Wednesday, December 26, 2007

“I want a new pair of shoes, Amma.” Her mother’s matter-of-fact eyes went over her tiny eight-year old feet in a quick glance of appraisal before replying. “They seem to be in good shape, chellam, wanting nothing but a wash perhaps. Why do you want a new pair?” she sighed. Some explanations wither in the face of maternal reason. That’s the perennial blight of the frisky meadows of childhood, the bleak inevitability of having to convince obstinate adults about a cause that marches within the rules of your infantile logic. “Because…” she tried again, her voice shrinking into a whimper as her mother’s arms encircled her. And then the truth came out in a wounded whisper. “Because I want shoes that make me run faster.” And an invisible stream of deeper reasons that flowed along the banks of her teary hiccups, unnoticed. Because I’m tired of being the slowest in class all the time. Because I take ten seconds longer than anybody else. Because I want to be like everybody else, not someone singled out for ridicule for forty seconds of athletic ignominy…

“Ok. Manu. Stop Crying. You want to run faster, so you want new shoes? No problem. Just wait till tomorrow.”

Her smiles didn’t dampen at the sight of an ordinary cardboard carton, but when her fragile feet were eased into the hundred-rupee comfort of a shoe-laced sanctuary, she started. “But…’ her black eyes ignited with protest, fuelled by the mocking phantoms of parental perfidies peeking out from every steel-rimmed shoe-lace hole. “It’s only a size-10 Bata white-canvas shoe. It’s the same thing as what I’ve got. How will it ever help?”

And the swift pledges and rebuttals of her mother. “Of course not, Manu, it looks the same, but it’s a very special pair of shoes. It’s a magic shoe.”

Magic. Its familiar limpid contours. And it had winked at her more than once. The colours that appeared out of nowhere on the blank sheets of her magic colour books (“Just wet your brush and see the colours run. It’s magic.”). The obedient jerks of the car wheels under the remote-transmitted waves of the magic wand in her brother’s hands. The fabulous shuffling dance of red and black playing cards that seemed to puncture the rules of probability with an innocent ease. Nothing is easier to believe at the credulous age of eight, than magic. And magic is never more real when the package bears the ultimate seal of parental guarantees.

“ But it comes with a special instruction. Of course, you’ll run real fast and win any race with these shoes. But this will work only if your mind is focused on one thing.” She paused. Manu waited with bated breath. This was the crucial bit.

“You’ve got to keep thinking about the finish line, nothing else. You shouldn’t look feel, hear, and see, anything else while you’re running.”

“Why, it’s just like the fairy tales, it’s got to work then.” She marveled. “After all, every implement of magic has a catch, a condition. Like Cinderella’s midnight deadline.’ And Manu was off with her shoes clasped against the feral gallops of her tiny overjoyed heart.

“OK. Stand in line all of you. Height order, as usual.” The P.T master’s brusque booming voice was a deliberate deception that still didn’t succeed in hiding a yielding kind nature. He’d ignored school guidelines and surrendered to the girls’ constant choruses of “Please Sir. Please.” To let them play on that grey afternoon, when the rain and sun seemed to be taking turns in going undercover in an elaborately rehearsed stratagem of frustrating the citizens of Madras. The playground had turned from a crisp brown cup cake to a soggy cake mixture that had been deserted in an oven that had powered off midway.

The PT master stalked past endless pairs of muddy shoes, shaking his head at the culpable owners, and ignoring cries of “But it’s been raining the whole day”. “Cleanliness is Godliness.”, one of the key school dictums, scowled menacingly from their sanctimonious heights on the signboards at the squirming feet within the muddied shoes. Shoes like ravaged canvas sails that had been buffeted by the slimy currents of roadside puddles. Shoes like despoiled defeated shields that had suffered the thrusts of victorious feet upon their faces- to accept parallel brown imprints from an identical sole- footprinted scars that wouldn’t leave for a long time. And shoes that bore the unmistakable odour of a quick-fix mixture-- chalk and Kiwi shoe white, faithfully (and hurriedly) rubbed over mucky shoes, as if a genie would materialize from the shoe to banish the squalor.

“Aha, new shoes, Manu?” His eyes swallowed the untainted expanse of the white spotless scabbard enveloping her tapering feet. Swords that slashed their way through dirt without staining the scabbard. His pleased smile seemed to reignite in her, that glow that the new shoes had spawned. The rest of the class tittered. “Well, new shoes are not going to make slowcoach Manu run any faster.” Somebody remarked, and the entire class burst out laughing. But Manu smiled back at him, bravely with her tiny head aloft.

“Now there.” He continued kindly. ‘I’m sure you’ll do much better this time. Would you like to take the trials first?”

Manu took in the familiar sight of the small ground in a single scouting glance. There was the principal’s room and the huge slushy pool outside her door, the cricket nets, the playpens for the KG kids, the long jump pits, and then back to base. “I shouldn’t get mired anywhere, hey wait, I shouldn’t think of anything else but the target.” She concentrated as hard as she could on the finishing line, which had been drawn some distance away from the starting blocks and she managed to stow that image in some upper decks of her mind. A circular object of erstwhile doom emerged from the PT master’s pocket on a black leash and he adjusted the timer to zero, ignoring the remarks that this action invited. “Why take so much trouble Sir, she’ll take exactly forty seconds anyway. Imagine, forty! I complete the course in twenty point three…”

His long brown fingers were poised over the red button, inconsequential accomplices in this conspiracy, ready to dispatch Manu on a sprint, to match the tick-tock ticking sprint of the cunning contrivance of time in his powerless hands. “OK. Manu. Ready?”

Her shoes seemed to laugh at her, the pristine tinkle of the white laughter of magic and the certain victory that always came in its wake and suddenly she smiled. She nodded her readiness. “One two three.”

Manu shivered as the water entered her eyes, and the antiseptic odour drifted into her nostrils. The mud slithered off her skin slowly and snakily made its way into the soft secret folds of that wet turkey towel instead. The knotted spheres of cotton thread rubbed against her hair vigorously, threatening to pull her hair out along with the threads.

Like Velcro.Velvet of her black hair against the crotchety towel.

She opened her eyes. A lopsided obscured view. Between the gaps left by the towel-edges between she saw her mother leaving her umbrella outside the Headmistress’ room. As she entered, she rushed towards Manu. The ayah stopped toweling her immediately, and as it lifted Manu felt a fresh wave of devastating disorientation bleed into her. And as she hugged her mother weakly,everything seemed to vanish- her pounding aches and the fiery blaze around the edges of her sore wounds.The deadened sensations within her head should have anaesthesized her bodily pain, but curiously, it strengthened her awareness of the pain. It reminded her of what her cataract-ridden grandmother used to say while being blindfolded- “Ah.Everything’s so much sharper now.” As if blind man’s buff offered a much better field of vision to cataract-clouded eyes. As if a frozen consciousness could sedate unbearable pain.

She caught fragments of the HM’s soothing voice as the two women spoke. “I’d suggest a nice hot bath. She needs to be cleaned up a bit. Lots of mud, yes terrible weather, isn’t it? And then a couple of bandages and a bit of rest. And she can come back to school tomorrow good as new.”

“Yes. She’s had a bad fall. Poor girl. It’s shock more than physical injury. I’ve already had a word with the PT instructor. I’m surprised he let the girls run about when the ground is so slippery. Thankfully, it was only the long jump pit that she fell into. Soft, but it’s made her all muddy. Nothing serious, really.”

She limped her way towards the school gate towards the waiting auto, on her mother’s arm, and they walked through the now desolate playground, half-drenched under the inadequate protection of an umbrella each. The brown cascades surging from puddles lapped on to their feet without any warning. Her mother trod cautiously on that slick path, her toes, in the clasp of a rubber-hawaii embrace, shunned the inundation She looked at Manu’s hopelessly submerged feet. One foot swathed within the grubby confines of a decrepit shoe and the other foot shuddering within navy-blue socks slowly turning brown as more and more sand from the stream plugged its weaves.

Manu’s mother looked at her solitary unprotected foot. “Where’s the other one, Manu?”

Manu’s hand stretched out of the confines of her umbrella into the icy shower, pointing soundlessly towards the long jump pit. “I’ll get it. Her mother said tactfully. As she walked to-and –fro across the length of that muddy mess, the sight of that runaway shoe eluded her with the doggedness of an errant puppy. “OK. Let’s leave” The words rolled out with absent-minded ease, with forgotten frigidity in a pitiless murmur. “It’s just an ordinary pair of canvas shoes anyway.”

“Manu?” She sighed impatiently as she waited, with her arms folded.

Manu winced with pain as bent down on her knees. Slowly, she undid the discoloured shoelaces, though wet, still stiff and new between her frozen fingers. As the lace wobbled out of that taut knot, it might have felt like untying the knots around a gift- kinesthetic memory counts after all. But she was actually ripping open the curtains of a performing magician, to realise that abracadabra was a mythical falsehood and he that the Wizard of Oz was a fable. The spell hadn’t bamboozled the gaping spectator, the enchantment was a deception, a con-trick. And the enchanted became the disenchanted. She flung it away-launching into an irritably brief trajectory of betrayal, and it lay suspended mid-air like a visual premonition for a single furious moment. It landed softly into the pit. But Manu’s mother, busy waving away the dripping annoyance of the sodden auto-driver, didn’t notice. She turned towards a now-erect Manu with sharp relief. “OK. Let’s go. Walk carefully.” Manu nodded. She was going to tread slowly and carefully for the rest of her life. She’d never shoot forward with that facile fluency of motion- a dream that had flown forth in a unrestrained flash and had evaporated with a piddling puff.

Ah, the dreams of childhood, they are spun out of glass. And like a skilled glass blower I’ve blown many-hued globes of triumph, drawn flimsy glass strands of hope, and shaped clear cylinders that were to enclose potions of enchantment. I’ve worked away steadily with my inextinguishable gas-torch of hope, those flames of faith cutting and blowing glass, my soft mouth encircling endless burning tubes of hot new glass. Broken. And all I have to do now was to walk carefully, avoiding the pointed edges of the sullen invisible pieces of my figurines. In the dark, where they won’t even beam at me under the sun, their sunlit smiles promising magical resurrection.

They walked carefully away from the long-jump pit. From that squelchy grave. A futile childhood dream was buried there- sullied, abandoned and torn to shreds.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The last circle...

Not enough. To harden my heart and smother my desire. Not enough. To close my ears and blind my eyes. Not enough. To avert my face and turn my back. I've started, started walking on this road, this terrible winding road, crossing each circle, the anticipation of finding the center dying with the sight of yet another circle to defeat. Our doomed quest. For that elusive dot , the singularity, the pole, the zero, the point,the center.

I know I'll die. I'm not afraid. It feels like surrendering to an embrace that's been held back for a long long time. We're not strangers anymore, are we?. Fear. It was all a dream. A premonition that I beheld and you'd laughed at. A vision that I'd shaped and you'd crushed laughingly between your nimbly cruel fingers in a swift contemptuous movement . A death that I'd foreseen and you'd dismissed with every circle we'd crossed. A reality that will never be real to you. Ever.
I love you. Your foolish faith. Your unseeing eyes. Your endless capacity for joy. Your infallible spirit. For being my only constant of reality in the unresolved domain of my life. I love you. You are my final shield. You are the last barrier. You are the defiant herald of my fading resistance. You'll conquer it all- my powerless melancholy, my overpowering renunciation, my hopeless resignation. We don't really need to reach the center, I'll be happy if we keep going around in infinitely concentric circles together. Forever.I can keep going around in circles with you, after all, we can never reach that point. Ever. It's pointless when you're around.

Today, we've reached the last circle. Only one more battle remains. The enemy lies there in the center, like a king poised for checkmate. Smiling. A careless smile of welcome. We're home. A smug smile of recognition. A smile of submission. She's already made her peace with defeat. We see her there, victory doesn't stem that throbbing stream of curiosity. The illusion breaks gently, like a disguise lifting to reveal a familiar face. We've seen the enemy and She's me.

PS: Phew! It's over.Quite a rant.Sources of inspiration (and sometimes desperation): P.H.Pearse, A1 CDCs, English Press Club, third year first semester (probably the most difficult sem yet) at BITS, Pilani, being Ramya Kumar (again, quite difficult.).

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Stranger in my backyard

This is the tale of a stranger- she’s a perfect stranger to me at least. A defiant stranger who dared to trespass into my backyard. She came in the afternoon when the sands were boiling with heat, its muted hues glowing in the two-o-clock sun. She turned hesitantly towards the ocean, after all she didn’t know that two is the most awkward time of the day to come- the beach was completely deserted save cosseted couples strewn all around- in the shadows cast under rusted broken down joy rides, in the shade of fried fish stalls, between the fishing boats- lying down on beds of nets in the narrow gap. But she was no voyeur- as she walked self-consciously towards the shore, the angry stares scorched even more violently than the Madras sun did. But once he reached the shore, all doubts vanished, she forgot about the sun- which seemed to be walloping her with a red-hot whip, she forgot about the drops of sweat fighting low surface tension to cling to her skin, she forgot about the attention she was receiving- why would anyone walk without her shoes on- on a hot afternoon like this. And the shore isn’t exactly the cleanest area of the beach- your feet wont thank you to venture there barefoot, all kinds of debris was delivered to the loving lap of the beach by the persistently unbiased waves-bizarrely chosen refuse, the sea sure had an eccentric streak- banana skins, flower garlands from corpses, stray single pieces footwear (sandals, rubber chappals, a child’s shoe with red lights.) that had deserted unfortunate feet, and of course the ubiquitously present piles of dung- orange reeking masses waiting for waves to carry them away into the sea floor. She picked her way gingerly between these objects, wincing occasionally at the bite of tiny transparent crabs that scuttled up between her toes from small perfectly circular holes. But she was happy, she was perfectly deaf to her thoughts, the only sound that carried through were the waves growling gently in her ears, like a veiled warning- “Don’t get too close. You can’t even swim.”

But she didn’t care; her feet felt cool on the freshly wet sand that hungrily devoured the froth of the ocean to leave behind a lingering trace of foam. Sweat kept appearing and disappearing in a condensation- evaporation game between the sun and the sea- the breeze seemed to swallow those drops immediately after the sun commanded them to ooze out.

She had gone a long distance from Elliot’s, but she didn’t turn back to check, rather she looked forward. The colony of fishermen stood before her, their tsunami-reconstructed apartments- spanking new and tall besides the row of humble huts, their bright coloured fishing boats proudly bearing the names of the donors, the fishing nets hung between palm trees, the narrow gully of waste water that made its way quietly into the sea. She looked around at their leering faces in fear. They were men of the sea- the sea was their perpetual source of survival, their all-consuming sewer, their tolerant sanitation system, and their merciful cemetery. They were dangerous as dangerous as a tempestuous sea could get -these burly men in their lurid lungis fiercely proud of their tiny huts, their precarious lives, their perilous existence.

As she turned around in regret she shot a last look at the stretch that she hadn’t covered,would probably never cover- The Theosophical Society and the dense green foliage within its high walls fighting the infiltration of seaside weeds-their green lotus shaped leaves flapping in protest, the Adyar River mingling into a union with the sea with a joyous serenity that pierced her heart chillingly.

The towering hoardings on the beach seemed far away now like a distant haven of safety she was dying to reach- their smiling images were beckoning her forward – faster, faster, and faster. As she walked back, she smiled fondly at the footprints she’d made on her way forward- her large feet had made yawning cavities in the sand- her stride had been a forward thrusting motion that had the physical impact of a powerful punch- a punch in the sly face of alienation. Her footprints were so beautiful, she stopped to trace their pattern- they looked harmonious- a sinusoidal waveform flipped vertically in a right angle. He turned to gaze at the effect that both sets- from the forward and backward journeys- made together.

She staggered forward in surprise- the sea was obliterating her footprints gently wave after wave; and then a particularly resounding crash later they were gone.

The stranger sank into the sand, oblivious to the water entering her clothes. Her tears made ripples in the sea, ripples that distorted her reflected face. As the water engulfed her lovingly again, she spurned this wet embrace of consolation and walked away- still a stranger.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Harry Potter and the deathly hallows- hollow or what?

After those excruciatingly restless 6 hours were over, I just wanted to sleep, to stop thinking. Potter has always been given me hangovers throughout these 7 odd years- the 5th book was an exception. Every other time, the weight of what I read would sit over my consciousness smugly, haunting my dreams, creating tempests in my thought patterns, dulling my ability to focus, drowning my hopes - well, you get it, every kind of distraction. Of course, I'd be able to shrug it off after a week or so, and after LOTR I desperately wanted to shift loyalties. Tolkien's universe was unfathomably perfect, you can instantly recognize the glint of genius blinding you, it's slickness skidding you while you're on your way to unraveling the mysteries of his smoothly contoured terrain- after all it's got optimum quantities of drama, more depth, and a wider expanse of fantasy that breaches more and more limits as the plot unfolds. Rowling on the other hand made sure that the gates of her world stayed open to anyone willing to whoop with joy within those- mediocrity has its bright side after all. Basically all you need to enjoy Potter is the capacity to suspend disbelief, logic, and to overlook inconsistencies and constant swings in direction. The plot constantly threatens to spin beyond the realm of credulity, but Rowling's always managed to drag it back with a straightforward ease that's always managed to keep the reader in her place- twitching with anticipation.

In the beginning, I used to analyze HP to bits with my friends, but when all our hopes about carefully thought out predictions dissolved, we gave up. No I gave up. I gave up when I realized that Harry had stopped appearing real to me. Like every other HP fan what hooked me (I was never a sucker for fantasy) was the "Hey. It's me." moment that we experienced when we first met Harry (OK- or Ron or Hermione for that matter.) When I stopped seeing myself in him, when I couldn't understand their motivations anymore, it stopped pulling me along its haphazard course.

The seventh book is different. OK it s a typical potboiler. Perfect Ending. "What the heck" sequences that would make any other author blush about the weaknesses in her plot. Fantasy writers can get away with all this. I mean you're supposed to overlook (basic) defects in their craft because of the way they weave their magic carpet stories- spun in such a way we're transported from our reality.

I liked HP 7 in spite of everything because Rowling hasn't betrayed some basic principles of story -telling, a quality that's becoming rare in modern writers -most of them are bent on outdoing each other in writing stuff with the most shock value- under the mask of innovation.

She has stayed true to the spirit of story-telling in the following ways-:

a) make your protagonists lovable- shouldn’t the reader care about your central characters, their problems, understand what s troubling them and why, their dreams, hopes, fears, loves etc.
b) your character has a problem to solve, he might have a few conflicts to sort out. Ultimately, the reader should be persuaded to hang on till all this gets resolved.
c) But then the reader will get bored/stop reading if our hero finds it a little easy. Throw as many obstacles as possible in his path- physically dangerous stuff, emotionally disturbing realizations, mentally destabilizing discoveries, difficult relationships- the works. And when all seems lost, and our hero seems destined for certain doom, hey presto, he pulls out the last ace and triumphs
d) keep repeating all this nicely with appropriate style/structure/dialogue/description/characters/ACTION and you have a well-balanced story that makes you go "Aww. That was a brilliant tale." and then you flip back to the first page and...

While all these classic rules have produced clich├ęs (quite prominent in this series) opposites attract (Ron- Hermione) love can impart strength to perform miracles (Mrs. Weasley's impossible feat- "not my daughter you bitch!" lol.) overlooking opportunity right under you nose. ( "We might have had years together"- Harry and Ginny’s future. yuck!) And those typical "Whatever you've been searching for. It's there. It's always been there. You’ve been ignoring it all the while." epiphanies that occur to Harry whenever he struggles to crack some clues that lead to horcruxes, the perfect double agent (well he s elevated to saint status here. sigh. all the cards come crashing down together in one moment of truth. an explanation that leaves you wondering how she cobbled together this theory without planting any clues in previous books.) then the usual death-despair-revenge-healing-strength to overcome circle, and lessons about appearances and their deceptions. Certain exalted personages can have skeletons have skeletons in their cupboard as well- this doesn’t lessen our respect for them though the illusion of their impregnable perfection lies shattered. Rather, it lessens the foreboding effect of their enigmatic aura - makes the more human and easier to like. And the characters I’d dismissed lightly in the earlier books grow in stature, and some have managed to lessen my dislike for them. And then moral dogmas like loyalty, respect for life, the evils of prejudice, concepts of equality etc, which have been highlighted repeatedly in the series.

I don’t like this absolute soulless evil vs. pure good conflict. Voldemort and his gang are made to look worse than the Taliban (an ideological intolerant tint to his personality and actions?) or Idi Amin. I mean you can’t go all the way to create the archetypal despot. Grey shades work best.

Right there might be a million things that are wrong with this book, but it's kept me engrossed till the end, and I couldn’t have created something as absorbing. So it's been one heck of a journey for this gritty woman, she’s worked quite hard for all the media attention, money, glory she’s earned. It’s difficult to end a story of this kind (Hmm. When Most of you fan base is made of kids) on a satisfactory note, tie up every loose end, complete every character's journey-but she’s done it. Not spectacularly, not stylishly, not reasonably, not admirably, but creating a climax that makes you want to cry and laugh at the same time, say “Oh. How wonderful” and “How lame” together, an ending that makes you go weak in the knees yet leaves you capable of a hollow laugh at its predictability, and corniness.

Well, ok why should I spoil this moment with feeble criticism? I’ve grown up with this book; I’ve read its last installment two days after the crushing realization that I’m 19. This thing is supposed to be a vital part of my childhood- the bouncy excitement of the sleepless nights-before, the reading marathons on the three release-days (5,6,7) that always exasperated my parents, my disillusionment and the distance that crept up, only to be replaced by reassuring comprehension, And the numbed heady silence that follows the last page…

It’s been quite a journey for Harry as well. And quite a story.

End of story.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Fool- Patrick Henry Pearse.

Since the wise men have not spoken, I speak that am only a fool;
A fool that hath loved his folly,
Yea, more than the wise men their books or their counting houses or their quiet homes,
Or their fame in men's mouths;
A fool that in all his days hath done never a prudent thing,
Never hath counted the cost, nor recked if another reaped
The fruit of his mighty sowing, content to scatter the seed;
A fool that is unrepentant, and that soon at the end of all
Shall laugh in his lonely heart as the ripe ears fall to the reaping-hooks
And the poor are filled that were empty,
Tho' he go hungry.

I have squandered the splendid years that the Lord God gave to my youth
In attempting impossible things, deeming them alone worth the toil.

Was it folly or grace? Not men shall judge me, but God.

I have squandered the splendid years:
Lord, if I had the years I would squander them over again,
Aye, fling them from me !
For this I have heard in my heart, that a man shall scatter, not hoard,
Shall do the deed of to-day, nor take thought of to-morrow's teen,
Shall not bargain or huxter with God ; or was it a jest of Christ's
And is this my sin before men, to have taken Him at His word?

The lawyers have sat in council, the men with the keen, long faces,
And said, `This man is a fool,' and others have said, `He blasphemeth;'
And the wise have pitied the fool that hath striven to give a life
In the world of time and space among the bulks of actual things,
To a dream that was dreamed in the heart, and that only the heart could hold.

O wise men, riddle me this: what if the dream come true?
What if the dream come true? and if millions unborn shall dwell
In the house that I shaped in my heart, the noble house of my thought?
Lord, I have staked my soul, I have staked the lives of my kin
On the truth of Thy dreadful word. Do not remember my failures,
But remember this my faith

And so I speak.
Yea, ere my hot youth pass, I speak to my people and say:
Ye shall be foolish as I; ye shall scatter, not save;
Ye shall venture your all, lest ye lose what is more than all;
Ye shall call for a miracle, taking Christ at His word.
And for this I will answer, O people, answer here and hereafter,
O people that I have loved, shall we not answer together?

Sigh. This was supposed to be a post about what turning 19 means to me. All that occurred to me was one of my favourite poems (by an Irish nationalist.)

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Ultimate Rupture

The shreds of my Torn Canvas have finally disappeared under a deluge of thoughts. Thoughts that have burst out in a torrential stream after being repressed for so long. With the gurgling sounds of this cascade, I can hear the melancholy notes of a song. A song of deliverance for a part of me that has been caged . A song of wistful farewell to a part of my identity that will now sink into eternal obscurity. A song portending a split that has always been on the cards- the cracks aren't visible anymore. The rupture is complete. Between the expectations from a not-so-distant-anymore destiny and the fears of a crushingly unavoidable fate. Between whispered words of faith and harsh tones divining certain failure. Between cold reason and my inner voice. Between buoyant hopes and sunken fears.
Yes. The rupture has happened. The rupture of the rhapsody that is me.
I can finally see the torn out canvas shreds floating serenely on this river-cleansed of its paints. A blank canvas again- but how did it become whole? . In a trance, I lift my brush again. The ghosts of washed-out colours don't leer at me mockingly from the faded canvas.

After all the rupture has happened. The rupture of the rhapsody- that was me.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

A Terminated Flight.

The plane gleamed like a white bird with folded wings, poised for flight, but bound to the earth by invisible chains. I waited in the sun, not noticing the sweat leaking hesitantly through every pore of my body. Sweat drops are like secrets, they are held back just to whet your curiosity, to tease, to kindle interest, even though you know they are going to pour out stream by stream anyway. But After five sticky hours of an extremely uncomfortable journey to Delhi, you stop noticing. You stop noticing the air conditioning in the lounge, the coolness of iced tea, the heat of the airline bus that glides through to the waiting plane, and you top noticing the sweat staining your “airport clothes”. Even after the skies were let open to be swept by the winds of liberalization, and the “aam admi” getting to fly and all that, the Indian mindset of dressing formally for airport trips (even to receive people!) was still firmly in place.

A huge white guy, fat, with small eyes and a large nose smiled at me, his double chin wobbling as he did so. “Hot here isn’t it?” His skin was red with the heat and he kept fanning himself with the TOI. I couldn’t place the accent, it seemed American, but I wasn’t sure. He was wearing a loose checked shirt and shorts, quite visible among the sea of full sleeves, ties and the mass of neatly pressed clothes. I surprised myself by smiling back at this stranger; his genial voice and warmth were hard to brush off. “It’ll be more sweaty at Chennai. Have you been there before?” “No…” “It’s an interesting place, you should explore it thoroughly to…. are you going there on business?”

He grinned guiltily as he glanced at his clothes, “Yeah business, I may not look like that, but.” He grinned widely. ‘I’m staying at …” his face scrunched up in effort as he strained to remember, “Fisherman’s cove. I’ve been told it’s very nice there.”

I nodded. “It’s got great sea food, do you like sea food?” He brightened as he heard this, and he leaned forward to hear me better as I continued. “You know, if you really want to experience Madras, you should get into the heat, dust and sweat of the roads and absorb the noises, the smoke, the sights. You should try the buses, sit on crowded beaches, take a walk in the Theosophical society, and eat in cheap local restaurants.” He laughed out loud, “Ah, the rapturous songs of a home bound bird, eh?”

“Yes. It’s my hometown” I replied as we boarded the flight. “I’m going home.”

I didn’t get to see that foreigner again, we were separated by he probably never got out of the air conditioned confines of fishy cove, to do what I’d suggested. As the flight took off, I wondered how he knew I was going home. Was it my palpable enthusiasm about extolling the virtues of my city to a visitor? Was it the excited tone of my voice?

As I settled into my window seat, book (the portrait of a lady) in my hand, I tried not to think of home, it was only 150 minutes away now. But Isabel Archer’s methodically messed up life failed to hold my interest for more than half an hour. As I looked out at the sunset, I asked myself, “What does home mean to me?”

Home was where I could wear my ugly fluorescent pajamas without feeling conscious, where I could eat with my hands without attracting attention, where I could sleep naked and not care, where I could take one hour baths in the winter without freezing, where I could go to the toilet without slippers, where I didn’t need to think twice before opening the wash basin tap, where I could forget that unwashed clothes existed, where I could wash my hair with shikha where I didn’t have to make decisions that ate away into my day at college (when do I wash my clothes? Do I need to wash these clothes? How many more times can I wear this? When will it be warm enough to take a bath?) OK, all this is keeping with the discomforts of a busy frantic demanding college life in a desert. What was home to me after cutting through these layers of superficial comforts? Home was where I could just be.

“Could you close the window please?” the guy next to be snapped his sleepy eyes ha;lf open, irritated by the rays of the sun that peeped in through the window.

Why does life have to be this way? You are looking out of a tiny window, straining hard to find answers for the troubling ruins of your life in the sunsets outside, but the rest of the world in a perennial state of indifferent slumber, and they force your window shut, so that they cant continue sleeping, and you get pulled down into their depths of inertia as well. I pulled down the shutter miserably, and then started eating. The best thing that can be said about airline food is that it takes your mind off other things.

Why do I say madras? The name was changed when I was six or so, and I had had no trouble adapting to it, unlike my parents who inevitably revert to madras. What I feel when these slips happen is what a parent would feel like when he uses a long forgotten nickname of his child by mistake, instead of his proper name. (I remember calling my sister by a string of nonsense syllables, something like “bush-um-bull-um” which was an accompanying tune whenever I pinched her cheeks, I’ll never forget the frosty expression that her face wore when I did it in front of her play mates, and the affectionate memory of her pet names just withered away in a cold death then.) Except that he is no longer a child, and the cold sting of his angry glare will tell you that he doesn’t want to be reminded of the helplessness of his naked childhood. Madras was an embarrassing alter ego, a sickening epithet, and an awkward ghost from the past that brash young Chennai wished to bury.

“Look outside” the excited scream of a child in front made me open the window, and I gasped as I leaned out. This was Chennai, at 16,000 feet away, it looked like a bejeweled bride.

I tried to make sense of the islands of sparkling light and darkness, was it the sea set against the rest of the city? No it couldn’t be. It was just that the part of the city that was throbbing with life shone against the land like diamonds scattered on black velvet. Roads gleamed like rivers of gold, headlights inched across tiny glowing ants, and skyscrapers twinkled like stars in the night. Which part of Madras was this? Sometimes the dots of lights seemed to grow larger, as if we were growing closer to the ground. As I stretched my neck to see better, I realized that this glorious view had been blocked by black clouds floating across the sky. Ironic I thought. Clouds of distance-separation- absence- longing- homesickness and painful alienation had blotted my relationship with my city. Alienation was a cruel word; it made me feel like my love affair with this place was nothing more than a series of one-night stands. How well did I really know Madras? The intimacy that existed seemed to be nothing beyond physical familiarity; it was like making love to a stranger, where your knowledge of the other’s body is the only thing that brings you together. This time, it’ll be different, I vowed to myself. This holiday will be different. I’ll no longer bury my estrangement issues under the cover of my lazy routines at home. I’ll enter the Damodar Gardens and walk around in the shadowy light of its perennial dusk, contemplating the twists of fate that made sure that I never entered the restful canopy of The KFI school. I’ll hitch a boat ride across the Adyar right till the last stretch of the estuary where the theosophical society stood magnificently with its aged dignity intact against the sea, the sand bars, the lagoon and the sea gulls. I’ll get on to the 29C at the smelly terminus and travel all the way to Perambur and back to savour the sights that my favorite bus offered. I’ll take catamaran rides from fishermen and watch the sunrise against the Bay of Bengal. I’ll travel to Mylapore in the first 29C of the day (4 am)and drink the freshest cup of the best filter coffee in the world. Some things don’t change- I consoled myself. Chennai or Madras- there are some treasures that haven’t been ravaged by the relentless march of this ruthless invader- time. I’ll make my peace with my hometown in these timeless realms. I swear I will.

I willed the twinkling dots closer, as if I had a premonition… maybe their smiles held secrets.

I opened my eyes to the wild rocking motion of the plane; it was swaying like a sinking ship in its last desperate moments. A voice, from a seemingly large distance cut through the noises of fear and horror in the cabin. “We are experiencing turbulence, please fasten your seat belts. We will…” the voice died along with the light in the cabin as the plane plunged into the dark depths below.

The diamonds of light got closer and closer, those dots got more fuzzy as they approached, the way tears on a beloved’s cheeks sparkle in a blur when you pull them closer into a hug. Madras was pulling us closer into final fatal embrace.

But this wasn’t death. I have been dead to Madras for a long time. I’d been alive only in a collective dream I had shared with it. Dreams filled with sand bars, mylapore mornings, beach sunrises, Damodar Garden- dreams not yet realized, sights not yet seen, visions not yet attained. And will never be.

No. It wasn’t me who was dying.

A briefly glorious flight that had died mid-trajectory. The wings of a dream had been crushed forever.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Of Mixed Chat and others...

There is a dish in Adyar ananda Bhavan (that’s an eating joint close to my place.) called mixed chat. It’s all-encompassing (hmm, does this word exist?) chat where every possible ingredient on their large table gets tossed in. Little Puris, lemon, mint, coriander, every one of the 11 kinds of colored powder (seasoning, masala whatever.), aloo, bhel, etc are added in good measure. Even by chat standards, it’s a quixotic dish.

Watching TV with my mother is remarkably similar to choking your way through this dish with watery eyes.

“Why can’t you ever let us watch a single channel without interruptions?” is a painful refrain addressed to her. Her beady eyes wouldn’t even narrow and turn in my direction whenever I said that, as her unchallenged reign over the remote control continued. And I’ve always wondered why we’ve never asked her to relinquish her hold over the TV during weekends (only days the TV was switched on. Yes my household doesn’t approve of excessive TV viewing.)

The rubber squeak of our ten-year-old remote as her sharp nails dug into their long suffering buttons always sounded like “ouch.” to me. This is an account of a typical one-hour TV session with mom.

First channel on the list, Sun Tv with its Saturday special movie. Some regular trashy sathyaraj action flick. Ouch. KTV a sister concern. Madhavan’s desperate and absurd attempts at wooing some pretty girl (regular Bombay import.) in JJ. I winced. Mother, mistaking this sound for approval looked at me, “Do you want to continue watching this?” I shook my head, “I’ve seen this movie before. It’s really bad.” Even for a Madhavan admirer, JJ (filled with his ridiculous roadside Romeo antics) was painful to watch, probably his worst movie ever. Ouch. CNN IBN. An over enthusiastic anchor was energetically arguing that West Zone was exercising an unhealthy influence over Indian Cricket. The guilty faces of Sharad pawar and Sunil Gavaskar loomed intimidatingly in the background. “Regional politics. Boring.” Ouch.

Suhasini (Mani Ratnam’s wife by the way) was deep in conversation with a cinematographer about the merits of a certain lighting technique in movies. I sat up, since when did Vijay TV start dwelling upon technical nuances… “and this method was used in Shivaji.” Our faces wrinkled in disgust, when will Madras ever get over the Shivaji hype?

Ouch. Sun Music. A romantic chartbuster was playing behind smses being flashed on the screen at regular intervals. “I love you Jothilakshmi- Loganathan.” “this song is for you my dear- Susheel.” “Appa, where are you?- Abhi” the miscellaneous nature of these inane messages and the sheer incompetence of their anchors made me wonder why the channel provided this service at all.

But the remote didn’t go “ouch.’ perhaps my mum liked the song. When it ended, ouch. DD sports. India-Ireland. Saurav was….

“Wait.” I cried out, but too late. The mere sound of bat on ball would summon my father from the other room to watch the match for the entire night. My mother’s paranoia about cricket channels is justified. Ouch. Raj TV.A Rajnikant movie mad twenty years back, this was Rajni, young and wrinkle-free, lean and fit, before he acquired his “GOD” status in the industry. It was one of the few good movies he’d acted in, early in his career when he was an actor rather than a hero, and his performances would sparkle with spontaneity, energy and depth. No superhuman stunts .No politically loaded dialogues. He was just Anand, a tormented lover who sought to rescue his beloved from the depths she was plunging into.

Both of us liked this movie, the plot might be filmi – young lovers separated by circumstance (read -her father!) reunite after an agonizing hiatus of a few years. But the treatment was really natural, save the action filled climax when our man pursues the woman’s train through thick jungles, rocky terrains and thorns and boulders all on a motorbike! (an allusion (inserted to appear clever, they didn’t succeed if you ask me.) to the way they had met the first time, after he'd won a motor bike race organized by her.)

Variation of typical climaxes where the hero runs along with the train and boards it to get his lady back.

And at the end, the woman falls into his bloodied arms after some hesitation and cries over Anand’s wounds etc. ‘Now watch.” My mother said, “His blood will get smeared on her forehead to signify the end of her widowhood and their new beginning.” Luckily her worst fears didn’t come true, the movie ended without any further melodrama. “Vanakkam”

Ouch. Sathyaraj again. “NOOO ma!”ouch. madhavan playing the violin. Ouch. CNN IBN. “Kaun Banega Rashtrapathi?” “Isnt it obvious?” I snorted. Ouch. Sun news.Ouch.Ouch Ouch. Ouch

My mother’s fingers were now working so fast that the images were appearing and vanishing in a blink, all I could perceive was a blur of speeding visions, each more unsatisfactory than the other. Then the TV powered off in a final ouch, with a relieved whoosh, like an intake of breath from a sprinter at the end of the race.

Maybe we should get DISH TV, or TATA Sky, our TV experiences were being restricted due to Conditional Access. Madras is so apathetic; any other city would have repelled the onset of CAS with the force of their vociferous protests.

And I’ve decided that I like Mixed Chat after all, you get a sprinkling of every single thing- things that wouldn’t taste good if you added more than just a sprinkling.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A bad mother

She sat apart from the rest of the wailing mass, her disheveled face was an interesting portrait of grief. Lines of unbearable misery flowed smoothly with those of maddening guilt in the soft dimness of the room to produce a surrealistic effect.

The shouts of her mother-in-law drifted into her ears meaninglessly “What kind of a mother have you been? My only heirs have been wiped out due to your negligence.” She rushed towards her, the loose strands of grey air flying around her face in frenzied agony. Two more women restrained the old lady as she lunged forward, beating her chest rhythmically like an actress in a street play.

She watched curiously, her detachment was like a seed emerging from the wilted flower of her grief. Her mother-in-law was still screaming hysterically. “Wait. You just wait, you *******”

She spat through the knot of women holding her back. “ I’ll get Selva to marry another woman, who’ll be a better mother. Go back to the gutter you came from.” The words pierced through her like a knife softly cutting through butter without a mark. She saw the tears of rage trace her wrinkled face, running down the lines that striated her craggy face, a river making a path through eroded stone.

She lifted her head slowly to look at her husband; he was huddled in a corner, his face hidden by the mesh of his fingers interlaced over his head. She hadn’t been able to meet his eyes ever since they’d heard the news, when his face had turned ashen and cold all of a sudden, like a fruit falling down into a puddle from a careless pair of hands, only to emerge dull and rotten in spite of the efforts of running water.

Both of them averted their eyes carefully from the two bamboo mats in the center of the room. That’d be too painful. The buzz of whispers swept through the room like a gentle monsoon breeze. Except that the rains had ended, the storm was over; the breeze merely reminded them of what they had lost to its fury. “How can any mother let her children out of sight for more than an hour?’

“Imagine. Her boys went missing at 9 in the morning. She started looking for them only at 11. And their bodies were recovered at midnight.”

The loud piercing sounds of the elegies, the soothing smell of formaldehyde from the corpses (corpses? Her numbed mind registered mild shock- she had already resigned herself to her loss, referring to her sons as corpses. Maybe she was a bad mother after all.) The curses of her mother-in-law, the stuffiness of their one room house in the shantytown of Lakshmipuram all passed through her consciousness like a bad memory being relived.

She was thinking about that deceptively beautiful bright day. The skies were blue, there was a hint of cloud- but even the impending doom of a storm hadn’t been able to dampen their spirits. They were dressed in their best clothes- her husband Selva in his white dhoti and newest shirt, eleven year old Manoj in his kurta-pyjamas bought during Deepavali, seven year old Mahesh in a bright red T shirt and blue jeans. She only had a silk-cotton sari, but with the gratitude that the poor felt for their little blessings, while looking at the very poor, she shrugged it off.

Selva earned enough for them to lead a satisfactory existence -as a driver for Sun TV, and the four of them were as happy as a family could be under the circumstances. They had a home of their own, however small it might be, their kids went to an English medium school, and unlike their impoverished neighbours, and they had a colour TV with a cable connection.

Selva was still the besotted teenager who used to pursue her with a persistence that had won her over. He was still crazy about her, she smiled to herself as he leaned forward “You look great today.”

The newly renovated Marundeeswar temple was more ancient that the multi-coloured paint hurriedly daubed on it stony exteriors revealed. The name of the temple tells the story. Lord Siva is said to have given relief from health problems to the sage Agastya, the Sun God and the Moon God here. Crowds swarmed the temple to devour the Prasad, which supposedly possessed healing powers. Overall, the temple radiated vitality and health.

But the temple told another story for her- after all the story of her marriage and life was strongly connected to this place. She exchanged smiles with Selva. The place held too many memories for them; it was here that they had hurriedly exchanged garlands. And their elopement had caused an explosion of shock in their neighborhood. “Lucky girl” they’d said, “Selva’s quite a catch, he earns well. Good for her.” Of course, she had to face the wrath of his mother for stealing him away and destroying her plans for his future, but her resentment hadn’t been able to sour their love.

And the birth of their rambunctious boys- head strong decisive Manoj and meek easily led Mahesh hadn’t changed anything. The boys, her face wrinkled with annoyance. “Where are those two?” she whispered urgently in Selva’s ears amidst the blare of the wedding music. “They must have gone somewhere to play. We’ll look for them when it’s time for the wedding feast. Don’t bother now.” was his unconcerned reply.

Later when she’d recounted the day’s happenings repeatedly to a variety of people- the police, her friends, they would always ask exasperatedly, “But are you sure you didn’t feel anything? A sense of foreboding? A pang? Mother’s intuition.”

And her reply was always the same painful word. No. Not at all. Maybe she was a bad mother, but then such things only occurred to women in movies, stories and the like, not to her, not to normal people with normal lives. Normal lives- the normalcy of her life had been wiped away, uprooted like a tree in a tempest. The tempest, it had started raining heavily the minute the knot had been tied around the bride’s neck. The bride had blushed at their teasing remarks about the rain- it was a good omen.

Manoj scanned the expanse of the grey water body through the blur of the drizzle. The Thiruvanmiyur tank was an intimidating sight with its crudely carved stone steps, its eerie silence contrasting with the noise of the bustling temple, and the sheer depth of the water. It was rumored that the kumbhabhishekham chariot had been lost forever after it’d gotten submerged in the tank. The water was dull green in colour with the stench of Thiruvanmiyur’s sewage system emanating from it. People hardly visited this tank, except during the days of the temple festival.

Mahesh tiptoed cautiously behind him. Manoj urged him down the steps, now quite slippery due to the rain. “Vaa namma color meen pakkalam.” Come, we can see the coloured fishes in the tank.

Mahesh pointed nervously at the watchman on the steps, but his elder brother, in a show of daring waved his apprehensions away and made his way downward.

“Hey you little ruffians.” The wheezy voice of the old watchman hovered menacingly behind them as they crouched near the surface of the water. The stinging blows of his long wooden stick chased them up the steps. Twice they tried getting around the watchman, twice were they repulsed by his curses and the wave of his stick. Mahesh was teary eyed now, “let’s go back to the wedding. I’m hungry now, and they’d have started serving the feast. And Amma will kill us.” He pleaded.

Manoj sneered cruelly at his doubts, “you can go back to that boring wedding if you like, sissy. I’m definitely going towards the tank, the watchman’s left for tea and I’ve got to seize my chance now.”

As Manoj leaned forward to catch sight of the fishes, his feet started slipping on the slickly wet steps. Splash. Mahesh peered fearfully into the brackish bubbling water that Manoj had disappeared into. Maybe he was seeing the fish close up, not wanting to miss out on this and dreading Manoj’s jibes that would follow if he did, he went in confusedly after him. Splash

Two successive splashes were devoured by the overpowering silence of the tank like a hurried whisper in the night being engulfed in the darkness. The splashes didn’t carry through to the noisy wedding hall. Nobody heard it all. Nobody. Not the tense parents who were so overwrought with anxiety that they stayed put at the temple, wet and feverish without eating anything at all. Not the hassled policemen, annoyed at having to work in the rain, who looked inside dustbins and under drains. Not the announcers in Sun TV who ran the story of the missing boys repeatedly without any success. Not the distraught relatives who hovered around the parents trying to infuse hope and optimism- hope that drained away rapidly with every passing second.

But everyone heard the explosion when the bloated bodies- with the tissues saturated with tank water hurtled to a height of 3 m above the tank and fell in a stinking heap on the steps. Everyone, the whole of Thiruvanmiyur heard the commotion that ensued after the panic-stricken watchman sounded an alert about the bodies.

And everyone heard her hysterical sobs at the sight of her boys, sobs that stemmed from overflowing regret, heart wrenching grief and mind-blowing guilt. She kept asking herself if it was genuine grief rather than guilt and pity at her plight, which directed the tide of her emotions. And the brutal honesty of her answer shocked her conscience. No.

Maybe she was a bad mother after all.

Monday, June 18, 2007

For a change- an arbit post

The Last of The Dinosaurs.

“They say that dinosaurs died pretty rapidly in a short period of time.” I said authoritatively to my sister. Her eyebrows were raised in disbelief, “Yeah right. They disappeared one day without any warning at all. Look, extinction is a gradual event; don’t tell me you believe these catastrophe theories offered by these dinosaur experts and geologists.”

Before I could retort, a painfully sharp thought struck my mind with the impact of a boulder aimed at my head. I just gave up on the argument mid way and my sister gloated away to glory.

Why did I have to think of this when I was discussing the extinction of an animal species? Well, the passing away of a culture, of certain long-lived traditions, the gradual disappearance of a set of people who’s achievements shaped the place’s history and reputation, this is as distressing as animal extinction.

OK, if I tell you right now that I’m lamenting the transition that’s restructured the demographics of my college- a transition that’s made the illad numbers crash steeply from 300 odd in 2004 to less than 15 in 2006, I’ll probably be labeled a regional chauvinist and you wont read ahead.

It’s pretty cheeky, comparing my race to dinosaurs, but I take comfort in the fact that it’s thoroughly justified. I don’t want to make it one of those “BITSAT has changed everything, the old system produced more balanced batches” rants that I often indulge in. this article is merely an observation. Over 60 years of BITS history, illads have always had a significant presence on the college scene – cultural, political, academic everything.

And look at what’s happening now. No more ragamalika, no more art and dee, Backstage and Informalz aren’t entirely illad-mallu departments anymore, hmm ELAS has managed to survive, infact it’s grown after BITSAT! On a joyous note, no more PTM (but this is something I’m actually happy about – fanaticism is something I don’t approve of, and I never liked those plays anyway), and thankfully, no more wings of entirely illad girls/guys with boundaries between them drawn along school lines occasionally. (ah, dav G, dav M, PS, enough Madras school snobbery, and no more hassles over TN express bookings, no more compartments entirely filled with the DAV gang.)

What does this mean for BITS- the loss of a community and the deeply entrenched traditions associated with them. Well, I’ll leave you to think about it, being one of the few illads on campus, my opinion will be discounted on this issue. So I’ll just restrict myself to saying inane things like “I’ll miss hearing those idiots play “rainbow remo” 5000 times at a boisterously high volume.” “Oh, I cant overhear those amazingly entertaining stray conversations that run in Tamil at redis where people don’t realize that I’m illad.”

So, BITS can figure out for itself, the impact of this momentous loss- after all it’s hard to find more splendid classes of humanity than the Tam, or if I venture to be cruder, “the Tam Bram.”

Ok, that last sentence was laced with bitterness, and conflict arising from discomfort with my identity. If I were really a chauvinist, I’d have written an essay glorifying tam brams, but I hardly know what being tam bram is all about. I don’t know either Carnatic music (yes believe it- neither vocal nor instrumental.) , nor Bharatnatyam (though I live 5 minutes away fromth Kalakshetra academy.) and I definitely don’t get enthusiastic about the music festival in December, nor do I drool over the idea of setting up golus, nor do I, ok this list will go on forever, better stop. I guess you got the idea- I’m not your typical Tam Bram, and I’m at peace with it.

What I’m not at peace with is – ok here we go again- school issues.

I’d have hated P.S. Senior Secondary School with all my heart if I’d been there a month longer than two years. Yes, it was started by Pennatha Subramaniam Iyer to serve the cause of education etc. Yeah right, 99% of my school mates were tam bram, nearly all the teachers were tam bram, students were rewarded with sugar lumps for chanting the Vishnu sahasranamam on a weekly basis, leave was generously granted for thread ceremonies, avani avittam was a holiday while good Friday wasn’t, PTA meetings would be spectacles where a lot of parents turned up in madisars and veshtis, I remember one occasion when my my father was feeling vaguely out of place in his Peter England pants, and Polished hush puppies. Basically, my school was Tam Bram paradise replete with a carnatic orchestra- the kind you’d send your kids to if you wanted them to grow up into traditional god fearing (and successful) tam bram citizens who’d go to Kanchipuram once a year and start their day with a tape of M.S.Subbalakshmi’s suprabhadam.

Fortunately for me, I was already full formed-mentally that is, before I entered this mad house. Twelve years of a typical convent education (Thank god for St. John’s) made me immune to the nauseating narrow mindedness that persisted. OK, one might ask, why did I join it in the first place?

Same reason most of us did what we did in class 11- JEE, boards results, BITS etc. My school was filled with the cream of Chennai’s annual academic crop (yup, I felt like I’d achieved something great when I got admitted smoothly…. It was glamorous, felt elite and all- and then the startling realizations that followed when the year started- after all a school that half of mylapore went to cant be termed "elite".)

It was the best CBSE school in Madras (buzz off, DAV.) Most students ended up in IITs or at BITS, the others at NIT trichy, so it seemed like a great decision at that time.

I wont talk about those two difficult years, I had fun, but when I entered BITS, I was only too keen to shrug off my Ps identity. “Phew!” I told myself, the first day, “thank god there are very few PS people here, I can finally start being myself, do what I want to do instead of living up to the PS hype.”

I couldn’t have been more wrong, PS has been haunting me all along like an avenging spirit.

Ok 29th july, I had to get interviewed by a BITS prof as a part of my admission process. Venkatasubramaniam, DLPD, asst Dean looks at my application form- “You’re from PS. That school has always produced great students for us who’re now some of our most illustrious alumni. Good luck.”

and the ragging period when a description of my academic history “12 years at St. John’s.two at PS” would always be follwed by “Oh. You’re from PS? You must be fundoo then.”

PS was an accursed cross I carried around my neck for a year. My school seniors made it damn tough for me, everywhere I heard, “You have to make impact here whether you like it or not- our school has a tradition to live up to at BITS.”

a) P.S sites at BITS had a phenomenal reputation at BITS on account of their outstanding academic achievements – ALL of them –EVERY SINGLE senior was 9.7+. there was this girl who’d made a dual with eee from mms, another who’d made a dual with instru from mms, a guy with mech plus eee who later dropped eee, a bloody 4 sem 10p, two girls in my senior batch who’ve never made more than one b at a time- and they were roomies!

b) ALL P.S students were focused, hardworking, brilliant, they either made brilliant jobs on campus, or made it to the best us univs or the best iims, they managed to crack tests without studying much.

c) in the event that Ps students joined departments/clubs, they always had central positions of power and importance in the dept/club, they often assumed top leadership roles in that dept/club - hmm a music club god every girl had a crush on, an almost stuccan (but for PSD) who is a great ambassador for the department, ELAS (three co-ords from my school in the last two years, and to my consternation most guys from my school are great quizzers.)

d) And Ps students had strong verbal ability

I spent my first year trying to figure out what to do about these intimidating stats, I often plunged into denial, and self-criticism, introspection- you name it.

Finally I stopped trying to live up to it, just gave up getting worked out about this. And it got a lot easier.

OK my academic record isn’t that great, could have been worse though. but it s very tough to replicate their feats in my BITSAT batch, and I m happy with my efforts, I could be called “hardworking etc” and I’ll probably have a decent future.

I m definitely not a brilliant quizzer, but my verbal ability is pretty good, and I’m pretty active in my department/clubs. So I guess I can finally relax after two crazy years here.

Last sem, when I was getting jacked about my grades, I heard this from a school senior “Typical PS senior you are.”

I smiled back serenely. It might have been an insult, might have been a compliment in disguise- whatever it was, it was still the truth.

I’ve stopped trying to be what I’m not, I've finally stopped running away from what i should be and I’ve come back to what I am, what I was, and what I’ll always be.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

A story

A Story….

I dragged my feet across the grimy ground floor corridor; my strides became slower as the black doorway drew closer. I took a deep breath before entering. This was the doorway that had enclosed the entirety of my life for the past year, her serene face beamed at me through the doorway, like a painting from a frame. She was immersed in her labors in the sterility of the laminar flow chamber, just the way she’d been the first time I’d entered this Microbiology lab of ILRI, a dreamy research scholar yearning to complete my PhD. (Use of Apsergillus Asdifidus in tanning technology.)

“You should wear shoes around here.” Were her first words to me, when I’d stepped into the mosquito filled room, fighting to chase away a swarm that was attacking my squirming toes. “Mrs. Harini Subramaniam. Scientist B” her voice was smoothly self-assured. She held out her hand to me and I shook it reluctantly as her large coarse palms enveloped my own.

The moment I saw her, I knew that she possessed the wild untamed beauty of the ocean- and its violence too -with Her roughly carved face, the waves of her black tumbling hair crashing all around her face, her eyes flashing with primal vitality.

I’ve always shared a strange equation with water. The sight of its blue expanse exerted an irresistible pull over me, and I’ve always succumbed-only to drown. Over twenty-two years of trying to learn swimming, I’ve never managed to stay afloat, my surrender to its elemental might was unavoidable, and its consumption of me was complete.

In the early days of our relationship, I realized that she had the same effect on me. It was as if her very presence catapulted me into a breathless agony that felt like being thrust underwater. All those walks- in the leafy pathways around ILRI in the softness of the light dispersing through the leaves, when the birds chirped half-heartedly as if to fill the silence that enveloped us into a cosseted existence we shared.

And those long hot afternoons when we’d escape the dingy confines of our “microbial menagerie” (that’s how she referred to that tiny room.) to the air-conditioned comfort of Hot Meals (a restaurant right across the road) where even the food, the crowd and the blare of music channels couldn’t come to my rescue.

But the real magnitude of my obsession confronted me in a totally new dimension. “Hi.” She said, while shooting a sharp quizzical look at the paper in my hand. “It’s a story I’ve written.” I explained. “Read it out then” she said commandingly.

And the first words of the story that left my mouth transported us to a different world, a world where we weren’t separated by endless bottles of stains, where the laminar flow chamber we shared was a stunning castle, where a smile or a look from her could force ink through my dry pen, and stories from my hollow soul. I’ve never been a writer, all my life I’ve believed that words came to an inspired few who had a muse to lead them on towards the tempting mirage of living the story you’ve written.

I wasn’t an inspired man, I was possessed, and I knew that those stories would pilot me towards my salvation.

“Not bad.” She had said when I’d finished. “Not bad for a science geek. This is your first story? So you’ve unleashed your creativity after all these years, eh?”

No, I wanted to say. You’re the one who’s set this fire loose, not me. All I wanted to do was create stories just to wrap the two of us together, stories where we run to each other, where we hold each other, where we give ourselves to each other and make love together.

I’ve never believed that plain lust could propel me this far, as I got closer and closer to her, the stories kept flowing, sometimes after exhausting 12 hr days at the labs, I still managed to stay up to write two stories, it was the only thing that kept me going. There were a million stories throbbing within my head waiting to be born by the miracle of her voice and the gift of her touch.

“Hey my entry has been adjudged the best by the Mylapore women’s forum. They’ve invited me to their function to read it out.” My eyes lingered over her exposed skin of her neck as she waved off two mosquitoes that were perched there. “Oh. Congrats.” She said, oblivious to my infiltrative gaze that scanned the entire length of her lean body. “I want you to come with me this evening for the felicitation.”

My voice was heatedly unsteady, and my eyes bored into hers without flinching. Just then my arms slipped over a bottle of Silver Nitrate I’d been gripping too tightly. As the liquid seeped through my palms, blackening the entire area, her soft laughter couldn’t make me conscious of my clumsiness. As she wiped my arms, with the soft yet firm touch of her hands, she chided me. “Look at you, so careless, AgNO3 stains will take a long time to fade. And they’ll laugh at you. What a fine writer you are, with your arms black with the inkiness of your words.”

I forced a laugh as I thought, “My arms have not been stained with the black ink of my stories, but burnt with the blaze of passion.”

That evening, as I read out my story to that politely disinterested audience, my eyes kept reaching out to meet hers, as if to make sure that she was still with me. Of all the women present there, she was the only one who could make my voice quiver. The mere tilt of her head made me pause for breath, and the way she cupped he chin at a pivotal part in my story made me tremble with expectation as I read out those lines breathlessly.

Every bonfire dies luminously into crumbling red ashes, every river runs out of drive as it surrenders the last vestiges of its identity to the open mouth of the greedy sea, every crusade for a lost cause peters out at the sight of the sneering face of defeat, every sprinter runs out of breath at the last cruel mile, and every story comes to an end. That night was inevitable.

As her lips trembled against mine as I probed the depths of her being for the meaning I’d sought for my existence since the first time we’d met. My body shuddered with ecstasy when the answering echoes reached me. I stared hungrily at her sleeping face framed by the mass of her unkempt hair, at her naked body entwined between my arms, at her white underwear that we’d flung carelessly on my study desk, it sat innocently on “Industrial Microbiology – an Introduction.” Like a scared kid in a dentist’s waiting room, at her smeared eyelashes, at the lipstick stains all their vivid red hardly visible over my blackened hands, at the single bed filled with her clothes and mine.

I reached out to extricate her ID card from beneath her soft ear lobes, her ID card photo (her bespectacled grim face staring at me like a joke, when I looked at her soft face on my white pillow.)

Dr. (Mrs.) Harini Subramaniam.

Wait, what were these bracketed appendages doing to this lovely lovely name I loved. They scowled at me crossly like a nasty disclaimer beneath an attractive discount offer.

A sharp intake of breath from me shook her awake, she smiled at me groggily. “Where’s the phone? Got to call my husband.”

As I heard those sounds of domesticity reaching me like a violent curse from my corner desk, I reeled backward with the impact of my realization.

“Hey, I’m at the lab. Yeah it’s late. “ I looked up so fast at the sound of her voice, it was like being betrayed by a masked villain. Her voice had taken off the sensuous mask it’d worn for me to reveal its domestic duplicity. It was softened all of a sudden, it reminded me of the hard mangoes at home changed from tasting sharp and tangy one day to succulent and tenderly sweet within the span of a night.

“Have the kids gone to bed? I’ll come in half an hour. See you, darling.”

The click of the phone alerted me to her exit and I stared disbelievingly at the open door and her disappearing shadow. Tears stung my eyes, tears long suppressed along with a dangerous knowledge, tears stemming from a truth I’d known all along, I wasn’t a victim of her deception, but a prisoner of the make believe world I’d created for myself.

The story had ended and I was trapped within its pages forever, powerless to withstand the sorrowful tide that’d engulfed me. And I’m doomed to stay within this page you’re holding in your hands right now- rendered defenseless in the face of my terrible fate and doomed to the flat silence of this feeble paper as I ramble about within its torn borders searching in vain for the destiny it’s snatched from my arms.

“….in vain for the destiny it’s snatched from my arms.” The last words on the paper got smudged as my tears fell onto it to mingle with the ink. I folded that sheets and put them into my blazer pocket. As I looked at myself in the mirror, my eyes smiled cynically at the sight of my deadened face. “The fellow’s worked too hard for his PhD thesis, looks really worn out after all that.” That’s what all those voices said-the voices from the seminar hall drifted into the bathroom, but my eyes knew better.

As I stepped out, my eyes sought out hers immediately and she strode forward in a flash to meet me. “Brilliant work Ashok. And your defense was impeccable; your seminar couldn’t have been better. You blew away the people who took your viva….” Her words faded into meaningless sounds at the back of my head as her face filled my thoughts. “And, here’s my husband Subramaniam, you haven’t met him have you?”

Her voice suddenly bored into my consciousness and I looked up blankly to see a tall gentleman in glasses who shook my hands vigorously. I stared at Harini in silence as she continued, “Ashok is one of my brightest students- yes the one I’ve told you about” she looked at me and paused, before continuing “the writer.” She finally said and then smiled at me. “ He’s leaving for the USA where he’s got an offer from….”

“Houston University Junior Scientist” I completed mechanically. “I’m leaving tomorrow morning.” Perhaps it was my imagination, but her face darkened as I said this.

My hands were in my pockets; they were twisting with agony crushing those sheets in anger as she continued to engage her husband in mindless banter. Finally in a sudden flash of resolve, I took out those sheets and smoothened out their wrinkles. Her eyes grew wide as she watched me and we looked at each other directly after a long time. “Harini.” My voice was a vacant whisper “Read this story after I leave.”

Her hands shivered as they touched my fingers when she took the sheets I’d held out.

She held my hand for a long time and the silence of those last few minutes could have carried me back to an irretrievable past where the only two of us shared an impenetrable bubble, a bubble that had burst long since.

“I’ll miss your stories, Ashok.” She said softly.

“I have no more stories left for you.” I said wearily and turned back.

When I reached the safety of my room, I buried my face in my arms, and when I caught sight of my arms, I stared in shock. The black layer that had spanned the entire area of my hands had shrunk away, dotting my palms with tiny black spots- like an awful souvenir from an accident. The burns were healing, and the scars were fading.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

In a period when journalists have been at the end of (sometimes well deserved) accusations, insults and general disapprobation at the hands of a hypocritical society (which denounces yellow journalism, sensationalism, irreverence, and apathy to “real issues” –the supposed sins of contemporary journalists, while discussing their products animatedly in the same breath.) and when the few examples of courageous and meaningful journalism struggle to stay afloat, as they sink into obscurity, under the deluge of criticism, community newspapers have emerged as saving graces for the profession.

I will proceed to establish my statement by talking about a newspaper that I’ve grown up with, having spent ten years of Sunday mornings consuming its contents for at least 15 minutes every time.
Adyar Times (“your neighborhood newspaper” is the friendly tagline beneath its unpretentiously clear and bold masthead.) is a paper delivered free of charge to households in Besant Nagar, Indira Nagar, Shastri Nagar, and other areas comprising Adyar on Sundays. It’s the pioneer of a unique and ingenious business model that has been copied (albeit less successfully) by other new papers (Adyar Talk and the like). This model relies primarily on Advertising as a source of income, and its wide geographical coverage and excellent circulation had made it a trusty magnet for advertisers of my neighborhood.

It’s got a skeletal workforce of 14- there is only one full time reporter and photographer. More than fifty percent of the stories run here are contributed by Adyarites, who are keen on alerting the paper to events in their area, and they play a vital part in the creation of every issue.

This system has produced charming (but clumsily written) accounts of a wide range. From deifying local rock bands comprising of “home-grown” Adyar boys, to reporting on the results of neighborhood schools, to drawing attention to awareness drives/programmes being conducted, to accounts of the monthly meetings of the Besant Nagar humour club, to complaining about sewerage problems on their roads and traffic bottlenecks, to boasting about child prodigies who live next door, to reporting on the triumphs of a local TT star in international meets, to reviewing new restaurants opened in their area, and subtly advertising through the article-courses on jam making, reiki, and mehendi, Adyarites have used this channel repeatedly for a long time.

The line between the newspaper, and the community it served vanished as the community and the paper shaped each other and each became a part of the other’s existence In it’s quiet way, The paper drew the community closer together and the ingrained the identity of “Adyarite” in its readers. It also made headway in bringing people face to face with the civic realities of their environment and enabling concrete action to redress the problem. The “letters from readers” section is a valuable forum to draw attention to glaring problems that confront them in the course of their daily lives. And it’s always been effective in galvanizing apathetic authorities into action, and thus it’s acted as a link between the administration and the citizens.

Incidentally, Adyar Times is just the sister publication of the first newspaper of the chain- Mylapore Times has been even more successful as a community newspaper. It has revived the dying spirit of the Mylapore community-the spirit that had made Mylapore a cultural treasure- with its sabhas, carnatic music, Kapaleeshwar temple with its great tank and its annual chariot festival, and those quaint little houses (that added a touch of history and old world charm to its narrow streets). By reinstating these cultural traditions (Mylapore times organized Mylapore Heritage tours, and the “Namma Mylapore” movement, started “golu” contests to enthuse citizens about Navarathri) the paper silently soldiered on to rescue Mylaporeans from their abyss of alienation.

True, The Adyar Times lacks the elegant writing style of The Hindu, the brash energy of The Indian Express and the marketing finesse of The Deccan Chronicle. But it’s singled out for its readers those bewildering local issues that big papers overlook- for example an in depth analysis of the municipal election scene in every Adyar ward cant be given by any other newspaper. Ultimately, the Adyar Times has simplified my community and made it an easier place to deal with. By stripping down journalism to the essentials- reporting important issues, making the citizens voice mingle with that of the reporters to deliver a deafening chorus, awakening the community to the immediate problems of the under-privileged, and presenting facts in a manner of unadorned honesty, the Adyar Times has become not only the Mirror of my community, but its crusading voice and champion as well.

PS:check out if you're a die-hard Chennaite like me.