Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Grand Prize

Raj was not one bit delighted when he wrote to the Creative Writers Society (Canary Wharf), ‘I am absolutely delighted to win the prize.’
In that missive, he dedicated a paragraph to how the Society changes the world. He clarified, ‘the world of writers like him’. Only after sending the mail did he wonder if the Society would misunderstand his sarcasm, and take it well. After all, even that was not a small world.
His disappointment was not unreasonable. The Society needlessly mentioned in its congratulatory note that the number of entries had been abysmally low for that month’s competition. They continued to twist the dagger in the soft sensitive areas by informing him that the eminent writer who was supposed to judge the competition had pulled out at the last moment ‘citing pecuniary differences’. They added, ‘The Society chairman had to carry the cross.’ As if that was not enough negativity, the very convenient recession was given as the reason for changing the prize from cash to coupons. Raj thought of protesting, ‘Why are you holding an international competition and offering a prize that can be redeemed in some store in East London?’ He withheld his protest only because the competition was without entry fee. It seemed wrong to criticize them when he could not figure out what they gained from the whole exercise.
He decided to send the coupons to a distant cousin in London. He was not sure if the cousin would pay, even with a discount, but the alternative was a friend who, without any reasonable doubt, would take it as a gift. Blood tends to be thicker when laced with hope.
As for the comment about the prize changing his world, he was not off the mark. Later, he would curse his foresight.
The change precipitated on the internet (where else?).
A disgruntled loser in the same competition spewed venom on a blog, and attacked ‘the winning entry that got the grand prize of fifty pounds’. Sarcasm, once again, faced the danger of being misinterpreted by the literally-minded.
That blog caught the attention of a junior correspondent of a local newspaper. Somewhere in the trip from that flunky’s browser to the editor’s desk, that metamorphosed into front page news about Raj and his ‘fifty grand prize’. The headline read, ‘Small town wins global prize’.
The first day brought with it calm dignity. At the milk-booth and the tea-stall, acquaintances congratulated him. A mother at the school bus-stop asked him, ‘Which book or coaching class should my kids attend?’
Raj’s friend Sunil turned up and demanded a booze-session.
Raj tried to reason, ‘Oye, I haven’t got any money.’
Sunil understood, ‘As if you would give otherwise, Scrooge.’ He tried to make that Scrooge rhyme with Raj.
Trouble started by the end of the day. Two nonagenarian writers in the vernacular who shared between them every award given in the state sounded miffed on a TV news-channel. The old man barked, ‘Bah! We should not accept alms from old colonial lords.’ The old lady was more cantankerous, ‘This is an assault on the vernacular. Now, every kid will write in English to get a pound. Mind you, with this pound, this award is taking our dignity, our freedom, our culture, our heritage, our national pride.’ She would have added more ‘ours’ if that had not left her breathless.
The popular newsreader called up Raj for his response. At nine pm, it was ‘live breaking news’. Raj tried befuddled incomprehension at first. When the reporter started putting words into his mouth, he decided for the shortest way out, ‘I agree totally with Shree Masterji and Shreemati Teacherji. I will use part of the funds to publicize their works.’ The nonagenarians, who were still on TV, well past their bedtime, seemed placated and they retired for the night after amiably blessing Raj.
The reporter was not pleased with that hot news losing steam so quickly. The next day he stirred the dirt in the shallow pool. The breaking news read, ‘Writer reveals all.’ The reporter used everything in his repertoire to express outrage, from constipated frustration to smug condescension. The message was clear to all. Raj had used all of them in his stories; without permission; worse, without compensation.
Some tried to read his stories on his blog-space. That was too arduous a task. Raj’s relatives, who had contacted him directly on the first day when they heard about the cash prize, got in touch with his parents, ‘What has he written about me?’ Even his siblings were worried.
The mother at the school bus-stop confronted him, ‘I do not abuse my kids.’ She wept loudly and cursed him. 
The owners of the tea-stall and the milk-booth were curious, ‘How did you know he was sleeping with my wife?’
Raj did not know what to say. What could he say when they seemed to be protesting about stories he had never thought of? He noted it down, however, for future use, after the dust settles.
Sunil turned up once again. He was not bothered if he was there in the stories or not. In fact, he hoped he was there in those stories, thinly disguised as serial rapist or lecherous alcoholic. Raj wondered if his friend had actually read his stories because he had used Sunil in similar nefarious roles. To his friend, he denied, of course. He was quite sure Sunil would ask for more than a pound of flesh.
Sunil’s attention shifted, ‘Hey, I met your old love, Anjana.’
Anjana was Raj’s first love, terribly unrequited and horribly embarrassing.
Sunil continued, ‘She is really livid with rage.’
‘Why so?’ Raj was surprised.
‘She did not like her role in your story ‘First Night’. Well, all that sex and fumbling, quite realistic, I say, but…’ Sunil reported.
‘But, she is not the one in ‘First Night’,’ Raj protested. ‘Who gave her that idea?’
‘I did,’ Sunil looked pleased, ‘Come on, you must have thought of all that, with her.’
‘Of course not, it was platonic,’ Raj said.
‘What crap, how many times did you cry on my shoulder about you and your bloody love for Anjana?’ Sunil asked.
‘But, I never thought of sex with her,’ Raj said.
‘Bloody hell, how could you love without sex?’ Sunil exclaimed.
Raj fidgeted for a while. ‘She has got a nasty husband.’
‘Hmmm… she told me that she would be telling him,’ Sunil paused, ‘they have a loving and trusting relationship, she claimed… holy crap, I felt like puking!’
‘Why did you tell her, you fool?’ Raj cried.
‘Well, she asked me if she was there in your stories. Narcissism, I guess,’ Sunil said, ‘And, I have read only one story of yours. The others don’t have sex, right?’
‘This goddamn prize…!’

Friday, June 26, 2015


The day after our engagement, I took my fiancée to a coffee-shop in the only five-star hotel in town. Her chaperon was an aunt named Mena (with a single e, the lady insisted), a spinster of five hundred moons. Uncle Jose (Hosappan to us) was mine. He was not necessary. ‘I am sufficient,’ he claimed.
The maître d’ took us to a bright table near the French window facing the pool. Hosappan asked for a discreet space.
‘Discreet, sir?’ the maître d’ asked.
‘Privacy, young man,’ Hosappan slipped in a wink, a nudge and a hundred rupees.
Aunt Mena cleared her throat. Hosappan ignored her.
We got a table in a dark and cosy corner, within Amazonian foliage and behind strategically placed screens. How did he know of this? My fiancée slipped into the curved booth-seat from the right. I got in next to her. Aunt Mena tried to get in before me. Hosappan blocked and guided her to the other side. My fiancée and I held hands beneath the table and practised footie. During time-outs, we listened to our chaperons.
‘Is Mena short for something?’ Hosappan asked.
‘No,’ Aunt Mena replied tersely. She blundered, ‘Short for what?’
‘Phelo-or-pheno-mena,’ he hesitated, I could guess the next, ‘Mena-pause.’
She was not amused.
‘What do you do?’ she asked.
‘Are you asking me how much I earn?’ he asked.
‘No, what do you do?’
‘That usually means the other, in a round-about polite way, of course.’
There was silence.
‘So, how much do you earn?’ he asked.
‘A gentleman is not supposed to ask that,’ she said.
‘He is not supposed to ask a lady’s age but he can ask how much she charges,’ Hosappan argued.
‘Don’t be crude,’ she objected.
‘God, you have a one-track mind, my love.’ He used the vernacular for that, ‘chakkarey’, meaning sugar or jaggery. I could feel static around the table.
‘Ok, don’t get your knickers in a twist,’ he paused, ‘what do you do?’
She mentioned some high-flying job in Europe.
Hosappan shifted to another gear.
He talked about Paris like it was his backyard; they raced through the museums, the monuments and the graveyards; they cooed about the theatre; they shifted to German and I guessed they were exchanging notes about nightlife with gruff guttural grunts. He had his second scotch. She shifted from tea to gin-n-tonic. They pretended not to notice when we switched to cocktails after the fresh juices.
They raised a toast to us at the end, both flushed and rather breathless.
We wanted to raise a toast to them too.
‘Did you get her number?’ I asked him later.
‘Never get the number of the good ones, lad.’
‘By the way, when did you go to all those places?’ I asked.
‘Lonely planet…’
‘Surely, you did not pick German from that?’
‘Wasn’t it German?’
‘Ah, you lovebirds will learn about mating sounds soon,’ Hosappan refused to say more.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Lovely Neighbours

A four and a half foot wall separated us. At that wall, we gossiped, exchanged sweets and the kids on either side jumped over to pick up a ball.

Every morning, before work, the man of the house went to the big temple in the city. He moonlighted as a restorer and real-estate agent of old heritage homes. There was some talk of him having a woman in one of those places. His wife was from a rich family. She was a great cook, a strict mother and a capable homemaker. The eldest kid was a very serious boy, bad in studies, deeply in love with a rich cousin and her father’s business. The daughter used to practise classical singing. That hour was a bad one for us. There was a younger son, a six year old who used to bawl a lot and walk around in nothing but his underwear. There was a servant girl, of the same age. She used to wake up at five and worked the whole day; she swept and wiped, inside and outside; washed the clothes and the utensils. She seemed healthy. She got decent meals and a place to sleep, on the floor in the storeroom near the kitchen, ‘boarding and lodging’ that was the term for it. She got the kids’ old clothes too. She was from their village, they told us; she would have faced abuse and worse, they said. The girl had a shy smile. She wore a red ribbon which somehow contrasted well with her large dark eyes. When she was ten, she was sent away to her village. She had come of age, they told us; too many men in the house, they said.


‘I love you,’ she said.
‘I don’t,’ he said, without hesitation.
‘Stop joking,’ she said.
‘I am not joking,’ he said.
‘Ok, why not?’ she asked.
‘Why do I have to give reasons?’ he grumbled.
‘I am not asking for too much,’ she reasoned.
‘I don’t want to have kids,’ he said
‘What’s that got to do with loving me?’ she asked.
‘I know that you want kids,’ he said.
‘I will take care of them. My parents will help too,’ she said.
‘But, I will have to work more. And, I will lose my independence,’ he listed.
‘How sweet,’ she cooed.
‘I am sure you will stop loving me after a week,’ he muttered.
‘I will not,’ she told him.
‘Ok then. I love you,’ he mumbled.
‘Will you marry me?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ he replied.

Before The Ladder

The sea was rough. The boat from the island to the ship was going against the tide.
Philip, the stout fourteen year old sitting near the surly boatman, shouted, ‘Two died recently on such a trip...’
Nilesh, the staunch atheist, prayed. The boys in that row and the next joined him. One boy screamed when he lost his cap.
Mani and Sundar were in the last seat, holding to the sides and the seat, knuckles white.
‘If you could listen to music, which will you choose?’ Sundar asked.
‘Theme music of Little House on the Prairies,’ Mani replied, ‘you?’
‘Clapton, Wonderful tonight…’
‘Will always remember the night I heard that… with you…’
‘Me too...’
Mani placed his right hand over Sundar’s left.

At the ship’s ladder, the schoolboys were back to their loud, brave selves.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Gang

They were not from broken families. They could even be considered privileged. Sure they had their troubles. John’s father was a violent drunk whenever he was home. Shekhar’s mother was perpetually sick. Salim was not sure of his sexuality and that was a problem then, in the late eighties.
On a Thursday, they bunked school after lunch, watched a sleazy movie, giggled at the lovers, rent-boys and hookers in the movie-hall. A pimp got hot and bothered. The three eighteen year olds managed to look intimidating. John knew a place near the beach where they could get a joint. Around nine, they were lying on the beach, comfortably numb.
A car stopped. A neat, decent looking man of about forty got out. His full-sleeved shirt, well-ironed pleated formal pants and polished black shoes indicated a successful professional. He stood erect and stared at the frothing sea.
The gang of three decided to have some fun. They moved towards the man. John brought out his switchblade. Shekhar carried an umbrella with the pointed end held like a sword. Salim snarled, ‘Let’s scare the shit out of him.’
When they were near the man, Shekhar said to him, ‘Don’t move or we will cut you down.’
The man turned to face them.
John waved the switchblade threateningly.
The man stepped towards him.
‘Stay away,’ John threatened, his voice faltering. The other two stood uncertain of what to do.
The man was just a foot away from John. He reached out for the hand that held the knife. Before John could pull away, the man pulled John’s hand towards him. John could feel the knife going into the man’s flesh. Even though it was dark, he could see the blood spurt out. John let go of the knife.
The man’s right hand held onto the knife. He raised his left to John’s head, holding the back of the neck, brought their foreheads together.
‘Don’t worry, my son.’
The man let go of John after saying that. He turned and walked towards the sea, the knife still in him.
The three boys watched him walk into the rough sea. They lost sight of him when he was waist deep in the water.
The gang got on their bicycles and sped back home. The next day and the next, they searched the papers. There was no mention of the man. They did not tell anyone. John did not mind his father’s violent temper from that day. He remembered the man who called him ‘my son’. The three boys did well in life.
Salim met the man many years later at a job interview. He did not get the job, and that was not because of the old incident, he just did not fit the job specifications. Salim waited till all the interviews were over. The man took Salim to his office.
‘It was just a flesh wound, luckily. What a crazy night that was, right?’ the man said.
‘We thought you drowned yourself,’ Salim said.
‘I tried. I chickened out. Or rather, the first gulp of water brought me to my senses. Not before it was too late, luckily.’
‘But why…?’
‘Why did you three boys behave that way that day?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Same here…’

Not Surreal

His suicide note read:

Not to be) Living on daily wage is tough, even when I am homeless and not paying rent.
To be) I have waded in Mumbai’s flood waters, in the shit of millions. I can identify with the kids who hid in the toilet in Schindler’s List.
To be or not to be) A friend’s father wants to kill me. He thinks I am in love with her. I am waiting for her to come out of the closet.
To be) There’s one more old love to contact. As long as I don’t find her number or address, there is hope.
Not to be) I have a family who is not a family.
Not to be or to be) Rope broke; the knife was too blunt; and, the car wouldn’t start. I jumped into the sea but got thrown ashore.

‘Surreal,’ Inspector Shokie’s assistant said.
Shokie disagreed.
‘Should we charge him?’ the assistant asked.
‘Bloody nuisance,’ Shokie muttered.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Drivers

I stand with the drivers. I do not have a placard. One of them asks, ‘Big boss?’ I nod.
5 am is the peak hour at the international airport. The flights from the Middle-east arrive then.
The exit area is fashioned like a catwalk. The hoi polloi are not allowed near the building. There is a long sloping path running parallel to the building from the exit door to an opening at the far right. Drivers wait there patiently, on one side, not crowding, allowing space for each placard, some held high, some low. The families, and friends, crowd around the railing along the path, for the first glimpse of their long-gone loved-ones and the bags with duty-free Chanel, Toblerone and Johnny Walker.
‘That lady, there, that fat one in black with three kids, so gloomy, no? Is the hubby coming back for good? Or time for another kid?’ one driver comments.
‘Look at the one coming out. Doesn’t he look like a paedophile? Fat old grandfather, they are the worst. I hope he is not for me, but some perverts tip well,’ another notes.
‘Hey, I know that chap coming out behind grandpa. He lived in my area. Ha, ha, suit boot, bet he is wearing velvet underwear.’
I join in. ‘Why do the ladies always come out with sunglasses on top of their head, and their rich guys with half-pants?’
‘But you can make out those from the Gulf and those from the West transiting via there,’ one of them adds.
We can be considerate. ‘If only their kids were not wearing cheap shoes, that family too could have looked rich.’
‘Oh God, oh god, let her be mine. What a body! I am sure she will give a ten dollar tip.’
‘Yeah, yeah, and ask you to marry her?’ We laugh.
‘Oh my mother, see that one coming out now. Who does she think she is – Lord Devendra’s father Muthupattar’s daughter? I want to see the poor husband waiting for that one.’
I step out. They do not laugh.
As I said, they can be considerate.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Family Joke

They used to joke that my real father is an Iban (a native tribe of Borneo, erstwhile head-hunters) who worked for my father. They found that funny. Was it some mental picture of me wearing loincloth? Or, that this Iban used to bust his pay on booze on payday and then survived on loans from my father (which he always repaid with cash, chicken or work around the house)?  I smelled like him, they said. Was it the smell of the longhouses, the cockfights, spilled blood or the earthy scent of their women or tuak (rice liquor)?
They stopped joking the day he killed a Chinese for insulting him. He hacked the Chinese to pieces with his sword, the ‘parang’.
I have a parang which I keep polished and sharp. Whenever I handle it, my family has this funny, doubting look.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Been A Long Time

You see her at a party. You walk towards her. You have a minute or less for the flashback. Did you not play doctor-nurse with her? Was she the doctor? Your mother ticks you off for kicking her butt, ‘She’s not a little girl anymore.’ She will always be your little girl. She shared secrets with you. You talked about sex. With hindsight, that talk was as good as it gets. Remember the day you first saw her as a lady. You were as tongue-tied then. You feel anger and compassion. She smiles at you.
‘Hi,’ you manage to say.
She looks at you, the smile is still the same, not broadening, not thinning out.
‘Oh hi,’ she says.
‘It’s been a long time,’ you say.
‘Uh…huh,’ she admits.
You try to recall the best anecdote.
‘Excuse me,’ she says.
‘Hi,’ she says.
‘Oh hi,’ he says.
You have more than a minute to decide if you should feel bitter, cynical, depressed, lonely, or whether you should turn philosophical.
You notice her. She smiles at you. You smile back. You have less than a minute to search your files. Do you know her? She looks familiar. Her dress is atrocious, her makeup hideous, she looks young, her butt reminds you of Scarlett Johansson. Will she call you uncle? You tuck in your double chin above the tiny third. You present your best profile.
‘Hi,’ she says.
‘Oh hi,’ you say.
‘It’s been a long time,’ she says.
‘Uh…huh,’ you say.
She talks about a shared past. Is she that old? You notice another smiling face.
‘Excuse me,’ you say.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Balcony

Maya and Sen had adjacent hostel rooms on the second floor and shared a balcony. It was ‘their space’, they agreed on the first day, ‘no guests allowed, well, not for too long…’
Sen placed a rattan chair there, for himself, facing the setting sun and an empty plot. Maya had a mat in her half. She preferred to sit on the floor. She brought a potted plant too. Sen frowned but allowed it, ‘on one condition, it should not block my view’. They agreed on another condition, ‘no lights’. They could keep the light on in their room and let that filter into their space.
On their first Friday night, Maya stepped out onto the balcony after dinner. She was not surprised to find him there, sitting in the dark. He nodded at her. She got a strong whiff of liquor and tobacco. She did not expect him to drink liquor there. Without a word, she turned to move inside.
‘Isn’t this allowed?’ he asked.
She shrugged.
‘If you don’t like it, I won’t. I can do it in my room,’ he said.
She remained silent.
‘Which one bothers you – the liquor or the cigarette?’ he asked. When she did not reply, he continued, ‘Don’t sulk. Or blacklist me.’
‘I am not sulking,’ she said.
‘Ah, so you did blacklist me.’
‘I don’t like it.’
‘Why not…?’
‘Why should I like it?’
They glared at each other. He took a sip, placed the glass on the floor, turned his chair to face her.
‘Do you know why you don’t like it?’ he asked.
She did not respond.
‘You have never tasted it, have you?’
She shrugged.
‘Classic example of negative association…’
‘That’s your liquor speaking.’
He smiled, ‘Could be. Now, don’t get stuffy for being a classic example.’
She smiled back. She did not want him to have the pleasure of seeing her riled with such a feeble attempt.
He continued, ‘All your life, you must have seen only negative images with liquor. Your first image must have been some B-grade movie in which a villain takes a swig of liquor before trying to rape the heroine. And now, despite good education and years of fine thinking, you can’t let go of that image when you see or smell liquor.’
‘What crap…’ she exclaimed.
‘But true…’ he sounded pleased. ‘Let’s call truce. Don’t go in, yet. Let me prove to you that I am not a rapist.’ He laughed.
She was amused. She sat on the mat, leaned against the railing, her legs tucked to the side and beneath her skirt. She was wearing a sleeveless Chinese top that buttoned to the top.
‘Why can’t you get a chair?’ he said.
‘Are you uncomfortable with me sitting on the floor?’ she asked, smiling.
He turned away his face to stare at the empty expanse, lips pursed.
‘Some mental clash with the image of an obedient traditional woman sitting at your feet?’ she teased.
He faced her, ‘No, I just don’t want you to feel uncomfortable with me staring down your cleavage.’
‘What cleavage can you see with this top?’ she continued to tease.
As if he was challenged, he stared at her torso. She leaned back, and pushed out her chest. He looked at her face.
‘Do I fit the image of a vamp or that of a seductress? Despite good education and years of fine thinking, of course…’ she taunted.
‘Touché…’ he admitted.
They laughed together.
Another night, a year later, she found him there, more morose than usual, drinking and smoking. She could not be sure but he seemed to have cried. Some boy band was crooning from the stereo in his room.
‘What’s that?’ she asked, pointing her thumb within, referring to the music.
‘Take That, I think,’ he replied.
‘Is that the name of the group? Phew, quite awful…’ she said.
‘It’s not as bad as your classical music, how they bray, definitely constipated,’ he retorted.
‘Constipated they might be but not retarded,’ she gave back.
‘Oye, can you give me some space?’ he said.
‘I too need this space,’ she said.
‘Fine, I will move inside.’
‘Don’t be a baby.’
He took a large sip and a long drag. She sat on the floor.
‘What happened?’ she asked.
He did not reply for a while. Then, he said, ‘Just the usual girly problem.’
She smiled.
‘What are you smiling for?’ he scowled at her.
‘Did you mean girly problem or girl trouble?’ she asked.
He smiled.
‘So, she left, huh?’ she asked.
‘Just curious, did you expect her to stick around?’ she asked.
‘She seemed different.’
‘Why is it always like that for me?’ he said.
‘Stop ah-ing me,’ he said.
‘So, why did you need this space?’ he asked.
‘Oh, nothing… just wanted to enjoy your misery,’ she sounded distracted.
‘You ok?’ he asked.
She leaned forward a little, hands on her thigh, face turned, looking away from him. She was wearing a loose salwar top and jeans. He looked at her face, neck, the rise and fall of her breasts. He looked up to see her staring at him, with a small smile, without reproach, a little sad. They remained silent, still facing each other. She turned her face away again.
‘What’s the problem?’ he asked.
‘Nothing,’ she said.
‘Is he coming?’
She nodded.
‘Try not to be so tense,’ he said.
She chewed on her lips and nodded slightly.
‘He wants me to quit my research,’ she said.
‘Just a few months more, right?’
‘It’s been a while,’ he said.
‘Have you been keeping track of these conjugal visits?’ she said hotly.
‘Hey, I didn’t mean to intrude.’
‘Sorry… God, I am a bundle of nerves…’
‘Don’t be so tense. Take it easy,’ he said.
‘Sen, you are a lousy psychologist?’
‘Thank you, Maya.’
They were silent for a long while.
‘Why are you so tense?’ he asked.
‘Nothing…’ she paused, ‘just girly problems.’
‘He says that I make sure I have it whenever he turns up.’
‘Tension plays a role, I have heard,’ he said.
‘You and your bloody tension…’ she glared at him.
‘Well, girls I know usually have it when they meet me,’ he said.
She continued glaring at him. Then, burst out laughing.
‘Yeah, right, laugh,’ Sen said. He poured another peg for himself, lit another cigarette. ‘My life…’
‘Hmm… my life, indeed…’
‘Do you want me to get him drunk?’ he asked. ‘I have heard that hubbies behave well when they are sloshed… contrary to popular beliefs…’
‘Oh, he will love that. Don’t you dare, I have enough on my plate.’
‘Jolly good, I don’t have enough money to share my rum.’
‘I thought rum was for horses,’ she said.
‘Yeah, horses and poor folk...’
‘By the way, where do you disappear off to when he comes?’ she asked.
‘I don’t disappear.’
‘I never see you here then,’ she said.
‘Do you keep track of my moments here?’ he asked.
‘Just noticed, that’s all,’ she said.
‘I don’t like husbands,’ he said.
‘Me neither…’
‘Tut tut, that won’t do, from nice traditional girls sitting at a man’s feet…’
‘One of these days, you will have to share your rum with me,’ she said.
‘No way...’
‘Scared I will rape you?’
‘Oh yeah, just can’t forget a movie I saw as a kid…’
‘So, that’s what got you hooked to cleavage, huh? That’s better than mother fixation…’
‘Maya…’ he growled with mock threat. She laughed. He joined her.