuesday? Turban! Successfully, Sunday, is the last, 4:30-6:00. Turban is right before Successfully, and so, on Tuesday it is from 3:00-4:30 in the afternoon.’
Kids are also taught how to read the moon. They learn that life depends on the day they spot the crescent after the new moon. They memorize the chant to remember the significance of spotting the crescent on Sunday to Saturday respectively,
Sugam (wellness), jalam (idiocy), mrithi (death), bhayam (fear), vitham (money), kandharam (marital bliss), aapthi (sadness)…. sugam, jalam, mrithi, bhayam, vitham, kandharam, aapthi….’ They repeat that till that utterance is as familiar as Ma or Pa.
Naturally, people there do not look up at the sky on Tuesdays, fearing the crescent’s signal of mrithi (death). And, of course, they refuse to look down on Thursdays, hating to miss a chance for vitham (financial gains). Newly-weds extend that period of crescent-gazing to Friday too, still optimistic that kandharam (marital bliss) is in their stellar path.
There are rules to decide good and bad days for every type of activity. It is not good for a host to receive a guest on Mondays and Wednesdays, though it is good for the guest to visit. On Saturdays, the visit is fine for the host but bad for the guest. On those days, people avoid visits to enquire about anything good, like pregnancy and promotion, and anything bad, like death and sickness. Then, on Tuesdays and Fridays, guests are not supposed to leave a host’s house. On Tuesdays and Fridays, money transactions are also avoided because the stars assure a rapid change in fortune. Lenders will become creditors before the day is over if they tempt fate. Even creditors refuse to accept any windfall on those two days, preferring to remain in the uncertain misery of debt rather than incur the certain wrath of the stars.
Nit Wit, like the others, learned the chants and followed the rules of his neighborhood religiously. He used to be known by his full name then – Nithyananda Withananda (meaning: always with joy or god, doubly emphasized). During the last IT boom, his firm sent him to the West for six months on an offshore posting. There, for the benefit of his fair colleagues who had difficulty with names extending beyond monosyllables, he became Nit Wit. He continued with that shorter version even after returning to these shores which he did for his own benefit. He realized that that name and his foreign trip had made him a very eligible bachelor. He and his folks searched far and wide in that neighborhood and chose the best girl. There was only one hurdle left to cross.  
He and his fiancée had to get the blessing and, more importantly, the fitness certificate with ‘Made in Heaven’ from the Wise Chief of the neighborhood, the astrologer. It took two weeks to get an appointment with that very important person. On the first appointment, the astrologer studied their birth charts and fears. He prescribed general cures and rituals for common ills and mismatches. He took his fees and additional charges for goodwill. They got their fitness certificate after half a dozen visits and payments. The families were happy with their score of ninety per cent. The astrologer had ticked the nine boxes for health, good social life, good children, prosperity, sexual compatibility, prosperous children, inseparable temperament, avoiding death and avoiding evil effects of marriage (whatever that might be). He had not ticked the box for quality of life. But he suggested ways and rituals to correct that aberration and offered to perform the pujas himself. He gave the young couple his blessings after the final payment of fees plus a large bonus.
Nit Wit got married. As expected, the quality of their life was not good. His parents went back to the astrologer. When that one box started affecting health, social life and delivery of children, his wife’s parents also went to the great, busy man. Finally, when sexual compatibility and prosperity also got affected, his wife went to the astrologer.
She came back with a piece of paper. It had four lines. Though written in English, the words sounded like Sanskrit.
‘What does it mean?’ Nit Wit asked his wife.
‘I do not know. He said it will help us have kids,’ she replied. ‘We have to chant it twice…before and after…’
‘Before and after sex…?’ he asked seriously, wondering if they would be able to perform with such foreplay.
‘Oh no…’ she blushed. ‘Morning and night… before breakfast and after dinner, I think…’
So, they tried that too. But it had adverse side-effects. Their inseparable temperament was compromised and finally, struggling with mounting frustration and antagonistic irreconcilable incompatibility, even death or murder seemed possible. Nit Wit lost his job and more than half his wealth in the divorce that followed.
After that case was over Ni Wit visited an old acquaintance Sandeep, known in the ‘quotation’ business under the moniker ‘Hurricane’ Sandy and reputed to be as devastating and brutal. Nit Wit asked for a ‘quote’ on the astrologer.
‘What exactly do you want?’ the anti-social asked Nit Wit.
‘Break his legs,’ Nit Wit replied.
‘Ok,’ the rowdy stated a price. Nit Wit thought for a long while. The hoodlum tried a better ‘quote’, ‘We are giving great offers this season – take one, get one free. So, hands are included in the deal.’ Nit Wit still seemed unsure. ‘This recession has been hurting us a lot,’ the poor ruffian explained, ‘ok, here’s the final deal – an extra bonus added. We will bash his face, too.’
Nit Wit nodded and paid the advance to seal the contract. Hurricane Sandy took a week to complete his task. He is a perfectionist.
Two weeks later, the astrologer returned home from the hospital. He was still bed-ridden and well-plastered from head to toe. Nit Wit paid a visit to enquire about the astrologer’s health. He chose an inauspicious Monday for that visit.
He gave the astrologer the old piece of paper and said softly, ‘You should recite these four lines of Sanskrit throughout the day. If not, these attacks will happen again. Your Saturn crossed Pluto or whatever, you know.’
Nit Wit has joined the anti-social ranks. His attacks are not physical. He visits people on inauspicious days, at inauspicious hours too, darkening their days ahead, leaving them trembling with fear about impending gloom and doom. He tricks people to look at the crescent on those days when death or sadness is assured.
In that tough neighborhood, people now fear Nit Wit the most.

A Sensible Case

I was in the news recently. My fifteen minutes of fame came with the title, ‘Loveless man kills lovely colleague’.  The article suggests that a lowly, inept, married office-guy murdered a hardworking, middle-class, single girl because she spurned his amorous advances. When put that way to readers, the senseless killing is supposed to make sense. But the details are slightly misplaced, and the picture that emerges is like a jigsaw puzzle loosely fitted with a few missing pieces. I believe that the whole truth presents a more sensible case.   
Let me start my account on the day before the killing.
That day started well. I had slept well and got a decent breakfast. The sky was blue and cloudless. Birds were chirping. The morning promised a cool, dry day ahead. I walked to the office, feeling good, with a spring in my step. At the entrance, the security guards greeted me cordially and I returned the same. I hummed in the lift. I got out on the main floor. The receptionist was arranging flowers in a crystal flower vase.
She looked up and said to me with a wonderful cheerful smile, ‘Good morning, sir. How are you?’
I gave her a huge smile and said, ‘Very good. How are you?’
‘Have a lovely day, sir.’
‘You too…’ I said.
I went to my office, still humming. I logged in to my computer and checked my e-mails. The good times ended then.
There was a mail from HR with the notification ‘Urgent’ in red. The mail ordered me to meet the Head of HR as soon as I reached office. I went there, uneasy but still hopeful. When I was made to wait for fifteen minutes, I knew that the trouble was serious. The Head greeted me with a nod and a very serious, ‘How are you?’ She told me to take a seat. I sat perched on the edge. She read out the charge against me. A junior colleague had complained of sexual harassment.
I tried to explain, ‘She came to me regarding some issues at work. She was crying and looked devastated.’
 The Head asked me, ‘Did you fondle the junior?
I protested, ‘What rubbish!’
‘Don’t shout.’
‘I am sorry. But I did not fondle her.’
‘Did you touch her?’ she quizzed me.
‘I did sit next to her. When she seemed inconsolable, I must have comforted her.’
‘She says that you held her roughly and refused to let go even when she protested. She had to punch you, she says.’
‘She punched me…?’ I repeated, incredulous.
‘So, you admit that she punched you,’ the Head pounced.
‘I didn’t say that. There was a question mark at the end.’
‘Question mark or not, this is a very serious affair. There will be an enquiry. Till then, do not make any attempts to approach this colleague.’
I was dismissed. I returned to my office, dazed. But I didn’t get a chance to think. I received a call from a Tokyo boss.
Without intonation or emphasis, his monotonous voice informed me that he was not pleased with the work my team did for him. I told him that I will look into the matter with urgency. He ended the call after telling me that I have a day to sort out the issue. Only then did I recollect that the team-member working for the Tokyo boss was the same junior who accused me of sexual harassment. Once again, I hardly got time to think about how to approach the unapproachable.
A divisional head wanted me to attend to his mails and requests. Then the London office opened and the situation worsened. It seemed like a global conspiracy when later in the evening the US office raised similar concerns about my team management. I had fourteen hours of fire-fighting, unable to dowse any fire, choking in the smoke, oh damn that metaphor. That’s the gist of what happened in office.
  I got home at half past nine. I faced a wife suffering from migraine and an even more debilitating bout of suspicion. I tried to eat. She tried hard and succeeded to spoil my dinner. We fought till midnight. Without calling truce, we retired for the night, the air still grumpy and heavy. A kid next door decided to wake up at regular intervals to bawl. Its parents mollycoddled or ignored the kid instead of giving it a good whack. When that abated at around three, a stray dog started wailing about its sad state. At half past four, some neighbors returning from or departing to a vacation decided to share their inebriated exuberance with the whole apartment. Their good cheer blackened my grey mood. At half past five, I got up tired to face a new day. I found that there was no water or electric supply. My wife raised herself briefly at seven or thereabouts to continue her haranguing. At half past seven, I left home without breakfast, unwashed and unshaven.
If the day before gave false promises, that muggy morning was more true. After a cloudburst, the drains were overflowing and the roads were flooded. The birds were silent. The sky looked as dirty as the muddy ground. My car refused to start. I was in no mood to walk but I had to because taxi and auto-rickshaw drivers were on some flash strike. It was still drizzling.
The security lot greeted me cordially but I ignored them. In the lift, I stamped my wet, squishy shoes.
I got out on the main floor. I approached the receptionist. I wanted to leave my wet umbrella there to dry. The crystal vase had a fresh bouquet of flowers and it stood on a pedestal above the receptionist’s desk. That failed to cheer me.
The receptionist looked up, with her lovely smile and cheerful greeting, ‘Good morning, sir. How are you this morning?’
I am not really sure what happened next. Her good cheer triggered something – that’s all I can remember. Possibly, some dam within burst, letting out all the pent-up emotions and I waved my umbrella at her in frustration. Or, I inadvertently pressed the umbrella’s release and it opened.
The umbrella hit the precariously placed vase which crashed on the desk and shattered. A long jagged splinter pierced the receptionist’s jugular. The first witness on the scene apparently saw me retrieving that from her throat. That witness added a little garnish and also mentioned that I was seen stabbing the lady with that splinter. The receptionist died before she could refute such an accusation.
As you can see, the devil is in the details. A lovely girl did die. A loveless man did kill. I could be described as lowly. It is possible that I expressed my love to a colleague who spurned my romantic advances but sadly, she was not the one who died. Of course, I did not admit that but then I did not have to. My report card from every quarter described me as inept. Not a single good word was said about me, at office or at home.
Well, do you not think the truth presents the affair in a simple but cogent way? Or, are the scribes right in saying that the truth is too complicated and rarely makes a sensible case?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Arranging An Affair

He is 28, 5’8’’, stable in India, well-educated, well-groomed and well-employed. She is 24, 5’4’’, fair, slim, attractive and upper middle-class with traditional values.
He was her parents’ first choice. Eager to have their kids close to them, ready to take care of the property and wealth, they wanted a boy working in India. When they inspected his impressive CV, they could not believe their luck in finding a wonderful specimen of that rare non-migratory breed.
She came second in his rank-list. His parents had vetoed his first choice (‘Heavy top and bottom’, his mother said. His father had not liked that fair girl’s dark-complexioned father or her homemaker-mother with ‘no status in society’).
His first impression of the second choice was, as expected, rather unfavorable (‘she is flat’, he had complained).  Then, he fell for her dimpled smile.
She remained unimpressed but she was pragmatic and decided to like him despite his ‘doggy dodgy dowdy’ look. She also hated the way he loudly chewed, chomped and slurped food. She kept her head demurely lowered then.
But on a ‘date’ on the Net, as they were then, all was well. He could see her dimpled smile. She was spared his vigorous mastication.
‘Papa and Mama will kill me if they know that I am here… with you,’ she said coyly. She did not tell him that her parents had got her a high-speed internet connection just for this purpose.
‘Oh really… my parents are cool about this,’ he said. His mother had warned him not to get ‘snared’ before ‘the final deal’. He saw this as his first, and probably last, chance for an indiscretion of any sort with a girl.
They chatted and flirted. Then, they got down to business.
‘Are you sure you will get a posting in London next year?’ she asked. He was quite sure she had asked him that question at least thrice before during that chat. Before her dazzling dimpled smile, his memory wilted.
‘Definitely,’ he replied confidently. Most unlikely, he wanted to add. He did not want to make that smile fade.
‘I want to study at the LSE, you know…’ she told him excitedly.
‘Well, don’t say that to my parents, ok?’ he advised.
‘My parents will hit the roof first if that gets out,’ her smile broadened. Then, she asked him, ‘Your parents are coming home this Sunday, right?’
‘Ah yes, I wanted to talk to you about that. You see, they will fix it for Sunday evening but they plan to surprise you all on Saturday morning.’
‘Why would they do that?’ she queried.
‘They want to see your family in a natural state,’ he replied sheepishly.
‘Natural?’ she sounded incredulous.
‘You know… without being decked up or totally prepared…’ He paused. She knew that he was going to say something disagreeable. ‘Can you make idli and chutney?’
Idli and chutney?’ she repeated once again, quite like a parrot.
‘Just show them that you can cook traditional breakfast, will you?’ he pleaded.
‘Don’t worry… I will get it from the Udupi hotel early morning,’ she comforted him.
‘Ok, that will do…’ he gave a sigh of relief.
‘By the way…’ she said.
‘My parents are going to offer the house in the city,’ she informed him.
‘That’s lovely,’ he replied.
‘No, it is not,’ she said firmly before continuing, ‘that house is old and there is no water supply in that area. Tell your folks to ask for the one in the suburbs, ok? That is new and bigger. I think they are keeping that better one for my younger sister.’
He nodded sagely and admired her smile. They were going to make a good team, he thought.