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.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

A Perforated Soul

No. I'm not posting this story here. I believe in preserving the integrity of the pieces I write. I don't send stuff for CF from my blog, and I don't post my CF stuff here either. (ok, i should stop using "stuff". I was reminded in my PS 1 gd that "stuff" is slang for narcotic substances. )

I look at the story, the way a parent would look at a problem child. I don't know if any of you have had this experience before, but when you read a story with a brilliant setting, neat plot, interesting characters, but it's badly written. Then you say to yourself "Hey. I should write it my way, and it'd be awesome." This urge to improve someone else's creation is inherent in all of us, and this is why most inventions have reached the level of sophistication/development/perfection that they have. This urge is what transformed Edison's primitive light bulb into energy efficient tube light models (c'mon we wouldn't want to be stuck with his model forever.) , Linux from a simple open source whatever into a feature-filled phenomenon, the spinning wheel into large scale looms, the wheel into a Ferrari etc. So while human beings are always desperate to add something more and make other's stuff better, why don't they look at their creations first and try improving upon it?

every parent has something to say about others' kids (yes it's annoying.), and yet they keep offering suggestions for their development. "send her for dance lessons, she'll learn to be more graceful." "send her for Hindi tuition, that's the only way she'll pass." "send her for handwriting improvement classes, her writing is so messy." "make sure she helps out at the kitchen, she ought to learn these things" "get her to drink more milk, she's not fair enough." (ahem these were directed at improving yours truly.thankfully my parents didn't bother.)
But they are averse to accepting suggestions about their own children, cause they see them as perfect the way they are, yes even the "problem" child. That's love, i guess.

A perforated soul -my problem child-it wasn't a perfect story.

i love the analogies i used, i love the way my pen flowed,i love the feelings it evoked, i love the pain it caused me to write it, i love the pain it took away from my scarred soul, i love the fact that people loved it, i loved the fact that some hated it "worst story you've written ramya"- my roomie, i loved it for being the only story of mine that my mother fell in love with, i love the "corny lines" it had,i loved it for being "sappy" "filmi" "mushy" whatever, i love the lines where a lot of people(ahem ahem) saw graphic meaning where none existed i love the two central characters, i love their anonymity, i love the way they acquired an unique image and an identity in every reader's mind . the visual you form in your head, as you read my story the pictures that are created of my two nameless characters in your head, the names and identities that you give them- this combination is as unique as each of you.

In a sense, my story was a mirror, it reflected your individual experiences/perceptions of love while representing the collective conscious experience that human love is- with all its foibles , its agony and its ecstasy laid bare.

And yes, i gave these two characters names, identities and images in my head as well- because I'm a reader just like you. And a writer is the most special reader of his/her work.

Love can make you see perfection, where it doesn't exist. And then make you love the imperfections, when this illusion breaks. "a perforated soul" unveiled this truth for me.And i love it for this.

The homecoming.

Once upon a time, a paralyzed pen sought respite from the anguish of sporadically coughing out words from her tainted mouth. Words that rose like unwilling ghosts from the graves of self-doubt, words that clogged the air angrily like hissing curses bellowed by a moneylender, words that leapt into the breeze like brilliant sparks from a funeral pyre, words that bounced off unwilling hearts with the persistent beauty of unrequited love, words that appeared like magic from the nothingness of an empty soul. Of course, the pen bound herself in a silent prison- a self imposed exile from the cruel realm of words. She starved herself- her monastic existence preserved an austere stillness, where reflection wasn’t allowed to exist. She was waiting for faith.

Finally her ink burst through the fearsome bars of her sepulchral prison and came out in a blue streak of pure violence. The dam had shattered, the river had broken loose, and it flowed serenely towards the inky horizon in smooth contours of confident words. I’m back and faith is back with me.