Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Go back to America then!


Five years ago I met a friend who described himself as a coconut: brown on the outside, white on the inside. He said it laughingly in a self deprecating way. Five years later I understand exactly what he meant... With one wrinkle: my love-hate relationship with India (which was low on love to begin with in the first place) is now primarily a hate-hate.


More on that in a minute... But first, let's address the thing I should've started this with.


I've been gone for the better part of 5 years without blogging. I mean yes, there's a few posts scattered here and there, a story or two churned out in the time since then... But that's not really the same thing as journaling.


Chronicling all the little ups and downs of my life has served as a wonderful reminder of how far I've come and how I've changed - sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse - but in either case, my blog has been my unwavering companion through thick and thin, my strong, silent confidante... my proverbial book and pen. Sometimes I've ranted, sometimes I've reflected, sometimes I've written seeking redemption, justice, acceptance, a kindred spirit out there in the ether... What-have-you's... And it's stood the test of (internet!) time, a stoic reminder of my own evolution over the years.


Why did I stop?


Lack of time, mostly. Increasing work and social life, too. I got busier, and I grew my circle of friends. I met a guy and we fell in love and we got married. I moved to America. My weekdays were filled with interesting problems to solve with interesting colleagues, and I filled my weekends with fun and laughter and brunches with good people and good food. It was catharsis of a different sort. In the process, my love for solitude slipped away with little fanfare. 


However, despite all the people and the work and the major life transitions, my need to vent, reflect, pontificate and occasionally wallow in self-pity, never quite went away.


Insidiously, over time Facebook became my poison of choice because 

1) It was convenient and built for sharing what's on your mind  
2) All my friends were on there (and a whole bunch of random folks I've met in corridors and hallways and parties)
3) I was on it the whole time anyway, plugged in by default through that appendage, my iPhone

Still, it was an insidious thing because Facebook was never really meant to be a safe haven for ranting. Sharing photos yes, cat videos yes, even the occasional article with commentary wrapped around it. But it is, by and large, your narrative, your face to the public at large, your best attempt at crafting a public persona that is at once authentic and relatable to the lowest-common-denominator of your 500-odd 'friends'. That and of course, the world's largest field study that we've silently opted into and signed away all our digital (and increasingly real-world) privacy for.


Surprisingly, in the US, I rarely felt the urge to express anything more controversial than was appropriate to a 500-member motley crew of friends, family and odds & ends. The occasional work-stress,the once in a while rants about US flights and airports, even the sporadic rant about an article I read or some injustice that's riled me up or comment from family, friend or foe that sent me straight off to the status bar.


But it wasn't all a Debbie Downer situation. I over-shared, yes, but it was mostly benign stuff about standing in lines, or over-paying for dresses, or a verbal barb at some aunt-once-removed-on-my-cousin's side who made an off-the-cuff remark about a social issue that's one of my hot-bottoms, all the while chewing peanuts with her mouth open (or some such other annoyance like wearing horizontal stripes that I'm sure I would've included in the post)


Since I've been back, all of that has changed.


People often complain about Indians; the middle class are a desensitized lot, they lack a civic sense, they live in a self-imposed bubble shuttling from air-conditioned car to carpeted room. These critics are mostly ex-Indians (coconuts! Haha :p) or non-Indians.


I think I know why the middle class is so desensitized: to worry endlessly about things you can't change or control, is a recipe for depression.


What things? Lack of consumer advocacy groups, pathetic legal and judicial system, corrupt or non-existent law enforcement agencies, openly corrupt, nepotistic and mercenary "oversight" committees, zero regard for public safety from matters ranging from 20x permitted dosages of pesticides in food (you think I'm making that number up? Google deformed babies and pesticides in India) to the level of air pollutants and how it affects a city-baby's lungs, hierarchical and authoritarian (and many times, downright unethical) work cultures, argumentative, oppressive patriarchal society, and a dog-eat-dog and brutish hivemind.


These structural inefficiencies and institutional failures percolate an Indian existence and affect you in a very real, very everyday way.


Well yes, you say, somewhat sheepishly and squirmy and growing defensive and emboldened by the minute.... we are a developing nation after all. Our judicial systems are slow, our consumer advocacy or public safety groups may be slow or unresponsive... But surely that's not the case everywhere! We have some instances that work. And besides, how does this affect me on an everyday basis anyway? Why am I ranting in the middle of the night, blogging at 3am after a 5 year hiatus, about those far-off things like big government and corruption... What does that have to do with the now and here? How does it affect me anyway? 


Systematic and institutional failures breed the petty (and not so petty) frustrations in everyday situations.


Take for example today: I should be getting a night's rest ahead of tomorrow's big day but instead I'm writhing in pain and agony, throwing up every 2 hours thanks to unhygienic preparation of restaurant food. Never mind this was a so-called reputable restaurant chain. Well why didn't I just eat in then! Sure, that's what I did the first few months, and I still had food poisoning every 3 days. Was it the spices? Was it the level of pesticides and toxins? Was it bacteria in the tap water? Who knows! As long as we as a society choose to turn a blind eye to the long-term consequences of our immediate actions, we are doomed to a wretched and willfully-ignorant existence. 


At any rate, all my stomach woes did was lead to a visit to my family's prescription-happy doctor, who often times will not deign to speak to me like an adult or a thinking person, to even walk through: 'here are the side effects, here's why we'd like to start you off on this dosage etc' because as a doctor he believes he's above reproach and how dare some peasant question his authority. I spent month after month of living on a cocktail of drugs everyday, because Indian doctors apparently missed the class in med school where they suggest you start the body off on lesser drugs before moving up to stronger antibiotics.


But no; many Indian doctors that I've seen believe they're God (even through the reality is that no American hospital would touch even them with a twelve-foot pole thanks to their blatant disregard for sound medical practice and inflated egos)


No that's not it... The central question is: Having seen so many patients (never mind that the Indian doctor has no way of knowing how successful his course of action has been vs another approach) hasn't he earned the fight to make blanket assumptions on your lifestyle, diet, habits etc and prescribe heavy duty drugs without checking with you first if his assumptions are valid? God help you for being so presumptuous to think you have rights over your own body. And if you react badly to his advice... What outrage! Who's the authority here, him or you? After all 99% of his cases (and he'll make up this statistic on the spot because he really has no data since neither a government mandate nor societal pressure requires it) have had no complaints.


And if it were the case that true medical malpractice or criminal negligence happened - like in the case of an unnecessary and traumatic surgery performed on my husband, under duress and coercion - what course of action have I? Good luck with our courts.  


And the nail in the coffin? The nosy, opinionated Indian who will show up everywhere from your neighbor's house to your local newspaper's 'readers comment' sections irate that you have gone against doctor-God. And now you will have to bear the ire of short-term focused "citizens" who will berate you for wasting your time on these "attention-seeking" tactics measures instead of something more productive (like procreating or cooking I suppose)


Which brings me to...


A jibe that a "friend" repeated in the first few days that I was back in India, alternating between allergies and stomach upsets and a cocktail of antibiotics everyday for the first 3 months of my coming back: Go back to America then!


Well, maybe I should.


But ask yourself this: friend and all the other internet trolls out there. Why then rail against us 'traitors' who've abandoned our homeland's ample bosom in search of cleaner, safer shores?


Yeah I thought so. So shut up. You can't have it both ways.


For Indians in India your options are two: 

1) Fight the good fight, with nerves of steel and a life dedicated to correcting all the minor injustices that stem from institutional failures. Many of you will not succeed. I would have said none of you, but theoretically it is possible so I will concede that. But persevere anyway, and suffer the thinly-veiled assaults of a disapproving and intrusive community that will think nothing of walking up to you on the street and berating you for dedicating you time to "all this stuff" while your wife silently toils making ends meet or your husband sits by his lonesome self at the kitchen table eating food that his wife neither prepared nor lovingly ladled into his sippy cup, or
2) Preserve yourself and your sanity by creating a protective bubble, shielded from the outrages of middle-class life. Move from air conditioned car to English-educated convent school or college to air-conditioned malls to beauty parlors to a beautiful home hidden behind a curtain of street garbage to a home-cooked meal and a battalion of servants and maids and cooks and drivers. You will suffer the self-righteous outrage of the educated ex-Indians for coasting on the backs of the servant class, for being complicit in your tacit self-imposed ignorance and unwillingness to change the status quo. But in the end, it is a small price to pay for your sanity... For finding your will to live, in a sea of hopelessness and ugliness.

There *is* a third option: quit India. 


And yes, your Indian-Indians and soon-to-be ex-brethren will wail about how you're done a disservice to your country, while they sit sipping from an glass of ice water humbly served by their maid, and waxing eloquent about what changes the country needs and what to do about all this brain drain tsk tsk.


But you wouldn't care would you? You're miles away and surrounded by positive people, and a positive energy, and a will to fix what's broken and question what can be improved. And a healthy regard for human life and for the dignity of labor. It's not all peaches and cream, but viewed from India, it's damn-well paradise.


And all it takes is the occasional bitching and moaning about standing in queues, and delayed flights, and snowstorms.


And all the ice water in the world, straight from a machine.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

2013



I’m almost coming to the end of my India trip and surprisingly this time I haven’t written anything. So, my neglected blog is benefiting from the sudden interest of my idle, fickle mind.

When I started this blog almost 7 years ago, I had no idea what it would be. I still have no idea what it is. My most fecund period was some time shortly after graduation from undergrad, although that spurt of writing was probably triggered by a conflux of restlessness, ennui and existential crisis. Reading those posts now surface mixed emotions; partly relief at how distant that past is, and partly wonder at how different a person I am now. Julian Barnes has said it more eloquently than I can matter to muster, in his ‘Sense of an ending’, but I’ll paraphrase: we grow and change and evolve constantly with time, our ideas, personalities and even memories of past events. We know this, and yet we overestimate the objectivity and singular point of truth with which we view the world.

Reading some of the posts I wrote early on is a bit like re-living the past… only, unlike flipping through a photobook of memories that evoke a certain memory or emotion, it’s like conversing with your former self as she looks through the photobook. The voice of my former mind’s eye, the thinking, the beliefs I held betray a person so wholly different from who I am now. I read an article recently that said we underestimate the extent to which we will change our beliefs and personalities as age. This is apparently as true when participants are asked at 50 (to regard their 20-year-in-the-future-self), as when participants are asked at 30. If nothing else, that alone is reason enough to keep a blog.

Speaking of blogs… why did I keep and continue to keep a blog? To what end?

First there was the general brain-dumps and emo-outpourings borne of boredom and frustration and what-have-you’s when you’re 23 and restless and panicky at the pace at which you’re friends are leapfrogging ahead in life while you twiddle your thumbs in a forgotten corner of a dusty, empty office out of sight and out of mind of anyone who might be bothered by your presence. A way to keep my sanity I suppose… although what prompted me to do so publicly I don’t know.  

And then an evolution: posts that made a slight attempt to be mildly entertaining to anyone who would bother to read.

And then a further snowballing toward ‘audience-worthy’ posts, some random, look-at-me facebook-duckface-selfphoto equivalent interspersed with (sometimes) forced entertainment-value stuff – mostly harmless, nonsensical post about that and this and everything in between.

And then there’s the brooding, no-one-loves-me-dramz posts…. which, oddly enough, were perhaps the most satisfying of the lot. Not to read (they’re horrendous) but while writing, it was cathartic. The blog was perhaps my silent, unquestioning friend during those times, with endless patience and sympathetic ear as I untangled the mess of yarn in my head and reeled in those ratatat-semi-thought-darts flying helter-skelter. 

This was the time when I thought the least of my audience, that laughably pompous belief that you owe your blog readers something worthy of their attention, and my blog became little more than a simple journal. No editing. No narrative. No purpose or moral of the story. Just stream of consciousness and perhaps a little navel gazing. But it felt good. Especially to have the comfort of a blank page to untangle one’s thoughts, and in many cases, just to understand one’s thoughts by forcing oneself to put down on paper what hitherto has been thought-seedlings, part inner voice, part emotion, quickly to be knocked out of mind and memory by the next shiny new thing. Capturing those wispy rascals and nailing them on paper was one way to know what I felt about things at least.

And then there were the stories. And poems.

And then the random updates, sometimes betraying some deep-seated belief/ fear/ desire, sometimes borne of out guilt at having not posted in a while.

And then the brief marking of milestones, when lack of time prevented a longer post.

And then… what? I don’t know. What is this post, for instance? The closest I can come to describing it is as some sort of palate-cleanser between pieces of introspection, or actual writing and thinking and sms-ing and facebook updating. Maybe it’s an untangling, maybe it’s a conversation with self, maybe it’s just nonsense. Who knows. What. I don’t even.

Here. Potato. For you, dear reader.

The funny thing is that the last few times when I’ve thought of writing on my blog, I’ve stopped because I didn’t have anything to write. Correction: anything worthy of an audience. Between the lack of time and the self-imposed standard for audience entertainment-worthy posts, it brought about an ink-drought in this blog that dried up any remaining readers. Ironically, I now I find myself comfortably disinterested in writing for the benefit of readers.

I only wish I had reached this state of mind (not to mention, exhibited a smidgen of self-discipline) and chronicled random thoughts, updates and blog posts at the time of my being in B-school. Suffice to say, much change has happened, much soul-searching, and questioning, and breaking down and firming up of beliefs held. I probably changed more (and for the better) as a result of leaving home and living an independent life, far from the maddening family and madrasi crowd, than I did as a result of getting married or any other major transition in my life. Anyhoo. That’s that.

My thoughts stop here and I realize I have nothing to say, except that I’m enjoying basking in the warm afternoon sun by the window after a particularly satisfying home-cooked lunch. Few things can match being fed and pampered at home on vacation.

That, and cricket matches, and books, and lazy sunny naps, and dogs, and the comfort of old friends a stone’s throw away.

Speaking of friends, it’s inevitable I suppose, but I’m still surprised by how quickly this city has emptied out all the familiar faces. Marriage, kids, higher ed and careers or what-have-yous (although I’ve lost far more to the first two than the latter) has made bumming around the beach and random Sunday morning drives to moonrakers a tad more complicated than before. Such is life I suppose. We’ll always have books at any rate. Dear old Ankh-Morpork.

Still… we managed a few good times, both over much cheering and downing of kingfishers, as well as in the quiet, sticky sweet madras night air of a friend’s balcony, chatting up books and movies and current affairs and the-state-of-the-world-as-it-were and much finger-wagging and tongue-lashing and clamoring for tea at the end of all that sound and fury.

So all in all it’s been a good trip, and this has been a satisfying palate cleanser. No real thought-knots to untangle, no points to make, no epiphanies to reach…. Just the satisfying, familiar clattering of fingers on keys.

There are still stories to write, and ideas to capture before it get overrun by the fearsome inevitability of work and laundry and to-do lists… but that’s for another time and another post. For now, there’s something to be said on the joys of re-discovering the adventures of Asterix and Obelix by a sunlit window.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Kept

He always had been a creature of moods. So when he wakes up in the morning with a half-mumbled grunt and leaves wordlessly after drinking the coffee decoction from his steel tumbler, I think no more of it. He'll be back, sometimes it takes two days, sometimes three... But he always finds his way. And when he does, I lie awake in bed, feigning sleep, cursing my deafening heartbeats for giving me away. He's always known that the best part of my day is the sound of his key turning in the front door.

Somedays I like to laze in bed after he's gone. The sheets carry our shame in their telltale stains. The pillows, a trace of Old Spice sliced lazily by the slow blades of the overhead fan. I wonder if he smells of turmeric from my skin and the coconut oil I paint my hair with. I love how his odor taints my skin, burying itself in my forearms, my shoulders, the creases of my eyelids, the folds of my crumpled sari.

If the dabra of coffee is untouched on the kitchen sill, then it would mean a week before he's back. I play these games with myself sometimes, trying to guess when he'll be back. Two or three days, if he leaves without waking me up, a week if he leaves his coffee untouched, and if, like this morning, he loops his arm around my waist, draws me close and presses his morning erection against my back, then I know he'll be back by evening.

The breaks arent always bad. Some mornings I take a long, hot bath after he's left, scrubbing my skin with the hamaam soap I've used since childhood. Even as it eliminates every trace amount of him from my body in cool, efficient strokes, I relive the memories of the last time I saw him. I burn the forbidden pleasures of the night into my brain like an emblem, locking away every detail, every movement, recollecting the taboos of the night in the stark nakedness of morning light with a boldness that surprises me even after all this time.

He is moody most days. But at night, he's a different beast - menacing in his silence. Sometimes i think he knows how much the anticipation kills me and he makes me wait just to kill me a little bit more. For a heavy man, he walks with the grace of a cat, taking slow measured steps, leaving his bag on table, loosening his shirt, resting his whole weight on the side of the bed as he takes off one shoe and then another like he has all the time in the world, as I lie face turned, in my pretend-sleep, sure that I will implode in excitement.

And then when I cannot take it anymore and fear I will give myself away, he loops his arm around my waist and pulls me into him without a word. He always waits for me to make the first move, and I always break my promise to myself and give in to his temptation. Once I have drawn first blood, he moves in like an old jungle cat, pinning me down with the firm muscles of his forearms, lightly nudging my knees when he is ready, and ravishing my mouth while his hands search my body like I was his property. I bet I do things to him his wife would never allow.

In the mornings, like today, I reminisce in the bath and walk in the cloud of my thoughts, as I dab a dot of coconut oil and sink my fingers into my soaked hair, massaging it from the roots to the tips. When I spread a clean white towel over my hair and make a neat bun resting on the nape of my neck, then the night has ended and my day begins.

I scrub the home, change the sheets, wipe the grime from behind the stove, between the bath tiles, sweep the floors and launch a projectile of fresh water outside my front doorstep to signal my cleansed home. Then I light the camphor and release hoops of smoke around the cut-outs of gods from old calendars decorating my kitchen wall.

Sometimes I wonder if the gods are pleased with me. They have kept me happy, and I have never been in want of anything, and i always pray for forgiveness for the sins of the night, and in the morning the crows come to eat their share when I call out to them before sitting down to my own steaming plate of ghee-soaked idlis and coconut chutney. So I think they are pleased with me, for what I do to him and the happiness I bring him.

And in return, he grants me my afternoons - a private luxury that he would never invade. I nap, I read the Tamil tabloids, take a walk outside or sit on the parapet, watching the street kids playing gully cricket. If I feel like it, I walk down to the beach, even in the sizzling heat of the midday sun, and sun myself like a lizard on a rock or maybe indulge in a flavored ice-goli or cut-piece of raw mango dipped in chilli powder and washed down with yeleneer.

I love yeleneer, always have, ever since I was a child and rewarded for a good report card with fresh eleneer from the coconut seller outside our home. I'd save the coconut after I drank my fill so i could ask him to slice them open for me to scrape and eat its delicious, white flesh as I sat on the stone wall flanking his coconut cart and swung my legs out from beneath.

He knows this. Which is why some nights, when he comes back after a long absence, he brings me coconuts, or a sheaf of freshly-strung jasmines, or - once - a new packet of bindis that he opened and put on my forehead with a look of expert precision. His wife doesn't wear them apparently. That's the only time he spoke of her. I didn't ask if he bought them for her and gave it to me instead when she wouldn't wear them. Its mine now, and I keep them carefully folded in my almarah between the creases of my red silk sari, like a guilty pleasure that I can peek at whenever I want, take it out and rub between my palms knowing that this is something in this world he picked out for me - me! - and wonder how he must've imagined them dotting my face in his minds eye as he chose this pack of bindis, over all the bindis that he could have picked.

Thinking of bindis reminds me of the market place, and this afternoon I think I should like to head over there. There is something about the noise and the crowd of pondy bazaar and the sickly sweet smell of wilting jasmine garlands mingled with the stench of rotting city garbage. My madras is this: the din of west mambalam, the crowds of pondy bazaar and t nagar, the life of marina beach and the soul of kapaleeswar temple. Everything else is just walls and roads. I've seen the new mall, I've gone into it once - not with him, he'd never take me to places like that - but on my own, on a whim one afternoon when I convinced karpaiya to take me on a joy ride in his auto in exchange for a small steel dabba filled with fish curry. We walked around the gleaming white building, even though the watchmen shot us dirty unwelcome looks. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. They had a huge market in the basement - who would ever keep vegetables in a basement? - with stacks of fruits and vegetables and soaps piled up high, and carts on wheels that you could take with you to put your things in. What a strange idea. Why would you need these when you bring your own jute shopping bag? And the food. enough to feed all the street children that live in the slums outside our colony for a week. And counters of shampoos and talcum powder and soaps I'd never seen before. A small girl in uniform and a namebadge followed karapaiya and me everywhere we went. When I touched something or picked it up she would loudly tell me how much it cost. I would turn it around and around and look at it like I was considering it but not fully convinced and finally keep it back on the shelf; but I knew she saw right through me.

And why wouldn't she? I bet she shops at her local fancy store too. I would rather shop at the fancy store down the street, where Ramu gives me credit on days I'm short, or sends the boy whenever the bags get too heavy to carry alone, where everything i could ever need is laid out within his small store an arms length wide, and Ramu would see me walking down the street and by the time I've reached the small countertop he stands behind, he's already laid out a fresh bottle of parachute oil and hamaam and anything else I might need with the familiarity of an old friend. Why would I need ten bars of soap to choose from when hamaam has always served me well? No, my Madras starts and ends with the beach and the temple and the bazaar, and everything else is nothing but shiny, gleaming distractions.

Today I yearn for the familiar din of pondy bazaar, its heat and its grime fighting for significance over makeshift stalls and carts filled with jasmine garlands and new slippers and shiny plastic hairclips. Besides, I could tell he was not satiated when he left this morning, when we fucked last night without taking off my sari, when he held me to him a minute longer than usual before he dragged his carcass out into the day. He will be back tonight - and I will wait for him in a neatly pleated sari and a fresh bindi on my forehead and jasmines woven in my hair.

I am so engrossed I almost don't notice his car as karpaiya and I make our way to the bazaar. I fear our auto can't catch up to the car's speed, but a red traffic light saves us as we snake our way close enough to see one slender arm looped over the open drivers-side window, a lit cigarette dangling from her fingers.

'Karupaiya, anda vandhi-a follow pannungo please'

Karpaiya shoots me a disapproving look, but follows at a considerable distance. I have thought about his wife many times, wondered what she looked like, what kind of a person she was, did he touch her in the ways he touched me, did she know I existed? She existed like a distant memory, or an unsolved crossword puzzle in the back of my mind, to be picked up and solved at leisure another time. I never imagined I would meet her. Suddenly I feel I must know everything about her, and urgently.

We dart through the cows and the chaos of t nagar, through the leafy parts of nungambakkam, through the
tree-lined streets of haddows road where every home had a gate and a watchman. She turns into a small Spencer's daily and we turn behind her. Karpaiya is still disapproving but I beg him to stay and wait for me.

Spencer's daily is not as big as the basement market in the mall - but it is still gleaming and white, with rows of multi-colored scented soaps. The smells make me dizzy.

I watch from a distance and start to mimic her actions. She picks up a shopping cart, and I do too. She stops at the soap section looking at a few, turning them around reading the instructions and sniffing them before picking one that she wants. I go up to the shelf, pick the same ones she palmed a few seconds ago, bring my nose to the same pack she sniffed and put into my bag the one similar to what she chose. I continue to follow from a distance.

I do not know what I had imagined she would look like. Maybe a little like me, maybe shorter, maybe not, I dont know. But this woman was more girl than woman. She wore a thin white t shirt and black ankle level pants that showed off her smooth calfs and hairless forearms. I look at my own arms and the dark hair dotting my skin. Did he ever notice? How horrid they look. She reaches on the top shelf for shampoo and puts it into her bag without reading the back. Maybe it is one she uses often. I hurry behind her and reach for the same.

Through the light from the window behind her I could see the smooth outline of her taut stomach. I flush at the thought of my own stomach, and the numerous times his hands have searched my waist to find and play with my little pouch of belly fat that he strokes and tickles when he wants to hear me laugh. Does she have the same deep throaty laugh as me? I grow jealous thinking of him tickling her in bed, in his bed with her in it.

She walks a few steps this way and that, picking up a Cadbury fruit and nut, a small tube of facewash and finally a box of gum at the billing. I pick up the same, in the same order. My hand hovers over the face wash as I look at the fair and lovely face cream innocuously positioned by the side. I feel ashamed of my own skin, the back of my hand tinged with turmeric and still faintly smelling of hamaam. No amount of face creams will ever make me as light as her. I look to where she is, her sunglasses perched on top of her head, her manicured and moisturized fingers tapping some absent- minded tune on the counter top. In the afternoon light, her tumbling locks of oil-free black hair, the sharp nose, her painted lips, that jawline... She looks like a movie star. And here I am with a basket full of soap and shampoo and face wash. A small girl in a uniform comes up behind me and asks if she could take my basket up to billing. What can I do? I give it to her and pray that I have enough money to buy them all. She has left by now, getting in the drivers seat of her car, no cigarette this time, but her fingers still splayed out her driver-side window, strumming a tune on the side of her car.

"madam, 310 rupees"

I take out all of the money I have in my purse. I buy it of course, and I walk away with my bag of treasure but immediately I feel a pang of regret as I think of all the jasmine flowers and coconut water and cut pieces of mango 310 rupees could have bought. The shampoo alone was 100 ruppees. Why, when shikakai has always worked well enough for me all these years. 310 rupees - probably Karapaiya's whole earnings in a day. I burn with shame when I think of it. Anyway, the money's gone now, so that's that. and in its place I have the magic things that will make me like her.

Karpaiya is waiting dutifully where I left him. He shoots me an darkly ominous look.

"Sugunya, nee pannrathu yennaku konjum kuda pidikalai"

I sit wordlessly in the back of his auto clutching my spoils, wrapped in his gloomy disapproval, as he takes me back home. I am like a child with a secret toy.

At once, when I reach home, I empty the contents of my bag on my cot, hurriedly grab the soap and shampoo, and go in for my second bath of the day. I think of his face and his look of surprise and joy and - maybe pride even. I'd tried shampoos before - I'm not some village bumpkin you know - and I always powder myself down with ponds talcum face powder to stay sweat free thru the thick, madras summer days. But this was different; this was hers. Her scent that I would be erasing from his memory and replacing with mine. I think of how I will wear my hair when he comes home to me tonight, loose and unencumbered by the tight, oiled captivity of my usual thick plait that snakes it's way down my back.

And then when I am washed and scented and clean - I wait. My mind wanders and I think of my first time with him, knee-knocked shy Sugunya, too shy to even look at him in the filtered moonlight while he kneaded me with his firm, gentle hands. I blush thinking of me then - what a country bumpkin I was! Come straight from the village, wide-eyed and trusting of everything and everyone in the city. How far I've come! How much I know now. How much I've seen of the world, and done, and know now.

I sit cross-legged on the chair and balance an unlit cigarette between my fingers like I'd seen her do. It's a strange position, but I am eager for him to see the new, bold me. The hours pass.

At ten, I hear the familiar jigglin of the keys in the keyhole. I am a bag of nerves. I arrange myself in the position I adopted before, my newly-washed and scented hair trailing loose down my back. He comes into the darkness, dropping his shoes with the heaviness of the day, and almost turns into the bedroom... And catches himself. I catch his perplexed gaze with a nervous smile, get up from my chair and move into the bedroom. I can feel his eyes follow me, confused with this apparition before him.

I lie back and look at him full in the face. Why did I do that? I've never looked him in the eye before, always bowing my head till he lifts my chin with the tip of his fingers when he's ready for me, always walking two steps behind him in my own home. But tonight... I feel different, alive, defiant somehow - for the first time since the time we've known each other. I grow bold and lift my chin a little.

We wait, and gaze upon each other with the comfort of old foes. Finally, he breaks the tension, taking the first step. He moves in over me, silent as always.... but tonight, even the silence is different. His arms dont search with the firm resolve of a hunter, his knees dont nudge that which he knows will give way without a fight. For the first time there is a hesitation, a temerity as he starts to tugs on my hair and loosens his grip when he sees me lift my head on my own accord. We kiss without feeling, and I am angry and confused and frightened at the same time. When we finish, we both lie back in the emptiness. I spend hours thinking if I should break the silence; what will I say? What happened here tonight? Why are we like strangers? I wait for his familiar deep breathing to fill the room, the sound I wait for each night, the sound that tells me he has spent his last dregs of energy for the day and sleeps now with the deep sleep of a man with the weight of the world lifted of his shoulders. The hours pass, and I don't know when it is that I finally fall asleep out of exhaustion and waiting.

In the morning, I wake for the first time in an empty bed. Confused and bleary-eyed, I stumble into the kitchen and my hands start moving with a purpose of their own, going through the morning routine like they have for all these years. I boil the milk, ground the coffee seeds, strain the dicoction and pour the steaming stream of milk and coffee from one steel tumbler into the dabra and back again, working up a froth. I put it in front of me and stare at it, as the strong smell of filter coffee fills the house and slaps my sleep away.

It sits, like an innocent on the kitchen counter. Alone. I hesitate to pick it up.

But who will drink it now that he's gone? And it is freshly made, perfectly good coffee after all. I gingerly grip the tumbler in my hands and peer into the dark brown pool of milk, coffee and froth. Outside the crows have started their cawing for the morning meal.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

La Dolce Vita


As a general rule, Rohan let the alarm ring for about ten seconds before he hit the off button. Partly because that’s the time it takes for him to slowly rise to consciousness, and partly because that’s how long it takes Wagner to get into the roaring chords to the Ride of the Valkyries. Rohan hit the off button on his alarm, kicked the tangled sheets off his bare legs and groped for his phone. Friday 9pm. That meant house party at Sanjay’s place.

To say that Rohan enjoyed his singlehood is an understatement. He relished it the way fat people relished chocolate fudge cookies. His apartment was a tiny, sunlit two-bedroom on the top floor of an old building in the leafier parts of besant nagar. He once had a female roommate, and the cane furniture and floor cushions, yellow paper lanterns from auroville and framed black and white prints of old Madras were her touch. When she got a boyfriend, she moved out, taking with her, her shoes and things and leaving behind – one of the many things she left behind – a row of green bottles on the windowsill with money-plants crawling out of their mouths. These were duly watered by the cook, another remnant of the female roommate, who came into the apartment with her own key every morning and evening. At eight thousand rupees a month she was only too happy to cook and clean for this undemanding bachelor who never made a fuss about the food, always paid on time, and only occasionally greeted her with the unexpected remains of a late-night party; an overflowing mug of cigarette butts here, empty beer bottles strewn over there or some forgotten damp panties stashed under a bed. The spare room had its uses. All in all, Rohan led, one might say, the sweet life.

Rohan stepped out of the shower to see two missed calls and a text from Sanjay on his phone. He unlocked it.

‘de whr u da?? brng sum blck labl frm tasmac ok bloddy half the town is in my home only’

Alright then.

White shirt, blue jeans, watch. Rohan dabbed a dot of styling cream on his palm and ran his fingers through his lightly damp, tousled hair. He took the new shoes out of the shoebox, put them on and admired the rich, brown leather in the mirror for a minute before leaving the bedroom. He could tell from the sound of the jingling bangles emanating from the kitchen that Rukamma has come in already and had already started on the dishes from last night. He stuck his head in.

‘Rukamma, no need to come tomorrow morning. Late night for me today. No breakfast.’

Rukamma gave him a toothy grin, her arms and bangles covered in soap-suds up to her elbow, working the insides of those glasses in smooth circular motions.

‘Ah seri pa, naan naaliki evening varain.’

All the while her strong, lean forearms scrub, scrub, scrub-a-dub-dub away at the wine glasses in firm, yet careful, circles. Rohan grabbed the house-keys from its carelessly flung position on the floor cushion and was out the door.

--

‘De fucker, how long to wait for you da?’, Arjun opened the front door to Sanjay’s overflowing one-storey home.

‘Friday night, man. Going to Tasmac is a royal pain.’

‘Yeah ok something. Sanjay’s whining like a bitch.’

Sanjay’s home was cosy. Not in the way that brokers meant when they tried to fob off disgustingly-small homes upon you. His home was actually comfortable, with simple wooden furniture and enough space to throw a party. It was bathed in warm tones, with lots of paintings and crooks in the wall that he filled with small wooden figurines and sculptures he brought back from his trips. At twenty-four, he was three years younger than Rohan, but with a stable day-job at his dad’s business, and a home of his own, he was set. They met at one of the plays that Sanjay was performing in and that Rohan has gone to cover as a theatre critic and freelance journalist.

Sanjay wasn’t kidding about half the town being in here either. There were at least forty people at his place, mulling around the dining table laden with drinks and ice or spilling out into the small backyard garden through the French windows in the dining room.

‘That bastard won’t come. He’s found some honey from the play and is hitting on her’, Arjun said as he extended a plastic cup filled with some dark bubbly liquid. Rohan took a swig. It was rum and coke. He spotted Sanjay on the couch listening intently to a short, buxom girl in a floral dress.

‘So where’s Deepak?’ Rohan asked, taking one of the ice-cubes from the drink into his mouth.

‘De waste fucker da. That chute takes two hours to get ready, like some bloody girl.’

Rohan smiled at this. Bitching about how late Deepak was to everything was one of Arjun’s pet peeves.

‘De machan, I went to his home ok, bastard has some apricot fucking scrub in his bathroom. Fucking apricot machan... bloody think of the devil.’

Deepak walked over looking as immaculately put-together as always. His hair was carefully fashioned into that just-out-of-bed look. He came over and thumped Arjun on the back.

‘What re, bitching about me as usual?’, he casually asked as he pulled a pack of Wills Classic out of his stone-washed jeans and tapped it on the end before offering Rohan one. Deepak had just turned thirty last week and one of his birthday resolutions was to drink, smoke and whore around as much as he could before taking off to London in a couple of months. Having spent the last six years in a demanding job climbing all the right ladders, he decided to take a break, and after getting accepted at a business school in London, swore promptly to ruin both liver and lung as he reined in his thirties. Despite his general lack of attention to his health, he was the fittest thirty-year-old Rohan had ever met, owing not in small part to his unfaltering dedication to hitting the gym every day. That’s where Deepak met Rohan and Arjun six years ago when he first moved to Chennai.

‘So what’s the story here?’, Deepak motioned to where the guests were drinking and laughing in the living area. One of Sanjay’s cast-mates had broken into a gangster-rap rendition of his monologue from that evening’s play.

‘Who cares da. Some fat fuck. Looks like Ms Big Jugs is more interested in his antics than Sanjay‘, Arjun nudged Rohan as he looked over in Sanjay’s direction. Sanjay was staring idly into the cup in his hand as he swished his drink around, his face turning a deep shade of red. The buxom floral-print girl was bright-eyed and captivated by the cast-mate’s impromptu performance.

Arjun sighed, ‘That guy will never learn da. He goes and is all sensitive and interested and shit with all these young dumb chicks and then gets all dejected when they blow him off after a drink or two. Fucker needs to close his wallet and put it back in his pocket and try being a little rough with them for a change. And stop whining so much about not having a girlfriend.’

‘He’s young da’, Rohan said, ‘give him time.’

‘I wasn’t talking about Sanjay’, Deepak said as he took a drag and let a flume of smoke out his nostrils. Rohan and Arjun followed his gaze to where it settled, on a young girl, probably no more than nineteen, twenty tops, in a short white dress and pretty, fragile features. She was gently swaying on her pastel kitten-heels, her fingers sloppily clutching the cup in her hands. Rohan had noticed her when he walked in, leaning against the wall with a drink in her hand and not really talking to anyone else at the party.

‘Cradle-robber’, Arjun grinned at Deepak.

The girl was unmistakably drunk. Her hair fell in soft curls that framed her pretty, pixie-like face. She had a small, button nose and bright, dark eyes that darted wildly around the room. Every now and then she would look abruptly around at the party, at the paintings, at the dining table, at the drunken dancing, but her eyes would finally circle back and rest upon the man seated on the couch.

Rohan had covered enough plays and knew enough of the theatre scene to know who he was. Nikhil was the thirty-nine year old director of Sanjay’s latest play. The man was recently married, and was here making an appearance with his wife. Their marriage created somewhat of a scandal when it happened a year ago, in part because she was so young, so beautiful, so talented, and in part because Nikhil was as notorious for his roving eye as he was for his directorial talents. Last Rohan had heard, there were some murmurings of Nikhil being at it again with the young girls in his troupe, and all was not well in his marriage. The wife, it seemed, was tired of having left behind family, friends and fame as an upcoming contemporary dancer, to move to Madras and get married to a middle-aged man with a mid-life crisis. Nikhil sat by his wife’s side, looping an arm casually around her stiff stomach, laughing ever so slightly overloud at his friend’s antics. But Rohan was aware that Nikhil knew – and his wife knew – that the girl in white held her tormented gaze for only one person there that night.

‘She’s gonna drop it!’Arjun hissed as the girl’s grip finally loosened and sent the cup of whatever the hell drink it was splashing on to the tiled-floor. A few people around her looked up and past her, their eyes impatiently searching for the responsible sober friend she surely must have come with. Nikhil and his wife firmly looked straight on, her tight mouth tensing only the slightest bit, her waist growing infinitesimally stiffer under her husband’s cupped palm. The girl in the white dress looked around dazed and wobbled unsteadily on her heels, her face ready to break into a million fragments.

Rohan finished the last of his drink in a quick gulp, ‘I’ll drop her home da. Anyway I wanted to get that piece written tonight. Better get back.’

‘Useless. Ok fine. Don’t forget tomorrow’s the big after-party. Final show or some shit it seems. Anyway. Lots of booze.’ Arjun said, as he and Deepak walked over to where Sanjay was seated on the sofa, his shoulders slumped forward as he absentmindedly took sips from an empty plastic cup.

--

One... two... three... and she rode out valiantly, upon horse with sword unsheathed, her long golden tresses trailing behind her, from under her helmet, like a flag on fire on the battlefield.... six... seven... eight... she was fading into the dream and smoke and invading daylight, taking with her the slain heros and warriors to Valhalla... ten.

Rohan’s hand reached out and pressed the off button on his alarm. Daylight flooded into his small orange bedroom. He’d been up all night finishing off a piece about some women’s event or the other that he had the misfortune to cover last week. He glanced at his clock. 5pm. Good. That gave him some time before the show tonight, and he had all of Sunday to work on the play review anyway. He swung his legs to the side of the bed and got up and walked into the living room.

There was a plate overturned on another and set beside a porcelain cup with scrap of paper balanced over it like a lid. Rohan removed the top plate and found a slice of toast and some eggs, now cold. The porcelain cup held tea, although it appeared to have such a thick skin on it to be virtually undrinkable. It was probably sitting there since morning. Rohan smiled thinking of last night.

He had driven Parvati, for that was the name of the weepy-faced girl at the party, back to his home after many unsuccessful attempts at getting her to tell him where she lived. As far as he could tell, she came to the party alone, by auto no less, all the way out to Sanjay’s home in that godforsaken corner of Chennai. Between sobs, and soggy tissues and sips of hot coffee that Rohan made for her, she protested that no she was not drunk thankyouverymuch just a little under the weather and why shouldn’t she be since that no good two timing bastard who texted and called her incessantly day and night for the last three months claiming that she was the only woman who could make him feel alive again this gorgeous beautiful woman whom he pulled into this private intimate universe he created for just the two of them – here she blew her nose quite loudly into a crumpled wad of tissue – appeared to be nothing more than a liar and a cheat and a no good slut and why cant men be sluts youtellme this useless waste of a man mayhismotherswomb implode after carrying such disease into this world SO anyway shes not drunk and thats that and she will jolly well go home when shes good and ready and can she have more coffee please.

Between the tears and the warbling and the drunken tangential meanderings of her lovestruck and sleep-addled mind, Rohan found her absolutely, tragically, hilariously beautiful. At any rate he would never have made a move on a drunk girl although she clawed at him, weeping into his white shirt at first, then kissing the tanned exposed flesh where it peaked from beneath the shirt, then lifting her head with such melancholic charm and staring into his eyes that Rohan had to muster every ounce of his strength to not cradle her beautiful, tear-soaked face in his palms as he put his mouth upon her lips, on that wet quivering lower lip that he would have loved to suck, bite, comfort and caress with his exploring tongue.

At any rate, after her tearful story, her energy spent, she sobbed and snivelled into Rohan’s white shirt – now duly crumpled – and finally drifted to sleep, still muttering under her breath maythatcur burn in hell and his penis erupt in pus filled boils that two bit no talent man slut.

He put her in the other room, and placed an empty dustbin beside her just in case. After a long, cold shower, he had sat down to write about the botoxed ladies of Harrington road and their unremarkable shenanigans, and sent the piece to his editor in the wee hours of the breaking dawn. Exhausted, he had fallen asleep in the morning, and no doubt Parvati let herself out whenever she woke up without waking him. No note, no sign of her ever having been there – except for the breakfast she made before leaving, and the washed coffee cups from last night overturned and drying on the kitchen sill.

His phone’s loud ring brought him back into the present.

‘Fucker, where the fuck are you, bloody behenchod I’ve been trying you... Get here get here now’, Arjun was shrieking into the phone, his voice progressively climbing the higher registers of his voice box that Rohan was surprised to discover.

‘Hey chill, what happened?’

‘De machan, my mother came home da, she’s in the fucking living room with some useless fucking dogface she wants me to marry and this chick is in my room.’

‘I thought you said your folks were out of town’

‘De mother... BASTARD, I THOUGHT SO TOO! But they’re here no to ruin my life?? Get your ass here man, I cant hold her off for long.’

Rohan went into the bathroom to splash his face with cold water and throw on a fresh shirt. His house keys were in their usual place.

--

‘Then what happened?’

‘Then what da. Bloody I fucking shat my load. She wasn’t supposed to be home, and of all things, she decides to sit down on the bloody sofa then only and show me some dogface retard with crores sitting pretty in her daddy’s bank account’

Arjun was furiously puffing away at his cigarette, standing outside the small wooden roadside shack opposite the auditorium where the play was supposed to begin in half an hour. Sanjay was intently hanging on to his every word, evidently all vestiges of last night’s rejections purged from his mind. Rohan and Deepak were sitting perched on the low stone wall that ran alongside the road, gently blowing on their small, steaming glasses of tea.

The events of the last hour were this. Rohan drove over to Arjun’s home and rang the doorbell whereby he was promptly seized by Aunty and his opinion of her future potential daughter-in-law fervently sought. The girl that Arjun kept referring to as dogface, did not in fact resemble a canine in any way whatsoever according to Rohan, except for her rather unfortunate protruding front teeth that poked out from beneath her fuzzy lip and made her appear like she was snarling. At any rate, perhaps Rohan might be able to offer a better opinion once his parched throat was quenched and incidentally, would Aunty like some help in the kitchen, he always loved her Madras filter coffee, and my how he used to find some excuse or the other to go to Arjun’s place after school back when they were kids just to get a plate of her home-made murukkus and a small tumbler of coffee. And thus, a crisis was diverted, the hidden lover smuggled out of the home, a piping hot plate of murukkus and Madras filter coffee thrust into Rohan’s hands, and a very nervous chain-smoking Arjun bundled into the front seat of Rohan’s car and brought to the play venue where Deepak promptly laughed in his face for a full seven minutes upon hearing the whole story.

‘Ok, but who was she da’, Sanjay asked between sips of the tea he’d ordered for himself despite his director’s admonition that milk ruined the voice.

‘Some rich ugly beast, man.’

‘No da, the other one. Your girl.’

‘Oh that’, Arjun suddenly suffered from an unrelenting itch on his neck, as he scratched and averted his eyes and mumbled under his breath, ‘some lady I met.’

‘Oh give us a name Arjun’, Deepak called out from the wall, grinning at Arjun’s obvious discomfort.

‘Some chick I met recently man.’

‘Yeah, but it’s not the first time you’ve been in this situation before... your mom would throw a fit, but finally she’ll pipe down only. Why are you so cautious da? Some big-shot ah?’ Sanjay had finally caught on.

‘I bet Rohan caught a good look at her, what with his one eye in the kitchen and the one firmly on the front door. What eh Rohan? Who’s this mystery babe whose got Mr A’s knickers in a twist’, Deepak winked at Rohan as he fished out a Wills from his pocket and offered Rohan one.

‘Machan... free’ Arjun saw that Deepak was having too much fun to let this go, ‘Ok fine, but you shut your face about this. It’s Shoba Narasimhan’, he said, dropping his voice to barely above a whisper on the last two words.

The three of them let out a low whistle. Rohan suspected it might have been someone famous, maybe a rich socialite, or one of those newface-fairskinned actresses clambering to get into big budget Tamil flicks. But Aunty’s kitty party former-friend and current-sworn-enemy? Arjun was swimming in shark-infested waters.

‘Miss tight ass, tight face? How does she even move man, she’s got so much botox on her face’, Deepak said.

‘Botox that her husband paid for’, Sanjay interjected, ‘De why are you fucking around with that guy’s wife da! He’ll run you over with his BMW 7 series if he finds out.’

‘De why are you such a loser da! Shut the fuck up and lower your voice, useless bastard!’Arjun yelled back.

‘I heard she got a boob job man, is it true?’Deepak asked.

Arjun threw his half-smoked cigarette on the ground, stamped it out with great vengeance and started walking back to the auditorium in a huff.

Deepak started chuckling, ‘Guys, show’s gonna start in a few minutes anyway. Let’s go.’

--

Rohan was smoking a cigarette on the corridor outside the auditorium entrance. It had been fifteen minutes into the play and the lead actor was such an uncontrolled windbag that Rohan had to get out of there. As a critic, he was obligated to sit through the entire farcical proceedings, but as a normal, decent, sensitive human being he had to get the fuck out of there.

Deepak, on the other hand, had far too much sense to let a minor thing like a shitty play ruin a perfectly good evening of theatre, and he managed of course in his distinctly characteristic way of dealing with things by laughing loudly through the tragedy at the most inappropriate moments. The thing about Deepak’s laughs was that they were big, whooping, belly-laughs that went crashing through the auditorium, bouncing off the walls, breaking off into smaller fissures, and creating ripples of tiny laughs in pockets across the audience. Soon the entire audience was in splits as the baffled protagonist stumbled about on stage lamenting even louder the general despair and misery of his poverty-stricken situation, only to be greeted with a fresh wave of irrepressible audience laughter.

Outside, out of the corner of his eye, Rohan spied that he was not alone. A striking woman, an actress in the play no doubt judging from her dress and painted face, was out on the lonely corridor smoking in silence. He hadn’t seen her yet. Perhaps her part had not yet come.

‘So tell me’, she broke the silence, ‘Is Chennai usually this merry?’

‘No not usually’, Rohan replied, ‘but the heat does strange things to people.’

At this she smiled. ‘I’m sure it does’, she said and flicked the dying embers of her cigarette stubs into the abyss of night. ‘That’s a good line. I think I’ll work that in.’ she spoke half to herself as she disappeared in the darkness of the corridor, near the stage entrance.

Rohan lingered for a second longer in the corridor. He brought to mind again the imprint of her features against the full-mooned sky. Sharp, smooth-skinned and beautiful – even despite the war paint of stage make-up. She was by no means young. But God, what a voice.

‘Let’s make this city forget its heat for one night, hmm?’ the voice rang out from the darkness startling him, ‘You will see me from the audience’.

It was really not much of a request. Rohan extinguished his cigarette and pushed open the audience doors.

--

Her name was Lopa.

She was surrounded by people at the after-party at Sanjay’s home. This time Sanjay was playing the dutiful host, ensuring that cups were full, and alcohol ran a-plenty. The lead actor, after being equal parts insulted and flabbergasted by the Chennai audience’s reaction, declared them all a bunch of villagers unworthy of good theatre and remained in a dark and simmering mood when they last spoke to him after the show. Buxom floral-print girl, who it appeared had cast off her floral prints in favour of a tight white top with a plunging neckline, sat mournfully on the corner of the couch getting slowly drunk and hoping that last night’s entertainer will make another appearance tonight and perhaps maybe he might even take her home to show her that music collection of his she so wanted to see last night.

Rohan, stood on the fringes of the raucous crowd, for a change not flanked by either Arjun or Deepak, who both incidentally bumped into a friend of a friend of a friend who had all grown up and fleshed out and was new in the city with her friend and what do a couple of girls on a Saturday night do around here for fun anyway? So they left.

It appeared that Lopa was an actress of some repute back in Mumbai where she was from. Stage, not film, she told all the little moths than had gathered around her old-school silver screen siren flame, laughing as she tilted her head back ever so slightly, just enough to flash a dazzling set of perfectly set, perfectly white teeth. Rohan’s first impressions of her were right. She was stunning, with sharp beautiful features set upon smooth skin. She was older than him but not by much. In fact, he’d be surprised if she was a day over thirty-five. And she could command an audience and she knew it. There, smack in the centre of Sanjay’s house ultimateafterparty version two, she had the crowd eating out of her hands as she made her inconsequential small talk, taking offbeat pauses to suck on her cigarette while her listeners held their breath till she spoke again in that soothing voice like a balm over wounds.

When Rohan had entered the auditorium after their chat in the corridor, the audience was absolutely unruly. There were hoots and cheers and catcalls. Handkerchiefs flung into the air, tickets thrown up and fluttering down like so much confetti, even cell phones ringing in some sort of mad impromptu audience orchestra.

And then Lopa appeared.

She took one slow step and then another. At first the audience didn’t know what to make of it, hooting and cheering wildly. But she stood her ground, and she faced them all with the steely silent glare that you remember from your school days as you trembled under the anticipated rage of a headmistress disobeyed.

It would have been five minutes at least. Five whole minutes. Absolute silence. Not a line was spoken, not a movement made on stage on in the audience. Nothing but Lopa on stage staring down the audience under the bright spotlight focused on her deathly still, maniacal eyes.

And then she began her lines.

Needless to say, the play received a roaring ovation at the end, and Lopa stood outside her stage door smiling and waving, and smiling and waving, and signing autographs like an old-fashioned movie star. In all his experience, and perhaps in Chennai’s recent memory, such an experience was unprecedented. Rohan didn’t know what to make of it. But he will make something of it, that he was sure of, when pen would touch paper the next morning. But tonight, there was nothing on his mind but Lopa.

What a glorious name. Lopa.

From across the sea of bobbing heads, she caught his eye and smiled in a tired, endearing sort of way. Smiling, and clasping hands, and crinkling her eyes, she thanked warmly everyone for their dear, dear comments and made her way across the room in a fluid, meandering way like warm yolk running down a porcelain plate.

‘Well then’, she said when she was standing next to him, ‘looks like the evening wasn’t a total washout.’

‘Looks like it wasn’t’, Rohan said and smiled at her. Up this close and under the harsh yellow lights of Sanjay’s home, he could see the faint stirrings of crow’s feet from the sides of her eyes. Irrationally, he wanted to punch out the lights with his bare fists and kiss her roughly in the darkness.

‘This is a really nice place’, she ventured by way of small talk.

‘Yes, it’s Sanjay’s’, Rohan pointed him out to her amidst the bobbing black heads, ‘he’s not really a party-freak, don’t let that T-shirt fool you. But that needn’t mean this can’t be the most happening after-party party place in town.’

‘Mm-hmm’, she nodded in quiet understanding. ‘Does this have a terrace?’ she asked him abruptly.

‘Why...why yes’, Rohan floundered, ‘we’re actually standing on the stairs that lead up to it. It’s a one-storey house you know.’

Lopa stood on the step next to Rohan, tilting her head to one side, her cold glass held up to her face, allowing the cool drops of water on the outside of her glass trickle down her cheeks, as she drooped her eyelids. As if the lights were beginning to sting her eyes.

‘Come on then’, Rohan grabbed her hand and walked into the cool, night air.

--

‘So it was the night of a party at her agent’s house’, she said as she leaned against the terrace wall, ‘and the public was so upset that Elizabeth Taylor had taken up with her best friend Debbie Reynold’s husband so soon after her own husband Mike Todd’s death. And she was drinking champagne from a sparkling crystal glass. And she beckoned Shirley McLaine over to where she was seated, at the little table between the piano and the outside candles.’

Lopa took a drag of her cigarette, as she let Rohan form the scene in my mind.

‘She began to quietly talk about her love for Mike and why Eddie meant so much to her because of his deep friendship with Mike. Her eyes welled up with violet tears as she held her sparkling crystal glass close to her face. When the tears were about to fall, she subtly moved her champagne glass just under her eyes.’

Another drag. Another unbearably long silence following the lingering remains of her dulcet-toned voice as it hovered frozen over the deep purple night.

‘And then she says, Shirley McLaine in her book that is, that she would never forget it. Her tears splashed like diamonds into the champagne as she talked about missing Mike so much. She said she’d never seen anything more beautiful or moving, and the entire party seemed to pause in wonder for a moment.’

‘So’, she started again and let the half-formed word linger orphaned in the air, ‘so I say, there is truth; the unmistakable, stark, truth. And then there is beauty. And what is theatre, and what is performance, if it isn’t applying beauty to truth, to enhance it, to enhance life, to embrace this augmented reality.’

Rohan’s mind was reeling. He was listening of course – how could he not, how could he lose even a single precious word – and yet there was something here between their two bodies, something real and growing and tangible that seemed far much bigger than this conversation about Elizabeth Taylor and Shirley McLaine and Mike who and Richard what.

‘So sometimes that’s what I think I am’, she continued, ‘a sort of ‘truth-enhancer’. And when you live life that way,’ she paused again here and turned slowly to face Rohan. How could she be so cruel, so unbearably oblivious, to this tension in the night-air between them.

‘When you live life that way,’ she continued, as she turned back to the night, greeting him once more with the sharp features of her face in profile, ’it becomes such an integral part of you, that you forget where life begins and performance ends.’

Lopa fell into silence. Rohan was only aware of the rustling breeze as it entangled the tiny fly-away wisps of her hair. He wanted so badly to reach out and touch that inaccessible skin.

‘Do you want to kiss me?’ she asked him abruptly.

‘Yes.’ The answer rang clear and cool into the night without hesitation.

‘Then we mustn’t deny this moment’, she leaned back against the terrace wall, and tilted her head toward him, her eyes half closed, her mouth... Oh her mouth.

--

Arjun and Deepak were back. The stragglers were beginning to leave the party. Sanjay appeared to be quite comfortable sleeping in the corner of his living room, hugging a potted plant. Someone had made a shrine of beer bottles beside him. Rohan had been up on the terrace for almost an hour he realised.

Perhaps, he thought to himself, he really should consider it? Rohan’s life in Chennai was beginning to take on a sort of sameness as the days morphed into each other, and deadlines came and went, and events and social gatherings unfolded around the city, and Rukumma appeared every day, always smiling, always on time, with the reliability of the sun. Perhaps this would be the grand adventure that Rohan hadn’t known he was missing in his life. A new job, a new house, a new start in Mumbai.

As for Lopa... he wasn’t sure, but he expected she would figure somehow in his plans. At twenty-seven, he was already jaded, and she, with her maturity and grace and intoxicating beauty would be like a cool drink of water on a hot Madras day.

Rohan’s thoughts were interrupted by the booming voice of Ankur Walia, son of the Mumbai-based producer, the one with all the hits. He was blanking on the name, but he knew which one. Lopa glided across the room and into his arms, snaking one long limb around his waist and planting a small, platonic peck on his lips. How had he not noticed the ring before?

Of course she was married, Rohan thought and almost laughed aloud, like a mad drunk in an empty home. The kiss, the smoke, the talk.... it was all part of her larger-than-life persona. Part of her theatre, and her performance, and her augmented reality. And out there on the empty corridor, outside the auditorium, in the darkness – no wait, in the almost darkness, for there was a full-moon present – it was just enough light he realized for him to catch her perfect features in profile, and for her to catch his ‘Press’ tag as it hung innocently from his neck.

---

Rohan got in the car and locked the door. Beside him in a crumpled mass was Arjun, lightly snoring. Behind him was Deepak, who told him before passing out that those girls turned out to be a couple of nineteen-year old nitwits who got in their car, went home with them, got drunk on four beers and then started crying about needing to be home before curfew and oh god what will their moms say and who will let them in and it’s already almost two am and she doesn’t has the house key and... and.. and...

Rohan was drunk, but he’d been more drunk on other occasions and still gotten behind the wheel to drive people home. Besides, Chennai was lovely at night. He thought about the review for tomorrow and what he would write. Well, she certainly was one piece of work he’ll give her that. But in the end, Rohan thought as he drove down empty roads of tree-lined streets, Lopa never promised him anything; that was all his own fantasy. She gave him a beautiful moment, and she gave the audience the performance of a lifetime, and that was worth a few positive words at least.

Rohan stopped at a red light, more out of absentmindedness than any reverence for traffic laws. His phone blinked. Text message from Parvati. Parvati? Who? Ah that girl from the house party on Friday. He had almost forgotten her name. He unlocked it and read the message.

‘heyyyy!! listen m sooooo mbarassed abt that nite!!! plz lemme mke it up 2 u :))) thr’s a house party @ my place tomm nite. wanna cum? brng ur frendz. xoxo’

He looks at his friend sleeping next to him, his face etched in the borrowed red glow of the traffic light. Arjun was sound asleep, still snoring lighting, no idea of how his life with change forever with his impending marriage. Dogface or not, Rohan thought to himself, Arjun would soon get tired of being a toyboy and then it's one bachelor down. And Deepak? Rohan glances at his sleeping figure in the rear-mirror and wonders if he knows what his thirties have in store for him, liver-and-lung-ruination pledge be damned. The light turns green and taints his knuckles as Rohan rests his hands lightly on the wheel.

‘ya sure’ He types on the phone and presses send.

Yeah, he thinks to himself, why not. Perhaps some change in life is a good thing. Rohan smiles as he steps on the gas and drives through the green light. There would be some chicken curry in the fridge from Rukamma’s evening visit. God bless her.

This is the sweet life, he hums to himself as he drives through Chennai’s empty night roads, the sound of Arjun’s soft snoring filling the car with its steady rhythm.


Saturday, April 30, 2011

RIP Toby



Will love you always.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Calamity child, where'd you wanna go?


The worst thing to listen to when you're down in the dumps is Leonard Cohen. Bowie on the other hand, totally rocks.

Ziggy, I want to go to the magic place in your head.