Wednesday, December 26, 2018

This Year's Trip---Part 1

A middle-aged man sat by a window of a first-class a/c cabin. A young lady in her early twenties sat diagonally opposite near the door.
He ignored her and kept on staring outside, not really seeing the people on the railway platform. Then, as if he had remembered something suddenly, he opened his backpack and took out a diary. He flipped through the pages. He smiled, smirked rather, probably wondering if he had actually written those words. He raced through the entries.
A date in 2012: 7:10 pm---Waiting for the bus to Kodaikanal. This trip is going to be about observation…a storyteller’s sabbatical… (There were observations and with each one an associated story.)
A date in 2013: 7:10 pm---In the train and waiting to leave. This trip is about visiting the past and moving on…(Walking on a beach, alone in a taxi, standing on the rampart of a fort staring at the sea beneath…with memories of a past long dead…wondering how to move on, wondering how to enjoy the sublime in solitude…)
A date in 2014: 7:10 pm---In the train and waiting to leave. This trip is about having fun. (There were two foreign ladies with him on that trip…they claimed to be just colleagues…he suspected they were lovers…he told them he was a widower first and then divorced…)
A date in 2015: 7:10 pm---In the train and waiting to leave. This trip is about connecting with people. (There was a high-ranking bureaucrat in the cabin. They talked for nearly two hours about the state of the nation. The bureaucrat talked about his family too and then inquired about his. He replied that he was divorced and then a widower too.)
He laughed. He stared outside again, probably wondering what it was actually…divorced, widower, both or neither?
A date in 2016: 7:10 pm---In the train and waiting to leave. This trip is about being open to all, without inhibition. (Once again he talked to the companions, in the train and in Goa---a naval officer with roots in Pakistan, a CPI politician, a newly-wed lady in a club, two men from Thane busting rolls of cash in a casino and a young lady who latched on to them…no one asked him about his family status.)
There was no entry in 2017.
He looked at his watch. 7:03 pm. He wrote in the diary.
A date in 2018: 7:10 pm---In the train and waiting to leave. This trip is about nothing and no one. I am not going to trouble anyone with my company.
The train left Trivandrum at 7:20 pm. The TTE came soon after. The TTE asked the lady if she wanted to shift, to a coupe perhaps, for more privacy. She politely declined the offer and said thanks. The older man had some problem in showing a suitable identity card. He gave his wallet to the TTE and pointed at the cards in it, as if he was telling the TTE to choose. He did not speak.
He had got his ticket by courier. There was a note with it (Be on the train), along with a copy of a letter with his signature and handwriting. He had placed the ticket and the note in his memory-card pouch. It was as big as a pocket diary, an improvised visiting cards folder. Instead of visiting cards, it had notes to aid memory. 7 am: Brush teeth. Go to toilet. Have breakfast. Water plants…10 pm: Check all taps. Close all doors. Check all switches. Brush teeth. Urinate. Sleep. There were entries with dates too: Telephone bill…Electricity bill… Water bill…The ticket and the note was in that section. There were no notes about what to do at the destination.
Soup was served around 8 pm. He noticed that the young lady liked the soup with lots of pepper…like him. They did not speak. She took a sip and started coughing. Instinctively he raised his hand as if to pat her head. He lowered his hand. She must have seen his action. She focused on the soup.
Dinner was served at 9 pm. Later, he wrote in his diary…9:30 pm: I wanted to talk to the girl but that must be a thing of the past. I should not trouble her  
She read a book. He stared outside at the darkness and the images that whizzed past, houses with low-watt bulbs, shadows and silhouettes, drooping trees.
He mumbled to himself, “Pettah, Veli, Kochuveli, Kaniyapuram, Kazhakkoottam, Murukkumpuzha, Perunguzhi, Chirayinkil, Kadakkavvoor, Akathumuri…”
He stopped suddenly as if he could not understand why he said that or as if he did not know the rest of the stations.
An attendant came to prepare the lower berths for the night. The older man asked for an extra pillow. The lady too requested for the same. Sitting on the freshly-made bed, he opened his pouch. He checked the switches, went to the toilet and returned. He lay down to sleep.
At 10:30 pm, the train reached Ernakulam and two more entered the cabin, a middle-aged lady and a young man of about twenty. They spoke to the young lady in hushed tones. The older lady took the lower berth and the other two the upper berths. 
The man had looked at them when they entered the cabin. He closed his eyes and tried to sleep. His diary entries told him that he rarely slept well in trains.
He must have slept well this year. He woke up with a start around half past seven when morning coffee and biscuits were served. He looked confused. He opened the pouch, read the entries, calmed down, had coffee and biscuits, and then went to the toilet. He returned and took his seat by the window. The young ones had climbed down from the top berths. The two ladies sat near the door. The young man took the place by the other window.
The older man wrote in his diary…8:30 am: In the past, we would have covered everything by now, where we lived, what we did, even if we had relatives in common. Not this year.
Breakfast was served at 9 am. No one spoke.
He returned to his diary…9:30 am: It is weird when four people sit in silence. The girl has looked at me once or twice. That lady, must be their mother…why was she staring at me? Maybe, she was staring outside, thinking about something. But, did her eyes fill? Was that anger or sadness? They do not know I can see them reflected in the window. Or, maybe, they do know. The young man has been staring outside the whole time, like me. He is definitely angry. Something about him seems so familiar. Is it the way he stares outside, with one eye partially closed, head tiled to the side? Maybe, that is not so uncommon. Even I do that.
Around 10:15, the two ladies and the young man got ready to leave. They collected their smartphones, wires and other possessions. They took out the suitcases from beneath the lower berths. The young lady took out his suitcase too. She took his diary and placed it in his backpack. He thought of protesting but did not. He sat looking confused.
At 10:30, the train reached Madgaon.
The young lady told him, “This is our station, Appa.”

click here to read Part 2

This Year's Trip---Part 2

There was a car waiting to take them to a resort in South Goa. The older man got in front, the other three behind. They did not speak.
That remained more or less the same throughout their four-night stay at the resort. The man got a cottage for himself and the others shared one. They did not talk much, that is, to the man. In their cottage, the mother and the two kids shared their anger, frustration, sadness and, even if they were not keen to admit it, joy too.
They took the man with them for all meals. Apart from the unnatural silence at their table, they looked like a normal well-settled family. At other times, the man preferred to be by himself in his cottage. He followed the routine dictated by the memory cards. Morning and evening, one of the kids took him for a long walk on the beach. On the third day, they hired a car and went on a day-trip further south. The kids wanted to explore some beaches. The odd couple got off near a hiking trail. They hiked up to a hill-top, taking it slowly, silently.
The view from there was sublime. They sat on the ground, shared a bottle of water, had sandwich.
“Do you remember our first time here?” she asked.
He looked irritated and seemed to hold back some angry retort. He did not reply for a long while.
“All I know is that I wouldn’t want to be here and see this without…” he said, staring ahead. Again, he seemed to be holding back some thought or words or maybe he was uncomfortable completing that statement with a formal “company” or the informal “you”.
He half-turned towards her. She turned towards him. He looked at her hand. He raised his hand but lowered it immediately.
“I am sorry,” he said. There were tears in his eyes.
“Me too,” she said. She turned to stare at the abyss in front.
Six months before that trip, the daughter had received a letter from him, after a gap of twenty years. Twenty years back, it had been an apologetic scrawl telling her to be strong and to remember that he would always be there for her and her brother. For twenty years that promise remained just words. He was not there for them. This new letter was more formal, quite matter-of-fact and unsentimental.
My dear daughter, I have been to a doctor. It seems I am losing my memory. I would like to meet you. Could you please come to this address? Your loving Appa. His residential address was given below.
She did not tell her mother or even her brother. She was not sure about their response. She expected anger or obstinate denial. She did not want remorse or sorrow either. She was not even sure what she herself felt. For a month, she did nothing.
Then, one Sunday, she went to his one-bedroom apartment. He opened the door reluctantly and stared at her blankly. She handed him his note. He read it. He let her in. He prepared a fresh pot of tea and opened a packet of Marie biscuits and placed it on a plate. They sat in front of the TV. An old British crime video was playing, one of P.D. James’ Dalgliesh mysteries.
She tried talking to him. But that seemed to irritate him. They remained silent.
He opened his pouch of memory cards and flipped through them.
“I am sorry,” he said softly a little while later. She turned to him to say something. But he stopped her by raising a finger to his lips. “I can’t understand what you say. Worse, I won’t remember what you say.” He paused. “I do not remember writing that letter. But I seem to have placed a memory card in this pouch to remind me what I should do if you turned up.”
He stood up, went and picked up an envelope placed on top of the TV and handed it over to her. It was dated two weeks earlier.
My dear daughter, I am running out of time. Can I ask you for one last favour? I would like to go with my family on a last trip. Let it be like the trip we enjoyed last. Your loving Appa.
She did not protest or agree. She was with him for an hour.
She made three such, silent, visits before she picked up the courage to tell her mother and brother. Her brother was furious. Her mother was strangely calm, in front of them.
She continued with her silent visits. It was always more or less the same, the tea, the biscuits, the same PD James show or another like it, and the weird companionable silence. Somehow, through that silence, they came to an understanding. She would not visit him too frequently and never give or take more than that hour. That seemed to suit him.
It took her mother and brother two months to agree on the trip. She made the arrangements for the trip, sent the ticket to him with the note for his memory cards pouch. They met on the train and the other two joined them at Ernakulam.
He was a careful man. For a year, he had planned and made arrangements. His last will and testament was ready. He read up on the subject of finance for those in their final years. There was very little material on the section of society who suffered from dementia or memory-loss. He talked to bankers and set up a trust to manage his considerable savings and investments. Everything would go after his demise to the family he had last met twenty years back. He planned for his final days. He tried to put in a clause about packing him off to the Netherlands or some merciful place where a clinic would give him a quick assisted release. He learned that it was still a grey legal area.
He then made arrangements for a life without memory. He sold his big house and settled with minimal stuff in a more manageable apartment. He prepared his pouch of memory cards. He placed pictures and reminders around the apartment to help him with his daily routine. He found an agency, their services did not come cheap, to take care of cleaning the apartment, delivering provisions and the occasional takeaway. They even took him on long drives once a week. He did not want any company. He did not want anyone to talk to him. He kept a diary. He knew others would pry and read it. He wrote for them.
 He also left a brief note, apart from the will, to be delivered to his family after his death.
My beloved wife, daughter and son, It is possible you have already figured out what I write here and you despise me even more. I had to feign the loss of memory. Yes, I was selfish. But, I could not think of another way to be with you all before I go. Any other way would have had us bogged down in history. I could have left without telling you. But I have to tell you that I was always with you. Loving you always...

click here to read Part 1

Sunday, December 23, 2018

nod n stare

I said something to my friend.

She nodded but did not reply.

I said something else.

She did not even nod.

I said goodbye to the Internet.

And tried to find a friend.

But it is the same story everywhere.

So I nod at times.

I stare blankly most of the time.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

No One

“Death leaves a heartache no one can heal, love leaves a memory no one can steal.”
“That quote is from an Irish headstone,” Vivek said. “To tell you the truth, I think I have said that because every other speaker here today must have had an apt quotation.”
There were indulgent chuckles from the audience.
Vivek continued, “Maybe it has nothing to do with the topic: ‘What I have to tell the young ones’.” He paused. “Maybe not…” There was a longer pause. It seemed as if he was lost in thought. He stared intently at someone at the back of the auditorium.
Those who were there in that school auditorium that day so long ago still remember him. It was the main day of the school’s annual cultural festival. The extempore competition was in the morning. As usual it was a tedious affair with kids parroting more or less the same stuff, ten minutes per speaker, twenty in all, for three and a half hours with a single break in between. Kids from primary six to the senior-most in the twelfth-standard competed together—that was supposed to be the competition’s redeeming feature. Vivek was given the unenviable last slot at twenty past twelve because he was the previous year’s champion.
The judges were seated at a table in front and behind them the students of seven classes. The staff had seats by the side, some stood around leaning against the wall, others in the hallway, an eye on their wards, like cowboys protecting their herd or preventing any escape. The twenty speakers were secured in a classroom out of earshot of the proceedings, each one given the topic fifteen minutes before one’s slot.
There were some over-enthusiastic parents and reluctant visitors too. They were seated in the balcony of the hall.
At quarter past twelve, Vivek was given the go-ahead to proceed to the auditorium. He strolled casually. He nearly bumped into a person at a corner.
“Sorry,” both mumbled.
She was a visitor, in her early twenties.
“Are you escaping the torture?” Vivek asked.
She grabbed her throat, gasped for breath, tongue protruded out and her head lolled sideways.
He laughed. “I am next,” he said. “And, I have something to say to you.”
She stared at him. Even he looked surprised with what he had said.
“You better hurry along then,” she said. She moved towards him, adjusted his tie and then stepped back. He nodded at her before running to the auditorium. She retraced her steps to the hallway. She stood next to Vivek’s Math teacher, Mrs Varghese, her mother.
Vivek had a peculiar style of delivering a speech. Where one expected him to raise his voice and force an issue into the crowd’s collective consciousness, he moved away from the mike and spoke softly, so softly that people leaned forward even though his voice still reached the furthest corners of the auditorium. He moved closer to the mike, within a hand-span’s distance, and spoke louder whenever he shifted between sub-topics, fitting in a sentence to summarize or to lighten the load with wit. It worked well. The audience not only woke up, he had their full attention.
The other nineteen speakers had already covered all the fine points one could think of with regard to that dry topic: ‘What I have to tell the young ones’. The young ones in the audience, and the old too, had had enough of what was expected of them to correct the course of their lives and the world in general. The speakers had followed the unwritten rules of the competition and of the school, and kept away from dangerous issues that could hurt sentiments.
Vivek was not exactly an enfant terrible in that school but he had a knack for violating unwritten rules. In one of the many staff meetings where he was the prime concern, Mrs Varghese defended her best Math student, “Let him be. Vivek is not the role model you would like but he is a good one.”
For the first seven minutes, Vivek spoke about three issues that troubled not just his school, issues everyone seemed to know but never discussed. He gave details and people flinched. The Principal exchanged furtive looks with his senior staff, also kept an eye on the external judges. Vivek was harsh and at the same time understanding. He did not claim to have any solution. He begged the young ones to “stay away from the path of many deaths, away from destroyed lives and loves”. While the adults there grew increasingly restless, the kids sat up with a fierce look of belief and determination as if they had been handed not just a voice and hope but a life-saver. Vivek told them not to be scared to report any type of harassment or abuse sexual or not, not to be lured into prostitution for easy money and not to fall prey to drugs for whatever reason. “Only we can save ourselves. There should be a constant vigil for the victims and against the predators. No one is alone.”
Then, he switched gears. He stepped closer to the mike, scanned the audience, smiled at them.
“And, finally, I want to talk to the young ones about something I should not talk about…love.”
The audience smiled. They seemed relieved to escape from horror to fantasy. He stepped back and spoke softly, with short pauses punctuating each strand of thought, as if to remind everyone there to breathe.
“Very soon, nearly all of you will fall prey to love. You will be addicted to it. It will take control over you mentally, physically, sexually and spiritually. You will feel lost.”
“Resist it.”
“For the sake of the one you love.”
“If I had spoken to you earlier this morning, my stand would have been different.”
“I realized I love her. I am in love with her.”
“I could not breathe.”
“That was nothing compared to the pain that came next, the pain of responsibility.”
“Man is made to be selfish. Man is made for love too. That results in conflict, loss and pain.”
“For her sake, I have to resist love. Till the day she is safe with me.”
“Think about it, my young friends. Think about love. Think more about the responsibility that comes with any love.”
“This should be my last speech as a student of this school and I would like to leave hearing not your applause but the silence of your thought. I thank you.”
It was eerie. He walked away from the stage. The silence lasted minutes.
Vivek walked along the hallway to the back of the auditorium. He smiled at Mrs Vaghese. The young lady next to her seemed to be absorbed in a conversation with another teacher. Mrs Varghese scowled at Vivek.
“I am sure there will be a staff meeting about this,” she said.
He laughed.
Aaraada kutty?” she asked. (“Who is the kid?”)
Kutty teacher aagaamallo,” he replied. (“The kid could be a teacher.”)
She caught hold of his ear and gave it a twist. “PoDa,” she said. (“Get lost.”)
The Drama competition was in the afternoon, twenty-minute plays by the four Student Houses.
Vivek’s House put up a play about society’s double-standards or two-faced nature. It was a satire dressed up as a comedy of errors. Mrs Varghese was the teacher-in-charge of his House. Any other teacher would not have allowed the play or at the least would have censored most of the play.
Vivek’s was a ‘bit role’ as a patriarchal figure with multiple personality disorder. To the outside world, the man was gruff and authoritative. At home with his wife, it was a role-reversal. There was this memorable scene in which the stage was split into two halves by a wall with a door in the middle. He was at the door, half in half out, dealing with his colleagues outside, and inside coping with his wife’s demands. His voice was a rough baritone to one side and a husky seductive to his better half, even within sentences, a breathless or breath-taking effort. One side saw his macho side with curled up moustache, hiked up mundu (dhoti) and a hairy leg. The other side saw a sweet person with lowered mundu and a hint of a shaved leg. He left the audience speechless once again, though happily in splits this time.
At the end of the day, Vivek came across Mrs Varghese once again. She introduced him to her daughter Sonia. They exchanged very formal Hellos as if they were meeting for the first time. Sonia complimented him for his performances.
“I think the kids will be more influenced by your acting than your speech,” she said.
“All I know is that the Principal and most of the staff will be out for your neck,” her mother said.
He laughed.
“As long as you two are with me, I can face whatever the world throws at me,” he said.
“Oh, get lost, cheeky fellow. Don’t corrupt my little girl,” the older lady said.
He smiled at them, thanked them and took leave. It was quite evident he did not give a damn about the authorities. The smile was however tinged with a touch of sadness.
The school authorities wisely decided not to rock the boat and they reaped the fruits of that action. Vivek brought academic glory to the school in the Board exams and the entrance exams to elite institutes. In fact it was a wake-up call not just for that school but for the students of that small sleepy city. No more could they be diffident about their potential. No more could they claim to be disadvantaged. Vivek set the bar high and it encouraged his school and others in the city to improve and better his record.
Vivek should have left for the best universities abroad but due to his modest means he had to try his luck with the premier institutions in the country. There were highs and lows. At times when hard work and inspired efforts went waste, he slipped into long periods of despondency. He survived and continued to impress. But it was clear, especially to him, that the system had done its damage and that he had lost the opportunity to be among the best.
In those years, he had remained in touch with his former teacher. They exchanged long letters once or twice a year. One summer break, she invited him home for lunch. Sonia was there too, on a short leave. She was a manager in a foreign investment bank in its country headquarters at Bangalore. They too started writing letters to each other, once a month or so. It is pointless to wonder if that trajectory was a result of his conditions. Who knows if and when life is chaotic but determinate or just a haphazard mess?
The letters turned into e-mail exchange around the time he took a research position in Bangalore. They met once for a quick lunch. She took him to her office and introduced him to her colleagues. In couple of her e-mails, she had told Vivek about a senior manager who harassed ladies in the office. She introduced Vivek to that senior manager too.
“Ah yes, she has told me about you,” Vivek told the creep. Vivek’s words, grim smile and strong handshake seemed to perturb the man.
“What will I do without my macho knight in shining armour?” Sonia later told Vivek.
“Now I know why you had lunch with me,” he said.
Their busy work schedule did not leave much time for socializing. They did not party together or mix friends. They met at a Jethro Tull concert in the city but the two groups did not mingle. On phone or in e-mails, they talked about life without getting into the specifics of relationships.
They got together when Mrs Varghese came to stay with her for a week. They took him with them for shopping at Commercial Street. He treated the ladies to a fine Chinese lunch at Silver Wok on Richmond Road. For the first time, they talked about personal matters. Mrs Varghese told him that her Syrian Catholic family had kicked her out when she had a baby with a Hindu Nair. They were married briefly.
“He was young and before he got old he realized that it was simpler for him to return to his roots and marry properly,” Mrs Varghese explained in her usual matter-of-fact way. “I guess I would have done the same if I didn’t have her.”
“I was unwanted then and now,” Sonia said, feigning sorrow.
“True, I should not have spoiled you so much,” her mother retorted.
“I second that,” Vivek said.
“Judas,” Sonia snarled at him.
They laughed.
“What about you, Vivek?” Mrs Varghese asked.
“Ah, poor unwanted moi,” it was Vivek’s turn.
“Come on, tell all,” Sonia prodded.
“Well, I tried a relationship for a while. It did not work out. She left me,” he said.
“What did you do to her?” the two ladies said almost together.
“Now who is Judas?”
“Seriously…you must have done something,” Sonia reaffirmed her doubts.
“She died,” he said.
They remained silent for a while.
“You rascal, you cooked up that one, didn’t you?” Mrs Varghese said.
He grinned.
Sonia punched his arm.
“Did you fib about that?” she asked sounding quite appalled.
“Us story-tellers never tell,” he said.
“Oh, I will never trust another word you say,” Sonia said.
Then, there were the Berlin years.
Sonia’s creep of a senior manager was not deterred by Vivek’s show. She reported him to HR. As expected, she lost her job. She had already been thinking of a change of scene and decided that this was the signal to get on with it. She enrolled for a Masters course in Economics in a London university, followed that in quick time with a PhD. She fell in love with a German and they shifted base to Berlin.
Vivek was already in Berlin by then. He too had decided not to get stuck in a rut. He got a grant to work in German academia and that was later converted to a long-term tenure at a prestigious institute near Berlin. Berlin suited him in many ways.
Vivek had kept in touch with the ladies, though less frequently. Life was already a bit too full for Sonia. She and her mother were not on the best of terms for a while when Sonia was pregnant with her first kid. But that chill thawed quickly when the baby was born. Mrs Varghese came to take care of her child and grandchild. She stayed with Sonia and her partner Susanna.
Vivek visited them with gifts for the new-born girl and her mothers and her grandmother. He helped Susanna with the cooking and the washing. In the kitchen, they talked about a shared passion for crime novels and photography. She was a friendly jovial character who could turn nasty on feminist issues. Vivek never let go of any opportunity to tease out that dark self.
“Vivek, don’t you dare trouble my girl,” Sonia shouted from the living room while breastfeeding the baby.
“Don’t worry,” Susanna said from the kitchen, “he is great in the kitchen. Hey, do you think we should keep him?”
“A throupie with a Platonic third,” Sonia hooted with laughter.
“The baby will have too many mother figures,” Mrs Varghese noted.
Mrs Varghese stayed with the couple for six months. Vivek went with her on a couple of museum tours. She was passionate about concerts too but he stayed away from that claiming not to have the proper costume for such an outing. The ladies once invited Vivek to join them for a picnic at Grunewald.
Mrs Varghese and Vivek went for a long post-lunch walk. The couple stayed back with the baby to snooze in the sun.
Vivek offered his arm. After a momentary hesitation, she held him. They walked silently for a while.
“Why did you have a cold war with Sonia?” he asked.
“Oh, just being a mother, I guess,” she replied.
“You were not against it, were you?”
“To be truthful, I was.”
“Go on, ask, how could I be against it with my background, right?”
“Vivek, breaking one wall does not break all. That is what I realized. And, I used maternal instincts as my defence. I told myself that I was just concerned about her future.”
“Took you a while to realize her future is ok if she is happy, huh?” Vivek said.
“Yes,” she replied.
“I knew you would come around,” he said.
“Did you?”
They slipped into silence once again.
“Do you know that I blamed you in one of those fits of anger?” she said.
“Me? What did I do?”
“Remember that old play of yours? I was quite sure that affected her…”
They laughed.
“But it was your speech that was supposed to affect her, right?” she asked.
“Ma’am!” he protested.
“Vivek, my dear boy, don’t think I am a fool.”
They chuckled and walked. They returned to the couple.
Later, Vivek was left alone with Sonia and the baby when Susanna and Mrs Varghese went to freshen themselves.
“You two looked like a dear old couple,” Sonia remarked.
“Ah, the jealous daughter speaks,” he said.
“Vivek, my old man, don’t think I am a fool.”
He looked at her amazed.
“What? You think I didn’t realize you had the hots for your teacher,” she said
He laughed and pretended to box her.
“Are you abusing my girl?” Susanna said from a distance.
“Oh, just doing what you two should,” he replied.
They all laughed and prepared to leave.
Life continued as usual. That juggernaut of priorities and opportunities rolled over old dying roots, the old laughs and companions preserved as fossils in sepia records to be discarded during some spring-cleaning.
Sonia and Susanna had one more baby. They kick-started their careers when the kids started going to playschool. Mrs Varghese took up a teaching position in Dubai. Every vacation she travelled to new places. En route whenever possible she visited her daughter’s family but never overstayed. There were minor hiccups like ill-health and job-loss during the financial crisis. Old acquaintances washed away with a lot of water under the bridge. Before they realized it, two decades had gone past and even the babies were ready to leave home.
They got to know about Vivek’s death through a Facebook post. It was a lovely eulogy by a junior in school and received a great deal of likes and emojis. None of those passers-by knew him outside their old school. One comment mentioned that cultural festival so long ago. Another remembered his quote but reproduced it inaccurately.
“Death leaves no one a heartache to heal, love leaves no one a memory to steal.”
Maybe Vivek thought so too…maybe not.

Monday, October 22, 2018

The Complaint

That day, five huge hundred-year-old trees fell in different parts of the city; incidentally, the same parts were flooded the previous night after a light shower; the Mayor assured the people that the filth and garbage blocking canals had nothing to do with the flood or the trees; the price of fuel and onions touched new highs; health services were put on red alert to deal with a viral disease that’s killed scores; an uncle (age 40) raped his niece (age 4); a lady killed her parents and two kids to have more time with her lover, the lover and the lady’s husband absconded from the city; a song’s video featuring the seductive pout of a starlet went viral with a million hits; and, the media protested about the State not allowing some news to be news.
An incident in this category of news happened close to the city-centre, in a congested but quiet middle-class ghetto. In a narrow by-lane, with three houses in that cul-de-sac, the action took place in the house on the left. The two-storeyed house on the seven-cent plot with a jackfruit tree and two coconut trees in front had seen better days. The compound wall and the interlocking tiles in front were green with algae, the courtyard strewn with leaves of the jackfruit tree. Only the gate had received fresh paint in recent years and even that was rusty. It was not neglect or penury to be blamed. Its main occupants, a man in his late eighties who has been in intensive care half a dozen times in half that many years and his wife a decade younger barely managing to keep everything from falling apart, had only that much time and energy.
Around half past ten that morning, they had visitors. Mrs Das and two colleagues opened the gate and walked up to the open front door. The old man, seated in an armchair in the drawing room, remained immersed in a magazine.
Mrs Das pressed the house-bell thrice before shouting at the old man, “Can’t you hear me?”
The wife came from the kitchen, looking flustered, wiping her hands on her old saree. “I am sorry. He does not hear well,” she apologized.
“I am from the Women’s Initiative.” Mrs Das ‘looked official’; a stout lady with a big belly, about fifty-five, her cotton saree crisp and all perfect lines, serious eyes stared over big-frame spectacles, hair pulled back in a bun, not a strand out of place. She waved a sheet of paper and asked, “Did you send this to our Director?” They entered without invitation and sat on a sofa.
The old man realized there were visitors. He turned towards the ladies and smiled.
He was a handsome man once, a quick-tempered one too, now more frustrated with his deafness than with his failing health. His breathing was laboured; hands and legs trembled with early Parkinson’s; needed a hand when he stepped out but otherwise quite independent. His wife was short and slim, pleasant, soft-spoken and preferred to be busy. “That’s congenital, my family is like that, always walking around,” she used to say. He might seem the dominant one but it was a well-balanced relationship.
“What is it? Who are they?” the old man asked his wife.
She ignored him. “What is it?” she asked Mrs Das.
“A complaint against one of our workers,” Mrs Das said.
“We have not complained.”
“Then, how did the Director get this e-mail? It is from your husband’s e-mail account, if I am not mistaken.”
“He has not sent it.”
Mrs Das turned towards the old man. “Did you write this?”
“What?” he asked.
“We write what we want to say to him,” the wife suggested.
Mrs Das frowned, picked up a newspaper lying on a coffee-table and scribbled her question on the margin. She handed that and the printout of the e-mail to the man.
He took time to study both and then said, “Yes.”
“But you told me you had not sent it,” his wife said. The old man looked at her confused. She took the newspaper, borrowed the pen from Mrs Das and scribbled.
“I did not send it,” he said after reading his wife’s statement.
“What?” Mrs Das protested.
He seemed to understand her. “I wrote it and saved the file in the computer. I did not send it. What use?”
“Then, who sent it? Is there someone else using your computer?” Mrs Das asked.
“It’s actually our son’s computer,” the elderly lady said.
“Is he here?”
“He is upstairs.”
“Please call him.”
“He is working.”
“What does he do?”
“I don’t know. He is working.”
“Please call him.”
The elderly lady reluctantly went to the stairs and pressed a switch. A bell rang on the second floor and a door opened.
“What, Ma?”
“There’s someone here. Can you come downstairs?” the mother said.
A middle-aged man, unshaven, a little overweight, freshly-bathed and already sweating, came to the drawing room. He wore an old t-shirt and track pants. In his case, it was neglect. The crow’s-feet by his weary eyes seemed to be a leftover of the genial nature that face was accustomed to before swapping places with quiet anger or desperation. He used to say, “I am all grey, with a memory of sweetness and a sharp tang of something squeezed till death”.
Mrs Das gave the earlier introduction before asking, “Did you send your father’s complaint?”
“Why would I?”
“Then, who did?”
“How would I know?”
Mrs Das sighed, shrugged as if to say she was washing her hands off the case and stared at the three.
“Let me explain the case. Then, you might co-operate,” she said. “This e-mail says that one of our workers Sudha, an area community leader, was your domestic help and that she, what’s the word you use, scooted, yes, scooted with fifty thousand. Did she steal it from you? No. You gave it to her as zero-interest loan in good faith, yes, in good faith indeed. Let me ask you. Do you have proof? Some receipt…any record of bank transfer…no?  I didn’t think so. On top of it, you claim that she feigned a suicide attempt to scoot…suicide to scoot.”
“Are you calling us liars?” the son asked.
“You don’t have to raise your voice. I can hear,” Mrs Das said. “We took your complaint very seriously. We talked to Sudha. After a lot of coaxing, she managed to tell us that all she got from this family was abuse.”
“Abuse…? Oh yes, we should have given her that.”
“Mind your words, sir. Yes, abuse, that too physical abuse,” Mrs Das paused, “sexual abuse! It was because of that she…scooted.”
“Just out of curiosity…when was she abused?” he asked.
“Before she left,” she replied.
“Is she accusing him…this frail old man…of sexually abusing her…?”
“We have heard of worse about frail old men,” Mrs Das said. “What about you?” She paused. “Do you whistle, sir?”
“What’s that got to do with this? Of course I whistle.”
“She said that it started with someone harassing her constantly with whistling and such.”
“I whistle at birds.”
“Birds…birds, indeed!” Mrs Das snorted.
“Look…I want that report of her…accusations!”
“We can get all the details you want. She is still terribly traumatised.”
“I have been out of town, traveling, the last three months. Got back and found them struggling without a maid, and robbed of fifty thousand. In any other place, that…she would have been in jail by now.”
“In any other place, she would not have been abused,” Mrs Das snapped. “As I said, we still have to get all the details from her. We can check if the abuse happened when you were out of town or when you were in town.”
The father looked intently at one speaker and the next, trying hard to make out what was going on. The mother sat down, her head in her hands. The son leaned against the wall. He took out his mobile, searched for a number in the contacts list, cursed, then went to a cupboard and took out an old diary. He flipped through the pages, found what he was looking for and dialled a number. He moved to a bedroom on the ground floor and spoke softly. Mrs Das signalled to her colleagues and they stepped out. Standing in the courtyard, she too made a phone-call. All of them returned to the drawing room after the calls.
“Who did you call?” Mrs Das asked.
“Police,” the son replied. “My cousin…he is a Deputy Superintendent.”
“Do you really want to take this down that route?” she asked.
That was around eleven. Mrs Das asked for something to drink. The mother made tea for the visitors, and served that along with digestive biscuits. They did not speak.
A police jeep arrived around quarter to twelve. The son and Mrs Das, along with her colleagues, met the big burly man in uniform in the courtyard. He introduced himself as Sub-Inspector Ramesh.
“DySp told me to check on the situation,” he said.
“He told me he would come,” the son said.
“He is tied up with more important stuff. What’s happening here?”
Mrs Das smiled. She briefed the policeman about the complaint.
The policeman placed a hand on the son’s shoulder and said, “Let’s talk.” They moved towards the jeep.
“You should settle this,” SI Ramesh said.
“Give them something and make them go.”
“No way….”
“Even the DySp suggested that.”
A brown van came to the spot then, parked behind the police jeep. There were five men in that. It was followed by two on a motorbike. One of them told the men in the van to stay put. He, medium height early forties wearing well-ironed white shirt and white dhoti, approached SI Ramesh.
“I am Councillor Santosh,” he said.
“Sir, what was the need for you to come? You could have called me,” the policeman said.
“Ah! These men…” the Councillor tilted his head towards the men in the van. “They came to me slightly agitated.”
“Who are they?”
“They belong to the Drivers Collective.”
“What did these people do to drivers?” the policeman asked.
“One of them is the husband of the poor lady involved in this sad case,” the politician explained.
The policeman sighed, looked at the son.
“Mrs Das called me to…control the husband and his friends,” the politician continued.
“Is he close to you?” the policeman asked.
“Everyone is close to me, no?” the politician said with a smile.
“Sir, I was telling them to settle,” SI Ramesh said, pointing at the son.
“I too would advise that,” Councillor Santosh said. He turned to the son. “Are you the one who sent that complaint?”
“No,” the son said.
“Then, who did?”
“We don’t know.”
“Doesn’t matter…very stupid thing to do,” the politician said.
The policeman nodded.
By that time, around twelve, people had gathered in the street and in every compound. They stood at a safe distance. A car came slowly through the crowd and stopped behind the bike and the van. The by-lane was totally blocked. The five men in the van got out. Three men stepped out of the car and one approached the house. He too wore white like Councillor Santosh but with a brightly coloured shawl draped on his shoulder to differentiate. They could have been brothers, the same height, build and moustache, even the same look of authority, that of generals with minions to sacrifice.
“Who called you here?” Councillor Santosh asked the new arrival.
“Did you think we wouldn’t be here to defend our own?” the other retorted. He turned towards the son, smiled, gave a reassuring slow nod, and then addressed the policeman, “I am Kadalil Rajappan, the Association’s area secretary.
“Of course, sir, I know,” the policeman said.
“This family is part of the Association.”
“Excuse me, I have to call my superior,” SI Ramesh said and slipped away towards the jeep. He spoke to the DySp. His message was, “Sir, it’s getting political. The Association has also landed.”
“Bloody hell, haven’t you settled it yet?” came the response. “Just diffuse the situation and get out of there.”
“How do I do that?”
“Get my cousin on the phone.”
SI Ramesh flicked his fingers at the son. The latter hurried towards him. “DySp wants to talk to you.” He handed over his mobile.
“When did you get involved with the Association?” the DySp barked at his cousin.
“I am not involved with them,” the son replied. “The first time I have seen these guys, I swear.”
“Your parents…?”
“They must have been tricked into joining. You know my father. He is dead against them.”
They paused for a while as if the last utterance summed up the situation.
“Who informed them? Why are they there?” the DySp asked.
“I really don’t know. First the complaint and now this,” the son said. “Someone’s hacking into our lives.”
 “That is the least of your troubles,” the DySp said. “Look, settle this quickly.”
“Money, what else…?”
“How much…?”
“One might do, I think…given all those groups.”
“One what…?”
“Hundred thousand, what else…?”
“One…one…” the son kept on muttering.
“Don’t act dumb…you’ve put me in a big mess. Get it from somewhere and give it to the SI. He will do the needful.”
“Should I give him something too?”
“That’s up to you. What’s that commotion out there? Give the phone to the SI.”
The SI received the phone and said, “Sir, it’s started.”
“Bloody hell…” He barked some orders to his subordinate who wondered how he would follow any order in that situation.
Within that courtyard, two groups faced each other. Councillor Santhosh and Kadilil Rajappan did not raise their voice but they spoke clearly and forcefully. When they paused, their supporters raised a chorus of slogans in support. One side spoke of class prejudice and abuse against the vulnerable. The other talked about years of injustice and step-motherly treatment their group suffered from the ones in power. Both claimed to be patriots, the only ones defending the borders, the true keepers of freedom and heritage. Both touched on history, from the earliest invaders to more recent riots, from betrayals to acts of oppression. There were no open threats. They avoided any mention of religion and caste. It seemed like they had some tacit understanding of how to conduct the turf war.
The policemen stood near the jeep. The son stood alone. His parents leaned against the front door, the mother in tears, the father dazed. The SI tried to talk to the politicians but he was shooed away. Around half past one, they must have felt hungry.
It took a while for the vehicles to reverse and get out of that by-lane.
The son asked the SI, “Sir, will they be back?”
The policeman shrugged. The jeep hurried away from the scene.
A few neighbours dropped in to get the details they had not managed to fathom. They retreated to their houses, locked their gates and doors as if to guard themselves against some rampaging mob or plague.
The son tried to make his parents eat something. The father lay on his bed. The mother kept fidgeting in the kitchen. The son retreated to his room upstairs and sat in front of his computer but did not switch it on.
Around eight that night, they sat to have a dinner of rice gruel.
There was a loud bang and the sound of sparks. Something had tripped the power line. The lights went out. The son went to the front and opened the door. The whole area was in darkness. Just for a while.
A Molotov cocktail exploded on the courtyard a few meters from the son. Inside, the mother shrieked with fright. The father, with his head down, slurped and continued with his dinner. At the door, the son fell back stunned. Three men raced towards him. He was hacked 37 times. They used what is called ‘country-made swords’, machetes modified with protrusions and jagged edges to pulverize and damage flesh and bones. Post-mortem investigations discovered that he had no defensive wounds, the first blow had killed him or he saw no point in complaining. Another group arrived at the scene. They threw ‘country-bombs’ at the first group. A few hit the house. The two groups left after a brief skirmish, dragging their injured away into the night.
A dark shroud and an eerie silence settled over that battlefield. The police turned up at the scene after half an hour, along with an ambulance. The tally that day, in that quiet neighbourhood: one dead, one unconscious, one clueless.