Thursday, December 21, 2017

She Went

Alex’s story starts with the ending: She went.
The first time I read that story, a few years back, I took it as a smartass beginning. Writers should grab attention from the word go, diktat one in writing one-oh-one. In the same uncharitable vein, I expected a sentimental melodrama. It turned out to be an odd love story, if that is the right genre–odd not because of the matter-of-fact delivery; not due to his death either, although that has made everything about him unsettling, unfamiliar. Alive, he would be the stranger he had become. We parted ways long back, ten fifteen years, all lines cut, pretence nought. Dead, the best friend resurrected. I did not go for the burial. I still avoid his folks and our common friends. But, he refused to let go of me. Five months after his death, I ran into his mother and got the story he left for me.
I was arguing with the fruit-seller at Statue Junction. He is a cheat but he has his regulars, like me, with time to waste or an urge to needle him. He objected to me picking and choosing oranges, ‘You can’t take all the good ones.’ I dared him to stop me. In the background, the lame half-wit at the lottery-stall chuckled. Those at the coffee-shop and the newspaper-stand observed impartially. He did not like my quote. I placed the money on his pushcart, ignored his protests and turned to leave with my purchase.
I saw her then. She was watching me with a smile.
‘Hullo, Aunty,’ I said.
She has greyed a little, otherwise the same; above average height, back straight, beautiful, graceful; and, with the same steady gaze, her soft, kind eyes.  
She raised her hand and ruffled my untidy prematurely grey hair. ‘You should use dye,’ she said.
‘I know, searching for the cheapest white,’ I said.
She lowered her hand to my arm.
‘Sanjay, it’s been a long time.’
‘Lovely to see you,’ I meant it.
‘Can’t you drop in to meet us old ones?’
I shrugged.  
‘Come with me,’ she said.
‘Yes, now.’
She held my hand. It was tough walking side-by-side on that crowded street, dodging vehicles and pedestrians, avoiding holes in the footpath. I must have stopped when we got to their lane, twenty meters from the Junction. She did not let go. I thought I saw two young lads race past, Alex and I. Where were we going–to the British Council Library behind the Secretariat or for a treat at Arul Jyothi, the vegetarian joint near the Junction? Those institutions, like us, have vanished or changed beyond recognition. Once, we ran after a car with two lovely sisters in the back seat, their parents in front too surprised with our enthusiasm to protest. The girls laughed and waved when we quit the chase, leaving us doubled over, panting and carelessly happy.
At their gate, I nearly called out his name like I used to. His father had a mean-looking Doberman and I always made sure someone was minding the dog. I turned to Aunty. She nodded. I reached over and opened the latch. It was like stepping into an old photo, without the people or the dog. The Portuguese-style villa, the courtyard untidy with leaves of the guava and mango trees, the steps where I remove my shoes even though I am told not to bother, they wear footwear in the house, the wood panelling,  high ceiling, red-tiled floor, polished sturdy old furniture, the old-world charm I envied. There was also the smell of fried fish from the kitchen, and that whiff of irritation that came with the rest.
I sat in the drawing room. That was not like before. I used to go straight to Alex’s room.
I asked about Uncle.
‘At the farmhouse,’ Aunty said.
They never got along, lovely characters both–the beautiful disciplined doctor and the handsome engineer turned urban cowboy; her quiet elegance; his machines, lousy friends and loud curses. Alex got the best from both.
We never talked about his parents, or mine. If I had told him I felt like a bastard in my happy home, he would not have understood. He must have thought I was luckier than him that way, the only way I managed to be better than him.
‘Theirs must have been a love marriage,’ I told him. We must have been talking about marriage, in general. Then, I believed in the adage about opposites attracting, and that groovy people never settled for a staid arranged affair.
Alex corrected me, ‘No love marriages in my family.’ He pointed at the photos on the wall, the sepia prints of proud ancestors, men in suits, educated ladies. ‘Only good genes admitted, never love.’ That could have been a joke.
He was proud of his lineage. He bragged about a photo of a maternal great grandfather, taken ‘when the grand old man still wore the sacred thread’. I never got to see that photo of ‘the converted Brahmin’. I did not hide my disgust when Alex talked of such. He brushed aside my protest, referring to it as a chip on my shoulder rather than taking it as a liberal progressive protest. It is possible I felt short-changed. Class and lineage hardly mattered when we were in school. We were boys in similar white shirts and black shorts or pants. History started with us. That changed after school. Some like Alex got a past, those like me continued without a rewrite.
‘I discovered my history and porn at the same time,’ I told him.
‘That explains the scant attention one topic received,’ Alex observed.
That must have been a year or two before we went our own ways. Jokes apart, I did search for and find my own set of photos and stories, to show, to hide, to tell, to remain untold. There was obvious poverty and talk of old money with little to show.
‘There was love in my family,’ I declared. He did not ask for details. I did not have to reveal I was not really sure about the love part. Sure there were men and their women, no dearth of kids either, in and out of wedlock. Some cases sounded cute, a few cruel, no major heartbreak or tragedy. As far as I could make out, the affairs were amicably settled, with sound economics winning over equal opportunity.
We compared our families’ rogue gallery too. The rascals, unlike the ambiguous lovers, made our families seem similar. I presented a grand uncle as the prime villain, a revolutionary Robin Hood with a penchant for beheading his rich victims. His signature used to be a bloody handprint at the scene of crime. Alex laughed when I noted that my ancestor got caught red-handed even without forensic science and fingerprints. From Alex’s side, it was a rapist uncle. His guy took a shortcut home through a cemetery one night, came across a barely-conscious woman lying half-naked and bleeding, clearly a victim of a heinous gang rape. He too raped her before scooting from the scene. I asked Alex if the police had investigated that case; he told me to get real. I was quite sure he made up most of that but the burden of proof was on me. He won that contest too.
Aunty brought a tray with a tall glass of juice and a plate of plum cake, just like in the old days, well, almost; there used to be a glass for Alex. She sat next to me on the sofa.
‘What happened to you two?’ Aunty asked.
I shrugged.
‘You two were like brothers.’
She was right. We were like brothers, the best of friends.
‘Was it because of some girl?’ she asked.
I nodded. That was a convenient lie.
The end of the relationship was gradual and unsurprising, not even bitter, an end that began with an unequal balance that gave way to a lost meaning.
She talked about his depression before the suicide.
‘I was abroad then,’ I told her. Not that I would have visited even if I was here.
She was kind, ‘I knew you would not come for his burial.’ 
She wept. I held her.
‘He will always be with us,’ she said.
I nodded.
‘He left something for you,’ she said.
I winced. Bloody Alex, he always had to have the last say.
She went inside and returned with a yellow envelope, the type with waterproof padding. She handed it over.
‘To Sanjay,’ his neat scrawl occupied little space on the cover.
‘In his sui…’ she paused, choking on those words, ‘in his last note, he mentioned he is leaving you a story. Remember his stories? He never gave up writing, not even after becoming a successful doctor.’
I sat with her for a long while, neither of us speaking much. I left promising to visit again. She seemed pleased even though she must have understood it was a lie.
The envelope was well-sealed. He need not have bothered. They would not have bothered to read his story, even if it was for them.
Once or twice he let out his bitterness. ‘They treat my writing like how people dealt with lepers.’
‘That will change…just get published, or win some prize, make some money,’ I said.
‘You don’t get it, do you? Even then, they won’t read my stories,’ he said.
That too was a topic we did not touch upon too often. It would have been the same with my family, that is, if I tried my hand at writing. It is just not the kind of stuff folks like us do, they would say.
He could always depend on me to read his writing; maybe, I am his friend for that; and, to be one up on me in almost every way.

At home, after dinner, when I was sure I would not be interrupted, I opened that envelope. Considering my first impression, I must have been irritated then.
The story, nearly a novella, focuses on the two in love. Their names are not revealed (she is referred to by a nickname once, ‘Deeps’). He does not waste space on the beginning or the ending of the love affair, allowing those two words at the start ‘She went’ to say all about the denouement. As for how he (that is, the protagonist) met her, he offers this: ‘I met her, like most such cases, not through love at first sight or some unforgettable encounter but via a circumcatalyst.’  That was his word for a mixture of circumstances (around which one’s life circles) and a catalyst (in this case, a common friend to whom he felt a physical attraction). Why they needed a catalyst or why a particular set of circumstances resulted in love, those questions are supposed to be irrelevant.
There are no details of other actors, friends or families, pressing demands or complications. The little there is about that is included in casual talk in some crowded place, it could have been about the weather instead, it seemed as if those were code-words for some secret love-chat between the two. The story was all about them. Strangely, the minutiae of their moments together do not seem tedious or pointless, racy or awkward. I still have the notes I jotted down in that first sitting:
1.    Definitely autobiographical;
2.    A celebration of life and love;
3.    What.F.Luck!;
4.    She went? Wrong usage or intentional? She left? She went away? She was taken away? She had to go?
5.    Is the life-after irrelevant?
The last point was because I was trying to unearth some clue about Alex’s depression and suicide. The third was just envy, I admit–another battle lost in the endless war between us. I hate to think he defeated me in the search for love too. Of course, this could be just fiction, his best fiction. I am not really sure, even now, about that first point.

For a while I thought of getting it published. It remained in a storage box along with old diaries and love letters, and went with me to Berlin, London, Bangalore and Mumbai. I shifted through three jobs in those years, moved away from academia to the corporate world. Life was more or less the same though. On the personal front, I was not yet ready for marriage. I had good relationships that did not last too long. Then, a ‘circumcatalyst’ happened.
For about two years, Veena and I were just colleagues in two departments of the same company, exchanging Hi-n-Bye’s and corporate gossip. I admired her, she is beautiful and intelligent, but from far. Then, at an interdepartmental get-together), we were in the same cricket team (HR’s idea that outdoor games would improve the synergy between departments, irony one might say with hindsight). I held her spectacles when she bowled and she enjoyed my sledging. Later that evening, before drinks and dinner, we got some time on our own and we talked. I could not sleep that night. She told me later that she did not have any such problem. She arranged the lunch at a Chinese restaurant the following weekend though. I got her a gift, a stuffed toy. She liked it a lot.
That stuffed toy was not my idea. I was already using Alex’s story as a handbook. I tried to convince myself it was not shameless plagiarism. Are we truly original all the time? Don’t we use all the books and movies and songs we have come across? Fiction does not die. Isn’t it because many have used it successfully that oft-repeated scenes are passed from one generation to the next? Even our gestures and mannerisms, aren’t those copied from past masters? Didn’t some famous writer say so in one of his novels? Was it one of those Latin American or East European writers, those writers with names so well-suited for writers, Marquez, Kundera? (Alex used to complain: ‘Have you ever heard of a writer named Alex?’)
I was enjoying the love affair too much to envy Alex for having thought of it first. I must have when I had a free moment, though that was rare in those heady days. 
I stuck to Alex’s script. Eating out, time together at home, lover’s quarrels, presents…when I had gone through all the scenes in his story, I tried minor variations and shamelessly produced sequels and remakes. Nothing could beat the original. One thought used to intrigue me a lot: how could it work so well? Once, we were in a movie-hall and a scene from Alex’s story was reproduced almost verbatim: the holding of hands, rub of arms, touching her breasts, how she moved closer. It was a full show. We did not think about the people around us. We did not care if someone would object or if we would be abused and tarred by some moral police. We were so selfishly and deliciously obsessed with ourselves.
She too went.

Did I expect it? It was not a sad or bitter ending. She has kids. When her relationship with her husband improved, or when his promises had to be given a chance, and their separation ended, she went. I think I would have married her if given a chance. Or, that’s me painting an honourable picture of myself. For a few days the vacuum she left behind seemed unendurable. But then, we are made to endure worse hangovers. What if it had been death that separated us, would I have wasted time complaining to God?
Alex was right, I realized. Those moments in love are all that matters. The funny thing about love is that it refuses to be relegated to the past. A new love would just have to learn to live with that, possibly re-enacting some of it if not all of it.
That begs the question: when Alex had that, why did he get depressed and kill himself (even if it was fiction and even if he could not write a finer piece)?
Months went by. I started to think of settling down. I bought a house. I got a promotion. I got married.
I made a resolution before that. I decided not to use even one scene from Alex’s story in my marriage.
A few days after our wedding, when we were going through the gifts, I came across a lovely gift. The card with it said, ‘To Deeps and her hubby, Your BFF, Swathi’.
I asked my wife, ‘Are you called Deeps?’
‘Some close friends from my younger days call me that,’ she said.
I thought of asking her if she knew a guy called Alex. I did not.
I do not call her ‘Deeps’. Alex’s story has to end.  

Saturday, December 2, 2017

after the cyclone

At half past eight, the morning after the cyclone, the lights came on after a 20-hour power-disruption. There was still no water supply. That happens whenever there's a flood. I wasn't really bothered. It was chilly. Hot food and sleep were my top priorities.

I plugged the mobile in for charging and called her.

"Hey," she said, sounding sleepy.

"You didn't call to check if I am ok," I complained.

"Why? What happened?" she asked, voice a blur.

"The cyclone," I said.

"Cyclone?" she asked.

"Yeah, cyclone, I am still here and not under debris," I sulked.

"Oh good," she said. "Hey, can I call you later? It's been really hectic out here."

"Bye Lekha," I said.

"Hey, this is Sreedevi," she said promptly.

"Bye Sreedevi," I said.

I flipped through the day's paper. My phone rang. The number wasn't that of my contacts.

"Sree, how are you?" she asked.

Couple of days back, a customer service person in Philippines or somewhere called me Sree. I nearly fell in love with her. We connected so well. She used the nickname so sweetly. She reminded me of a long lost love, how she used to call me, that one used my actual nickname of course, but this one made it seem that familiar.

"I have been trying to reach you forever," she continued. "Are you ok? The cyclone got me so worried."

"It was nothing, just the normal rain with a bit of wind," I said.

"Really?" she sounded worried. "You are telling me the truth, aren't you?"

"Of course, why would I lie to you?" I said.

"Oh, I don't know, you always shield me from bad stuff," she said.

I thought about something.

"Sree, you are really ok, right?" she asked.

"Yes, I am fine. Hey, I think it's my boss on the other line. Let me call you later, ok?" I said.

She made a sound that could have been a kiss or a sulking disapproval. I disconnected. Who was that, I wondered.

I went over to Vidya's house for lunch. Her male-cook served chapathi, a salad, a spoon of vegetable curry and a smaller spoon of something that was supposed to be chicken masala. She talked about her latest activities with slum kids in South-East Asia, Africa, Bangladesh. I could have asked her, why not India. Maybe, she does India too. I kept my eyes on her face. I wondered why I never went beyond her face, that was when I wasn't wondering about the missing chicken in the masala. Later, in front of the TV, we cuddled. Poor fishermen, we said watching the news. We kissed. The government should have issued the warning much earlier, we remarked. We fondled and teased. Of course, they should be angry, we agreed with the protesters. We came. Thank god it's over, we said and switched off the TV.

Sreedevi called me at five.

"Hey, this is Lekha," she said.

She used more of the sarcasm.

I called Lekha at half past five.

"Sreedevi told me that you called her Lekha," she said.

"Geez, news travels real fast," I said.

"You didn't check up on me during the cyclone," she complained.

"You didn't either," I retorted.

"What? Have you forgotten my call?" she sounded shrill.

I wasn't sure if she was pulling a fast one on me. Or was she the one who called me Sree? But she never calls me Sree. And never so sweetly. The call got over before I could think more.

I went to a club around seven. A friend from the US, now working in Australia, with family living in Europe, had landed in town during the cyclone for a 24-hour-visit. He's always in the thick of things. Another friend also turned up. He talked about his TV shows. He then talked about spirituality. He talked about his connections in the new government and how he could do good when the good ones are in power forever. He then said he felt like an animal whenever he's with women.The two talked about their wives and kids and friends. They talked about a friend who got laid. I should have listened to that. But I wanted to talk about the cyclone. They did not talk about the cyclone even once.

I got back home around midnight. There was no power, no water. Nothing new. Was there really a cyclone?

Thursday, November 23, 2017

the play

My kids disturbed my siesta.

I woke up screaming, "No, I didn't take the chocolate."

"Hey, old man," my son said. He is in that phase now, the life-long antagonism between sons and fathers. I scowled at him.

"So, it was you," my daughter said.

"Don't do that," I pleaded.

"Do what?" she asked.

"Sound like my mother-in-law," I said. I decided to change the topic. "What do you two want at this unearthly hour?"

"It is 4 pm," they said.

"So?" I responded.

"We want a play for the school Drama competition?" my daughter said.

"How many plays?" I asked eagerly.

"One, of course," she said.

"There are two of you," I reasoned.

"We are in the same house," she said.

"You have no idea about us, do you?" my son added.

"I do. You are in the 10th standard..." I said.

"9th..." he corrected.

"When did you fail?" I asked.

"See.." he said.

"I bet you two don't know in which house I am in office," I said.

"Outhouse," my son said.

"You don't have any house," my daughter said. "Come on...the play!"

"Ah! The play!" I rubbed my hands with glee.

I thought for a while.

"In standard 8, I adapted a N.N. Pillai play," I said.

"Aren't his plays a bit crude?" my daughter asked.

"It was hilarious. The crowd loved it. My wife is pregnant...or is it my daughter...there is some confusion about the father..."

"Did they allow that then?" my son asked, totally incredulous.

"I am not sure if it was allowed. We did it," I said triumphantly. I added, "Well, from the next year, they insisted on knowing the storyline before the final day."

", that's when it started," they said.

"In the 9th, it was an Agatha Christie play. I was a lovely lady in a lovely dress...and the murderer too," I said.

"No wonder Ma wears the pants," my son said.

"That won't work now," my daughter said.

"Why not?" I asked.

"Anti-women," she said.

"In the 10th, I was a blind beggar, award-winning stuff," I boasted.

"The differently-abled will get hurt," my daughter said.

"The beggars will protest," my son said.

"In the 11th, it was another hilarious play. I was this old man with a daughter in love with a rich waiter," I said.

"Too many negatives...old people...girl in love with money...waiters will want to know why them," she said.

"In the 12th, the priest-convict scene in Les Miserables. I was Jean Valjean, another award-winning stuff," I said.

They were not at all impressed.

"That's a Christian priest, right?" my son asked.

"Hey, he is a nice Christian priest," I said.

"They will think they are being poked at," my daughter said.

"How?" I asked.

"How do I know..won't will hurt their sentiments," she said.

"It wil definitely hurt Hindu and Muslim priests," my son said.

"How did they come into the picture?" I protested.

"Exactly...why aren't they in it, they will protest," he said.

"In France...then?" I pleaded.

"Anything else?" she asked.

"How about the epics? There is that much-adapted story. The orphan who actually belongs to a second-class family brought up by a third-class family..."

My son whistled the tune of 'Sometimes I feel like a motherless child...'

I ignored him and continued, "He goes to a first-class teacher pretending to be one of them. He gets cursed by his teacher. He gets cursed by a second-class person too. Come to think of it, only the third-class did not curse him. He has a more fortunate brother who was only cursed by a scorned woman and then became a transvestite for a year."

"Eeeks," she cried, "too many groups offended."

"Is that a Greek epic?" my son asked.

"Indian, I think," I said. "If it was Greek, the two brothers would have become lovers and developed a new complex. It was  definitely Indian. The fortunate brother kills the much-cursed one, that too via treachery suggested by gods."

"Do you want to get us lynched with gods in negative role?" they cried.

" about Shakespeare? I always wanted to act in one," I said.

"He is problematic," she said.

"Merchant of Venice?"


"Julius Caeser?"

"Men in skirts."

"Romeo and Juliet?"

"Teenage sex."





"I think you should stick to some Aesop's fable," I suggested.

"Those hurt too," they said.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

scene from a first night

"Are you saying you would not have got into this arranged marriage if you had found a girl for love marriage?" she asked.

"huH," he said.

"Are you saying you are in bed with me only because you could not find a girl to fall in love with?" she asked.

"hUh," he said.

"Do you know how that makes me feel?" she asked.

"Huh huH," he said.

"I guess you think it's just logical, use head not heart," she said.

"UhH," he said.

"For me it was love at first sight," she said.

"uHh?" he asked.

"I fell in love when I first met you," she said.

"HuH?" he asked.

"Yes, all heart no head," she said.

"uhh?" he asked.

"You reminded me of a guy I was in love with," she said.

"Uhh huh hhU," he said.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

where memory fails (not)

The place felt like a resort, all fake and great.

Problems started at the reception. The computer had no memory of my booking. The manager, that's what she claimed to be and the rest of the staff could not disagree, alloted a room, a suite she called it. It turned out to be a pokey room at the back, already occupied. The bellboy took me to another. It seemed unoccupied. There was a suitcase in the cupboard. See, only suitcase, no skeleton, he said with a laugh. It could be in the suitcase, I said. He said he was wanted elsewhere. How could he remember that, I wondered.

I went for lunch after a short nap. Have a lovely dinner, the man at the door said. I asked for steak. They got me the season's best vegetables. That's not what I ordered, I said. We don't have beef, the waiter said. Do you think I am the kind who has beef, I asked. But you ordered steak, he argued showing the slip on which my order had been noted. I did not, I said forcefully. A senior person came to the table and told the waiter to get me porridge. Who are you, we asked. How do I know, he said.

At the spa, the lady next to me kept on talking about her grandson. You know, my grandson Appu is a great swimmer, she kept on repeating. The lady on the other side whispered, she never had kids. I could not find out more. Someone objected to me being in the ladies section.

I went to the unisex toilet. Two men were sharing the same pisspot, arms over shoulders and the free hands holding the you-know-whats. A man and a woman were in a stall. They had forgotten to lock the door and also what they had intended to do. The rest were in a messier state. I wasn't sure what I was doing there.

I met an old girlfriend the next day. I pretended not to know her. My bra size is thirty six, she said. Bloody girl was trying to signal to me that she knew me. Long back, I had asked her for that information. I am not sure if that was before or after she got married. No, my dear, yours is thirty four, a lady told her. What a pity. I could have sworn she was my old girlfriend.

I came across my wife too. So, this is where you hide, she exclaimed. Who are you, I asked.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

at the zoo

"What's so special about him?" I asked.

"Trauma, it says," she read the board on the cage.

"He just sits there," I grumbled.

"But, look..." she said.

"What?" I asked, looking at the next cage.

"He has something to say all the time...but he can't say anything," she explained.

"Bah! Postmodern silence, is that what they call it?" I said.

"You are so insensitive," she said with a smile.

"Come on, let's check out the lady in the next one," I said.

"Now, that you wouldn't mind silent," she said.


Wednesday, October 25, 2017


"You forgot the anniversary," she said.

"No, I didn't. How could I?" I said.

"You always do, every year for nineteen years," she said.

"You are all I think about," I said.

"Admit it. You don't remember the day I died," she said.

How do I tell her she never died?

Wednesday, October 18, 2017


All my life, if there's been a constant, it's been goodbyes. It was places at first. I wondered why my mom asked me, aren't you sad. I must have been six or seven. I wasn't sad but that wasn't the point, did she spot something wrong with me. Places were followed by pals. Bosom buddies I forgot overnight. Let me get this straight, I wasn't the only one doing the forgetting. Pals, loves, real close ones who were not pals or loves, I was as good as a one-night-stand. My overnight despondency turned into weeks-long depression. I wasn't just lonely, I was sucked dry.

They decided that I should talk to someone. He seemed like a good guy. He seemed to understand. Seemed, I hate that word with disappointment its shadow. He listened to me though. That must have been tough. But it was tougher when I had to listen. He told me that not all of the goodbyes were goodbyes. Just an interval, he said. That was the good news. The bad news was that not all of them were ever there. Yeah, right, I cooked up goodbyes. Can you believe that?

Somewhere along the way I got married. I thought it would be loving to confide my worst fears. I told her about the goodbyes. How she laughs. Did you marry because of that, she pokes. She can rub it in. Man, you are needy for company, she taunts. That's a goodbye not going to be a goodbye. I never forgot what the guy said. What if my wife is imaginary, I grinned. It's not bad, not at all bad, this word so real so imaginary.

She came along then. She's there, really there, I can feel it, a dream more real than real. No more goodbyes, she says, we'll be together forever. She has her moods, don't they all. Why do you treat me as if I am not here, she asks. Hey, what can I say to that.

Monday, October 9, 2017

company of story-tellers

There are two photos in my wallet, me aged 13 and 15. They would see that when I bought them coffee or tea. I would point at one photo and say, that was my twin brother. Was, they asked. He died in a train accident, I would say to the company in the train. What type of accident, he or she would ask. He went to the pantry and never came back, I would say and then stare at the passing scenery as if I was holding back tears. I would not say more. That was enough.

Are you married, they asked me. Divorced and a widower, I replied. Oh, they exclaimed and sat back unsure. I would wait for their prompt. The uncomfortable would joke about divorcing after death. The concerned would say sorry. I would wait patiently for their preference. Most liked to hear about the divorce, only a few about the death. Only once did I try a mystery about death during divorce. It wasn't very convincing.

The last time I was on a train, I did not have to say much. There were two men, one in his mid-twenties, the other in his forties. One was a doctor, the other in IT, I forget which. I remember thinking that they ticked all the boxes as far as stereotypes were concerned. But I remember little else about them. They talked to each other but they treated me as the wise one, kept looking at me as if they were seeking my approval.

The twenty-something talked about a wedding that didn't happen. His ex-fiancee sexted him from her friend's phone and he had flirted back with the then unknown sender. She got onto a moral platform and sent him packing, he said. He should not have smiled then. A blank face would have kept us guessing.

No smartphones in my time but a clunky landline did the job, the forty-year-old said. I was actually ready for that call, in those days every guy expected such a call the day before his wedding, he recollected. And paused. It was too obvious a dramatic pause. He continued, the anonymous caller told me that there is a mole on my wife's upper right thigh. And there it was, he said. I should have looked at the percentages, 50% would have it or not have it, 50% of that would have it on right or left, he calculated. He should not have. When you get your math wrong, the story loses effect. This guy was nearly wailing by then, as a boy I couldn't cycle, I couldn't even whistle, and there I was a married man, and I couldn't do you-know-what. He was laying it really thick. I thought of slapping him. But, the twenty-year old seemed impressed.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Tick Tock Tick Tock


This was an entry for the Write India 2 contest (on the Times of India website). This story was written and submitted in September 2017.

I am quite sure this story did not go past the initial selection process. It is always good for the ego to blame the editorial team. Not that it would have succeeded if it had reached the 'Celebrity author of the month', Jeffrey Archer.

It has something I want/have to say. This might be its proper resting place.

Number of words: 2950


The college Principal had waited for six hours, before the interview, in the front corridor of the police station. In the interview room, he was not the sprightly middle-aged man he had been that morning. The lady officer placed a glass of water in front of him. He thanked her, thanked the male officer too, and finished off the water in two gulps. He sat stooped over the table with his elbows on his knees. He was not sure of their ranks. His eyes darted from one to the other.
She said little, her dark eyes never left him. She sat slightly away from the table, to the side, disconcertingly close to the edge of his field of vision. The male officer, with a handlebar moustache, asked, growled rather, the questions. He scribbled in a notebook, the pen jabbed fiercely at the paper. His free hand remained clenched in a tight fist, as if he could not wait to throw a left punch.
“Madam…sir…believe me,” the Principal croaked.
He knew that that would be the last thing the police officers would do. He stooped a little further, his chin barely an inch or two above the table. He began his statement.
“I wish I’d been there earlier. It might have made all the difference. So all I can tell you is why he was murdered.”


An hour later, in her office, Sub-Inspector Shajeeb asked, “What’s going on, ma’am?”
Circle Inspector Shokie did not respond. She placed the Principal’s statement on a pile of seven other interview reports. She leaned back and stared at it. A small smile came on her lips but that went nowhere near those dark eyes.
“Interesting,” she said.
“Bewildering,” he said.
“The murderer stands out,” she said.
“Bullshit,” he blurted out.
Even though she was the finest investigator he knew, in this case and with those reports, it was his studied opinion that she could not have a clue about what had happened.
Those eight interview reports had one thing in common. The statements began with the same three lines, same in content if not in words.


“Humour me, let’s recap,” Shokie said. “Start at the beginning.”
Shajeeb flipped through the pages of his notebook.
“Yesterday morning, Tuesday, around eleven, the Principal informed us that a lecturer, Aneesh A.M., male, age 38, was missing since Monday. He gave the following details.”
Shajeeb licked his finger and turned the page. He did not see his boss frown at that.
He continued, “From Monday to Friday, Aneesh lives in a studio apartment here in the city. Every Friday, he leaves for Kadalil, a town an hour from here by express train, to be with his family and returns on Monday. He has rented a larger house there. This Monday, he did not turn up for work. The Principal called Aneesh’s mobile but it was switched off. On Tuesday, he tried the other contact number in the college records. That turned out to be the landline phone of the landlord of the rented house in Kadalil. The landlord agreed to check up on Aneesh and used his key to enter Aneesh’s residence. He found a pool of blood in the drawing room. The furniture was in a state of disarray. There was no sign of Aneesh. The landlord informed the Principal and the latter reported to us. The local police was glad to hand over the case to us even though they could have argued that it was under their jurisdiction.” 
“Who likes to touch a case with a communal or political touch to it? Some creep will crawl over us soon,” Shokie said. “What do we know about Aneesh’s last actions before he went missing?”
“On Friday, Aneesh left college earlier than usual. Class got over before half past ten. A group from the Students Union had disrupted class for some protest march. From the CCTV at the railway station, we also know that he boarded the noon express.”
“That’s all we know for certain,” Shokie said.
“Well, ma’am, we know that he joined this college as lecturer six months back. The first month, he lived on campus in a faculty residence. He was made the Warden of the men’s hostel. That was only for a month. He then rented the studio apartment and shifted out of campus, giving up the duties of the Warden too. By the way, he rented the Kadalil house before taking up the post of lecturer, and gave that his permanent address to the college. All prior communication was to a residence out of state. We are following up on that.”
“Apart from the pool of blood and upturned furniture, did we find anything else in that house?”
“No, ma’am, the place was bare, no personal effects at all. The studio apartment here at least yielded the diary.”
“A diary he did not take with him last weekend,” Shokie noted. She took out a diary from an evidence bag and opened at a bookmarked page. “A diary with this last and only entry on Friday: They are after me...tick tock tick tock...the end is near.”


“The earlier entries in that diary agree with these statements,” Shajeeb said.
“These statements…!” Shokie brought her hand down on the pile as if she was slapping an irritating suspect. She scowled at it. “Even though it’s hearsay, let’s order this chronologically.” She paused. “Start with the Principal.”
This time, Shajeeb did not check the reports or his notes. He could recite all of it if she wanted.
“According to the Principal, trouble started when Aneesh was the Warden and lived on campus. In the first week itself, Aneesh got embroiled in a fight between two groups of students. Late one night, he heard terrific commotion, left his quarters and went to the men’s hostel to investigate. He reported to the Principal next day that two groups of students had been fighting with iron rods, cycle chains and cricket bats. He identified some students. The Principal warned the students and also told Aneesh not to get involved in the fights between left-wing and right-wing students. A fortnight later, Aneesh witnessed another incident. He saw three students sexually assault a female student. Aneesh once again identified the miscreants. It turned out to be the leaders of the three student groups, the left-wing, the right-wing and the center-right-or-left.”
“How comforting when they come together for such acts,” Shokie muttered.
“Aneesh wanted to report it to the police. But, the girl refused to come forward. The matter was hushed up. The students of course did not leave it at that. They threatened to finish off Aneesh.”
“He mentions all this in his diary…no discrepancy,” Shokie said.
“I wish he had also written down what he did on Friday,” Shajeeb said. “According to the Principal, Aneesh had been to the Principal’s office on Friday, before class. But the Principal had been caught up elsewhere. He seems sure Aneesh had come to see him about some problem with one or all of those students.”
“The Principal’s statement tallies with what we found yesterday,” Shokie said.
“Yes, ma’am, we searched the college campus and hostels yesterday. We found a huge cache of weapons, mostly the type used by students plus a few country-made guns, and some explosives, low-grade stuff used in stone quarries. We have arrested the three leaders. Not just for that.” Shajeeb paused. “In the hostel rooms of those three, we also found clothes with blood on them. The blood type matches the blood found in Aneesh’s house.” 


“Next, the statements of the student leaders,” Shokie said.
“Those rascals are trying to put the blame on the other. The right-wing guy says that Aneesh had confronted the left-wing guys when they disrupted class. He says that he was unwell on Friday, wasn’t in college and that he could have protected Aneesh otherwise.”
“What a saint!”
“According to the left-wing guy, Aneesh was going to confront the right-wing guy with some evidence of their shady activities. He says that his ‘boys’…“ Shajeeb said with air-quotes, “saw Aneesh search for the right-wing leader. He himself was in some ‘high-level meeting’ on Friday. If he had been around, he would have arranged protection for the lecturer.”
“My heart bleeds for these martyrs. And, the weapons just appeared in their rooms without their knowledge.”
“Exactly, ma’am...but, when we confronted them with the clothes with blood stains, they were totally speechless.”
“What did they have to say about the evidence mentioned in Aneesh’s diary?”
“At first, when we mentioned about the physical assault, they sat with baby-like innocence but when we mentioned the video-clip, they changed track immediately. Then, it became consensual sex…that the girl did not protest…her no was too soft and sounded like a yes.”
“Ma’am, I have left them thinking that we have the video-clip.”
“If only Aneesh had left that with his diary…” Shokie said.
“That guy had guts to record the physical assault,” Shajeeb said.
“If he recorded it…” Shokie said. “By the way, where did you find the center-left-or-right guy?”
“The idiot was hiding in his parents’ house. He has admitted to everything…weapons, sexual assault…he explained everything except the blood-stained clothes. His version is that Aneesh wanted to talk to him about another matter. He was supposed to meet the lecturer on Friday morning but he got up late. He says that everyone knew about the Principal’s embezzlement of college funds. Aneesh was going to do something about that.”
“Did you go through the Principal’s bank records?”
“His bank accounts didn’t reveal anything…but, he has got at least one huge mansion in a prime location in this city…and, recently, the extravagance lavished on his daughter’s wedding caught the attention of our income-tax friends.”
“Did you search his office and house?” Shokie asked.
“Yes, ma’am, we did that while he waited here this morning. In an outhouse of his mansion, we found a knife with blood on it…the same type of blood.”
“He couldn’t explain that, of course.”
“No, ma’am…but he has admitted to the embezzlement. That should keep him behind bars.”
“If his case ever comes to court…”
“Ma’am, do you think these four will get out?”
“I know they will get out. Isn’t that how our system works? Such people always go scot-free. All we can do is to make them stew in hell for a while.”
“How do we explain the blood-stained stuff with these four?”
“How I wish it was just four,” Shokie grumbled with displeasure.
“Eight more…” her colleague growled.


“What was the problem at his city residence?” Shokie asked.
“This Aneesh seems to have a nose for problems,” Shajeeb said. “His studio apartment is actually the first floor of a standalone house, the landlord lives downstairs. The landlord claims that Aneesh wanted to meet him Friday afternoon before leaving for Kadalil but that never happened because the lecturer left early. He says that Aneesh had been having problems with a neighbour over a garbage issue. The neighbour’s version is that it is them Aneesh wanted to meet and that Aneesh had a food problem with his landlord.”
“Whoa…hold on…garbage issue…food problem…?”
“Well, ma’am, the basic issue is that the neighbour and family don’t get along with this landlord and family. And, Aneesh did not turn out to be what the landlord assumed him to be.” 
“Can’t you put it simpler?”
“I will have to bring religion into it.”
“Ah, now I understand…”
Shajeeb continued, “The landlord’s problem with Aneesh was with the food he consumed. It seems they had agreed on the restrictions when Aneesh rented the place. The landlord used to go through the garbage to prove that Aneesh had violated the terms and conditions. Aneesh used to argue that the neighbours were putting their garbage along with his. A silly matter but it is the stuff of communal riots. They had flaming rows. Aneesh’s garbage bin is kept outside, to the side of the house, and accessible to the landlord and the neighbours. We had a messy spot of luck. The garbage collector did not turn up the last few days and we had lots to go through. We found bloody rags in the bin. Once again, the blood matches the type found in Kadalil. The landlord and the neighbour accuse each other of murder.”
“How are they behaving in our quarters?”
“They are complaining about police grub.”
The two smiled.


“Tell me about the curious incident of the kid,” Shokie said.
“We found a family who were with Aneesh on that Friday train, a young family with a three-year-old boy,” Shajeeb said. “The parents say Aneesh was a very nice fellow. They were returning home after a short vacation here. They were tired. After half an hour or so, the parents got onto the upper berths to nap leaving their kid with Aneesh. The mother says she kept half an eye and half an ear on Aneesh and her kid. It was a muggy day. Aneesh used a deodorant. The kid wanted to try it on. Aneesh obliged. The mother remembers hearing him ask the kid, how do you like the whiff of perfume?”
“Why did he use the word whiff with a three-year-old kid?” Shokie wondered.
“Now, this kid, like my own daughter, is a bit hyperactive. His speech too is a bit peculiar: his v’s and w’s sound like b.”
“Bengalis have that problem.”
“Anyway, this kid went around the compartment saying, “he gabe me biff, he gabe me biff”.”
“Oh boy…”
“The parents think they should have paid more attention to the issue then. They wonder if it would have helped if they had got off the upper berths and been with Aneesh sooner, or if they had told the other passengers that their kid meant whiff and not beef. Anyway, at Kadalil, they did get down from the upper berth to take care of their kid. They waved goodbye to Aneesh. The parents saw three men follow the lecturer. Kadalil police followed up on that lead. They got clear CCTV visuals. Those three are well-known to police, belong to a fringe outfit, repeat offenders for causing grievous bodily harm to others, and they were picked up. A bloody machete was found in their car. And the blood matches.”


“Now, to statement number eight,” Shokie said.
“The landlord of the Kadalil residence told us that a group of men visited Aneesh two weekends back, made a racket with threats and curses,” Shajeeb said. “They visited him too last Wednesday. They asked about Aneesh’s wife and whether he knew that it was a marriage involving conversion of religion. He says that he should have been there earlier that Friday, and informed Aneesh.”
“Has Aneesh’s family been located?”
“The Kadalil police are helping us locate his family. No luck so far. When he took that house, he told the landlord that his wife was expecting and that they would join him after delivery.”
“How did these people know about his marriage?” Shokie asked.
“That’s the strange part,” Shajeeb said, “no one has met or even seen Aneesh’s family but everyone in the area seems to know that his marriage is an inter-religious affair with conversion. The Kadalil police found these men. They too are well-known trouble-makers. They used the conversion issue only to make Aneesh vacate the residence.”
“Why did they want him to vacate?”
“Someone else wants to live there, and buy the place.”
“Ah, just the usual real-estate game....” 
“I guess blood was found on them too.”
“Not on them…but we found an iron rod with blood on it, and the fingerprints of one of that lot.”
“What did the gentlemen have to say about it?”
“They admitted that they had carried an iron rod when they met Aneesh two weeks back. They say they left it there then. They also say that they had not gone near him since then.”
Shokie closed her eyes and thought for a while. Shajeeb went through his notes again, searching for some clue to unravel the mystery.
“What’s his full name?” his boss asked.
“No one knows what the A.M. stands for.”
“No proof of identity, not even in college records?”
“There was some lapse.”
“But, according to what they say,” Shajeeb pointed at the reports, “the A.M. was different in different places…Abdul Majeeb for some, Antony Moreira or Anantha Murthy for others.”
“I am beginning to love this guy.”


“So, eight statements and a dozen people in custody, for murder or something else,” Shokie said.
“I have never come across a case like this,” Shajeeb said, “with so many to convict.”
“Too many, in fact…”
“Did all of them converge at the Kadalil residence and get involved in Aneesh’s death?” Shajeeb wondered. “How else will his blood be on all of them?”
“That would be a terrific coincidence. It’s his blood, isn’t it?”
“Oh yes, we have proof. He participated in a blood-donation camp recently.”
“How convenient…”
“Ma’am, what are we going to do with all of them?”
“Try them for murder and the other crimes they are guilty of. They will sweat for a while.”
“You said that one murderer stood out,” Shajeeb reminded his boss.
“Haven’t you figured it out?” Shokie said with a small smile.
“No, ma’am…”
“It’s Aneesh.”
“What…?” Shajeeb exclaimed.
“He has finished off Aneesh,” Shokie said.
“He set up the whole thing?” Shajeeb asked.
She said, “Someday when you are free, contact the police in the other states and ask them if they have encountered such a case: man missing or presumed dead and a dozen accused of murder or other crimes.”