Monday, November 15, 2010

Ardh Satya

The following poem, by the Marathi poet Dilip Chitre, is a bit abstruse to start with. I say abstruse because different people may interpret it differently. Someone might take it to be a commentary on the existential crisis that stems out of failure to act justly. While someone else might find it to be a fitting description of a romantic’s predicament on coming face to face with the ‘real’ world. You, on the other hand, might come up with a totally different interpretation.

Ardha Satya, a film by Govind Nihalani, has Om Puri reciting it in one of its scenes and gradually becoming aware, during the course of the same recital, the stark similarities between his own moral dilemma and the one the poet is talking about. As the meaning sinks in, he continues reading, but in a much more subdued and sombre tone. He knows the ‘Chakravyuh’ has caught up with him as well and either he must find a way through or subject himself to the moral backlash that will result if he chooses to become a part of it. There is no changing the maze itself. In a way, the poem encompasses the gist of the movie - moral impotency and the loss of self-respect as a person finds himself slowly, and involuntarily, becoming a part of a system he could never relate to in the first place. The loss seems to have amplified when he meets a woman who has much more courage than him.

The part I like best about the poem is its acceptance of the fact that there may not be any Absolute Truth. Just Ardh Satya or the Half-Truth. So, when the moment of reckoning comes, what do we choose? I guess, then, the ‘What’ is not as important as the courage to be held accountable for it. To have the strength to live with your choices and ideals. After all, in the light, the light of choices, will everything be equal? The 'right' choice - it might offer you a way out of guilt. But will it be any less painful or difficult? On the other hand, you might be able to tread the seemingly easier path. But will the guilty conscience be able to subsist on self pity and ignorance? There is no easy way out or in. When faced with an existential choice of such magnitude, in life, love, or beyond, Man is essentially alone, and there is nothing that ‘The Other’ can do alleviate his anguish or lessen his burden. His actions warrant responsibility and the strength to stand by them.

The movie concludes suggesting that Om Puri finally decides to break out of his situation, and regain his manliness and self-efficacy. But at what cost and in what manner? Ardh Satya indeed. Here’s a rough English translation of the poem I found online. However, I would recommend watching the movie you need to feel the real intensity of the poem.

Ardh Satya by Dilip Chitre

Chakravyuh mein ghusne se pehle,
kaun tha mein aur kaisa tha,
yeh mujhe yaad hi na rahega.

Chakravyuh mein ghusne ke baad,
mere aur chakravyuh ke beech,
sirf ek jaanleva nikat’ta thi,
iska mujhe pata hi na chalega.

Chakravyuh se nikalne ke baad,
main mukt ho jaoon bhale hi,
phir bhi chakravyuh ki rachna mein
farq hi na padega.

Marun ya maarun,
maara jaoon ya jaan se maardun.
iska faisla kabhi na ho paayega.

Soya hua aadmi jab
neend se uthkar chalna shuru karta hai,
tab sapnon ka sansar use,
dobara dikh hi na paayega.

Us roshni mein jo nirnay ki roshni hai
sab kuchh samaan hoga kya?

Ek palde mein napunsakta,
ek palde mein paurush,
aur theek taraazu ke kaante par
Ardh Satya.
Who was I, before I entered this maze,
Is not something that I will remember.

As I entered the war-maze,
There was only the life-threatening
Closeness between the enemy and me.
Even this, I will not realize.

After getting out of the maze
Even if I earn my freedom,
The maze by itself, will not change. Unaltered.

To die or to kill,
To be killed, or to take someone’s life,
Even this will not be decided.

As a man wakes from his sleep,
And starts to walk, he can never
Again, see the world of his dreams.

In this light, the light of choices,
Will all be equal?

Impotence on one side,
Manhood on the other,
And in the centre,
(tipping the scale) is the

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Everybody Lies

X: I do not lie. Not that it should matter to you. You obviously seem to know the truth.
Y: Everybody lies.

X: How come?
Y: White Lies? Your thing?

X: White?
Y: Lies which we tell to make other people feel better.

X: Huh?
Y: No? What about rationalizations? Those are lies which we tell to make ourselves feel better.

X: I think I am gonna go.
Y: Hmm, not even that? Lies of Omission? So are you going to tell me? What's your favourite way to have sex?

Y: See, now that is an evasion. You need to stick to the stereotypes. What use is my lecturing if it's not even helping you see the light? So, what is it? Saddle, bronc, or doggie?

X: I think I'd be better off sticking to a lie.
Y: I told you. It's like the great Dr. House said, "Lies are like children. They're hard work. But they are worth it, because the future depends on them."

*Smug Smile*. Anyone?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Two Lovers

Let me draw your attention to a scene. Not very special. Subtle would be the word. Ahem. Michelle is just back from the hospital, having suffered from a miscarriage. Leonard is sitting by her side, tracing out those three words on her arm, as she drifts into a sedated sleep. He loves her, but she doesn’t know it. Not yet. But does he either? Is she just a way out of his loneliness? Plausibly.

What’s remarkable about the scene is not its clichéd poetic beauty, but the fact that it is embedded in the very brutal reality of life. It’s daytime and the sunlight is sharp in its intensity. No expressions playing on their faces remain hidden. There are sounds that are obstinately stealing into the room. The dull thud of the music from a party close by. The shouts, catcalls, and bickering of kids playing in the streets. The spirited laughter and animated conversations of the party-people.

The walls are straining under the pressure to keep these harsh realities outside, where they belong, so that the two lovers can stay frozen in time. But they still manage to creep in. And they make us realise that no matter how poetic, tragic, or romantic the moment might seem to you, life won’t let you stay trapped in it. Even fleetingly. It is relentless, cruel, and insensitive. It won’t stop for you to get back on your feet while you wallow in your own private prosaic moment. And that, my friends, sucks.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Surely You're Joking

A poet once said - The whole universe is in a glass of wine. We will probably never know in what sense he meant that, for poets do not write to be understood. But it is true that if we look at a glass of wine closely enough we see the entire universe. There are the things of physics: the twisting liquid which evaporates depending on the wind and weather, the reflections in the glass, and our imagination adds the atoms. The glass is a distillation of the earth's rocks, and in it's composition we see the secrets of the universe's age, and the evolution of stars. What strange array of chemicals are in the wine? How did they come to be? There are the ferments , the enzymes, the substrates, and the products. There in wine is found the great generalization: all life is fermentation. How vivid is the claret, pressing its existence into the consciousness of the mind that watches it. If our small minds, for come convenience, divide this glass of wine, this universe into parts - physics, biology, geology, astronomy, psychology, and so on - remember that Nature does not know it! So let us put it all back together, not forgetting ultimately what it is for. Let us give us one more final pleasure: drink it and forget it all!


In hindsight, and with due to respect to Anon One's comment, this makes sense too.

Poets said Science takes away from the beauty of stars - mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is "mere". I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination - stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old-light. A vast pattern - of which I am a part - perhaps my stuff was belched from some forgotten star, as one is belching there. Or see them with the greater eye of Palomar, rushing all apart from some common starting point when they were perhaps all together. What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. Far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined! Why do poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if here were like man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia, must be silent?

Surely he must've been joking? Mr. Feynman?

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Death of Vishnu

Vishnu, an odd job man in an apartment complex in Bombay, lies dying on the first floor staircase landing. Within the space of a few hours, the life in this microcosm of urban Indian society slowly unfurls around his impending death. So while Vishnu experiences an out of body phenomenon in which he confronts the possibility that he has become a god, the God, Vishnu, the other residents of the building go about their lives in a mindless fashion, bickering, hallucinating, ruminating, eloping. While he swims in and out of reality, his experience almost spiritual, thinking in retrospection about his hopes, fantasies, and a kaleidoscopic past, the characters of the other building dwellers come into colour, painting a rich portrait of everyday life in middle class India in Manil Suri’s debut novel, “The Death of Vishnu”.

Suri, in a remarkable fashion, blends in the lives of the people living in the building with the unearthly experiences of a dying man. These vignettes of the social, cultural, and religious melodrama that is a part of everyday existence in India are brought to life through four families inhabiting the building – The first floor Hindu neighbours, Asranis and Pathaks, the Muslim Jalals on the second floor, and the recluse living in the penthouse, Vinod Taneja. The titular character, Vishnu, is a hopeless drunk who lives on the first floor landing and makes his living doing menial tasks for the residents of the dysfunctional building. His imminent death, however, is at the heart of a horde of issues that surface as his life ebbs away.

Mrs. Asrani and Mrs. Pathak seem to be perennially trying to get the better of each other, making each other’s lives miserable, while their spineless spouses just hope to get to the end of the day without being yelled at. Middle class and fiercely competitive, the foremost concern of the belligerent housewives seems to be the fact that the ghee is mysteriously disappearing from its container. Even when they finally do agree to help Vishnu out, it is more out of their suspicion of the Muslims upstairs (and elsewhere) than concern for the wretched fellow. Their superficial concerns seem to be in sharp contrast with the touching retrospection of Vishnu, or even the ruminations of Mr. Taneja.

The Jalals, on the other hand, are involved in their own quite personal battle, none of which is apparent to anyone else but them. Mr. Jalal, having previously declared himself to be an agnostic, is now determined to understand the hysteria surrounding faith. He goes about doing so by first embracing physical suffering and then, when it turns out to be too painful, abstinence – reason enough for him to shun his doting wife in favour of intellectual/spiritual enlightenment. The situation comes to a head when Mr. Jalal declares Vishnu to be Vishnu, The God, and himself to be his prophet, after dreaming about a divine revelation in which Vishnu, the drunkard, features prominently, and assuming it to be a sign.

As if the drama were not enough, Kavita, the Asranis’ daughter, and Salim, son to the Jalals, are a couple of lovesick, impractical teenagers who plan to elope in the dead of the night. They do so, only to realize later how ill conceived their entire romance was. Mr. Taneja, the only endearing soul in the building, is a hollow one at that, having given up on life and most of its trappings sometime after his wife’s sudden death due to cancer. He now silently awaits his own demise, no longer capable of either anger or compassion.

However, the foibles of the human life are only half the book for we are offered a glimpse into Vishnu’s world through flashbacks in the past. It is interesting to note that though the author uses the past tense to narrate the current goings on in the apartment building, he cleverly shifts to the present in order to describe Vishnu’s dying memories. As Vishnu looks back in time and recalls, in almost poetic fashion, his life, several colours and memories splatter themselves across the pages. These interspersed reminiscences – mostly poignant, often heart rending, and sometimes fearfully explicit – impart a dream like quality to Suri’s writing. As Vishnu longs for love from the lusty prostitute Padmini, imagines himself as an avatar of Vishnu in his mother’s stories, looks at Kavita with a fatherly affection that’s mixed with lecherousness, and recounts the tales of his childhood, we realize how every human being has dreams and aspirations, no matter however impoverished or overlooked he might be.

The device of using a Hindu God’s name for his protagonist allows Suri to experiment with creating fairy tale like stories about Vishnu’s past while also building an atmosphere for the socio-cultural crisis in which the plot culminates. Though the author never directly comments on any religious, cultural, or social topic of substance, he draws heavily from these themes. It’s up to the reader to interpret the undercurrents.

Suri’s prose is sensual and replete with powerful imagery. His style is nuanced and his attention to details impeccable. So while Visnu’s lust for Padmini, someone he can’t make fall in love with him, is explicit and insanely passionate, the short anecdote about The Radiowalla’s love for his radio captivates the reader with it’s meticulous attention to minutiae. The characters are sketched to perfection and come alive through the author’s love for the mundane. But the downside is that there are too many of them. The reader is often left with several threads to comprehend. And though he can effortlessly move from one to another because of the surreal nature of the narration, several of these threads remain unresolved. The end result being that the plot lacks a definite closure. It’s left hanging and open. The reader has the freedom to read between the lines. In whichever way he deems fit. While that might not be to the liking of many, it’s perhaps the only way the author could have brought the different storylines to a satisfactory conclusion.

Manil Suri, a successful Indian immigrant in Maryland, has shrewdly targeted his novel at an American audience for “there’s nothing a privileged readership likes more than stories about the ridiculous poor (as long as they’re exotic enough to trigger no unease); their antics and pretensions, their cowardice and inability to tell the truth”. Set almost entirely in a middle class apartment block in Bombay, The Death of Vishnu is an emotional, “old fashioned episodic” novel that teeters on the edge of the metaphysical, all with a touch of Bollywood masala and Victorian romanticism. Although the novel lacks a definite or consistent plot, Suri’s eye for details and exceptional story telling capabilities manage to prevent it from falling flat on its face and give it a certain phantasmagoric quality, something which makes for an interesting read but not an exceptional one.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Metallic Eye

Farther than what sees the biggest metallic eye.
From the land of dragons and eternal sunshine...

Came a story about love that had lived forever. They said it was so because in memory, love lives forever.


Almásy: New lovers are nervous and tender, but smash everything. For the heart is an organ of fire.


Their love seemed to reflect all the changes he had undergone. It did not mirror them. But the symphony was a secret that was known to both of them. The fact was evident in his love hate relationship with the empty afternoons that brought his life to a grinding halt, almost without fail. In the unending source of inspiration that it had seemed to become. In more poetic moods, he had made himself believe that it had become a cornerstone in his life – a steady anchor in the ever meandering scheme of things. And now, when his romanticism had finally assumed a new image, he wondered how long he could refuse to don his own mantle. One such empty afternoon had caught him unaware and silently posed a question which he had been avoiding answering.


Almásy: This - what's it called? - this place, I love it - this is mine!


He does that often. Cup his face in his hands and look at the trees lining the road near his house. The view is through a grilled window and the pattern gives a surreal kaleidoscopic quality to the usually featureless trees. The Sun is beating its hammer on the anvil and the fresh leaves of spring are dry and parched already. Vehicles plying on the road leave little dust storms in their wake which settle contentedly on the leaves, depriving them of any bright colours and the least bit of dignity. A little out of touch with reality, he finds resonance in the scene. Life seems to be in a state of dysfunction and its presence tugs at his sleeves.


Almásy: When were you most happy?
Katharine: Now.
Almásy: And when were you least happy?
Katharine: Now.


You sit on your throne of question marks. Why? - Pain and suffering. If one can not share them, one can not love. Happiness is secondary. Overrated.


Almásy: Every night I cut out my heart. But in the morning it was full again.


Yes, I wish for your kind of people to smile and chuckle. To look at me in that heightened state of existence. So I take off on my flight of fancy once more. I swim in and out of clouds. In and out of reality. With and without patience. All the while being loved and not loving back. I miss heartbeats sometimes. Other times, I just skip them. On a whim. Catching a fancy. I keep all my heartbeats in a tin jar. It lies buried in the ground beneath my window. I will take you there. There are thumbpins on the board in my room. A pin for each heartbeat I missed. Yes, one for each of those missing ones which lie safe in the tin jar. My jar has a ship drawn on it. The wind is puffing up the sails. It is almost ready to take off. Bon voyage! The voyage to unknown lands. In search of treasure and pirates. The ship has therefore a black sail. The mast carries a sinister flag. A skull with two crossed bones underneath it. I will have a ship like that one day. I will be the captain. With a wooden leg and nasty parrot. Just like Captain Finch and Long John Silver. But none of your kind of people are going to be on board this time. You come to say your last good bye’s. I am happy I am casting off. Your kind of people are happy too. To see me happy. Whatever that means. I cast off my anchor and smile that last toothy grin, the gap in my teeth giving it an ominous feel. I don’t look back. Neither do your kind of people. I am off, thus, and despite all the eccentricity, I still remain yours.


Katharine: My darling. How long is the day in the dark? Or a week? The fire is gone, and I'm horribly cold. I really should drag myself outside but then there'd be the sun. I'm afraid I waste the light on the paintings, not writing these words. We die. We die rich with lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we've entered and swum up like rivers. Fears we've hidden in - like this wretched cave. I want all this marked on my body. Where the real countries are. Not boundaries drawn on maps with the names of powerful men. I know you'll come carry me out to the Palace of Winds. That's what I've wanted: to walk in such a place with you. With friends, on an earth without maps. The lamp has gone out and I'm writing in the darkness.


The people come alive and emotions are felt once more, their bite more tangible than ever. The plots, the sub plots, and their umpteen characters are sketched to perfection and it seems you had been lying all along, pretending to forget, so that you could goad me into telling my version of things. You sigh, you smile, you wish, and you yearn. The night seems to dilate in order to accommodate the vividness of your narration, and by then time it ends, I have lived another life in the span of a few hours. You’re exhausted, and parched.

If not for my sake then yours. But this is inevitable now. And since it is, it’s best we did what’s the right thing to do. For both of us. Begin afresh. Don’t feel guilty about anything for you did nothing wrong.


Madox: I have to teach myself not to read too much into everything. It comes from too long having to read so much into hardly anything at all.


Almásy: What do you hate most?
Katharine: A lie. What do you hate most?
Almásy: Ownership. Being owned. When you leave, you should forget me.


I slowly find my path, “So out of place”, I wonder.
And soon it dawns how everything was a Slip of Time.
An asylum from banal reality, in guise of a mistress
Of words. How fitting I should sing of it in rhyme!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Monument of Words

The numerous shelves in the room were like edicts glorifying some unknown tyrant. Each narrated its own tale of horror. Or maybe the stories were not that gruesome after all. His imagination always got the better of him. Baah. Gullible spectators roamed in their midst. They looked, searched, and often found bits and pieces of themselves in those mundane gray columns. Having eluded capture till now by lurking in dark corners, figments of their personalities shied away from discovery. Jump cut.

He craned his neck to look beyond the tinted glass of the windows. The view outside seemed mellow, as if the might of the sun had been subdued by some supernatural force. They sky seemed bluer and his fancy only exaggerated the effect. The lights in the room, reflected in the glass, seemed like orbs of radiance suspended in mid air. One could see the leaves being disturbed by gentle gusts of wind. But none could hear their rustle. The usual cacophony of existence had been muted with striking perfection. The only discernible sound was the continuous scrawl of graphite on paper. People shuffled in and out of the hushed chambers, most of them mystified by the strange ambience. An unassuming loafer caught him staring at the ceiling and he quickly hid his embarrassment in the book in front of him. Montage.

The clock ticked to a stipulated hour. It was time. He gathered his ornaments and looked around, soaking it in. “I’ll be back”, thought he and proceeded to retreat into his shell.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Bhaiyya ka Bakhaan

“He is a desperado. He is slow. He is a poet. He is a thug. Above all, the man from UP is just plain grateful he is not a Bihari,” writes Annie Zaidi. You can read the full post, bakhaan, and chittha here: Hum toh Aise Hain Bhaiyya.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Growin' Old

We have grown too old for our limited years;
Time we shed some of those childhood tears.
Let the keen rant of reason be left ignored;
For intellect seems a passion for the bored.
Relax, relent, give in; but do not just give up.
Life's brimming over; why, then, an empty cup?
We think we shall break, but never shall bend,
When a bargain is all we need to comprehend.
We inhibit, criticise, abstain; but never do tell.
Not to Devil, but to Reason our souls we sell.
We try hard, but we try too hard; still we sink
In a sea of despair till all our emotions stink.
Is it time to take control; or, better, to let go?
Faith, belief, trust - that's the line we must tow
Our colours are wild; why not let 'em freely flow?
For what's a canvas with just pathos to show?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Side Notes on Spirituality

In his book Above Average, Amitabha Bagchi writes: “… I was made to realise that to write about people meant having to leave oneself behind and enter into them. It was also the earliest point in my life when I learned that to love someone also entailed roughly the same thing”. The point being made here is multi pronged. Bagchi comments on the skills that a good writer should possess – detachment from oneself and one’s ego. But then he links that observation with the most personal emotion – love. For anyone. Family. Friends. Partner. How does one detach oneself from one’s ego, that purest us, and yet retain one’s identity? One’s style? One’s character? How do we look through someone else’s eyes without losing our own insight? Perhaps it’s more about losing our own perspective and gaining another in the bargain. Yes, perhaps.

I think that this remark has been the guiding light for this attempt at writing. Needless to say, I am sure I have failed, though admirably, at bringing out the essence of his comment due to my limited understanding of it. However, I tried. And it is the fringe benefit of failure that having done so, I was reasonably satisfied.


Satya was in no immediate hurry to retrace his steps back home. Without much hue or cry, the dusk had surrendered to the smog that hung like an adoring cloud over the city and a thick fog had made itself comfortable in all its nooks and corners – side benefits of development. The last of the labourers slugging it out at the DMRC construction sites could be seen making their way back to their respective hutments in lesser known areas of the metropolis. They wore fluorescent orange and green jerseys over their soiled woollens and a few of them had even forgotten to take off their yellow hard hats. Some carried mutton and cheap desi liquor in black polythene packets – all arrangements made for a night of drunken revelry – and looked conspicuously smug. Too smug for their own comfort, actually.

Satya, himself, was dressed peculiarly and, let’s face it, inappropriately for the cold weather. A khadi kurta with jeans and a brown pullover. A dirty light brown shawl was draped around his shoulders and seemed to be the only credible defence against the inconsiderate chill. It gave him the look of a jhola krantikari and one would be hard pressed to say whether the man drove the image or the image drove the man. A cheap cigarette smouldered in his hands, dying a slow death. Curious onlookers gave him a second glance, and then a third. It would be difficult to state whether he was oblivious to them. However, what can be said for sure is that his gait did not give him away. He measured his steps, just like he was in the habit of doing all the time, and shivered occasionally.

On reaching the bus stop he pondered for some moments. Walking back was an option worth considering. But given the fact that home was still a far way off and that the wind had begun to get to him, he decided to wait for the next 520. It arrived earlier than expected and he hurriedly got onto the almost empty bus. Having paid his fare, he looked out of the window. The glass was murky and stained with betel juice – a lone streak of it cutting right across the middle of the window – probably a gift from the previous occupant of the seat in front of him. It hampered his view of the world outside – now sodden with mist – and so he shifted in his seat and busied himself with observing the few occupants of the 520.

A cool dude wannabe sat two rows ahead of him, earplugs glued securely to his ear. He wore patchwork jeans and a lot of gel in his hair. Satya strained his ears and was surprised to catch some tunes which seemed vaguely like Floyd’s “Money”. Having been stumped in his appraisal of the ‘cool dude’, he proceeded to dissect the personality of the girl sitting diagonally across him, in the ‘Ladise’ seat. She was dressed simply and stared straight ahead, right out the windscreen. Something about her posture and demeanour suggested that she was disturbed and Satya took a callous comfort in that realisation. She wore thick maroon and white bangles, sign enough that she had been married recently, with a green cardigan and a pair of hip hugging jeans to go along with them. Had it not been for that fact, Satya thought, he would have contemplated about her striking beauty. But now she was unavailable and any lecherous thoughts that belied his name were quickly done away with. “Hopelessly middle class”, he mumbled under his breath and tried to don a look of pure disdain. Besides, home was near.

He got off at an earlier stop, on a whim, and finally decided to walk the last kilometre. The road leading up to their colony had been freshly dug up to lay sewage pipes and the untimely deluge last night had ensured that he would have to hop-skip-jump his way back. Suddenly, the house loomed large in front of him, almost as if in some B-grade Bollywood horror flick. The road in front of it was fresh and black. A high ranking government official, who had started living close by, ensured that there would always be police wallahs hanging around. One of them was taking out a golden retriever for a walk. Few loitered around, chatting, smoking, and mentally stripping any girl who happened to pass by. Everything was pretty much just the way Satya had left it. The only thing that seemed out of place was him. For a moment, he felt uncomfortable entering his own house. But then he filed away that thought for future reference, and rang the bell.

His mother apparated at the door almost immediately. She looked haggard and older than the last time he had seen her. He closed the door behind him and spoke with decision – something that added an ominous overtone to his voice.

“Hello Ma. How was the day? I hope Dad hasn’t gone to sleep already. I need to talk to you both.”

“Oh, no no. He is awake. He’s reading something. I will tell him you want to talk. Will you eat something?”

“Yeah, I will. What have you made?”

“Dal and aloo gobhi.”

“Great! Let me just wash my face. I will eat in the kitchen. Don’t bother with setting the table.”

We must digress here and dwell a bit upon why such a conversation had been necessitated in the first place. It had been 5 months since Satya had left his job. “My heart is in it no more” – was supposedly the reason why such a drastic measure had been undertaken. Brows furrowed, moustache tingling with excitement, his father had pointed out that even after six years of wandering around aimlessly, he still had no inkling about what he wished to make of his life. In a burst of rage and righteous anger, he had pointed out how Satya, 31, almost broke, unmarried, and unemployed, did not consider it a shame to be a liability for his parents rather than becoming an asset. Infuriated by such a clinical dissection of his financial sensibilities, he had walked out in a fit and had returned only late at night, using his key to smuggle himself in. Had he his own house or had Gandhi not been married, he might have contemplated once or twice before swallowing his pride. But fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony; Satya had thereon bided his days by leaving the house early in the morning and coming back only when he was certain his father must have retired for the day. So tonight, when he returned earlier than usual, and thereafter expressed a desire to talk to Sharmaji, his mother raised her wispy eye brows, blinked twice in close succession in order to appraise the substantiality of the statement and then relayed the needful to the concerned before proceeding towards the kitchen.

“Your mother tells me you wanted to talk. What’s it about now?” his father enquired gruffly when he had finished eating. Satya took his time wiping his hands on the grimy towel his father used before settling himself in the chair, shifting a bit in order to make himself comfortable, and then speaking his thoughts with such ease it seemed as if he had been practising them all this time. His tone, however, was laced with sarcasm, something his parents, fortunately, were impervious to. All they could decipher in it was arrogance mixed with irresponsibility.

“Your remarks that night have led me to this decision. I am sure you are not going to approve of it, as has been your habit. But please let me finish before you voice your concerns. I understand that I should not be jobless. Not when I am 31 and a liability for my aging parents. Therefore, I have applied for a position close by. It’s not a menial clerkship but neither is it something which Ma’s friends at the kitty party can wow their wow’s over. They’re paying me decent money and I am okay with that. I shall move out of here and take up lodgings at a room Gandhi has recommended. It’s not lavish but has all the basic amenities in place. I will be just 10 minutes away, in case you need me. That is as far as my current situation is concerned. I understand that Ma has been fretting over my ever increasing age and the continued dearth of marriage proposals that such a development instigates. You, Papa, have yourself been losing weight over this issue. The indecision, of course, needs to be done away with. Therefore, I have decided, once and for all, to not marry at all. But I might think about adopting a child when the time is right. And when I feel I am ready. Not now though. That’s all I had to say.”

Sharmaji looked as if he was unsure whether it was his own son he sat talking to while his wife seemed as if she had been slapped for breathing too loudly. Satya had anticipated such a response and sought to quickly get out of the predicament in which he had put himself and his parents in. He added hastily, “Please take some time to think about this. I know it is not easy. But for me, it seems the only way to proceed forth.”

“Has Gandhi put you up to this?” Sharmaji enquired, hoping against hope that such a line of thought was not original.

“No, Papa. It’s just me. I have been thinking about this for some time now. For a year at least. This last job was the final straw. You would do me a big favour by not playing the blame game. By attributing the rationale and the consequences of this choice to just me. Not Ma. Not Gandhi. Not the upbringing or anything else. ”

“What will you do? How will you manage? We can’t die without seeing our grandchildren, can we? And what about you? You can’t live alone, no matter what you feel. You need a family to be happy,” his mother added, hoping to add some weight to her husband’s retort, but only earning an ill deserved scorn in response.

“It’s all your doing. I had warned you of letting him take stupid decisions from the very start of this self-realisation. He had to end up being the wreck he is now. Of course, there’s no going back for him.”

“That’s the middle class mentality I have been trying to shrug off all these years,” Satya seethed. “There is life beyond the nuclear unit and the family. Everywhere I look around, people seemed so afraid of realising their hopes that they tie themselves down and surround themselves with the only certainty they possess – family. The impossibility of action is so supreme that we have coined a new term for it – tolerance. Is this why you worked so hard towards educating us? So that we could become drones and make more than you ever made?”

Sharmaji was in no mood for a discourse on the subject of the great Indian middle class. “This is what comes of reading too much crap with no sense of direction. You get too many ideas and before you know, they have clouded your mind to such an extent that it’s impossible for you to take a stand. Stop living in this dream world of yours. How many of those hopes have you realised anyway? And if it were not for this very certainty, you would be out there, on the streets”, he blurted out.

“Maybe so. And hence my decision to move out. But at least I am not refusing to see what is staring at me in the face. I am not living in a cocoon.”

“You are beyond reason. I’ll let you realise what the real life is like. Of course, you have been at the receiving end of it for quite some time now. You seem to have taken a sadistic liking to your indecision. It can only end in disaster. But I am not wasting any more time on this conversation. You will come to your senses, more sooner than later. I will wait for you to tell me about how much of your self you have realised and how many dreams or hopes were murdered along the way,” Sharmaji thus concluded his end of the conversation and left in a humph.

“Satt, how long will this continue? If you don’t know what you want, at least listen to us. It might help, if nothing else,” Satya’s mom pleaded with his unruly son.

“I am going to sleep Ma. I will move out my stuff by the week’s end. Despite all I said, you know I care for you. It could be no other way. Even if I don’t make a public display out it,” he said, almost on the brink of his tears. Realising his helplessness, he got up and went to his room, making sure to latch it behind him. He then plumped down on his bed and cried his heart out. Outside, his mother could hear him stifle his sobs, between her own, and wondered what could have gone so wrong so as to render him thus.

Things hadn’t been the same always, no matter what Sharmaji would like to believe. Satya had not scraped through school (though his mother always thought he could have done better) and had gone on to pursue a vocational degree from a decent institution. Everything was set for a life of ‘certainty’ and tradition – another middle class dream on the verge of realisation. Somewhere along the way, though, he had begun to detest his middle class identity and the fetters with which it bound him.

More an idealist than a man of reason, he had come to see his adulthood as a phase of no nonsense, devoid of innocence, pleasure, pure joy, and most importantly, blind consumption or consumerism. He realised, however, his incompleteness as a person to attain his objectives, and strove to overcome it. One of the means through which he did that was reading. As he did so, the Hindu ideal of renunciation began to make more and more sense. But, unfortunately, his interpretation of the scriptures was a bit awry. (Someone would say that it was to be expected from a non-Brahmin). So, his flight was more a withdrawal, in conflict with the peaceful renunciation that Hinduism proscribes, wherein the breadwinner, his duties done, prepares the ground for his descendants and retreats to a life of meditation. That, in its truest sense, actually ensures order and continuity in the world. However, Satya’s philosophy of withdrawal served the purpose of diminishing him intellectually and rendering him incompetent to respond to challenges, thereby stifling growth. Additionally, it also freed him of responsibility, something which gradually became an addiction. He failed to understand that his inaction depended upon the action of others.

A breath of fresh air did come around though. But it did more harm than good. Incorrectly interpreting his understanding of love and refusing to rest his faith in any other, Satya even distanced himself from the one thing that had challenged his abandonment – Avantika. What had started off as an infatuation in school, had blossomed into a passionate love affair during his formative years – time spent in college. However, he was the first person in his family to attempt a relationship of this sort, and nothing in his social or cultural education had offered him any clues as to how to behave when in love. He sought to refute all set norms and assumed that the freshness would cause things to fall in place – often not the best approach to emotions.

Little did Satya realise that his fight against his inheritance would end up defining his character more than anything else. Had he known, he would have stayed away from the trappings of love. The sudden transition from the security of caste equations, traditions, and rituals, to the independence and casteless world that he came to inhabit in college lulled him into believing that his mind could be an extension of the same. So while he read about feminism and felt inspired by the teachings of Vinobha Bhave, the feudal world that he had grown up in reared its ugly head every now and then. While he harped on the importance of empathy and intellectual growth, his philosophy of renunciation and self-cherishing fed his ego. While he championed modernity and rational thought, he couldn’t help taking refuge in conservative views and ancient wisdom whenever they were challenged by his own instincts. And while he went on about detachment and self realisation, he shuddered every time Avantika echoed his thoughts.

But gradually the cracks had begun to show. Satya’s passage from his middle class values to the ‘revolutionary’ ideals was wrought with conflict. With himself. The nerve required to carry on regardless of it wasn’t obvious to everyone. Only those who knew about the tremendous strain required to absorb divergent notions could appreciate his tenacity. For as long as he had endured, his actions had been the result of this perpetual struggle. A weaker person would have broken down under the stress and taken comfort from the security that familiar ground – family, clan, caste – offered. Satya had merely retreated unto himself, refusing to accept defeat, but wary of his own perpetual rudderlessness.

Avantika, tired of this relentless onslaught, had eventually decided to move on. She could have accepted him as an ordinary individual, seeped in either tradition or modernity, but not as someone who was unsure of his footing, endlessly involved in a clash of values. They seem to be going nowhere, endlessly engaged in an elaborate game of hide and seek. “You surprise me, but you surprise me too much,” Avantika had said softly, trying not to cry. “Yes, I guess it must be hard,” was all Satya could muster in response.

It took her some time but she adapted to her new life. Within a year of leaving Satya, she married Ritwick, a mutual acquaintance, who was less prone to bouts of denial and self deprecation. Despite all appearances to the contrary, she was a normal girl who needed to be cared for. Satya’s idea of romance had seemed too idealistic, fraught with disappointments and misunderstandings, to be something she could depend on.

She made it a point to invite Satya to the wedding in order to emphasise how essential it was for them to take it all in their stride. How essential it was for him to let go. He had smiled while his photograph was clicked with the couple, but inwardly the shutters had already come crashing down. Correspondence dwindled to a minimum and now, 3 years later, he could not remember the last time he had spoken to her. While Avantika refused to dwell on the past and enforced ignorance upon her in order to make the most of her marriage, Satya scrutinised the demise of their love with alarming regularity. Yet he never spoke about the same, lest it confirm his own fears – that he had lost the battle against his own self.

Things had not gone from bad to worse. But they had definitely stopped getting better. Satya switched jobs sooner than he asked his mother to change the menu, always coming up with some lame excuse for doing so. He lived frugally, though sometimes he wondered, whether he had the choice. His denial of all responsibility and commitment helped him whenever he was in doubt. He read voraciously and, often, without discrimination. Sometimes the words he paid homage to would come alive and start swimming in front of his eyes. Such moments were rare but they brought more clarity of thought than what he ever achieved through contemplation. He deliberately lived with the kind of contradictions which would not let him have peace of mind. Life passed him by while he was looking for it in other places. There were no regrets, however, just painful compromises. That is until he had the altercation with his father.

That weekend Gandhi came to help Satya move his stuff to the one room apartment both of them had finalised. As he finished packing his things for one last time, he had an urge to go up to his old room on the terrace. It was almost dark and Gandhi grumbled a bit about someone coming over for dinner at his house. “It’ll just take me a minute. I’ll be back soon. You wait here,” Satya said as he disappeared up the stairs.

The terrace was devoid of any human presence but bustling with life because of the hundreds of plants her mother cared for like her own children. He remembered Bruzo lolling in the Sun while he studied for his Bio exam several winters ago. When a lot more gullible and naïve, he had spent umpteen nights on the terrace, walking, listening to cheesy songs being played out on the late night radio show or his cranky walkman, and cursing the tractors for causing a racket each time they trundled over the speed breaker near his house. With a disarming chuckle, he even recalled hiding paper clippings of scantily dressed models under his bed, and putting them to good use. Then there was this instance when Gandhi had admonished him for being too uptight, for being too conventional in his approach. How much he would like to walk down that corridor once again and peep at himself through the keyhole! Had he been successful in shrugging off the fetters now?

When he had enough of such images in his mind, he slowly closed his eyes and spread his arms. Ever so slowly, he turned around in a circle. In that minute of abandon, he could imagine everyone he had ever known smile at him, cheering him on, wishing him their own share of luck, and letting him know that they loved him. In that moment of happiness, he embraced it all. He embraced them all.


End Note – I must confess that several parts of this story owe their inspiration to excerpts from the following books. And they, I guess unfortunately, are the only things original about it.

Above Average by Amitabha Bagchi, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana by Pankaj Mishra, INDIA: A Wounded Civilisation by V. S. Naipaul, The Scent of India by Pier Paolo Pasolini

Also, the phrase – Hopelessly Middle Class – is not mine. The author would recognise this assertion.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Our Place in Time

Let me tell you something about myself. Before my imagination takes control and I start weaving a wreath of words for you. Let me do this before you reach any hasty conclusion and I begun to drift away. Into my sleep of no dreams.

I have been walking for so long now. I am tired. I need to catch a nap, drink some beer, and have some of that sumptuous fried chicken from the place near Green Park. What was its name now? I need to take a deep breath and stop dreaming about flinging red pamphlets in the Parliament one day. I need to start working towards a home with huge, verdant lawns, a wife who looks ravishing in saris and bindis, and two kids (twins preferably) who are as much of a nuisance as they are fun. I need to take care of you and others like you. Very importantly, I need to stop my relentless assault on your patience and prevent myself from looking at the world through my looking glass. I need to, for once, really let go. Yes, all this and more.

I am noting it all down but, as might be apparent, I have a way of shelving my own rules and plans when they become too tedious. I try to pass it off as novelty. But before any of that happens, I have planned a little detour for you. No, I won’t take no for an answer. I know you prefer the hustle of Café Morrison in South-Ex and the bustle of Berco’s in Connaught Place. The ambience of the coffee shop in Khan Market and the comfort of garishly coloured bean bags behind the plush windows of the M-Block market in Greater Kailash. I realise now how much you love the mundane routine of the people I despise (or I think I despise). And the trappings which such a life can afford – the razzmatazz, the gossip, the glamour, and the glitz. But, my dear, you have to relent just this one time. Close your eyes and I will paint a pretty picture. We’ll decide then. Deal?

Come away with me to this place I have been to. It’s somewhere in Delhi. I don’t know the name but I have been there often. I catch a bus and it drops me at its gates. Just 10 rupees. Sometimes I have to walk but I have the knack of finding my way. Don’t let that take away anything from what I have planned for you. It’ll be fun, I promise. We shall waltz (nay, walk) in through the revolving gates and marvel at this oasis in the midst of a city that seems to be bursting at its seams. As soon as we leave the road where brightly coloured and flashy cars zip past huge upper crest bungalows (no wonder the place is called Jor Bagh), we will be in a world of our own. Crumbling tombs, archways, and courtyards cause the place to reek of history, heritage, and in my definition, culture. Perhaps, the Sheesh Gumbad will have some story or a royal scandal to tell us about through its guarding djinn. Huge palm trees shall vie for our attention and bow down in obeisance. The mighty peepal trees, if in the mood for graciousness, might sway around and shed their last remaining dry, withered leaves in order to carpet the damp grass beneath our feet. The sun shall have already breathed its last, leaving a warm reddish glow in its wake. You will see the Moon in the distant horizon, through the white, leaf less branches of the dead trees. Already so yellow, it’ll seem as if the Sun rubbed off some its colours on it in order to continue living in the night. A few stars will twinkle and wink knowingly. They are always up for interesting gossip.

Lovelorn couples can be seen making their way back to the motorcycle stands, the more courageous ones amongst them snuggling up to each other in order to escape the dull Delhi chill. Retired civil servants, their pride still too proud to accept humility as a virtue, are out for their evening walks, dressed smartly in Nehru jackets and starched kurta pyjamas. They are accompanied by their suave wives who have streaks of grey in their hair and are looking every bit elegant in their cotton saris (and pashmina shawls tossed over their small shoulders). Disgruntled executives have come here too; their laptop bags and blackberries still in tow, straight from work or perhaps after bunking it, wanting to catch a breath of fresh air before they head back into the smog and dust. Insanely rich Punjabi girls can be seen ‘exercising’ in Reebok/Adidas track suits and instructing their minions about a party at the farm house, either over the phone or in person. Foreign dignitaries are littered all over the place, their small bratty children as bit bratty as our own. They speak French, English, German, Italian, Mandarin, and even, if we are lucky, Batak Toba. Young girls share gossip and scandals about their jaded love lives and imminent break-ups. Dogs, no expensive dogs, of all shapes, sizes, and breeds are encouraged by their retainers to create havoc and scare away the small children, and sometimes fearsome looking Sikhs who are enjoying the last moments of a well deserved picnic party. Some foul mouthed school kids scare away the birds returning to their nests and pass obscene remarks about the school sweetheart, whom they have now pronounced to be a slut.

But all this we shall ignore. I will take you to my favourite place there. It’s a bench. One of its legs is missing so someone has very kindly put a stone underneath. Don’t worry. I promise it won’t be uncomfortable. And as soon as the yellow lamps have come on, you will realise why I brought you there. The light won’t be too bright as the leaves of the lone deodar struggle to strain most of it. There will be a wall right in front of us, remnant of some tomb probably, with elaborately carved niches, a narrow cobbled pathway bordering it. Joggers, lovers, and tourists will slowly amble past, looking smug in each other’s, and their own, company. Uncles and aunties too. But if you do not want their prying eyes to look our way, we can always sit by the pond. If you stay just long enough, curious ducks will make their way towards us, their eyes shining with hope. Of course, we won’t be having anything to feed them. They will quack their loud irritating quacks and swim away disapprovingly, their webbed feet making them look like awkward swimmers. Holding up their beaks in dignity and puffing up their feathers, they will retire for the night to the island of green in the middle of the pond.

When you have relaxed a bit, I shall breathe in your smell and feel intoxicated yet again. I shall light up, in spite of your disapproving look, and tell you how, if you might have come here some other day, you might have found me engrossed in a book under the shade of the peepal tree not far from the ducks. How I still have a leaf from it tucked away somewhere. I shall tell you how I have often thought about discussing political essays with like minded friends under the lamp behind us. (All of us will swear by the Communist Manifesto of course). How, though a loner I might be, I still long for the company of such friends. You might go tsk tsk and prompt me to initiate another line of conversation. To quote Ghalib or Momin (not Shelly or Frost or Shakespeare), whose verses made such places in time larger than life and disinterest you tremendously.

Having done so, I shall try to save some face and shamefully confess that though I don’t have the intellect to appreciate them as I would like to, it still doesn’t take away anything from the beauty of their creations. You might look at me appreciatively and decide whether this was one of the reasons you fell for me in the first place. What reason that might be I can not tell. If I’m lucky, a twinkle will light up your eyes and gradually break through your defence by means of that ill-disguised dry sarcastic smile. You might shiver occasionally but I will choose to ignore that because you look so beautiful with a red nose. (The voice gets huskier). I shall then lean back and close my eyes to the world for sometime for I can never manage without a bit of melodrama. You’ll choose to rest your head on my shoulder and look for a comfortable spot to nestle it.

Soon it will be time for us the leave. The watchmen will come tapping their lathis and shoo us off. It will be cold by now and the shawl must be dug out. I prefer the shawl while you have a thing for my jacket. We head our separate ways, having mumbled some inconsequential goodbyes. I can see your small frame retreating back into its world. Your shoulders give away your knowledge of my reluctance to leave. But you sigh inwardly and make it a point not to turn back. I sulk for sometime but realisation dawns soon enough and causes me to head towards my corner of the city.

For a moment in time, the ephemerality of it notwithstanding, our worlds and the ideas and opinions in them will clash. But fortunately, it’ll help us let down our defences and stifle our presumptions. Allow us a different perspective so that we can go back, same yet altered. So that we can still love what we loved but also what we can love. Without killing the excitement that is the harbinger of change. This could be our place in time. I know it’s not a beautiful picture. But a pretty one it is. So what do you say? Is it a deal?

Friday, January 01, 2010

Carpe Diem

Let's start by being a bit more responsible, shall we? Not to mention unconditionally honest. That'd be enough for a year.