Thursday 28 September 2017

The City I Left Behind

The whistle sounded, signalling the impending arrival of a station to those on board. The entire coach, sleepy and quiet barely moments ago, suddenly came abuzz with subtle activity. Passengers got out of their berths yawning and stretching, counting and recounting the items in their luggage, bags and kids alike, as they prepared to disembark. Some seemed genuinely excited to finally reach their destination, whilst relief was more prominent on the faces of the more frequent travellers carrying small bags and briefcases.

Sitting next to the window, I couldn’t relate to them. My gaze remained fixed on the vista outside, as it had been for most of the night. Trees and houses raced past, bathed in the soft orange glow of the pre-dawn. The moon was still visible on the horizon as an ethereal shadow of its night-time beauty. Wind rushed in from the open window, blowing my hair all over the place, providing a physical expression to the turbulence that raged inside. After all, I was returning to the city I had left behind, to meet someone I thought I had left behind long ago – you. The person I loved like I had never loved anyone before, nor have since.

Another whistle interrupted my reverie. I turned my gaze away from the window and readied my small overnight bag. The sight of familiar landmarks – the house painted a garish shade of green, the abandoned signal house with graffiti all over it, the railway crossing with an adjoining flyover – rushing past was anyway becoming too much to bear. These once used to be checked off my list one by one eagerly and impatiently, these reminders of a past I’d willed myself into forgetting. No doubt they still helped others measure the distance from their beloveds, but they were no longer for me.

Minutes passed, and the train finally arrived at its destination. The murmur of activity steadily grew into a distinct buzz. People shouted at their companions to hold on to their kids and leave their bags, or to hold on to their bags and leave their kids. Some of the younger lot stood, their faces making evident their displeasure at being held up by those travelling in larger groups. I remained seated, waiting patiently for the heaving, teeming mass to spill outside. I was familiar with the train’s secrets, you see, secrets I had uncovered over a million voyages. I knew the train’s journey culminated here, in this city. As it did for me, all those years back. As it did once more.

I was probably the last passenger to step down onto the platform, and I did so hesitantly. It had, after all, been a long time since my last, acrimonious visit to this place. I wasn’t sure of how I would react to the city, and how the city would react to me. The old, colonial-style station was still there in all its regal splendour, a stark contrast to the rather new, rather modern geometrical monstrosity that had been built as an extension. An odd set of misfits, these two buildings, and yet they looked right at home with one another. Much like we probably did back in those days, when my shoulder served as the perfect headrest for you to lean on in your momentary respite from society, your family, and everyone who told you I wasn’t the one for you. Those were the days, weren’t they, when our eccentricities and differences seemed to rather complement each other? But shoulders changed, as did the heads that rested on them. The newly-laid cobbles underfoot still felt familiar somehow.

I had buried the bones of every memory of you in the bottommost recesses of my mind, like silt on the ocean floor, but their ghosts still greeted me at every corner of this city so alien and intimate. They sat next to me in the auto-rickshaw we used to ride as I dropped you home, they waved at me from the next table in the coffee shop we loved frequenting, stood in front of me at the counter of the patisserie near your house. They surrounded me on the crowded by-lanes of your favourite market, but failed to greet me at the mall that stood in place of your favourite shop. I was grateful for one less ghost. The ocean floor had been disturbed enough, and the muddied waters blurred my vision as they fought for an escape. But it didn’t matter. I did not need to see to find my way around these streets.

My head hurt by noontime, and I was already questioning the wisdom of my decision to come here. Why did I even think this was a good idea? I had no answer. How could I, when even the most knowledgeable intellectuals over the ages failed to understand the whims of the heart? Maybe that’s where they went wrong, using brains where they ought not to be used. But then again, we had followed our hearts and fared none the better.

I do not know when I reached the park, or how, but there it was, standing like a monolith out of a long-forgotten dream. It had started off as a dream, remarkable and alluring, turning vividly real for just a moment. But before long it turned to ashes right in front of our eyes, crushed into dust by our own hands in an attempt to avert that very fate. I wondered, just then, standing in front of the entrance, about what happened to the dust of dreams. My eyes fell to a trail of sand, invisible to everyone else, and my feet followed it unthinkingly.

The sight that greeted me was painfully familiar. There was the bench, where we once sat cuddling amongst fellow lovers, away from the judging eyes of society. There was the fountain you once fell into when trying to push me in. There was the tree we used to sit under, kissing furtively and breaking away at the slightest hint of a sound. There, right outside the park, stood the mall where we used to watch a movie whenever we could afford to. We had little money to spend on each another back then, but we had all the time in the world. It all seemed so juvenile to me, our hopes and dreams, as I sat on the stone steps where we once plotted global domination. I shifted to ease the distinct discomfort that can only come from sitting on a wallet full of money.

With no other way of whiling away the time, I took out my phone. There were no notifications on it – none that mattered, anyway. It made for an extremely dramatic change from the time when you used to bug me with calls and messages. I wanted to call you then, but I didn’t. I had deleted your number in anger one day. My fingers still hovered over the keypad, but I could not bring myself to trust muscle memory; it had proven to be far too accurate, far too many times in the past. The number still seemed to dial itself on its own, but the call would not connect, no matter how many times I tried. ‘Please insert SIM card’, the phone requested politely.

Time became intransitive for a couple of hours after that, as I slowly merged into the background. There were people around, families and social groups and loners, but it was the couples that really stood out. Everywhere I looked, every place I turned to, they were there. Walking hand in hand with one another, they were there. Lost in their own private worlds, they were there. Sneaking a peek from behind our tree before kissing, they were there. We were there. But not really, not fully. We existed only as shadows in my mind, spawned by the glow of what we were, hiding in the shade of what you and I had since become. I chased these shadows, a ghost in a ghost world, crossing paths with other ghosts revisiting their old haunts as all ghosts are wont to do. None acknowledged my presence, and I returned the favour.

My ghostly passage wound past our bench, the one where we spent endless evenings watching the sunset in each other’s arms. It was already occupied by a couple of youngsters, who broke off their embrace rather hurriedly at my sudden appearance and sat looking at everything but each other. I pitied them; I envied them. I cursed them, I blessed them. But the ghost that I was said nothing, for there was nothing to be said. Not there, not then, not anymore.

The sun had gradually wound its way to the far corner of the horizon. There lay, in the bruising of the blue sky, the threat of the imminent arrival of dusk. It brought me back to the real world that I had to return to, no matter how much I wanted to stay. I made my way back to the same station I had got down at in the morning, boarded the same train I had disembarked a little more than twelve hours ago, and took up almost the same seat. I knew of the train’s secrets, you see, secrets I’d uncovered over a million voyages. I knew that its journey originated here, in this city. As it did for me, all those years back. As it did once more.

Minutes passed, and the train signalled its readiness to depart. I turned my gaze to the window, to the vista outside, where the sun held on stubbornly to the pale shadow of its day-time brilliance, and the twilight slowly gave way to the moon.

Wednesday 1 March 2017

An Ode to February

Ah, February! The month of love, colours pink and red, and the smell of roses. Nervous February, the month of first confessions, sweet proposals, and love’s labour’s won. Lovely February, the month of rejection, failed love, and heartbreak. Wonderful February, the month of moral decadence, failing cultural values, and radical reformatory measures. Oh, February, you beauty of a month, you!

You’re often misunderstood, magnificent February, much like love, that curious little phenomenon you’ve taken for your own. People see you, both of you, through monochromatic glasses unable to capture all that you are, all that you could be. There is no room for understanding, dear February, of the magnificence you represent. You are only associated with gift cards and flowers and sickening, cloying, sugary proclamations of love, sweet February, as you are with childish heartbreaks and juvenile rejections. There is no appreciation of your rich multicoloured hues, of your curiously ethereal, ephemeral nature. No one stops and wonders, darling February, why the month of love is also the shortest of the year.

But we do, delightful February. We see you for what you are. We know you hold many secrets within your heart, secrets which you’ll reveal in your own time, regardless of our readiness. You are your own master, cruel February, kind February; no one dictates what you are. You won’t let them, not when they come with sticks and stones and wrongful threats of righteous reformation. Not when they sacrifice an innocent teddy bear to declare their opposition to all you stand for. Because you know, understanding February. You know that hatred is a kind of misguided love. Like envy, like longing, like apathy.

We have tales for you, incredible February. Tales for you, and of you. We bring you tales that seek to capture a miniscule portion of what you are, and of the love that you have taken for your own. Just a small facet, and no more; we have not the hubris to claim we know more than what you have chosen to reveal of your curiously paradoxical nature. This is our ode to you, brilliant February, and our homage and our criticism and our wonderment and our delight.

We bid you farewell, fantastic February, as we welcome March in. It may not be as nuanced as you are, or as subtle, or as mysterious, but it will do. It has to, remarkable February, incredible February, conceited February, for we doubt our capacity to endure another such month of exceedingly contradictory emotions. So we welcome March in, with its lights and shadows and the curious interplay thereof, as we bid you a heartfelt adieu. Till the next time.

This piece was first published as the editorial of the February issue of Telegram. To purchase and read the full issue, click on here.

Thursday 23 February 2017

The Summer of Freedom

Amidst the chorus of angry voices and echoes of violent clashes at Ramjas College, one cannot help but draw parallels between the current situation and the incident that took place last year at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). The Indian political landscape has once again heated up. Once again a place of knowledge and learning has turned into a battleground. Stones have become grenades that shatter an uneasy peace, blood the ink with which another ugly chapter will be written in India's history. Free speech has become toxic, corroding into caustic, hateful rhetoric. Politicians have released polarising statements that serve only to add more fuel to an already explosive situation, and impassioned voices on TV, newspapers, and social media are once again screaming their opinions at anyone and everyone within earshot. 

One thing will remain different, however. Last year, two people at Telegram - I and my partner-in-crime, Abhyudaya Shrivastava - tried to move past our biases and gauge, first-hand, the mood and opinion of those most affected by the incident, and the most involved in it: the students. We wanted to gain a more objective perspective on the entire issue. What for, we know not, but we cared for the truth, for integrity. We never held any illusions about the value of our opinions, and in any case, by the time we'd started on our bumbling investigative journalistic endeavour, the storm had already blown over. There was something more recent, more sensational to talk about. 

I still share this today with you. What for, I know not. Perhaps I seek to make up for the fact that there will not be another such piece on the latest tragedy. Twelve months on, I care just a little less.

“Kashmir ki aazaadi tak, jang rahegi, jang rahegi!” – with these words, the Schrödinger’s Cat that was the Kashmir issue once again leapt out of the proverbial bag and put Jawaharlal Nehru University firmly on the radar of the Indian population. All of a sudden, JNU became the buzzword for each and every group, fringe or otherwise, in the political arena. While some groups tried to assert the righteousness of their cause by taking stock of the trashcans on a daily basis, others – not wanting to be left out – raised a hue and cry over rising censorship and the death of democracy, even as they freely gave interviews on primetime television and published columns in leading magazines and dailies for a good recompense. But with the print and electronic media going full-throttle to paint the story one hue or the other in order to drive the maximum mileage, any curious, impartial observer could not help but wonder – what the hell actually happened?

We were such impartial onlookers, and we did wonder if what was being portrayed was really what was happening. But we dared not ask any questions then, even if we tried to talk about it in hushed tones. After all, it is a well known fact that in a fight between two ideologies, it is those that tread the middle ground who end up suffering the most. So we stayed silent and watched the drama unfold, talking in tones more hushed than before. In time, the storm blew over, the debate lost steam and the public found something more trending to talk about. We, too, consigned JNU and all the questions associated with it to the backs of our minds.

But curiosity has killed many a cat. Ruminating one night over the deeper mysteries of life, such as where to get good food at 12 AM, we spotted the dread name again in the list of popular night-time haunts for students and young professionals. An initial hesitation caused by a healthy regard for our skins was soon overcome by inquisitiveness and, more importantly, hunger. We donned our helmets, wrote our wills, prayed to whatever gods were still up and set out for a trip to the place that seemed to be perennially demanding freedom, if popular media was to be believed. Our cats meowed softly after us.

We nervously joked about going undercover into the ‘antinational’ heartland of Delhi on our way to the campus. By the time we had reached halfway, we were seriously questioning the life choices that had set us upon the path. This, after all, was the place which was reputed to have made Manmohan Singh, then the Honourable Prime Minister of the Republic of India and the topper in the list of Indian VVIPs, step out of his car and enter as an academician. One look at our non-VIP motorcycle, and we knew that getting thrashed for our transgression was going to be the least of our concerns. But it was too late to make any changes to the plan now; turning back or going to a different venue would have meant the loss of precious night hours. The romance of the dark, which is often barely a whiff upon the breeze, would have evaporated with the faintest of glimmers of dawn. And so we sped past the police barricades, past the drunks and the homeless sleeping peacefully on the footpath, and continued on to our destination.

We weren’t going unprepared, though. Having known the names of a couple of hostels on campus, we’d quickly allotted ourselves two which sounded the least suspicious in order to escape any surface inquiry. This minor safety precaution didn’t help prevent our hearts from beating at a very furious pace, which only seemed to increase as the distance to the campus grew shorter. With our heads throbbing inside our helmets like a badly out-of-tune drum set, we turned into the campus.

And passed right in. No one challenged our entry, no one checked us for microphones or spy cameras, and no one asked us to prove our identities to ensure we weren’t government agents in disguise. For a rebel stronghold, it wasn’t very strongly held. It was almost disappointing to get in without a glitch after the tension that we had worked up for ourselves. At that moment, we would have almost welcomed a beating just to have our expectations fulfilled.

The momentary disorientation that followed our highly unanticipated successful entry also drew our attention to another salient fact – we hadn’t planned it beyond this point. With no idea what to do next, we decided to refocus on our original mission – finding something to eat. We slowed down the bike, looking this way and that, to find something that resembled an eatery. A couple of lights twinkled invitingly on our right through a dense copse of trees, drawing us to them like moths to a candle. We turned right, only to reach a building that appeared forbidding, abandoned and thoroughly locked. ‘Health Centre’, read the board above it in a big font. We wondered why students would flock near a health centre at one in the night before the inevitable conclusion hit us right in the teeth – free condoms! The rumours were true after all! The campus, renowned for its profligacy, wantonness and perversity, had probably led to the creation of an underground black-market nexus that helped students ‘protect’ themselves during their night-time shenanigans. Hoping to catch degenerates in the act, we walked towards the centre of all the activity.

Real life has a way of gloriously failing to live up to our expectations. We always hold out hope for one last eye contact while turning away from an ex; always hope to cross the magical barrier of thirty having attempted questions barely worth 25. The wife, beaten and abused every night by her drunkard husband, always holds on to the hope that things will be better tomorrow, while the husband who knows his wife is cheating on him with a colleague always hopes to never find out. But things often don’t happen as we wish they would – there is no last glance back, no divine intervention to make us pass that exam, no sudden conversions of heart, no fading away of the truth just because we’ve ignored it.

And so it was with us that night. For the second time in the space of a couple of minutes, we were disappointed that our worst fears hadn’t come true.

The ‘crowd’, if it could be called that, was milling around a small canteen which had Ganga Dhaba painted in white on its blue shutters. To our right were a couple of randomly strewn rocks which were serving the dual purpose of table and stools, while on our left were people queuing up for chai, lassi, fruit juice and that most frowned upon food item, Maggi, which was being served at a very capitalist price of INR 25. Walking towards the eatery, we were aware of the stark contrast we presented to the rest of the picture. In a sea of T-shirts, shorts, kurtas and capris, we stood out like a couple of sore thumbs in our almost-formal attires and the baggage we carried. The one on our back held our laptops, the one in our mind, prejudice.

We ordered some chai, tried to fit in and failed. The students there didn’t seem to mind us, though. There was tea, there was conversation, there was camaraderie, all framed against the backdrop of the subtle sound of an aeroplane flying overhead from time to time and no one peeking at their phones every two seconds. At 2 in the night, JNU defied normal circadian rhythms; autorickshaws ferried on the campus roads nonchalantly, while people strolled around as if they were on an early evening walk. An ice-cream cart parked near the dhaba was reaping rich dividends for his business acumen. The place bore an eerie resemblance to a regular marketplace.

We finished our tea and fished out the dregs of tea leaves, which the tea stall owner generously did not charge us for, and decided to talk to students. Eager as we were to hear the story of the revolution, straight from the mouth of the horse that went nay, we quickly settled on a bearded guy who was sitting having his tea and bread-omelette in isolation.

“Excuse me. Can we have a moment of your time?”

The nonchalance with which he said ‘no’ was almost disturbing, underlining why the place was reputed for not playing by the societal rules of etiquette and politeness. Or maybe he just hadn’t taken well to being interrupted during his midnight snack. Feeling like a news channel, and not a very good one at that, we gently edged away from the solitary eater to find someone else we could bug to satiate our inquisitiveness.

Our second target was also sitting alone. We went up to him, asked for permission to disturb him and – when he obliged – shook hands and introduced ourselves. He was an outsider, just like us, who was visiting a friend, unlike us. As there was nothing of import that he could tell us, we made small talk about the insects and the humidity till his friend joined us, a plate of aloo-parantha in each hand. It took some effort to prise our gaze away from the plate, as it did in getting him to open up. He looked at us with mistrust initially, but when you live in JNU and are under the constant, unflinching scrutiny of the world, being on your guard with outsiders probably becomes a second nature. Our genuine faces and mostly-honest questions made him open up soon enough, though. He, as a science student, revealed his ignorance of what went on behind the closed doors of the Arts and Humanities departments, but staunchly denied any allegation of brainwashing, forcefulness or sexually-charged pagan initiation rituals. Not here, he had said, not as long as I’ve seen it, although he did look disappointed about the last bit.

With the number of topics that could be discussed without arousing suspicion fast running out, we thanked him and took his leave. Looking around, we zeroed in on what appeared like a political science student. He fit the stereotype in quite well – he was wearing a kurta the most vibrant shade of purple, sported a stubble which could pass for a beard in just the right lighting and at a great distance, and looked as if he could be plotting the next political revolution. Giddy with happiness at finally spotting a real JNUite, we made our way towards him.

But the night, for us, seemed to be filled with anti-climaxes. Instead of an ideological radical, the guy turned out to be a harmless molecular biology student in disguise. A quick chat with him revealed that he also found the campus extremely liberal and accepting. He told us how anyone could run in the campus elections, how teachers didn’t bully students into attending classes and how pupils attended lectures not to give their attendance a boost, but for the love of learning. His enthusiastic discourse left us wondering why JNU was failing to live up to its social media status as the hotbed of dissension and protest, but we hid our disappointment behind a very polite smile and headed on our way. Maybe it was our approach, we told ourselves; we were yet to find a single student belonging to either Arts or Humanities.

Two girls sat in the shadows at a table nearby, chatting amongst themselves, suddenly stopped talking and looked in our direction. This acknowledgement of our existence was probably precipitated by the fact that we had been standing and staring at them for around a minute, looking away only to whisper something in each other’s ears intermittently. A realisation that we were treading dangerous territory slowly dawned on us. We were, after all, rank outsiders visiting a campus not our own, located in a city where nightlife for girls usually comprised of molestations, eve-teasing and stalking – if they were lucky.

With our choices limited between running to the bike and making a quick getaway and approaching them to clear any misapprehensions, we – much to our own surprise – chose the latter. They eyed us with suspicion, probably thinking us idiots who had lost their way into the campus, but gradually warmed up as we asked various questions about their lives on campus. They were both PhD students in Hindi, as close a match as we could hope to get under the circumstances, but refused to conform to our ideas of a typical JNUite despite speaking quite passionately about freedom on the campus, the fact that no one can force anyone to attend rallies or campaigns and the amazing library on campus, which they probably would have walked us to had we but asked. But we didn’t. We now knew what we came for. We had learned enough of the enemy.

As we made one last trip to the counter at the dhaba and ordered nimbu-paani, we realised we were walking more confidently, smiling more often and laughing more freely. Maybe it was just the cathartic experience of overcoming our inhibitions; maybe it was the knowledge of being proven wrong in the most wonderful of manners. Or maybe it was just the ambience of the place which had accepted us, as we were, without asking any questions. We found no sloganeering, no demonstrations asking for freedom, no angry rhetoric. Was what we learned the truth? Maybe, maybe not. We couldn’t speak for everyone, but to us, JNU appeared just like any other college campus. With one last look around, we threw the disposable cups in dustbins still devoid of three thousand condoms and made our way to where we’d parked the bike. In the distance, lights of the dhaba twinkled enticingly through the copse of trees, drawing more moths to the flame. As it always had.

Sunday 24 July 2016

Review - A Reason to Live

The profession of a writer has always been considered a noble calling, but I know of someone who has shunned title religiously despite being much acclaimed – at least within a small segment of fellow typists – for what he writes. Maybe he does not want to be counted amongst the scores of other ‘writers’ who, armed with their bulky thesauruses and hefty dictionaries, have wreaked error-ridden, misspelt havoc upon the common brains of the sensitive masses. Or maybe he prefers to keep away from the public light till the time he is ready to assume the mantle of an author and let the world bask in his literary brilliance.

His reasons are anybody’s guess, but what he writes is another matter completely. It is, then, a cause of worry for someone who enjoys reading his work (and still fails to finish alpha-reading his WIP despite repeated reminders), when the person in question informs you that he has lost the will to write. He is afraid that his words might be lost in the deluge of mediocrity that has been doing rounds the wide, wide web we now call home, and he is afraid of failing his own standards. As a reader, though, I managed to coax an old story out of him. This is my review of that story, which – in keeping with my glorious professional standards – is late. Again. But I hope it makes a difference, to him at least.

Review – A Reason to live:
‘A Reason to Live’, which is a part of the longer storyline that is set in the fictional world of Mithos, deals with the rise of one of the most central characters in the as-of-yet unpublished series by the as-of-yet unpublished author. It is the story of one Grandmaster Daronos Drivas, Preceptor of the Drivas Academy and a soldier beyond compare. Belonging to the blood of Old Achea, an ancient, complex race that aged slowly and lived for centuries, the Grandmaster has seen a slow erosion of the strength of Old Achea – something he sees reflected in the falling standards of his own academy, which now played host to sons of traders and farmers and tavern-keepers where it once forged might warriors, knights, renowned generals and lords and ladies.

The Good, the bad and the verdict:
The author’s main strength is his command over the language, and the way he uses words to evoke emotions within the reader. In barely thirty-odd pages, he gets the reader well-acquainted with myriad characters like Drivas; his aide, Sonorius Kahley; and even the stooped menial worker Mainaky; as well as the history of Achea and its people, their curious ways and lifestyles, the antagonism they face from other races. The way he deftly captures it all without being overly explanatory is the hallmark of a quality, quality writer. A small passage that best exemplifies this:
Had it always been this bad? When had he gone from running Hidosh’s foremost academy for warriors and leaders to being some sort of caretaker of the spoiled brats of Hidosh’s rich peasantry? Today, Daronos Drivas was six hundred and thirteen years old, an age only those of the blood of Old Achaea could attain, and at that moment, he felt each and every year of it.

There is also a subtle, wry humour at play, which generally shines through in lines such as these:
“It’s the strength that will stand him in good stead, Lady Isareui,” said Drivas. She was no Lady, really, but somewhere in the course of his life he had started attributing titles to those who had money. It flattered them, and happy rich people paid more fees.

The writer builds characters that have distinct voices and are well-distinguished from one another. However, that being said, there are points where he tends to carry on describing the underlying emotions or thoughts of the characters somewhat needlessly; one of the characters, Mainaky, comes across as too much of a caricature. This might be because the story was still pretty much an initial draft, and will probably be more refined after a round of copyedits, but it could benefit greatly from a bit less ‘tell’.

These minor niggles apart, the story stands out in terms of style and, to someone who’s read the associated work, context, but it holds its own even as a standalone piece. It isn’t a typical short story; rather, it serves more as an aperitif for what follows. There is foreshadowing of the events to come, especially towards the end, which makes a reader curious as to the significance of what they have just read.

My personal opinion? It isn’t the best that I have read from the writer. But that opinion has more to do with the fact that he has written some truly brilliant stuff. In a sea of mediocrity that often passes for fantasy fiction in India, it is truly refreshing to see something that is novel, both in style and treatment.
You can follow his writings here, or visit his Facebook page here.

Wednesday 4 May 2016

The Dork Night

It was a typically warm summer evening that particular Friday. I was sitting in the office of a lawyer. No, I had not done anything illegal – the lawyer was a friend, who was waiting patiently for me to complete drafting whatever it was that I was drafting.

“Hurry up,” he said, massaging his stomach in an exaggerated gesture. “I am hungry.”

“Five more minute,” I mumbled, typing away furiously at my keyboard.

“That is what you said at seven,” he replied in a despondent tone, “it is now nine-thirty.”

I looked at the clock and saw how wrong he was; it was actually 09:48 PM. I had already missed the deadline that I had promised to the client, and it no longer mattered if I sent him the document in the next minute or on Monday morning. I sighed, closed my laptop and stood up to leave.

That is when the phone rang. The ominous, sinister ringtone that I had, in an inebriated state found transcendent, rang out its harsh chords within the confines of the clinic.

“Why do you still have that ringtone?” the impossibly named Shiromani Kautilya said, wincing to let his displeasure become apparent.

“Too lazy to change it,” I replied, taking the phone out of my pocket.

“Well, at least pick it up, or silence the bloody thing. My eardrums were not designed to survive sustained aural assaults.”

I, on the other hand, did neither, choosing instead to stare at the screen with my mouth wide open. The number on display was horribly familiar, and for a second a certain feeling of apprehension took over. Did Mani know the kind of trouble that was coming to his doorstep because of me?

“Pick up the damned phone,” Mani prompted. This time, I complied.

“Where are you?” asked the gravelly voice from the other end of the phone.

“Outside,” my reply was non-committal.

“Have you decided yet?”

I hesitated. This decision for me was like a double-edged sword. On one hand, I might be bringing trouble to the doorstep of a very good friend. On the other... well, let’s not even talk about what happens if I say no.

“Be quick about it,” The person on the other side had sensed my hesitation, “or it will be too late. If I do not receive a reply from you within the next three minutes, I will take my own decision, whether you like it or not.”

The call was promptly disconnected. Time, it is said, is the most precious thing of all. And when the clock is counting down on you, second by relentless second, you know you have to take some tough decisions within moments. Like what booze to order for a house party, when you know all the government approved liquor shops shut down at 10 PM.

“Mani, it’s my brother,” I said. “He’s throwing his birthday party. What do you want, beer or whiskey?”

“He’s coming here?” Mani looked up from his laptop, his face taking on a concerned expression.

“Yup, the pubs are too costly,” I said, looking at the watch, which told me we were five minutes from having to purchase the liquor in black at 1.5 times the price.

I could almost see the lawyer’s internal conflict rage like a wildfire inside by the very neutral look on his face. He loved his practice, which was freshly inaugurated, and detested any kind of human company that could disturb the peace of his sanctuary. As it stood, he barely tolerated me. Having my brother throw an alcohol-fuelled party within his clinic was probably not his idea of a good time.

“We can have a party here,” he conceded. “Not inside the office, though.”

“Oh, no. Never that,” I said shamelessly, not mentioning that he and I got drunk on warm beer inside the office and hurled many abuses at a certain guy who Fished like a King in better times.
I dialled the number for my brother and told him to pick up four beers. Two each, same as last time; I figured the doctor could clean off two despite his hesitation. After all, how bad could you get on two beers?

I was just fucking about to find out.

Tuesday 12 April 2016

Random Ramblings: Why I write

Why do I write? I don’t know, but I think I have an idea. Several ideas, as can be attested by the fact that I have six or seven unfinished ‘projects’ sitting in my hard drive. To make matters worse, every day I come across something new, or see another aspect in something known. More ideas! How some writers wait for years for any inspiration escapes me. But then again, these writers are the ones who create stories that stay with you forever. Like the recently-deceased Harper Lee, who wrote one of the most renowned pieces of literature of all times, To Kill A Mockingbird (I am discounting Go Set A Watchman). Or Joseph Heller, he of the Catch-22 fame, satirist beyond compare and egotist of the highest order. Or even J.R.R. Tolkien, the writer most responsible for this terrible influx of elves and dwarves that today infests the popular fantasy genre.

Is that what I crave for – recognition? Fame, enduring legacy that transcends posterity? I think I do. I want to be quoted by readers long after I am dead and gone. I want to write something that touches the soul of the reader and makes his heart weep in unflinching despair and laugh with unbridled joy, all at the same time. I wish to escape death through my writing, and I want to live on forever in the hearts and the minds of my readers.

There are times, though, when these thoughts seem too lofty for someone of limited knowledge and intelligence. Terry Pratchett, known the world over for his humorous, almost irreverent take on anything from society to popular classics to people to the concept of godhood and even death, was able to create complex stories and characters because his knowledge was not limited to one field, nor was his vision hampered by linearity. Similarly, Steven Erikson, whose books on the Malazan Empire singlehandedly  broke many a aspiring author and ended their writing careers before they even officially began, was able to create an engrossing, engaging and at time transcendentally meaningful series simply because he, as an anthropologist, knew what he was talking about.

Even writers I can consider my peers (at a stretch), such as those in my Facebook writing group, often show a very deep understanding for various aspects of life and are generally much more knowledgeable than I, be it in the matter of creative arts, politics, movies, sports, literature or any other field you care to put your finger on. As I have no such claim to fame – apart from an animal cunning and a willingness to adapt – my writing invariably suffers. Knowing that my chance at greatness is a farfetched one, I wish to stand on level terms with my contemporaries as far as my work goes – if not in terms of outreach, then at least in terms of quality. At least a part of it is a yearning for affirmation from my peers and my betters (yes, there are some, no matter what I say). But even there, I sometimes feel like a doppelganger, posing as someone I am not.

This feeling of dissociation and not belonging is not helped by the fact that I want to write in multiple genres – at any given time, I want to write a witty satire, a high fantasy, a contemporary fiction, a thriller, an anecdotal non-fiction and that latest assignment that has come in from a client, in that order – and am easily influenced by anything good. I read A Dog Eat Dogfood World by a skilled humorist, Suresh Chandrasekaran and I want to write a satire on corporate life. I read Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy or George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and I want to write something otherworldly, something fantastical. Then there are books like The City of Joy and The Hungry Tide, integrally, almost painfully humane, that leave their mark on their readers, and I want to brand my readers (how presumptuous of me, assuming a plural exists. I sometimes doubt even a singular exists) with a harrowing tale of love and loss and crushed dreams and unyielding hope. I want to write something that resonates with a reader. I want to write something that is appreciated by the elite as well as the people looking to pass their time on a train journey.

And I want to be recognised for it; I wish to bask in the adoration that comes with having written such a piece. I want a massive crowd that jostles for an autograph from me, and I want women to swoon when I wink like they do when Durjoy Dutta smiles his dimpled smile. I want the world to know me – by my name, by my face and most importantly, by my work.

But there are times that I am not sure I want this spotlight. Writers, I have been told, are essentially creatures who wear their social garb to mask their inherent melancholy. Like Hemingway, who after 3 failed marriages, multiple affairs and The Old Man and the Sea, put a bullet in his head (from his favourite shotgun. I do not know why this detail is relevant, though it has been stressed rather extensively). I feel this to be true from my personal experience, but then the question arises – is it true because I want it to be true, or is it true because it just is? That’s a tough one to answer, unsure as I am about everything at this moment.

I do know this – I want to earn a lot of money from writing. I want to have a big, lavish house, I want to go on holidays to Cannes and Morocco and other exotic destination that Agatha Christie often took her characters on, I want to own a supercar, I want to sit in a posh club, sip on some imported foreign liquor the way they show in the movies, have the bartender nod and smile at me, and just sit there in the corner, with my notebook, a pen and a laptop to keep me company as I see the teeming mass of humanity through my tinted lenses. An occasional journalist or two to break the monotony will be nice.

Money and fame, however, are something of a privilege – there are days I want nothing more than the company of my loved ones to keep me happy. But a writer’s life is a fickle life, and a writer is the meanest, most demented creature on earth. My penchant for creating stories has landed me in more trouble than I should have, mostly because I always try to bring my stories to life. This is usually accomplished by either directly or indirectly hurting or in some way inconveniencing those near and dear to me. I create narratives and push my loved ones onto the dark path that I envision them walking in my stories. I risk my relations to achieve greater authenticity in a storied retelling, and it is a wonder I never manage to truly appreciate these wonderful people – friends, family and partners – for being there for me. Maybe this is why I write – to validate the misery I inflict upon them, to derive some meaning from their despair. Or maybe that is what I tell myself to ease my conscience.

Wow, this has been a rather lengthy rant for something that started as a drunken tirade against and a wakeup call to self. In trademark fashion, I have rambled and rambled, and yet somehow still failed to find a conclusion. Maybe there isn’t one; maybe there is, and I am just not equipped with the tools needed to craft it. But regardless, I keep on writing. Why do I write? I don’t know, but I think I have an idea.... 

Sunday 27 December 2015

Sands of Time

I once saw an edifice,
On the black sands of time,
Looming against the horizon,
Majestic as if in prime
A closer inspection laid bare that facade
The monument, with its glory, was a thing of the past
The buttresses and crenellations,
All fallen to disrepair,
Whilst the halls themselves echoed,
Silent footsteps of despair,
Empty it stood, this once-grand design,
Empty and forlorn, on the black sands of time...
I wonder at its origins,
At the hands that had built,
A construct for eternity,
They thought would never wilt,
I laugh at their hubris,
As I build my own shrine,
Using as foundation those crumbled stones,
Strewn upon the black sands of time...