Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The future's bright


‘So, what do you think about going steady?’

She was standing on the doorway, a toothbrush idling in her mouth. I looked up from my book. She grinned at me and went back into the bathroom. She left the bathroom door open and leant over the basin and spat into it. She was in her white cotton knickers and striped-socks; she always wore socks to bed.

‘Don’t freak out or anything’ she said as she splashed water on her face, ‘I was just thinking about it’. She wiped her face on the towel and came in and sat on the bed, facing me. I closed my book and waited for her to finish. She put her head on my knees, and looked up at me and smiled.

‘I mean, we’re kind of seeing each other anyway. It’s like this,” she ventured as she drew circles on my thigh with her finger, ‘you’re gonna be here for another year anyway, and then it’s anyone’s guess. Me, I like my job. I’ll be shuttling between Madras and here till, well, something always happens, and then who knows. I might settle there, or here, or... I might up and away to the States to some fancy B school.’

I smiled.

‘I might, you know!’ she grinned and grabbed the book from my hands and mock-whacked me with it. ‘So while we’re here,’ she continued, ‘this, you, me, us... well, it’s pretty perfect.’

I nodded.

‘I mean, we’re comfortable. The pieces fit... I drive down, we spend weekends together, I’m back Monday. You have your space, I have mine. It’s cool, you know.’

I waited for her to continue.

‘So I was thinking,’ she went on, ‘why not. We’re not really changing anything. Let’s give it a shot. Let’s date.’

She’d stopped drawing circles on my thigh and looked up at me.

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘it’s pretty perfect, the way it is.’

‘I mean, I’m not saying, let’s get serious, let’s get committed,’ she continued. ‘It’s just, we’re already sort of there you know. And it’s a nice, easy zone, this.’

‘Of course,’ she added quickly, ‘anything could happen and we both know it. Things could change, I could get busy, you could find someone else... Or,’ she paused hesitantly. ‘Or... we could take things up a notch. With us.’

I smiled at her. A lock of hair had fallen across her cheek and she was blowing it from the side of her mouth. I brushed it off her face and tucked it behind her ear.

‘Always a possibility,’ she laughed. ‘Who knows, huh? The future’s open. The future’s bright! The future’s orange!’

She jumped to her knees and mimicked the voice in the Orange Mobile ad and started laughing. I grinned as I grabbed her by her orange-stripped socks and pulled her legs on either side of me.

‘Just... think about it, you know,’ she said as she put her hands around my neck.

‘Mmhmm.’

I leant in, and we kissed.

...

That was seven years ago. I didn’t go through with it in the end. I was scared. Besides, I was nineteen, and still in college back then. She was twenty-four.

We made love that night. She never brought it up again. We lived that way for a year; living together on weekends, working on weekdays. Every Friday she’d land up at my door with her bag, and by Monday she’d be gone before I woke up. It was good. A comfortable arrangement like she said. That is, till she up and away-ed to some fancy Business School. I wasn’t really surprised.

I remember the first time I met Padma. I’d just moved to Bangalore, and found a place of my own. I was seventeen and just into college. I ventured out that Friday night to celebrate my new-found freedom. I walked into a nearby pub to grab something to eat, and she was there. Sitting at a table by herself, furiously scribbling on a sheaf of papers, she was absentmindedly stabbing her fork into her garden salad.

“Is this seat taken?” I asked.

She looked up at me blankly and stared.

“I mean, there aren’t any free tables… I just thought if no one’s joining you…”

“Oh! Shit. Yeah. Sorry,” she laughed and slapped herself on the forehead. “Yeah sure, grab a seat. I was just so completely immersed in this, for a moment there I had no clue what you were saying.”

I smiled at her and sat down. I placed my knapsack by the chair.

“So, do you live here?” I asked.

“Only the weekends” she said and winked. “I’m from Madras. Drive down to Bangalore every weekend though. Just to, well, recharge my batteries you know.”

She had put her sheaf of papers away and had signalled the waiter for the menu. I noticed she wore a ring on her left finger.

“Besides, Bangalore’s so much nicer isn’t it? Much more open and inviting. It’s great, and social. I love it here!”

She turned and caught my eye. “Oh that,” she’d grinned as she fidgeted with her ring. “My mum gave me that. I wear it to chase away eager boys on a Friday night.” She laughed as she leant forward and rested her chin on her hand.

“So what about you? Any of those fingers spoken for already?”



And that’s how she came into my life. It wasn’t long before Padma moved in with me. She’d come over every weekend and we’d hang out. She’d bring her work over; I’d do my college stuff. She loved to sprawl herself across my stomach while I studied. We spent hours in our room just lying in comfortable silence, like a giant plus-sign on the bed.

She never asked me what I did during the week. And I never told her. There were other women that I dated; some girls from college, and others as well. But the weekends were always for Padma. I’m not sure if she saw other people while we were together. It didn’t seem to matter, so I never asked. We spent a lot of time doing things together, watching movies, catching plays, spending the evenings at the bar nearby… like a regular couple. It was a good existence; nice and easy.

We never did bring up the topic of going steady after that first talk. I wasn’t really sure about it; and besides, I’d just met this girl at college. I told Padma about Shruti once I was sure and things were getting a little serious; it was a couple of months after the talk. She seemed to understand. Shruti was just more aligned. Padma and I still met up some weekends after that; it wasn’t the same.

It wasn’t long before she left to the states like I knew she would. Met someone there, I heard. And now she was sitting here, sipping coffee and looking out the window. She hadn’t noticed me walk in.

“Hello Padma.”

She looked up and saw me standing in front of her table.

“Amrit!” she shrieked and jumped up from her seat. She came around the table and hugged me tight. When she pulled back I saw that she was laughing; she hadn’t changed much.

“So,” she said as she straightened her kurti down the front and sat down, “what’s been happening in your life?”

“Five years is a lot to catch up” I grinned, “you go first. What’re you doing back here in Bangalore.”

She leant her elbows on the table and rested her chin on her hand. “Well”, she said, “You probably heard. I married Pradeep, and things were great. We really got along well.”

“I heard.”

“Yes,” she smiled, “it was pretty perfect. We were both working and settled and... Marriage just seemed like the most natural thing.”

I nodded.

“Ah well, that was then. Then things... well, things started to unravel. Like little things you know, stuff I hadn’t noticed before.”

“Like what?”

“Like how he’d chew with his mouth open. Or how he’d use the same spoon for everything, he’d dip it in the gravy and then shove it into the side dish and... God, it was infuriating!”

I was holding my sides and laughing. Padma grinned at me sheepishly.

“I know, I know! Picky huh. Man, I always was finicky. It was all the little things that added up, and it just created tiny fissures that stayed and never really went away. Somehow, we just couldn’t fix it. It wasn’t… comfortable you know.”

“Like nice and easy.”

“Like nice and easy,” she said softly.

I picked up a bread roll from the basket and started tearing off a piece of it.

“So anyway,” she went on, “we decided, very amicably, to part ways and, well, that’s that.”

“So you’ve come back to Bangalore. For good?” I asked as I chewed on the bread.

“Well, I dunno,” she said as she picked up the bread from my plate and tore a piece off for herself, “There is this...”

“You still do that huh?”

She looked up puzzled.

“Steal someone else’s bread.”

She cracked into a grin. “Yeah, it used to annoy the hell out of Pradeep. I’d keep stealing his fries.”

“Yeah,” I laughed, “there’s one for the divorce hall of fame. Reason for separation: she kept stealing my fries.”

She smiled nervously and started thumbing her ring.

“Hey no, I didnt mean...”

“Hey chill!” She laughed and mock-whacked me with the menu. “So anyway, what are you up to?”

“Work’s great. Been working for quite a while now with the firm. Might be getting another promotion soon. Bought a house recently, close to the old place. In fact, right next to where we used to live.”

She smiled, absentmindedly fingering her ring.

“So how’s Shruti?”

“Ah. That didnt last. We broke up a while ago.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Nah, it’s ok. She found someone else. More...”

“...aligned?”

I grinned back at her. “Hey, these things happen huh?”

“Yup.”

I hadn’t noticed how much she changed; and how she still looked the same. She’d cut her hair shorter, so it fell in soft dark curls that licked her neck. She still dipped her head to one side as she laughed. There were tiny lines on either side of her mouth.

I remembered the day I spotted her jar of face cream. That was five years ago; she was twenty-six. She came over one Friday as usual and laid out her things on the bathroom counter. I walked in and picked up the new jar lying by the sink.

‘What’s this,’ I’d asked. She grinned and wrung it out of my hands. ‘I’m getting old’ she’d said, and tucked it away into her purse. She never brought it again.

I looked at her now. I wondered why I never brought up the topic of going steady.

“Listen, do you wanna come over?”

She looked up from the table and held my gaze. She stayed silent.

“For old time’s sake you know...”

She started nervously thumbing her ring again. It was the same one her mother gave her; she still wore it. Her other fingers were bare. I wondered if she ever wore a wedding band.

“You know, I’m not planning to stay in Bangalore long.” She started, “They... I’ve asked my parents to look out for me. I figured it’s for the best. It’s been a couple of years since the divorce, and it’s not like it used to be you know. People remarry all the time. I...”

I reached across the table and took her hands in mine. She stopped talking.

“Come... it’ll be fun.” I whispered.

She smiled and gently slipped her hands out from mine. “I can’t. It was, well, pretty perfect. But that was then, and things had to unfold the way they did.”

“Yes, they did. But you know, here we are meeting up after years and... You know what? It still feels the same. That nice, easy comfortable feeling.”

She smiled.

I leant forward, “Just… think about it”

“I...”

She was interrupted by a phone call. She gave me an apologetic look as she fished through her purse. I nodded to let her know it was ok. It was work. She listened very intently and spoke quickly into the phone. I asked for the cheque, and signed for it. She looked up when she was done with the call.

“Well, looks like I’d be headed back sooner than I expected. Hell, there’s loads of stuff I need to do before then and there’s an early kingfisher tomorrow, maybe I could catch that, first…”

“First flight out on Monday.” I chorused. She broke off and smiled at me.

“Well,” she said. “Looks like I better get going then. It was great meeting you.”

She got up. I walked over to her and let my arm rest on her waist. We walked out to her car.

“So, Amrit,” she said turning around to face me, “This is where we kiss and say goodbye.”

She leant in and kissed me on the cheek. I put my arm around her, and we hugged. I hadn’t forgotten the scent of her hair. We lingered for a while, and then she gently broke free and got into her car.

“By the way,” I said, taking out a small wrapped package from my bag, “I got you something.”

“Oh shit, I knew I should’ve got you something...”

“Open it.”

She pulled the wrapping free and opened the box. She stayed silent as she looked at it.

“You know,” she finally said, “Pradeep used to hate...”

“That you slept with your socks on?”

“Yeah!” she laughed, holding the socks up to the light “These are perfect! And they’re orange!”

I smiled at her and put my hands into my pockets. She put the socks away, and got into her car.

“Thanks,” she said, sticking her head out the window, and she pulled out of the driveway.

I wondered what it was that stopped me the first time. I was much younger then, and maybe it was the age. It seemed like an unbridgeable chasm to me at the time. We weren’t suitably aligned; or so that’s what I told her the week I met Shruti. She hadn’t said anything, except that she was happy for me.
Padma and I never really ‘dated’. Not the way she wanted to. Although I think I probably loved her. I don’t remember what it was in the end though. It was just the little things. Like how she curled up in bed at night, with her head on my shoulder. Or the way her hair smelt. Or the way she thumbed her ring every time she got nervous. Or how she always slept with her socks on.

I watched as she drove off, her hand out the window, waving, as she drove on ahead.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

An objective review of my experience at an international film festival


This morning a friend of mine woke me at the unearthly hour of seven to go watch an art film at a women’s film festival. First of all, who are these people who get up at seven to catch a movie at eight, and why are they still alive?

Secondly, from a series of sleep-addled grunts I seemed to have given the mistaken impression that I'd enjoy a morning of watching Yvenska the Norwegian bisexual forge an unlikely friendship with Olga the 37 year old alcoholic who is dying a slow and painful death of ovarian cancer.

Thankfully, the gods seemed to have taken pity on me, and I was spared Yvenska and her award-winningly heartbreaking story. We caught an Iranian film instead aptly titled “Rush, it’s gone” to highlight its glacial pace.

A note about the film festival: it started five days ago and was being jointly shown at Sathyam cineplex and the South Indian film chamber. The women-centric films were a collaborative initiative of the Indo-Korean Chamber (Inko), in association with the National Film Development Corporation Ltd (NFDC), National Film Archive of India (NFAI) and the Association of Serbian Socialists.

The Iranian movie wasn't bad, and I rather enjoyed the story-telling. The highlight of the morning however was the South Indian film chamber where the film was being screened.

This gem of a building is tucked away in a narrow by lane off mount road. It’s the sort of place the classifieds would term 'charming' and 'quaint'. The walls were coated with a luxurious layer of centuries-old grime. Beneath which, it is rumored, are a series of drawings by Neanderthals depicting their courageous battle against a woolly mammoth. They seem to have perished sadly, along with the woolly mammoth who suffered a brain hemorrhage from watching a Ukrainian art film and ultimately went extinct.

On the wall by my seat I spied a rather artistically-rendered appeal. One lone cockroach, after years of desperate confinement amidst film critics and art films, had taught itself the English language, ripped its head open, dipped its feelers into its own blood and wrote on a small portion of the wall, a tiny 'help' - with perfectly rendered Korean subtitles below.

I hear that they have since converted the brave cockroach's ordeal into an art film starring John Malkovich as le cockroach, and Nicole Kidman as le love interest, an anorexic albeit ethereal dung-beetle. Tickets available at the South Indian film chamber.

The Iranian movie seemed to be quite popular as evinced by the number of Kanchipuram sari-clad women who kept sauntering in well after it had started. The sari-clad women, who were all seated in a row behind us, enriched our movie watching experience greatly with their insights – in case any of us required clarifications on the motives behind the characters’ actions. A rather stunningly beautiful woman arrived just in time for the end-credits and wept softly at the quiet beauty of the typography on screen. It was, like, very moving.

By the time the movie was over, a couple of enthusiastic kids at the stall gave us a list of films being screened as part of the festival, along with a brief synopsis. I was disappointed to see Yvenska's tale was woefully absent. Nevertheless, a rather intriguing Hungarian movie caught our eye.

The synopsis of the 1968 film “The Girl" by Hungarian director Martha Meszaros enticingly read:

This film is about a tempestuous love quadrangle in Paris. All of the exposed skin is supposed to pass for drama, but instead has the dreary one-track banality of a feature-length version of an episode of the ‘Red Shoe Diaries’, Showtime’s late-night series for people who like soft porn but are too lazy to leave the house.

I figured watching such a greatly-applauded art film as this would elevate my standing among my artistically-inclined peers. Also, I'll finally have something to talk about when my artsy friends conglomerate and start deconstructing the latest obscure art flick they caught. So now when they talk about Yvenska and the poignancy of her struggle, I can say ah yes, but it’s no comparison to Kovacs’s search for meaning in a dangerously borderless world. Or when they talk about the gentle play of light and shadows in Monet’s Water Lilies, I can say ah yes, but it’s no comparison to Kovacs’s search for meaning in a dangerously borderless world. Or when they ask me the way to the bathroom I can say ah yes, but it’s no comparison to Kovacs’s search for meaning in a dangerously borderless world.

And so compelled by the integrity of my desire, we headed to Sathyam Cineplex to catch the film. Having an hour to kill before the show, my friend and I headed to a coffee pub nearby. I ordered a masala tea and custard biscuits which I then proceeded to dip in the tea. I had not fully taken into account the viscosity of the liquid in question, with the result that of the 4 biscuits I dipped, I was roughly left with .37 when they emerged. I then proceeded to drink the quicksand mixture so as not to offend the waiter and left in time for the show. The significance of this paragraph by the way has nothing to do with anything. But no post is ever complete without some mention of my experience at a beverage establishment, or a polka-dotted one-eyed cow.

At this point, on account of my guilt-ridden conscience, a final attempt at veracity requires me to reveal that contrary to all protestations of noble intentions, my sole motive behind watching this film involved the words 'exposed skin' and 'soft porn'. Tragically, I was confronted with neither. I will now proceed to give an objective review of the film, ‘The Girl’.

There is a girl. She works in a factory and lives in an orphanage. Wanting to find out about her real parents, she traces her mother and leaves to her village to meet her. On the train she meets a man who wants to talk to her but doesn't because maybe if he plays hard to get then she will talk to him. Or maybe the girl is suffering from an acute case of laryngitis just then and wants to save her voice for when she meets her mother so she may sing out her greeting in seven octaves. I am assuming this is the custom in Hungary whenever an orphaned child meets her biological parent for the first time.

At the village she meets her mother who introduces the girl as her niece and then they all watch tv. The father seems to be some sort of private detective as I gleaned from the following subtitled-conversations at the dinner table:

Father: you must eat.
Girl: yes.
Father: food is important.
Girl: yes.
Father: you are from Budapest.
Girl: yes.
Father: I can tell from your clothes and behavior. This proves you are from Budapest.
Girl: … (I am assuming she is speechless at his powers of deduction)
Father: I work hard and eat a lot. You must eat. Food is important.

From this insightful interaction between father and child, layered with concealment and pain, I gleaned that food is important. Also, Hungarians believe there is much virtue in redundancy.

The girl then goes to church where a boy asks her if she's from Budapest but she doesn't reply and another boy asks her and she agrees to go to the dance with him that evening but not before taking a dip in the pond where she is spied by some of the villagers whose identities are not revealed when told of the fact by her mother later that day before the dance.

The girl goes back to the orphanage the next day. But not before dancing with her father and telling her mother that she - the mother - is very afraid, and would she always be afraid. I think the director is trying to say that the mother is afraid, and this is symbolic of a larger sense of paranoia in an increasingly cloistered world. Or maybe she means that the mother is afraid and this undercurrent of fear is reflected throughout the movie and in the girl’s own psyche as evinced by her clumsy, almost detached, interactions with men. Or maybe she means that the mother is afraid because the souls of countless rodents in art houses everywhere will die and go to heaven where they will haunt the netherworlds with their restless spirits. I was loudly speculating on the protagonist's intent to my neighbor when hit on the head by a flying brick. I miss the commentary of the sari-clad women.

So anyway, the girl goes back to the orphanage where she kisses her friend’s boyfriend while a 16-year old who is in love with her and jumped off a bridge to prove it and was subsequently released by the police after the girl paid a fine for illegal bathing in a Hungarian water body, attempts to capture her attention by gyrating to a high-pitched song by hippie Scandinavians high on helium. The end.

In the course of the movie, the girl meets a person on the road from Paris who proceeds to speak in French and is therefore not subtitled. Although I think he was saying, my toast is not buttered. Or this table has four legs. I cannot be sure because of the slight difference in accents in various regions of France.

She also meets a smooth-talking man claiming to be a tailor who knew her father, a handsome rogue who slept with her mother, who died of sorrow, and then the smooth-talking man drinks four cognacs that he asks the girl to pay for. The girl then deduces from this interaction that the man is, without a doubt, her father. She also sleeps with two people - not explicitly shown since this was the 60s - or perhaps it was one and not two people, or maybe they were twins and therefore had similar eyebrows. Or perhaps it was the chin.

Somewhere in the middle of this, the girl’s roommate has a deep philosophical discussion with the girl on the virtues of sun-tan lotion or perhaps it was the economic rate of growth in Poland, while standing topless for all of four seconds. Unfortunately, I missed those four glorious grainy black-and-white seconds as I was busy reading the subtitles.

To summarize my experience, I would like to say the film festival offered many rare and poignant insights into the psyche of women through their richly textured and expertly-chosen international films. To whoever wrote the synopsis for the 'The Girl', I extend my heartfelt gratitude and two custard biscuits and strongly recommend she watch 'Yvenska and her polka-dotted one-eyed cow', a tragic and poignant tale of love in the time of ovarian cancer, artistically interspersed with full frontal nudity and senseless sex scenes.

Don’t forget the sun-tan lotion.