02 October, 2010

Tales from the Katta

The Katta 
It was a very large and old banyan tree. This was a nook of the city that had been forgotten by all save those who patronized it. The tree itself ran almost horizontal to the ground which was quite unlike most banyans. It had an embankment built from a date early into the last century on one side of it. The roots hung from a side and curiously had formed a wall shutting out the sight. from one side. One of the hanging roots also had so turned from the ground that it formed a long bench parallel to the embankment on a side. It was broad and strong and on this Sridhar anna had nailed a plank creating a table to the ones sitting on the bank. Well who is Sridhar anna? He was the man who ran a panbeedi  shop  beside the tree under its shelter. At the other end his boy kept boiling & serving chai. The shop was called Sri Durga store after a goddess who angrily stared out of a faded photograph. Nobody remembered this place by her name and called it Anna’s katta. I guess that’s why the goddess looked angry. It was my firm belief that when Sridhar anna  had started this store and put up her photo she had smiled for a few months. Then as her name was gradually usurped her expression had staged a change from petulance to this now furious visage. People stopped here for a chai, a smoke, some pan or simply to take a breather and unwind in the pacy grind of life. The hanging roots of the tree somehow managed to capture time and slow it down temporarily if not stopping it altogether. In the evenings the place did look like it existed in a time warp. The steam from the chai mixing with the blue haze of cigarette smoke curling upwards & disappearing into the tree with the naked bulb giving a hazy glow from behind the smoke; a play of shadows and light that was quite unique, even eerie.

The tea was always good & served with a hospitable smile. This and the friendly chatter of Anna had made the place popular amongst its patrons. Given a while at such places everyone becomes a nodding acquaintance. After all man is a social animal and people being people love to talk. The English in England had their pubs and we had our katta's. There were many like me who gathered here.I was a writer and a free lance reporter for a few local publications. They called me Reporter here & having not volunteered anything more was not asked either. Let me introduce you to the motley group of regulars here. Chotu & Badey are drivers for a couple of sahibs or corporate executives. Chotu driver was actually a huge man but because his employer had a tiny hatchback he was Chotu.  Badey was a tiny man less than 5’3” and frail but because his employer had him drive an imported 4x4 SUV he was the bigger wheel. Those three there are engineers. Two of them worked in the maintenance services while the third was in sales. The sales fellow is called BB or Bol Bacchan. The service engineers are addressed as HD & CD; Hard Disc & Compact Disc. There was one guy who was called Alibaug because he had a bungalow there that he rented out to weekend holiday makers. There was even one budding politico. He always wore spotless Kurtas that remained spotless till he started on his pan’s. Once he had begun and started spitting those long red jets periodically he always managed to retain some stray spots  on his apparel.His time to go would be indicated by when the collar around his kurta would get completely speckled.  He had perfect red teeth and coincidentally had a name ‘Sule’ which translated in English from the local lingo would be "Fangs". He loved it when someone addressed him as Sule bhai..or Don Sule…people jested but he took it seriously. Along with Anna and his boy, we were the 8 pm regulars. But what elevated this place from the ordinary to the spectacular was Nana. Nana was of an age that was certainly older than Anna and barely younger than the tree.

Nana was undoubtedly the star here because he was a storyteller par excellence. Rare was a field that had not experienced the presence of Nana at some time or the other of his checkered long presence on this earth. All Nana needed was company and somebody to prod him and he would begin. To me he was a material mother lode and many of his remarks & tales had found a place in my writings. Always would I ask his permission and he the generous spirit would say expansively “likho bhai” ( write brother ) had I been educated I would have written them myself and he would uproariously laugh. His thin gnarled body, wavy grey locks and mischievous twinkling eyes belied the richness of his voice and the infectious laugh. Never did he have to refer back to a line when he was in full flow. I would tell Nana that I wanted to include his name in the credits but he always refused. "Reporter bhaiyya mujhey ek chai pilaa dena aur Sridhar se ek charminar packet lana". He smoked those ghastly unfiltered cigarettes. He lived on tea, fags and his audience. I asked Sridhar once on what does he do for a living and Sridhar anna  had replied that once in a while he closes a deal of a property and the commission sets him on course for six months at least. He used to be in the film industry and worked as a junior artiste for 6 decades. There was a time when he had written scripts and made a lot of money, bought a house. But he never married and went to the local whorehouses that stripped him clean and gave him the booze. The booze stayed with him till he had to sell off his flat and move into the one room he currently occupied.Now he just slept there or sat here under the tree telling stories, thankfully He doesn’t touch alcohol these days. Sridhar said that there is one unique feature of Nana that is laudable. He has in all these days of knowing Nana never ever found him bitter or envious of anybody. He accepted his fate with a smile and kept telling stories.

There is a sound Nana would make like he is clearing the throat after a sip of chai and dramatically mouth one word. Then almost like magic , he would very articulately weave a story around it. All of his stories were in the first tense that had Nana as an observer or someone around.  These were the best. There are times when we have challenged him by giving our own words and Nana has been equally adept after 5 minutes of deep thought and a cigarette to pick up the gauntlet. Nana’s best feature was that his stories were short and crisp. On some occasions he would leave a story for the next day and never ever repeated it. If you happen to miss it, ask the guy who was present. Nana would not open his mouth on the same topic once he had told a story. I had toyed with the idea of carrying a portable voice recorder and it had only partially worked as more than Nanas voice I was focused on the gadgetry and had stopped listening. Replaying the tape back, it had captured a lot of external noise from the tea stove and cars honking. Nana’s atmosphere was  created by his audience who hung on to his every word. Their rapt attention, their saucer eyes, the hoots of laughter all of it added up.The atmosphere was missing in the recording...gone.

The First Deadly Sin : Lust

Today had been a busy day and I was late reaching the katta. Barely had I collected my cutting chai, taken a sip and lit my smoke when the familiar sound emerged from Nana’s throat. I sat down to listen; my attention rapt. Vaasana ….Havas…Lust said he and paused. The word dropped like a bomb in the generic silence. No one can fault Nana on his timing. The expressions of the people around changed from shock to curiosity to even a lip smacking glee as they gathered around.

Did I tell you about the encounter with…this was another standard way in which he began a story…OK.. He uttered the word with a deep dramatic sigh.

During those days, I was working on the sets of Razia Sultan. The movie was the pet project of the Hindi film, director Kamal Amrohi. Now this was towards the end of year 1981 or thereabout where Kamal sahib had begun the film. It was a love story between the first female ruler of Delhi Razia and her Abyssinian slave Jamal ud din Yakut. Abyssinia…now what is that asked Chotu to Nana…It’s a country in Africa …Modern day Ethiopia I interrupted and Nana nodded. Ethi eti…Chotu gave up and as if he liked the sound of Africa better repeated it thrice more, bobbing his head vigorously each time…Africa…Africa…Africa. The others too solemnly nodded as if that explained everything. Kamal sahib had signed the mega star Dharamendra for the role of the slave and Hema Malini the dream girl for the title role. The lead man was fair so he was coated with boot polish to make him look dark like an ..Abyssin…African. Nana continued the narrative with the popular continent rather than going deeper into the country within it. He was just warming up. The single word “Lust” had piqued the interest of his listeners that allowed him the luxury of the buildup. I was the assistant to the AD - assistant director, Jitendra Singh who was in charge of filming songs.

It was a normal day like any other. My boss was having a look at all the extras who would line up behind the star Hema during a song sequence that he suddenly stood stock still. I could not understand what had happened or caused this reaction. I just saw a group of pretty women in costumes standing at a distance as quiet as a bunch of women can be, sipping chai from cracked glasses. With that Nana looked down at his own glass and took a sip. He continued “What’s the matter boss? Nothing... he muttered and walked away. It was an outdoor shoot and though Kamal sahib didn’t like to shoot outside his studio, for some of his fantastic visionary ideas he really had no choice. The sequence demanded the queen to be walking around near a river musing on her own with her slaves and maids. The song would play in the background. In those days movies never stuck to a schedule as directors considered themselves artists and if one lost a particular light the unit packed up. This was one such day that a pack up was announced.

The crew and cast had started drifting about. While putting the equipment away I saw the AD, my boss talking to one woman at a distance behind a tree far away from the rest. Something about their conversation and the manner held my gaze. They looked as if they had known each other from long back and were tentatively approaching a conversation, they were leaning towards each other indicating a deeper mutual interest. The equipment house was near the spot where they stood. I casually picked up the bag and moved to keep it in place, the AD’s back was to me. It was here that I got a first good look at the woman. Later I came to know that her name was Zainab. She was a clear complexioned, dusky, full bodied woman with a very fetching smile and a row of teeth like 32 pearls. Their shimmering was directed at the AD. As I turned to have a final glimpse of them, the AD had her hand in his and was whispering something in her ear. Now this surprised me a great deal, he being a man with a clean reputation and was married with two children. So what was happening here?

“Locations”…Nana paused in his story… he took a drag of his cigarette and the tendrils of smoke gently wafted out of his nostrils, eyes distant into the past giving him a dreamy look “Funny things can happen on locations” he said coming back to the present. Away from one’s own cluster and familiar beats, men and women are braver in facing their wants. The supposed Jain may sneak away to have an omelet, the teetotaler outside his environs may enjoy a good peg and the responsible family man who may have never dared may just enjoy a dalliance. So what is this I asked him and he said “Opportunity” or “Security” or “The thrill of the forbidden”. This is not universally applicable but our line, said Nana is like that. Months on end at locations away from our families some needs remain un-sated. There is a worm in every man which is wriggling inside. This wriggling is properly and probably restrained in ones own area but outside…he paused …the belt is off.

I asked around the set and found that Zainab too was a married woman, married to a rickshaw driver. But her family had aspirations for her and our AD used to be her neighbor back then. He was a Hindu and been out of work and Zainab could never give him the time of the day. Years passed, he married settled in , she married and her husband bought a rickshaw. But in Mumbai the endless struggle to survive for one’s own & fulfill others aspirations, people tend to neglect their own youthful dreams. Away they sometimes peek through.

They would lunch together and touch each other for the smallest of reasons."Look here" and an elbow is grabbed , “See” she would say allowing her fingers to remain on the small of his back. It was building up the heat. Two days later had to arrange a shot on the river bed, I had set about most of the equipment only to realize that the tripod had been forgotten. I came to the equipment hut to find it unlocked from outside, so I pushed the door but it didn’t budge. I was about to start back when I heard muffled sounds and cries of pleasure and then a scream. I quickly walked away to see the AD come out look about to the right and left. He was followed by Zainab with her hair strewn about and her face carrying the flush of being thoroughly made love to. He grabbed her by the hips one last time and kissed her as she wrapped her arms around him and thrust herself into him.

Throughout the shoot they were at it whenever they got the time. Once over a drink I asked him “why?” and he looked at me for a long time and said “it’s here, we wanted, we took”. “What happens when you go back?”. Nothing says he…I am a family man she has a family …I knew her from back then but community being different  we would never have been together without problems. This is the best. She also understands this. So yeh kya pyaar hai? ( Is this love?) I asked. " Nahi re Chootya he said...Masti...Majaa... Havas (Lust)…Nana pointed to the small scar near his lip and looked around and said you all know how I got this? I was totally drunk with the AD and asked him so its OK if you go back home to find the pizza delivery boy having kept your side of the bed warm in your absence with your wife. That’s when he gave me this.

Ha Ha Ha Ha…he laughed uproariously. The majestic manner of the strut of the AD when he heroically described his lust like a victorious conquest was replaced by a fear that made him lash out. Nothing happened after that and then we came back to Bombay. But after that day I never got a job on his set ever again. When someone say’s Lust in a stylish manner, my hand goes to this small jewel he said fingering that mark and smiled. When we dispersed the mood was reflective and somber, quite different from the one in which all had gathered to hear a tale of lust.  There was a point that had been made here in this tale on the first deadly sin… would get it soon enough on reflection thought I walking on home. 

27 September, 2010

Mans Best Friend

“A dog is a man’s best friend” I heard this very definite statement from the fellow passenger sitting ahead of me on the bus ride home.  As I was about to silently agree with him he continued “No other animal displays the character of the owner as his dog” and that corollary opened up a page in my memory of a fairly different experience I have had during my travel in the laid back town of Mahad nearly fifteen years ago. This was during the time when I was selling boilers in the industrial area there. The days began quite early there & towards the late afternoons when the meetings had finished up & having bid my dealer partners adieu, I would be at a loose end. It was here that I would take a walk or use the sturdy old Hero bicycle of the hotel owner to explore the area. It is a beautiful countryside and I being a city boy was fascinated by it. It is here that I have had my best food experiences eating at farmer’s houses or eateries settled inside nooks and crannies of the villages. 

It was eating a spicy mutton curry at Sudam Pawar’s hotel, that’s what the board read but was nothing more than an open kitchen of his house and two string cots laid outside beneath a tree, which I came across Shiva and his cat Vaghya. Shiva occupied the other string cot and was eating with a happy concentration and Vaghya lay peacefully below him gnawing on a meaty bone. We just nodded at each other and continued our fare. It is not so polite to strike conversation immediately in villages as people being touchy I had learned to guard my tongue. Vaghya was a large tom cat of a pattern that is often found on snow leopards and very lean and strong. He ignored me completely. Shiva had a duffel bag that was lying by his side and he finished his meal picked it up and started walking away with a greeting to Sudam’s wife. He had not said a word to the cat but the animal in one sleek movement loped off after him and they vanished from my sight. Quite a pair, I thought. As I looked up Sudam’s wife saw my gaze at their departing backs and said he is Shiva. He travels up and down this road and is not a local but is here during the summers. He is a sort of general handyman who helps with the farm, the wood and does all kinds of odd jobs. I smiled at her. I used to run into this pair quite often from then on.

Once while going along to the industrial area I saw the man and his cat and he raised his hand & smiled. I waved back. He was working on painting the factory wall. He was doing a very good job of it too and the cat had picked up a spot in the sun and was lying about near him. When I finished my work and was talking to the overseer he happened to mention that I wish we had more workers like that one pointing to Shiva but he doesn’t want a permanent position. Where is he from, I asked? Oh he is somewhere from Ratnagiri but never stays in the same place for more than a few months. Takes his wage and moves on. That cat is always with him and it is the strangest bonds I have seen. As I got to know about Shiva and we ran into each other again at Sudam’s hotel, I smiled and invited him over and he came too. The big cat also came on soft paws towards our cot inspected me with care and I had a curious feeling of been found wanting as he silently sat at Shiva’s feet.

He was a pleasant enough fellow, looked very fit and healthy but on closer inspection seemed to be in his early forties. After our dinner as we were talking he asked whether I like it here and when I nodded he said that he did too. When probed on where did he come from he indicated a village in Ratnagiri. I asked him about his home and he said he had none. I marveled at his clear replies that it held no source of worry to him. When asked about it he said what do I worry about? I work to earn my bread and I have the road and all I need for it in this bag. He was wearing frayed denim trousers, and a faded khaki shirt both very clean. When I offered him a smoke he refused saying he didn’t enjoy it nor did he imbibe the spirits. Here I was at the beginning of a career already earning good money and had acquired some credit card debt , looking to buy a house and yet tremendously worried on how to go about it. While here was Shiva owning nothing but all that was there in his duffelbag and face clear of any lines, serenely at peace. He continued "My only companion is Vaghya he nodded to the cat and the animal as if he knew that he was the subject of the conversation stretched a paw to him and rubbed his foot. I asked him about Vaghya and he said that in one of the sites that he worked he had found this kitten and looking at his striped body pattern the locals had shunned him. So I fed him and he started traveling with me. There are times when I can’t get food that Vaghya feeds me. He just laughed at my open mouthed expression. Vaghya is not only an excellent hunter but he also fishes. We share our food and when he is the one providing he shares it with me. Fondly he scratched behind the cat’s ear and the big cat closed his eyes in bliss and purred.

Tomorrow is a Sunday come over to the river and you shall see. Tom cats are very slow ponderous creatures and I had seen the relaxed way in which the man and his cat ambled away, as I agreed to the expedition. I woke up late and as I cycled up to the river there was Shiva stretched out on the bank on a rock having taken a swim lying very much like his cat whom I could not immediately spot. I stood watching and before I could catch the movement streaked a form from the rock straight into the water and with deft flick of the paw had impaled a medium sized fish on it. Grasping the wriggling fish in its strong jaws the cat swam to the shore. He kept the grip on the fish till it stopped its movement dropped it near Shiva and went near the rock to peer into the water with intense concentration. He did this three more times and something about that scene stayed in my mind about the complete communion of man and beast in friendly co-existence; two fiercely independent spirits curiously having found soulmates in each other. In one of his forays into the water Vaghya knocked astray Shiva’s duffel bag from the rock and out clattered all his worldly belongings the two pairs of denim trousers and two shirts one shorts, one large multi-utility Swiss knife a roll of chappati and a sepia coloured photograph of an earthy young woman. There was a story there but it was not on this page today. I silently walked back without disturbing them as I thought about the character of the man and his animal companion, the likes of which I have never seen before. 

20 September, 2010

The Waiting Room

“Fifty Thousand rupees was required and where do I finally get it from, the jail.” The voice was new, feminine, boisterous & loud and had disturbed my slumber. It had an inherent echo to it as if traveling from the recesses of deep long tunnel or from behind the navel of a particularly padded specimen of humanity. This and the choice of words created a picture of a rather buxom lady, of a class that is definitely not elite even before I turned my head.
The curiosity was tickled however the reaction was slow as is normal when ones sleep is disturbed. The uncomfortable position had also given me a crick in the neck. More than the surprising content of the statement was the tone in which it came out followed by a huge laugh that went on and on. There was something very hearty about this sound as it was not something I had heard here over the last two days in this place that I had been maintaining my vigil. It is a game of nerve racking patience this waiting but I never get bored with it. I enjoy eavesdropping on conversations as life sometimes gives you its best doses of mirth in out of context lines and phrases. Now rather than disturb the flow of conversation by turning my head decided to just lie back and see how far would this go and sure enough it continued.
“Then?” a rather sharper voice asked. This was definitely an older lady, not very educated was my guess and I listened on. “My man Jagan, that rascal was on a job where he had identified 3 flats to break into with two partners; Bhiku & Raju from Kisen Bar. A thousand times I told Jaggu to not engage these barwallas. Completely unreliable is that breed but does he ever listen to me? He yells at me “Oye Shaku don’t interfere in the business and give your wagging black tongue a rest, the things that you say do actually happen. The job was easy as the flat owners were on vacation. Jaggu cleaned out about Rs.175000 cash & some jewelry. He had also picked up a couple of good Saris from one of the cupboards for me but that Raju… slipped from the first floor balcony and sprained his leg. That son of a she dog was drunk on a job. Now was there a need to start howling like a donkey in heat just because of a small fall? The beat policemen caught them and put them in the slammer. Then look at my fate, it has to be this particular night that Jaggu’s father started yelling with pain. So we brought him here. Our doctor told us that this is the closest place where the treatment can happen. They wanted that money to admit him. I dumped the old man here and went to the police station. Luckily the pandu’s had not registered a case and hearing my tale told them to give me eighty for the treatment and to keep the rest and leave the rascals. Look at your wife said the pandu to Jaggu…fighting for your father and look at you. He gave them two three slaps as an afterthought…more a formality to be visibly doing the proper police thing, pocketed the rest & gave me the money. I pushed my luck and even asked for one Sari but the pandu said Get lost…I felt so mad at Jaggu for losing my saris to the pandu, but I had to rush back.  Good I came back fast or the old man had already reserved his one way ticket...Up. While paying the money at the counter it felt like I was buying his return ticket” And where is Jagan? ..There…Look at that useless ass sleeping there as if there is no care in the world.
Then a male voice slurred ‘Aga Shaku chup na…keep quiet…Who is the man? Who has earned this money? You or that pandu? It was anyway rotting inside that cupboard of that sahib doing nothing. Here at least it is saving the old mans life. So don’t go about calling me useless. He sounded angry and hurt. I stifled the laugh that almost bubbled out and slowly turned to look. Shaku was a surprisingly attractive lady very plump with flashing eyes and wearing a nylon sari wrapped quite tightly. Her necklace and jewelry gave her away as an Agri tribal woman. Jaggu was roguishly good looking in a rough way and the old woman with them was evidently Shaku’s mother from her features. Shaku had walked over to Jaggu and lovingly put her hand on his shoulder. All was well now.
It had been two days since I had been coming here. By this time you would have guessed, it was the waiting room at a multi-specialty Hospital; a surprisingly neat facility in this distant suburb. I looked up seeing the fan rotate. At every turn it made a small squeaky sound where the cover brushed its top. It had irritated me the first time but after those long 48 hours had been integrated into the mental template of familiar sounds. Shaku’s was new and hence had disturbed my sleep. The layout was like all other waiting rooms a spacious room of about 200 odd square feet lined with metal bucket seat rows and two long divans with artificial leather lined mattresses. Those were available at a premium and every other time I had failed to find a seat on them in my time here. The others had either occupied them earlier and with jungle cunning when they had to visit the loo or their patient would strategically leave their personal stuff on it to retain their claims. I had lost this war even before the battle had begun and resigned myself to the chair. My mother in law was the patient. She had recovered but was under observation. There was a likelihood of us getting a discharge in the morning. After that even this metal chair I occupied would be warmed by a new backside.
My gaze met that of eyes of Sarla Hasmukh Patel a salty woman of an age that can be best termed as beyond old but pre-antique. She smilingly asked ‘Had a good rest?’ I nodded in an affirmative. She had the natural curiosity of a woman of her many rains and was very open about it too. A waiting room veteran, she was here on and off for the past 6 months on account of her husband who kept having these severe asthma attacks and needed respiratory support. She was the one who when I first came in had offered a chair beside her. Relieved by a friendly gesture in a tense situation unsuspectingly I had sat there only to be milked dry of all information; about me, my family, my patient, my mother in law & all of our other visitors. She now even knew the name of my neighbor’s dog. She also allotted the chairs in this room in a rather friendly and capable manner keeping the one chair next to her free for every newcomer who had to log in their information with her before being banished to a far off chair. She was a natural gossip and fed me the information on all the other occupants on learning that I was in the newspaper business.
Stretching to remove the stiffness in my joints my eyes rested on the sleeping form of Girijashankar Tiwary. He was a cadaverous man in his forties with a walrus moustache that drooped limply into his sunken cheeks. I had thought him to be the patient and my initial guess was not very incorrect as Sarlaben confirmed. He had been brought in by his friend Radheykishen Chaubey who owned a dairy and a babble of other well wishers. Tiwaryji’s trouble turned out to be mere gas and this excited and agitated Chaubeyji so much that he lost his temper and had a stroke right here in the hospital. Now the first patient waited patiently in the waiting room chair after surrendering his rightful bed inside to his friend. Every turn of the fan above made the left end of Tiwaryji’s moustache fly up, twitch a bit in mid air and settle down slowly in a curious sync with its squeak. It was rather symbolic of the curious turn of events that had him sleeping here.
Damu Redkar had his brother admitted in the trauma ward where he had undergone a protracted surgery on his broken limb from a motorcycle accident Though he was mending quite nicely Damu’s face was long with worry. The trouble apparently was clearly economic as Damu had a small insurance policy but it did not cover his brother and he was at his wits end in trying to mobilize money. He was forever on the cell phone talking to this relative and that urging them to come with sums and was getting a harsh lesson of human nature. This was evident from the manner in which his calls to familiar numbers were going unanswered.
Somavathy Raju was sitting in one corner of the room reading. The tome in her hands was quite obviously, a prayer book. Her father was in for the third time. She, her sister Kalavathy and mother Rajalakshmi took turns here. Their routine went like clockwork in eight hour shifts. The one who relieved the other took over both the chair and the prayer book. They seemed to be in the process of recruiting a much higher power than the white coated men inside and their faith was seemingly unshakeable. Though it did not connect with my rather agnostic sensibilities, the sincerity of that effort left one in no doubt that the person battling inside was very much loved and wanted; a very fortunate man indeed.
I got up to stretch my legs and take a peek at the patient and walked out. Here was a short corridor that had a bank of elevators and next to it the nurses’ station. Beyond this were the water cooler and a coffee vending machine and further was the ward. The lift door opened and three women came out chattering animatedly. I have been doing nights for the past two months and my husband is complaining now. ‘Why don’t you ask for a change in shift and floor?  This was the night housekeeping staff reporting out. Moving on towards the water cooler to fill up my bottle I heard the two nurses Liji John and Molly Mathews talking to each other. Young and very pretty the nurses’ uniform has always had a curious effect on me when it is worn well. A majority of my gender is afflicted with a rather sudden hormonal surge on sighting the nurses white and am no exception to this phenomenon. Molly was telling Liji about the handsome new resident doctor RMO on the sixth floor who had smiled at her and made her go weak in the knees. They giggled on. Somewhere a patient beeped and the indicator started blinking here interrupting their conversation. Liji came running out and turning called out "Wait a minute Molly don’t go I will finish with bed no 8, I want to listen to the full story".
I peeped into the patients ward. She was sleeping peacefully and I collected my bottle and came back. Sarlaben was drinking water from a curious copper plated jar that she had brought from home. Damu tired after tapping all sources had slipped into what could have been either a stupor or sleep. Shaku was cooing into Jaggu’s ear and he like a proud bull mastiff had raised one leg and was quite nonchalantly scratching the fork of his trousers with a concert violinist’s vigor. Tiwaryji still asleep had now added a small sonorous snore to the other sounds in the room. Somavathy kept mumbling her prayer. Faintly outside I could hear Liji call ‘Yes, Molly am back’. Despite so much pain and misery around both love and life are totally resilient. They do have a tendency to persistently raise their head and run its course was the last thought that came to my mind as I dozed off again.

01 August, 2010

A page from a diary on a reunion

Tale of the 17+1 idiots & Murphy
24th July 2010 said the date on the calendar. Edward Aloysius Murphy kept whispering in my ear “If things can go wrong, they will”. I didn’t imagine it, he actually did. Why should I be hearing him just now? It was weird. How and why his words become gospel (Laws as people refer to them) is again beyond me. No sooner this question flashed across my mind, the sky clouded and it began to pour. Such was the shower that it not only rained cats and dogs but also cows, buffaloes and asses. Talking about asses I could imagine that even the clothed ones out in the streets of Mumbai would be soaked instantly. The Mumbai rain does come down in copious quantity but never is scary; it’s only after the deluge of 26th July 2005 that it has attained this aura. Now people are scared to come out when the rains start.

We had a reunion of the batch of 1984 planned at Chembur, Mumbai today and this rain did not augur well towards people attending.  Sure enough as I looked at my screen there was Shivdas Nair online; He who stayed in a sea facing penthouse - the apartment and not the magazine (don’t raise your eyebrows at me while reading this, these are his words in toto). “Kau, look at the rains outside” typed he, “it would be absolutely idiotic to venture out.” He didn’t even stay that far away from the location but that’s Murphy’s Law at work for you. C est la vie. One name scratched out.

When we are driving intent nay sayers don’t have a place in the plan if it is to be executed at all. My thoughts went to the previous night. Shanky and Murugan had arrived early and we had met up. Four of us (Bhaskar, Murugan, Shanky and I) sat together then discussing on what to do the next day. In the name of planning lots of C2H5OH in various forms was imbibed. Then someone voiced what if no one comes in tomorrow? Another voice slurred out loudly…Hum hai na…hum char jun…Venue pe jayenge, bahut dhaandal karenge aur apney aap me hi reunion manayenge. But then in that haze we hadn’t taken into account the absolute enthusiasm of the other people who had confirmed.

Smilingly my thoughts returned to the present. One name had been scratched out. Then came two calls, the first was Vinita from Pune who asked “Is it raining in Mumbai? I am starting now.” The second one was Varsha from Kalyan who just called to ask “Are we on for today am confirming on account of the rain? “ You bet we are on, was my reply and instantly enthusiasm surged back through me. Now I knew that things have started to fall back in place once more.

People had traveled from places as far as Doha (Sujata), Bahrain (Sobha), Singapore (Anjali), Salem (Murugan) and Chennai (Shanky) Tamilnadu and had come in. Pankaj was traveling from Beena in Madhya Pradesh and some were last minute confirmations but each one called up with a resounding YES. The dropouts ironically happened to be the people who stayed in Mumbai. It was a shame. They may have their reasons genuine, fragile, facile or whatever but reasons nevertheless.

At 3.00 in the afternoon Bhaskar and I had reached the venue while Shanky and Murugan who were with us through the morning had gone home to freshen up. The venue was a mid-sized conference room on the second floor at Chembur gymkhana, cleared away for us to have our do. As we waited outside at the smoker’s corner blowing rings we saw the first umbrella come in. It was Tarun & he had hardly changed so we had absolutely no problems in identifying him. For a while it was just the three of us catching up and then along came Neepa and the chatter started.  After then like clockwork at almost five minute intervals people started coming in. Anjali, then Sujata,  Shanky and Murugan . The real prosaic moment was when a few had gathered and Srikant walks in. Not one of us recognized him and we thought it is some gymkhana member who has wandered into the wrong room. Anjali’s reaction was the most comical to observe. She actually looked once at him and turned back to converse with us but the guy was still standing in the room smiling. Till Tarun yelled Chakraaaa and his characteristic laughter confirmed his identity. Chakra became the joker in the pack and for every new person who entered the room it became a game of guess who this is? Another hilarious part was when we had to rescue Sriram from committing hara-kiri in the washbasin. He was trying to drown himself. When asked what happened ‘”He said he was identified as Shivdas by Pankaj”

As the decibel level increased the wonderful part that struck me was despite so many years having passed. None required an ice breaker to smoothly traverse the years and strike a conversation. It was that easy. This was despite the peculiarity of the school etiquette where boys did not speak to girls and vice versa. All verbal communications may have at the most been spats then. Later as some of them had interacted with their opposite gender friendships had bloomed. It was evident though that for a good number present here it was the first real conversation with the opposite gender from the class. That was the irony considering that we had spent not one or two but a good ten or twelve years in one room everyday for five hours at the very least. It was as if a dam had burst and people could not stop catching up. Words and loud laughs, giggles and chatter.
After the confirmations and cancellations had been accounted for seventeen were expected at the venue and Punde the plus one was to join us later in the evening. The last one to come in was the first to have started from her place, the one with the longest journey of the day, Vinita. The rains made her journey miserable but her will won over the adverse conditions. When the quorum was complete the Master Of Ceremonies, Mr. Lakshmi Shankar Balsubranian aka Abishek aka Shanky to us, took the mike. While the others sat he recounted on how this whole jig had begun. The suggestion was made to make 24th July the Reunion day such that we don’t wait another 25 years to catch up again. The venue could be anywhere but meet we must. The mike passed on to each telling their own story of what had they done from the time after school. Some chirpy memories of school were shared too.

Murugan and the pen that went up Jeetu’s backside and the corny explanation he gave to the Principal Shanbag when questioned about it. Sriram’s runaway marriage as recounted by Anil who was with them all the way in all their trying times to such an effect that he said if this is what Love marriage entails, keep me away. Exciting and happy progress had been made in the lives of all people here. Srikant recounted his blissful state of affairs, His education as an engineer, his working with Hitachi Data Systems, staying in Chembur and the neat family unit he had. Tarun, the banker at ICICI who shared the story of his marriage and how he wished someone from his school had been present then and yours truly not having gone even after an invite; then Hari turning up after getting just a sms which made this very important day absolutely complete for him. Anjali shared her life post school of Management and a job at Kotak and then moving from Dubai to Singapore. Varsha told the group of having done her super specialization in IVF and having delivered the first In vitro baby of Kalyan. Sujata who had a word after everyone’s account when she got the mike talked about her life in Doha and how she was in the process of setting up a business from there. Nalini on how she is managing her company having done shows on all five continents and continuing in the field of music. Vinita, talked about her life in Pune married to an offshore engineer, on being a successful home maker and furthering the progress of both her sons as Chess champions. Sriram, after that shared the work he is doing heading the supply chain at McDonalds in India a responsibility recently undertaken. Anil narrated on how fulfilling his career had been and how amongst many other innovations in the field of construction development, waste management his company was responsible for changing over the fuel tanks in automobiles from metal to plastic. Bhaskar the HR professional talked about his education, his career & life. Sobha who came in with her daughter Jyoti mentioned about her life and not having known about Murugan being in Salem when she was posted there for 3 years. She even referred and pointed out to her sweet daughter as being a Salem product. Pankaj talked about his early career in L&T from which he had moved into piping & fabrication contracting for refineries, his experimenting with farming on a plot actively cultivating vegetables & flowers. Peter talked about how his life shaped up after his BCom and MBA into the travel industry and the responsibility he handles at Cox & Kings. Neepa who had been talking so much was absolutely short of words when the mike was in her hand. She choked and it indeed was a sentimental moment, said she on seeing so many of us all in one room after a while. She has done her Homeopathy and an MBA in hospital administration and is in the process of setting up a company with her surgeon husband in providing hospital services. Then the mike was in my hand and recalled the exercise and all the people who played their part in getting the information together culminating in this do. Hari and Meera were sorely missed as they had a lion’s share in this, Bhaskar who was with me every step of the way while we were getting this act together. Having done my engineering and working for couple of years with Godrej manufacturing refrigerators and ten years selling engineering solutions moving on to advertising. Then the mike was back with Shanky who recounted his progress after a struggle in the entertainment field. Of having tasted critical acclaim 
to becoming a soap star to directing his full length feature film and then receiving the states honors’.

It was a moment of recounting and then we wanted the singers to sing and Shanky started with a tribute to Kishore Kumar when he sang “Koi Hum Dum Na Raha” …Nalini sang “Waqt ne Kiya” and truly the sorry mike system didn’t do justice to her voice that still retains a poignant quality…but the performance of the day was Anil’s. When he sang “Geet Gaata hu main” the years rolled back as he hummed along. Anil barring some grey at the temples and sides and trousers that were longer looked just the same as he did when in school.

Soon it was time to break off and leave the venue, some of us to reconvene elsewhere. Rains or delays one thing was absolutely crystal “The 17+1 Idiots had beaten Murphy”. Aaaall Eeeej Well.

11 July, 2010

Progress...Indian Ishhtyle

Rain pelted the window in heavy chunky drops. The sound they made on the roof of the bus and the brief clouding of the windows being the only signs that it was actually raining. This was July and peak monsoon time in Mumbai, from where I had boarded a luxury bus to my destination Pune. One part was work and then I was to meet friends. I would be seeing some of them after nearly two decades and hence was excited. Adjusting the seat to recline back my gaze shifted out. How had the time passed…like the cliché…flown by so rapidly? Looking around I realized it was applicable even to the nature of the transport availed now for travel. This was progress certainly or wasn’t it? 

Leaning back I contemplated on this very transport that has taken domestic inter-city traffic by storm; the Volvo bus. They were first launched by the private transport companies and now even the state corporations owned several in their fleet. Quite a leap over the rattletrap buses running on the Indian roads a few years earlier. Public transport was getting better but largely only for a certain class of passengers. The lal ST or the red state transport buses still operated to reach the very interiors of the state. The Volvos only operated between a few major towns and cities but their reach was gradually increasing.

A bump shook me out of my reverie. One of the misplaced badly designed speed breakers for sure. This is the peculiarity of the Indian roads or rather the whole public infrastructure. On one hand we are on our way to building good roads and highways, and today we have a host of good automakers with their models designed for fast road travel. Then on the other hand we don’t allow people to make use of what they have and what has been built with public money for their original intended use. Case in point are these confounded speed breakers. The earlier roads had natural potholes that would miraculously emerge in every monsoon. They limited speed and did not get repaired till the arrival of the next one. Travel between two points on a map in a certain time not only involved skill of driving but also intimate knowledge of where a particular pothole was located to avoid it. There are fewer potholes on newer roads but for them we have speed breakers. 

The Mumbai-Pune expressway stretched across like a snake slithering in the rain as far as the eye could see. It certainly is a remarkable sight. The passenger in my neighboring seat leaning over me looking out said with obvious pride “Isn’t it like foreign?” looking at his glee I was wonder struck at his line. For those of you who are familiar with the colloquial way of speech, we casually refer to anything outside of India as foreign. Now this is a throwback to the times of the permit Raj of the late sixties till the early nineties where imports were illegal or unaffordable. Usage of substandard goods of local manufacture was the norm. Quality was never the benchmark for marketing a commodity or service. I remember a time of using a Staedler eraser gifted by an NRI relative, during my school years. The simple fact that it rubbed off pencil marks without tearing the page was nothing short of magical. The rubber was foreign. Anything good, classy or well designed was tagged foreign. The Mumbai-Pune highway did seem just like foreign; it is an experience that hitherto was not a norm. Our bus did not leak in the rain from outside, it proceeded at a seemingly fast clip and saving that awkward speed breaker went over the minor bumps and potholes with shock absorbing impunity. It also showed a movie to keep the traveler absorbed, yes it was like foreign.

But my eye also took in the unfinished nature of this highway that despite a decade into operation did not come across as safe. An expressway like this had inadequate illumination which would be very dangerous for night travelers, the edges around curves weren’t banked and in portions the edge barriers were broken. I had heard of farm animals straying on to this road resulting in horrible accidents. Do the authorities not see it? I am sure they did going by the signage that dotted this stretch. We in India love our signs. Our signage is not designed to be actually read but serve the purpose of being mere disclaimers. Max speed limit 80km/hr said one…and if you broke this the same authorities equipped with speed guns would bring you to book. Does 80km/hr or 50mph qualify for an expressway speed? We shall build you a road but we do not trust you to use it for its engineered intent. The signs squawked such messages at regular intervals.

We were passing Lonavla, a popular hill station that lay midway between Mumbai & Pune. We had reached this in a fairly acceptable time of 90 minutes and estimated that at this rate in another hour would touch Pune. Then the bus slowed and swerved and making some acrobatic turns wheeled into the parking lot of a rather bright shiny structure. It was a diner owned by the bus company. Apparently this stop was mandatory and was called fuel halt. No bus required to be refueled over this distance but we love our euphemisms. The passenger wallets could be further lightened in the name of convenience. 

People hurriedly made their way to the washrooms and these are areas that have definitely changed for the better. Bright tiles and fairly clean would be the state of most public toilets in these areas but don’t bet on the taps to have running water always. Power outages are frequent and hence the water tanks may or may not get filled.  Hence despite the seemingly clean interiors and better privacy you can still be hit with a stink. It is peculiar to all public toilets in India. We have developed an auto response for holding our breath and letting go at the same time to achieve relief. Yoga is after all an Indian art form and all of us have an inbuilt chip that programs us for superior breath control while we enter our public lavatories.

A cup of tea set me back by Rs.15 and picking up that cup ambled along looking at all that was on display here. It was a visual merchandiser’s paradise. Everything from newspapers, magazines to sweets fudges and even blankets were available here. Yes it was a comfort to see that even on the highway one was not without the familiar brands and consumables that make life bearable for us in the city. After a cool 20 minutes of stoppage the journey resumed.

I dozed off for a while and woke up to see us approach the city from the outside. The first sign of progress is rapid construction and announcing this is the billboard. One after the other they started hitting my line of sight. Reputed builders of the city of Pune announcing projects in places like Wakad, Bavdhan, Aundh, Sus Road, NIBM Kondhwa which to people who know Pune were once villages on the outskirts. These have now become the extended suburbs of the city that is exploding and for want of space is absorbing all that is available around. Two really large developments called Magarpatta and Lavasa were being sold as intelligent cities. But what grabbed my attention were the names on these projects. Windermere, Meadows, Lakeside Chalet, Maple leaf, Whispering woods etc stared at me from the hoardings. Whatever happened to Indian sounding names? Names like  Matru Chahya, Vatsalya, Sneh Vihar ,  Sindh society, Sanewadi are beginning to look like names from a bygone era. Shedding our desi flavor seems to be the flavour of the season. For the world traveled home buyer the new names establish an immediate connect with his global footprint. So what if the Lakeside Chalet is nothing but 3 swanky buildings hosting a multitude of 2 and 3 bed apartments overlooking a culvert with flowing grey waters of the city sewers. The corporation is soon going to redirect the flow of sewage to another spot and then the waters here will be clean is the promise on which the development is marketed. Buy it now as it is going cheap and given the property price appreciation, Lakeside Chalet is completely booked with hopefuls who wait for their clean water view.

While they wait thus after moving into their new apartments, for work they have to travel to the other end of the city. Not to worry,  their developer has told them,  several new flyovers have been constructed and a few more planned. Travel is going to be very easy. In India the flyover is a unique structure and is like no other bridge in the world. This is a decidedly Indian recipe and I recall a friend of mine referring to it as the hump. Hump, now what is that? Have you noticed how Indian flyovers are uniquely planned for a single signal or a junction?  The cities have no dearth of great minds that can reorient the city and its roads along streamlined flows but then who shall work around the bureaucracy. To compound it is a unholy nexus of the encroachers, local politicians, the cops and city officials who allow this mess to fester. No laws can work around as the encroachers have a legal recourse cannon called the ‘Stay Order’. When this is fired all development started can come to a screeching halt. The matter moves to court and nothing moves after that for several years. The flyover has literally been an answer to the prayers of these developers as they now don’t care about the mess below. They fly over it. It is a wonderful solution that suits everybody. No one has eliminated the traffic snarl on the roads, we flyover them to the next junction. We speed over in parts and then go bumper to bumper in others. The Indian flyover is uniquely designed to take you faster to the next traffic jam. The journey time could have reduced but now we have more affluence and hence more cars dot the roads. Well dressed executives sitting in the air-conditioned comfort of their automobiles with either their laptops, blackberries, or the outspread pink financial newspaper, stuck in a jam is a common enough sight. On the way back from work they have FM radio jockeys for company belting out filmy numbers interspersed with loud commercials.

Progressing we are and the pace too is rapid; but our style of progress is distinctly Indian and needs to be understood in its own perspective. This was my thought as I got down at the bus stop that was once called Parihar chowk and now is “McDonalds – Aundh.” 

29 May, 2010

Hairy Task

His fingers were never still as I watched him. They seemed to be tapping out a beat that only he was privy to. Quite suddenly they broke off their tap and moved to his nape and traced a leisurely path , from the lobe of the left ear; one of the rare un follicled part on his face,  to the front and dove into the thick fuzz. He just seemed to be in love with it, this fuzz. As he ruffled it something darted in and out and I held my breath. Yikes... he did have creatures living in there...overtly he seemed clean and spruced up but was my first observation incorrect? There… he had plucked it out in a pinch. Having peered at it from behind round steel rimmed spectacles I sensed a smile underneath the bush as he gently laid it down. The tiny black ant ran away and the breath I was holding in apprehension of a nastier, ickier creature was let out in relief. The fingers ruffled the facial fuzz some more and crumbs fell out. Jeez…Toasted brown bread for breakfast was my assessment, that answered the foraging ants presence. 

Now before you ask me where was I and didn’t I have anything better to do than watch strangers do their finger tricks? Let me first appraise you on the state of my mind and what brought it to this state. I was nervous and in such a state my eyes do wander. I was at A-1 hair cutting saloon waiting my turn, This hairy jungle on two legs had just stepped in a few minutes after me. For me this was a bi-monthly trimming ritual. 

A tradition started by my old man, He was big on them...traditions. This one though had its roots in a fight, not a nasty venomous one but a healthy friendly yet serious one, with my best pal Rohan. Not only were we heaving and grunting but shouting and screaming as well. Yes, we may have been a tad bit too loud and If my memory serves me right the window panes did rattle with the decibel level generated. We were blissfully engaged in the endeavor of attempting to yank out the others tresses from their roots. With a jerk we were pulled apart, one adult held us apiece. I looked up to see the red face of dad. Each of us triumphantly had managed a few locks of the other in our fists, and waved it in the others face. It was this gesture that began the tradition come to think of it. Both of our fathers arrived at the same solution instantly. We were dragged to the A-1 Hair Cutting Saloon. Rohan was handed over to Vijay anna & yours truly to Velu anna the grumpiest of the scissor hands there.

Velu and Vijay anna were brothers who stayed a few dwellings away from us. Theirs was the first barber shop in our quaint little hamlet of this mega polis. This literally made them pillars of our community with the lordly title of town barbers. It was this neighborly loyalty that had our fathers conspire to get both their first born offspring’s to A-1. In the chair something white billowed in front of my face and suddenly felt I was in a strait jacket, so tightly had Velu anna wrapped a sheet around me. Rohan’s expression told me he fared no better. The manner in which Velu anna handled my neck and head , had this been the USA I may have sued him for dangerous assault and even won. With geography  not on my side i had all the joints in my neck stress tested to their absolute limit. It was yanked this way and that with the gleaming steel scissors clicking dangerously close. This scared the turd out of my rear end. Within no time at all I started to feel the cold air on my head. Sneaking a look saw that Rohan was in the same boat. We were a hairs breadth from being totally scalped, excuse the hairy pun... But on a gentler note would still maintain that our state of affairs was akin to that of a chicken...one that had been savagely plucked.

Rohan and I didn’t have any options as the paters looked on sternly. Under their glare the V anna siblings went about their task methodically and with a thorough diligence. Nastily i thought that their skills were wasted on the civilians, surely they should be serving our men in Uniform on some remote border of this large country. why did they have to choose just this very locality?

Have you ever noticed that knowledge has a funny tendency to flash with startling clarity at weird moments? While trussed up in Velu annas chair I could trace the evolution of the word "barbarian". How rich was I for this brilliant piece of self realization that it brought the beginnings of a smile . But before it could spread and settle down was brutally wiped away by Velu Anna who held up a mirror to my face and slowly took it all round. One completely strange bozo sporting a pin cushion that masqueraded as a hair cut stared back from it. I almost jeered at him for a minute that it took to figure out who it was. I screamed. The mirror reflected back my tonsils twitching jerkily as I went about it. What a fabulous color of pink were they. One slap from my dad ended both my vocal performance and  tonsular appreciation. Now do you see, why this place gives me the jitters.A visit to a salon of which A-1 is just a symbolic reference, is associated with punishment and an abysmal performance output.

All I can say is that this is my last but one favorite, must visit destination on this planet. Which is the winner you ask, the top dog position...well...that has to be the dentist. It was a tough call between these two. This place edges out the dentist primarily because it keeps better magazines.

Neksshhhht… came the shout and the beard looked at me with beseeching eyes and I realized that it was not restlessness that caused his fingers to wander but rank abject fear. I was not the only one, there had to be a story somewhere with him too...his fuzz had suddenly attained a Freudian significance going by my own experience. But lets leave his story for some other day...today its my turn. Steeling myself I got up and occupied  the indicated chair hoping to get it over with and fast, my bi-monthly hairy task.