Monthly Archives: April 2014

Kerala Notes

Half-sleeping, we stumbled into the Delhi airport to catch a flight – run by a rather appropriate airline- for Kochi. It was the unearthly hour of 5 AM. If it wasn’t unearthly enough for my folks, who are accustomed to waking up at more sensible timings, it was absolutely depressing for people like yours truly who saunter into the drawing room for breakfast at half-past-ten on holidays (that is, when one even eats breakfast).

This airline lovingly gives its craft individual names. Ours was christened Cardamom and appeared to have been last refurbished when certain present politicians were infants. “We should have taken the train,” said my father. I had visions of sitting in slow-moving compartments for 2.5 days while the people of India did a synchronized Mile Sur Mera Tumhara exclusively for our benefit.

The plane halted at Mumbai as scheduled. Ten minutes into our break, just as we were stretching and beginning to curse the furniture, a disembodied voice announced that passengers bound for Kochi would have to get out as well. Apparently we were abandoning our dear Cardamom for a “technical reason”.

We trooped into the waiting area and, like lost sheep, waited for an appreciable time for some sort of guidance. Finally, a bright red crew member materialized and requested us to surrender our old boarding passes for new ones. The idea was to take us out of the waiting zone for some reason and make us walk back in through security. But they’d reckoned without the security ladies who looked balefully at our boarding cards and ordered us all to freeze. “You shall not pass!”

However, they finally let us through and we could join the Mumbai passengers in Dadar station, oops I mean Gates 1-6. The time passed pleasantly enough in trying to save oneself from getting elbowed and kneed by other people and we hardly noticed the delay.

 

Green Sleeves

Our new aircraft was called Sumac. It proved to be more well-behaved than the unfortunate Cardamom. As we descended, a sea of greenery rose out of the clouds, dotted with red roofs. The trees appear to be on the point of taking over the airport; grass comes right up to the edge of the runway. Clearly, plants love this place.

We headed for the entrance and were greeted by people waving cards at us and shouting slogans (“<Something Incomprehensible>, Zindabad !” ) with great gusto. Since Kochi could not possibly be so excited about the arrival of Rothinzil and family we wondered which VIP’s presence we had been blessed with on the flight. It turned out to be a film shoot. In case anyone watches a Malayali blockbuster with a Politician-Triumphantly-Returns-Home scene, I am in the blue Snoopy t-shirt in the background. 

Thekkady is some 150 km from Kochi, on the edge of the Periyar Tiger Reserve. A grey ribbon of a road fringed with mango and jackfruit trees gives way after some time to winding mountain routes. Very winding routes : as the afternoon wore on Dangerous Curves Ahead began to sound distinctly unfunny. 

We stopped at a tea stall with a beautiful view over the hills. My mother’s request for “pakoda” was met first with incomprehension, then with the appearance of a plateful of bananas fried in golden batter. It was sweet, crispy and oily all at once. Later we found out that it’s called “pazham pori” which partly explains the linguistic confusion.

Tea plantations, spice plantations, and tiny towns that appeared depopulated (actually, it was Easter Sunday) flashed past. We reached our hotel late in the evening, accompanied by a mellifluous orchestra of crickets. And so our first day in God’s Own Country ended peacefully, and lazily.

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Anti-stories

Once upon a time, there was a principled MP who chose not to be a demagogue: writing rationally and speaking measuredly instead, in favour of a cause he believed to be just. He was not swayed from his principles by political considerations and did not make illiberal statements just to be assured of his popularity. Nevertheless, he had a decently large following (because people actually read his books and understood his ideas) and when he came to power, he encouraged the best people instead of the worst. After his term of office was over he went back home and took care of his garden and his library. The End.

Once, there was an extremely plain but witty girl student who (inevitably) fell for the handsome boy in her class, even though they had nothing in common, and to her surprise she managed to attract his attention without going for a makeover and losing her granny glasses. He proved to be a terrifically smart and hardworking chap, and they married and did not need a divorce after ten, twenty or even fifty years. The End.

 Also, once upon a time, there was a beautiful young woman who was intelligent and resourceful in her working life and did not shy away from the hardest assignments.  All of her peers and seniors attributed her success solely to her academic and professional excellence. She also had a best friend to whom she was devoted. Who was a girl too. The End.

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Sussex, 1890

Unnoticed I slipped in among the mourners. My precautions were unnecessary, for they were far too busy with their grief and with each other to be bothered by my presence. A steady cold rain had been falling since yesterday night, and the men and women now gathered at the graveside were huddled into their overcoats or struggling to keep the rain away with sombre black umbrellas. The funeral was delayed. I wondered what people would think if they knew how eagerly I had awaited this day.

Lurking unseen in the densest part of the crowd, I looked around carefully but unobtrusively, hoping to be confronted by a familiar face. But apart from a few elderly local luminaries – he had been successful and well-respected in life– they were all strangers. Relatives, perhaps, of the unfortunate man’s wife, who had been lying peacefully under the green turf for the last five years. They had placed fresh flowers at her headstone in a gesture which brought a wry smile to my face.

The man’s son stood on the edge of the grave, looking through me out of tearless eyes. I considered speaking to him for a moment before deciding it would be quite unwise.

It was very late when the procession finally reached the graveside. The black-robed priest was unfamiliar to me. It must be a new man. They set the coffin down and the priest began to say the customary prayers.

I pushed through the crowd to the front, my skirts checking my speed.  With a quiet sense of dismay – but not surprise – I realized that they were burying him next to his wife.

I sighed and drifted back to my corner of the graveyard unseen. Even in death, it seems, I was to be sundered from him.

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Ravens

You take the early train to the small town just outside the city. The thirty minute ride is crowded. You find a seat somewhere and present your pass to the conductor just a minute before the stop arrives.

It is a tiny, cold station with a single platform. You know that there is no train expected here for another half an hour atleast, so you nonchalantly cross the railway tracks and follow the small path towards a set of neat white houses. There is nobody to be seen; at this hour, everyone is at work. You follow a street named after Sophie Scholl. The name sounds familiar. You ponder over the fact that one man’s criminal is another man’s hero while a solitary bicyclist crosses the road in front of you, the first human being you have seen.

You finally reach the building, or rather the outer wall, low, grey and forbidding. You note that the word Denkmal means “memorial”.

You walk in, rather subdued and already wondering why you came here. At the reception the middle-aged, bespectacled man politely asks where you’re from. Perhaps it is just curiosity, awakened by your brown skin, as to what you’re doing here. You tell him you are a student. He understands, because it is mostly students who come here. Mostly young people – or the very old.

You thank him for the site plan he has kindly given you and walk out into the October breeze. Reaching the elegant, imposing gate, you read the three cold words, wrought in iron.

To your left is a patch of woods, the floor golden with the first leaf-fall of the year. Oak and birch and various other trees you do not know the name for lean over the quiet graves and stone memorials that bear inscriptions in various languages.

You go on into the interior of the camp. There is a rather garish Soviet-Era memorial at one end. Someone has placed fresh flowers there. You attempt the museum, but it sickens you after some time and you come outside, glad to be back into the air, glad to be alive.

You walk around for some time and decide that coming here was a mistake. If people could really learn to recoil from the  cruelties of their ancestors, they would have done so long ago; they would not need such brutal reminders, tucked away in far cold villages, of what happens when too little empathy meets too much calculation – and too much idealism.

 

 

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Rebirth

The sea is a distant, low murmur. She walks towards the sound. It soothes her, like a meaningless lullaby. The moon sets and a cold wind rises and tears at her body. She walks on.

Legend has it that the waters around the white cliffs are fatal to those who come bearing evil in their hearts. I come bearing the worst evil of all, she thinks. Take me to your depths if you can.

 


 

 

He said, “I’ll take care of you. You can depend on me. I will never let you down.”

She looked up at him. His eyes were very sincere.

She said Yes.

 


 

From this elevation the sea is nearly black. Tiny waves crash onto the pebbled beach far below her. She sits on the cliff-edge, the wind whipping her hair wildly around her face and freezing her exposed hands. She sits and lets her mind wander where it will.

An intrepid seagull has decided to investigate her. The tourists feed these birds more than needed. A lovely white creature. She wonders what seagulls ate before there were tourists here and her subsequent thoughts are fairly morbid.

Unnoticed, in the East, the sky grows lighter. But her eyes are still cast downwards at the sea. If anyone could see her from a distance, she would look like a tiny seated statue – first of stone and then, as the sun rose higher, of gold.

All too suddenly there are a thousand sparkles on the water. She opens her eyes very wide and breathes. The air is cold yet, but bitter no longer.

Sitting there, she feels the burden of lead that she has been carrying turn slowly into something bright and silvery, until she surprises herself by laughing with pure happiness. The seagull takes to his wings in fright. But the ocean sings with her.

The beach is no more empty when she walks lightly down the cliff-path, but she fears interruption no longer. Out of her pocket comes the letter that she wrote hastily last night. She tears it up and hurls the pieces into the water. The seagulls are slightly disappointed because paper is hardly food..

She turns, and walks back towards the town, humming a little tune under the golden sky.

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Artist

Today’s post is a bit too short to be called a story. Sorry 😦


 

In an unnamed metropolis, in an anonymous flat which came with noise and lack of privacy for no extra cost, there lived an artist. His precarious existence was the distilled essence of the precarious existences of a thousand artists since the dawn of Left-leaning literature: it consisted of occasional freelance work, patronizing remarks from non-artistic friends who had established themselves in government service, and a sense of the world’s injustice that was gradually giving way to a sense of personal failure.

But one day, as he sat at his desk (a gift from his parents) in his tiny, bare flat (rented, and fast becoming unaffordable), moodily contemplating his easel and his finances, he dozed off for a few minutes. On waking up, he remembered nothing of the dream he had just seen except for a certain hauntingly beautiful yet familiar face.

Because this is not a fairy-tale, the artist decidedly did not become so consumed by the thought of that Face that his days were a torment. But he did observe people a little more carefully in bookshops and train stations, in marketplaces and on buses, trying to get out of its snare.

But all this was to no avail. At last one day, tired out by his search for the non-existent, he lay down, sensing the onset of a sick headache, and was just thinking of reading The Telegraph for the eleventh time since morning, when he was interrupted by a ring at the door. He opened it to have a piece of paper and a request for “subscription” thrust at him by a religious-looking man.

The artist looked carefully down at the paper, which depicted a dark goddess with the most extraordinarily large and luminous eyes he had ever seen. With a shock he realized that his quest was over. And that is the (unofficial, unverified) story of how Mr.Jamini Roy was inspired to make use of the peculiar style that marked his celebrated career.

Note 1 : The above  is a work of fiction, and any resemblance to the famous Jamini Roy is purely coincidental.

Note 2: It would be cool if he *was* inspired this way, though…

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Unhealthy Competition

All their friends later claimed that they had seen the Incident coming, but then whenever something unusual happens there are enough people to claim that they’ve known all about it. In case you are wondering what Incident I am referring to, it occurred in one of the “poshest” schools of Delhi, which we will call G. I. S (Generic International School) and notably, did not involve a secret camera and activities that may not be mentioned with propriety on a family blog. (G.I.S was a value-based school, thankyouverymuch). No national newspapers covered the scandal either. But from that moment Ritika’s reputation for oddness spread through the school faster than the common cold in a crowded classroom.

Ritika Ghosh and Saikat Majumdar hated each other almost from the first day of Standard Five. They would hardly have spoken to each other except for the Bhaskaracharya Mathematical  Trophy, which the school had been winning for the last seven years. At the tender age of ten and a half, such things are seen with a sterner and more serious eye than adults realize. The school authorities may have thought it cute to have Mrs Verma take extra maths classes for a select few students during , but for Saikat, Ritika and the chosen others, it was as deadly serious as being trained for a war.

Especially Ritika and Saikat. These two behaved as though they were opposing sides in a Corsican vendetta, bound by honour to score higher than the other in every Practice Test, and if that did not happen, to ignore the other’s presence pointedly. Ritika was better at this than Saikat, who seemed to delight in calling her Miss Four-Eyes (regardless of the fact that he wore considerably thick glasses himself). One heedless joker dared tell Ritika that she clearly had a “crush” on S. The result was that the said joker was firmly cast out of existence itself, as far as she was considered.

The fortunes of war went this way and that as the Bhaskaracharya test came closer. Sometimes Saikat would score higher than Ritika on the Practice Tests, owing to the latter’s carelessness in Ratios and Proportions; another day Ritika, with her superior appreciation of Properties of Triangles and her shameless memorization of all the geometry formulae (shameless because True Maths Students, like True Engineers who are but their older versions, memorize nothing and derive even the Pythagoras Theorem on the spot), would come out of the exam room smirking.

When the great day came Ritika realized she was suffering from a mild confusion of objectives. She wasn’t clear whether she wanted to get the highest marks in the exam or just score higher than Saikat. She had enough set theory to determine that the former was a superset of the latter but she honestly wondered if anything could beat the joy of gloating over her rival’s discomfiture.  As you have probably realized by now, she was not exactly made of sugar and spice and all that is nice.

The results arrived two months later, by which time ten students of Generic International School had suffered the agonies of Limbo.  Their joy in Paper Crafts, Art and Clay Modelling was completely dulled by the waiting. (They had stopped attending Maths class, of course, having mastered all of the current syllabus and part of next year’s as well).

To Ritika’s pleasure, she had obtained the highest marks in the exam. She would thus be the proud recipient of the rather misleadingly named Silver Medal. This was to be presented by  The Bhaskaracharya School Mathematics Association in a suitable ceremony. Since the school contingent had also won the Overall Trophy, all ten, plus the teacher, got into a rickety minivan and arrived at the festive scene.

When the boring speeches and ceremonies were over, and everyone had crowded into a large air-conditioned room for snacks, Ritika went in search of Saikat Majumdar. She was in a good mood and wanted only his dejected face to complete her victory.

But there he stood, grinning from ear-to-ear, as if *he* had won the Silver Medal in her place.

“Well, Miss Muggu,” he laughed. “Happy, finally?”

This was not to be borne.  The next few seconds were a confused blur for Ritika but eyewitness accounts state that she seemed to swing her arm around in a great arc and bring down the entire contents of a well-filled glass of Mirinda onto her enemy’s best white school uniform. Everyone gasped.

Physical movement has been observed to have a great positive effect on the clarity of one’s mind. Before Saikat could recover our violent criminal had prepared and rehearsed an appropriate apology speech. Faced by her repeated insistence that she had merely slipped on the carpeting the teacher – and even a furious Saikat – had to drop the case.

Even after twenty years, their school friends still say they saw it coming, inspite of Mrs Ritika Ghosh –Majumdar’s  efforts to convince them otherwise…

 

 

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