Heaven is on the Third Floor

Something brilliant happened on an ordinary school day. Pari was taken to the library. She was at the grand old age of nine years and had begun to find pockets of boredom in things around her.

Pari was not a popular kid. Quite the opposite. Her classmates teased her relentlessly, and rather stupidly. “Pari is like bitter curry!” to which she scoffed weakly at- however, later told her mother- “They call me curry, mummy!” and would tear up. Her mother, who had given her the name because of its ethereal appeal, was worried. She would, albeit well-meaningly, respond to that by one of her pithy remarks she’d picked up from the society mama friends she looked up to- “You should not stoop to their level darling. Show them your class”. Which, come to think of it, was neither here nor there. Pari ultimately learnt that a homework or two in the commode tank, and a dead cockroach in her pencil box was okay. At least they didn’t put anything icky in her hair. Yet.

She moved about with her two best friends. Who perhaps had it worse than her. They were also rather enthusiastic in class. They knew about photosynthesis and algebra. Physical education class was the bane of their existence. It was all they could do not to slouch and curl up and to practically disappear. Moving their gangly limbs and being reprimanded by the teacher in front of the class was something they dreaded.

Her school was small compared to the other schools- It did not have a big yard or a fancy cafeteria. The library, although austere and contained, felt opulent and classy. They were led in a line where they were admonished whenever they tittered too much. The librarian, Mrs. Khan, was supposed to be strict. So strict that she could send them to the principal! To upstanding, or more to the point, corner-seat preferring straight laced little girls, this was a scary prospect.

There was a lovely smell in the air. A quietness that made Pari want to stop fidgeting for once. They were explained the rules of the library – an awful lot of rules. That was the tough part. After that, they could choose a book from the countless shelves so heavily laden with books that the middle of the shelves looked like they would break. She could pick anything! She’d read books before, a few of them. They were…okay, if a little bland. The book with the bright pink spine, that was bound to be interesting, or the one that looked tattered, she thought. Only a shell of what it would have been years and years ago- maybe that would be the one overlooked by everyone and somehow, only she would find the greatness of it.

Pari asked her friend excitedly what she was going to pick. Whispered to her, really.  This was an important decision! Library rules dictated that she keep mum, so she went back to making this a solitary activity. She’d finally picked one up and got to my seat. She opened it and again there was that strange, potent, musty smell. Pari took in a big breath.

Pari does not remember the book and the story, I’m willing to bet. It would just not be true. She couldn’t remember anything beyond the excitement she was feeling. Everyone sitting and reading together, it was a lovely atmosphere. Before she could make much progress with her book (purple cover with beautiful illustrations) the time was up. She could take the book home with her, but she’d have to bring a newspaper and wrap the book neatly so as to not spoil the book, Mrs. K said.

The next day when Pari reached school, she could hardly contain herself. She could get it home! She supposed this would be how her friend felt about her dog Toffee. She reached the library and looked for the book. It wasn’t there. Someone else had obviously liked it and had taken it home. She never laid eyes on that book again. It left her heartbroken. But she finally found another book, this one made up for its shabby cover by being extra smelly. She often went to the library in all the times she could find and would let the stillness fall over her. Letting stories wrap their enticing arms around her.

She could do it, she thought. She read a little bit of Nancy Drew and protested the broken pencil. She remembered and rebelled at the names they called her. She used what they called fancy schmancy words. She laughed at them. She read like it was the only thing sustaining her. The only nourishment she cared about. On and on she went. Charlie’s adventure in the chocolate factory, Mowgli’s thrilling life in the jungle, the little prince’s solitude, Heidi’s free spirit, and Alice’s wandering. Borrowing books and returning them. Borrowing a little something from the books itself. Pari was now teased with “Pari who reads in a hurry”. She told her mum about it “Mummy! they say I read in a hurry!” and broke into a grin.

 

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Movie Date

“…like a love sooong” finishes Noorie, crooning breathlessly in her high pitched voice. Meanwhile, I am trying swerve my car just right. Being a new driver is hard. But I can get from point A to point B. That’s the only points that seem to matter in my life now. Although, I can’t seem to listen to the radio anymore, much less fiddle with it every time an ad comes on. Well, that right I had relinquished anyway after my daughter turned five. She wouldn’t leave the music system alone. Takes after me.

We reach the mall just in time. My daughter’s voice is sweet, but after a point I need it to stop. Phew, I’ve parked it well! Yaay! Have to tell my husband about it. “Will we get caramel popcorn or cheese, bebu?” I ask my daughter. “Mixed”. At seven, Noorie is more sure of herself than I was then, or am now. She knows what she wants, and more importantly, she knows even more clearly what she doesn’t want. We trot up the stairs, and then the escalator, Noorie marveling at every mannequin she sees. “That dress is nice no?” I say, pointing at one. She giggles and says, “that’s a real girl mama!” Oops. She really fooled me. “I know, was just trying to make you laugh!” “No! you didn’t know!” she squeals. She’s a smart cookie, this one.

We get to the theatre area, and what do you know! We’re way ahead of time. We stroll near one of the red sofas, lounging about and chattering until the auditorium opens. My daughter and I talk about the last movie we saw, and she skillfully slips it in how much she would like a minion backpack- message received- and how it would be so nice if we were to have minions. While all this is happening, my eyes scan the other moviegoers. All of it filled with families, or with teenage couples looking well turned out. Also many a divorced dads spending their weekend with their kids whose mums must have the custody. You can always tell with the divorced dads. They don’t say no to anything.

My attention however seems arrested by a girl, who looks to be about ten or eleven. She meets my gaze for a second before looking down again, guiltily. She’s seems to be getting a thorough talking-to to by her dad. When I look at him a second longer, I feel uncomfortable. He is not the dad. He seems to be in his early twenties. A little young to be a dad, a little old to be her older brother, possible though. There doesn’t seem to be anyone else who’s there with them. An uncle, maybe?

I forget how long I keep discreetly watching their exchange. She seems to be mostly bowing her head down. He is talking to her in hushed tones. I can almost feel the tension he’s holding back. My curiosity piqued, I strain to catch a few sentences. I could only hear a few words like “you must understand these…” “Can only do so much”, “don’t care”, when Noorie yanks my hand and asks if we could please buy the popcorn? Yes of course. Even as we go to get the popcorn I keep inadvertently glancing at the uncanny pair. Who is he? Their tiff, if I could call it that, seems almost…adult-like. She seems to be announcing by her body language that she is afraid and ashamed and remorseful towards him.

I get a sense of foreboding deep in my gut. An electric shock of recognition. A sense that I know what is happening. My heart is pounding, and I momentarily cannot hear anything. I get the popcorn and immediately afterwards the auditorium opens. My daughter’s grip on my hand is almost painful. She hurries me along to go inside the theatre, while the girl in the orange shirt keeps mute. She gets up and they also proceed to the same auditorium, him putting his hand on her back and ever so slightly rubbing it.  I resolve to see them later again. Why though? Why should I see them? Because something isn’t right. I can feel it in the catch of my breath and in the clamminess of my palms.

I’m not a meddler. I generally leave others be. But even after we are seated, I keep straining to see where they are. But I don’t see them, the lights are dim, and my daughter needs my attention.

The movie starts. Mowgli is jumping about in glee, and the forest is beautiful and lush. Noorie is completely mesmerized. I would’ve been too, perhaps if my mind weren’t bringing up a thousand mosaic like memories. I remembered things I had forced myself to forget. Had succeeded, even. Hadn’t told a soul. I remembered how he caressed the back of my neck as he taught me how to play carrom. How he slithered his hand under my skirt when the lights were off. “Shh!” he’d say. “Keep quiet, Uncle loves you so much”. “Eat your food now! come on” he’d say, while his socked feet would slide along my calves.

I was eight. It felt terrifying and exhilarating. I’d never felt more conscious of my body. I felt special. Like I was chosen by my favorite uncle, to be his favorite girl. The one he picked out, to spend more time with. Share more secrets with. And secrets they were. My mother slapped me sometimes, and he would be there, ready to save me. Tell me a joke. My grandma would laugh. “These two! Inseparable” she’d say.

I remember how he would get angry when I would tell him about my friends. “I’m your friend! Why do you need so many?” I remember how I couldn’t ever focus on my homework. Because when I was home, there was no homework, really. Which earned me many names- lazy, insolent, idiot, etc. Not to forget the spankings. The constant talking between my parents and my teachers, discussing what a nuisance I was. Discussing it as if I wasn’t even in the room. Sitting next to them, my head bowed.

He left eventually, moved to another city. I cried for days. For a loss I was relieved about and yet I was in perdition. What would I do without him? Who would ‘love’ me? Who would console me? Only later did I feel the anger. I still don’t know why it happened. I don’t know if I’m angry anymore. He still meets me. Gives me a hug. But never touches me like that. So respectful now that sometimes I wonder if I’ve made it all up. I haven’t. I try to look at the audience again, trying to spot her. I haven’t.

I couldn’t see them again. Even if I did see them, what could I have done? Spoken to the girl? Spoken to the man? What could I say? Who could I report it to? That night, I get a headache. As a child I’d always had them. For no reason I could understand. Today I feel like it would consume me. Was I sick? Maybe I had a tumor that I wasn’t finding out about. Maybe I’d know when it was too late. Is it possible that some memories could join together inside your brain and become a tumor? I don’t know what I’m even thinking.

I realized we’re all only as sick as our secrets.

I am sick.

Karma takes Time

Have you ever seen how pigeons almost seem to have serious discussions once in a while? This one there is telling the other one, “Hey, my interview sucked! This guy was such a prick!”, and this one’s saying, “It’s okay man! Apply in other places. In fact send me a copy of your resume, I’ll see if I can do something, send it to a few folks, maybe…” “Thanks man I was just hoping-”

“Hey Abhijit? Hey?”

“Um Sir, yes? I was just, uh, going over the statistics in my head”

“Mm hmm, and what do they indicate to you?”

“Sir, well I think the current production needs to be vetted and there has to be a thorough process flow of things. The market demands are not being met, and there’s too much backlog, so we need a strategy. Right?”

“Er, right…”

After a few more minutes of such officious sounding crap the meeting got over. So I need to now go back to my cubicle. Where there will be no pigeon sightings. Where I’ll have to see other people who I don’t want to see. Where I’ll have to see people, period. Why can’t we have pigeons instead of people? Pigeons are smarter. Pigeons get it.

In walks Ms. Precious. Oh wait Mrs. Precious. Bitch. I can’t even hate her properly. Why does she have to look all smiley and chirpy? I mean be a bitch, but at least look the part. Confusing us like that. She looks over at me and her smile falters a bit. But credit where its due- she’s good. No one would ever know of the slight hardening at the corners of her mouth, or they way her eyes seemed to glaze over, or the way her nostrils flared for a micro second.

No one would and has known, for instance that we were once together. Together together. Deciding to spend our lives together. No one knows that we spent nearly every waking moment together for the last year and a half. A year and seven months and a week. But who’s counting?

No one knows that now Ms. Hoity Toity has gotten married to someone else, and had informed me a week before getting married to Mr. Man. One week. One. Fucking. Week.

The reason I’m in a kerfuffle today (Kerfuffle, hah! I love that word. Makes me think of kittens) is that I’ve had a night yesterday. Oh boy. What a night! It was my birthday yesterday, so naturally I spent it in darkness, downing some vodka. As you do.  And then some friends of mine came over, in high spirits. I mean what the hell. All I did was manage not to die for 365 days. Which, all things considered, has been a feat. They seem to want to wake up the dead, and take them for a night out. All they wanted me to do was give them an excuse to get stoned. So I did. Fine. Whatever.

The only problem is that today I feel like vultures picked on parts of my brain. Specifically the part that had been trying to keep it under control and being civil to people. Yeah, that’s gone. Also with it, gone is the part where I was trying to forget everything. Forget that we ever were with each other. Forget that we ever sat with each other, sharing secrets, laughter, kisses. I can’t seem to turn it on. The switch where I remember to forget everything, every single day. Today has been an assault on my memory and senses. My senses triggering memories that I had thought I had put to sleep. My heart is a werewolf and today’s full moon.

What the hell is WRONG with me? Where am I getting my lines? I’m making myself sick. Like physically sick. I have to stop. I can do this. All I really have to do is concentrate on my earlobes, or my nails or my work (yeah right), and before I know it this day would have been done. I’ll climb into my single bed. My flatmate would have already been sleeping and I’m just going to lie there. In darkness. I can’t wait. Meanwhile there’s also going to be lunch. That will be one hour gone. So how many are left then? Three, four… anyway a few more hours left.

I’m only beginning to get back into control when she again slips past me. Giggling. She has the nerve to giggle. She’s talking about her husband. I swear I’m so tired of this. Tired of smiling with everyone else and then giving a fractured fake laugh at her marital jokes. Tired of never saying anything to her. Not saying that I’m angry, not saying that she hurt me. That I really miss her, and hate her, and love her. I think right now, I hate her more than I love her. Way more.

I sit at lunch. Not bothering to smile. There’s too much else to occupy my time. There is food. Why do they call it munchies? Because of the sound you make when you eat? Interesting word. Hmm. So much rice. God, the curry is amazing. I could eat a gallon of this. And why haven’t I noticed the pickle. It’s SO good. As I’m vacuum cleaning my plate of food I see her again. She’s talking about her honeymoon spent shopping in Bali.

I am filled with so much rage, I wish I had poisoned her food. Not enough to make her die- just run to the toilet some twenty times a day for a week at least. Or maybe three of four days.

I have a plan. In the bigger scheme of things, it is nothing, really. After the lunch I’m sitting and napping at my desk. As we do. “Abhijit, could you please come here?” “Uh yeah yeah. I’m here.”

Informal meeting on the floor. I stand near her and give her a smile. She looks uncertain because I haven’t smiled since her wedding. Which was 23 days ago. But who’s counting? “Meetings after lunch, right? So drowsy!” I whisper to her. “Yeah…” Tentative smile. I think she thinks she’s off the hook. Bitch. “Do you want some coffee? I’ll get some”

“Er, yeah sure, Why not?”

I excuse myself, and get two coffees. One cappuccino with extra sugar, and one latte. In which I spat.

I take it back to her. She seems grateful for the latte. Takes it almost to her lips, puts it back. Does this routine twice before she actually takes a sip. And then…wait, has she figured it out? No! “it’s very hot. Haha” “haha” I say, obediently.

During the meeting, I feel happy. I don’t concentrate on the meeting. Productivity, blah blah, motivation, blah blah. I’m truly happy. Redemption. One coffee at a time. I mean, even I know it’s petty. But I want to be petty, okay? I’m allowed. I’m the dumpee.

After serving her 57 lattes over the course of 80 days, I’m done.

I’m done being angry. She doesn’t like the lattes anymore. Wonder why.

 

 

 

 

City of Journey

Shorey jao dada!”(Move forward) rings a loud voice, right next to my ear. This has to be the most annoying day of my week. It’s a Wednesday. Everyone knows Wednesdays are worse than Mondays. You’re entrenched in the mess that is your work week. It’s 43 degrees in the middle of April. My boss is waiting to have a ‘meeting’ with me. My wife is upset because I didn’t make my son eat his breakfast and ran off. My mother-in-law is at home, who doesn’t help matters. India is not playing too well. I forgot to wear my watch. I’m thirsty and sweaty and it’s only morning. I don’t have a seat in the bus, because I ran to catch the one that was taking off, so as not to keep waiting at the bus stand. There are so many others here. If I’m not careful I’m sure some self righteous woman will assume I’m groping her and bash me on the head. I’m not groping anyone. I couldn’t, even if I wanted to. I can’t wait for the day to be over.
If I think over it, I couldn’t wait for a lot of days to be over. I don’t know where my joie de vivre has left me. Perhaps I left it one day on a bus like this one. And now it’s gone. Maybe someone else who needed it picked it up and is sitting in another bus, smiling, chatting and generally anticipating a good day. It is Kolkata after all- the city of joy. My city, in a way. My wife keeps telling me to stop being so grumpy all the time to my mother-in-law. Well the woman IS batty. My mother-in-law, I mean. Although, my wife’s not too far behind. Idiots, the lot of them! “Joy” she says, “Can’t you even have dinner in peace?” What peace? I want to watch the bloody football. It is my house! My TV! And my time! Except they want to watch a soap where all the women will be decked up and behave like everything shocks them. Vile, vapid vixens.
Dada deche deche koro na!” Again the conductor goes past me. I marvel at how the conductor seems unfazed by the heat or the crowd or life, really. He took it, maybe. My joie de vivre. As I’m trying to think of anything except about the single line of sweat dripping down my neck to my back, I spot a seat. Now, this is no time to twiddle my thumbs. If you need a seat, you have to wrestle and claw your way to it. There’s no old person who can make me feel guilty for taking the seat and I’m gunning for it. There! Got it! There. Oh! to have a seat under your backside.
How did I get here? How did this become important to me? Not the seat- this mediocrity. This life.
The woman sitting next to me seems to be in an even sourer mood, if that’s possible. She’s clenching her fingers on the seat handle like she wants to wring it. Or maybe she’s imagining it to be someone’s neck. The way the driver’s at it, it’s good to hold on to something though. Everyone’s had it with this week. Except maybe the conductor. Well, I still have about half an hour to go. I find myself snoozing a little. Didn’t have my coffee today. I stop fighting it. I can do a power nap. Anyway I will wake up if I get a call. Just ten minutes.
****
I can’t do power naps, obviously. My phone has switched off. I don’t know what time it even is. Except- it is definitely almost afternoon. There are very few passengers on the bus. The lady next to me seems to have moved away. I fumble to understand where I am. I get up in frenzy. Let me ask the conductor. When I go up ahead, I see the lady who was sitting next to me is sitting in the seat next to the driver. They seem to be in a chatty mood. Laughing, giggling and what have you.
The conductor tells me they’re nearing the last stop. Which is basically an hour on the other side of my office. I rush to leave, but the conductor assures me that they’re going to be departing again soon and will go back the same way. Within about 45 minutes I should reach my office. I relent. There’s anyway going to be thunder clouds at work. What can I do by running around now?
Truth be told, I think my nap has helped me a little. I’m glad my cell phone battery has died. My wife can’t call me to tell me what I did wrong. My mother-in-law can’t tell me to get groceries while I come back. Groceries in which there is invariably something amiss- so I have to change it, and also feel like I have to apologize to her.
I take a seat again. This time next to a window. Any amount of breeze helps. The conductor sits next to me. I observe the two again. By this time there’s no one in the bus except the conductor, the driver, the lady and yours truly. The lady and the driver seem more than chatty. They’re almost…romantic. She speaks to him, laughs and then looks coyly at him. He seems to be laughing a little. I can tell even though he is looking ahead on the road by the mirrors. His eyes seem to be laughing at least. That’s for sure. I see them holding hands fleetingly.
I look at the conductor, almost embarrassed to have caught an intimate moment. I have no reason to feel this way, but I feel like I witnessed not hand holding but much much more. The conductor lets loose a belly laugh, rattling his spry frame. He caught me, then. I look up at him again, and find his laughter ebbing away, giving way to a bemused expression. He narrates to me that these two have been in love for over a year. Every morning they take a bus ride together. She comes in with her face powdered, lips painted and bangles jangling. They share a smile or two, some knowing glances and then they have a conversation.
Protidin?” (Every day?) I ask, incredulous. Surely not!
Hain, Onudeen” (Day after day)
“Are they…?”
“Married? No”
“Oh”
She is about twenty, a billing agent in a supermarket. Her shift starts in the afternoon. They share a lunch, after which she carries on with her day. He has a wife and three children at home.
Bhalobasa E Jibon, na eta?” (Love is life, isn’t it?)
I stammer something. By the time I could form a response the conductor has moved on as a few passengers have come in. I observe the duo for a while longer. Maybe it was five minutes. Maybe it was thirty. They looked drunk on something. Her earlier anger seems to have dissolved. He is driving the bus smoothly. For them, life seems to have it. I’m sure they don’t want this day to be over.
I startle from my trance, as the bus reaches my stop finally. Later that day, as I go for the meeting, the discussions, the phone calls, emails and the grocery shopping, for the first time in a while, I don’t want the day to just get over. Middle of the week notwithstanding. In fact when I went home, I smiled at my wife. She didn’t do anything extraordinary. She was still telling me about the tough day she had the moment I got in. But well, I couldn’t help smiling. “Joy? Can’t you listen to me? Why are you smiling?”
Don’t ask me why, but that made me smile even more.

The Storymonster

“And then madam, then my father threw me into the sea so that we could save my sister. She was only three, poor girl, when we were attacked by the crocodile.”

“Really? Where was this?”

“Oh, I was in Lakshwadeep islands.”

“Fascinating…”

This was in the middle of yet another story in Manju’s repertoire. Something to leave people wanting to know more about him. To make them think he was charming and captivating. Something that made him think that way about himself. As Manju weighed all the newspapers and magazines, calculating how much he would have to pay for all this, he had spun his ‘real-life story’ on how he ended up in these circumstances. He would, of course, be back in a month or so. They always called him back. The newspapers and magazines never stopped. They weren’t used after a month or so. Maybe they could be used for lining the shelves, or cleaning the mirrors. But even for those, there were substitutes now. Shinier or softer stuff- which meant all of these papers were plain old trash.

Manju wondered whether they were read at all. If read, then were they read properly?  Whether anyone really read the small print where they announced somebody dying, or whether they actually read when the chemistry exam papers were leaked. He knew they didn’t- that’s how he got his stories.

“Manju bhaiya, tea?”

“No madam, tea causes me to have immense problems nowadays”

“Oh! why so?”

“Actually madam, I went to the doctor when I developed a strange rash on the back of my neck and he said that there are certain chemical compounds in Chai that don’t work with certain genetic builds. I’m better now madam.”

After some meandering about researches Manju winds up, takes the newspapers, pays 120 rupees and leaves with his ‘assistant’.

“What rash?” Gopi, said assistant, asks in the elevator, trying to lug the bundle of newspaper.

“Nothing” Sighs Manju “They why mention it” “No reason”. Gopi did not understand his brother’s narratives. Sometimes Gopi was the assistant, occasionally he was rescued from the circus. Now and then Manju was an erstwhile grave digger, sometimes he would be a Bangladeshi refugee running away from a clothing conglomerate after burning the factory down. This one time Manju gave the story that he used to be a security guard in a big jewellery store and had single handedly stopped a heist, much before the police arrived. Also, one time Manju was a hawaldar in the police and then he took a retirement because he couldn’t take all the pressure and stress.

They both reached the ground floor of the apartment. Manju of course, stopped to speak with the security guard and give him advice, on account of him having been through it all. Then they proceeded to walk out towards their raddhi shop (junkyard for selling old newspapers) down the road. After they reached, they both flopped down on the low stools and sat under the fan on full speed, which was rarely ever enough.

Manju took out a droopy looking cigarette from his pocket and lit it. Then as he was wont to do, he picked up one of the magazines and started leafing through them. Gopi closed his eyes and sat for a while, a tiny, almost unnoticeable frown on his brow. He was worried about his son’s behaviour. He was beginning to lie to him about things. Why though? He wondered. He had never shouted at him, he never raised a hand to him. One more thing to find out. When he opened his eyes Gopi saw Manju taking a small kullad of chai from the tea seller. Rash, my foot, he thought. If he gets rash from the tea, then I get knee pain from the air.

Manju sat sipping on his tea, reading the astrology section, and then the fashion section. After a bit of tea and smoking, Manju had already read one magazine and a whole newspaper. Gopi gets a call on his mobile phone, from a possible client. “No it’s the raddhi shop. You can sell newspapers books etc for the current rate.” “9 rupees per kg.” “Okay, madam, in half an hour, where?” “Okay”. They have more work.

Thus they get up and walk to another house. Where Manju will of course spin another tale. This time, he has decided, he will say he used to be an astrologer, or maybe that he still is practicing it. Manju knew why he did it. In fact he knew why his nephew lied. He also knew that Gopi was always irritated or puzzled or shocked, but he did not know why this was. He needed stories. He needed to not only know stories. He needed to be one every time. As with stories, you always need a new one. He felt powerful. Holding reality, feeding them lies, filling them up with wonder and with hope, with alarm and excitement. Well, that’s why he did it. If we are who we say we are, and we like what we say we like, then Manju wanted to be as many people as possible.

Same drill- security guard, going to the elevator, going to the house. Starting with a tale. Telling so many innocuous lies that it was difficult to separate truths from lies. The madam was not there, the man said. He could give the newspapers and books though. This man was not like his regulars. He listened to the stories, almost amused. He didn’t even bat an eyelid when he mentioned anything which was almost too incredible. Perhaps it would have been nice if there was someone else to listen to the stories, this wasn’t nearly as fun, thought Manju.

This was fun, thought Ravi. An ex-astrologer who predicted the death of so many people, and ‘helped’ them not befall the tragedy! And he had developed warts from hot water. He listened to it all, controlling his chuckles.

Later that night, when Ravi went to give his daughter a kiss good night, he stopped to tell her a story. He told her elaborate tales- of dragons and dungeons, unicorns and centaurs. About the time one could light the whole universe with a single candle. About trains that never stopped. He saw excitement in his daughter’s eyes, her many questions on the story and the way he could tell she was almost in the glowing  garden, or swimming with the mermaids. This was thrill, this was making someone believe in things you knew didn’t happen.

He knew. He knew why that man did it.

Chivalry is probably Dead

When I was first able to take an Uber on my own- I felt a thrill. A no-new-stories teen like me, booking, taking and paying for a cab on my own! (it wasn’t technically my money but whatever). I know boys my age are supposed to be cooler than that. But hey, I’d never say it out loud. Now I’m an old hand at these. Take today for example- I went to this party and of course I’d had a few drinks, now we have an Uber which can take us home. So simple.

It’s chilly at first, then I feel like I’m feeling hot – a sure sign that I’m high as a kite. I’ve just come here to drop off my friend Preeta. Man, she lives in this crazy ass place. I didn’t want her to go home alone because then she’d whine all day tomorrow about how scared she’d been, and what crazy sightings she had. There’s a cemetery near her place and she’s an attention seeking witch. I’d much rather just get done with it.

We’re both zoning out in the car- she’s so much more bombed than I am. She’s now talking about stars. Seriously. I am in danger of becoming sober. I’m also hoping that she doesn’t feel nauseous, because this one time we were at a party and after like one shot, she was all swaying and then- she puked on my shoes. Not an experience I want to repeat, because this time, I might actually join her. So I’m game if she wants to talk about stars or robots. Hell, I’d even throw in prompts like “circus” and “animals” if it gets her to not focus on heaving.

Looking at her now, I don’t know why I was bonkers about her. When I was seventeen, she seemed like an answer to my prayers. But now when I look at her- she’s so lame. She talks about getting new clothes all the damn time and yet I see her wearing the same jeans everyday. Like what does she do, buy it and store it somewhere? And like directly donate them to some charity? I loathe everything- her stupid geek glasses, her pseudo smartness, her torn jeans. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t. She’s going to go home. I’ll turn around and go my way.

….

Shoot. Turns out, I’ve to book a cab again after I dropped her. All I get is an Uberpool. Not so bad, but it’s 3am. I’m a little miffed that I can’t go alone. What if this fellow rider is super talkative, and asks me about my future plans or gives me a lecture about staying out late? I’m so not in the mood to talk. Ah well, whatever gets me to my bed. This cabbie is not chatty, at all. I mean I don’t want someone to bore me to death talking about the state of the country or anything, but at least he could answer me when I talk. Tool.

Taking a cab from my friends place is not without its problems. There’s no internet signal in that area or any kind of network connection for that matter. I’ve to literally just look out the window. The music system in this cab doesn’t work, and I’m on the last 6 percent of my battery. Looking at the window is pretty much my only option.

I’m not always sentimental- but maybe because of the time or maybe because I’m high, the moonlight feels so new, so different. As if I’m seeing it for the first time. The cab stops to pick up my fellow rider. Whoever it is, is taking their own sweet time. I mean where is this person coming from? There’s no buildings that I could see nearby, only a cemetery. I’m just thinking if saving my battery is really worth it, when the door opens. In comes in a woman wearing a white sari.

Hah! What did they think, they’d fool me? That I’d scream? This is rich. Like come on! A woman wearing a white sari- near a cemetery- what do they take me for! No one except kids below ten years of age would fall for this. They really should have tried harder. She’s pretty though. If you like that tall, full figured, long hair, big eyes kind of thing. So yeah, she’s pretty hot. I smile at her. Duh. She kind of smiles back.

I decide to whatsapp my friends that the show’s over. They can just end it. But they’re all sleeping I guess. Anyway, meanwhile I try to talk to her. “It’s really cold, isn’t it?”

“Yeah…its that time of the night” okay…

“Where are you going to get dropped?” An ordinary question should work

“After you”

“Oh” How does she know where I’m getting dropped?

“Are you working?” Something normal, simple

“You can say that” What? I didn’t mean like now. Is she a prostitute?

I need to check my phone. There’s one message in the group. It’s from Karan, and it reads: what? What prank? Dude you’re high. 4% battery. So they don’t know anything, is it? Maybe I should ask the driver to talk. The driver is here, he may not exactly be Steve Martin, but he’s at least here. I look up to notice this woman staring at my face.  “Um, where are you from?” Keep it light, keep her engaged.

“From where I took the cab” okay, that was a nowhere. It really is chilly. I give a tiny, unmanly, shiver.

“Bhaiya, AC off karr do” even though I ask the driver to switch off the air conditioner, it looks like he’s not even heard me.

“So it’s pretty late huh?” I ask, keeping up this getting-weirder-by-minute noir drama.

“Is it?” One normal answer God, please.

I’m not quite near my house, there’s almost no one around. Shops are closed. There’s occasionally a truck passing by in high speed in the flyover. We get off the flyover and are nearing one of the lanes, and the car stops abruptly. My cabbie turns and looks at her. It’s quite something, you see, he looks at her like he’s angry. After a second she just gets out of the cab and leaves! I try to follow where she’s going but the moment I turn for a second to look at my driver, and turn back, poof. She’s gone. The relief is so palpable I exhale for the longest time. And about time, because my phone is now dead. The car starts again.

By now I’m sure she was a prostitute and she would have gotten money out of me. People are into weird shit. Whatever floats their boat, I suppose. I’m just relieved that my driver took care of this. Man, this is good. He didn’t even say a word. I’m totally giving him 5 stars. Saved my life. I mean, not that I thought there was any real danger, but I was creeped out. Now I just really want to go home. I’m pretty much sober now, though I’m sweaty like I’ve run a mile.

“Thank you bhaiya! Why did she get out like that?”

“She’s not needed”

“But she told me she will get out last…”

“She in the wrong car, you know”

“Oh, so she was supposed to be in another cab?” I highly doubt that.

“She was here to take you, kid. You know what she was”

As in? A prostitute?

“She’s often seen in that area, getting out of the cemetery at around the same time. In the past year four cars have gone missing.”

I think I go a little pale. A ghost then. Preeta was right! She talked about seeing things. How close I’d come. Seriously. I can only imagine everyone’s reaction tomorrow. Everyone would have been searching for me- only I would be missing. God knows where.

Showing the last bit of my bravado, I say “But nothing happened…how far are we from home?”

At this the car stops. My driver stops, turns and stares at me. “Do you know why she wasn’t needed?”

No…no I didn’t…

“Why?”

“Because I’m already here.” He smiles for perhaps the first time in the whole one hour. His eyes are slightly bloodshot. The smell from his open mouth facing me, is like rotting carcass. “Don’t you think two ghosts in one car is overkill, kid?”

….

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                                                                            Image from favim.com

(Psst… Uber is awesome, though.)

Of Fear and Shame

A pundit, a man of god, supposedly a master astrologer- decreed for a friend of mine, that she is a maanglik– cancer of the stars. If you are a woman who is found with this- you better not marry- if you do you marry someone who is has the same ‘problem’. Otherwise, your betrothed will die. Clearly forgetting that we’re mortals anyway. If this wasn’t petrifying enough- there’s more- it was also said that if she marries, her husband/s will either commit suicide or be murdered. If shaming wasn’t enough- there’s a shitload of fear that is also added into the mix. Basically, what they’re saying is: a) You should be ashamed because your stars are aligned just so defectively *downcast eyes of the maanglik* and b) You should be scared. You should be panicking!

Here’s what some people can think: Dear God! my daughter/ sister/ I should never say this to anyone. Because if they find out, who will marry my daughter/sister/ me? Maybe there’s some way, some ritual, dakshina/ bribery I can give the Gods, through the said pundit, of course, that they will consider reversing this atrocious state. There must be some ring that can be worn for this very thing, at the least. The afflicted can also assume that s/he is utterly ruined. No matter that the person is an IT professional- working to help his/her family repay all their loans and is in many ways what would be termed as independent.

Fear is that acid that can corrode the most concrete of substances. It can make you feel that you should not be experiencing your contentment and elation- because at any moment it will be taken away. It is that burly old principal who keeps warning you to study, even though all the exams are over. Evolutionarily speaking, fear has point. Think about it, if you were camping out in a jungle, there are two scenarios. Scenario one is when your brain screams “Dude, I bet there’s a tiger out there. Better scoot” when there actually is no tiger. i.e., a type i error. Or there’s scenario two when there’s actually a tiger near you, and your brain keeps mum- a type ii error. In which one would you have a better chance being alive? In scenario one- if you think it’s scenario two, then you’re probably one of those freaks who makes intense (and weird) eye contact with leopards. Seriously, it’s a thing. So, basically you’d rather have a type i error, than a type ii error- which can be fatal.

Where fear prevents us from being in the present because we’re busy watching a scary slide show of our future, shame would not let us get away from our past- because it would constantly make you feel like anything you’d done is so beneath awful that you’d better not tell anyone about it. Not only about what you’ve done- it will make you feel like you are bad just never good enough. Shame is what would make you feel like you don’t deserve what you want- “don’t even tell other’s you’re maanglik“- shame. Shame is what would make you feel like the life you’re living, the accomplishments you have are all phony. You will never belong, you’re faking it, and you know it, it screams.

Where fear has an evolutionary purpose- to alert us to danger, shame does not even have that. Both of them will stop you- even from seeking help. Which is why we have to recognize what they look like. Shame is harder to identify. Shame is anyone telling you that you’re just not smart/pretty/talented/rich enough. Shame is fashion magazines telling you that you can’t carry off a look unless you’re a certain height. Shame is you telling yourself-“This is why I must still be single”. Shame is anyone telling you that you’re a little too dark. Shame is anyone telling you- “This is why your husband/ wife must have left you!”

When we are confronted with fear, we need to understand that our brain means well. We can choose to think- ‘thank you, I know you want the best for me, but I’m cool.’ We can also constantly be taken for a ride. You don’t like it, but you’re convinced that if there’s one percent chance of an accident happening, it’s going to happen to you. When we are living with shame- we need to say NO, and we need to say it loud enough. The best way for shame to incubate is silence. Silence can sometimes be the least Zen thing on the planet.

For the record, I’m told that I am a maanglik. I neither know what it means, nor do I care to google it. Bite me.

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(Image courtesy: Weheartit)

 

 

 

A Greenhouse of Gratitude

I did not just happen. I

became.

This girl who knows nothing, or this girl who knows too much.

Either way, I have much to be thankful for.

I thank the earthlings who became my family.

I thank the school across the road, with its tiny wooden chairs.

I thank the teacher that slapped me right across the face.

I thank the girl who shared her lunch.

I thank the boy that made me laugh,

I thank the man who made me cry,

I thank the people who laughed at me,

I thank the ones who wept with me.

I thank the ones who insulted me,

I thank those who admired me.

I thank the universe for making me who I am.

Just who I am. Real and imperfect.

I love how this list can be endless, and for that

I thank my stars.

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Prisoner of Azkaban

“Honey, we have to cover this up, it looks so ugly over there!” I look up to see my wife pointing at a space in the wall which is disfigured and uneven due to water seepage. “Can we put this painting there? That way it doesn’t show? Right?”

“Yes, that would be okay”

With glee, she says “I am the master of deception. Ha! No one will ever guess! I’m so glad I found this big thing lying around in the attic. It’s not that pretty, but then it’ll do. Better than that disaster isn’t it?”

A little nodding and an occasional “yes”, “right”, “hmm” from my side, was all that was needed.

I had to eventually move from my chair and help her with putting the painting in the wall.

Later that night, I sat reading and my eyes went there. To the wall. I did not know why but looking at that painting made me furious. Filled me with a rage so intense that I wanted to not only throw that blasted painting, but also destroy the wall. My hands were clenched into fists so hard there were crescents on my palm from my nails. I sat there transfixed. Looking at it and breathing hard. What was it about this?

Master of deception, she’d called herself. A short, bitter laugh escapes me. Deception, I thought was an art that I had perfected with practice. Deception was my entire existence. Deception was living a lie, growing a moustache to look ‘manly’ as my wife calls it, flirting with the receptionist, procreating with my wife to have children, faking a headache every other night right before going to bed, or saying that there was so much of work. Deception was talking to the love of my life and pretending to everyone that I’m talking to my best friend.

I lie back in the chair and let out a breath. Asked myself the millionth time why I was doing this? Was there another way? Maybe there was and I was just too…constricted to see it. I knew why I was doing this. My wife. She is wonderful. We lead a comfortable life. If anything goes amiss, it upsets her. This would destroy her. My two adorable daughters. I often marvel that I had any part in creating them. They’re so lovely and pure and clean. My job- I’m respected, feared, even. I’m good at what I do. I have everything to lose.

I’m living in a free world, or so they say. My soul is in Alcatraz maybe. Or in Azkaban, about which my daughter was telling me about. That seems fitting. Can I free myself? I’m so tired of this fight. Maybe I should just die. The secret will die with me. I’d have died an honorable man. I feel tears on my cheeks. I allow myself the luxury of crying for a lost cause for a few moments. Dying is no solution at all, though. I cannot leave my family. Can I get out of this prison?

I decide to tell my wife tomorrow. Tell her that some things are so powerful that they cannot be hidden. That I yearn for a love that she can never give me. That it isn’t her fault. That I’m sorry. That I’m more sorry than I can ever say. That I do love her. She’s been my best friend all these years. My lover, the mother of my children. I want to tell her that I don’t want this. If there was a way I could be different I’d be different in a heartbeat. I have tried. When I was getting married to her, I thought I could be okay. That I’d be normal, like everyone else. I prayed. I fasted. I was in penance for so long.

I’ve been searching for redemption for years. I probably will never find it. And yet, I remember some moments when I felt like I was not sinning. The love I have for him. It is unadulterated, a longing that I cannot measure. How can something that feels so right, be so wrong. I don’t understand. If anyone in my family gets a whiff of this, they will not only condemn me, they will kill me.

“Come to bed, honey!”  My wife hollers from the bedroom.

“Yes, I will. In just a little while! Some work I should finish, okay?”

“Okay…”

If I Stay

Why do I live?
I ask myself while I sit in the bathroom, a blade in my hand.
Why! What’s the point?
When life has beaten me at every turn, why do it the courtesy of staying?
Why should I?
If I could just sink that sharp edge into my wrist.

How would it feel?
Would it be like when I cut my thigh?

The darkly bright life seeping out.

Yes, why should I live?
Just one more minute- and it ends.
What would I be after? Undead, dead, existing, a spirit, another life or nothing?
Would I be what I want in death? Sure as hell couldn’t in life.
Enough. A minute’s gone by. No more.
Courage, dear Heart. Have courage and sink that metal in your flesh.
I should not live. I mustn’t. I dare not.

I wipe my eyes.

Some deep breaths,

I never have to take another.

What was that? Was it just me? I felt tremors.
As if to prove me right it happened again;

This time some bottles fell.
I slide the windows open; there is so much movement.

As if the universe itself took us all by our shoulders and shook us.
I have to get out. I have to.

I hear frantic voices.

I hear children crying.
Should I? Isn’t this the perfect opportunity? I just have to close my eyes.

Everything around me will shatter and I will be buried.

If only there wasn’t so much crying!
It should have only been me! Only me. This was my battle.
Not like this. Not when my dying means nothing.
I get out; in a matter of minutes buildings are collapsing.

The things I read never mentioned how the dust seeps so deep,

You feel like it will never leave.
I’m in a maze of death,

I’ve never wanted to live more.

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