Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Recurring Problem


My affliction was not a surprise. A great grand uncle ran away from his wife because of the same. The next generation, my grandparents’ lot, was spared. They did not have the time to be affected. But, their kids exhibited a relapse and it was back with a vengeance. An uncle was stopped in his tracks at Madras Central. He was returning from a retreat, rejuvenated and liberated, gone cuckoo too. He tried to board a train by jumping in front of it. Collecting his remains proved to be easier than its disposal. It took a week to gather his close relatives for the last rites. They were in various places of worship; and, that was not due to hereditary troubles alone, domestic conditions too played a role. As for my generation, they got it real bad. Cousins speak a foreign tongue dense with devotion, inner self, charity and gurus. As if that was not enough pain, that ilk makes sure that charity never extends to the dining table. I avoid them. Unappetizing topics of discussion along with postprandial hunger ruined the baggage of affinity carried by genes and corpuscles.
I tried to avoid the genetic problem, even resorted to draconian measures with my family to keep the ship steady. I forbade any public expression of faith; banned lamps, idols, loud prayers, rituals, festivals and even the feasts. To my wife and kids, I dictated, ‘pray, in private, if you must; but not in public’. They humoured me; or so I thought.
My son rebelled on his eighteenth birthday. That triggered my decline.
He asked for a birthday gift – a family trip to our family temple. That was not all. Instead of a sumptuous buffet at a fabulous restaurant, as I had planned, he wanted us to have the free community lunch served at the temple. Before I could raise a strong tenor of protest, my wife plucked the sentimental strings, then banged the drums of rebellion and coerced me to grant him that gift. I warned her that we were opening the floodgates. Trouble trotted in to test my tolerance.
My son’s visits to that place became a monthly affair, progressed to weekly and finally daily. He did not have to ask for our company again; my wife and daughter were more than glad to ditch me once every fortnight. To be fair, the ladies were not terribly damaged by those visits and I thought I could cope. But then, malignance has a reputation to protect, and hates to lie low. Our annual family vacation invariably got linked to some temple. The trip to Malaysia, the one I had planned for years, became an extended stay at the temple in Batu Caves. The adult son got to decide the itinerary, and the cantankerous father had to be a good sport.
Initially, I had little reason to worry about my son’s obsession. It did not affect his studies or career. In fact, it seemed to help him focus better on financial and professional matters. Paternal pride was pampered when he proved to be more able than I in the cutthroat professional world. But, over time, I also realized that the communication channels with him were being cut, one after the other. It reached a stage when his calm voice speaking so irrationally about world peace, religion, love and harmony sounded as if a thousand nails were scratching a metal plate fixed in my head.
He got a job abroad and I thought that that would cure him. Instead, he got involved with a sect of expats suffering insecurity and identity crisis. He managed their funds and activities. He arranged chartered flights. He used up his leave to shepherd those lost pilgrims to some clever guru’s commune here. There they contributed their services and a good deal of their savings. He rarely had the time to visit us.
He was posted in Berlin when I snapped.
My wife and daughter wrote to him about my madness. He requested his top-notch management consultancy for a two-week leave ‘to attend to an urgent family matter’.
I was in between trips then, wandering in spiritual lanes, searching for the meaning of life or something tenuous like that. I had been to the Western desert, with a group in flimsy white, to read the message in the sands of time. I reversed to the South to deposit my unwashed clothes and to collect a fresh set. I was readying myself for a heady tramp in the hills and forests of the North-east. My son and I met, next to the washing machine, on the penultimate night of his stay.
‘Hi,’ he said.
‘Bye,’ I said.
‘How are you?’ he asked.
‘Not how, ask what,’ I said.
He remained silent.
‘Hi,’ I said.
‘Hi,’ he replied.
‘Bye,’ I said.
He seemed troubled. But that could be because he got nothing other than rice porridge, that too without salt, for every meal during that visit. Even as a kid, he hated porridge. But while I was there, nothing less austere was permitted in the house. He tried to talk to me. I slipped into a vacant stare, a trance that made him drowsy. When he stopped talking, which he did after a few sentences, I recited whole passages from the religious texts I had read during my travels, along with the commentary of wise men I had met. Only the devil could have cited the scriptures better than I. That nearly left him comatose.
Somehow, during that brief encounter, he managed to get my signature on a few documents. He told me, in no uncertain terms, that he wanted his parents with him. He took care of everything. In less than a month, we were resettled in his Berlin apartment.
He tried tender loving care. He had porridge with us, though I suspect that he secreted in more wholesome food. He let me rave and rant about the many interpretations of texts, as long as I did not trouble the neighbours.
I escaped on a Tuesday, two weeks after reaching those shores. My son found me after three days, in the main shopping district, with a group of tonsured, pigtailed, enthusiastic youngsters. I was in the middle of a delightful medley contributing nuggets of wisdom centuries old. We had collected a handsome amount of money by amusing or antagonizing shoppers. My son dragged me home, and the scene must have reminded younger viewers of inconsiderate parents dragging their sensible kids away from an ice-cream parlour.
I was placed under close supervision, with reasonable freedom. I used the Net to get in touch with a guru based in Potsdam who had a large following. I haggled with my guards for a week-long retreat there but they vetoed it. They allowed me a day’s trip. My son and wife came along with me. He was intimidated by the neo-Nazi fashion sported by the bouncers posted outside that ashram. She frowned at the damsel with a daring d├ęcolletage who escorted me within for a private session of inner bliss. Once again, I was dragged back to my son’s apartment.
All was quiet on that front for a few weeks.
On a Sunday, my son brought home a nice Bulgarian girl. She did not even roll her eyes when we offered a lunch of porridge. She seemed normal. I wondered if my wife would counsel her about my son’s congenital spiritual failings. In my state, I could not offer any guidance. Those involved in matters of the heart tend to be optimistic in the early stages. The female of the species expects the male to improve with time, and the male assumes that the female will preserve status quo. I was thinking about such when my son asked us for permission to marry her, more for show than substance or serious consideration.
His mother gushed with delight. I remained silent. The three of them stared at me, probably trying to decide if they should take me seriously.
‘Well…?’ my wife prodded gently.
‘I need time,’ I said.
‘What for…?’ my son asked.
‘I need time,’ I repeated.
So, I was given a week. Two days later, I disappeared once again, but returned on my own that night.
‘Where were you?’ my wife asked.
‘I went to Potsdam,’ I replied.
My wife and son looked at each other, slightly alarmed.
‘And…?’ my son prodded, not too gently.
‘I went with a letter for the guru. In that letter, I wrote about your marriage plans, also requested him to guide me,’ I said.
‘Well, what did he say?’ my son asked.
‘He did not accept my letter,’ I said.
‘So, what does that mean?’ my son asked.
‘What do you mean what does that mean?’ I asked.
‘Are you going to approve my marriage or not?’ my son asked.
‘Of course not… that was guru’s way of telling us.’
My son exploded. I could not make out what he was saying, nor could my wife. But we figured out that he was laying down new ground rules. He forbade all public expression of faith; banned lamps, idols, loud prayers, rituals, festivals and even the feasts. He dictated to us, his parents, ‘pray, in private, if you must; but not in public’. We humoured him, or so he thought. Our daughter joined us in Berlin. She did not seem perturbed by the new rules laid down by her brother. The wedding involved a visit to some office, and then friends joined us for a sumptuous feast at a grand hotel. We lived happily ever after.   
Off and on, I still surprise and force-feed my family porridge, to ward off saintly thoughts.


(If you want a morbid take on a similar theme, try the Malayalam movie ‘Thaniyavarthanam’.)

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Speaker In Between


The grand old man of Indian science was the first speaker in the post-lunch session. He had asked for that challenging 2 pm slot. He believed that such an august audience needed him, and not soporific lesser mortals. His mental and gastric faculties too required that exertion, however disagreeable that twin assault might be to others. He arrived with his entourage of professors, lecturers, students, technical and secretarial staff. They followed him and his words faithfully, never deviating from their place in that evolutionary order. For more than fifty years (from silicon to bucky-balls, cuprates to blue-phases, macro- to nano- materials) his research factory has produced scientific articles like the dailies, tweaking names, rearranging figures, the different presented in a similar whole. He raised his Caeserean snub nose and surveyed the packed house, rather pleased and quite surprised to find a full auditorium. Even the floor was taken. He frowned when he saw one of his cronies seated in front, nodding sagely, in dotage or in stupor. That relic was known to rise once during every session with the question, ‘Doesn’t this go against the second law of thermodynamics?’ Not that the grand old man did not have an answer to that. He had an answer to everything he did not understand.
The large audience was there not for him but for the foreigner scheduled at 3 pm, the third and final speaker in that session. That star had a cult status among the intelligentsia, having astounded the world with three original papers when he was just an undergraduate student in the early seventies. He spoke on the God matter. His prodigious talent was still evident. None in that audience were able to figure out if his subject had been technical or philosophical.
Slipping in between these two giants, the second speaker at 2:30 pm, a diminutive unknown from a local research lab, shocked the audience. She started with the picture of a vulture with its head in the rectum of a dead carcass. That generated a collective queasiness in that audience already left lightheaded by the first speaker. She spoke with a great deal of enthusiasm about how the vulture’s system relishes and tolerates the toxic feast. Then, she shifted to the subject matter of her research. She began with the clich├ęd disclaimer that every great intellectual work is a result of 10% perspiration, 10% inspiration, 30% luck and the rest, plagiarism or a great deal of twiddling the thumbs.
She noted the twiddling of thumbs in government offices. She compared the mountains and highways of garbage, and secret landfills, with the vulture’s meal. She revealed that the residents had revolted and dumped truckloads of stinking waste in the only clean site in the city, the legislative assembly. ‘Lady Luck stepped in then,’ she gushed, ‘remember the discovery of penicillin?’ Her research lab investigated the strangest of strange events. Within hours of dumping the waste, the stink had disappeared and the toxic mounds had mutated into a garden of exquisite beauty. ‘Was it a miracle?’ she asked the stunned audience. She concluded with the admission that her study had been put on hold when she had requested access to the genetic makeup of the occupants of that site.
Did the case end there? ‘It got curiouser  and curiouser’, as the literary sort might say. That scientific study found no mention in the published proceedings of that conference. As far as the world was concerned, that speaker in between never existed.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Left Right Left ... Right Right Right


‘How is he?’
‘Very bad state…’
‘Rascals… all of them should be hanged.’
‘Thought you’re against the death penalty…’
‘Well, I’m ready to hang them myself!’
‘If there are such among us, how civilized can we be?’
‘Are those his folks?’
‘Don’t think so.’
‘Who are they then?’
‘Don’t know… people like us?’
‘Why aren’t they here… his folks?’
‘Guess…’
‘You can’t be serious.’
‘What do you expect? They can’t be expected to be martyrs for his cause.’
‘Have you seen it?’
‘Parts of it…’
‘What’s it about?’
Silence
‘Come on… it’s just me.’
Whispers
‘Bloody hell…’
‘But…’
‘What but…?’
‘Did they have to do this for that?’
‘Makes sense though.’
Silence
‘What would you do?’
‘Nothing of this sort…’
‘Right… what if it was…’ whispers
‘Stop it! That is not the same as this!’
‘But, what if it was that?’
Silence
‘You would do the same.’
‘I would not… it’s just not right…’
‘Even if it’s right to feel the way you do…’
Silence
‘Why did that idiot have to do that here?’
‘Name the right place to do that.’
‘Anywhere but here, surely…’
‘Everywhere, there is a ‘that’ that will not be right.’
Silence
‘It’s scary, actually… so much that is wrong, not sure what is right.’
‘Makes one wonder if it’s actually too much right and too little wrong…’
‘I guess the trick is to do the wrong thing in the right place.’ Laughs
‘Hush, don’t laugh here.’
‘Ok… or, should it be the right thing in the wrong place?’ Muffled laughter
‘Oye, you will end up like him… wrong thing in the wrong place.’ Laughs