Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Rickshaw Rhydes

You can tell a lot about a person from what they notice in a rickshaw. My mother doesn't travel by ricks often but when she does, she notices the driver's face in the mirror; in case, she will one day have to identify him in a police line-up. So she'll sit and surreptitiously move towards the mirror and try and get as good a look as possible. This, of course, makes the driver uneasy and results in a very bumpy ride. But the big plus is that the rick guys take the shortest route possible. There's just so much of a paying customer you can take.

I have urged her several times to drop that 'I know what you did last summer' expression, only to be told that I'm naive. Since this discussion comes up after I've been swindled of money, a strong counter-argument is usually absent. The offence rests.

My roomie usually notices the scratches on the upholstery and likes to guess how long the rick must have been operating on the roads. Or that is what she liked to do in Mumbai. She has a theory that a rick's meter is rigged in inverse proportion to the number of potholes it has dipped in. Sometimes, when she jabbers on about these things, I wonder if hers would be the very first dissertation to get published in the JAM magazine. Perhaps. I, hopefully, would not feature anywhere in the acknowledgments.

Show-biz cousin always remembers his struggling theatre-days in Delhi, where he was once saved by a rickshaw fellow from a lecherous truck-driver. (No, I didn't get anybody's gender wrong.) But then, everything reminds him of his struggling theatre days - my poems, cargo pants, soot, Gulzar - in fact, strangely, the only place he hasn't mentioned his Dilli struggles is at Prithvi theatre. And NCPA does not constitute a serious enough theatre for him because of the patrons' affluence. 'If you're very rich, you can't smell the actor's journey. Then, you may as well watch TV.' He also says that a serious actor must be bankrupt at some point in time. 'You're almost there', he laughs and points to the spotlight.

As for me, I am a keen seeker of serendipity. I do understand the inherent contradiction. You can't seek out something whose essence is in manifesting unsought. But I love quirks of time or the crazy lemon squeeze of fate. Much of my little pulse-throbs of surprise come from the booming stereos in rickshaws. They look rather grotesque but appealing - like those monstrous statues with chipped ears and noses in Elephanta.

Many rick guys regard my dog-eared Mark Twain and deem me to be a serious reader. So they do not turn up the stereo. Some politely ask me if I want the music to be turned on. Sometimes, I ask them to 'pump up the volume' so to speak. Then, they are pleasantly surprised to be proven wrong about their notion of me being uppity and spoilt. And what I really love is that moment when there's a little bit of static in the air before the song booms out. You never know what song that's going to be - it could be something you heard in school when love was about pigeons carrying scented notes, or the song you were trying to remember while brushing your teeth but couldn't, or the number your friends danced wildly to on the beach.

I remember one night I was traveling home around 2:00. The rick guy was driving like a maniac, treating the open, empty road like an 'all-you-can-eat for 60 rupees' buffet. Then this song came on. (As an aside, I think they play beautiful songs in the graveyard shift.) This was the song to which I had spent many hours mooning over Charles Darnay in the monsoons. 'Dheere Dheere' from Ashiqui. I messaged my lawyer friend excitedly to tell him of this lost song that had found its way home. That he needed to be at the door to welcome it. 'I have to go to jail early tomorrow', he snaps. Oh well. But I was happy - snuggly, cosy, and sated in that blanket of memories that song had draped over me.

Of course, sometimes it's disappointing. At one time I thought it was a rule that all autos plying between Bandra and Powai would only play numbers from 'Murder'. So, I would take a rick to the station listening to this song. I'd cross the bridge and take another rick which would play the same number from where the last auto had left off.

One time, I asked a rickshaw guy to start the music. He looked at me sheepishly and told me that he didn't have any to suit my taste. By that time, I had heard the songs from 'Murder' so often that I could probably live up to the title. Turns out he had Bhojpuri music. And after listening to 'Murder' for two and half hours every day for seven days a week, I thought listening to another kind of music would be interesting.

And it was.

The rick guy told me that it was a song a daughter-in-law was singing to her mother-in-law. It had lyrics like 'my love for you is like a well'. A tongue-in-cheek number. Hmm. I would've probably liked it if it were not set to that infernal Murder tune. 'Folk music' he'd called it.

In Pune, I haven't seen rickshaws with stereos. But I have seen one with a slogan that said, 'God is one ....' (I swear there were ellipses.) And the next line went, 'Don't break heart, break bone'. From the appearance of the rick guy riding this graffiti contraption, the femur would be his bone of choice..or contention.

There comes this time in everyone's life, I think, when they see the world only through rickshaws. And I think, in this time, they see it all.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Poe, afternoon, queerness


This happened one afternoon that stretched langorously over many anaesthetic eternities. I read a verse by Poe.


Something like this:

'If in your dream you went to heaven,
And you plucked a flower,
And then you woke up and found the flower in your hand,
Ah! What then?'

Excellent drowsy imagery. White, poisonous, spectacular flower - like Datura. Linen - soft creases, thick drapes, cool glass of water at the bedside table. Japanese beads at the foot of the bed. Some chimes ringing like the Chariots of Fire tune. A very gracious conundrum. A soothing cenotaph of reason.

My bai cooked meat when there was no oil. Hadn't realized there was meat in the house. My fountain pen had stopped leaking, all of a sudden. Hadn't realized that stain was ink.

Strange. Like Poe in the afternoon.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Jasmines in her hand


My friend JD, her three year old daughter, and I were walking to a restaurant to have some steak. Or at least that's why my friend and I were walking. The little one had decided to humor us. But for some reason, she seemed disgruntled. You'd think that dimly lit roads and concrete craters would probably make the walk adventerous, but no. It was just plain tiring.

I found three jasmine flowers on the road that I offered our tiny companion. I couldn't find anything else to distract her, other than a sleepy dog; but since I'm scared of them, thought I would let the sleeping dog lie. She took the flowers willingly, yet remained unsure of whether they merited a change in mood. So the furrowed little brows and cute pout stayed
put on her sweet, round face.

Now, JD is a 'Wish I had a camera' kind of photographer. She has the eye to spot brilliant compositions but lacks the initiative to come prepared with a camera. Yes, it can be argued that it's not her profession, but how come she always has money when we go to Barista? Even when she isn't hungry?

She points out the moon to me. It's vivid, big and really close. A full moon - up, close, and personal. The coconut palms could probably tiptoe and touch it. It was one of those bewitching lunar aspects that involve sparse silhouettes of trees, diaphanous clouds, and starless skies.

'See, baby, moon', JD tells her daughter.

'Uh-huh', baby replies without looking up.

So JD and I both bend down to get to baby's eye-level and tell her, 'See, moon, moon.'

'Where?', baby asks, FINALLY looking at us.

'See, there', we both point out.

'Hmm, moon,' she glances quickly and walks away.

JD is not fully convinced that her baby has really seen the moon. I suppose she wanted baby to stand transfixed in astral reverence. Mothers in full moon. Folklores abound.

'Did you see it?', she asks.

'Hmm', replies daughter.

I was very amused. I had last heard that kind of 'Hmm' from my boss when I asked him about taking leave for Diwali. A very indulgent 'Hmm' that royalty reserves for knaves. Yes, have your garish baubles while I check up on my dull, vintage gold.

She scampers on ahead, all the while opening her palms to check if the jasmines from the road were still there. The moon could shine with all its splendor. Baby wanted the flowers in her hand.

It's easy to spot poets from the choices they make - even if they are three.

Monday, October 17, 2005

I'll be RIP-eing. Thanks for calling.

I believe that I must die. It is important to do that now. Not as something that occurs as an error of cosmic judgment. More like the fulcrum of the destiny of the glistening, unshed tear that will drop from hooded eyes.

There is too much going on. There is too little sleep. There is too little time for myself. There is too little of myself to make time for. It is not enough to change jobs, and constantly look at tree-trunks and poisonous flowers, and evil sunsets to find a story. It is not enough. It is not even close to being enough.

What would be enough to get started would be to first end it all. The words, the verbage, the analogies, the descriptions, the twitterings, the hollowness, the constant spiralling ascendancy to decline.

Therefore, I will not write for a long time. I will not write until I am garblingly new and I'm freakishly happy. I shall be my own Othello, and weep in conceited silence over my plight. I shall bleed ever so slowly to get the stinky muddy mundaneness off my blood. I shall thwart memory and be smudged with bubbling amnesia. There will be misery in the ten course meal, there will be the ten course meal as the staple diet.

Then I shall come back to a timewhere 'poetess' was still a word. Then my mind will have flowered in quiet sunshine that mangroves are so possessive of. My brain will pique with ideas and send out stories into the world - stories that will be like lemon pickle and steamed kheema with peppercorn.

But now, I believe that I must die. And I must do as I believe.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Trust

One morning

There’s no point in setting the alarm in the mobile if you’re going to keep it in the silent mode (which is what I do.) And equally ineffective is setting the alarm, keeping the volume high and squeaky, leaving it in purse, and putting purse in cupboard (my roomie’s trademark).

As a result of such dysfunctional stupidity, we both got up at 9:00. We rubbed our eyes, smiled at each other across the room, and then she slapped her forehead. That’s usually her reaction for not keeping the garbage out or forgetting to bring the milk. My response to such distress is a sedate, “There’s always tomorrow; and I prefer black tea.”

“Today’s Monday”, Za says.

“Ah!”, I cheep like a Prozaced sparrow. “The cartoon strips are the funniest today.”

“We have a meeting today.”

I blink.

“At 9:30.”

By 9: 15 a.m., two women with varying degrees of messiness and culinary skills are dressed, fed, and out of the house. However, just as I lock the door, I squint. I know that I’ve forgotten something but I can’t remember what.

So we rush to office and walk into the meeting very late and unprepared. It’s bad because the meeting was our idea, one that we insisted on against cold resistance. Anyway, we met our colleagues (who knew how to use alarms) with sufficient panache.

Then I go to withdraw money from the ATM to find out that I can’t remember the pin number. Interestingly, I can’t recall where I’ve put my cheque book either. Never mind, I think to myself like the aforementioned Prozaced sparrow. There’s some cash in my cupboard which.. (Clang! Clang! First set of alarm bells going off! And now the thought progresses in distressing slow motion) which still has the keys attached to it - So the bai will come into the house this afternoon (she has an extra set of keys) - she’ll probably sweep under the cupboard, - then she’ll glance up and see the keys and will probably open the cupboard - to find that the keys to the locker are there too.

Very worrisome. That locker has just about all the money I could’ve withdrawn to keep me going for a month. To make it worse, it had the money my roomie had given me for safekeeping.
My mouth was dry and I was thinking hard. Something inside told me that all would be well. (Happy cheep cheep, remember?) But something inside also told me that I was a worthless, careless lout. (It sounded a lot like my mom and my roomie.)

“Excuse me, if you’re done with the ATM machine…”, the polite lady behind me asked.

Sure, lady, punch in those magic numbers. Get the money out. Do that while I figure out which organ I need to sell to pay back my friend and clear my rent. Yes, ma’am. I’m done with the ATM machine.

I sit for the next meeting. It goes on endlessly. My stomach is tight and my shoulders are cramped. My roomie looks at me and asks if everything’s okay. (“You have the last pastry, if you want.” She’s sweet.) Gosh! If only she knew! Meeting over, I take her aside and tell her that I have to be heading home. With downcast eyes, I tell her why.

She stares at me like a mildly frazzled goldfish. “Give me a call when…(she can’t bring herself to say it).."when you find out.”

The 15 minute rick-ride home takes forever – with the auto-fellow paying tender obeisance to every pothole on the road. I rush off not collecting the 10 bucks change, try to force the door open (did someone change the lock?), finally dash inside..to see the keys dangling from the cupboard.

I open it and check. My money’s there. My roomie’s money is there. Cards, cheques, jewellery (okay, sparkly earrings from Globus) – all there. My bai – I melt with effervescent fondness. My bai.

Same evening

Free passes to a disco. My pal, JD, and I decide to go. Another colleague very helpfully volunteers to escort us. Universe conspiring to give me a good time and other Paulo Coelhoisms come to mind.

Finally, a night to spray away the drabness of home-office-home routine. Stars will twinkle, moon will wink, and music will play at a fetish’s brink. Divine, I tell you. This change of pace, when pulse was actually throbbing at pleasant prospects.

Club is big, bright, and reasonably crowded. Enough to be fun but not uncomfortable. People are sparkly, and glitzy, with glossy hair and shiny shoes and accessories that glow in the dark.
After some trance-schmance music that makes people look like Dustin Hoffman in Rainman, they begin playing numbers that people can actually dance to. So, there’s jiggying, and then I get tired. Clearly, dancing in heels is nowhere in the vicinity of tolerable. It feels like walking through potholes on stilts.

I sit on the steps of the dance floor, seeking aloneness and silence and respite. But I’m told to get up. So I comply. Unfortunately, in the process, I jam my finger on a nail and I start bleeding. At first, I think it’s a little cut; but then the blood spouts out, as if to make a point. I hold my finger, but my blood feels warm and sticky, and really wet. I think stubborn people bleed this way - incessantly. JD takes me to the loo where I put my finger under the tap and the blood gets washed away to spurt anew. Now, I’m feeling dizzy. Call my boyfriend and get him worried before the signal fades out.

After things are under control, (when blood trickles like a Feng-Shui waterfall and not spouts like an open drain), I decide to call boyfriend again. No phone. Phone’s stolen. Someone took away my phone when I was bleeding. When I stood transfixed looking at blood-tained crinkly white tissues, when my pal had gone to hunt for meds, when my eyelids drooped with numbness - someone stole my phone.

A little while later, JD tells me to get a tetanus shot. Sure, I think. Haven’t done that in a while. In the car, I’m woozy, but keep thinking of an ad campaign for responsible partying – ‘Shots – From tequila to tetanus.’ Something like that. And just before I can accept an Abby in my mind’s eye, I’m on the hospital bed waiting for the needle to go in.

I keep thinking of how much easier it would be if I called up my special person and became hysterical and fondly unreasonable with him. No phone. I think of re-reading the message when he first told me he would love me anyway and forever. No phone. I think of calling up Ma and telling her about what’s happened, and hear her Italian vendetta voice telling me to go and kick someone on the ****. No phone.

I come home. I lay on my bed. I had my phone for 2 years. I would scroll through the contact list, see names of people I’d known in less complicated times, and smile. Someone in that glitzy, well-sheened crowd, took away my phone. While I was bleeding.

I look at my cupboard and remember the keys that someone hadn't used even when she had the chance.

I think I could trust people all over again.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Circle of Friends

None of the people I hang out with in Pune are from Pune – except for one. A few of them are from Mumbai, a couple of them are from Delhi who’ve stayed in Mumbai, and one’s from Hyderabad, who padded around Mumbai briefly. Mumbai – the city we left to get away from it ‘all’. Mumbai – our ever-enduring lowest common denominator.

This Mumbai clique, by the way, is not deliberate. It’s water finding its own level. It’s destiny magnetizing the soul so that it attracts similar spirits. In fact, I think a Mumbai-person out of Mumbai would be rather insufferable unless he or she met other urban prodigals and got along with them. After all, it’s the Mumbai-tainted ones who really understand all the whining about the sea and ever-willing auto fellows. To the rest of the people here, they (or we, since I’m one of ‘them’) are dangerously afflicted with attitude. I can’t blame them though – ‘Mumbai this’, ‘Mumbai that’ can be very irritating. After a while, we all sound like Bilbo Baggins without the indispensability.

Since misery likes company and also comfort food, we eat together. After eating, we spend moments contemplating a hot brownie or a cool chocolate globule (it’s called a ‘chocolate ball’ and evokes silly giggles every time someone wants to get one.) Then we get that and slip into lazy melancholy. It’s rather nice.

However, there are a couple of girls in our group who are rather strident (yet adorable) in their dislike of Pune. They have somehow deduced that the Deccan climes hindered the evolution process of mankind and this is what makes Pune the way it is.

‘People here look so malnourished…so pale and sickly’, says Z.

‘I know…’, says SC, looking around with a cool, sophisticated disdain. Disdainful gaze rests on an emaciated man in checked shirt eating his chapatti with shrikhand from a steel tiffin. Attention to plate is brought back quickly when I take a larger share of the brownie than I’m supposed to. (We usually split stuff because we are cheap and desserts aren’t.)

‘I think that’s because the public transportation is bad’, continues Z.

‘Really?,’ I ask nudging away Z’s spoon that was scraping the walnuts off the brownie.

‘You’ve seen those rickshaws at the station? They pack in 4 people in those!’

‘ So? That happens in Mumbai too. In Vashi, in fact, some people fight to sit near the driver.’, I put in my two cents. Actually, it’s a lie. I’m just trying to distract competition so that my stupid plastic spoon has a chance against those sturdy steel ones.

Ploy works.

‘No, they put everyone at the back!’, Z exclaims, waving her spoon away from the brownie.

Back! 4 people! Shit! Why?!’, SC interjects, her pretty manicured hands dangling the spoon, again away from the brownie.

‘Because it’s ‘illegal’ to have one person sit in front with the driver!’ [Twitterings. (Tee hee and such like.)]

And that’s true. Not just the legality bit of auto-transport; but also the way people are cramped into vehicles. A bus that can accommodate ninety will try to get three hundred inside. A rick that’s meant for three won’t move unless every atom of air has been squeezed out of the backseat. A squashed tum-tum (that’s a rick that can accommodate six people) will only go places if it has a dozen breathless human toothpicks in it. So, unless one can count your ribs or see your collar-bones, don’t bother hailing a rick. If you can afford to be plump and rounded, you can jolly well afford a vehicle.

‘Pune is expensive ya! I mean, what’s with the two month brokerage. I paid only one month in Mumbai,’ another pal postulated.

I didn’t reply to her because she’s a vegetarian and doesn’t have desserts with eggs. Moreover, she was right. It’s one of the biggest hoax that Pune is much cheaper than Mumbai. Not so. Completely not so.

I remember my pals in Mumbai telling me that I’d get a lovely flat in Pune for 5,000 bucks. Now, ‘lovely’ is a relative term, but here’s a list of flats I was shown for 5,000:

• A corridor with a bed and a refrigerator. When I looked around for a place to keep my cupboard, the broker showed me a corner where I could squat my suitcase. As he pointed out, ‘You’ll be on probation, won’t you? And you’ll be going to Mumbai every weekend. So, suitcase is more than enough. It’s much easier if you suddenly want to leave.’ ( That’s wonderful. Now I can have the fugitive lifestyle I always dreamed of.)

When I looked around for a place to put my TV, he said something about me working hard and not getting time to watch TV, and didn’t I have a laptop on which I could watch movies? (I don’t, by the way.)

• A place with a veranda and a loo that was splattered with the droppings of a million pigeons.

• A place that was ‘furnished’. Which means there was a bed that was cracked on one side, cupboards that opened or closed on alternate days, a TV that was smuggled in 1952 A.D., and a picture of a cherub with orange wings.

So, I get tired. I ask the broker to show me a place that doesn’t conjure up ‘Oink! Oink!’ images. Then the broker shakes his head and says, ‘See, this place is expensive because it’s in the heart of the city.’ And when I go and look at flats in areas that can’t be seen on the Pune map, he shakes his head again and says, ‘This place is expensive because it’s away from the city.’

Sometimes, you just can’t win.

And bananas are 10 bucks when I could get them for 6 in Mumbai, the bai charges 1,000 when I used to pay 800 in Mumbai, the cable guy wanted 2,500 for installation when I’d paid 1,500 in Mumbai. So whither is the ‘relatively economical alternative’ in Pune, pray tell.

In any case, since some girls in the group had stayed in other places as well, they started wondering about the quirks of different cities.

‘I don’t think the cars in Delhi have indicators. Haven’t seen anyone using them.’

‘All these guys in Bangalore buses…they’re all drunk. You can smell the alcohol a mile away.’

‘And what’s with the water supply in Cal! I think they only give water to houses that have cats.’ (This notion has a such a beautiful Egyptian undercurrent to it. Shall write a story about it sometime.)

Suddenly, AD who’s been quiet all this while pipes up.

‘Okay, these boutiques in Mumbai? What do they mean when they say they have a Fall-Winter collection? That’s so weird!’

Silence. Puzzled expressions all around. What does ‘Fall-Winter’ collection mean in a place where a stack of cotton shirts and jeans is replaced by another stack of cotton shirts and jeans?

Nobody’s spoon is touching the brownie.

AD finishes it.