Friday, January 28, 2011

The Flight to Freedom

The Flight to Freedom
(Brief Background – Makar Sankranti is celebrated in India on 14th January to mark the winter harvest of special crops like sesame and jaggerine which are used as ingredients to make sweet dishes in every household. The occasion is celebrated by having kite flight contests everywhere where rival teams try to cut the strings of their opponents’ kites while aiming to fly their own kites the highest. The sky is filled with a myriad of different coloured kites often amidst background theme music and tray loads of home-made sweet delicacies served by the women of the house.)
Jaideep Mehta, better known as Jai, made his way through the narrow alley flanked on either side by a row of ramshackle hutments. The dilapidated dwellings which passed off as homes of the poor but not so poor to be homeless, were held together somehow by bits and pieces of brick, mud, plastic, and just about anything. It seemed to Jai as he passed rows and rows of such slum dwellings, that these homes were held upright mainly by a million dreams that invited a million seekers to this city every day. Not for the first time, he reminded himself, that anybody in his right mind would have abandoned the plan long back and quit, let the police do the formalities. Why the hell get into this at all, why bother? Yet, some imbecile voice within him kept prodding him on.
A few paces more, the alley led into an open square like a courtyard, and he found himself in a dead end. There were children in the courtyard, of all ages, huddled into clusters led by older kids in their teens. They seemed to be preparing for the big kite fight. Enormous kites of all possible colours and patterns were tried, strings were being checked and rechecked, there were hushed strategies discussed and challenges thrown by rival teams.
Jai walked into the heart of all this festive chaos, and stood trying to decide, whom he should ask for further direction. His abrupt advent was greeted by an immediate lull in the cacophony, and he felt many pairs of eyes studying him, taking in all the details of his appearance from head to toe. He was suddenly conscious of being the only well–dressed, or to be more precise, completely dressed person out there. For the younger kids were mainly bare-chested, wearing a pair of tattered shorts, the teenagers wore a sleeveless vest on torn jeans and the females were more modestly dressed in shabby salwaar kameez. All of them were bare feet. Jai walked up to a boy of about fourteen and showed him the slip with the address written. The boy returned a blank stare and Jai realised that he did not know how to read. So he mumbled a few words in broken Marathi (the local language of Mumbai).
“Is that Madan Chachu’s (Madan Uncle’s) house you are looking for?” The voice came from a girl about ten years old. “Please come this way,” she instructed, without waiting for reply. She led Jai through a narrow gap between two mud shacks and paced down a winding alley (which Jai could not have imagined existed) and slipped through a broken fence and disappeared. With an increasing sense of foreboding, Jai ventured to slide his thankfully lean frame through the hole in the fence and found himself abruptly in the wooden patio of a house made of actual bricks and cement. Having reached her destination, the girl flashed him a toothy smile and disappeared as fast as she had come before Jai could gather his wits enough to reach into his pocket and offer her a chewing gum.
Jai found himself standing alone; facing an open door to a room whose floor was made of mud and was freshly cleaned. On the walls were shelves where pots and pans and various cooking wares sparkled and shone. There was a cot in one corner with some shabby but clean linen neatly spread on it. The room had another door where a floral printed handmade curtain prevented him from seeing further. Taking several deep breaths, Jai went through his prepared speech yet again, and then having nothing more to do, he called out in the local language, “Hello, anybody home?”
The curtain drew back a little, and a pair of bespectacled eyes peered at him. Then a woman of about fifty came shuffling through the doorway and looked up at Jai with a curious half-smile. “Looking for Madan? He is my son,” she declared triumphantly.
 “Err.. Actually, I am his employer,” Jai managed, “He ....” .
He was cut off by a loud voice from inside, “ Mamta, who’s it?”
“It’s Jai saab, our Madan’s saab.”
“Oh is it? Well why are you making him stand at the door? Come in, come in,” the owner of the voice appeared, tall, in his fifties, dressed in pyjamas and vest.
“Asha, do get some water for saab.”
As he said so, the man pulled out a faded plastic chair (probably the only one they owned and meant for such esteemed guests) and ushered Jai to sit.
Having no further option, he sank into the chair while a sari-clad, very pregnant woman came out with a steel glass of fresh lemon sherbet. So this was Asha, presumably Madan’s wife.
“What  great luck!” declared the older lady, “You grace our humble abode on such an auspicious day. It’s Sankranti. Wait, you must taste some of the kheer (rice pudding) and sweets I have prepared with til (sesame) and gur (jaggerine).”
She shuffled out of the room dragging one leg behind, and Jai vaguely remembered his driver Madan recommending someone some herbal oil that had supposedly alleviated his mother’s rheumatic pain.
Draining his lemon sherbet, Jai got up. This was no time to deliberate and he plunged into his speech, “Actually, I am very, very sorry,” he hesitated...all he got was a confused, expectant look from the father.
He cleared his throat and started again, “This is no occasion for celebration, I’m afraid, Madan has been hit by a truck, he was driving the car alone, going to fetch a gentleman to our office,  the truck came from the wrong side, it was totally the fault of the truck-driver, they’ve arrested him...”, he was rambling on, slightly gaining panic, “We tried, I mean, he was rushed to the best hospital in the vicinity, but by the time they reached me, he was ...gone... I mean, I would have done anything, anything at all but he never made it to surgery. I’m so sorry; it was not Madan’s fault at all..”
 He was talking incoherently now; he realised and still went on just to prevent the silence. “I will do whatever I can, nothing can replace his loss, but I will help financially, I could find employment for his wife...”, he stopped suddenly as his gaze fell on the pregnant figure. She stood more still than death itself, one hand on her protruding stomach, gazing out of the door, seeing nothing...wide, expressionless eyes, with a chill that touched Jai and made him shiver.
He slowly shifted his gaze and looked at the figure that had stood motionless by the door, still holding a tray filled with sweet goodies. There were tears in those eyes, and almost in slow motion, the tears welled up and overflowed and from somewhere a muffled shriek tried to find vent.
Jai cursed himself; he cursed his eagerness to break the news himself, to try and make it more humane, to coat the blow with some promise of compensation. Compensation! As if!
He tried his best not to remember the day when his mother had received that call. His father had died in duty, trying to save the life of an elderly couple trapped in a fire that had engulfed their seventh floor apartment. Nobody had come forward then to explain the tragedy in words that could be understood. He remembered his mother running from pillar to post, asking questions, seeking answers, crying, always crying. The days flashed by...his mother starving, to feed him, trying vainly to get a job, any job, so that she could earn enough to cover his education. He felt the fresh surge of anger, for no-one had come forward; no-one had answered the questions.
He jumped out of his reverie by the piercing yell of a young voice. This new arrival was about six years old, covered in dust and full of frolic, impish grin on his face. “Hi,” he addressed Jai, “We will win!” Then he ran and hugged his mother who seemed to wake up and caress her son with the first dawning of an expression that lit her eyes and touched her face with a tenderness, too raw to touch. Amit shivered again.
The boy, oblivious of the drama that had unfolded and changed his world forever, ran straight to Jai. With the intuition of a child he aimed the words straight at Jai’s heart, “I am Chintu. Do you know my Papa?” Then, without waiting for answer, “My Papa will get me the biggest kite ever so that we can cut off the strings of Sachu Bhaiya’s kites!”
Thankful of the opportunity to break the accusing silence, Jai bent down and held the boy by his shoulders. “Come, let’s get you the biggest kite. And the strongest strings. Together, we will defeat Sachu Bhaiya. Our kite will fly the highest.”
“Really?” The boy looked ecstatic. “Come fast, will you, or Raju’s team will get ahead of us.”
“Wait Chintu!” The voice came from the forgotten figure on the floor where he must have collapsed. Jai had never seen such grit as he saw in the face of the father who had just heard that he has lost his son.
“Mamta,” he went over to his sobbing wife and put an arm around her, “Is this the way we treat our guests?” Then he looked at the boy who was getting impatient now, “Chintu, take, this laddoo is for you and give this to Jai Chachu, one must have sweets on Sankranti.
 The boy took this opportunity and grabbed a few sweets. He stuffed one in his mouth and tossed another to Jai. “We will win,” he declared.
As Jai bowed his respect to no-one in particular and was dragged out by his young saviour, he wondered how lovely it would be to fly light and free up in the sky, without the baggage of years of hatred. The sun shone brightly and the wind had picked up by the time the two had prepared their kite for the flight.  Chintu held the spool as Jai tossed the kite up in the direction of the wind. It was the season to let go of the past. Let the wind blow away the anguish. He had just learnt the amazing power of forgiveness and their kite will fly far and light, above the things that tend to weigh it down, to celebrate the festival with the clouds and birds.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Destiny's Child (Part 2)

Amit’s Story
He read the newspapers every morning with interest, without passion. He knew the latest moves by rival political parties, but did not care for any opinion of his own. He would religiously follow the Ashes, the US Open, even Asian Hockey Championships, but did not idolise any team or any player. He flirted with various hobbies in his spare time but was not passionate about any of them. His lack of personal involvement extended to his relationships as well. His path crossed many in the walk of life. With some of them he would spend some casual time together, but hardly anyone would he treasure in the special zone called ‘friendship’. There was only one area where he could be said to be an ardent enthusiast, and that was where culinary delights were concerned. Amit was a connoisseur of food and he had a very developed sense of distinguishing the subtle variances in taste and flavour. It was on one such gastronomical expedition that he first met Sonia, receipant for the second prize in the 'most original recipe' category. 
Amit represented his organization which was one of many corporate bodies invited by the Red Cross Society to judge a food competition which was hosted to raise funds for flood victims in Bangladesh.  He was required to sample various innovative cuisines and submit his votes for the first three winners.
What drew him to Sonia was the quiet assurance in her manner and the composed dignity with which she spoke her words. She brought to his mind images of quiet evenings and contentment over a cup of tea, when he got home from work, images of a peaceful life filled with the aroma of warm, home-cooked meals. Amit was not swept off his feet, as he was never swept off his feet by anything. He was simply attracted towards the prospect of making Sonia Neogi his wife and sharing an easy, uncomplicated life with her. And so, after three weeks of casual coffee conversations, two movies, and one dinner, he proposed to her matter-of-factly one day while driving her home.

Sonia’s Story
She woke up again, with a start, and reached out by her bedside for a glass of cool water. She had seen the same dream again. She was with the man she loved, with whom she could laugh and cry together, with whom she would grow old, and he was walking by her side in the wilderness and they were sharing an intimate bond of mutual understanding. Suddenly, the path diverged and she realised, with inevitable pain, that she had to leave him. She must go home, for her husband was waiting. She felt the same pang of disenchantment and grief as she reconciled to the awareness that she was tied in a commitment that she had no reason to break.
Sonia had met Amit Sinha at a point in life when she had fulfilled her primary need to be independent. Her dreams of an MBA degree were abandoned due to the sudden death of her father who was her sole financial sponsor. Her father had left no will nor trusts in favour of her. Yet, according to the law of the land she was eligible for a part of his assets. But that was in theory. In reality, she neither had the strength, nor the financial muscle to endure a legal conflict with her late father’s family through second marriage. She tried to reason, some legal letters were exchanged, but all to no effect. Her dreams died young.
Sonia grabbed the first good opportunity that came her way. It was the job of a recruitment executive in a consulting firm. Although, she was a mere graduate, she spoke well and was sincere and committed to her work. Very soon she progressed to a Team Lead position and was independently handling client accounts. Two years down the line, she had saved enough to buy a small apartment near her office, on mortgage. She still pursued her experiments with cooking as a hobby. She never fell in love.
She had perceived Amit as a calm, rooted person who represented stability. He was not spirited, and he did not understand why she was moved to tears whenever she attended a Jagjit Singh live concert. But he cared for her and was a good person with right values which was more than what she had got from life so far. And so she accepted his proposal and they got married late one July evening when Mumbai was almost paralysed by flood.

Amit’s Story
He was irritated, as usual. The drawers were untidy, and there was dust on the shelves. She was busy with one or the other of her meaningless pursuits. Why couldn’t she just dedicate herself to keeping the house in order? As he angrily threw out the contents of his desk, his eye caught the label of a thin book, “Jonathan Livingstone Seagull” by Richard Bach. It was a gift from Sonia when they were engaged. Her first gift to him. He remembered how he had read it once it and found nothing more in it except the saga of a bird learning to fly. He also remembered that Sonia’s eyes had moistened and there was an expression in them which he could not fathom, when he had shared his feedback of the book. Must she get so worked up about everything?
But he knew that his wife was a good woman and when his annoyance would pass, he would be calm again. He had no real complains from life.

Rahul’s Story
He could drive the four hours route from Mumbai to Pune with his eyes shut. He knew each petrol station, each cigarette shop, each refreshment outlet along the way. He had been doing this drive every weekend ever since he bought a weekend serviced apartment in Lavasa, 80 Km from Pune. He no longer attended corporate parties or hung out with his friends. Most of them were married, anyway. He spent his weekends in leisure, sailing and reading, and sometimes practicing self composed notes on his violin.
He had stopped his car at the ‘multi-purpose store’ just outside Lonavala, to pick up a few CDs for his car. He had forgotten to replace the ones he had played the last two weekends. Just as he had climbed in, started the engine, and switched on the music, he heard someone call out to him. Someone came running over reaching his side of the car, as if afraid that he would drive on, “Wait, please! I think I am lost.” He was just about to lower the glass when his eyes fell on the rearview mirror and remained transfixed for what seemed an eternity. He was not sure of time or space as the notes of Lionel Richie permeated his trance with “Hello, is it me you are looking for? I can see it in your eyes......”

Sonia’s Story
She had wanted to ask directions, but she was no more sure of her destination. Her eyes held his in the mirror as years slipped away and she could see, reflected in the mirror, the National Highway just ahead of the by lane where she had parked. She could see her blue Santro, waiting to take her home. And across the highway, a small wasteland, through it a narrow footpath making its way into the wilderness. She knew now that she had a choice to make.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Destiny's Child (Part 1)

Rahul’s story
It had been raining and his bike had chosen to skid over, spin and land him by the gutter...... coating his blue windcheater with a spray of mud and grime. Pangs of hunger had attacked him since morning as he had survived the past 24 hours on caffeine and the occasional cup noodles. Thus, famished and drenched with sweat and muck from head to toe, he finally reached the hostel lounge and headed for the canteen to have a quick wash and console his ravenous stomach with something like a proper meal. It was in the single, small mirror above the only wash basin at the corner that their eyes had met for the first time. She had splashed some water on her face and had just looked up briefly at the mirror. Startled at looking directly into someone’s eyes, she had held the glance a fraction of a second more than necessary and then walked away.
Rahul had always been the chosen child of destiny. Born of wealthy parents who had a trendy apartment in Malabar Hills, amongst the most posh and elite crowd of Mumbai, he had been doted on by his grandmother when he lost both his parents in an accident at the age of five. He was brought up in lavish splendour with a good mix of culture and discipline. From the time he attended primary school, it was clearly evident that he was way ahead of his class. When he reached fifth grade, he was the only contender of all academic awards as well as the recipient of various medals in sports and performing arts. In eighth grade he became the captain in both cricket and basketball (a feat which remained throughout his terms his college and university). By the time he reached tenth, there was no question of any elections for the position of Head Boy.
His achievements continued when he stood first in entire University in Electronic Engineering and proceeded to complete his MBA from the most premiere institute in the country. It was during his summer internship at the end of his second semester that he lost his grandmother to a long and painful ailment. As she withered and shrunk each day before his eyes, he felt an opening vacuum slowly engulfing him and about to swallow him up totally in a blanket of unspeakable loss. When she died, along with her she took away his only concept of belonging.
The long and cumbersome drive to his institute seemed meaningless now and he quickly replaced the comfort of his apartment with a single room at the campus hostel. His car was locked up in the garage and he bought himself a brand new Yamaha Suzuki which would serve his purpose in his new setup.
Rahul had never remembered any moment of his life when he was friendless, but the void that engulfed him after his grandmother’s death seemed a space where no friend had the key to enter.
That was till he met her.

Sonia’s story
Human Resource was the subject that fascinated her. It had taken her months of practice, solving sample questionnaires into the wee hours of the morning, to finally qualify through the written entrance exams that made her eligible for a chance to get access to the top management institutes. Her scores reflected that she had barely scraped through, just crossing the borderline between the 20% selects and the 80% rejects. The next round was Group Discussion. Her nervousness had not allowed her to eat a morsel since morning, and when her name was finally called and the groups formed, she thought she would faint of nervous tension. However, when the topic of discussion was selected by drawing chits and it read “Women make better managers than men”, she found herself to be on home grounds. She spoke with zeal and substance, not aware that her nervousness had easily ebbed away and she was sailing familiar waters. She qualified. The final round, a personal interview, was a cakewalk. So, still dizzy with disbelief, she found herself, a month later, attending classes in the business school of her dreams. 
Sonia had never had a single proper lunch in all the years of her life that were sketched within the easels of her memory. To her, lunch had been equivalent to a sandwich and coffee, at the most a plate of steaming idlis (rice and pulse mixture grinded and steamed with a touch of salt and spice). But then Sonia had never had anyone to cook her a warm meal at noon time. The aunt she lived with, who was a spinster, was off to work at 8 AM sharp, only to return late evening with a bag of some takeaway or the other. Home cooked dinners were random. Sunday was a luxury when her aunt made the effort of boiling some eggs and potatoes to go with buttered rice.
It was probably this very indifference towards food that propelled Sonia to start her own culinary experiments at the age of fourteen. By the time she was eighteen and had moved out to her undergrad hostel, she had mastered a variety of creative recipes, but her favourite was spicy north Indian. In spite of all this achievement, she still gave lunch a miss, it had almost become a ritual. And then, one day, on her fourth month after joining MBA, a friend pestered her to join a lunch party at the hostel canteen to celebrate India’s win in the first T-20 World cup cricket.
She had arrived a bit late, straight from her class on Industrial Relations, breathless and slightly wet from the untimely drizzle that had drenched the late summer morning. She had no time to change or apply a coat of minimal make-up that she did on such casual occasions. She just about managed to hustle into the hostel canteen as the wash basin there would save her the trouble of climbing up further three flights of stairs to her room. As she splashed the cool water on her face, taking care to remove the smudge of her black eye liner, her eyes, damp and slightly unfocussed, settled on another pair of eyes in the mirror above. Startled, and suddenly conscious of being caught in a private moment, she was frozen for a second. She fancied that she saw vivid humour in the eyes that looked back. And with the random trail of feelings it stirred, she ran out of the room, away in the warm sanctuary of sunlight. The erratic rain, having caused the intended disruptions, in the routine of life, had stopped.

Rahul’s story
He was almost as obsessive as he was brilliant. And when he made Sonia the object of his obsession, it took him around seven days to find out everything that was there to find out about a girl from a small town. She was the only child, parents divorced and both remarried; neither had kept any active involvement in her life. She was brought up by a disinterested aunt who neither loved nor hated her as she was indifferent to everything in life. Her father still sponsored most of her expenses which was not very much. She was shy, terrified of the big city, sincere in her academic pursuits, had two close female friends, and was a terrific cook. And she had no boyfriend. That was the story of Sonia Neogi, twenty two years of age, student of HRD.

Well it was another story that the female who everybody else perceived as average looking and a trifle too serious, was the most attractive woman he had ever set eyes on. Whenever he saw her....browsing through pages in the library, sharing a tea-break with her friend, rushing along between unkempt and flying, it stirred a deep, primitive longing in him and he knew that if only she could someday belong to him, he would belong to life again.
Sonia’s story
Their date was strangely not over coffee or movie, it was over a book reading by an upcoming author whom both admired, in the local bookstore. It was followed by tea and bhel (salty rice crispies with dash of lime and seasonings). In fact it was hardly a date. When he had first made acquaintance with her during a student’s campaign for AIDS awareness, she had seen the mix of confidence and humour defining every bit of him. She had felt his easy charm embrace everyone within his periphery. She had noted, how all his friends worshipped him, and  she had been fascinated, slightly frightened, and deeply attracted all at the same time. Now, close together, sitting across from him, sipping ginger tea, she was touched by the intensity of longing and passion in his eyes, in his voice, even though all they were discussing was a novel experiment of an unknown author whom nobody would read anyway.
She had never been a romantic. Life had always demanded of her to persevere in her efforts to earn a place, where she will not have to worry about sustenance. She had hoped that love might follow, eventually. But now, sharing an evening with a man she hardly knew, she discovered feelings deep within herself, which she could neither define, nor understand. Probably, it was only the magic of an enchanting twilit evening, or maybe the hangover of a stimulating discussion, but if he had proposed to her at that time and moment, she probably would have accepted.

Rahul’s Story
She was gone. Exactly one day after their first and only tentative date, she had been summoned by an urgent letter and left. That is all he could unearth from anyone. She had disappeared without an address or a number. Her first semester exams arrived and concluded. But when the marks were displayed on the notice board, there was no mention of Sonia Neogi.
He graduated from campus with top rank and got the best job. He threw a lavish party for all his friends. He spent a fortune on an endless fountain of beer and rum and vodka. They laughed and joked and toasted the night to the life of opportunities awaiting them. The life he would live, without Sonia.   

to be continued............

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Coffee and More

This is the niche cafe that I frequent these days, now that I can afford it. Its ambience is subdued without being dull, the music filling the space without blocking the mind. This cafe has a selection of books (not glossy magazines) and a fairly comfortable range of sitting arrangements from the low divans to high backed chairs. My personal favourite of course is the huge single couch by the window, and when I find it already occupied I just prefer to sit cross-legged on the rug, by the bookshelf. And without doubt, they serve the very best cappuccino whose aroma fills my lungs with the love of life. They even do my initials with the creamy froth on top of my favourite beverage.
No-one bothers me here; the service is polite and thoughtful, yet discreet & unobtrusive. Being the loner I am, this cafe suits me perfectly.
As I take my first tentative sip of my cuppa of an Arabic coffee I am trying today, I happen to glance up and my eyes inadvertently & immediately collide with the eyes of a man I know I have seen before. He is amazingly good looking and I wonder why I have such a harsh feeling nagging at the back of my mind. He takes no notice of me and drags his attention back from me to read his newspaper.
I continue my love affair with my Cafe Arabica and Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Unaccustomed Earth” but my mind is restless today. Somebody shouts from across the room giving specific instructions for her Eskimo Mocha. This disturbs everybody as such outbursts are deplorable given the overall ambience of the place. Then it strikes me, a gush of memories not so very long ago. Seems like yesterday.
We were doing our graduation and always hung out in a gang. One of our favourite hang outs was ‘Hari Kripa’, a modest coffee joint if you could call it that. It was actually just a shabby garage converted to a tea and coffee and snacks outlet with a few creaky wooden benches & tables without cloth thrown in. The place reverberated all the time with the non-stop chatter and laughter of college going students like us whose never ending appetite combined with meagre pocket money kept them permanently bonded with precisely such a haven.
She was a frequenter too, the girl with the most outrageously indecent sense of wardrobe and the loud irritatingly shrill voice. She would come in flaunting her handsome (too good to be true) boyfriend. It was not meant to be a secret that they were having a roaring affair which was most unfair to girls like me who were still unattached and prided ourselves with better taste in life than that bitch. Well, I say ‘bitch’ because we all called her that behind her back, not just because we were jealous sick (which was true) but also because she deserved it. Not once did she miss a chance to humiliate and taunt us, she would scream and bark orders at the poor waiters all the time and at one instance I distinctly remember her hurling her plate at a trembling new boy whose first day it was just because he had served her table last. So ‘bitch’ sounded good and how we all waited for her boyfriend to finally realise the universal truth and dump her!
Sometimes unspoken thoughts come to life and unbelievable dreams come true, but why does it happen to be the wrong ones? We all had finished our last exam that day, which was statistics practical and had come to ‘Hari Kripa’ to let down our hair, relax, gossip, argue.....the usual. The head waiter Motilal came to our table grinning from ear to ear and barely managing to conceal his excitement; he whispered in a hoarse confidential tone that the boyfriend had at last ditched her. It seems according to reliable sources (this was declared triumphantly as if our Motilal was the only person who had relied on such inevitable turn of events) that he had actually being using her throughout just to entice and seduce her friend ( it seems she actually had one) and having achieved his target, he has forgotten her very existence and did not even think it necessary to inform her. He belonged to a different class, a league above her. She had served his purpose and he had no further use of her.
Time passed. We saw no more of the girl or her Greek God (ex) and found new ways to entertain ourselves, new people, events, and ideas to talk about. One day, around three months later, while waiting for a bus, I saw her again at the bus-stop. She had been crying. Since she was alone at the stop before I came, she had made no effort to conceal her tears, and even after I arrived, and stood silently praying and willing my bus to arrive fast, she still a baby. I don’t think she was even aware of my presence. I followed her gaze inside the gift shop window across from the bus-stop and saw the handsome face weaving his charm on a petite girl with lovely hair (I could just see her back) I don’t know why my heart broke then. I guess I had not realised that she had been actually in love. Just because she was cheap, promiscuous, ill-spoken, ill-mannered, it had been very easy for me to discard her affair, very difficult to accept that love is, after all love, no matter who feels it. This girl did, with her heart and soul. Her man clearly didn’t. He had opened the envelope and discarded it without thought, once its served its purpose.
I drain my Arabica and get up. I drag myself back to the present; I have a client to meet in half an hour. As I pay my bill and get up, I feel his eyes look me up. This time, he does notice me, he smiles......charisma overflowing. I am sure he attracts many others who are mesmerised by that charm. They stare at him, waiting to engage his look. I head for the door and just as the attendant  wishes me a good day (which he always does), I am driven by a deep primitive impulse and throwing away in one shot all the accumulated esteem and affluence of the intervening years which had made me graduate from ‘Hari Kripa’ to 'Cafe Sunshine’, I turn back and looking straight into his eyes I yell out ‘Fucking bastard!’
As I walk out into the blazing summer afternoon, leaving behind forever a shocked, scandalised sanctuary, I am sure I hear that innocent girl sitting by the window mutter under her breath “What a bitch”!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Night of Dreams

The headlines screamed out from the front page of the newspaper : " NOTORIOUS SMUGGLER AND KEY AIDE TO ABU RAJAN GANG KILLED LAST NIGHT IN SPECIAL ENCOUNTER" and under the caption, a black & white close up of the dreaded (now dead) man.

She stared for an eternity.......the caption playing & replaying in her head, begging for meaning. The letters coiled and recoiled in a blur of questions, her focus on the slightly distorted image....the face that was crystal clear in her mind where it had been captured and held for seven long years.

It was raining that night, business was low. The barowner was trying to engage all his efforts to ensure that the handful of patrons stayed on long enough to cover the night & its losses. Two semi-clad girls in their late teens were swaying to a sleazy number, glancing coyly at the drunk red eyes of the few men lustily swallowing every move of their body. That is when she was sent by the manager, to the foor, to sizzle the night and ensure that the glasses kept on filling.

She struck the perfect posture, flashed the enticing smile, made the most suggestive moves all accumulated results of hours of punishing practice in front of one cracked mirror. She was engaged for the kill, feet tapping, arms lifting, torso bending, in just the right angles. It was then that she felt his eyes looking at her from a corner away from most of the other men, a solitary figure among the shadows. She had the distinct sensation of his eyes engaging hers, he was not staring, just embracing her with his look. She wondered if it was a dream, for what else could it be? And barely conscious of what she was doing, she dropped her practiced perfection and became herself, her most seductive self. She danced like a wild peacock oblivious to the hungry night. Tonight she was Cinderella and he was her Prince. It was a dance of courtship, to attract her mate, a dance without inhibitions.....or vulgarity.

It was still raining when he took her out for a walk to Marine Drive. The barowner was beside himself with joy at the sudden turn of fortune, for all his worries have been swept away with one great stroke of good fortune. He even managed to sing an urdu couplet to the few remaining men, all too stoned to hear anything, with the effect of declaring that when the Almighty chooses to give, he bestows his worshippers with both hands.

They walked in the rain, with easy, relaxed steps. They talked. She spoke animatedly of movies she had seen and actors she admired. At one point he sang a couple of lines from her favourite movie song and tried a little jig. They laughed. Her feet ached, so he hailed a tanga (horse-cart) that usually ply for tourists whole night all along the Queen's Necklace. He bought her spicy pani-puris (crispy wafer balls filled with pungent tamarind & mint water) and iced lollies from a midnight vendor. She was the queen tonight.

They drank hot cutting chai (Mumbai special tea) from a stall by the pavement just as the night of dreams was pushed away by the inevitable, interfering rays of dawn. It had stopped raining. He had paid a fortune for one night with her and his time had run out. They parted.

For a long, long time afterwards she wondered what had made her accept the generous tip from the manager to spend a night with a stranger. She was an elite bar dancer, not a prostitute. She willed herself to bellieve that she had to worry about her rent, her son's school fees, but she knew that was not the reason. It was just that for the first time in her endlessly meaningless life someone had looked into her, a look whose intensity had transformed her from being an object to be enjoyed to being a very special woman to be cherished.

He had never touched her that night, neither did he buy her a gift to be kept and treasured. All she had with her was the experience to be savoured timelessly.

And as she sat staring into those eyes, the black and white image looked back into her. Somewhere in the background it must have started to rain for she could faintly hear or maybe feel the cool drops....she was not sure and she vaguely realised for the first time that she had never asked him his name.