Monday, February 16, 2015

The Day After

He thought for a while before answering, ‘Don’t know about the first time but there was this teacher. Never felt so small. I wanted to smack his smug face and tell him, ‘Man, I too can ask questions to make you look the fool you are.’ He made me feel so angry, hardly slept that night. But then, the next day, I knew what I had to do. Study more, what else? He was right. But, he didn’t have to rub it in, right?’
He answered couple of questions about his early years. ‘I remember the first story I shared, gave it to a friend, a good friend. How will you feel when someone mocks your baby? Sure it might be ugly but it’s still your baby. Even I knew that it was a pathetic story, well, not just then, a little later. I am not sure what I said to her. Well, if it was real friendship, it would have lasted.’
He talked about the rejection letters, one after the other, how that never touched him, and then the big break, how that too didn’t affect him personally. ‘I got a prize and some money, well, not much, not even enough to take my family out for a meal. But nothing really changed. My father talked to his friends about his two kids, the doctor and the engineer, never about the writer. Nothing new, all my life I waited for the day after to forget what he did to me, if not forget, ignore. You can’t take it out on the old man, can you?’

‘Well, I had my fair share of success. I got her, didn’t I? What a lovely wife! Did I really deserve her? I guess that went to my head. I went overboard with my gift and the party for her, well, you know the hype that goes with V-days. I must have looked a real fool. I know that now, in fact I knew that even before the police charged me for murder. God, why did she have to laugh at me?’

Saturday, February 14, 2015

11 Steps To The End

Around 9 am, on a Wednesday in February 1997, Ajit was sauntering to his workplace. His serious demeanour and ponderous walk hinted, not too subtly, at his professional status (fourth year PhD research scholar at the Institute), and the other attributes (pot belly, thin legs, owl-like eyes behind thick glasses, cheap attire) did not make those clues cryptic. He was on the stretch of road between Ganganahalli and Mekhri Circle. It had rained the night before. He paused beneath the shade of a tree. He shifted a cloth bag from his left shoulder to the right, wiped his glasses and face with a wrinkled snotty handkerchief, pulled at the errant elastic of his underwear, scratched his head and then the left armpit. He thought about how that spot could capture the essence of Bangalore. In the wet shade beneath the canopy, it seemed like the cool green soporific Bangalore of old. Just a little beyond, there was the heat, dust, pollution, unruly rush of vehicles and a society unsure of itself.
Someone discarded a cigarette (cheap, without filter, a quarter remaining) from a passing vehicle. Ajit could not be sure if it was from the bus to Hyderabad or the noisy tempo-van heaped high with sacks. The cigarette rolled and rested (rather miraculously) at the edge of a small pothole in the middle of the outer lane, with the lit end balancing over the hole, still burning. Ajit was not a smoker but he could not help thinking that it seemed like a cigarette resting on an ashtray, between puffs. He watched the cigarette and counted the number of vehicles that went near or over it, without displacing or destroying it.
On the other side of the road, a poor couple started fighting. Ajit glanced at them briefly before returning his attention to the cigarette. That domestic scene seemed rather commonplace to him. The woman was howling, as if in pain, but kept charging at her husband. The man held her back with one hand, and slapped her with the other. A young man intervened but the woman chased him away. A crowd gathered to watch that engaging spectacle, on that side of the road and on Ajit’s side too.
A Maruti 800 passed over the cigarette. Saritha was on the passenger seat, looking out to the left. The crowd around Ajit caught her attention. She found it strange that a dozen men and women were staring straight ahead while one man was looking down. At first, she thought that that man was ogling at her. She turned around in her seat, first to the left, to see what that man could be looking at; and then to the right, to understand more. Her husband Karthik who was new to driving was distracted and troubled by her movements. He eased his foot off the accelerator, and steered the car closer to the centre of the road, essentially taking up both lanes.
Loud horns came from the vehicles behind but Karthik, now even more flustered, maintained his course and speed. That slow procession continued till the crossroad near Ganganahalli market. A Contessa tried to overtake Karthik on the left. A cyclist, trying to cross the road, jumped in front of the Contessa and the Maruti. All of them braked and managed to avoid crashing into each other. Karthik had braked but also swerved to the right, taking the Maruti close to the edge of his lane, nearly butting into the onward traffic on the other side.
A bus from the village of Devanahalli (this was before the construction of the international airport in that part; and, long after politicians and businessmen had divided the area around that village among themselves, if one believed credible rumours) was speeding past that crossroad near the market. That bus deviated slightly to avoid Karthik’s car. Mrs Ramesh was going slowly on a scooter to the left of the bus. Unnerved by the proximity of the bus, she tried to halt. She put her feet down, slipped and fell to the right along with her scooter. She escaped the rear wheels of the bus. The vehicles behind her stopped in time. But she must have landed oddly, probably because of the weight of the scooter on top of her. Though she was wearing a helmet, she suffered a fatal blow to the head at the base of the neck.
   Mrs Ramesh’s body was not released to her husband that day because a doctor was not available for the post-mortem. Relatives, friends and neighbours gathered to console the heartbroken Mr Ramesh and the devastated young kids. Two doors away from Mr Ramesh’s house, a Mr and Mrs Kumar had a big fight that night. They would have fought even if the Grim Reaper had not visited their neighbourhood. Their fights had become a regular feature in recent months but that night, it turned rather ugly. It started rather tamely with Mrs Kumar telling her husband that he would not be as sad as Mr Ramesh if and when she died. Exasperated, spiteful and truthful too, Mr Kumar retorted that he agreed with her. She accused him of having another woman. For the first time in their married life, Mr Kumar hit his wife. She threatened to report him to the police. He told her to ‘go ahead and make my day’. Then, between loud sobs and even louder curses, she asked him to swear on his mother’s name (his mother was already dead; but, she could not think of another person, dead or alive, capable of disciplining him) that he did not have another woman. Mr Kumar complied and swore on his dead mother’s name that he (‘of course’) has another woman. His wife fainted. He emptied a bottle of water on her head, but that had little effect on her senses. He called for an ambulance. When the ambulance arrived and Mrs Kumar was carried away on a stretcher, their curious neighbours wondered if they were having a double dose of death that day. At the hospital, Mrs Kumar was revived and admitted for a night’s observation. Her tired husband admitted to her that he had lied and that he did not have another woman (he thought of adding ‘unluckily’ but decided against it, only to reduce medical expenses).
After his wife slipped into a tranquilized sleep, Mr Kumar went to a phone-booth near the hospital and dialled Mrs Rajan’s number.  He had not told his wife the whole truth. He thought he was in love with Mrs Rajan, a young beautiful colleague. He was quite keen on a romantic affair, rather sure about desiring a sexual relationship, though equally unsure about divorcing his wife. Mr Kumar enjoyed talking to Mrs Rajan on the phone, outside office hours, though the conversation rarely strayed away from official matters. Mrs Rajan received his calls with professional courtesy, and if she was not troubled by grievous personal troubles she would have told Mr Kumar to ‘sod off’.
That night, her husband Dr Rajan picked up Mr Kumar’s call to hear the excited whisper, ‘Hi, it’s me Kumar’. The best description of Dr Rajan is ‘weirdo’. His external appearance fitted the stereotype of an absentminded scientist. He got a faculty position at the Institute with a bit of luck and a lot of ‘connections’. For nearly a decade, he survived with publications in obscure journals and his intellectual airs. He even got a beautiful and smart wife, again with a bit of luck and an arranged mismatch. It did not take her long to realize that his absentminded persona hid not only a limited intellectual prowess but also, impotence and a growing insecurity. She did not share her predicament with anyone, bearing her cross on her own. She decided to give him time, hoping, praying, for a change, a miracle. Three years into their marital life, there was a shakeup at the Institute. A new Director took charge, conducted a performance appraisal and, without mincing words, told Dr Rajan and other substandard faculty members that they had to prove their worth to have an extension of their contract. Dr Rajan knew his own limitations. He sought spiritual help. The night he heard Mr Kumar’s voice on the phone, he realized what he should do. It is possible he would have realized the same without the call. He left his wife, job and rented house to join a spiritual group.   
Dr Rajan also left behind a misguided research scholar named Ajit. Though Ajit was in his fourth year of the PhD programme, he did not have any publications to his name. He had not made any headway with his research thesis. Worse, after being abandoned by his supervisor, none of the other faculty members wanted him as their student. Thus, two weeks (11 working days) after observing the cigarette (he had noted that the 11th vehicle had crushed the cigarette), Ajit was chucked out of the Institute. He found himself jobless at the end of (roughly) 11 events. 
About three months later, 11 weeks actually, there was a scientific conference in Bangalore. On the fourth day, in the 11th session of the conference, a scientist talked about his group’s extensive work on natural and man-made disasters. He had discovered a curious feature: that every disaster has 11 stages (on average, of course). The next speaker talked about a similar study but with a different conclusion: disasters (even man-made ones) are a result of random events, with no memory of past events (like a martingale process and a fair game, he noted). If there is a God, he or she plays fair dice, the speaker concluded, inviting brickbats.

Ajit could have contributed to that scientific study.