This is a blog about writing. Mostly short fiction. And occasional personal rant once in a while, if I may. Feel free to make your comments and feel sane again.
- ▼ 2009 (18)
Sunday, December 13, 2009
He shares his birthday with my son; my only child I lost 15 years back. His CV is neat, adequate, okay. A commerce graduate and a certificate diploma for computer applications. He has a driving license for four-wheeler so his family must be well off. He has written ‘collecting coins’ as his hobby. There is something about him. The way his straight brown hair fall across his forehead, his big eyes behind rimless glasses, his loose fit shirt. I hire him on the spot.
I introduce him to my staff members. Make him familiar with the responsibilities given to him. He is exceptionally polite and a fast learner. Like many of his colleagues, he brings a lunch box from home.
Within a week, we are on lunch sharing terms; I have never done this before. Our talk leads to his family. He tells me about his merchant navy father, his growing coin collection from his father’s travels around the world. Their yearly holidays at the little known beaches along the western coast. His passion for nature photography. The difference between fish the eye lens and macro lens. He explains why Hasselbled is the best camera in the world.
Next day, he compliments me for my Benaras silk sari and asks me about the photo on my desk.
I tell him my fossilized story: “He is Rohan. I lost him when he was six. I was to pick him up from his school gate but got delayed. When I reached there, my boy had vanished. We informed the police, ran advertisements in The Times of India, announced a modest rewards on TV for three long years. Nothing turned up.” I try to hold my breath despite a solid knot in my throat and slump forward on the desk. I hate myself for being so weak.
My legal secretary walks into the chamber to get my signature on something.
He snaps at her: “Not now, she is not feeling well.”
I don’t look up for a long time. I am crying.
“Let me drive you home, it’s almost five pm anyway. You will feel much better tomorrow,” he offers. His gentle voice touches a forgotten nerve center of mine.
He negotiates Delhi’s evening traffic with an expert’s ease. Cool November air works like a tonic for me, lifts my spirit. Every few minutes he looks at me but doesn’t say anything. We reach my home and I insist that he should come in.
He sits in the drawing room, embarrassed. The wall above the brick and mortar fireplace is covered with my missing son’s enlarged photos. My son with his plastic tricycle. My son buck-naked in the bathroom. My son on his birthday party. My son and I at the park. My son behind the steering wheel of my Opal. My son with his little friends at Play House...
My maid walks in with mugs, a pot of coffee, and a plate of chocolate pinwheel biscuits for us.
He picks up a magazine from the table and shuffles the pages till the maid leaves us. Reluctantly, he pulls out a buffalo skin purse from his trouser pocket, opens it, and thrust it under my throat. I see a black and white middle-aged face with a low forehead and dry, tight smile. Our hands touch for a brief second and a strange current pass through. I feel dumb till he speaks.
“My mother,” he sniffs. “Breast cancer. I was eleven at the time.”
He jerks his head away and looks out from the bay window as if hypnotized by the sight of the descending birds. I nod absent mindedly, and pour the hot brew.
I do not switch on the light for the fear of breaking something delicate.
Sunday, August 30, 2009
The four hand written words made Charvak decide to kill the editor of the highbrow poetry magazine The Bombay Review.
Charvak had received his first copy of The Bombay Review - a gift from his English language teacher at the school - when he won a letter writing competition. He was in eighth standard at the time.
“This is the cutting edge poetry magazine, this is the standard you should aspire to.” His genial teacher had told him.
Charvak didn’t understand or appreciate any poetry in the magazine but he preserved it. His interest grew gradually. By the time Charvak entered the college gates, he was a devoted subscriber. He began to read Blake, Wordsworth, Tennyson and of course Shakespeare. Then he entered his Lord Byron phase. He grew a beard for a month or two, became a member of a book club, and started to recite Browning as if there was no tomorrow. Despite his passion for poetry, he knew one thing very clearly: It could never feed him.
He started working for a shipping company with international operations. Pay was modest but steady. Now he began his romance with the country poets like Robert Frost. He went nuts over Octavio Paz and devoured the lines of Pablo Nerula. All the time he was reading The Bombay Review, keeping himself up to date about the latest Indian stars like Nissim Ezekiel, Moraes and Kolatkar who had chucked his lucrative job in a big advertising agency to write poetry that sang.
For next two years, he breathed only John Milton and wore only black. Then a senior poet of some repute advised him: move away or you will not grow. He had to kick himself, but he did and moved on to radical poets who wrote blank verses and experimented with different forms. Zen and other minimalists fascinated him for a year and he had a short haiku phase.
Meanwhile, he begun to write some poetry himself. After a dozen rejections, he realized that he needed some professional help. Much against his circumstances, he joined a poetry writing class. He made friends with like-minded classmates and held private reading sessions. Every weekend they would meet in a teashop or on somebody’s terrace and try to help each other with sugarcoated criticism. He kept on submitting his poetry to various magazines all the time and collected rejection slips.
It was 48th rejection slip from The Bombay Review with the four handwritten words that snapped the gears inside Charvak’s fuming head.
"This one really sucks."
Thin angular words written above the printed message did it for him. Charvak calmly decided to kill the editor on Diwali, a day before the Hindu New Year.
He visited a flea market. He had to rummage through tons of hardware and junk to find an almost new eight-inch dagger. He noted the magazine’s office address and did a reconnaissance trip. The office was in an old building in busy Fort area, right behind the noisy Bombay Victoria Terminus.
Next day he called up to find out the whereabouts of the cocky editor.
“I am in the office all the time because we are putting together the New Year issue,” the editor answered.
“I am a paper dealer,” Charvak bluffed. “I have a slightly damaged lot. You might get it at a bargain price.” He knew these things because he had recently checked similar consignments at his office and filed the papers for the insurance.
“Sure, come after eight p.m., I won’t have time during the day,” the editor replied and hung up.
Charvak reached there on the dot of eight. It was already cold and dark. But boisterous people were milling about on the road because of the heavy festival mood all around. He made his way through crowds of kids lighting fire crackers and mounted the steps of the dark and dinghy looking building. He was sweating when he reached the magazine office on the fourth floor. It was the only office open, because it was late and it was a public holiday.
“Yes?” The editor looked up from a manuscript file and removed his thick glasses.
Charvak pulled out the crumpled rejection slip from his shirt pocket and threw it on the metal table.
“I'll kill you for this.”
The editor looked at the dagger in Charvak’s hand and started laughing.
“I am sure,” Charvak hissed and bared his teeth.
“You have come at the right moment. You are doing some thing I don’t have the guts to do myself.” The editor paused for a long moment to gather his thoughts. “I have tried to keep this paper boat afloat for more than 23 years now. Three years before, I was stupid enough to quit my job and run this magazine on full time basis. Now I have to go down on my knees to get the right people to write for me. I haven’t paid the printer for last three issues. You see, no secretary, no sales staff here. It is impossible to get ads for this kind of magazine. In these years of recession, corporate sponsors have backed out. Whoever had committed the ad campaigns are canceling. If you kill me now, it won’t be a murder. It would be an act of mercy. But do me a favor. I am sure, you haven’t done this before. That dagger will make a big mess, it will give you bloody nightmares and it will be painful for me.”
The editor took a gulp of water and leaned back in his battered swivel chair.
“Let’s make it easy for you. I have a revolver, an official gift from my ex-army father. It is loaded.”
The editor got up and unlocked his iron safe. He checked the bullets and placed his 0.45 Colt on the table.
“Go on, you can’t miss at this range. It’s a Diwali night. With all the firecrackers and loud speakers blasting, no one will rush here because of one shot. Shoot my head off, wipe the gun, arrange it in my right hand, go home, and party.”
The editor scribbled a sucide note in hurry and showed it to dumbfounded Charvak. He placed the note under a glass ball paperweight.
“The note is your insurance if anyone has seen you coming here,” the editor said.
Charvak sat as if hypnotized.
“Come on, be a real son of bitch, and shoot. I am single, without kids. No issues, no old mother waiting for me in a distant village.” He chuckled.
Charvak's eyes bulged looking at the gun but he couldn’t move his hand to touch it.
The editor stood up and walked around his table. He slapped Charvak hard across the face and picked up his gun in disgust. He yanked Charvak up from his chair.
“Why can’t I write good poetry?" Charvak asked miserably and licked the blood flowing from his split lip.
The editor slapped him again, this time on the other cheek and propelled him out of the door.
“Why? Why? Why?” Charvak stood in the deserted lobby. He was crying now.
“Each poet is an animal of its own kind. But you, had you been able to shoot, you could have written something worthwhile,” the editor barked and slammed the door shut.
Sunday, July 12, 2009
It was 10.30 p.m. and the city traffic had lost most of its verve by the time my bus reached Nagarjun Nagar.
I held my breath as I passed the garbage dump and reached the apartment building. The lift as usual was not working. So I climbed forty odd steps and reached my one room plus tiny kitchen bachelor pad. My mail, my phone and my plastic bag tossed on the three and half legged table, I locked the door from inside.
Another boring, lonely, tasteless dinner tonight. I cursed my ancestors, my college degree, the gloomy weather, my girl friend and the God silently. Once again, I had seen the blood-red, roof-down Mercedes streaking in Banjara Hills this evening; the sight of the torpedo shaped, dreamboat of a car had clipped my mood.
One broad sweep of the wet rag on the kitchen counter and I was ready to cook my meal. I ripped open the quickie noodles packet and poured the water to boil. I diced a tomato and two onions, and kept a spoonful of masala maker ready. I had twenty minutes before my ancient gas stove could boil the rice in the blackened-beyond-washing aluminum pan. To hell with the washing for tonight.
I returned to the dreary room of mine and adjusted the pillow on the headrest of my bed. Head on the lumpy pillow, bum on the bed, my fingers aching, I put my feet on the plastic chair and looked at the grime covered ceiling fan. The clock struck eleven in nearby church tower and my head begun to spin. May be I dosed off for a while. It was not to be.
The plastic chair jerked a feet backward. My feet fell down and I almost sled down from the bed.
In a blink of my eye, a harmless looking man of about sixty, maybe seventy, occupied the chair.
"I wasn't looking for a magician's trick. I was just looking for God," he said.
He stole my words, stole my line! That was the exact, witty kind of response I was fumbling with under the circumstances. Obviously he could read the weird mess in my mind and keep a step ahead.
"You are God," I said. I was feeling stupid and hopelessly inadequate but not tongue-tied.
He crossed his legs and shifted his overweight frame to a comfortable position.
His complexion was whitish pink, shining with good health. Big shoulders. Tall. Rasping breaths of a seasoned smoker. His sparse beard reminded me of an aging Shakespeare. His nose was blunt and almost rounded, typical of him, since he would be used to profit from other people's brains and browns. His fingers were thick, like farmers. A ring with peanut-size diamond glinted from his third finger, probably to ward off the sexy, miniskirted hot bottoms at the paradise office. A gold Rolex on his wrist. His suit was Georgio Armani or some other snooty Italian brand, I could tell by its daring lapel cut and the elegant, snug fit. A violent pink paisley silk handkerchief peeked from the charcoal gray breast pocket. He looked like a steelclaws-in-kidgloves CEO of a mid size start-up with global tentacles and killer profit margins.
"The fancy suit comes with the job. It's 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. No perks, no breaks, no stock options, no paid up vacations and definitely no profit sharing," he barked.
Was he being sarcastic? Jocular? Serious? Or was he trying to burn a lowly subject like me? The crazy, ever-shifting, white glow behind his head made it impossible to read his exact expression. One thing I was sure about - he could disappear as easily as he had materialized. Other problem-there was a premium on his time and I had a plateful of tricky problems on hand.
Not wasting a second I asked, "What should I do?" He would know my back story, so there was no need to bore him with a lengthy build up.
"Son, the woman you are tangled with is thirty six, not twenty six. She is carrying a child, apart from the girl she has put at the Panchgani School. And her former husband's death was not an accident as she claims. Did you go to Kanpur to check the official records?"
"Jesus H. Almighty, am I Sherlock Holmes or what? Where is the time to do the snooping ? Wait a minute now...assuming Somya is pregnant...the child inside her can't be more than three months old or it would show, won't it? Is it mine? This is a totally unexpected angle now. How should I go about it?"
"That's for you to find out, if you want to." He shifted his bulk in the chair and muttered. "It's so hot for August out here. Hyderabad is getting worse by the day."
He looked at the ceiling fan and made it start with his devine prowess. He adjusted the speed by the blinks of his deep gray eyes and turned to me again.
I was ready with the all-important question. "So what should be my game plan, now that you know my past, present and future?"
"Son, there is no point in reframing the same question again and again. My job is to give, not to take away."
I didn't like his patronizing attitude and his calling me 'son' was getting on my nerve. Even my father has stopped calling me son a decade before. But it was too trifle a matter at this point of time and I wanted my question answered. I tried another angle and pressed on.
"Old man from upstair, you are talking in riddles."
"You have a dull job. Chicken feed salary. Miserably predictable routine. No close friends. No major vice except occasional drinking binges and lust for car toys you can never afford." The God threw his leonine head back to underline the punchline. "More importatnt - that thin woman from military family, that unborn child inside her, the little mystery of her husband's death in distant Kanpur. Let's keep some excitement alive in your life."
"No, don't give me that old hat!" I almost screamed but apparently it didn't make a dent in his Armani armour.
There was an unmistakable electric crackle in the air. My skin felt a strange tingle all over and in a blink, the plastic chair in front of me was as empty as a beggar's bowl.
I fell back into my bed and banged the back of my head on the headrest. It hurt like hell and made me numb all over for a while.
I had lost appetite, I realized. I looked at the whirling blades of ceiling fan till my eyes ached and my head felt like a solid, dead weight on my shoulders. I braced myself. It was going to be a long night.
Sunday, July 5, 2009
It is two thirty in the morning and the place is quieter than a tomb. Four full-blooded man are locked inside the hostel room, all of them under twenty five, and in various stage of drunkenness. One of them is myself, yours truly.
The air inside the room is thick enough to choke a diehard smoker. No one has spoken a word since Hardik's phone rang. The call was from one Mr. Kasim. He has promised to sort out everything if we do what we are told to do. He is the point man controlled and recommended by Hardik's father.
Our collective adventure last weekend has gone terribly wrong and we are supposed to travel in different directions within next few hours and not get in touch with each other for six months or more. The girl's father has lodged an FIR at the district head quarter near Bhopal, stating that his daughter was gang raped by four unidentified thugs from the Maulana Azad Institute of Technology. According to Mr. Kasim's information, the girl managed to swipe the college ID of one of us. Police will be here soon.
Hardik is second-oldest and a natural leader among us. His father is a class one gazette officer who has survived five changes of government and thirteen transfers across the country. He know the system, its joints, and the special lubricants that make it work.
Unlike any other night, Hardik tosses his drink into the wash basin and looks at us, like we are his sworn enemies. "If anyone can get us out of his mess, it is my father and his network." Hardik speaks in a trembling, low whisper as he shifts his weight from one foot to the other. His thin frame and shrunken chest not withstanding, he reminds me of a determined boxer in his final rounds.
Mohan ignores us and gets up from his chair. His cut-off jeans and torn T shirt make him look like a charity case but his father owns a string of sugarcane farms and molasses factories along the Ratnagiri belt. He chain smokes Bristol and he is known as Loaded M in and around the campus. He can catch the next plane to Tahiti or Bahama if he wants to.
Hardik fixes his gaze on Mohan. "You are not going anywhere till the we turn this right side up."
"I had to accompany you that fateful Friday, as if I can't get laid any other way," Mohan tosses a butt out of the window and lights another cigarette.
I see a thin opportunity to make a point here. "No way I can travel out of my state, my brother is getting married in the next month."
"No way, indeed," Prakash (not his real name) joins our conversation and scratches his arm. His face wears a clouded, uncertain look. He is a member of Lal Zanda-his nick name for the communist party of India, and writes in a four page monthly pamphlet no one reads.
Hardik looks down and studies his battered Reebok before speaking. "Prakash, you are the one who planned the little picnic and promised us that it will be harmless fun. What is the alternative you have to keep us out of the jail?"
Praksh looks at me.
"I need a job after the college more than anyone of you. Police case will result in instant professional suicide. And my old man, my family, I don't want to think about it," I say.
"Everyone wants out, but how?" Mohan asks no one in particular and drags hard on his cigarette.
Prakash takes a minute before reacting. "I know a way out of this. She, the girl will survive. She doesn't know us by face. It was too dark and she will be in shock for a long time. I will take care of her."
"You will take care for her? To bury something like this is hard, if not impossible," I say.
"Kasim know the system inside out. From local constable upwards. PSIs. Sarpanch. DIGs. District Judges. Ministers and the people who can make the files appear and disappear at will," Hardik says. "We just have to pay up fast, that's all."
"How do I tell my old man that I need Rs 5 laks for pocket money this month? That too here and now?" I spill the rum in my hand as I imagine the maddening scene with my school teacher father.
"We have a day or two. Kasim can buy some more time. I can pay something upfront on my own and Mohan can chip in a bit. Don't worry about that," Hardik looks hard at Mohan and turns to me.
"What is the alternative?" I ask. "Apart from the dough delivery?"
"Self immolation." Mohan spits the flakes of tobacco in the wash basin and glares at me.
"I never thought she could go to police. She was almost enjoying it by the end," I say.
"She will enjoy the court proceeding even more." Hardik says. "You don't know these things. Do you remember that girl in the Baroda riot case who became the national media icon overnight? Everyone loved her and lapped up everything she said. Whatever she said."
"There is no way this tribal specimen can make anything stick to us."
"If the investigation does not start, that is."
"There is another possibility." Prakash says.
"I marry her."
For a minute none of us know how to react. Hardik sits down on the window ledge and looks out at the night sky. Prakash looks dead serious.
Hardik turns his head and looks at Prakash, speaks for all of us now. "You are nuts. You are the one who suggested the cheap-tribal-girl-in-the-dark-woods idea. You are the one who made a deal with her tribe. Your contact paid them to shut up and apparently, they didn't stop a thing."
"I can marry her if I get the money you are going to pay out there. Believe me, in the long run, you will go over budget."
"Assuming that you are not insane, what is the guarantee that she will not talk and case will be buried after she becomes Mrs. Prakash."
"I am a tribal, not far from that village. I know the customs. I know their psyche and their limitations because that's where I come from. I can see this through without any hang ups, without looking back. I am going back to my roots. I will raise corn and rice, become a farmer again and never see the wind tunnels, flight simulators and you guys again." He looks at us in turn, his face rigid. "What are the alternatives you have if everyone here can't pay up and disappear without a trace?"
No one in the suffocating room has an answer for that. Prakash doesn't look like an aeronautics engineer anymore; he looks like a brown skin tribal man from a dusty Hamlet of mud huts we have never seen. He shakes his head, clears his throat before speaking. His voice is cool and precise now.
"I don't have to wait for the result date to find out I haven't got through the final, I know that for sure."
I believe him because we are in the same class, stay in same hostel room. After years in the making, he still can't get through the most basics of math and formulas. He is lagging behind in every semester. I have written half of his research papers. Despite being his best friend, I have to say this - a reserved ST class or a BC is forever.
"What will you do with the money?" I ask the stupid question to fill the deathly silence.
Prakash's face goes blank. "What can you not do with half of that money," he asks in return. "It's a different world out there. You can travel ten kilometres on a bullock cart for a cigarette. Change a course of life for a few thousand."
Hardik takes control again and stomps his Reebok on the floor. He decides for all of us. "Okay, let's do this."
So we come to an agreement that should save every one's careers, reputations, well being and future. There will be no records, no loose ends, no cross connections, no reunions and hopefully, no memories.
Saturday, June 27, 2009
A story about the dark side of fame.
Some built-in Hollywood trivia here. Frank Capra (Amercian Madness, It's a Wonderful life, State of the Union ), was one of top Oscar studed director among several others who was black listed and finished off by openly politicised and hugley manipulated HUAC (House Un-American Activites) .
In 1947 the committee’s purpose was threefold:
First, it intended to prove that the Screen Writers' Guild had Communist members.
Second, it hoped to show that these writers were able to insert subversive propaganda into Hollywood films.
Third, J. Parnell Thomas, head of the committee, argued that President Roosevelt had encouraged pro–Soviet films during the war. Although none of these claims was ever substantiated, the committee’s tactics worked to force many talented and creative people to leave Hollywood.
Fresh after the onset of Vietnam war that lasted twenty one years and cold war with Russia, Republican senator McCarthy worked the system with paranoid right wing effciency that can blush all the dictators and despots funded by U.S.A. across the globe.
Many thanks to my dear friend Asha Jacob who proofread this story despite having a DJ-like son, a job and a husband. Some F word slang here, so you are warned.
Our New Year Eve
“Tak takk takakat ttttttt tkat.”
That was Willy knocking the door with his Mustang’s keys but I didn’t want to burn the omelet. I removed the frying pan from the stove and placed it on the kitchen table before opening the door. He walked in with his air of ownership.
I poured some melted butter on the yellow rim of the omelet and put the frying pan back on the flame. Onion fumes filled the room.
“All papers in order? Let’s go figure out the place,” he said.
“Let’s have some grub and then—” I turned the omelet.
“Okay.” Willy came near me and sniffed the spices.
That giraffe-like bend and sniffing habit have not changed. Otherwise, he has begun to button his florescent shirts. The gaps between his teeth have widened. His outlandish long hair has lost most of its sheen. Those guitar-fondling fingers are now roughed up with cable handling. His rum-drinking days are over. Three stretched out stays at the public hospital to cure his ‘mild touch of liver infection’ have taught him that. Now he drinks only beer. In Willy’s Bible, beer doesn’t have enough alcohol content to affect him. I know better than to get in an argument with him for something like that.
Willy doesn’t swing into his rhyming moods any more. For the bad weather, he used to say ‘slime clime’. For a knocking session, he would say ‘chic prick.’ For a wild drive in the country air, ‘windy sandy.’ For a good foot-tapping guitar riff, ‘footsy cutesy'. Not any more. He is all dried up and brittle and sour now.
His changeover has taken a long decade to arrive. From the heights of wanna be music stars to the scruffy hirers of speakers, strobes, and light equipment; this is a big, nasty slide of ours. He still has his prima donna ways from our bohemian days. We lose a lot of business because of that. The thing that still doesn’t get inside Willy’s drug-fucked head is the fact that you can’t behave like Elvis without Elvis’voice and Elvis’ success. Our equipment is hired because of my buffer-buffoon skills, my contacts. Some crowds in this business still have corners and crumbs for us.
We had our fifteen minutes of fame, when we arrived on the music scene. We were all fired up, hot, hot, hot. Were it not for Willy’s cussed skullduggery with the record company and the police raid on our pad for drug possession, we might have pulled off a big one. The real New York-Paris-London concert circuit stuff. We could have blasted our kind of music to the big blue sky. Some stuff that Willy wrote was solid gold: things about dirt life in the street; lonely nights in the last subway train; heartbreaks in the flophouses. Our songs were edged with dark dirt and grime. Kind of gritty-weird. But then, they might have been lapped up just for that.
We had already recorded five songs. Then the record company’s marketing VP came up with this fuckfix caveat of dividing their risk. The Armani clad vampire wanted just three songs, to promote with two other new bands in a single CD package. That kind of deal was too much for Willy’s Everest-size ego. Willy went wild and damn near strangled the suit right there in the company’s marketing office. Willy overdid it all right, but who is normal in this sickfuck music business anyway?
The second break was less spectacular but it was a break of sorts, no doubt. We had done the scratch recording of other eight songs for a demo purpose. So, we started making the rounds and plugged the demo cassettes all around. In this business, pimps find the whores, not the other way. One thing led to the other, the buzz went out of the door, and we were one day from a three nights a week contract with a glitzy, big time nightclub. We decided to celebrate in advance. Ever the street cat, Willy brought eight vials of real, quality stuff.
That same fucking night the drug enforcement people broke in and caught us doped. The six unopened vials were still on the coffee table, waiting to be booked when they barged in. For his own reasons, Willy has only hazy details of the raid, but I remember myself toppling down the dingy stairs in the wee hours of that chilled morning. We were handcuffed and pushed into a NYPD van. All the way, I tried to wake up Tony C, who was so zonked that he had to be carried from the van to the police station. The buzz was that the cops got the tip-off from the record company we had tangled with. After a while, you got to be philosophical about these snakefuck things.
So, 3-somethree (Willy, me and Tony C), the fusion-cult band was grounded before it could take off. I never got to wear my satin pants and leather thong and brass studded thigh-length boots. I recently traded them in a pawnshop, and bought a toolbox. Those days are like ugly old scars that don’t hurt any more, but you have to look at them in the mirror every day.
Tony Chaikosky, our piano guy (Willy never acknowledged him as a co-writer) killed himself. Some say because of the troubles that his spitfire girl friend gave him, but I know better. Tony C was an ok guy. He should have got somewhere with his songs and piano but he swallowed 30 Mandrax instead. He had called me the night before the suicide: “Have you read The Catastrophe Of Success? This is like the HUAC fucking Capra under McCarthy, I don’t want any of this.”
Tony C was from a very upper crust, white-collar, Russian immigrant family. Probably some second-generation aristocrats, he never spilled his back story. If Willy was the right brain of the band, Tony C was the left. He had this maddening, uncanny way of to whipping Willy’s unwieldy, shapeless lyrics into something fine-tuned and music worthy. Every time Willy wrote a song, Tony C disappeared with the stuff, for weeks at times. Then he showed up with his version. Willy and Tony C would be locked in a battle, haggling over each stanza, each word, each note, each pause. Tony C simply refused to sit on the piano stool until he made Willy see his way. He could cut Willy’s song in half, or transform it beyond recognition. If you knew Willy, that took lot of balls. Tony C would sit quietly and politely, and wouldn’t budge an inch. A riled up Willy would finally say, “Ok, let’s twistfuck this your way.” In the final recording, Willy would call all the shots, but the studio would not be booked until Tony C had fiddled with the song enough.
When the police busted our place and slammed us in, it was Tony C’s first and last run-in with the law. He was a family reputation type. The nights he spent in lockup screwed up the wiring inside his head. If that was not enough, this local yellow rag did a little story on us, photographs and all, quoted our songs, going as far to call us closet communists. Overnight we became red poison for the record companies in the entire U.S. of A.
Every week or so, Tony C comes in my dreams. He wears these Gothic wigs and dark flowing robes. Sometime he is dressed as a transvestite cowboy and sings like John Denver. ‘Country roads take me home… to the place where I belong…’ He and his huge Steinway sway on the clouds, his long, feminine fingers float, moving like liquid porcelain. Sometimes he just smothers the white piano keys without making a sound.
Willy went to the hospital for his advanced cirrhosis and I was drifting a bit after the jail episode. But Tony C’s death had really rattled me. I wanted to make a connection to the real, sane world. I had no fancy ideas about my drumming talent. You know it when you have a gift, and you know it when you are a foreman working shifts in a fucking assembly line. I looked around and latched on to the guys who used to give us the lights and equipments at the club where we occasionally played. I grease-worked the entire concert circuit with them. By the time Willy came about from his liver treatment, I had a rough business plan ready. It was an awful comedown for Willy. Took him almost two years to realize that rum had finished his voice; that no one but he saw any potential in our kind of rant. We shelled out some money together, bought the speakers and other equipment. My deaf cousin came along to handle the lights. That is how our equipment-hiring business got going.
Back to present. We finished eating the onion omelets and toast I had cooked, and hit the road. Willy drove the beat-up Mustang with his reckless bravado and flung us on the location in record time. I showed the contract papers to the wrinkled sentry huddled at the gate. He let us in. The place had the silent charge of deserted public premises. We crossed the snow-covered compound, and entered from the side door of the huge modern structure.
The stars like clusters of halogen lights dangled from the dome ceiling at least a hundred feet above us. Our shoes squeaked on the shining floor. A keyboard piano, some guitar cases, drums, an African bongo set, microphone stands, and spools of wire on the stage platform looked like small toys from here. The circular, stadium-like place was big enough to hold a dozen tennis tournaments simultaneously. “The kind of place we always dreamt to gig in,” I almost said aloud as I looked at the awesome interior.
“Here,” Willy’s gruff voice boomed, echoless. I walked along the circular border of the floor clockwise while he shuffled anticlockwise from the same point, keeping an eye for my pace. I checked my watch. It took us almost seven minutes to complete the circle and face each other roughly at the same spot where we started. Willy handed me the end of a measure tape and crossed towards the opposite side, unspooling the reel in his hand. He made sure that the tape touched the center of the floor area; the figure gave him the radius of the circular floor. The measurements helped him decide on the speaker’s capacity, number of strobes, and electricity requirements for the big concert night-- the New Year’s Eve:
The place filled up with the excited cries of a colorful, wild, wanton crowd. After the firecrackers and laser show, the stoned, long-haired, leather clad zombies emerged on the stage one by one in artificial clouds of candyfloss colors. “Ladeees and gentlemen” the lead singer paused to remember what else to say, but the shrieks from the audience compelled him to signal his band right on. His spittle flew, the microphone danced, the bass guitars swung in wide shining arcs, the key-boardist plunked with fervor, and the drumsticks went berserk. The psychedelic lights roamed the concave spaces in the ceiling and laser beams cut through the over-excited air. That yell-your-guts-out-and-punish-your-instruments routine. They started with their ‘Riders of the Storm’ imitation. Soon, the young crowd on the floor begun to sway with the high voltage flow from our mammoth speakers. They lit their happy joints, opened their cans and bottles, and tilted. The sharp, sweet needles found their home in the warm-blooded veins. The gyrating youth worked up a frenzy, like a big cattle on the run. The fluorescent shirts and leather jackets flew overhead. They all danced like maniacs. The songs, the sounds, the screams, and the noise rose and fell in big crashing waves. They sang along, sweated, their bodies moving with frantic energy. Stoned-out couples clutched each other fiercely and lusted for more. As the night screamed on, so did the pounding on the floor. The dozen bouncers and armed security men tried their bit to make sure that no one got mauled or gang raped. By two a.m., the mad crowd still stamping, the floor was covered under the gum wrappers, empty cigarettes packs, chewed-up reefers, empty liquor bottle, Ecstasy blisters, twisted syringes, crushed vials, condoms, and occasional bras and broken sandals.
We are perched here, in the closet size box above the stage, with a sound engineer sitting on the equalizer and blinking controls. My deaf cousin handles the strobe lights with this fixed look on the crowd. For every new song, he mutters “Thrill-fuck them all anyway,” and throws down a fistful of confetti on the sea of pulsating bodies.
Grim faced, Willy and I pass my battered binoculars between us and look down from the glass partition. Willy as usual, resolutely ignores the band playing on the razzle dazzle stage.
We search our faces, our music, our antics, our mistakes, our excess, and our bitter bygone youth in the mad, milling crowd below.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
In my previous avatar as a Creative Director in the big bad advertising world of Mumbai, I supervised numerous photo shoot. The toughest part of the job? Take your pick: scouting the locations at 2000 feet above sea level in Ladakh; searching an antique gramophone as picture prop; convincing the delicate models to do the impossible at three in the morning as blinding arc lights bite their skin. The real bitch however, was handling the mad photographer, each one an animal of its own kind. I actually slapped one mister A. S. Had to, when they cost your skin, your allowance and sometimes your job!
I have set this story in New York, to add some exotic air.
I feel as fresh as a Daisy.
I arrange the dead bodies, all five of them, in a five pronged concentric shape--a starfish. A cut open watermelon lay precariously in the center of this star. The Prussian blue carpet I bought whimsically from Cairo is kept under them as an interesting backdrop. The carpet stinks a bit, but it will change the personality of the picture. Each head is touching the other two on either side. Their fingers are interlocked with each other’s; they would not do so willingly, tricky part, because the bodies have started to stiffen. The transparent tape did not work; it was looking very artificial and crude. Now I have used a special Poly-vinyl thread to tie the fingers together. The thread does not break, it does not show, and most important, it does not reflect the lights.
"Ding dong!" Door bell rings.
I switch off all lights; lock the studio door from outside, and walk into the hall. After closing the alley door leading to the studio, I practice a yawn without the help of a mirror and look in to the peephole. Nothing. A burning smell probably. I wait for full fifteen minutes before getting back to work.
My original idea was a rectangle with four bodies. Each head touching other’s feet. The Diamond--a linear shape. But the new idea and my girl friend Gina came almost simultaneously. I will never forget that look on her face when she entered the studio and looked at the set up. She did try to talk to the bodies thinking this could be one of my practical jokes. But she passed out when she saw that Pony’s eyes were ‘pinned’ shut. I had not put on any makeup on Pony then.
Gina is little too short and wearing wrong kind of shoes but these are small compromises. Had she come a fraction earlier, she would have been made up by Pony--a professional. Pony is NY’s most finicky makeup artist. My favorite. She spent close to three hours to give them the light blue make up, one hour each. That is fast by Pony’s standard, but I had no choice. For the special look I have in mind, nobody else could be good enough. Pony was convinced about my overall theme and the triangle idea.
"Troika. Mercedes symbol comes to my mind," she had remarked knowingly. I did Pony’s face myself. No makeup artist for a makeup artist. A bit of irony there.
Samson looks down at all of us from his perch, his green face bobbing approvingly.
"Ding dong! Ding dong!"
Again, I switch off all the lights and lock the studio door from outside. I mess up my hair as if such a thing is possible and look into the peephole.
Nothing! Only a couple of cigarette butts! I return to the studio.
Shoes, I had to clean up a few of them. Now all five shiny pairs of them are glued to the floor so that they point towards the ceiling, directly into my camera.
Attention to the most insignificant detail is part of this job. For the same reason, I banged three of them almost simultaneously. No blood, no bruises showing either. A crowbar covered in a piece of blanket does it. Plug the nose, and tape the mouth afterwards for at least fifteen minutes to be on the safe side. Dear Pony! She did not take the blow as precisely as the other three before her, but I have covered the dark welt on her neck effectively with the makeup. Clever lighting will do the rest.
All-lights now, to check the exact effect. Gina’s face has the same dreamy expression she wore when she fainted. I carefully step over a tangle of wires, bend down on my knee and kiss her tenderly, taking in a whiff of Chanel. Her angel face hardly needs any make up.
My stomach growls, takes me to the kitchen. Tap…tap…tap…tap…tap in the kitchen sink drives me crazy. Where is the goddamn plumber! I munch some chocolate cookies just to block the noise and put the coffeepot on stove. The city looks strange out of my tinted glass window, a tiny crimson and black cab chugs along the Madison Avenue. If I jump from here, I can recite Beatles' Imagine before hitting the ground. No one makes that kind of music anymore.
Back in the studio, I put the light meter on Roger’s Greek god face to verify the exposure. I have kind of hammered his mouth shut, stopping the ugly show of his perfect teeth and the blue tongue. He, pure Italian blood, arrived in NY three months back. Within days of registering with Morgan’s agency, he started to make waves on the fashion circuit. The way he carried the Armani suits on the ramp is worth a few reels of film. I never knew hetro or homo about him, now I never will. He is wearing the golden dolphin tiepin he won from me at Astoria’s gym. Those spider silk ties he talked about will be never worn. This would be his last photograph. And my swan song.
Samson screams as I reach for the room freshener, so I let it be and put some grain in his cage. His red beak munches energetically.
"Ding dong, ding dong!"
I try to calm my nerves before leaving the studio. The lights off, I sniff instinctively on the way and look in to the peephole. Nothing. No one except the cigarette butts.
Back in the studio, I poke my finger into Samson’s cage.
"Asshoole," he answers.
I still do not like the hard shadows under their chins, blue skin looks nearly black. So I change the position of overhead light box. That means I have to change the positions of other three lights and reflectors also. And take the meter readings again. I do.
I look into the viewfinder. Perfect lighting, perfect composition. Class--A make up. Ditto for expressions. History making stuff.
This Photo session started in the morning with Roger. He as usual reported earlier than expected and I took some Polaroid shots for trial. Just him. Imelda and Pony arrived by then.
Paula, now as dead as the other four is, or rather was, my model coordinator. Pony and I kind of convinced her into wearing a blue make up. "Three thousand-dollar for two hours bait smoothened the change of skin color," as Pony put it. The scar on her chin is actually a cesarean birthmark she never stopped talking about. I shall miss her, her choicest Spanish curses specially. When I smuggled her out from Mexico in my Mustang, she could hardly speak English. Now she would report to St. Peter in heaven as a hardcore New Yorker.
Imelda has kicked Gina away, spoiling the symmetry of pentagon. Again! I climb down from nine feet ladder and kick her gently. Never liked her anyway. We worked on several high profile assignments together though. Whenever I called her ‘Imelda Marcos of the West’, she would grumble that she did not have eight hundred pairs of shoes. "You have as much power as your namesake used to wield" I would say. She did not deny. Modesty is not her strongest suite. She is NY’s highest paid model but you could never guess that if you look her up in Central Park. That ninety thousands dollars a day smile is partly god's, partly hers, partly plastic surgeon’s, partly Pony’s and largely mine. Spoilt as a silly brat she is. What did it take to convince her not to bring her personal makeup man! Thank god, she came in a cab. I had not thought about the limo driver angle at all.
"Ding dong! Ding dong! Ding dong! Ding dong!"
I peep into the hole.
His hefty duffel bag lies on the floor as he puffs away his nearly finished Marlboro. ‘Corman Plumbing’ is stenciled on the side of his bag. His left hand holds the helmet. He will push the button again, after finishing his cigarette, I guess. What if he decides to wear his helmet before walking in? The thought makes me smile. Little noise from behind the door should give him the time to pick up the bag with his dominant hand.
The high-pitched vibrations fill the room as I draw the figure six on the metal-engraved door with my crow bar. I open the door with my left hand.
Sunday, May 24, 2009
These little flash jobs are great exercise in plotting. Nine out of ten times you know beforehand if the extended version will be able to hold reader's interest, or it will fall apart like a cardboard cutout. While writing the compressed piece, you also test your passion, commitment and stamina to write the full version that can take months, if not years to develop. If you, as a writer, don't find it worth sticking to, the reader definitely won't.
A Call After Midnight
Madonna in black velvet costume disappeared. Bulls charging at her stopped dead and fell into yellow dust. Wild roar from the stadium turned into a shrill, incessant ring of a telephone.
I opened my eyes and absorbed the blurry details. Reflection of a blinking neon behind the drawn curtain confused my senses for a full minute. The outline of a dresser and ornate stool with cat's paws. Dull shine of the pewter water jug sitting on the night stand. I was in a hotel room, Grand Central, Simla. Despite the woolen blanket I felt the shiver run down my spine. I found the remote from under the pillow and switched off the AC.
It was the hotel phone, not my mobile that was tearing the smooth, surreal quiet of the hour. I switched on the night lamp and looked at my watch. Who could that be at 2.30 in the morning. My mind felt numb but an important fact registered - only eight people in my world knew that I was in Simla tonight. Three out of them knew about my hotel. My wife would never call me except in case of emergency. Can a woman make up her mind about a divorce at three in the morning? I doubted it. Could it be Derreck Brown ? I was negotiating a contract with him since last four months. Do I get an outsourcing business worth thirty million or my company goes down under? His day in Germany begins when I have my evening coffee. It must be 10.30 in Frankfurt now. The last, the wildest and the most mind-numbing possibility - a versatile fixer who can put Michael Clayton to shame. He was the third person who knew my whereabouts because I happened to meet him in the lobby last night and we had drinks together. I had hired him 11 years back for a job that is unmentionable here. Can he call at this time to tell me something he couldn't tell in 11 years or after five pegs of whisky?
The throbbing in my head reached a crescendo as I pushed the blanket away and reached for the phone. It had stopped ringing.
Monday, May 11, 2009
I recently read an article about serious horror writing. It argued that one can write about evil only to an extent. Beyond a point the writer's reality and his/her fictional illusion begin to merge and this tango is dangerous to say the least! Talk about writers flirting with borders of sanity.
This flash story originally won in competition rounds and got published at http://www.apollos-lyre.com/ a couple of years back. I have posted it solely for my convenience and records. Dark, deep, and with a touch of nihilism.
Kundanlal is a bitter old man of 67, who looks 57.
He has retired after slogging as a senior accountant in the statistical department of India, Bombay office, for four decades. His secret of perfect health: “I have taken orders all my life and suffered my wife’s temper tantrums.”
Now he is forced to take care of the same woman because of her never-ending illness of chronic asthma. Every few weeks, she gets an attack; it is much worse during winters. Her endless coughing gives him sleepless nights.
He pays for the doctor’s visits and medicines. He knows that it is a waste of his precious savings. He can barely pay the recently increased rent from his pension money, but there seems no way out of this. His two sons are settled abroad, very well off, but he hates seeking any help from them; they have all but forgotten the old parents.
“This winter might be her last.” The doctor has assured him several times.
Kundanlal wakes up trembling from a ghastly nightmare - he was flying as a gracefull, dark angel of death swooping down on a delicious carcass.
It is well past midnight, his throat feels dry. On his way to the kitchen for a glass of water, Kundanlal decides to kill his wife. He picks up a hefty pillow from his bed and enters his wife’s room.
Taking care not to bump into any furniture, he circles her bed. By now his eyes get familiar with shapes and shadows in the darkness. The smells of medicines make him nauseous for a minute; a tired dog barks in distance. He bends carefully over the wife’s head, gently pulls away the tattered blanket and slams the pillow flat on her face.
“Goodbye,” he whispers and leans with all 80 pounds of him.
He keeps the pressure on for a full minute or more. There is no struggle; no flailing limbs, or desperate twists of the torso for that last lungful of oxygen. Her frail, saree- clad body lies like an old lump on the mattress.
Out of surprise and disgust, Kundanlal slowly removes the pillow from her face and switches on the table lamp. He feels for her pulse but the body is icy cold.
She is already dead, with a slight smile frozen on her face.
Thursday, May 7, 2009
I am missing someone. So here is my poetic license
Oh, what a sickly strange morning it was,
Milkman delivered a bottle of cold beer.
I saw a blue bird flying through the window,
It sang a sweet stanza I could barely hear.
The sun rose, tall trees shuffled in the wind,
Afternoon was no better, I could only fear.
I searched shapes of hopes, felt much worse,
How do I explain my plight—I am not a seer.
As the clock galloped, I waited and waited,
But I could feel only the spicy touch of a tear.
Then I saw through the blanket of loneliness,
The terrible truth is—Dear, you should be near.
Thursday, April 30, 2009
Here is a story to match my mood.
She took a quick shower and put on his favorite brown and black bra and matching panties. She splashed both sides of her breasts with fake Eternity. The doorbell rang when she was getting into her black gown. "Two short, three long. Him all right," she murmured and opened the door.
He lurched in. His beady eyes blood shot, breath full of cheap whiskey, faded brown hair over the furrowed forehead and shriveled tie half way across his polyester shirt. He whistled a Kishor Kumar tune from sweet sixties.
"Get me a drink." He handed over his briefcase and sat down.
She massaged his neck and asked in a small voice: "Hard day out there?
"As hard as it can get."
She poured a dose of whisky for him and sat down on the easy chair in front of him.
He gulped his drink in one swift tilt and looked around the dice-size room. A cheap plaster statue of Jesus was added to the small table by the door. He smiled and sprawled his fat self on the tattered sofa.
He lit a Charminar. His thoughts floated on the tired traffic noises.
"Women are either bitchy or witchy. What type are you?" He asked.
"That is some question. I am not bitchy, that makes me witchy."
"It figures. You scare me."
"Why do I scare you? I don’t get it." The woman smiled.
"I feel like I am playing in your hands." His voice was getting drowsy.
"I never try to-"
"That’s it. You make a soft putty out of me without really trying."
"I can’t argue with a drunk." She playfully punched his shoulder and removed his tie, then led him into her bed-size bedroom.
He put his head in her lap and stretched across the bed. She fingered his dry hair and pouted.
"Not tonight dear," he closed his eyes.
She patted his hairy chest as he started snoring. She carefully lifted his head and inserted a small pillow underneath. She kissed his feverish temple, turned on her side, and fell asleep in a moment.
Early afternoon noises penetrated her sleep. Instinctively, she reached for him before opening her eyes. He was gone.
His forgotten toothbrush and razor rested on the sink. She went to the door to get her milk pouch and noticed a folded paper tucked under the ashtray. She read the note: Please don’t do a lip-to-lip kiss with anyone else. Five hundred rupees were stapled to the perfumed note.
She kissed the note and stuffed the money in her purse. "Back to work," she mumbled and fought her tears.
She hated to do last minute errands before the business begun. She checked the wooden cabinet in her bathroom for scented soaps, Dettol and towels. She always kept condoms, silk ropes, handcuffs, and things in a handy plastic box. And one strip of Viagra in her tiny fridge for special customers.
"How cleverly I have separated my love and my work life!" She smiled and prepared for the night ahead.
Sunday, April 26, 2009
This one has no claim to high brow literature; it is written for an entirely different reason.
To Whomsoever It May Concern - a poem in shape of a flower pot.
Instead of your slow smile,
or a warm, self-conscious hug,
I had to face that cloudy look
in your eyes.
But it was worse.
fautia lipstick by mistake,
And ran into bedroom while
I stood in the neutral territory,
Of our modest drawing room,
Under the eyes of nosy neighbors.
a helpless child. I had broken the
promise to fetch you for a boring
done-to-death tearjerker movie.
But I could not, and learnt to
sleep through the tearjerkers
So that I do not have to see
the real thing in your eyes.
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
How I wrote it / Why I wrote it:
Loud elections, promise-spitting politicians and forthright voting are the flavour of the season. However, the real kingmakers are the bureaucrats. Khadi-clads you can change after five years or less, but those supposedly form-filling, stamp-wielding, file-pushing bureaucrats remain still as a statue, permanently frozen behind their desks. After two months of follow ups my election ID card exists only in my imagination. I will miss that one-second-in-five-years glory.
We are at a place nobody would expect us to be. I am nervous because this is my first time.
It is well over midnight, and the swirling, colorful strobe lights and their wild, psychedelic patterns reflecting on everything else in the dancing bar make my head spin. I am bored to teeth. We have chosen a table that is far from the cash counter. We are facing the two feet high stage decorated like a garish dance show set. An overhead speaker camouflages our words from the possible eavesdroppers. Two dozen odd girls with various degrees of skin and flab are dancing to the tune of a fast Bollywood track. Most of the patrons are male, too absorbed in the show to notice each other or us.
The place smells of alcohol, spicy food, cigarettes and cheap perfumes. There is plenty of booze on the table but I cannot afford to lose my nerve or senses at this moment. Once again, I reach under the table and feel for the heavy plastic packet clasped between my ankles.
Mr. Nameless from MSEB dips his salted wafers into the sauce bowl and munches thoughtfully. He shows no sigh of hurry. He doesn't have an electronic punching machine, locks and levers at his office, but I do. He doesn't have to worry about minimum 54 hours a week record, the cut throat quarterly business reviews or promotions. I do. No matter, I have no choice but to comply and sit tight. So I take a sip from my watery whiskey and look at the girls. They look as bored, as desperate and as tired as I am.
Mr. Nameless looks every inch a fat cat bureaucrat in his olive green safari suit and sports a football size pot belly. His lined face shows the signs of forty years of pen-pushing and his desk bound routine. His sharp nose, pointed chin and the habit to jerk his head this way and that way reminds me of a human-size woodpecker from cartoon films. How I wish they could be extinct.
We have finished our little dialogue within a few minutes before the drinks arrived. He knows my company's requirements in black and white. Double the three phase, 440 watt, industrial lines at our Panvel factory. Put up a few additional poles between the power station and the Thane factory with capacitors and boosters to improve the Ampere ratio and the voltage. Make sure that the stolen power is not billed to the company. Make sure that local crowd or farmers do not share, damage or disrupt the power supply. Keep the transmission lines in pick conditions specially during monsoons. Maintain the minimum transmission loss ratio. Do not give new connections to other factories without our tacit permission. Keep the coals and diesel in full supply at the nearby substation irrespective of the shortage or fluctuating market rates. Do all these without involving more paper work and more sanctions from various government agencies and khadi-clads. Do this before the construction of the new unit at the factory gets in the final stage. Give informal but accurate updates on work progress. I know this chart by heart because, as per the company policy, the trial production run date from the new unit is cast in iron.
Mr. Nameless earns a salary of Rs 21000 plus allowances but he lives in three bedroom apartment at Walkeshwar, Mumbai's A-list area. He changes his car, his interiors and his physician every two years. He was operated for appendicitis at Breach Candy recently. His 19-year old son is studying at a snob-job foreign university. His daughter owns three 1000-acre farms in Nerul and Lonawala each. Her personal investments run into crores. Our company has no details of the family's bank accounts or other assets but we can make a wild guess.
The music in the dancing bar changes to a crude kawaali number. A fresh set of girls dressed in mujra costumes arrives on the stage and start their act. I feel like chewing my tongue off but I need not worry. The change in music is a boon in disguise. Mr Nameless doesn't like the kawaali either. He shakes off his slumber and tosses his final drink down the gullet.
"I need some fresh air. Are you ready?"
I thrust a hundred into a Nepalese girl's hand, signal for the bill and pay in cash.
I lift the plastic packet from under the table and follow Mr. Nameless out of the place. The road is deserted but I keep an adroit distance between him and myself. After a hundred yard walk, he turns, looks around to assure himself and enters the dark street.
He knows this place and his routine inside out. I don't. Sweat rolls down my back as I try to catch up with him.
We face each other as Mr. Nameless lights a rolled joint. His thick glasses reflect the dancing fire of his lighter. I feel the rush in my blood stream as the intoxicating smoke hits my face. My skin crawls in crazy anticipation of a weightless, free-floating feeling. For an illusive moment, I forget the reason why are we here, whose payroll I am on, the load inside the package and the time on my wristwatch.
"Are we ready yet?" He asks.
I fight an irrational impulse and hand over the hefty plastic packet. "You can count the number of bundles inside," I say. My voice is steady and matches my normalcy level.
"You can count the bundles."
Mr. Nameless drags hard on his white roach, like a super efficient suction pump. "I trust you."
My mobile rings as I hand over the booty and I am back to reality. The call is straight from the top.
"Excuse me." I mumble and walk a safe distance away to talk.
"Where are you? Don't drop it. It'll be done through other point man," the bossman informs me without a preamble.
"I have already dropped it."
"Damn. Get it back. Get it all back." The phone is slammed down to make it count.
My heart rate goes up like a wild bull charge on Dalal Street. After a moment of confusion, I approach Mr. Nameless from MSEB.
"It's taken care of this time. I'll tell you next time," I say, half-expecting the packet back.
I can't see Mr Namelss's face but I can hear his alcohol-tainted, ganja-induced smirk. He tosses the joint on the garbage dump and watches it die a slow death.
"May be, I am the one who gets it done," he says.
"That's not possible. We're using a different channel for this."
"Look at it this way. May be I can get it undone. I know the keys and catches, nooks and corners." His laughter echoes through the dark, witness-free street.
I have no retort for that. I don't have the advantage of being a government-protected drunk dabbler either.
Mr. Nameless from MSEB stops laughing. "The sweet is for... not getting it undone, you can tell your management," he says.
He places his fat paw on my shoulder and lets it slide down. He slips a little something into my hand.
"I pay the taxes. I am covering your end too, do you get it?" He says.
It is my turn to laugh now. We part as friends, with pearly gates of bright future wide open for both of us.
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
It's a familiar feeling. I sit down in front of my computer and look at the blank screen with a peculiar dread. Nothing happens. So I start typing at random. Words. Phrases. Overheard remarks. A piece of headline from here and there. Loose, irrelevant, absurd, snatches from distant past and not-so-distant past. Images from half-remembered, half-imagined dreams. All of them take a stroll on the computer screen. In less than five minutes, my head feels empty, reasonably clear and certainly lighter. Receptive is the perfect word for that state of mind.
I pour out the first draft in thirty minutes or less. And finally, word by word, sentence by sentence, a story emerges like a shy princess out of her super-protective cocoon. Pretty she is not, till I lose the sense of time and place. My tea forgotten, terrace garden overflowing with water, and I am late for the gym already. But there it is. A flash story. A princess in her perfect gown, even if I say so myself.
My Name Is...
I am late for the interview. Not because I wanted to but because of my rickety bike. I am soaked in sweat and disgust when I enter the hotel lobby. Feeling like a cheap thief in the five star ambiance, I run down the corridor, try to wash the black soot off my hands, and enter the glitzy restaurant.
Mr. Success is waiting for me. I had met him eight years before, when he was a wiry young man, barely out of IIM-A, brimming with ideas to rock the business world. He moved faster than my imagination. The next interview took place over the phone, when I was in a telephone booth and he was in Silicon Valley, California, on the day his start up company was listed on NYSE and stock exchanges across India. He must be in his early thirties now but it doesn't show. He has added a patch of white hair, a bit of paunch and the hint of crow feet is evident, but he still wears rumpled linen jackets and looks as restless as a gnat.
After becoming a dotcom billionaire, he started a chain of boutique hotels and organic food chain. He sold most of his patterns for undisclosed sum in US market, got married to a pretty air hostess who turned out to be more headstrong than she was supposed to. His investment went down the chute in the recent meltdown. Soon after he returned to India. Reportedly his wife branched out. Nowadays, he is seen more on party circuit than in boardroom battles. I give him my visiting card.
He stifles a laugh and shoves the card into his pocket.
"Funny name. I remember you alright," Mr.Success says cheerfully. "Order!"
We start with a beer but I am slow with it. I need a clear head and a good story. I have less than 24 hours to write and file a story.
"There is no story this time." Mr. Success looks around the place and tells me. "I am sorry to disappoint you."
I switch on the Dictaphone anyway and take a careful sip. My beer tastes like tap water. My stomach feels hollow. I try to think of a different angle fast and draw a blank. My last three stories have landed in the editor's waste bin. This one is make or break for me. End of life line.
"Give me something. Anything other than recession, stories of losers and promises of charlatans," I say. "I want the readers to feel good."
Mr. Success laughs. "I am through with my retailing venture. We can never meet the projections we made to shareholders. I am selling the company to our competitor while most of the assets still hold good."
"Still in profit?"
"Personally yes. As a business model, no. My other investments have shrunk beyond recognition. You know that down to the last penny on the balance sheet, don't you?
"Not much else. I am moving out of the bustle of the city. Shifting to a remote village in Uttaranchal. My wife is starting a school there. I'll have plenty of time for my family now. A long vacation away from sharks in suits. I can use some free time."
"Yes, there'll be plenty of free time out there."
Mr.Success shuffles the menu this way and that way. He orders a big dinner. "My last super from company's perks. Like everyone else, before the company changes hands." He raises his glass.
I see red everywhere. There is no point in hiding my disappointment now. "This is not the kind of story I had in mind," I say.
"No drama. No twist. No high-voltage corporate intrigues."
Mr. Success leans forward, his face inches away from mine. His Brute makes me hold my breath.
"But you are delivering, ain't you ? With a name like Failure, you are supposed to deliver a lame duck. And this will be one. Right?
Mr. Success smiles once again and we drink the final toast to that piece of sharp dart.
Thursday, March 19, 2009
I dedicate this, a little plastic gem to renowned Mr Bush and his famous expression Shock and Awe. My tounge is -without doubt- in cheek. So please don't send a CIA operative to my house. I have yet to place orders for some really smart American weapons!
Joke and Grave
A 14-fact file about Joke and Grave
(Please jot: all spilling mistakes are international)
The historical origin of the catchy title (Joke and Grave) goes back to the time when a Neanderthal picked up a fist size stone and hurled it at another. He didn’t miss. The other Neanderthal took the hit on his temple and the impact killed him on the spot. The hitter laughed and buried the other. Joke and Grave.
This directly contradicts the Fact 1 by a simple argument that millions of years before the Neanderthal roamed the earth, there were monkeys who could pick up a missile and throw it with a fair degree of precision. Despite their ridiculous status in animal hierarchy, the wild boars and certain species of wolves are renowned for their grave digging skill that rewards them with an easy meal. It is on formal records that they are still faster at it than your average Neanderthal. As for their joke telling skill, the arguments are equally strong, but too technical, lengthy, and full of confusing jargon for the limited scope of this simple file.
Nearly all good Jokes are at the cost of somebody’s life (and Grave). We eat (and laugh) when somebody else dies.
(As a practical example of this rhetoric, a Joke derived from Fact 3 is illustrated in Fact 4.)
Above mentioned Fact 3 is reversible. We die when someone has to have the last laugh.
(Do me a favour, think about it.)
Despite its obvious musical value, several army-chair theorists have questioned the popularity of the term Joke and Grave. They argued their case with an alternative term called Block and Rave. Its neat rhyming value notwithstanding, it never really caught on. Maybe, they didn’t have sufficient advertising budget. These things happen.
Two hungry cats were fighting for a loaf of bread. As a result, they tore the loaf into two unequal pieces. After mauling each other, bruised and bloodied, they went to a monkey for justice. The monkey placed the bread pieces on his old fashioned weighing scale. As a result, the bigger piece tipped the balance needle, so the smart (and hungry) monkey took a hefty bite and put the remaining piece back on the scale. Now the needle tilted in favour of the other piece. The monkey chewed up a mouthful from the larger piece to balance the scale. The first piece again weighed more so... And so on and so forth.
By and by, the monkey had a hearty meal. Finally in his element, he grabbed both the cats by their necks, strangled them, and buried them. Joke and Grave
We finished reading the first half of the 14-fact file, the Joke part. Now let’s enter our Grave to read the rest.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
This is speed writing. It works best when you feel blocked, or get stuck with a dead-end story. Happens to me every other day! So you start writing in a void, without an idea, or a single conscious thought, or any kind of systematic planning. It takes a few minutes to put down the first skeletal draft (pure drivel), and if you believe in it, then some semblance of character/s and a plot emerges-if you are lucky. It might take a few days, weeks, or months to shape and polish it to perfection. This might be rewritten, so let's be open-minded about it!
A New Life
Her Swift Dsire is doing 170 kms per hour, tyres screaming, overtaking every other car on Mumbai - Pune highway. Geera Punjabi is in the driver seat: her eyes blood shot and puffed, her blood laced with rounds of vodka, her calf muscles aching from constant pressure, and her pride shaken like a rag puppet. This is speed therapy, cleans the mental clogging, according to her best friend. Works best in a top down car with cool wind blowing in your face!
"I can use a cigarette," she mutters an oft-repeated sentence from her college years.
Irrationally fragmented images of her life wheezes past like green trees and waving shrubs in the car window. Dad's posting all over the country. Schools, schools and more schools. Bicycle injuries. Cousins' marriages. Love affairs that costed a few years of life and her college degree. Sudden marriage into money and high-rise respectability that turned out to be hollow. Wayward husband. Kids that grew too fast. She lifts her foot from accelerator paddle against her wishes She slows down the car and stops at a toll booth. The uniformed man touches her white, manicured hand on sly as he accepts the money and hands over the ripped receipt.
"Sick bastard," she mumbles and slams her foot down. The speed needle hits 180 in a few seconds. She enters an endless claustrophobic tunnel. An intestine of a giant beast. Overhead lights reminds her of an endless, fake diamond necklace. She blinks, breathes easy as her car emerges into blinding bright sunshine. She has an idea to punish her husband. But there are catches. She still loves him. Two kids who can go either way, so divorce is out of question. Nevertheless she has to teach him lesson for being a regular customer of certain 'pleasure establishment,' as the the detective agency has phrased it in the report. Why can't he be open about it and talk to her instead? There is no answer.
She check the truck and her face in the rear view mirror. Is that nose too big? What happened to the full bloom lips that fascinated him so much? Has she grown that old and unattractive? She studies the mirror. It is a split second delay in her reaction that glances her car against an overtaking car. Impact makes a terrible metallic scream. An impatient Jeep rider from the other side forces her to twist the steering wheel, but the air pressure in the wheels hasn't been checked for a week, so the car skids a few feet before it can go straight. She brakes hard, a terrible mistake. Her elbow hits the door panel from the impact and goes numb. Next moment she is in the way of a truck too loaded to slow down in hurry. Her car turn a neat 90 degree on sudden impact, is thrown clear off the road. It slams into the railing that comes loose, twists and breaks. The car turns over like a cheap plastic toy. A slow black out.
Geera Panjabi is sprawled in her seat, hanging on the cracked steering wheel, her feet still in one piece. The engine finally dies down. She passes out on and off. In her subconscious state, she pulls up her feet and waits in the wrecked car. A lapse of time she is unable fathom and an overpowering stuffiness resulting from fumes of petrol. Her eyes open as if in deep sleep. A white Ambassador taxi stops by. A thin man climbs down. He examines the damage and looks inside the car. "She is probably..." he yells to his companion sitting in the car. They try to open Geera's car. She pretends to be unconscious.
"She is till warm," the man mutters as they pull her out through the shattered wind shield. She is thrilled by the touch of another life. "That feels good," she mumble in delirium.
"Are you okay?" the man asks as she tries to stand up on her feet and falls.
She wakes up in a speeding ambulance. An unknown face looks down at her.
"It feels good to be alive," she tells herself. "My mobile phone, three silk dresses and crockery in the backseat...Rotary meeting...younger kid's report card for..."
Geera Panjabi smiles despite a dead hand, an oxygen mask and an IV bottle swinging over her head.
She knows what to do with her new life.
Thursday, March 12, 2009
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
How I Wrote It / Why I Wrote It:
Every budding writer thinks of making it big. Million dollar advances. Critics going crazy or baying for blood. Jealous peers. Paparazzi followers. Interview in the news papers and on TV. Wild adulation. Crazy fan mails. Invitation to exclusive parties. Honorary membership in snooty clubs. Hobnobbing with other celebrities. Joining the rich and famous circles. Standard Elvis Presley fantasies. But there could be a dark down side, or buried wounds behind flashing cameras and exclusive sound bytes. That was the idea that spurred me on....................................................................................................................
The Price of Success
He parked his battered scooter in the dark, deserted basement and climbed up two stories worth of stairs. "Goddamn elevator! First thing to do is to buy a decent house in the proper locality." Overnight celebrity author of ‘PAST ’ mumbled out of breath. The impromptu press conferences after the prize announcements had left him bitter, confused, exhausted and disoriented. This was his first run in with the celebrity journalism.
He saw a dozen bouquets sat waiting outside his apartment door. The sight of flowers soothed his nerves somewhat. The yellow roses in a shiny golden clasp, the daffodils in a bamboo basket, a bunch of pink-red orchids in the ornate terracotta pot and several others. Most of the flowers he could recognize, but not the names of the senders. He put down his leather case, crouched on the floor, and started reading the rectangle tags. One with the blue roses caught his eye.
‘HEARTY COMPLEMENTS AND BEST WISHES FROM
The handwriting hadn't changed since the school days. Same outlandish flourishes to Rs and Ms.
"Hey," he thought, "Kali, you remember me all right, how would you get my address!" He fought tears as he visualized his friend he had not met for twenty-one years. Why has Rosanna not taken the bouquets inside, he wondered. His wife loved flowers too much to let them wither away outside. His wrist watch showed 12.45 . They must have delivered after she was asleep. This courier people must insist on signed acknowledgement, he mumbled. He entered the apartment with the blue rose bouquet from Kali Menon.
Rosanna grabbed his arms and cried out ‘Patrick!’
He took her in his arms, and looked around in the drawing room. Every inch of space, all three chairs, the sofa, their broad arm rests, the battered coffee table, the telephone stand, the window sills, the mantle place, the top of book case and even lampshade and the entire floor was laden under flower bouquets, baskets, gift wrapped bundles and colourful junk. The worn brown linoleum floor was invisible. He accidentally kicked a flower basket when she loosened her embrace. The room held a peculiar mix of fragrance. The husband and wife looked into each other’s eyes.
"You did it," she said in a tear-streaked voice.
"What took you so long?"
"My agent suggested an urgent press conference. It is all convoluted, clever marketing now. I am dead. What I say is through the media, or what they interpret and announce on my behalf. My publicist's fabrications carry more weight now than what I say, do, or feel. I am a celebrity. I cannot be myself. It is irresponsible, too risky. I cannot afford to be me anymore."
"Come off it. There are some telegrams. A citation from the president, can you beat that?"
Rosana, a 41-year old woman clad in faded robe, jumped over the bouquets and reached under the table to retrieve a stack of telegram among evening papers carrying his photos. He read and reread the message from Kali till he could not take it any more.
"Shall I heat up the soup and serve the dinner now?" his wife asked.
"I am not hungry anymore," he said as the room full of flowers begun to close in on him.
Monday, March 9, 2009
The merciless epidemic AID has inspired countless number of stories, films, dramas, and novels. Here is my take. How did I write it? The idea came when I visited a friend of mine at a Design Institute. I saw countless number of young students mingling in the cafeteria, in the lush compound, and the restaurants outside the Institute.
I wrote the story in one sitting but had pretty tough time coming up with a twist for a few months! Then I polished and polished till my fingers ached and I felt sick my self. First person narratives sound arrogant at times, but I find it intimate, and that is the way I write most of the time.
The title sounds too much like John Wayne's Western 'She Wore a Yellow Ribbon' because, I leafed through an old classic Hollywood movie guide and got the neat idea for the title.
Here is the story. Enjoy!
She Wore A Red Ribbon
Pale sunshine braved through the icy blue sky. A nip in the morning air made my skin tingles. The 1500 cc engine throbbing under me, I turned right under the arch of Pyramid, the cutting edge design institute of Asia. The happy young crowd milled about. Many of these pony-tailed and pierced ears types would take up their prima donna jobs at Esprit, Braun, or Swatch. A few might end up in drug rehabilitation centers. I passed the avant-garde facade of the main building and reached the girls’ hostel complex. All the guards knew me by now, but as per the rule, I asked the guard anyway to call Nora Kandinsky from c-714.
I parked the bike and strolled between the rows of well-maintained shrubs. The yellows of marigold in pots competed with the pinks of palm-sized roses. The shiny dew on emerald leaves had yet to dry. The aroma of fried eggs and wails of UB40 from the canteen filled the air.
There. A bird announced her arrival. She ran down the marble steps, all 17 of them. She wore a screaming yellow shirt, tomato red pants, and a matching wristband. A red ribbon fluttered from her hair. The only sober color about her was my khaki sweater dangling from her shoulder. The young guard gave her an eyeful as she crossed the gate. Looking at the rhythm of her breasts, I tried not to smile. She handed her leather bag to me and pulled on the sweater.
"These silly elastic bands." Her head emerged through the neck of the garment: an angel’s face without cheekbones. No lipstick for those lips.
"It is designed for men," I started a half-hearted argument.
"Not by a Pyramid designer!"
"Why don’t you return it to me? You were to keep it for only one semester." I felt a mild stir in my groin as remembered the day we went on a drive in my convertible, the bet she won because her silk scarf turned out to be wider than the seat width. She had kept the sweater from that day.
"Till death do us part," she announced.
She led me to the furthest bench from the gate. I guessed - demand for a lavish dinner today. Or she might have received a long-winded letter from her home and wanted a ‘serious conversation.’ Probably both.
We sat down under the acacia. She dug into her pocket and picked out three chocolate nuggets. She offered me one with a tilt of her head.
"Nikky, how old are you?" I pointed at the chocolates.
"I am seven, 17 or 70. How does that matter now?" She started chewing. With a few deft movements, she made a peacock out of the gold foil wrapper.
"You seem to be all right. Your blood reports came back normal? Any fever since we met last fortnight?"
A long spell of silence connected us. I tried what I was good at.
"Where have you been?" She pushed my face away.
"I was down with a nasty flu for a week. And then the soda ash delivery business, I told you about. Too much travelling these days. I called you, but your hostel phone was dead." I patted my mobile on her knees.
"What are these trips all about?"
"Sales calls and stuff like that. Are you taking the medicine? Better to finish the complete dose."
Her fever was the third instance in this semester. She never fell ill so easily.
She tugged at me but wouldn’t look in my eyes.
"You missed me, didn’t you?" I held her tight. "I have found a fundoo Thai restaurant. Let me take you out for a spicy, candlelit dinner tonight."
A vein on her smooth brown neck throbbed imperceptibly. I kept my arm on her shoulder, but her smile was missing.
She turned to hold my face in her tiny hands and checked me, like a plastic surgeon looking for a flaw. She rubbed her nose on my chin and pecked. No comments about my new aftershave. I propped her up on the bench and started to kiss. With a sudden pull, she snatched away from me. She raised her hand and slapped me. Hard.
"What the f..." Tears in her eyes stopped me dead.
I looked around to see if anybody was looking at us. Nikky got up. She and her stupid leather bag. She pulled out some papers and thrust them in my face. I was too mad to read but the word HIV+ registered. One paper had a logo of twisted red ribbon.
The traffic noise seemed to die down; green leaves and branches above me were a green blur, the hostel building swayed gently in distance. A squabble was on in the canteen. I felt a man-size hole in my stomach.
"I am volunteering for a HIV drug experiment program," she whispered.