Wednesday, March 16, 2016


If he was successful, he would have been labelled eccentric, not crazy.
“Even as a kid, I had these totally blacked out moments, amnesiac really, with my writing–I wrote poetry then–with what I wrote and who wrote it. I would stare at a paper with my handwriting and I would have no recollection writing it.”
He came out rather late, with his writing, and it took a long time for people to notice him. He hid behind pseudonyms, randomly posted new and old writing to blur chronology. It wasn’t his writing that made people notice him. He was persistent, very persistent in fact, with queries about writing, not just his, theirs too.
“No, I was not after what the writer meant. I was after the soul. It is there, you know, that soul of creativity; impregnated, growing, reaching out, most often in a cryogenic deep slumber; it is alien.”
He was not antisocial but could seem so. He hated it when people noticed his work when it was shortlisted for a prize, or when it was accepted for publication. He disappeared from the scene till people forgot. He was realistic, though.
“Sure, I agree with you. How will people know unless it attracts their attention? But, I think they lose something that way. ”
He was not violent but he was quite harsh towards those who wanted to know him better.
“Damn them! They don’t read what I write. It is my writing, not me, they should focus on. Now, if they are not at all interested in my writing, it might make sense, though quite pointless if you ask me. I don’t exist. But some think they can understand my writing better if they get to know me. As if I have got something to do with my writing…”

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Whose Fight Is It Anyway

Every love affair has its make or break moment. In one case, it was when I kissed her hand. The suspense was killing me. I expected a slap. She hugged me instead. With my ex-wife, it happened when I proposed. She should have refused. Love would have lasted longer. The moment turned up today with the current love of my life when I met her best friend. With better actors, it could have been a comedy of errors. “Is he your ex-hubs?” a love exclaimed to an ex-love at the end of a volatile introduction. All that was called love was erased to give space to all they had discussed in private about a villain (everything except my identity was laid bare, it seems). I vanished from the scene.
 In the good old days, men in such a condition walked to their local bar, had one drink too many, got into a pointless argument and exited with a few bumps and cuts. In these lean times, men drive a car. I snarled at carefree pedestrians, honked at relaxed fellow-travellers and laughed at startled elders. No one took umbrage.
At a traffic signal, an auto-rickshaw overtook me on the left, jumped right in front of me, dangerously close. I braked and swerved dangerously to the right to avoid collision. Curses and horns protested loudly. I followed that rickshaw. At the next signal, the same manoeuvre was repeated with another car. This time, the car swerved but did not slow down. I heard the sweet sound of a crash. God be praised, I thought.
I stopped at a safe distance from the crash-site, got out and grabbed a front-row position. It was not a serious accident. The car had scraped the side of the rickshaw, that’s all. The driver of the car was an old man, too young not to protest, too old to be loud enough. His wife, an elegant old lady, stood by him, holding his hand. The rickshaw-driver was joined by comrades and sympathizers of smaller vehicles. I watched them bully and threaten the old couple. A politician entered the scene and advised everyone to be calm. A policeman on the scene was glad to give charge to the man of the people. A quick settlement seemed imminent. The car-driver’s shoulders fell, his wife’s face showed more resolve, but they were beaten, they knew.
I stepped forward and pointed at the rickshaw-driver, “He did the same thing to me. I barely escaped.”
The mob turned its attention towards me. The old couple smiled.
The rickshaw-driver fumbled for a moment before deciding to go on the offensive. He asked the policeman to make sure that the rich don’t get away with every crime. The politician nodded in agreement.
“Oh yes, let’s go to court,” I said and went ahead with my taunt, “wait till I show the video clip. Or would you like to watch it on the Net first?”
The old couple frowned. They must have had some experience with the legal fraternity. The politician slipped away from the scene. The policeman mumbled, “Show me the clip.” The lynch mob correctly guessed that I was bluffing. The law of large numbers states that that is a pant-wetting moment.
My mobile phone rang then. I took the call. My love cooed, “Sorry, my dear. She explained that you are not really that bad.” She was a trifle late.

My Land

I went alone to the police station. At the entrance to the compound, I looked up and muttered a small prayer before walking to the main building. The gang of thieves, because of who I was there, were squatting in a close circle under the hot mid-day sun. A constable stood near in the shade. A young man in that group spat out an expletive at me. An older man–I recognized him, Rambhai, some-bhai–ordered him to shut up. Rambhai stared at me with sad pleading eyes. Not the first time. The others seemed resigned, familiar, to such a situation.
Inside, a sub-inspector offered a chair and told me to wait for his superior. I would have preferred to wait outside if the company there had been different. Police stations, all government offices, make me uneasy and claustrophobic. I tried not to be fidgety. I turned in my chair and studied the rogues’ gallery, a pin-board with the photos of ‘Wanted’ criminals.
“Last time I was in a police station, this is my second time, you see, it was the same lot, I think,” I told the sub-inspector, “different place, same criminals.” I laughed nervously, hoping I sounded friendly and uncritical.  
The officer looked up from a report, stared at me, lips pursed, unsmiling. I guess he held back a retort. He grunted and returned to his work. He must have thought I have connections in high places. After all, I managed to get the police to round up the thieves. That must be why he offered me a chair.
My first visit to a police station was in Bangalore, long ago, for the benign task of police-verification, a part of the passport-renewal process. I was not at home when a constable came to check up on me. He left a barely legible scrawled note telling me to report at the police station. There, I was not offered a seat. I watched him write a long report about me. I remember admiring his handwriting; it looked good, though I could not read it since it was in Kannada.
“One wrong move and I am screwed,” I had thought even then.
It is the same scene, always, in these offices with silent poker faces. An officer inspects the file. There has to be something wrong, at least a wrong entry in some form. Inadvertent error, sorry, the excuse ready, not that it will help. The bribe at the end will seem charitable, with divine relief for the giver and stoic acceptance of the taker, patience rewarded.
The wait is the real torture. I found a way to deal with that. I think about my land, the paddy fields, the coconut and rubber trees, the fruit and the vegetable, the manure, the feel and smell of rich earth, the slow climb to the windy top, the farm house, the stream bisecting the land rushing to the sandy swimming spot where three tributaries meet. That meditation works, to calm nerves in a tight situation.
Not recently. I see myself circling my land. After each circuit, I appear flipped over; like I am on that mathematical curiosity, the Mobius strip, the path a strip of paper given a twist and then glued at the ends. I am not just upside down, after each round, inside out and some part of me missing too.
I must have woken from that reverie with a start. The sub-inspector frowned at me. I gave a weak smile and silently cursed those thieves outside. After all that I did for them, always fair and considerate, why did they turn against me, why did they rob from the hand that fed them, why did they bring out the old ghosts, the abuse I have had to suffer since childhood from people I hardly knew?
My first memory of that dates back to the time I lived in East Malaysia. I must have been seven or eight years old. Every evening, at half past four, my father took us for a drive–my mother, elder sister and me. Usually, like that day, to the market for provisions or fish; at times, a longer drive to his work-site or to some friend’s house.
Kleynga kui,” a lad shouted at us. His shout merged with the braking of wheels and the smell of burning rubber.
My father hurried out of our light-blue Beetle, raced across the road without looking right or left–in that sleepy town in Sarawak, in those days, traffic was not a problem. He grabbed a broom on display in a store and chased the lad. The lad escaped. My father traced his way back to the store, sweating and still very angry. He offered to buy the broom but the shopkeeper would not have any of that. We were regulars there. Other shop-owners and shoppers gathered around my father, a few must have been my father’s colleagues and subordinates. They knew his temper. They must have said the right thing because he did not seem too agitated when he returned to the car. He ignored our shocked stares. Later, at home, my mother called his action foolish.
“What if it was an Iban lad? One of these days, they will chop you to pieces.” My mother was scared of the Ibans, former head-hunters, a simple kind lot. My father pooh-poohed her idea.
“He was Chinese, only the Chinese call us that.” My father liked his Chinese bosses but not the ones at his level, he called them devious.
I liked his version. It has a nice ring to it, ‘kleynga kui’, especially the ‘kui’ (ghost) part. I never understood ‘kleynga’. A Sikh family-friend–he was my doctor and he had answers to all my problems–told me it is derived from Kalinga, Asoka’s empire that stretched to those parts. I preferred to take it as ‘darkie’. ‘Dark ghost’, I liked that.  
My sister, back to her sure self–in the car, she was visibly shaken; her hands by her side, eyes shut tight, fingers clawing at the leather of the seat–corrected my father, “He called us keling, it was a Malay lad.”
I was fairer than the Malays. Why would they call me ‘darkie’?  I disagreed with my sister, silently, no one was asking for my opinion, not that I could have offered much. Even though my head was half out of the car, before and after the shout, I had not seen the lad, I heard only the shout.
It did not really trouble me then. In my class in school, there were three Indians–me, a doctor’s daughter and a poorer darker boy. Unlike the girl and me, he was not a first generation Malaysian Indian. He was a descendant of the indentured labourers, conned and taken from South India in the nineteenth century to work in the plantations of British Malaya. I never got to know him well. His father had a shop in the market. My parents never went there. My classmates used to call him names and he used to give back. Not just him, any tussle among the boys usually ended with such vocal warfare. ‘Cina babi’ (Chinese pig) was his, and my, favourite. I cannot remember if we called the Malays ‘babi’; that would have been frowned upon.
At that time, I did not think it strange that my father chased a local lad, that too with a broom. It took me a few years–by which time, I had left Malaysia and settled in India–to wonder about that.
My father had lots of Chinese, Iban and Malay friends. We were invited for their parties, for festivals and otherwise. On Diwali, we had a day-long party for them. In our corner of India, Diwali is hardly celebrated, but there, in Malaysia, we were clubbed with the other Indians and that was adopted as our main festival. That Sarawak of mine still remains the loveliest, and the most secular, place I have ever known. It probably was. My father was in the government service. He must have been of some use to that lot, in sanctioning and laying a road, or whatever. In that place, he could chase the boy.   
Off and on, when I think of that place, I feel bitter. I was born there. I spoke Malay fluently in the local dialect. English and my mother-tongue Malayalam were of no use there and quite foreign to me. I won prizes in writing Jawi. I loved beef satay and koey teaw more than my mother’s cooking. One of my recurring dreams has me as a pukka native–an Iban, wearing loincloth, holding a parang (sword), standing on a bukit (hill) overlooking the beaches of Miri where I was born. I really belonged to the sea, the rivers and the forests there. I have rolled in the stinking slush of the paddy fields, played in the rubber plantations. I should have been a ‘bhumiputra’ (son of the soil). I would have liked that prize, and the benefits that came with that tag, but that is reserved for the Malays. It is just a minor gripe, never seemed unreasonable though, that rule, then or now.  
About twenty five years after that shout in Sarawak, two German lads shouted at me in a village near Potsdam. By then, I had given up on learning languages. I guessed those German boys were telling me to get lost. I could not chase them. I smiled.
Not at them, though they must have thought so. I was not scared of those teens but I would not have risked taunting them. I had enough experience, in places closer to home, to know that such kids usually have nasty cerebrally-challenged skin-heads as elder brothers. Brandenburg had such gangs then, when unification was still recent and troublesome, and the unemployment rate in those parts was in the high double-digits. I worked in a research institute–placed in that village to develop those parts–and rarely ventured out after dark. The institute itself was fairly cosmopolitan. At lunch time, people of the same tongue gathered together. The Indians talked of discrimination. I reckon I was smiling at all that.
In my college in India, we liked to sit with our own lot, a table for each language. We mixed, occasionally; we preferred not to. We had friends of all types, we knew our differences too. A close friend once asked me my caste. I did not reply. “Surely not one of the lower ones?” he persisted. “Could be,” I replied. That did not affect our friendship. It is not as if I would marry his sister. The only time I have reacted ‘violently’ was during my postgraduate days. The vegetarians wanted a separate section in the students’ canteen, with ‘unpolluted’ plates and glasses. When they got that, they demanded that non-vegetarian food should be served only once a week. We could barely afford non-vegetarian food with the pathetic stipend we received as research fellowship, but that demand crossed the line of tolerance. We got a butcher to kill a goat right there in the hostel. For nearly a week, we had non-vegetarian food thrice daily. The vegetarians threatened to quit the hostel. We told them to get lost. When the German boys shouted at me, I must have remembered that and smiled.
I must have also smiled there, thinking about all that, in the police station. The sub-inspector stared at me and shook his head. He is new to the place. Actually, it was my second visit to this station. There was that fiasco at the farm-house which functions also as a home-stay. Prasad–he was a self-appointed caretaker–entertained couple of tourists with liquor and a prostitute. Some local must have sneaked. There was a police raid. I too was arrested, being the owner, even though I was not on the premises. It took some effort and money to convince the police to drop the case. The tourists had to pay in dollars. The police were not interested in Prasad. He did not even have to shell out a paisa. He was the local boss of a right-wing group. I got rid of him. Come to think of it, Rambhai was involved in that case. That prostitute was his relative–wife or daughter or something.
Just the thought of Rambhai and his lot leaves me breathless, nearly hyperventilating. My folks are quite bitter with me these days. They say I should have known better when I got myself a ‘kadikkunna patti’ (biting dog).
When I returned, from abroad, to take care of my ancestral land my folks were quite glad, except a few who had hoped to grab most of it for themselves. I was new to farming, and to living in the countryside. I am comfortably well-off and do not depend on the land for income. As long as I stay away from usurious loans, and losses are minimal, whatever I get from my land is a pleasing bonus.
I refurbished the house, added an ethnic touch, packaged it as a chic eco-friendly home-stay for proper foreigners–they pay better and are usually cleaner.
I rarely meet my neighbours. They are not my type. The land is large enough to keep them distant. That advantage also brought troubles. They took it for granted their cattle and goats could graze on my land. They used to cut across my land–even cleared a thoroughfare for that purpose–to get to the market. By road, it is a kilometre or two more. I built a sturdy wall to keep them and their animals out. It is rough hilly terrain and in the first rain, the wall crumbled. The break in the wall looked convenient for that lot. I suspected a human hand but the neighbours feigned ignorance. I talked to my folks; they shrugged and told me to accept country life. I consulted a friend, a lawyer; he went against his profession and advised me to stay away from civil cases. Call it serendipity or whatever–in his office, I got an idea to guard my boundary.
Another client–a frail-looking middle-aged lady with a soft voice–was in his small office along with me, my friend, a clerk, a partner and a junior lawyer. My friend joked about ‘open confidentiality’ in the judicial system. Her case was discussed in my presence.
The lady has a philandering husband. They have separated but he is staking a claim to the property in which she is living.
She butted in, “He wants to give my land to that woman.”
My friend explained that it is not clear who has legal right to that land, she or her husband. One weekend, when she had gone to her pregnant daughter’s house, the husband entered the property, made a make-shift temple with idol and all that. He even installed himself as the ‘caretaker-priest’ of his ‘family temple’.
“She came to me then,” my friend said, then added with a sheepish grin, “I do not know what was going on in my head. I told her to demolish it, just as a joke, mind you.”
The lady said, with a shy smile, “That night, my son and I pulled down his temple. We dumped the whole thing in a well and covered it up. The next morning, he came and found his vocation as priest over.”
We laughed at her account.
My friend said, “And now, I am lying low. She not only did that, she told that crazy husband of hers that it was my idea.”
It struck me immediately that I could use the same crazy solution for my problem.    
I had to be discreet. I arranged a small function and got couple of priests to ‘correct an evil aura’ on my land. I invited a few puzzled relatives. A cousin brought his friend, Prasad. The priests studied the stars, accepted my offering of money and a grand feast; and, as per the script, they suggested I should do daily prayers on a consecrated part of my land. They helped me choose a site for the place of worship. It was close to the wall that kept crumbling, and on the path to the market. The priests installed a mirror in place of an idol. That was supposed to reflect the power within. The wall has remained intact.
Now, I have a cordial relationship with my neighbours. We exchange sweets on festivals. They even invited me for their grandchild’s wedding. I visited their house and gave a gift. They did not expect me to attend the wedding in their prayer hall.
After the function on my land, Prasad was a frequent visitor. He urged me to join his social group. They feed the poor, take care of the powerless, keep a check on social ills and correct ‘moral indiscretions’. He was quite persuasive. I attended their meetings. At first, he was happy to make do with my financial contribution. In one of those meetings, I let down my guard and that is when the trouble started with these people squatting outside.
Prasad’s group has on its roll most of the landowners in the area. Labour is our biggest problem, thanks to exorbitant daily wages, parasitic unions and a mollycoddled local workforce too used to be in demand. The only solution is to use migrant workers. I was not too keen but I needed a dozen workers or so. The old faithful, passed on to me by my folks, were close to retirement. Prasad’s group took care of the procurement and transportation of migrant workers. They charged a heavy non-negotiable commission. We, the group of employers, reached an agreement about where to put up the new workers. Divide and care seemed to be the only option. I got twenty.
I was quite surprised to find that the workers did not need much space. The two-room dormitory took a few cents of land. It was far, and more importantly not visible, from the farmhouse. They did not need much in the way of amenities. The second source of amazement was their work. They slogged from dawn to dusk, at a fraction of earlier labour costs. The returns from the land and the house increased. It was quite exhilarating when my non-profitable setup turned into a cash-cow. Apart from supervising their work, and paying them, I had little to do with that invisible, dark workforce. I could not converse fluently with them, not that I wanted to.
A minor problem cropped up then, and I screwed up. A neighbour complained to the local governing council that filth from my land was polluting their water sources. Instead of handling it myself, I should have contacted Prasad’s group to take care of the matter. A young social worker named Sundar took a special interest in the issue and demanded to inspect the premises. I went along with him. The conditions around the dormitory were quite appalling. The filthy turd-strewn area made me wonder if I was still on my land. Sundar refused to believe the overcapacity was not my doing. I had noticed when the migrants brought their families and others hopeful of a better life in these parts. I had thought it best not to interfere in matters that did not concern me. They did not ask me for jobs or money or space. They did not even cross my path more than usual.
Sundar became quite a bother. He wanted better facilities for the workers and expected me to be responsible for the migrants’ health and hygiene. I told him to teach the migrants how to live like the locals, to adopt our culture and our ways. I reasoned that that was their responsibility for getting a better standard of living. Sundar asked me, quite unreasonably, how the filth could be a better living. I asked him if he had lived wherever these migrants came from. He had not. His demands multiplied. He wanted education for the migrant children, even self-help programmes for the women. I told him to get real and to do all that with his money, and off my land.
Prasad’s outfit got involved when Sundar and his set of activists started troubling the other landowners too. Sundar and Prasad belonged to rival political camps. The last thing I wanted was to get involved in their bitter fights. Their last argument in my presence ended rather ugly.
Sundar wanted more of my land for the migrants. He even hinted that they had some kind of right over it.
I exploded, “What right do they have over my land? Is that the gratitude I get from them?”
“Why do you keep on saying my land my land? Land is just land,” Sundar said.
“Why don’t you give yours then?” I suggested.
“I would if I had what you call my land. My family gave away whatever we had to the needy.”
I was quite sick of his sanctimonious preaching.
“My land, to me, is like my mother,” I said.
“He would screw his own mother,” Prasad said. He continued, “They do not say my mother, my wife, my kid. It is common property, isn’t it? One happy fucking family, isn’t it?”
“You stay out of it,” Sundar snarled.
“Why, are you scared to deal with me, you worm?” Prasad responded.
I had had enough of the two of them. I told them that I needed some time to think on my own. They left my house.
Two days later, Sundar was hacked to death. Some unknown persons broke into his room–he lived in a lodge–around midnight and killed him.
A week later, the revenge killing happened. Prasad was abducted from his house. His charred body was found in a disused quarry.
I was shocked by those developments, and quite relieved to see the last of those two. I decided the time was apt to make some decisions of my own.
The migrant workers on my land were increasingly restive. Some mischief-makers had entered my land, in my absence, and roughed up the workers and their families. The workers assumed that that was my doing. I was not bothered by what they thought. I had a meeting with half a dozen workers, young and old. I am not sure how much they understood. I tried telling them they are safe, and that it might help if they changed their ways and fitted in better. I told them that their families were their business, and that they should not expect anything more than their pay from me. Times were tough, I said. I promised to do more when there is more money. I managed to pacify them. From them, I got the complete list of people living on my land.
I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“Go in,” the sub-inspector said, gesturing his superior’s office with a jerk of his head.  
His boss told me to take a seat. He raised a finger, signalling that he would be with me in a minute. He studied a few files, signed some papers. He leaned back and smiled at me.
We were introduced to each other at a function in the village-school a few months back. After that program, I had invited him to my farm-house. I had treated him to the best single malt I had, and a good dinner. We had talked late into the night, about society and corruption; and, how tough it is for good people to do some good.
He moved the files to one side of the table and juggled a paperweight.
“So, what can I do for you?” he asked. “You must have noticed the lot outside. We picked up the people you mentioned.”
I took out the list of migrants. I handed it over to him.
“There are too many people in that camp. I built that place for a dozen but you know how they are like. Before I knew it, each one brought a dozen or two. That is the full list,” I paused, “I can’t cope with the whole lot.”
“I heard about the problem,” he said.
“You must have heard about my neighbour’s complaint. I should do something before it becomes a full-blown health risk, for everyone.”
“And, you want us to do some of your dirty work?” he said smiling.
With a straight-face, I said, “Well, I thought it would be best coming from the authorities.”
“That lot outside–is that the lot you have selected?” he asked.
“No, those are good workers,” I said.
“Then, what…” he must have understood my plan then, “Aha!”
“Well, I don’t want to do the selection,” I said. “Let that lot decide which workers and family members should go back. I can accommodate thirty at most.”
“Devious but effective,” he laughed. “That might even stop them from bringing more here.”
“I hope so,” I said. “Could you also tell them that if they can’t adapt to our ways, all of them would be sent back?”
“No problem.”
I thought about that young man outside–the one who abused me. He should share some of the pain. Let him choose the people to be sent back to wherever they come from. Love and hate one can forget, not guilt. His guilt will keep him in line. That should work better than a broom on his back.