Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Tree and The Sapling

I should have taken a seat facing the crowd. I could have studied the Club-members and the staff; and, the colonial style building with narrow corridors, polished wood, hushed whispers and brooding portraits of who knows who. But then, given my grumpy mood, I would have smirked at the fat asses filling plastic chairs, chattering, seeking attention; and, bracketed people with caricatures and stereotypes. I would have complained to my friend, the Club-member, about the slow service and the average fare; somehow feeling superior to be just a guest. Instead of that, I sat at a corner-table of that Club’s vast lawn, with four old schoolmates I had not met for a long time, feeling lonely, staring at the desolate car-park, the silent motionless trees that lurked in the shadows, brooding over saplings and potted plants that seemed to have strayed in, quite lost like me.
I was not bored with my group, just disconnected, finding it tough to fit in. There was talk of old school days, gossip, families and pets, trips abroad and crude anecdotes, money and grand purchases, smart moves and entrepreneurs, real-estate and big deals, politics and connections. All quite matter-of-fact, not really blatant boasts, and I had little to contribute. It used to be like that in school. There were people like me, standing alone on some stage searching for words and missing action, and there were groups who were in the thick of it, in the know of all the tales and the characters in that small world. My attention flitted in and out, grasping the beginning or the tail-end, missing the middle, focusing more on the trees and the saplings that seemed to have something to say to me.
‘We met Mohit’s parents,’ I heard the doctor say.
I looked up and asked, ‘Mohit?’
‘They were really happy to see us,’ the IT entrepreneur said.
‘They still keep his room as it was. It was touching, really touching. His photo, sketches on the wall, a lamp always lit… for twenty five years… weird, man!’ I think that was from the general manager of some company in the Gulf.
‘His sister was there, sexy female that one…’ the PR agent said.
‘Every month, they hold a prayer for him. She asked us to join and we went…’ the IT guy said.
The GM added, ‘…very emotional, man! His mother hugged and thanked us for making Mohit happy… to be with his old friends.’
‘Tchah! The sister didn’t hug us…’ the PR agent said.
‘We went to Sheela-madam’s house, too,’ the doctor reported.
‘She’s down with the big C, man! She was really happy to see us,’ the GM reported.
‘Which subject did she teach us?’ the IT guy asked.
‘Economics,’ the doctor replied.
‘No, man, she used to teach us in junior school,’ the GM said.
‘She never taught us… we just used to drool over her,’ the PR guy said.
‘Don’t be gross!’ That came from the doctor or the IT guy.
‘Mohit…?’ I tried again.
‘To tell you the truth, I couldn’t place him… even when I saw his photo…’ the doctor whispered.
‘He was in our class. He used to wear those tight elastic shorts. We used to tease him, remember?’ the IT guy said.
‘Don’t remember him at all,’ the doctor said.
‘Come to think of it, Sheela-madam must have been our age now… man!’ the GM said.
‘She was sexy! Do you remember Siva? He used to look at her and…’ the PR guy said with a crude gesture.
‘Yuck… don’t bull-shit…’ again, that was either the doctor or the IT guy.
‘Really!’ the PR guy confirmed.
‘Do you remember Rajan-sir?’ the GM asked the group.
‘Who can forget that bastard?’ the IT guy said.
‘He used to stick his hand in Sheela-madam’s blouse,’ the PR guy said.
‘No way…’ the doctor protested.
‘Yeah, I have seen it… they were in my school-bus,’ the GM said.
‘Lucky bastard…!’ the PR guy said.
I remember Mohit, though his name slipped my memory many years back. He was a queer chap. Fair, soft-spoken, inconspicuous and inconsequential except when he was teased about his tight elastic shorts. We were not really friends. I cannot even remember when or why he started showing me his sketches. He used to call it modern-art. It was roughly the same each time, a sketch of a tender sapling with just one leaf beneath a leafless old tree.
‘What is it?’ he used to ask me.
‘A man standing next to a sapling,’ I told him the first time.
‘That’s a tree, not a man,’ he informed.
I did not tell him that the tree looked more like a scarecrow with arms outstretched. If not for the leaf, I would have mistaken the sapling for a stick figure of a boy. I did not tell him that either. I am not sure why I played along. Each time he presented his modern art, the interpretation had to change.
When I guessed, ‘It looks like heavenly light on the tree and the sapling… God looking over…?’
He corrected me, ‘Just romanticism here… summer glare.’
Once when the sketch seemed dark, ‘Heavy...’ I tried and paused.
‘Exactly…!’ he cried. ‘The heavy weight of imperialist power standing over the poor developing…’
We did not discuss his last sketch.
‘Keep it,’ he said, handing it over, holding my hand briefly. He returned to his seat, hunched up over the table, looking sad and preoccupied.
The sapling did not have its leaf. The old gnarled tree and the young sapling were bent over. Probably the devastation after a cyclone, I had guessed. I still have that sketch with me and over the years I have tried various perspectives. I did not get a chance to ask him. He stopped coming to school, and a week later, he killed himself.
I was brought out of that reverie by some light-hearted brawl at my table.
The PR guy was telling the doctor, ‘Come on, he targeted you too, didn’t he?’
‘Of course, not…!’ the doctor protested.
‘Hey, Rajan-sir came after all of us…’ the GM said.
‘Yeah, remember that excursion…’ the IT guy said.
‘Bloody hell that was…!’ the PR guy exclaimed.
‘They chucked him out only after Mohit killed himself,’ the doctor said.
I had heard about that, many years after leaving school. Was that sketch about a man and a boy, I had thought. I could have guessed it when he gave it to me. What if I had done or said something about that in that week before he killed himself?
If I had told him my guess, Mohit would have asked me, ‘How did you guess right?’
I could have told him, ‘It’s not a guess. I know.’
‘How did you know?’ he, or I, would have asked.

Monday, October 14, 2013


‘Were we in the same class?’
I turned to the right. The unfamiliar guy, three seats away at the otherwise empty bar, repeated the question.
When I remained silent, he said, ‘I was in C division.’
‘Division A.’ Still unable to place him, I said, ‘I haven’t seen you at these class get-togethers.’
‘My first time in twenty five years... have you been a regular?’
‘You come here to stand alone at the bar?’ That seemed to be a straight-forward question and not a taunt.
I shrugged. ‘There’ve been better times…’
He concentrated on his drink. I did the same, for a while, before adding, ‘First time, it was at a friend’s place, and cheap. Then, they started upgrading it every year. This year, five-star; next year, they plan to book a resort, for a night or two, with families.’
‘Spouse and kids included…?’ he asked.
‘That’s the plan.’
‘What a pain!’
Seeing his empty glass, I asked, ‘Shall I get you another?’
‘Let’s go Dutch.’
We got the next round of drinks, raised a silent toast to each other, turned around and studied our old set of schoolmates.
‘They seem to have done well,’ he remarked.
‘Oh yeah… and they are here to advertise that.’
‘Bitter, ain’t we?’ he said with a teasing smile.
‘But true. Go to any and the first question will be ‘What do you do?’ Depending on your answer, you get your group. The super-successful, the super-rich, the super-family lot with kids and bloody-super spouse, the non-residents, the resident non-residents, the gated lot, blah blah blah…’
‘And you are…?’ he asked.
‘None of the above…’
‘Definitely something to be bitter about…’ he said with a laugh. After a brief pause, he said, ‘When we were in school, there was more variety, I think.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Why… don’t you remember? There were the poor ones, the ones from broken homes, the kids with abusive parents…’
‘Hmmm, true… you remember that boy whose mother ran away with some rickshaw guy?’
‘Oh yeah… when did they all become so similar… products from some factory…?’
‘Happy suburbia…’
We finished our drinks and refilled.
A passing thought tickled me, ‘Wasn’t entropy supposed to increase with time?’
He laughed and said, ‘Maybe, we make up for their lost entropy. So, what do you do?’
I evaded with a grin, ‘I guess I make up for the whole lot… poor, broken, abusive or abused, cuckolded in one way or the other…’
He laughed again.
‘What do you do?’ I asked him.
‘I am an axe-murderer and a terrific cook,’ he quipped.
I laughed, ‘Well, you don’t need the butcher then. And, are you scouting for the proper joint of meat?’
He pointed at our group of mates, ‘You are giving me ideas.’
‘Be my guest.’
He left after a while. We had not exchanged names, not even a ‘see you’. I had one more drink and then caught hold of one of the organizers to get my memento and free t-shirt.
The organizer gave me the items, along with his observation, ‘Saw you chatting a lot with him. Not sure who invited him.’
‘What do you mean? Aren’t all invited?’
‘You don’t remember him, do you?’
‘No, should I?’
‘Come on, don’t you remember his case? Two or three years after we left school?’
‘Spill it out, will you?’
‘Hey, he killed his girl-friend, chopped her with an axe, cooked and served her at a party. Most of us were invited… weren’t you there? It was awful… delicious cooking, I admit… but, when we got to know later…’
‘Phew… that’s him?’
‘Uh…huh… he was on death row for fifteen years. And then, that got commuted to life-sentence. He’s just got out… after twenty years or more…’
‘Oh boy…’
‘What does he do? What are his plans? Did he tell you anything?’ the organizer asked.
‘Oh… nothing… he didn’t say…’
‘So, what did you two talk about?
I replied with a smile, ‘We talked about increasing entropy.’

Sunday, October 13, 2013


‘God, I will kill him.’ Anjali swore publicly to do away with Satya on the day their music teacher was buried.
Last week, triggered by the latest news about them, Anjali’s old promise went viral on the old-mates network. Why that network of cronies, in their late thirties or early forties, relegated the recent events to the background in favour of what happened that day nearly a quarter of a century back is anybody’s guess. For a few amongst them, the finale was just a logical but rather irrelevant denouement; and, the story that seemed to matter was in the preface, in the past that ended ten years back, with the said, the unsaid and the gutter-talk.
In those crisscrossing messages on that network, they remembered Anjali as a friendly, soft-spoken, petite girl. The men noted her lovely eyes and lovelier smile; and, the ladies vaguely remembered her hairstyle (Princess Di’s opined some, feather-cut said others, and the rest asked if those were the same before dismissing her style as something trendy but common). Some of the old boys fondly remembered her ‘blossoming’ in the final year at school.
While Anjali hogged the limelight, Satya’s name did not enter the top-twenty buzzwords in that virtual exchange. A lady known in the network as Guess-Who described Satya as the ‘worst, nasty, odious, vulgar’ guy she has ever known. A few men mentioned, only as an afterthought, his sterling performances on the stage and the field. A rare academic voice grudgingly admitted that Satya had been way ahead of all, challenged only by Anjali. For some of the active members of that network, the fact that Anjali and Satya had never joined their network explained everything. With regard to those two, the members agreed unanimously on one issue - the starting point.
On the day the teacher was buried, their whole class had attended the funeral service at St Mary’s Cathedral. Anjali had been nervous and anxious at the service, unfamiliar with the Christian customs and prayers, and overwhelmed by the large imposing century-old structure on top of the hill, the spacious interior and the reverberating acoustics within. The fifteen year old had prayed hard for her favourite teacher and later as she walked down the hill along with her classmates, she had felt a sad peace within, convinced that her silent but ardent farewell had been heard.
   Their school-bus was parked near the gates at the bottom of the hill. As the kids queued up to enter the bus, Anjali saw Satya leaning against the back of the bus, finishing off a packet of crisps and a bottle of coke, and when she caught his drooping, bored eyes, he slurped and munched with exaggerated relish. She knew that he had not attended the service and rightly guessed that he had not even bothered to enter the Cathedral grounds. She found his insouciance galling.
She walked up to him and asked, ‘Do you have to party here … before the grieving?’ When he did not respond, she continued, ‘Can’t you at least pretend to be sensitive?’
‘Is that what you did out there … pretending?’ he queried.
She stared at him, tears of anger and sadness welling up in her eyes.
‘I don’t think you will understand,’ she said, trying hard to be cool and restrained.
She had been a pet of the music teacher and the death had affected her deeply. She had visited him in the hospital, along with another teacher, and that night, at home, sobbed uncontrollably when she talked with her folks about his wasted body. Her parents had later admonished that teacher for taking her, without their permission, and for exposing her to the cruel reality of death.
Satya watched her closely, probably sensing the turmoil within her. He taunted her with a wry grin, waiting for her tears to break through the fragile dam. When the first tear rolled down her cheek, he was ready with the next assault.
‘He was a paedophile, you know?’
Anjali’s anger poured out in a hoarse whisper, ‘He was not. If only you knew him like I did. He was like a father to me.’
‘Well…’ Satya said with a slow drawl, ‘he was not interested in girls, was he?’ Her trembling anger and sadness seemed to spur him further, ‘Or, maybe, you did not realize.’ He laughed at her.
She experienced a surging hate, rising like bile to leave a bitter aftertaste, and it hit her with a force that she thought impossible. If she had a knife, she would have tried to kill him then and there.
‘You are just despicable. The worst kind of…’ she was overwrought with emotion.
Satya carried on, unaffected, ‘One of my family friends … he said his uncle, a doctor, treated your lovely teacher … guess for what?’ He left it hanging cruelly unsaid.  
She moved away from him, and back with the rest of the class she had thought out loud her wish to put away that source of filthy insinuations.
For many days, she felt his words like a knife repeatedly stabbing and then thrusting deep, twisting and mutilating within, shredding her mind and body to pieces. She was no ingénue but like most girls then (for that matter, like most boys too) in this small middle-class town, she had remained insulated. In those days of the eighties, with government controlled media and vapid newspapers, such news and doubts usually remained hushed, and surfaced utmost as near-silent whispers in the disjoint groups of teachers and students, with parents never even getting to know or maybe, not wanting to know. In the weeks that followed the burial, Anjali heard the same accusations voiced by members of her close group of peers but she could not forget how brutally Satya had corrupted that sad memory.   
Anjali studiously avoided him after that day. She promised herself that she would do just that for their two remaining years in school and hoped she would never even see him after their school days. Her plans were spoiled by two events in the final year.
In the first, she was involved only indirectly. Her best friend Deepthi fell in love with Satya. That was partly fuelled by his brilliance in academics and extracurricular activities but the main catalyst turned out to be some type of charitable sympathy or altruistic empathy borne out of knowing his closely-guarded personal history. Deepthi had a glimpse of it through a mutual acquaintance of their families and she got to know that he was nearly an orphan.
 ‘…or maybe even worse than one,’ Deepthi said before describing his case to Anjali.
His father and two elder siblings died in a car crash when he was three. They were then living in the Middle East. He and his mother survived that crash and they returned from abroad to live with his mother’s folks.  He had come out of the crash miraculously unhurt but his mother remained bedridden till she died two years later. During those two years, she made it clear to her young child that she thought his birth had brought the bad luck. He stayed in that house for three more years till his maternal grandparents died, both their deaths ominously occurring within a month. A cousin close to Satya also died of viral flu around that time. That devout family prayed fervently and sought the advice of priests and astrologers. Prayers and sacrifices were offered with increasing regularity. The house and inmates were exorcized of bad spirits. Satya, believed to be at the epicenter of those deadly aftershocks, had to wear charms and follow special rituals. He lasted there for four more months before he was shifted to his paternal grandmother’s house. She was a devout person too but Satya reminded her of her dead son, Satya’s father, and that sentiment alone saved him from the streets. Fortunately, the deaths that followed Satya did not cross that threshold. An uncle who inherited the ancestral house and his ever-growing family also lived there. The uncle tolerated Satya’s presence in that house with great reluctance and, in unequivocal words, promised to chuck him out at the first sign of bad omens. Satya had a small room in the back of the house, near the kitchen and the servants’ quarters, and he had little else to say as his.
Anjali was perturbed by his precarious situation but that did not interfere with her grasp of his harmful nature. She tried to make her best friend understand that her misplaced love would only lead to hurt but her advice fell on deaf ears. Deepthi gushed senselessly about
‘…his careful indifference … and careless insensitivity … the aura of a recluse…’
When all her good-natured attempts to influence her friend’s decision failed, Anjali clearly stated the obvious, ‘Satya doesn’t give two hoots about you.’
 ‘You are just plain jealous,’ Deepthi retorted, ‘others can’t have what you can’t get, huh?’
The cuts on both sides proved to be deep. Anjali cursed the guy involved for wrecking the girls’ friendship. As for Deepthi, rather than impeding her progress towards love, the barb spurred on her infatuation. Deepthi decided on the quick and direct approach.
On a Saturday morning, a holiday, she phoned Satya at home.
‘Satya here...’ His deep voice came on the line.
‘Guess who…?’ Deepthi asked coyly, realizing too late that she had deviated from her plans for a swift and direct conquest.
There was an intimate silence on the line, as if Satya was thinking. Then, he said a name of a girl in their class; he heard her say no; he paused and thought again; he tried another name; and, that continued till he went through half a dozen names in their class. Deepthi then reverted to her original plan.
‘This is Deepthi.’
‘Your classmate,’ she explained patiently.
He was silent again for a while, and then he asked innocently, ‘Are you the one who walks around with Anjali?’ That reference, presumably intentional, summarily ended the infatuation and also accomplished the proverbial trick of hitting two birds with one stone by bringing in Anjali into that disintegrating ménage.
‘Yes,’ Deepthi admitted.
‘What can I do for you?’ his cloying innocence continued.
‘Nothing,’ the call ended.
As Anjali expected, Satya did not end the affair with just that much. Before the first class on the Monday that followed, nearly their whole class and most of the other senior divisions too had his intimate, though racy, version of Deepthi’s call. That spread of information was rather remarkable in that age without e-mails or mobiles and with expensive telephony usually restricted to telegraphic grim messages such as ‘passed’, away from life or nearly so in exams. If Guess-who-Deepthi, as she was known in school from that day, had been on talking terms with Anjali, she would have confided to her ex-best-friend that they shared an object of hate.
Other than for this minor intrusion in the early part of their final year, the cruel drag of daily school routine allowed Anjali to stick to her resolve of remaining immune to Satya’s presence. When extracurricular competitive events threatened to put them together, she made excuses not to participate. On the few occasions when she had to, she never lowered her guard. Satya used these opportunities to goad her. His sneering look and repulsive talk made her blood boil but she refused to give him the satisfaction of having a bitter hateful confrontation.
In late autumn of that year, the two were selected to represent the school in an essay writing competition. Since it was a prestigious inter-State affair, the Principal had directly approached Anjali’s father and sought his permission to include her in the two-member team that would travel to the city of Trichy in the neighbouring state. Even before Anjali could argue with or explain to her father, her participation was confirmed and she could not pull out of that commitment.
 Till the date of departure, she prayed that either she or Satya or both would succumb to some terrible illness. On that day, when she reached the bus terminal along with her parents and two younger siblings, and saw only the lady-teacher who was to accompany them but not Satya, she smiled and her spirits lifted for the first time in many days. But the smile vanished after a few minutes when Satya reached the bus-terminal alone and stood away from the group. Her father went up to Satya and Anjali watched them talk to each other, amiably and with mutual respect.
In a brief private moment before departure, her father told her, ‘I am glad that he is with you and the teacher. I was worried … two young ladies on this long bus trip … but not now…’
Anjali did not voice her own fears, not wanting to alarm her father. She guessed that Satya was up to his usual tricks and that she just had to wait for something nasty from him.
The onward journey was uneventful. The ladies sat together and Satya kept to himself in the seat across the aisle. At the competition too, stars seemed to have aligned well for Anjali. She came out on top with Satya in an uncharacteristic third position and their team won the overall championship. Anjali was in a celebratory mood, happy with her own achievement, though nonplussed by Satya’s placing. Then, soon after the prize distribution, the situation changed and Anjali was resigned to her fate of having her predictions come true.
The lady teacher with them had received the unfortunate news that her mother, living with the teacher’s brother in Madras, had slipped and fallen, breaking a hip bone. The young teacher called up Anjali’s father to explain her predicament. The latter kindly advised the teacher to go directly to Madras from Trichy rather than returning with the kids and then travelling back again, wasting time and money. He told the teacher that he trusted Satya. Anjali’s father also assured her that he would not inform the school of this arrangement, knowing that the school authorities would not be so kind to her and that they would take it as a gross dereliction of duty on the teacher’s part to leave the kids alone.
Anjali suppressed her protest though she was being torn apart. She knew that her father would not like her to be inconsiderate to the teacher. She was not even sure if her loving father would understand her fears. When she looked in Satya’s direction, his blank poker face only indicated to her that he was waiting for the right moment to strike in those hours when she would be left alone with him.
The teacher took them to the bus station, made reservations for the young students on the evening bus and then left immediately to catch the train to Madras. The two students had an hour to wait for the 6 pm bus. They did not talk to each other. Anjali kept her head buried in a magazine and Satya reclined on the hard seat observing the rush hour crowd. The bus did not turn up and after many inquiries they got to know that the bus had been cancelled. Satya, who had a better grasp than Anjali of the local language Tamil, managed to learn that their only option was to catch the 8 pm bus to Madurai, though there were no seats available for reservation, and from there, catch another bus to their hometown.
Satya phoned Anjali’s father and updated him about the latest developments. Anjali talked to her family after him and even that did not manage to lift Anjali’s flagging spirits. She did notice that Satya did not call anyone on his side. He offered her biscuits but she declined, feeling sick with worry.
The darkness of the night and the dim lighting at the bus terminal gave the place an edgy, noir air. The swaggering, cursing men smelled of sweat and liquor, lurking around like menacing predators. The few ladies there at that hour were mostly old and shriveled, and they seemed to frown at Anjali as if she was there just asking for trouble. Even the policemen on patrol were far from comforting with their loud callous guttural commands, searching stripping looks, heavy mustache and bulging potbellies. Images of recent brutal incidents involving young girls in avoidable circumstances pounded the girl’s head like a bludgeoning sledgehammer.
Satya maintained a constant vigil over her, with an adolescent’s exaggerated sense of duty and bravado coupled with a vicious edge. But Anjali hardly noticed his efforts, her senses still drowning in the flood of real and imaginary fears. He tried to talk to her. She heard him ask about her family. She replied mechanically. She had nothing to ask him in return about that. She remembered her earlier puzzlement regarding the results and asked him how he had managed to commit hara-kiri in the competition (the topic for the main round had been: ‘Oppression – is there an end?’). He admitted that he had included a few points he could have avoided, especially after knowing the constitution of the jury. For the left-leaning judge, he had his arguments about how communists and the left-leaning lot had a symbiotic (or even, parasitic) and therefore non-liberating relationship with the oppressed classes. He also tried to convince the two women in the jury that most woes of the female sex are self-inflicted and further taunted them by saying that the fairer or weaker sex had little chance of escape because they themselves considered life more comfortable within the constraints imposed by men than without. He had concluded that as long as the holy tried to lord over the unholy, there would always be the oppressed. Much before that gleeful exposition of his main thesis, Anjali realized that it was actually a wonder he had managed to get the third position.
By the time the 8 pm bus arrived at the bus stand, Anjali was in a much better state of mind, stimulated by the talk and feeling less uncomfortable with Satya. She found the occupants and the cramped bus less intimidating. She still expected Satya to unleash his usual self at her and assumed that he was trying to soften her stand against him to catch her unawares.
 The bus was crowded and it gathered packs of passengers at frequent stops. There were teams of manual labourers jostling for standing space with large gangs of unruly loud college students. The young and the old in that first group of itinerants tried to encroach into the reserved seats but these were stoutly defended by the easily agitated families, young couples, affluent traders and businessmen.
Anjali found standing space near a mother with three young kids occupying a seat for two. Satya stood next to Anjali, shielding her from the crowd, his hands resting on the headrests of the seats between which Anjali stood, with his left arm supporting her back, nearly cradling her. Her right hand was next to his on the headrest she faced, her arm and side leaning against his front.
At some point in that tiring journey, under the cover of darkness within and in the passing light from without, she noticed him staring at her. Her face was hidden by the shadows and he did not realize that she was looking at him too. The look in his eyes troubled her. There was tenderness there for a long while and then, rather suddenly, that fragility seemed to shatter with some gut-wrenching pain or anguish. That look of pain, fear and sadness was quickly subdued and it was his usual impassive and disinterested face that remained at the end. She too assumed the same.
The whole sequence must have been brief though it seemed to her that it lasted for ages. Later, she even wondered if she had imagined it all. The raucous noise within the bus, the smell of tightly packed bodies and the sight of threatening strangers around, and even her fear of Satya, gave way to the new rush of thoughts that stunned her following that look. That left her cold and numb for a few moments till realization made her whole body flush, as if with fever. She experienced joy and sadness together, and a strange sense of calm coexisted with heightened excitement. She felt secure in that close confined space that had seemed claustrophobic till a few moments earlier. The swaying crowd in the bus brought them closer for fleeting seconds. She could feel him tense against her, and she, unsure though ready, wondered if she could give herself more. The two maintained their silence throughout that trip from Trichy to Madurai.
At Madurai, they were lucky to catch the last bus to their hometown and also fortunate to get seats. Before leaving Madurai, Satya called Anjali’s father again with the latest update about their journey. Anjali’s father was glad to hear his daughter speak with better spirit that time. The two slept throughout that second leg of the journey, exhausted and finally feeling safe. With each mile towards their home territory, they were also returning to their normal roles.
The bus reached their hometown around 7 am. Anjali was glad to see her parents waiting at the bus stand. While the bus cruised to its place in the stand, Anjali turned to Satya with a smile and said, ‘Thanks.’
Satya leaned towards her and whispered harshly, ‘Don’t make it sound as if we fucked.’
Anjali had expected something like that from him when she had decided to express her gratitude. She retaliated with a bigger smile. In return, he glared at her furiously.
Anjali got off the bus and went to her family. Her father gave her a quick hug and then went to Satya. She saw them shake hands and wish each other well. Her father offered the boy a lift to his house. Satya declined the offer politely, took his leave rather formally and quickly left the scene, disappearing into the morning crowd.
In their last few months before the school-leaving Board exams, his aloof nature went into overdrive. People put it down to the tension before exams. Anjali thought differently but decided to let nature take its own course.
Thirteen years passed before they met again and talked to each other. She was a doctor by then, specializing in critical care and general medicine. She had not married, blaming her studies and career for that state of affairs. Off and on, she heard about him, though little, but their paths never crossed.
Satya tried new and challenging areas in technology, flitting in and out of booming start-ups, quitting before the bust or losing interest when the love reached the plateau of routine. His personal life was a vacuum. By chance, or by design, he remained oblivious of people in his past, including Anjali, and he travelled through life incognito and at least outwardly amnesiac.
As soon as he was on reasonably firm footing financially, he got himself a place of his own. Ironically, his folks flocked to him then. After getting a home, he decided to have people of his own too. He married at twenty five. With his customary detachment, Satya had found for himself a strange suitable girl through the classified in the local newspaper. His folks were there to protest.
‘You are too young,’ they said. They were bothered about the prospective bride. Her family did not match with their fine pedigree.
‘You are challenging fate.’ They backed that forecast with astrological charts about his misaligned stars. Some shrewd voices noted that it might be a calculated challenge on his part.
‘If there is no love, death might not strike,’ but that did not convince all.
Satya told his folks to get lost and went ahead with his plans.
By twenty nine, he was a widower with a three year old daughter. His wife had died suddenly of an aneurysm. His folks flocked back to goad, advice and gloat; and worse, treated his three year old child with false tenderness, pregnant sighs and careless muttering, ‘Ah! When will his bad luck hit the child?’
Satya shifted to a less taxing job that allowed him to take care of his daughter. He also cut off all connections with his folks. He was a loving father and tried hard not to expose his child to wrong beliefs or superstitions. On his part, Satya projected a cool, reasonable and even indifferent attitude towards his kid’s well-being. Not once did the young daughter feel that Satya was troubled by worry or unfounded fears. But it was in the air.
When the liberalized nineties gave way to a booming new millennium, his hometown too had changed fast. Nuclear families became the norm rather than the exception. The middle-classes assumed chic and rich ways. The liberal and the conservatives teamed up. The left tried to appear as an alternative right. The difference between the secular and the hardliner became a matter of semantics. Caste, class and religion became more distinct and self-serving. People revived the religious rituals, practices and beliefs that their forefathers had debunked with great difficulty just a century earlier. It was difficult to escape its pervasive influence. That God got back its voice and ruled the stage.
Two years went by without incident. Then, Satya’s five year old daughter fell seriously ill. Satya took leave from office and stayed by his kid’s side. After a prolonged fever, the child was hospitalized and it was in that hospital that they met. Without wasting time on formalities or greetings, he brought Anjali up to speed on his daughter’s condition. She promised to help him in every way possible. She monitored the kid’s condition, and liaised with the experts in the paedeatric division and her own critical care unit. They were all stumped by the girl’s illness and symptoms. The situation seemed bleak. Anjali answered Satya’s persistent queries carefully, never letting out that the doctors were losing hope. Satya remained calm and even though she was not unaccustomed to it, she was perturbed by his unnatural passivity with regard to his daughter’s condition.
On the tenth day, after another round of scans detected a shadow around the lower part of the kid’s lungs, Anjali learned from the experts that they had finally got a breakthrough. They checked the earlier scans and admitted to Anjali that they had missed an important, though difficult, clue present even in the first x-ray films. They had overlooked the evidence of a strain of pneumonia. Without wasting any more time, the right antibiotics were immediately prescribed and administered. Anjali left the cheering experts to find Satya to tell him the good news.
She did not find Satya in the kid’s room. She enquired with the duty nurses. One of them had seen Satya take the rarely used stairs at the back. She searched for him there. Not finding him on that floor, she went down one flight of stairs. She heard some sound from below and looked down the stairwell. She saw him sitting on the stairs two floors further below. He was crying like a boy – repeatedly weeping, trying hard to control the sobs and then breaking down once again. Anjali retraced her steps and went back to the kid’s room, and waited for Satya. He appeared after ten minutes, his face as usual blank, and his eyes impassive, stone-cold.
She told him the good news and also that the experts expected the girl to recover fast. Satya received the information without any change in his countenance. He thanked her formally and stood near the door as if he expected her to leave him alone with his daughter. But instead of doing so, Anjali moved towards the girl’s side. She examined a bouquet of flowers near the bed and looked at the card within that bouquet. She looked up at Satya and quizzed him with a raised eyebrow.
‘A well-wisher,’ Satya informed her.
‘A very truthful loving one, it seems.’ She then read the words on the card, ‘A short love is better than a long hate.’ She looked at him. They burst out laughing together.
‘Yesterday, we got another encouraging beauty … apparently to jazz up my life here,’ he said, ‘God calls the lovely innocent early.’
‘From where did you get such morbid well-wishers with a taste for crappy lines?’ she asked him.
 ‘Biologically … relatives…’ he replied.
‘That explains … do you get anything other than gutter-talk from them?’ she asked.
He shrugged and looked up, to indicate the source of such bad fate.
Anjali recollected in an off-hand manner, ‘I came across the mother of such crappy lines some time back…’ she paused, looked straight into his eyes before saying, ‘if you live scared of love’s death, alone with death love will live.’
‘O Big Chief Dry River! You so deep me no follow…’ he said with a mock Red Indian accent. The smile and tenderness in his eyes faded quickly but still staring, he reverted to his usual disinterested tone, ‘Have you figured out that one?’
‘How would I know anything about that?’ she sounded wistful.
She moved towards the kid’s bed and examined the flow of the drip. She caressed the sleeping girl’s cheek.
After a brief silence he asked her hesitantly, ‘You … any kids?’
‘Don’t make it sound as if we fucked,’ she mimicked his harsh whisper well.
He stared at her. She stared back, as if she was challenging him.
‘It doesn’t suit you,’ he said.
She shrugged, ‘It helps, right? To avoid…’
Satya did not respond to that. Anjali moved towards the door. Satya stepped away from the door moving towards the bed, looking at his daughter. She left the room, closing the door behind her. He then turned back and stared at the closed door.

When I Try To Create

I pray well now, when I try to create,
‘Can I use you?’ supplicate at love’s grave,
‘In a dubbed flick of old couples, him and us -
Face turned away, blank smiles, lying, near?
Let me empty albums full of yellowed past,
And fake diaries too. I hear well now, your silence.’

The show starts with an eerie whirring silence
That goes on and on and on used sets I recreate
The original, with extras in the cast,
Stunts, script, plot and actors grave,
Tales, leased or filched, from far and near,
Mixed-n-matched, ready to serve them and us.

Then at the temple, for the ninety nine per cent us,
In a hall smoky with angst and doubt, with silence,
With god, in the queue for dole nowhere near
Enough, cursing them for dreams sold cheap that create
Wants too dear, taking away all, all but the past,
Our dream to have their fate buried alive in a lost grave.

With bravado, without funds, with risks grave,
Into alleys dark and empty, hoping the queer old cuss
Luck will sell her wares to me, but that bitter kind past
Master in playing with the mind, with gags to silence
All protests, prods me to free-fall to create,
With hope ephemeral, vanishing before the end so near.

I spray paint my grey world with imitations near-
Perfect, I smash mirrors with no reflections of the grave
Of nameless faceless without genius to create,
I try to do it alone but I tag along, for my sake, (for us),
Behind a guru, a famous toad with broody studied silence,
A plath and/or a rushdie without her end and/or his fatwa past.  

There’s my last trick, the houdini act to escape my past -
‘Nothing sells better than guilt,’ says guru dear.
I try a woman’s cry, an outcast’s protest, a low-caste’s silence,
I pawn myself, pawed all over, crawling into my own grave,
Admitting, with self-pity and despair, there was never us,
Never love, never that self-destructing desire to create.

Effingo ergo sum, my dictum till last, as epitaph to engrave,
Or nothing, leaving silence and dead bouquets for me, (for us),
Truth left alone near the blank headstone, too lazy to create.