Monthly Archives: June 2014

Above Emeralds

My grandmother inspects the double string of pale green beads

As translucent as her aged hands. She does not know what they might be:

Chrysoberyl or tourmaline or chalcedony,

perhaps jade.

Something, definitely, that grows better with time (like wine),

and does not fade.

 

 We sit side by side and the necklace flows (its green-gold hues flash like cold spring water) from her white palm to my own.

I protest, saying Didu are you sure you don’t want to keep this?

She says Child I don’t need this now I haven’t worn this for quite a while.

Once, my grandmother loved the color red.

Fiery sarees, brick-red lipstick: all used to be her signature style.

(My mother and I grow pale and red alternately in embarrassment if someone suggests we wear red nail paint).

Then she bowed to convention.

No more red glass bangles.

No more red-gold-black embroidered sarees

from places with names like Dhaka and Tangail

redolent of timeless eastern towns.

Like colored light passing through an inverted prism she suddenly

shrank, condensed,

crept into a featureless blank white plain-

except for the constant background noise of pain.

 

The green stones sit awkwardly on my neck, like a queen’s necklace on a servant.

(Old, massive, sturdy. Looks good for another fifty years. )

In those days, my grandmother is saying, they used to make good things. Strong things.

Not like today where you change your phone every two years (and your relationships too, she sighs). But there is laughter in her eyes again and so I accept the gift I don’t deserve.

(As long as she does not seek solace in whiteness, as long as green mangoes, gold fish, yellow sunflowers and pink bougainvillea continue to interest her.)

I ask her how much the beads cost and the corners of her eyes crinkle up into the biggest smile I have ever seen.

They’re priceless, she says.

 

 

 

 

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Airport Blues

Here is a situation that seems reasonably likely !

You’re at the airport, your flight is delayed for six more hours, and none of your electronic devices is working. How do you pass the time?

 

Read a book ?

It’s a bit of a cliche perhaps, but I usually carry a (paper) book with me, so that I won’t have to visit those awful airport bookshops with their terrible collections and their frankly devilish prices. In this manner I would be pretty good to go for at least a couple of hours. Six hours, of course – it’s likely that few books would engage their readers for six hours. (Note to self: Carry some thin, yet extremely abstruse and detailed book with oneself next time one travels).

Assuming that I have some hours left over, then, I’d probably get up, stretch, and walk the length of the airport (being careful to Please Do Not Leave Your Baggage Unattended, of course). Now that would probably take four hours only if the airport is question is extraordinarily large, so let’s assume that the airport in question is more reasonable and my book finished within an hour.

Well, do I have co-passengers on this flight, people who I already know a little bit ? What a perfectly-tailored opportunity to get to know them better. Of course, if they’re as reserved as moi, then we are going to have some uphill going. But usually it’s difficult to find too many introverts thrown together – so there’d definitely be *someone* in the group who’d start talking and I’d have to mostly only nod. Right ?

If that’s *not* the case, then the combination of sulky co-passengers and grim airport may be a little trying, after all. I *might* just be forced to shell out some obscene amount at a stupid bookshop for a copy of a book I don’t even want.

Of course, if the bookshop is closed as well, then maybe it’s Doodle Time again. Or perhaps I’d try to write stories about the bored and increasingly restless people around me.

If I don’t have the tiniest bit of paper either….okay, well then, I suppose I have nothing to do but brood. Or think. About nothing in particular. AAAAARGH.

Lesson: Always carry a notepad and a pencil on dubious flights ?

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When I Hear The Word “Culture”

At all events, the fact that the hall wasn’t half-full, or quarter-full, or even one-tenth full afforded one dim consolation: I would not have to stand during the preliminary round. Nor did I have to waste my time scanning the crowd for familiar faces. It was quite clear that the two other members of what I modestly dubbed the Dream Team weren’t among the few desolate souls who lounged around rather uncomfortably while the bored quiz master attended to his laptop.

I tapped my feet in impatience. When this did not make time go quicker, I drummed my fingers. This activity, too, proving stubbornly unhelpful, I turned my gaze to the door. Just in time.

Professor Singh. It *would* be Professor Singh, whose Probability homework was lying untouched in some folder on my computer for the last fourteen days. For the last week he had been asking me eagerly if I’d faced any problems in the homework, and I’d satisfied his curiosity and my conscience by emitting non-committal responses. But here he was, haunting me again.

The professor stared rather dreamily at the stage, probably mentally calculating the location of the seat that would give the best view of the event. I shrank into myself and wished there was more than one entrance. My reputation as a conscientious,if not brilliant, mathematician would take a tectonic hit in the Professor’s pained estimation if he saw me over-performing at the quiz.

You see, the one thing I know about Prof. Singh was that he hated what was called, for want of a better word, “culture”. He subscribed to the view that novels make you evil, films make you callous , and as for poetry…well, you get the general drift. And I didn’t think I would get any further extensions if he spotted me wasting my merry Saturday afternoon at the grandly-named “Music and Popular Culture Quiz”.

He spotted me. Of course he spotted me.

“Guys,” I said to the missing two-thirds of the Dream Team as they arrived,”I feel something bad is going to happen.”

“I fee-el trouble’s on the way,” Vicky hummed.

“CCR” said Sandy, correctly.

This is one of the negligible disadvantages of knowing quizzers.

A few more people poured in, so that the adjective “several” could be unblushingly applied to the number of participants that the event had attracted in the report (which no one would read) intended for the college magazine.

We made it quite comfortably into the finals. I picked number 3 for our seating position. Unfortunately for numerology, three turned out to be a disastrously unlucky number this time. You see, when you arrange six tables in a semi-circle on a stage, the third one is likely to be somewhere in the centre. Which meant that we had an uninterrupted view of the audience. Which meant that *I* had an uninterrupted view of Professor Singh each time I raised my eyes any higher than the level of the pen. I tried staring sideways all the time, but this hurt my neck terribly. Also this led to other complications.

“Why are you staring continuously at my ear?” Sandy whispered. I went red and looked straight in front of me again.

I decided to lose the quiz by pretending I knew nothing.

This is very difficult in practice. A quizzer’s very soul rebels at such treachery against the self.  I  would  attempt to bottle up the answer, deep inside the recesses of my mind, only to have Vicks and Sands stare at me in a half-censorious, half-expectant “Oh-certainly-you-know-the-answer-to-who’s-the-most-famous-Pirali-Brahmin-give-us-a-sixty-point-lead-oh-please-do” look, the sort that one can’t  resist. And then I’d say it. And then my teammates would thump the table and shake my hand  in excitement and I would look miserably towards  Prof. Singh.

The professor’s mouth was slightly open, and his eyes became progressively larger and larger as I consecutively admitted to knowing obscure trivia on Opeth, Shakespeare and Jhumpa Lahiri.

Inspite of which, we were were placed a disappointing third. I ran directly back to the hostel and attended to my Probability homework with the solicitude of a Florence Nightingale . It was four in the morning when I finally laid down my pen and closed the lid of my calculator.

A few days later, my homework was returned with a small note.

“Dear Raj – I had expected a little more from you on this assignment. I hope you can see why a B is justified.

P.S. Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories are quite interesting. Thanks for the recommendation. However  kindly try to read her only repeat only in your spare time.”

 

Inspired by today’s Challenge.

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You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

The pretty crewmember examined Meenakshi’s boarding pass and flashed her the mechanical smile she was handing out like candy to everyone, regardless of age and sex. “Have a good journey, Ms Nair”, she intoned and turned her attention to the next unit.

Meenakshi Nair fidgeted in the cold Delhi morning as she waited for the airport shuttle. Unobtrusively, she examined the boarding ticket of the passenger standing next to her. Seat 10B. How funny, hers was right next.

She transferred her attention from the boarding ticket to the passenger himself. One dark formal suit, one quiet tie, one copy of today’s Business Standard, one  laptop bag. Clearly a “corporate” type, the sort that she wrote 3000-word screeds about (and got paid peanuts  for – this man’s watch would probably cost her two months’ salary, she thought disapprovingly). Thankfully,  he’d probably just work on his laptop throughout the flight. Mind his own business.

Still, it was difficult for Meenakshi not to feel a certain shudder as she finally stowed her shapeless handbag and sat down. If he starts talking I will tell him I am a Communist, she decided. She wasn’t, but it would be amusing to watch his reaction.

She stole another surreptitious glance at him. He wasn’t, on the whole, a bad-looking young chap, she decided. But you can’t judge  people  by their faces, can you ? The man is probably responsible  for deforestation and atrocities upon tribals and all sorts of dreadful things.  And now he is going to Kerala to further increase the environmental degradation of that once-pristine state.  My state.

She opened her book and began reading furiously. About twenty minutes went by in peace.

“Have you read The Robber Bride ?” a voice asked.

“Yes, thank you ”, she said, absorbed in her novel. Then she put it down and looked up in confusion. That denizen of the corporate deeps was smiling at her.

She felt he had no right to know about Margaret Atwood, any more than she knew about LTRO or the outlook for emerging markets. But her anger was tinged with a pleasant surprise. So he wasn’t a complete philistine after all!

An hour later, while not completely thawed, she had enthusiastically talked to him about the well-known Canadian’s work. The plane landed at Thiruvananthapuram just as she had begun to state her poor opinion of Oryx and Crake – “her science fiction is not very successful, on the whole, but her grasp of society is sound.”

The conversation hadn’t been one-sided at all. He had responded quite intelligently. Maybe I really am too quick to judge people, she mused.

“Oh dear, my phone battery’s died. And I really need to call my parents and let them know I’m here.”

The handsome stranger courteously offered Meenakshi his cellphone.

She called her  family and assured them of her health. Then, in an uncharacteristic breach of etiquette, she peeked quickly at the browser window he’d left open on the tiny screen. Wikipedia entry for Margaret Atwood.  Her expression did not change as she handed it back to him, though she could almost hear her sudden generosity of spirit whimper and wither away .

“See you then. Was great talking to you, Ms Nair.” The suit was smiling at her.

“Thank you,” she smiled back, polite and stiff, like the crewmember.

 

( Inspired by the Daily Post challenge )

 

 

 

 

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Moneyplant

That itty bitty money-plant you see cost little  enough

When I moved into this office. Its leaves were then rough

Little green triangles, flecked with bits of white

As I left it in the balcony to catch the morning light.

 

My money-plant tried really hard to grow – yet it seemed stuck

In awe of other, older plants. I thought it’d bring me luck –

But that year came the drought, the rupee crashed and soon the street

Below my house was filled with angry shouts and marching feet.

 

The government fell. My money-plant was quite a sorry sight,

Though daily someone watered it and sometimes every night.

Tomorrow is oath-taking and it really is sinister

How money-plants can cause such pain to ex-Finance Ministers.

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These Are Just Ten of My Favourite Things

If you were – hopefully you weren’t – one of those sickly, timid kids, the sort who used to get into scrapes with a frequency higher than bat signals, then you may have received one piece of advice about dealing with pain and fear : When there’s absolutely nothing practical that you can do about it, and the pain, whether mental or physical, doesn’t go away, think of the most beautiful things you know. (Remember Julie Andrews warbling about her favourite things in The Sound of Music). Of course, those things will change as we grow older (otherwise mine would simply have “chocolate” and “noodles” repeated ten times). Here goes my current list, compiled for quick and easy future reference (says she wryly).

Number one has to be the bridges on the Seine. It’s a clear, but cold autumn afternoon and I am walking along the left bank. I cross by the Pont Royal, stopping in the wind to look at the bright blue sky that is reflected in the waters below. Tourists walk past but it is a weekday so the bridge isn’t very crowded. I wander randomly up and down the bridges, taking in the “Lock Bridge”, and finally land up at the Notre Dame,  its  imposing bulk a contrast to the quiet  movement of life all around me.

Two and three are pieces of music. The Schindler’s List theme and Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. “I am never merry when I listen to sweet music”, but the music remains sweet and cold and pure and beautiful all the same, something “afar from the world of our sorrow”.

Four is the silky feel of a cat’s fur as you touch it a bit gingerly. The smell of the earth during a good spell of rains is an obvious if uncreative number five.

Six is awfully mundane. It’s the taste of chocolate. Dark chocolate, to be exact.

Seven is (most of) the top floor of the Musee d’Orsay. I’m not a judge of art, so I can’t pick one.

Eight is a well-known campus in Western India or rather  the allied memories. I only place it at eight because it sounds a bit vague that way.

The brilliant stained-glass windows of La Sainte Chapelle, stretching nearly from the floor to the ceiling, make nine.

And finally, ten: the little green park  near my house, with the voices of children playing at evening, while a peacock cries out constantly somewhere nearby.

 

 

 

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