Saturday, June 15, 2013

No Bridge Over Stormy Water

‘Hi there,’ she said.
‘Hullo!’ It’s possible I said it before her.
 ‘Been a long time…’
‘Yeah, old ghosts rising…’
‘Who’s old? Not me…’
‘Not noticed anything sagging?’
‘I see you haven’t changed.’
‘Who changes?’
‘The sane do…’
‘The clever do… so, how’s life?’
‘Not bad at all. And you?’
‘Staying alive… Are you still in the same place?’
‘No, my brother stays there. But we stay close by…’
‘In the family property…?’
‘Old loot…’
‘Still got that chip on your shoulder…?’
‘Who… me…? Not at all…’
‘It used to be there…’
‘Well, lots of water gone under that bridge… stormy water…’
‘Even the bridge’s gone…’
‘True… anyway… what’s new? I think I saw your photo in the paper recently…’
‘Ha… for that fund-raiser, I guess… just a pain!’
‘You are VP or something, right?’
 ‘Wow… you have done well.’
‘What do you do these days?’
‘The same… freelance.’
‘In what…?’
‘Nothing… just free, that’s all…’
‘You’ve two kids, right?’
‘Yeah, the same ones...’
‘And… the same husband…?’
‘You are well-informed…’
‘Is he that chap I met…?’
‘Who did you meet?’
‘You were weeping on some guy’s shoulder then…’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘Oh, nothing…’
‘Whatever… how about you… any luck so far?’
‘Freelancer in that, too…’
‘Found anything to lance… or, just free?’
‘Mostly free… by choice…’
‘Whose… what…?’
‘Whose choice…?’
‘Mine, of course…’
‘That’s a change, right?’
‘Well, choice has been better since then…’
‘Good for you…’
‘So, this husband… is it that doctor chap?’
‘What happened to the guy in between…?’
‘In between what…?’
‘That weeping willow came after me, right?’
‘After you…? When did you enter the picture?’
‘Aha… so, it’s like that now… well, history is there to be rewritten…’
‘What history are you blabbering about?’
 ‘You have changed… or maybe, you haven’t…’
‘You certainly haven’t…’
‘Ok then… stay young… say hi to the doctor chap…’
‘Yeah, yeah… you stay free…’

Friday, June 14, 2013

Private Eye

 The day he got promotion, and a handsome raise, he hired a private investigator. For some time, the situation at home had been troubling him. The calm and apparent well-being had become as unbearable as water drip-drip-dripping on the head in some dark desolate dungeon. When the company of his wife and kids was as peaceful as solitude, the threat seemed imminent.
The snoop asked him if he wanted full-day or half-day coverage. He asked for half-day. He thought he could monitor his family’s physical and virtual activities when he was at home. But after a week, when the daily reports did not raise any doubt or suspicion, he changed it to the full-day plan. That did not yield results either. He was fair though. He did note in those reports the easy to miss small gestures of tender love and care from his wife and kids towards him even in his absence. He could not suppress his happiness.
But that did not dull his senses. He knew of the many possible twists in the tale. The private eye could be doing nothing, he thought, other than billing him exorbitantly by the hour. Or they could all be in cahoots with each other. He wondered if his wife would run away with the snoop at the end of the tale. He took leave from office and snooped on the snoop snooping on his family. His endeavors revealed no twist.
As the expenses increased, he had to trust the reports. He terminated the PI’s services. Feeling secure, he enjoyed his family’s company. Seasons changed. Appreciation became mere acceptance. He missed the daily reports. On his own, he could not spot the signals, of threat or of love.
He knocked on the PI’s door once again. But the snoop had closed shop. His dejection dulled his senses even further. If the private eye had run away with his wife, he would have felt less unsure.   

ps. ‘Take a bow, Edward Snowden’, The Hindu, Editorial, June 14, 2013

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Foul Play

 A few months back, my uncle Hosappan told me that I look like Al Pacino. I should not have waited for the rest, ‘…do you remember that scene in Godfather when his face is all puffed up after the cop punches him?’
Others have got it worse. At her wedding reception, my cousin Mini reminded Hosappan of Dustin Hoffmann in Tootsie. That time, he did not even elaborate whether she resembled the actor in drag or as he was. Mini being the good sort took it lightly, at least then. The next morning she wanted to skewer Hosappan over hot coal, slowly. He had complimented her new husband, ‘You look like Woody Allen.’ How can any guy who looks like that thespian, without being him, put in a passable performance on the first night or any later?
My earliest recollection dates back to my seventh birthday. He told my parents that I looked adorable, ‘…exactly like that kid Damien in Omen.’ Many years later, I saw that movie and realized why my parents had ‘gifted’ me a separate bedroom on the night of that birthday, quite far from the others.
Yesterday, friends and relatives gathered to celebrate Hosappan’s birthday. Everyone came well-prepared with a barb. And, he was ready with his repartee, winning more than he lost.
He came up to me and challenged, ‘Well…?’
I said, ‘You don’t remind me of anyone…’
He smiled. I think I got that punch below his belt.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A Tough Act

Les Misérables was not known as Les Mis in those days. The teacher-in-charge of the Violet Club adapted a scene from that book for the Dramatics Competition. Knowing her students well, the teacher did not assume that they were familiar with the book. She summarized, ‘Jean Valjean spent nineteen years in jail for stealing bread to save his starving nephew. He has been released from prison. Alone in a world now strange to him, he knocks on a bishop’s door. Here, in this act, we will present the redemption of Jean Valjean.’
The actors were not impressed. But the teacher knew that the theme would go well with the Christian school authorities and the judges, mostly Hindus but well-meaning adults like her with a keen sense of morality and altruism, at someone’s expense if not one’s own. The teacher did not inform the students that Victor Hugo had faced opposition from the French public, and even his son, for including a bishop as the life-changer. She did not understand why the public of that time was against a Catholic bishop. Hugo’s son had suggested a lawyer, the teacher noted, laughing at the choice. She said to herself, ‘With a lawyer, Jean would have spent another nineteen years in jail.’ She had read in that same guide that Hugo had justified his choice by stating that the bishop was meant to be his ideal bishop, and not any real bishop. That confused her even further.
She had other pressing troubles too. The teachers-in-charge had to keep a close watch on the students. Such activities that put the young in close proximity for a few hours during or after school hours usually brought love in its wake. That was frowned upon in that school. In the Violet Club, that year, the teacher had more than her fair share of troubles because of love.
The one-act twenty-minute drama had two scenes and seven actors, Jean Valjean, the bishop, his sister, a housekeeper, a police inspector and two constables. There were also two girls to help the production as stage-hands.
There was no love lost between the students acting as Jean Valjean and the bishop. The bishop wanted Jean’s role knowing well that that was tailor-made for the best actor award. Jean reasoned with the bishop that he looked more thin and haggard, and that the bishop was too fat to be a prisoner out of jail after nineteen years, and added that the fat boy looked quite perfect to be a bishop. The bishop could not produce a counter-argument against such facts and accepted his lesser role. The rivalry between the two was further aggravated by a misunderstanding about love.
One of the stage-hands felt that Jean was in love with her. She sent word through the bishop telling him not to chase her around. Jean was surprised by that accusation but the harder he refuted it, the more convinced the others became of the love. The bishop chose to believe it because he had been secretly pining for the same stage-hand.
The bishop’s sister was a close friend of that allegedly chased after stage-hand and she too was ready to believe that Jean was up to no good. She herself was of the stern female variety, never ever thinking about love and never ever making others think of love towards her.
Meanwhile, the other stage-hand was desperately in love with Jean Valjean and she expressed herself quite openly. Jean took her aside one evening and told her that he could not love her. She loved his openness, she told him. Jean then told her that he could not love her because he knew that the bishop secretly loved her. That loving girl quickly shifted her attention to the padre. That affair worsened the relationship between the two main male actors. During the many arduous rehearsals, the bishop refused to look at Jean with a kindly eye and Jean Valjean found little in the bishop’s ways to change his life. The teacher was often heard praying, or cursing, ‘Only God knows what you all will do on stage.’
Then there was the housekeeper. Though the teacher had wanted a senior as housekeeper, she had to pick a colleague’s daughter from the junior classes. The teacher knew that the pretty young thing would hardly keep that house without a flutter. As expected, Jean Valjean was often left tongue-tied in her presence. But he declared to the others that he looked at the girl as the younger sister he never had. Unfortunately, for him, she took him seriously. The bishop did not declare any such thing but strangely, before he could even cast an amorous eye on her, the little one turned to him like a faithful in awe of a priest. As elder brother and priest, the two boys still showered their celibate attention, if not their randy thoughts, towards the housekeeper. Jean tried to make her act and gave up after the first week. The bishop told her kindly that her lines should be directed at the microphone and not to some inner soul. The teacher changed the script and reduced her lines and on-stage presence.
On stage, as in life, the three policemen remained untouched by such affairs. The inspector delivered his impassionate lines stiffly and the constables stood like statues. One young ruffian in the audience even booed that lot.
But, on the day of the competition, the main actors did well. Jean Valjean enthralled the audience as the prisoner for nineteen years known with just the number 24601. In the first scene, it was easy for him to be confused and furious with the bishop’s kind and seemingly spurious reception. Jean remained wary expecting the bishop to betray him in some way. He dined with the bishop, eating like a savage, and later that night, stole the bishop’s silver with determination but mixed emotions. In the second scene, the police catch him with the silver and bring him to the bishop’s house to confirm the theft. Jean looked exactly like a thief, struggling against the policemen, waiting for the bishop to hand him over to the police for stealing the silver and his love. Jean was actually surprised to see kindness in the bishop’s eyes. When the bishop tells the police that he had gifted the silver to Jean and hugs prisoner number 24601, Jean breaks down. The judges and the audience were equally convinced that he would be a changed man from then on. Even the bishop felt that Jean Valjean might not be so bad after all. In the two scenes, the bishop’s sister maintained her unhealthy suspicion towards Jean, rather than the good nature prescribed by the script, but that added an edge to the play, probably unexpected by Hugo or the teacher. The housekeeper flitted in and out charming the audience with her sweetness. 
The drama presented by the Violet Club won the first prize and Jean Valjean got the best actor award. Jean Valjean remained a bachelor in search of love, forever prisoner 24601 and in some gaol of his own construction, but far from any bishop. The bishop married well, found love, grew fatter and had his fair share of trials and tribulations. The bishop’s sister married, and to everyone’s surprise, she loved and was loved. The stage-hands joined that mainstream, leaving behind suspicions and affections, and lived happily ever after, not with each other though that would have been a lovely twist to the tale but with normal loving hardworking men who never acted. The pretty young thing remained pretty and broke many a heart before settling down with a man not her brother or her priest. The policemen remained so.  Many years later, the teacher still thought about that production and philosophically mused if all of life was like that, a tough act with an easy plot but complicated by actors following plots of their own and the end result always quite unpredictable.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The One That Stood Out

The space and light in the hall complemented the photographer’s exhibition. The artist interacted with the crowd, receiving praise and criticism, answering queries. Experts and laypersons mingled, admiring the distinctive style; each image a flawless execution of exposure, filters, speed, perspective and finish; a mixture of mesmerizing stillness and captivating action; lush landscape contrasted with brutal war, birth of society in graveyard towns, love’s embrace in death’s company.
But, at the center, where the pièce de résistance should have been, the crowd found a photograph incongruous and amateurish. They responded with bewilderment, embarrassment, protest, deference, speculation and dismissal.
The photograph was taken on cheap black-and-white film with an automatic camera of the use-and-discard variety. The background was a blurred mass of grimy faces, bodies and clothes of hopeless refugees, a dark heaving tired monster trudging forward. The out of focus picture showed a mother with a baby, cradled in her left arm, suckling at her bare breast. The photographer’s left hand can be seen, holding the mother’s right hand.
The artist explained, ‘We had been marching for a week. My mother was raped and murdered two days later. My sister was also killed then. I survived, and that camera.’
 The crowd listened politely. One remarked that it was sad. Another suggested that it seemed out of place.
He admitted, ‘I was very young.’

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

After The Kiss

If she had opened her mouth or even allowed a lizard-like flick of her tongue, I would have moved back protesting, ‘Brrrr… Byuk! Byuk! Byuk!’
Memories are supposed to gain a golden hue with time but, even though that first kiss is still a cherished trophy time has done little to erase those details. It didn’t matter then. I was focused on my goals. Like most guys of my generation (most won’t admit it), I wanted to smoke and kiss before thirteen, and have sex before sixteen. Later into my teens, I added a secondary list of priorities - money, booze, movies, music, books, studies and work (in that order). Even marriage, kids and whatever were included in a tertiary list when I felt altruistic and equally farsighted about cooking and washing on my own.
I did smoke at ten. I salvaged a half discarded by a family friend’s fifteen year old son. The kiss was delayed by a year. Jojo was sitting next to me. We were going through an album of photos. She was wearing a summer dress. I turned towards her, that is, to my left. I raised my left hand to her straight silky hair, caressed and tucked that lock shielding her face behind her right ear. She turned her head towards me. She looked uncertain and even a little alarmed. I stared at her face, her eyes and her lips. I leaned towards her. My right hand held her face. I pressed my lips against hers. It was a dry thin-lipped lingering touch. She kept her eyes closed. I closed mine too, for a few moments before its abrupt end. It wasn’t much of a kiss. But that’s how Jojo’s mother found us, and of course, I could not explain that to her.
Jojo’s mother cleared her throat. We stood up, looking suitably ashamed and scared. We were still holding hands. I broke off and walked out of their house with my head hanging low. I should have said sorry. But I was mortified about the bollocking I would receive from my parents when the news got to them. Jojo’s mother did not tell my parents. Or if she did, they decided to let it pass without making a fuss. In return for that silent punishment, Jojo and I tried to present a very correct behavior from then on. We met only in the open, never in our rooms, and never touching. I stopped pulling her hair and slapping her back. She stopped holding my hand.
She (unlike me) has a lovely name, Josephine. But I have always called her and thought of her as Jojo. When I was four, my father was transferred to that small town (village). They lived in the flat above ours. I never got to know her father well. He was away most of the time. A year before the kiss, from what I overheard from my parents’ conversation, I gleaned that he was a philandering rascal. My parents were talking about how or why Jojo’s mother puts up with that, silently, without complaint. I did not understand all of that, then. I remember praying that he would fall ill and then change his ways appreciating his wife’s care and attention. I think I borrowed that from some movie. Well, Jojo’s father did fall ill. His wife took good care of him. But as soon as he was fit and well, he went off again. I was quite fond of Jojo’s mother. She was a nurse and she seemed to be the only adult who understood my fear of injections. When I was six or so, I had to take these really painful injections every fortnight, for God knows what, and I used to allow only Jojo’s mother anywhere near my bottoms with that big fat needle. Well, all I am trying to say is that I was kind of sorry when Jojo’s mother found us kissing. I too must have looked like a low-life rake.
Maybe, that’s why I distanced myself from Jojo. Or maybe, I could not understand why she refused to distance herself. Instead, she confided to me stuff she should have kept to herself. And that information definitely made me move away from her even further.
A few months after the kiss, I asked her about her father. It must have been hurtful and I can’t believe that that was my intention. She was silent for a long while. I asked her, ‘how can your mother put up with your father sleeping around?’ She replied, ‘what can she do?’ I prodded more deeply, ‘and you?’ She remained silent. I was silly and brutal. I repeated, ‘how can you put up with it?’ She looked at me and said – ‘he is not my father.’
I did not say anything to her. I did not have much to say to her. I really understood the situation only then.
Anyway, after school, I left that place to go to college in the city. Jojo came to the bus stand the day I left. My family was crowding around me and she stood behind them. I said bye to her, I think. Another time, she came with sweets or savory. I gave that to my new friends in college.
Life was like a race, a constant heady high – on one hand, studies, drama and volleyball; booze, friends and girls on the other. It was easy to build a reputation of being wild. Campus rumors bloated that and my over-sized ego. Well, I survived the hazy trip and even got a decent job through campus placement. I sobered a little and progressed well. After ten years of near-zero communication, I looked for Jojo.
My folks had shifted by then. My father got transferred to another small town when I was in college. But they still kept in touch with Jojo’s mother. I learned from them that Jojo was a teacher in our old school, her mother a head nurse and that her father had finally flown the coop for good.
I went there and took a room in the dilapidated hotel near the market. It seemed to survive only because there was nothing to take its place. It used to have a bad reputation in my younger days. The clientele, and the sounds percolating through the thin walls, confirmed that it liked to be a B-grade gangster with a rep to protect.
I contacted Jojo at school. It would have been easier to reach her at home but I was not ready for her mother. I asked Jojo if she would come to my hotel room after school. She agreed. I had expected her to refuse or put up some resistance.
She came to my room that afternoon. I had been taking a nap, in shorts and under-vest. I opened the door without putting on a shirt. I said, ‘come in’. We should have felt like strangers. We made small chat. She sat on the bed. I sat next to her. I told her that she looked like a teacher, in formal blouse and pants. She told me that I looked like before, in shorts and under-vest. I wanted to pull her hair or slap her back. I kissed her. This time, it was a long proper adult kiss. We stood up. I helped her out of the blouse and pants. She did not seem shy to stand in front of me in just her underclothes. I removed that too. She pulled at my under-vest and I took that off. We stood without touching for a while. She sat on the bed. I looked at her. She did not seem worried. Not even tense.
I felt rage then. I wanted to be cruel. Was she on the pill, ready for such occasions, I wondered. I thought of asking her, how many times have you sat like this? Or even more cruel, don’t you even want to know if I have had whores like this? And even crueler, was your mother like this?
I think she sensed my anger. She looked at me the way she did long back, uncertain and alarmed. I found that more normal. But I could not control myself. I reached down and held her upper arms. I could feel my fingers digging into her soft flesh. I asked her, ‘what if I walked away… after…?’ She did not struggle. I must have been hurting her. I wanted to hurt her. She remained silent. I shouted at her, not giving a damn whether the whole hotel heard me, ‘will you just accept it… like your mother?’ Thankfully, she defended her mother… she said, ‘her time was not like ours’. I was still boiling within, and I said, ‘but… you will accept it meekly, right?’ My grip tightened, she winced. I continued, ‘if I walk away, you will just accept it… and if I come back, you will still accept me… won’t you?’ I sounded incoherent even to myself. I shouted, ‘well, say something…’ She mumbled, ‘you can go… but you can’t return…’ I let go of her arms. She rubbed her upper arms. I could see the marks, contrasted against her unblemished naked body. I was not through with her. I moved away from her, and asked harshly, ‘well… is that how it will be… your saintly silent acceptance?’ She looked at me, and asked, ‘what will you do if I walked away… after…?’ I laughed like a crazy guy and burst out, ‘what will I do…? I will at least shout… I am sure I will give you a kick…’ She asked again, ‘what will you do?’
I told her, ‘put on your clothes’. I dressed too. We left the hotel together. I held her arm tightly, as if she was a hostage. She did not resist. We took a taxi to her house. Her mother was glad to see me. She rushed inside to get tea and eatables. I joked, ‘aunty, no injection… please’ I could hear her laugh in the kitchen. I pulled Jojo’s hair. I asked her, ‘your arms ok?’ She said, ‘well…it was better than the kiss… Brrr… Byuk! Byuk! Byuk!’ I slapped her back. I said, ‘are you ok with my wild reputation?’ She replied, ‘oh yes… I believe all the bad stuff’. I pulled her hair again. She held my hand. Her mother found us like that. She did not clear her throat.