Thursday, January 12, 2006

Verse and worse


The commuter's diary

Soon after he died
They found his diary
with strange marks
weathered and deformed
on certain days of his working life
Queer man, they labeled
and buried him so
The diary joined
the pile of trash
to the old paper mart
Its new asylum

Only the diary knew
those strange marks
stood for lucky days
of imperial travel
at the window seat
in swarming trains

The shuttling journey on beaten tracks
Now rusts in peace
In the solemn grave yard
The torn mute witness
Recycled for peanuts


Desire

I desire to break free
from the crumbling frame
and the heavy load
of an old dream

But the scornful smile
of my vicious fate
Aerates me afresh
With false hope




Safe and Sound

Day in and day out
Clock keeps ticking
Only for the din
Am alive and kicking

The busy brush and its tap
Shoe shine guy sings a rap
Hey! keep marchin onward
Put your best foot forward
Music at the flour mill
Santoor beats, a welcome fill
White ghost warm and funny
Five grands for this symphony

Tempting rhythm on tracks
Pleading screech on cracks
Trains you call local
So friendly and vocal
Wheely creatures honk
the peace of a monk

Wailing sirens, humming machine
Serve an universal cuisine
Twists-n-turns, merry-go-round
I feel safe in this sound

8.12 V T fast - Up or Down

Shewanta hates her name
Her creaking Dombivali chawl
Sakharam loves her name
His screeching Ambernath dream

Her dream abode in a Dadar flat
A bathroom to call her own
His eyes set on that last room
Minutes away from the loo

His fantasy wrapped in a saree
Pallu playing hide and seek
She yearns for that sexy look
Tight trousers and tempting tops

Her first thought of the day
Weeping kitchen tap for witness
The new US-returned boss
Benetton shirt and matching tie

“Permanent” letter and Diwali bonus
Honeymoon at Matheran lodge
His sweet voyage all night long
Wrecked by the old man’s cough

She wears a big wide grin
with the Pink salwar kameez
Hopping over crumpled sheets
Favourite number on his lips

Both happy in their hope
Sailing in the 8.12 V T fast
Stroking respective dreams
In the sweat of the ruckus


Dance Bar

Man to wife

Office folks coming home
Dump the old saree
Get the modern look
You have a week’s time
Buy lace and satin
Wear it within
And for god sake
Lose that matron bra
Jeans would be just right
To mingle in the crowd
Your safe new look
Even after the fourth peg
Learn from Mrs. Kapoor
Miss Lily and Ms Gidwani
All about graceful mixers
And broad-minded gestures
Am a new age hubby
Rise to the occasion
Great fun to be a flirt
Within your laxman rekha

Wife to herself

Ok you bloody swine
Will fuel your aspiration
Modern or ancient
You will crack the whip

Watch your wife gyrate
Around home-made numbers
Warm and desirable
Strictly not available
Will tease and tickle
A shudh bharitiya pickle
My sexy inviting look
Will hook but not unhook
When the party’s over
Back to the kitchen
Serving wada and sambar
The quintessential homemaker

Home sweet home
And a happy family
Closed-door dance bar
But not a pickup joint

Soap Opera

The seven-storyed concrete
Every window a channel
Some dark with "for sale" tags
others lit with serial hope

Emotion fighting intellect
Stories on every floor
Some sponsered, others not
Telecast on prime time

Bed-ridden grandma
swallows Her pride
with the capsule
Another episode extended
At the mercy of fate

Merging into each other
hit and miss affair
The newly wed couple
Eternal bliss in foreplay

Householder with tense eyes
Behind broad-rimmed specs
Busy pulling shoe-strings
Losing balance on the sheet

Damsel surfing the world
An obliging idiot box
Dry gravy on the rice
Sorry picture on the plate

Soap operas galore
Pathos, romance,intrigue
Each bubble floating
only while "on air"


Soft wear and tear

Programmed for America
A body shoppers’ delight
Made in India
A short-term contract
Mercy of the great dollar

Paradise lost
Back to the rupee
The Top-notch professional
And true patriot

Huge Loan on salary
Chauffer-driven Honda City
Pink slip, the next day


Frantic call

Dying ring tones
Unsung missed calls
Emails buried alive
The Junk mail debris

Mystery for me
History for you

The perfect couple

Deep embrace
Brimming grace
Passion rocked
Emotion locked
Corporal lust
Karmic thrust
Swift and supple
The perfect couple

Buzzing doorbell
Crack the shell
Wrap the surreal
Fake the real
Time to unwind
Back to the grind

Get me the broom
Or spell my doom
Save me the smack
Memsaab’s back


Time to let go

Mindless travel
away from navel
Lock to the fore
key in the core
Search invain
truth plain
clueless strife
end ripe
Breathless nap
Call of the gap
Dump the urge
Time to merge

Night Shift

My manager had put me on the night shift for the week. I had just joined the 24/7 production support team for a key client - an US automobile major. It was my turn as Sailesh was on leave, and Raghu had quit. This was his last day in office. He had agreed to see me through the first night. And then I was to take it ahead. But that was no solace. In our short association, we had only grown to dislike each other. No real ground for enmity, but I found him snobbish, and extremely conceited. As if he was God’s gift to software. Thank god, he was leaving. Good riddance. Wonder what he thought of me. Whatever he may have thought, I was sure of the negativity. So, with such grand chemistry in broad daylight, the prospects after dark seemed all the more bleak.I reached my desk much before the scheduled time of 8.00 pm. I thought it fitting, more so for the inaugural day and was glad not to find Raghu around. I put on my machine and its faint hum filled the vacant cubicle within minutes. When the scheduler flashed an error code on the screen, I almost panicked at the sudden reality of my job. “Errors have a 5 per cent chance, buddy. Most of the time, you will surf the net or doze off” Sailesh had assured me. But here it was, right at the start of my daunting mission. It was a system error, something I was not equipped to tackle. I felt a cold chill run down my spine. As I sifted through the pages of the biblical user manual, I felt a shadow lurking behind me. It was Raghu and I could already imagine his wry smile of contempt. But he wore a homely grin along with his T-shirt and faded jeans, a rather strange sight for a formal guy with an high-and-mighty attitude. But what happened in the next few minutes was truly unbelievable. He fixed the bug for me, called up the client overseas, and signed off the help desk log with the “success” tag. Before I could recover from the shock, he was back with piping hot tea from the pantry.He was such a great conversationalist, I found that night, with an incredible sense of humour. And what a bore he seemed all these days. Imagine my perception, it had changed overnight…literally... I never knew he was among the first batch of software engineers that were recruited by our firm. How young he looked. And a proud member of the IBM mainframe group, with the fierce loyalty befitting a pioneer. The error that almost killed me minutes back was very rare, he told me. It had happened only twice in his whole career before. Somewhere, in the middle of the night, he got out an Old Monk from his leather bag. My first-ever liquor jaunt in office was truly memorable. After the third peg, he unexpectedly turned pensive; with open regret for the current breed of software guys. “Their pride is killing them” he declared with prophetic authority. Now that was funny. … And what happens to your belief during the day, my friend? Wish I could ask him. Taking my amusement for boredom, he changed the topic to girls. How did he guess my only passion in life? He asked me for my favourite list from office and I revealed a few secrets that reigned my lusty thoughts all the time. But I could not place any of his choice, probably, these dames were no longer in the company, I reckoned. There was no Raghu around when I woke up from my awkward slumber on the revolving chair.

I found his curt email in my inbox in the evening “Sorry dude, can’t make it and I don’t care. Fuck you all. Good bye” The date and time of the email indicated it was written the day before. That meant Raghu never came to office. Then who was the soul who helped me out? A chill ran down my spine.

Later that month, I won the “best performance award” for the bug fix from the management. The secret of my success is still in lock and key, but every word of the rich citation haunts me in my solitude “His group was in a quandary following the resignation of a key resource who absconded despite an assurance to help the team on the first day of the support exercise. In an exemplary performance in the most trying circumstances, he single-handedly solved one of the most complicated job control language bugs without any prior experience of trouble shooting”

Hard Cash

Unlocking the wooden door coated with cheap green paint in gaudy patterns, Shyam marched indoors with the mechanical resolve of the working class. A cup of tea would help, he reckoned.

He was wrong. Staring at the black remains of the beverage floating at the bottom of the cup, he measured the sad thought. May be, he still had time, maybe he read it all wrong, a glimmer of hope seemed to assure him. After all, Mehta is a noble soul. And why should anybody know at all? By the month end, he would quietly square it off. Bhai had given his word. Just a matter of five days more…. what difference would it make?

He tried to recollect the last time Mehta had asked for the balance. Not for months…yes, yes… last year it was, just before the internal audit. Just once in almost eight months. And there was no audit in sight now. Not for the next three months.

The beaming face of Radha made a delightful intrusion into his reverie. She had come for some sugar, as always. A pickled housewife, she was in her early forties, voluptuous, much like the over-sized vamps of South Indian films but more importantly, with looks that would not merit a second look. Just right for his exclusive attention. And she was also a mother of two. Somehow, the social certificate of chastity came so easy with motherhood, he wondered. That was a great help, her marriage.

He greedily savored her belly and its alluring button that peeped out of the shifting pallu now and then; little did he know the display was intentional, one that followed careful mock sessions before the mirror from every possible angle. Radha derived loads of earthy pleasure, throwing a basketful of voyeuristic opportunities at him whenever she could. Though she fancied her chances all the time, it was difficult, what with an obnoxious, drunkard that her husband was, unabashedly patrolling her whenever he was home.

But Shyam was precious in every way. And he was no ordinary hand, a cashier in a private company, not a stupid mill worker like the father of her kids. Amidst the children, the chores and the demands of her black and white married life, she was keen to play the young maiden. She turned back, but not before flashing an inviting smile, offering a delightful view of her swaying behind through her fading nylon saree. It was magic no doubt, he forgot all about office and the cash, if only for a while.

Yes, he needed Radha, to fill his dreams, if not his life… .to please his eyes, if not his loins…. a welcome oasis in the murky desert of his spinster life. The thoughts came back with vengeance, 10,000, that was huge for him no doubt, but peanuts for Mehta all the same. Why should he bother? And was there an option? Did not Bhai’s request wrap a silent threat? The initial help with the room, the rent for the first few months, the ultimatum to the landlord on his behalf? Give and take... It was expected..… some day.

The sound of Mehta’s car in the driveway the next day sent a cold chill down his spine. And before he tried to cope with his fear, the peon declared, “Sahib wants to talk to you”

Was the end near? He could hear his heartbeats drumming to death. “Jadhav, get me the cash count now”

No sooner had the words left Mehta’s rugged lips, the panic consumed Shyam in one mighty blow ……and… he broke down. The confession took less than 10 minutes. The crime had taken a lifetime.

Shyam Jadhav lost his job within a week. “If he did it once, he would do it again” was Mehta’s cold logic behind the judgement that sealed Jadhav’s fate.

Jobless at home, he has taken to liquor. Worse, Radha has distanced herself from him lately, having caught a glimpse of her vulnerable husband in his dithering movements. But what has made him a nervous wreck is not the lost job or the wrecked affair but a double blow of fate.

One, Mehta’s question about the cash balance was just a random inquiry of the current status of cash-in-hand…

and two, Bhai was promptly at his doorstep five days later, with 10,000 rupees in hard cash. As promised.

What if………….

My Friend Muri

By the time the train reached Thane, the time was 7.15. Every bone in my body ached in anguish as I was thrown out of the footboard...From one foot to the other... My eyes were now fixed on the foot-over bridge that would faithfully take me to the West. East and West - those prized keywords in a city where a huge sea of humanity finds its way through two-way tracks, pouring to and fro on either sides with amazing regularity.

It was on my dejected march towards the chaotic bus stand that I bumped into Muri. It took me some time but his protruding teeth and frog eyes gave him away. Yes, Muri he was all right, my friend of sorts from college. The rest flashed by like a heavy downpour, one with huge drops that hurt the scalp.

Muri was part of our core group, if only by default. His parents had named him Murali but for us he was just Muri. Throughout my college years, Muri clung to us like a shadow at gatherings, competitions, picnics, traditional days; neither a participant, nor invitee but always around. As if he had signed a charter of unconditional presence. He was invariably the butt of every joke we cracked and we didn’t need a reason to laugh at him. Though he gave us many.

Within the larger group, we were a core team of six. Archana, Bipin, Gautam, Ria, Sonia and me. And yes Muri was our selfless Man Friday. I still remember our Manori trip that was our first-ever overnight adventure. We had planned it months in advance and the initial verdict was in favor of Muri’s inclusion. After all, we needed him to run errands, serve food, or simply keep guard. We were all set when Gautam changed the plan. At the very last moment… just when Muri was ready with a turd-shaped clumsy yellow bag packed with junk pile waiting to burst out. Gautam, the wealthiest among us, had a say in everything…. and more often that not, it was final. He felt Muri would be a nuisance. Our plans were not exactly noble, so why take a chance? He reasoned. On second thoughts, we saw his point and Muri was left out. As always, he turned the other way without a frown… I had even borrowed his goggles for the day.

Time flew like it always does – priorities changed color, what seemed paramount before felt trivial later and melodrama made way for some real-life drama. Willfully or otherwise, we moved in life. Some way ahead, few close on the heels, others pretty much behind. Gautam got busy with his family business of textiles, Archana did her masters in psychology, we simply lost touch with Sonia, and Bipin & Ria left for the US after their marriage. Their wedding reception proved to be our last assembly. And there was no Muri around, as if to prove this was not the real thing.

Lost in our own worlds, we never bothered to keep track of Muri. And today, I found him like a forlorn shadow emerging after a long cloudy spell. He was now a clerk with the Indian Statistical Institute, he told me on his own. And he wished to know about each one of us.

Why do you want to know, for God’s sake? That core group has long disintegrated into pieces. Of all people, why do you bother? Wish I could ask him all that.

For a second, his earnest look took me back in time. I felt as if the chaos around would freeze for a moment and the rest of the group would appear from nowhere to hatch our next plan, continuing from where we left last. A plan that would now definitely have a well defined role for dear Muri. I would gladly ensure that.

With a mechanical promise to keep in touch, we parted ways, losing ourselves in the now-familiar black hole with that insatiable urge to accommodate strangers of all kinds.

=======================================
Dedicated to the Muris of the world. I believe there are many!

Love story in a triangle

Sex was never on my mind when I first saw Nilanjana. I must admit, I was dumbstruck by her physical charm that was a bit unsettling in its impact. But it was not lust that drove me, at least to begin with.The professor was always at his nonchalant best, raising his head only for the one-off nod of a lop-sided conversation. He taught me taxation with great fervour every evening, invariably when the weather called for something more romantic than the slabs of income tax and the blocks of wealth tax. My mind never followed the professor’s incessant downpour of moneyed gospels but what I savoured was no less taxing. Every time Nilanjana stepped in from the kitchen with generous helpings of homemade snacks and tea, she flashed a smile that seemed to leave a clue or two for me. She had an inviting figure, perhaps what I was naturally inclined to fall for. Plump but not heavy, filled at the right places in the right proportion. And did she look divine in a saree. I loved the way she played with her pallu, every time she stole a glance at me. It was only after a month that I solved the puzzle. What was a naked truth was a puzzle for beginners like me.

The sudden discovery made me jubilant and rightly so. Here was a ravishing female, married at that, making a pass at me. For some days, I just reeled in the spell of this impossible feat. I was too numb to react. All this while, she waited patiently for me to take charge of our unnamed relationship, I learnt much later. She was willing to wait. It was her long-term investment and she seemed sure of the rich dividends. Maybe, this she learnt from the professor’s innocent sermons on calculated risk. For me, this was a lifetime opportunity. To learn from a real lady…. the secret of sex… the nectar of love. She was my master, much like the ferocious heroine of an X-rated film pouncing on young boys half her age. Nilanjana of course, was only five years elder to me and far from ferocious, was grace personified.

I wondered what made her choose the ageing professor, bespectacled and dry, a white ant lost in the pages of his giant manuals and tax recokners. But was it her choice in the first place?I still remember our first kiss.

She was in the kitchen, roasting papads on the gas stove, looking very pretty in her pink salwar kameez. The kameez rode much higher on the backside, than what socially acceptable limits would recommend, as she stood almost lackadaisical, one leg resting on the calf of the other, leaning on the kitchen platform.... offering a glorious view of her shapely buttocks from the flimsy salwar, garlanded by jutting panty lines.

The sight was just too much for me. The professor had excused him out for a while; to fetch his cigarettes maybe…I paced the lobby in nervous steps, caught in the deafening waves of lust and panic. It was hard to stay afloat in the high tide of excitement. But I did dare, as I moved towards the kitchen that more seemed like her bedroom to me now.

Befitting the jittery emotion of my age, I hugged her from behind. The gesture was comic, not at all appropriate for the occasion but she was considerate as ever. Sensing my panic, she caressed my forehead to harbour my childish advances with her assured movements. I placed my lips on the tip of her nose in another blunder. She raised her head at an angle where our lips met in a frenzied lock.

After that memorable evening, our escapades grew in number and variety as time passed by. Every time the professor was away for a conference or symposium, I played her man by proxy. Snuggled together in the warm blanket, we contemplated the future of our relationship, invariably after a volcanic love session in bed. Both of us were aware of the futility of the discourse, but we did indulge in it with religious zeal. As if it was our tonic after the grueling carnal meet. I never knew what was on her mind but I was pretty sure of the ensuing chain of events in my life. Her warmth was only an oasis in my dry academic life, one that would be left parched by the time I was ready to launch a promising career back in my native land. But I lived for the moment while I could.

I bunked college often to take her out …to nearby hill stations on my speeding bike. Yes, it sure was risky but we were too drugged to weigh the perils on our way. I am not sure when the new bond brought us closer than before. Invisible but fulfilling in its warmth. It was not long before we shared a rapport only a nuptial knot is supposed to bring about.

We were part and parcel of each other. I chose the colour of her lingerie, my admonished look cautioned her every time the strap of her bra peeked out of her blouse, I knew the emotional intricacies of her monthly periods, it was my telephone call that became her bedtime pill...she cooked my favorite dishes, ate from my plate in unsuspecting moments, was panicky whenever I caught the slightest chill and of course, she knitted sweaters for me with the customary delight of a housewife.

Maybe, the professor was not altogether oblivious, we could sense. But inch-by-inch, we had reached a stage where it mattered no more. In any case, he showed no signs of disapproval either. Or may be, he had come to terms with the new reality, as often one does with the changed tax structures of a fresh budget. One night, as I lay in bed, alone for a change, I pondered over the blizzard in my life. Yes, I sure did bask in the cold wave, but it was a blizzard all right. The flakes of snow would soon melt to show me the approaching dead-end. Why then, was I scripting a certain disaster in the making? I had no answer.

=====================

Exams were round the corner. I was just not geared for the grind. The more I tried to concentrate on the arid syllabus wrapped in the bulky books and manuals before me, the more my mind came back circled in the triangle around my life. And how entertaining those love stories seem in movies. To be enjoyed reel-by-reel, munching popcorn and wafers now and then. Real life drama came with no respite. Maybe I should reinforce the obvious before she weaves a dream for us, my mind told me. But how can she? She was mature enough to concede to reality. That was certain. It was a matter of time, may be. Then why was I brooding over the issue? I was thoroughly confused. The result was obvious. I flunked. The professor was disheartened, after all my failure was a blotch in his pristine record as an outstanding tutor. Of course, that was just part of the disappointment. Somewhere, I had trespassed on his private property and that would have been more painful.

It was around eight in the evening when I knocked on his door. This was the first time after the results that I had been to his place. He was in his study sipping coffee, poring over his books as usual. I was absolutely sure he was in love with them. The way he sifted through the pages of the book held lovingly to his chest, it seemed just like a caress to me. Much like the way I stroked his wife’s beautiful hair whenever she was on my lap. But today, she was not to be seen around. I could hear her movements amidst the clatter of utensils in the kitchen. Had he ordered her away? I was inclined to believe.

He first mourned over my failure but only as an aggrieved parent would. That was the first time I really felt dejected. I had gone several paces behind in the rat race of academics and I could sense his genuine concern for me. Precisely why the dejection soon made way for guilt when I thought of his wife. Why did I do this to him? I asked myself. But had I done anything? It all seemed to happen on its own, did it not? Well, something inside me told me I could not blame it on destiny alone. I could opt out of it while I could. I made an instant resolve on the spot. I would have to be out of this. Yes. That was it. Make a fresh attempt in December and if I still flunked, get back to the modest family garment business. My dad would only be glad to see me back.

To supervise the making of colourful briefs, vests and panties we manufactured for the big brands. Better to clothe the world intimately than to disrobe family honour.

My instant resolution dissolved with the very sight of Nilanjana, dressed in a teasing nightgown draped with enticing lace, ravishing than before. Or was it the heightened emotion following the separation. It seemed ages since I last met her and I was suddenly overpowered by a strong urge to kiss her. It was tough to betray my instinct, rooted to the ground that I was. She wore a half-smile; wonder what was going through her mind? The professor asked whether I would make a fresh attempt at my exam. I nodded my approval but he could sense the shallow purpose beneath my perfunctory affirmation. He rose from his chair and moved towards his balcony facing the street below.

Before we knew, we engaged in the most passionate of kisses, those that fuel earsplitting catcalls in packed theaters as the lewd public finally begin to see some value for money. It was indeed vulgar, our act, with the professor still around, if not in the room with us. Could we not have waited for a better opportunity? Probably not, the feel of Nilanjana was so comforting, so assuring, was there anything else on earth I sought? Whom was I fooling? I don’t know what happened to me after that. It was a sudden outburst of suppressed emotion maybe. All of a sudden, I held her soft hand in mine and led her to the balcony. Fuck the professor, fuck the world, this lady is mine. I told myself, not even bothering to confirm her acceptance in her eyes. I took it for granted. An earthy assumption that flowered like wild shrub. You don’t have to water it to see it grow. I didn’t leave anything for doubt. Here I was, telling him I loved his wife and ridiculous it was that I sought his consent. If he was my guru, I was to offer him dakshina. I was doing just the opposite, and what was that I asked for? Yet, the professor was unmoved. Perhaps, he was waiting for it all this while.

Now our encounters became perfect simulations of married life, she accompanied me just about everywhere. Soon, we were the talk of the town. Whether it was vigour of youth or the queer faith of offbeat love, we took pride in the ripples we caused in the otherwise still waters of societal sanction. We had our road map clear by now. Our wedding would wait until my second attempt. Meanwhile, I would inform my parents of my decision. Nilajana had nobody except for the professor. Bereaved of parents early in life, she only had an aunt counting her days somewhere in Benaras.

We had just been back from Matheran. Atop the cozy hill, we tried every improvisation under the sun to write a bulky sex manual for the novice. And unlike the professor’s junk of white papers, they would surely sell like hot cakes. She was adventurous than before; probably happy with the unlikely twist in our tale. It was just like our honeymoon and enterprising waiters left no stone unturned to make us feel like newly weds. We would spend hours in bed coiled in each other till our tummies grumbled for some food.

Ignoring every single point of the delightful terrain around, much famed in tourist parlance, we chose to find our way through the secret passages of human anatomy.

I dropped her home, kissing her good night before speeding my bike home. I saw the professor watching us from above much like a nocturnal animal. I just could not fathom his mind. How could one be so calm and poised in such threatening circumstances? If this was not encroachment, what else was? To hell with him. Impotent fool.

As I opened my door, I saw two envelopes lying at my feet, begging for attention. One bore the address of my native place; the other was a handwriting I recognized in a jiffy. Why should the professor write to me? Or did this letter make up for his odd silence. I tore the other envelope open. Wrapped in crumpled paper was a smiling face, innocent and radiant. The photograph was gaudy, clicked probably in some shady photo studio, the girl seated in a fake shikara straight out of a Kashmir of the artist’s imagination. The paper carried my parents’ plea to consider this “perfect” match. The last line confirmed the much-needed divine approval to the alliance. From the stars above.

I turned my eyes to the second envelope. What was so paramount that the professor should trust his pen for?

=================================================

My dear Dipankar,“You are headed for certain disaster. You are free to take your own course but I do not want you to blame me later, that’s my only wish”

Warm regards
Arindam

I rushed to the kitchen for a glass of water. Now what was this? I was about to call home to convey my decision. My first reaction was to confront him at home, probably throw an obscenity or two at him, how dare he predict my life? Impotent bastard. But the next moment, I was shaken. What if he was right? He had not made any explicit mention but the message was evident. And by the way, why was she so keen to spoil her marriage? What for? Was the love so overpowering? Was it love at all? No, there’s something more. There has to be. And how often had I dismissed the fear, every time it bothered me, long before the professor’s advice. I had to see her.

The roads were slippery, it had drizzled moments ago. My bike sped along the turns and stopped a block ahead of the professor’s bungalow. The lights were off. The watchman told me the professor had left for Bombay. For a conference. “Fuck the oldie. Where’s my love” I wished to ask him.

“Madam gone to Benaras” he uttered, surprise still ripe in his voice. This was a real shocker. I drop her home hours ago, and there’s no mention of Benaras. And before I know, she is gone. And that phantom husband of hers. Professor Arindam De. Kiss and fondle his wife, he won’t bat an eyelid but pray he would, for your well being through worthless letters. Robinhood with a limp manhood…. asshole. Strange, very strange.

It seems they was made for each other. I don’t know why but I felt like calling up my mom. The STD booth was deserted, as was expected at that hour. Mom was jubilant, I rarely called up on my own, unless I needed money. It was not long before she asked me about the smiling girl in the snap. I am still not sure whether I said yes, but I must have, going by the events that followed in quick succession.

The leave application, the ride to the station, the journey back home, the “visit” to the girl’s place down to the brief sojourn in the sole air conditioned restaurant of my tiny hometown –sipping lassi and savouring samosas. There was nothing about Charulata that one would not find enchanting. Beautiful, bubbly, innocent and dreamy. Her world knew no bounds and just nothing was impossible for her. She was studying commerce at the local college but her real love was music. She wished to take up singing as her profession. This secret, she shared with me during my second visit and added that she trusted me enough.

“Where from did this trust emerge?” I asked her with a chuckle and she sped away blushing to glory, just like they show in films. I must say I was swept away by her charm, if only for a while.

It was when my father sought my consent for the engagement that my mind came back to Nilanjana. I had not met her since that fateful day, where the hell was she? Probably still in Benaras. Just then, my mind had another somersault. Was she really at fault? Was it the professor’s trick? Did I have any right to jump to conclusion? Or what this the escape route that I was waiting for? To shun the past and plan a conventional, hassle-free life with Charu – a life blessed with parental sanction and marital excitement. Probably it all began the moment I saw the snap in the letter? No, I can’t be so mean. I was suddenly desperate to convince myself of my own morality…No No, I can’t be a hypocrite. After all, why did I go so far with Nilu? Was it all about sharing beds alone?

“I would let you know as soon as I reach there,” I told my dad, who seemed visibly irritated with my vague, delayed response. He shrugged off the annoyance, the way dads often do, and my mom took over. “C’mon, he’s shy to tell it on your face, give him some time” How I wished mom was right.

As soon as I got back, I made the customary round to the professor’s bungalow. She was indoors but I was not my usual self when I walked in. The professor was still away and her smile flashed back the golden moments from my past. I saw my moods lifting up.It’s not often that you wish to laugh and cry at the same time. It happened to me that night. I lashed out at her sparing no effort. She was calm, never once giving me back. It was only when I was drained of the last bit of force that she rose to speak. And her story could only bring tears to my eyes. Big drops that rolled down my cheeks all right, but not before washing my heart clean of all qualms and fears. Well, almost all.

Her ailing aunt was no more. It was her demise that had her rush to Benaras. She was desperate to let him know but the professor advised her to hurry up. Now I knew why. Only if the watchman had told me. I was about to tell her about the professor’s letter as also the proposal brewing home just when she hugged me with fiery passion and broke down. The warmth was back in my life and I forgot all about the professor.

We made passionate love all night. It was five in the morning when I woke up from my slumber. She was fast asleep, head on my chest, hair spread all over in an enticing sight. How assured she seemed, locked in my arms, in gay abandon. In celebration of the reunion. But did I deserve this faith? Buying time, minute by minute. Playing with two lives at the same time? The tender Charulata on one hand, and a pickled Nilanjana on the other. I cursed myself for my untimely home visit that now added another dimension to my thorny love story but deep down in my heart, there seemed to be just a little more room for Charulata and her blank slate of innocence. A proposition that seemed more secure and inviting before the trials and tribulations of a life with Nilanjana.

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The clock struck four as it broke my trance. I still had more than an hour with me. How I hated those goddamed wedding receptions – the customary hellos, painful plastic smiles, rapid exchange of business cards, the mechanical blessings showered on the couple…and all that with an eye on the food counter. And the poor couple, flashing teeth all day, dreaming of the approaching mythical night… and the hunky-dory waves of honeymoon. Unaware of the impending reality of marital life - family chores and social responsibilities that would banish the flowery euphoria of initial years in the cupboard, locked with the wedding blazer and the saree in the overpowering scent of mothballs.

I picked up the envelope – Mr. And Mrs. Dipankar Sen - it affirmed right at the center. Aha! What epic history behind that matrimony but now reduced to an anecdote for smiles? All’s well that ends well…I have grown up to believe, and I still do. Except that it’s sweeter in hindsight. To look back and relish the golden moments and mourn the horrifying time. With the entire past packaged in a feature film of sorts, it’ s so easy to sift through frames, focus on the chosen few, and form a balanced critique at the end.

But what an agonizing experience it was then. There were moments, I still remember, when I was close to being a nervous wreck. And the rush of blood of that night, when I contemplated suicide for the first time. “Shall we?” She asked, covered all over in pure kanjivaram silk, looking delightful. A spicy housewife, plump, round, not curvaceous definitely, but inviting all the same. I kissed her forehead and she blushed like a schoolgirl.

“Okay. Enough of your romance. We are getting late” she warned me.

I was in no mood to listen. It was an afternoon quickie, not expected of a middle-aged couple, certainly not in such bouncy style. Her denial made way for mute surrender and soon enough, she cared a damn for the reception and the Kanjeevaram saree, taking charge on the new front. And what a cavalry, she still was. We relished every moment as we locked for the umpteenth time. The fervour was still the same. After all these years. And time stood still. Like it did during our first meet. But what about the storms we braved, interspersed between all these encounters at regular intervals. And we lost count how many?

My mom’s reticent stance was the biggest quandary in my way. She had made it a life-and-death issue without the expected verbiage. Nilu had left it to me, urging me at times to shun the past and embrace Charu. In less than a year of our marriage, my mom passed away in sleep. She had forgiven me, Dad told me later but to this day I regret not being by her side during the last moments. That regret will follow me to my grave for sure.

The professor was reduced to his shadow – haggard and dejected, he would not leave home, shunning even his books and manuals. To this day, we laugh over that letter. It was only when I confronted him later, grabbing him by his collar, that I learnt the real story –his feeble attempt was more akin to “Naro va Kunjaro va” stratagem of Mahabharata. The certain disaster in my life that he saw concerned my neglect of studies, he confessed on interrogation, but just seemed to hint at Nilanjana. The professor and his impotent tricks.

After shaking the wits out of him, I even shared a drink with him and showed him the futility of his ludicrous desire. That how he had no qualms over her unauthorized use but wished the social façade intact. If he did not see reason in my argument, he certainly could not dare to oppose me any further.

I could never really understand the professor. He expired only last year, a lonely man. I was instrumental in initiating a scholarship in his name at the institute. That was the only tribute I could pay him.

Charu, I often think of her smile, her innocent chatter, the lassi and the samosas –mute witnesses of our sole encounter… probably she has taken up music, the way she desired. How I wish she had. I must admit I still fantasize about her and my memory tickles me enough to yearn for her. But my mind still swears by my choice, my heart may not at times. I did post a letter in her name; I am not sure whether she read it in the first place, and if she did, could she sympathize with me? How could she? When I could not convince my mother, how could Charu see the storm in my life?

I got up first. The radium glowed in my watch – the time was 7 pm… the party would have long begun, would we be missed? Probably not, how many of them get noticed in attendance. It’s all a farce anyway, all for a day. I could see lights flooding the neighbourhood through the window. I suddenly realized we were still groping in the dark. The blazing light filled the room to offer a great view of her glistening body. In all its nude splendour.

For many years, I was sure sex drove us together. The way we relished carnal encounters in the same spirit. The way I came to terms with the fact that she could never become a mom. Although she was candid in letting me know the professor was not at fault, at least on this issue.

But if physical charm was the binding force, we are no longer our former selves – much like the toothpaste on the basin, losing its shape with every squeeze, slowly on its way to the bin. We have put on weight, my hairline and waistline engaged in an embarrassing exchange of character. She is not what she used to be – the shapely curves are now only a shape, her skin has lost much of its glow and she is definitely more irritable with the advent of menopause.

It’s strange but I am still not sure what’s on her mind. Maybe, she feels the same about me. Yes, we know much more about each other yet I have only just begun to comprehend our love…. and each passing day teaches me more.Then what was it that brought us together in wedlock?

I have no idea of any elusive force that did the needful. Was it a force in the first place? How does marriage bring two souls together? Does the rapport come coupled in the nuptial knot? I know one thing for sure - the chemistry between us is nothing short of celestial. Precisely why I would like to believe marriages are made in heaven.

What a city!

With a volcanic birth dating back 5 crore years, a rich heritage of 15 centuries and more than 600 years of foreign rule, Mumbai is nothing short of an enigma. Bursting at the seams it may be, but this bustling city still keeps its charm alive- thanks to its seashore psyche, innovative enterprise and an all-embracing outlook. But to me, what truly sets it apart is its unique obsession with contradiction. Abundance & deprivation, hygiene and filth, virtue and vice, black and white…. all extremes mingle together with inimitable magnanimity. Run, live and let live is Mumbai’s mantra but in the maddening pace is an unmistakable rhythm. The ears that catch this music also see method in madness, order amidst chaos, clarity with confusion and more importantly hope despite the despair.

Would it be a surprise then…. that Mumbai’s monuments, buildings, roads, ……all have such tales to tell…stories of people who made history, stories for people who care to look back. Each time I pass by the Esplanade mansion in Fort, I marvel at its rich history.

Situated next to the illustrious Army Navy stores, this building housed the erstwhile only-for-Europeans Esplanade Hotel – then considered a deluxe hotel with as many as 130 suites. The “premium” room tariff of the year 1889 would seem ridiculous today – Rs. 7 for the ground floor (a rupee less for every floor upwards) inclusive of breakfast, lunch, dinner, ice, hot/chilled water besides an attendant.

Quite ironic that Malabar Hill, now a mute spectator to the dark deeds of white- robed politicians every time the modern-day pirates raid the sprawling Governor’s bungalow, has its name rooted in piracy… after the infamous Malabari pirates who invaded the Mumbai shoreline during the seventeenth century. In reality, these pirates were a mix of Americans, British, Arabs and Sri Lankans. The Walkeshwar Hill was used for monitoring their nuisance. They were eventually driven out in 1695 but the name stuck.

As I rushed each day to the umpteen offices in each of my countless stints in and around Fort, I have always managed a chuckle for the statue of Late Justice Mahadeo Govind Ranade near Churchgate. Not many know the story behind the sculpture that looks away, avoiding an eye-to-eye contact with countless commuters and tourists each day. With a squint in his right eye, Justice Ranade invariably ensured that all his photographs ignored this twisted anatomy. The sculptor Ganapat Mhatre, known for his outstanding dexterity, was truly in a fix. Gasping in the tug of war between the loyalty to his art vis-a-vis Ranade’s sentiments, he carved a perfect replica but erected it facing the High Court, and not the road. As a result, pedestrians to this day remember him, if they ever do, exactly as he would have liked.

And who said libraries worm their way on the back of book lovers alone. The Native General library of Dhobi Talao, next to the Framji Cawasji Institute, the oldest library of Mumbai, was set up through the pioneering efforts of a Military Board clerk called Raghoba Janardan. A man of modest means and credentials, it was his burning desire to see younger generations catch the reading habit. Is it poetic justice that he is not around today to witness the stark reality?

Crawford Market, Old Secretariat, Central Telegraph Office, Mumbai High Court, Sailors Home (today’s Police headquarters) – what do they remind us, first glance? Well, I am not sure of that. What it should, however, is Gothic architecture. Following the English empire’s adoption of the then emerging European style as its national norm, Mumbai became a convenient guinea pig for Gothic creations. Thus were born the fabulous structures… now left to house the soaring ambition of a sleeping bureaucracy, the prejudiced verdicts of a lop-sided judiciary and the whims and fancies of a ruthless police.

And in striking contrast to the growing gender wars around us, the 1875- built Prince’s Dock & the Princess Street inaugurated in 1905, both are fondly remembered day in and day out as one gender – male or female – that’s anybody’s guess. But the choice is free of ugly debates and fanatic claims. While the dock was named after Prince of Wales (later crowned Edward VII), the street is in memory of Princess of Wales who accompanied Prince of Wales (later crowned George V). The difference in gender is eclipsed by the common pronunciation but the royal aura remains.

PS: The snippets of history, I borrow from my dad, historian & archeologist and an ardent Mumbai lover. If not heredity, parentage does help. The piece itself is a rehash of an article I wrote for a magazine brewed to match the tastes of coffee table reading…. to be buried under the table after the coffee, as jet-lagged passengers shrug off their stupor to board their flights of fancy.

Home Sweet Home

If there was one film that depicted the monumental import of housing in Mumbai, it was Bhimsain’s Hindi film Gharonda (The Nest), released way back in 1977. A moving story of a starry-eyed couple braving all odds to own a dwelling place in the bustling metropolis caught immediate resonance in the hearts of all those who fight similar demons in real life. Hero and heroine, both members of the bourgeoisie, work for the same establishment run by an ageing widower who openly nourishes a soft corner for her. He is all alone with his roommates in a dingy lodge; she shares the responsibility of her younger sibling with her elder brother and sister-in-law. In the hope of a rising career graph and the riches it would bring along, the duo invest their savings and hopes in a match box “Flat” taking shape in the concrete promise of a “builder” – the supreme entity selling dream abodes in the big city. The initial euphoria does not last long as the builder flees with the money leaving all dreams shattered. The dead-end facing the couple is made even more poignant by the suicide of a roommate ruined by the same fate.Crushed under the cascading effect of the doom, the hero suggests a practical way out to his sweetheart in a momentary wave of disillusionment…. get married to their employer. …and outlive the separation only to reclaim the lost paradise…this time round on the solid foundation of a rich grave. The heroine dismisses the idea outright but as things would have it, ends up doing exactly the same- partly driven by circumstances, partly led by the stanch reality of an assured life. And she is not disappointed. In the affluent surroundings of the elite class, she also finds an understanding mate in her husband, who is ready to discount her past life in return for warm companionship. The hero in contrast, invites a catastrophe as pressure mounts upon pressure. The loan he took on himself for the dream house now turns life threatening. In trying to guard the remnants of his self-respect, he shuns his job to make matters even worse. Yet, he can still live with the despair, but not without her memories. The conflict in his mind takes him to her doorstep where he confronts her with fundamental questions. In the litany of abuses is also an invitation to rejoin him in a fresh crusade. The husband, eavesdropping the conversation, pines for her support but unsure of her true feelings for him, leaves it to her. The director could have pulled the curtains on the tragedy in a thousand ways. But the end, aptly at the railway station is stoic in its brilliance, as the hero in a diametrically opposite transformation, decides to shun his past… to start alone and afresh...in the same city. Husband and wife return back to their world, he relieved of the debt he bought with the marriage and she, happy in the world, once thrust upon her but now her dream abode. The film stood out in many respects – the delightful music of Jaidev, Bhupinder and Runa Laila with some outstanding numbers, Gulzar’s fantastic screenplay and amazing portrayals by all players…. Amol Palekar and Zareena Wahab as the protagonist couple, Dr. Sreeram Lagoo as the widower boss and Jalal Agha, Sadhu Meher, T P Jain, Sudha Chopra and Dina Pathak in their brief appearances, only to name a few. But for some needless melodrama, (Zareena Wahab bears perfect resemblance to the deceased wife of her boss) the script is devoid of any simplistic black-and-white portrayal and makes room for pathos of exceptional quality in the tragic love story but more importantly, the note of fresh hope towards the end is free of any run-of-the-mill self-destructive prescription of shattered love.

Grand Hills, Gleaming Eyes

Given a choice, I would never ever spend my vacation at a pilgrimage swarmed with hyperactive devotees singing His praises and their wish list in the same breath. And if the devotional hullabaloo was not enough, we have these agents of God – the temple priests - key elements of the thriving temple economy – with their golden prescription for every problem on the face of this earth. Precisely why they are so popular –commit any sin, just make sure you cleanse yourself through the divine conduit. But this time round, I had no choice. A couple of my mates from college days had already chalked out the trip to one such world-renowned shrine located so aptly on a picturesque hill. I had never been to the place before. The month was November and my leave record at the office was surprisingly positive. After a round of customary denials and cajoling, I was all set. The fascinating view of the hills was all I needed to soothe my nerves. We also managed two great Darshans of the Lord from close quarters – we were indeed lucky to have achieved that fast in a non-VIP queue – my friend told me later. Of course, I vividly remember the awe-inspiring image of the Lord, garlanded so beautifully, but I also have picture-perfect memory of the high and mighty priest who at once reminded me of my Group head at office. After granting me one full divine second with the Lord, he shooed me away with a hefty push. Enough is enough, his eyes told me, just the way my boss did. On our way back, we walked down the hill through the spacious cemented pathway rather than board the roaring bus run by the temple trust. We reached the base, much earlier than we anticipated. Exhausted that we were, our eyes looked for some decent accommodation in the somewhat shady settings of the city. Just as we were contemplating the next move, we heard a coarse voice.“Room sir, Bombay style. Good lunch & dinner”The guy seemed around 50 and everything about his appearance was beggar-like. He was thin, frail, covered in rags, but his eyes, surprisingly, were gleaming.Of course, we were in no mood to investigate the gleam further. His sight was most repulsive and his breath swore only by country liquor. Sure of his ignorance, I warned my friends under my breath in the Sahib’s language. “Avoid him. Don’t respond. Shoo him away”And then, we got the shock of our lives. He looked into my eyes and spoke in good English, if not chaste.“Why are you avoiding me? I will get only five rupees from Ashoka. It’s a good hotel. Trust me.”Call it colonial hangover or plain hangover; we Indians are invariably mesmerized by the English language, and coming from the so-called lowest echelons of the society, the enthrallment is even more. The only credential perhaps that turns a commoner into a distinguished member of the working class. Blabber, shout or abuse in English…. you sure get noticed and what’s more, you can even get away with it. Before we knew, we followed him like obedient students. In about five minutes, we reached the porch of Hotel Ashoka. He was right. The place was no great shakes but was clean no doubt. Just before we climbed the stairs to the makeshift privacy of our cubbyholes, the same coarse voice declared. “Bakshish, sir” “Not now, later,” Not anticipating this move, that was all I could utter on the spur.Grand Hills, Gleaming eyes
Fortunately, he was not around when we checked out the next day. It was strange, we were reasonably curious about the guy all the time, yet we wished him out of sight all the time. The better part of our overnight chat centered round him alone, each one of us trying to crack the apparent riddle of his life. A retired professor turned alcoholic fallen on bad days was the popular choice... On second thoughts, we turned him into a schoolteacher…that seemed more convincing. We reached the station, found our compartment, flung our luggage on the berths and came out for some tea. There he was near the tea stall. His winsome smile was a striking contrast to his gross face. This time, we knew what was coming. “Bakshish, sir” We already had our hands in pockets but my friend teased him. “Next time, we will come again”His precise answer rendered us speechless. “Definitely sir, you will come again. But I may not be alive then”As the train puffed out of the platform, I turned back. And there he stood, his face devoid of expression. And then, I noticed the gleam again. I still wonder how could it find a place of pride in those sunken eyes. It seemed more like a remnant of happier days. Maybe, it was sheer hope in all its raw splendour. Or could it be proof of the divine proximity atop. Either way, I am happy to have caught it at the feet of the grand hills. Away from the din of the sanctified commerce.

The refreshing fruit juice

Like any other city dweller, the regular hustle-bustle on the pavement hardly distracts me. On the contrary, there’s something quite reassuring about its inimitable rhythm. Precisely why the goings-on around me never prompt me to stop and take notice, even for a moment.

So here I was, pacing through the street, feeling important and privileged for no good reason. Just as I took the turn in the mundane direction of my office building, a particular sight broke my habituated trance.I saw a frail, bubbly kid, around five, walking alongside his mother in perfect harmony. Merrily cruising along with the customary innocence of a kid, he stopped all of a sudden, his gleaming eyes stuck on a roadside Fruit Juice Stall.

The gaudy signboard above and the flowing gutter below were hardly an encouragement for a quick respite with fruits. But this was how I measured the proposition. The kid thought otherwise. His enquiring glance at his mother said it all. The lady seemed tense; a disapproving grimace already spanning her grim face in meek defense. But her son’s pleading gesture was overpowering, she soon realized, looking lost for a moment. The quandary was unmistakably working class, one that grappled with an unplanned and ill-timed expenditure that threatened to upset the forced equilibrium of her day-to-day existence. But the heart finally reigned supreme as she forced her way towards the shabby, over smiling vendor.

The menu was displayed in cheap red paint on the right corner of the wooden stall. After a moment of reckoning, she finally settled on the enticing Chikoo Milk Shake. Her kid nodded his instant approval. As the liquid slowly turned the glass brown all the way to the rim, the boy waited for his moment of splendour with bated breath. And finally, there it was, overflowing with the magic potion of everlasting bliss. The mother removed a tiny purse from the corner of her faded blouse and deprived it of 12 rupees …all crumpled notes.

The joy ride lasted for a while and then came the final moment – the glass resting upright on his lips as the last sip noisily sailed through. Having quenched his thirst at the windfall oasis, the lad now willingly succumbed to the desert of his life. Within a moment, both of them were out of sight. How I wish this bliss be eternal, as the kid had just concluded for himself.

Watching the whole scene from the adjacent bookshop mocking an arduous waiting-for-someone act in proof of my sanity – one look at the pavement followed by another at my wristwatch – was tough but worth all the while. As I reclaimed myself to face the grind, like a mesmerized audience leaving a cinema hall at the end of a gripping movie, some kind of undefined warmth gushed out of my navel to fill me throughout. Much like the juice in the glass that the kid relished just a while ago. The sultry sirens and handsome hunks of Bollywood seemed to stare at me from the glossy magazines behind me, dangling in disbelief.