Art of the Matter

Reflections of an Author at Work

Tag: Fiction

1975: Love of a Stranger

A Love Story by Arpita Bhawal

Every day, by 8.00 AM, she arrived with her leaf green tote bag, eyes shaded by an oversized pair of sunglasses and feet strapped casually in beige Roman sandals. She always had a couple of books in the crook of one arm and chewed gum thoughtfully. Ronnie assumed she was about nineteen, perhaps older. The bleached strands of hair that escaped the rotund bun at the base of her neck reminded him of coir strings. She stood exactly in the same spot, leaning against one of the iron poles supporting the roof of the bus-stop, which was a rectangular structure with an asbestos roof and a naked brick back wall.

Usually, Ronnie pretended to study the large posters on that wall (sometimes of upcoming Bengali films and beauty creams, and occasionally of an appeal for a Bandh or workers’ strike by one of the numerous official Labour Unions of Calcutta) after she had arrived, so that she didn’t think he was cheap for staring at her. When she didn’t show up today, Ronnie’s heart skipped a beat. Did she change her route? She always got off at Esplanade, two stops ahead of his.

In his head, Ronnie had the whole story worked out. She was probably an MA student who would rather study fashion or she was an artist who had been forced to dive into Economics lessons to appease her business-like parents. He flicked back the white shirt sleeve, always white and starched like a tent, to glance at his new HMT watch. Birthday gift from his father, the first in ten years. Ronnie’s throat was dry. He swallowed and looked up momentarily at the sky. It was summer already and the month of April had missed its first shower of rain.

The scheduled bus screeched to a halt as it did daily at 8.15 AM. A couple of men who stood ahead of Ronnie in the cue, boarded it. Ronnie looked over his shoulder to see if the girl was running late. She wasn’t at his heels. Reluctantly, he followed the bored passengers inside. The bus ride was particularly tedious. The road was bumpier and the crowd thicker than usual. Every single bend seemed to twist Ronnie’s body to take the shape of an ungainly angle, as if he were made of river mud; he wanted to jump off the bus, on to the pavement and wait for the girl.

By the time Ronnie reached his office in Maniktala, he was irritated; sweat formed damp, circular orbs under his armpits. His jaws ached from clenching and his wrists were sore from holding on to the rod overhead. Ronnie strolled into the cramped office space where two other people sat, hammering away at the last of the Imperial typewriters imported from London. Recently, there was an announcement in the papers of the Imperial Typewriter Company’s closure. He had read in a foreign journal that America was going to replace the typewriter with electronic machines that could type and print. In Calcutta, nobody cared.

Normally, the staccato rhythm of those keys soothed him, but today Ronnie felt like breaking them with a sledgehammer. The pale walls of the office room, the thirty-year-old ceiling fan, the trek up the narrow stairs flanked by betel juice stained walls, depressed him inordinately.

‘What happened, Dada?’ Biplab Halder, asked pointedly. He was the older of the two typists who worked there. He threw Ronnie a pitiful glance, though the word of endearment meant ‘brother’. ‘Didn’t sleep last night?’

Sanjib Ghosh, the younger man with round glasses and a lisp, declared, ‘Our Ronnie Da is in love! So her dreams are keeping him up late into the night.’

Ronnie froze. What on earth were they talking about? Had they seen him watch that girl in the bus stop? Had they stalked him from his home? He feigned indifference while his heart jumped around in his ribcage like a scalded cat. Ronnie always took great pride in hiding his feelings and maintaining a poker face. With his back turned to the duo, he calmly opened his leather briefcase; an expensive gift from his father when he got this dull job at NMN. His father had, of course, had a hand in getting this job for Ronnie by ingratiating himself to the business owner, a certain rotund man who went by the name, N. M. Narasimhan.

Everyone called the business man who owned this poky office, NMN. His tea-garden employees didn’t pass a chance to mock the tongue-twisting initials. Sanjib with the lisp, who ironically dabbled in poetry and speech writing for the CPI (M), the most passionate speech-writing political party of Bengal among other things, had said Narasimhan’s initials sounded like a film production company from Madras. Since Biplab was in his late forties’ and by virtue of sheer experience that comes with trying times and a poor job market in Calcutta, avoided expressing his glee as jovially as Sanjib. Secretly, of course, he enjoyed it all the same.

Biplab looked at Ronnie with speculative eyes, who pulled out a file and placed it disinterestedly on the wooden desk.

Ronnie mumbled, ‘Good morning, Dada.’

Biplab pulled out a sheaf of paper from the typewriter and laid it carefully on the neat pile at his desk, testimony to his morning’s hard work. ‘What’s so good about our mornings? I have been here since 7.00 AM today, finishing off the reports. NMN is supposed to meet some person today at Park Street who is likely to invest in this rotten business. Can you imagine? These are to impress that stranger? Sanjib should write him a poem instead. Did you get cigarettes?’

Ronnie took out a new pack of Charminar cigarettes from his briefcase and placed it on Biplab’s table next to the column of typed sheets. He didn’t look at the older man who was now eyeing him with increasing suspicion. It would be fair to say that Ronnie hated Biplab and Sanjib, and their dhoti-clad backsides, but felt it was prudent to tolerate them for their tenure at NMN and also the proximity they had with the business owner.

Sanjib stopped typing and heaved a sigh of relief. ‘Finally, it’s done! Biplab Da, let’s go for tea. I’m in no state of mind to start the next batch. Phew! Anyway, our film company has not come in yet, so we don’t need to worry. Ronnie Da, coming?’

Biplab smirked. ‘Stop calling the owner, a film company. NMN is our boss. Besides, who knows? Walls have ears and someone might tell on you. You might get fired even. Ronnie Dada, what do you say?’

Ronnie opened a file and sat on his chair. The desk was uncluttered and the opposite of Biplab’s and Sanjib’s. He avoided looking at the other desks as he hated disarray. His mind was still on the bus-stop girl who didn’t show up today.

Suddenly, the silence in the room and the absence of the typewriter keys hammering away into his thoughts made him wary. He turned to the men who stared at him, as if he were an alien who had just stepped out of a spaceship.

‘What happened?’ Sanjib ventured.

Ronnie felt exposed. He was nearly afraid that his colleagues had read his thoughts. ‘What?’

‘We asked, are you coming? You didn’t reply. Then Biplab Da asked you…,’ Sanjib said.

Biplab picked up the pack of cigarettes and held up his hand to Sanjib. ‘Leave him! He’s afraid we will make this a habit…asking him for cigarettes and making him pay for tea. And it also appears, he has things to resolve. In his mind. Let’s go.’

Ronnie glanced at Biplab, then again at Sanjib’s inquisitive face next to Biplab’s. Both looked decidedly sneaky and suspicious by Ronnie’s taciturn silence. It was true that he was neither being polite nor cordial this morning, a pretence he had mastered like a musician playing the same symphony for a decade in the company of this duo.

‘Please take the cigarettes. I bought them for all of us. I will join you for the next break. Just remembered about the report NMN told me to send out last week. I forgot about it.’ Ronnie managed to respond calmly.

‘Okay. We won’t be long.’ Biplab pursed him lips and left with the pack of Charminar.

‘All okay?’ Sanjib asked again to which Ronnie nodded curtly.

As soon as they left him alone, Ronnie could think of nothing else except the girl. Could it be possible that he was in love? The love-at-first-sight kind of thing? He didn’t doubt that it could happen but to others, not to him, given his last experience. He was way too practical for that kind of indulgence again.

Besides, he was already twenty-five and that girl must be no more than nineteen? Eighteen? Seventeen? It was hard to tell about girls these days. They dressed like they were older – heels, lipstick, plucked eyebrows…and yet, they always turned out to be younger. Only if he could speak with her once, hear her voice, and gauge the depth of her responses to him, there could be a possibility of guessing her age accurately and perhaps even getting over this obsession. She seemed so remote and unaffected, so serene and unattainable, conditions and qualities that women sorely lacked these days in Calcutta that it made her all the more desirable and exclusive.

Ronnie sighed and sat back on his chair. He heard the fan turn overhead like the wheel of time, and the clock tick like a bomb. He pushed back the file on the table and looked about him. His heart pounded and his palms sweated. It was a familiar sensation, something he had felt a year ago. But now? He couldn’t understand why he felt so anxious, guilty and distraught for wanting to meet that girl again. She was just a stranger who looked pretty.

Ronnie didn’t want to speak about it to these two typists, whom he didn’t trust at all. They could go to NMN and imply something about Ronnie’s character. They wouldn’t force Ronnie to confess about his obsessions or distractions, but these men on the periphery who had boring jobs and low pay or were unemployed altogether, always talked when they smoked. It was an aberration of nature, according to Ronnie, because most of these types of men he knew, including his father, hardly spoke much at other times, but give them a cigarette in their hand and a tumbler of tea in another, and they started to speak! It was like a truth serum or something, a cathartic cleansing of sorts perhaps, which forced the words to come out definitively like the puffs of smoke.

Ronnie trudged along like a tired shopper through the day, trying to negotiate the best deals for NMN over the phone with no help from the typist duo who took more breaks than before. He was relieved to be spared; neither of them asked him out again for tea. They didn’t return the pack of cigarettes either.

Since Ronnie had never worked for a trading company before, the idea of having made an unprofitable deal always stressed him out. Today was one of those days when he wasn’t sure if he had struck the right note with some buyers. The prices of tea were falling, which was always bad for business. A trader was planning to export tea to Sri Lanka and Pakistan. NMN wasn’t keen to entertain them unless Ronnie managed to get the desired price. The thought of speaking with NMN filled Ronnie with loathing.

NMN was his father’s ex-colleague from Dunlop, which had shut down some years ago. When NMN heard that his friend’s son was looking for a marketing job, he quickly made an offer. His company traded in different kinds of tea that were bought to Calcutta from Dooars and since it was a deliberately small operation, NMN could afford only a couple of hands in the Sales Office at Calcutta. Ronnie was an important part of the gang as NMN liked to say, but only because he was the only person with a recognized General Management certificate from a private institute. On several occasions, NMN had placed a call to Ronnie’s father and complained of inane things like Ronnie’s low energy, lack of interest in travel and poor negotiation skills. Unfortunately, Ronnie’s father was terrified, the kind of fear that only penury can bring and that which remains inconsolable, so he came down hard on his soft-spoken son with the power of parent.

Later that evening when Ronnie sat in the bus, he pined for the girl again. She was a student no doubt, and like his ex-fiancée, took an interest in nothing, except her own self. It was evident in the way she stood and waited for the bus, as if she didn’t care if it showed up or not. An invisible string attached to the old love – his ex-fiancée – tugged at his heart. Sharmistha had popped up like an unexpected hundred-rupee bill in his life when he least expected to fall in love. Just like this girl. But now it was nearly a year since that unfortunate incident. Sharmistha’s unforeseen rejection of him on her birthday party by the poolside in Calcutta Swimming Club in the presence of fifty odd people was a humungous disaster. Since that day, Ronnie had raised a cold wall of bricks between his heart and his thoughts of her.

Ronnie remembered the reason for the rejection very clearly, as if it had played out last week only. Sharmistha’s father, Deb Saha, who was a scion of a leading business family from Calcutta, an exporter of cotton garments to London and other parts of the world, had approved of their engagement earlier. Within a few months of that agreement, when he learned of Ronnie’s father’s misfortune – the older Roy had been laid off and all familial responsibilities now rested with the son – Deb Saha changed his mind. Sharmistha was stumped; soon she recovered from the shock of her father’s decision, took all matters of convincing him again into her own hands, and promised Ronnie an easy ride. She only had one condition which Ronnie didn’t comply with and so, theatrically and publicly, out of sheer rage, Sharmistha broke off the engagement and called it quits.

Ronnie didn’t miss her or want her back any more than he did before he met her in Presidency College; yet today, the bus-stop girl had brought back the bittersweet pain of a possible love that was lost forever. Would this sweet girl with that green tote bag ever ask him to leave his parents like Sharmistha had? He didn’t think so.

The next morning, Ronnie strode briskly. He held his head high. He hadn’t slept all night. When he rose in the morning, the solution presented itself to him like a vision in a dream. He knew what he had to do.

Ronnie would speak with the girl. That would put his obsession to rest. It could also perhaps open the door to a new love story, but that was another matter.

To Ronnie’s good fortune, there she was already, just before 8.00 AM, standing as erect and unconcerned as the iron pole of the bus-stop. Today she wore a bright red blouse teamed with a blue skirt; a white and pink floral scarf tied back her waist length hair in a most becoming manner and she wore make-up. Her lips were bright red and her cheeks were rouged. Ronnie imagined it was her birthday. The girl looked so fresh and eager without the books in the crook of her arm; her green tote bag was replaced with a sparkling white one. Obviously, new. She glowed under the morning sun like a newly bloomed flower. There was an untouchable quality about her today which Ronnie believed was called ‘happiness’.

The girl pushed up her sunglasses to the top of her head. His rising courage did a somersault and fell back into the pit of his stomach.

He wanted to say something quickly, aloud.

‘Is it your birthday?’

‘I noticed you didn’t come yesterday. All well?’

‘Are you a student?’

‘Do you live nearby?’

‘Is your name Maya or Diya?’

Ronnie found his tongue figuratively missing from his mouth when she looked at him. Her eyes looked right into his, through him, challenging and curious. For the first time, he saw them; kohl-lined, bright, dark brown, glittering with a hundred interesting questions. She smiled suddenly, unexpectedly, her cheeks dimpled and her mouth twitched.

Ronnie sucked in his breath. He gaped, forgetting to breathe or smile or say a word.

She blushed a little, her smile deepened like her dimples and then with a hint of a flirtatious shrug, she looked away. Ronnie stood beside her, staring, like the iron pole supporting the roof, unable to move, stuck and totally unattractive.

The bus rolled up at 8.15 AM and the girl marched ahead of him; without a backward glance, she got on the bus and took a seat by the window.

‘Are you coming or not?’ The bus conductor yelled out at him from the step.

Ronnie didn’t reply, his eyes that followed the girl now rested on her by the window. The conductor rang the bell impatiently and the bus started.

The girl looked at Ronnie, completely amused, as it were from her quizzical expression. Then, to Ronnie’s horror, she started to laugh at him, softly at first and then uncontrollably like she would if she watched a circus clown. The bus picked up speed and just as it passed Ronnie, the girl stuck out her hand impulsively and waved at him.

In that moment, Sharmistha’s dazzling smile floated out of a grey cloud from his memory bank, forcing him to acknowledge that he was still in love with his ex-fiancée who had never loved him because this bus-girl resembled her entirely. She was possibly as rash and impulsive, and amused by his muteness, his organized and boring life, as Sharmistha had been. Ronnie took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. His eyes started to grow moist with tears of realization. He looked around him, embarrassed and helpless.

A poor man came by with a gunny sack and began to scavenge for bits of paper from the pavement. After a moment, he became aware of Ronnie, frozen in his starched white shirt, spotless black paints and polished Bata shoes.

‘What’s the time, Sir?’

Ronnie surfaced from the turmoil in his heart, breathless, but determined. ‘Time to go home,’ he mumbled and turned away from the poor man. He started to walk back in the direction of his residence…faster and faster…the handle of his briefcase cutting into his hand as he gripped it tightly.

Everything faded away softly; the traffic sounds, the streets, the people and the present time.

A tramcar chugged up behind Ronnie as he strolled on to the tracks. It clanged its metallic bell furiously and hissed and screeched. Oblivious to the tramcar universe around him, Ronnie walked on and on, not hearing the sounds of approaching Death. He was immersed in the dead calm of a revelation so great that it had finally set him free. Ronnie was willing now to accept, once and for all concerned, that he had been wrong in desiring and pining away for the love of a stranger. Sharmistha had always been a stranger to him just as this bus-stop girl, and strangers couldn’t ever really love other strangers.

Not Without Conditions

A Love Story by Arpita Bhawal

The scheduled holidays were getting tiresome for Amaya when all she got from Hridhaan were thoughtfully purchased souvenirs from wherever he went with his family. She didn’t want to burst the bubble of gratitude or remembrance, which made these tiny pieces of metal or plaster or porcelain and at times large pieces of silk materialize in her life. The relationship, after all, was not without conditions.

Hridhaan was married, which was the biggest of all unstated conditions; so she had to be patient. His wife was a hard-nosed bitch and she had no beauty to boast of, so Amaya could never question Hridhaan’s suspect surrender to the coital routine. The third and final condition which was by far the most difficult to live with was Hridhaan’s daughter. She, Trina, always appeared to be the navigator of all such fantastic holidays that Hridhaan, according to his clarifications to Amaya, was forced to take. Amaya was curious at first about the sleeping arrangements among other things. It would be downright illogical for a couple to book two rooms during a family holiday, of course. Did his wife covertly express her wish to visit those places so that she could post them on Facebook?

How would Trina, who was just about ten, know of all those places on the map – Cambodia, Egypt, China, and Bali – that Amaya desperately wanted to visit someday with Hridhaan? Could she ever dismiss Trina’s sneaky roster of her favourite holiday destinations as a miraculous coincidence? Or was Hridhaan working too hard to portray the holidays as compulsory and life-changing to his office staff (of which she was a part) and his wife’s best friends from the Super Wives’ Club of Woodstock Villas where they lived?

Amaya didn’t remember the day or the month when she started to date Hridhaan. She also didn’t care to ask about the details or extent of his voluntary and somewhat energetic involvement in his married life with his wife. She knew all about the brown-eyed Trina who floated in and out of the office on an occasional school holiday. But the horror, the wife…she was always missing. Amaya hadn’t ever laid eyes on the elusive Latika, Hridhaan’s wife.

At the time, when she started dating Hridhaan, it appeared so insignificant, this little girl in a pink polka dress called Trina, who appeared to be as cute as a Barbie. There were no reservations in Amaya’s mind about the love Hridhaan had for his plastic daughter, because fathers loved their daughters, no matter how plain or boring they turned out to be. But Latika was rumoured to be manly, with a moustache and un-waxed arms. It annoyed her to imagine Hridhaan would continue to prolong his own agony despite living in a sham of a marriage, just to be a good man. It was ironical that he had spent a larger part of his life in France, mainly Paris, where he was surrounded by beautiful women.

Hridhaan never offered any explanations for anything during the first year of their affair. He didn’t exactly promise a life-long relationship or a love marriage, but nor did he dismiss Amaya’s day dreams of setting up their home together. Amaya’s restlessness grew bit by bit, soon after Trina’s ninth birthday, and then his subsequent, infamous, holiday to Angor Vat in Cambodia with his family broke the reservoirs of patience that she had solemnly held to her chest. Amaya outburst crackled with rage and humiliation. The practiced calm and courage flew out of the window and for the first time since her affair, she felt naked, used, abused and cheapened by her own hands, for not having given the whole married life routine of her man any attention or importance until now. She kept saying, “How could he do this to me?” over and over again to herself, her reflection in the mirror an alien image of humiliation and disbelief.

After two years, she was certain that her relationship with Hridhaan could never be without conditions, until and unless he found the courage or the will to walk out on Latika and ask for joint custody of Trina. Her illusions shattered like frail glass, dashed on a black marble floor, invisible yet crunching below her feet, mocking her mercilessly and reminding her that the fine education and high position she held in a top job didn’t compare with plain old common sense, like her grandmother’s, which she clearly lacked.

Amaya would have let the matters remain as they were until that fateful day when she walked into Hridhaan’s living room and found an electronic photo frame, shuffling happy pictures of his wife and daughter. There was a pan-faced hussy from work whom Amaya detested with good reason. She had accompanied them, no doubt! That was the Cambodia holiday that Hridhaan had painted as a stress-relieving act of a hardworking man, who was trying to keep his sanity intact in the face of his tyrant wife.

In his living room which was full of people, in the thick of Trina’s tenth birthday party, it was a horrific discovery. If she had been on the Titanic, she wouldn’t have been more alarmed or afraid. Hridhaan, in distinct contrast to her, looked blissed out in his party, flanked by fawning colleagues and their bored wives, cracking jokes which everyone laughed at; Amaya started to feel like a traitor, a disguised whore dressed to play house. She felt betrayed and foolish in her act of bravery; bravery at having been tolerant of all the three conditions that ruled her relationship, which could for societal and decent reasons, not be given an acceptable ever. Certainly, she didn’t dare call it Love. For Hridhaan’s sake.

The meltdown that followed Trina’s affluent birthday bash came fast and furiously with accusations hurled by her at a meek and self-suffering Hridhaan. He apologized, expressed anguish more than shame she thought, at having been caught red-handed. Amaya believed that it would now get fixed for good, because she threatened to walk out on him. But that impression which was as comforting as her old nightdress, lasted only until the next holiday that Hridhaan took with his family.

This time, the reason was different. It started out as a working trip to Hong Kong which Hridhaan was scheduled to make, but ended up being Trina’s desire to see Disneyland. Not until Hridhaan had left her to wallow in a sea of pity that would eventually turn into her peril, did Amaya have the courage to look at all the souvenirs that adorned her glass display cupboard in the living room. Then there was that beautiful Georgette scarf that Hridhaan had brought for her from Thailand, which now hung from a hanger in her wardrobe.

Amaya imagined the scarf around her neck. She was repulsed by the beauty of the gift, the thoughtfulness with which he may have selected the colour, admired the artistic motifs of landscape and exotic women on it, and worse, tried to imagine her wearing it. She felt guilty about hating Hridhaan for filling her home with such proclamations of admiration and Love; she forced herself to believe that these were nothing, but mere elements from those carefully planned and scheduled family holidays that stole her sanity. And yet, a small inner voice screamed in the hollow shell of her heart…wouldn’t it be deemed insane to condone a lover’s indiscretions with his legally wedded wife?

How was one to react to such remembrances of a lover that were born of deceit for one and appreciation of another? Amaya was so angry after Hridhaan’s Hong Kong trip that for a long while, she stashed away the scarf from obvious view in the wardrobe drawer and hoped it would crumble to dust and vanish someday.

Amaya’s confusion was reaching its penultimate peak in her daily life. On most days, she forgave herself for being amoral and coveting another woman’s husband. Then there were days when she was seething with discontent at having been dealt an unfair hand by God.

The unspoken conditions had always been there in the topography of their affair – infallible conditions nurtured by the living truth of a marriage. Each of those three conditions had manifested into incidents and events that she feared were designed to take Hridhaan farther away from her than he already was, ensconced in his villa at Woodstock with all those ever-changing pictures of his real life in that electronic frame, and all of which were acknowledged and viewed by the sea of people who visited them. Endorsement of what really exists?

It seemed, the more Amaya tried to put the pictures and the holidays out of her mind in an effort to remain loving and centred towards Hridhaan, the worse her disgust became towards those souvenirs he had given her.

A row of spoons with logos, motifs and names from a variety of countries stood upright; golden, silver, shining and bold, against the teak back of the cupboard. Hridhaan’s quiet observance of her likes and dislikes annoyed her now. The way he had gone about selecting such appropriate gifts for Amaya made her now suspect his motives about their love affair. She lay awake on those nights of Hridhaan’s family holidays thinking of what they were doing – Latika with her prickly, sunburned, hairy, skin and cunning eyes, and Trina with her shrill voice and short legs. Were Hridhaan and Latika making up the wide chasm that he insisted they had between them with wine and sex? Or were they using Trina as a cushion to soften the verbose blows between dinners and shopping sprees?

Amaya imagined Trina was the primary culprit, twisting her father around her little brown finger like cute children always manage to do – first instill pity, then deep love into the parent’s unsuspecting heart as a penance for creating them without Love or Desire. Amaya couldn’t understand the need for the fake family routine as everything that she knew about Hridhaan’s celluloid marriage appeared to be the exact opposite of satisfaction or happiness. Yet, there he was, off again on another ‘sudden’ jaunt with Trina to Egypt.

“Is your wife going with you?” she asked.

He turned on her with burning eyes. “What kind of a question is that? Who would care for Trina? I can’t look after her.”

Amaya wasn’t one to back down so she replied, “You, of course, especially since your daughter doesn’t care much about her mother. That’s what you told me.”

“How can you say such things?” Hridhaan could have burst a blood vessel right then if his cell phone hadn’t rung.

Amaya was stunned with the simplicity of it all in Hridhaan’s view. Her Love now was clearly nothing more elaborate than an affair of the heart that Hridhaan enjoyed, but didn’t want to give any more to it than he already had, a momentary nod from time to time, limited naturally by the short spans of availability between multitudinous commitments. Amaya prided herself in unconditional Love and the practice of following her heart, but lately it was beginning to turn into a chaotic series of misguided self-beliefs that she believed would never pass the test of loyalty and commitment. Latika would win. That thought filled her with an all-consuming hate.

Amaya was also terrified of the future, where there would be more unscheduled vacations, coinciding with Trina’s whims and fancies and regular school holidays, and someday, Hridhaan would get tired of trying to keep up and drop that whole ‘I miss you’ routine starting with the visits. Those lovely notes he mailed her from exotic locales would definitely become scarce. The emails with long proclamations of Love, typed hastily on his Blackberry from airports, would also eventually stop one day, and the virtual link to dream destinations would naturally cease. Amaya recalled the previous year, December, when Hridhaan had gone on that historic, annual, whole-family-holiday with twenty members (his wife’s parents, sister’s family, his parents, cousins, aunts and uncles).

Hridhaan had said that in the continuous act of coming together perennially: boarding together, checking in together, sightseeing together, dining together and shopping together (with ten adults and ten children), he hadn’t had a moment’s solitude to write to her, but he had missed her. Amaya was muted by the truth of his statement, watching the scene unfold in her mind’s eye as he spoke earnestly. Proof of his dedication lay in front of her on the coffee-table: several souvenirs bearing first-hand testimony of his constant Love. A silk purse, a fake gold key chain and a sheer wrap…all again so perfect and personal to her taste.

Often Amaya wondered what would happen if those three conditions vanished from her life. She didn’t imagine that they would overnight, but without warning, what if they did one day? And one day, it did.

When Hridhaan said, ‘I can’t do it anymore’ and walked out of the door, Amaya’s world crashed at her feet. She had stood where he left her for a long while before she started to cry. By then she had no doubt that he had chosen others over her. Latika and Trina. She had planned for every contingency with Hridhaan, but not this one. The abrupt closure from his side left her with a vacuum so great that she could hear her heart thumping with fear for days. That was the only proof of her life. The other was the elaborate body of souvenirs that she dusted and rearranged regularly with unchanging attention.

The first year got spent on tears: angry tears, hopeful tears and then resigned tears. By the end of the excruciating period of loss, the term where there wasn’t any hope left in her life except the natural one (which dictated that she had to live, and thus move on with her life), she noticed the cupboard full of souvenirs one more. The first thought was to sell them online at a used-goods auction site. For that a list had to be compiled and put up with adequate pricing. But, if she really wanted that to happen, she had to see what she could sell.

At first it was hard to look at the souvenirs. They were reminiscent of the conditions that had kept her from liking them or observing them closely earlier. Amaya began to feel bereft at the thought of an empty cupboard in the future. There were more vacant spaces, which could have been filled with more souvenirs. She hadn’t realized the significance of any of those items until then. They had filled the large hole of anonymity in her relationship. They showed that she had existed for Hridhaan at all times.

For the first time, Amaya felt a strange connection to them – as if they had been created to embark on this magical journey of self-discovery with her. The souvenirs glowed with pride and touched her with gratitude for having embraced them under the adverse conditions she had lived through.

Amaya’s eyes filled with tears as she began to mentally make a note of the description she would put for each one of them on the online auction site. She began to touch them tenderly, afraid to destroy the Love energy they possessed. They had arrived to teach her about Love, an unconditional, unselfish Love that Hridhaan said she possessed for him. Gifting her souvenirs was perhaps his only way of expressing his guilt and helplessness, but even much more than that, his Love for her.

Then it struck her like a ray of heavenly light: For the sake of her lost love, she would have to keep these souvenirs forever. Hridhaan was a stranger now, but not these souvenirs. They were still standing strong as symbols of their eternal Love that was so easily swept away in the face of a togetherness, a convenience called marriage.

Amaya knew she had to honor the souvenirs. And for once, there were no conditions attached.

Be A Tall Tree

be-tall-tree-stand-within-yourselfThe New Year began with a bang.  Since I didn’t bring it in with pink champagne or a string of ‘Page 3’ parties or nuzzling at a man’s neck, one could say I haven’t yet woken up to the fact that it is a new year – 2012.  As if it was not morbid enough for me to lose my pet, Ginger, on January 5, I hear now that we all must prepare for the rightful end of our world on December 2012.

So, what does that mean?  Should we buckle up and sashay down the path of our dreams and ambitions, aim for that high-paying job, and continue to hold grudges against traitor friends?  Or should we quietly retire with whatever savings we have (strictly cash!) to the Himalayas?

But hasn’t the world ended several times for many of us when we have lost our lovers, jobs, parents, partners, siblings, pets, dreams and dignity?  In that measure, if Mother Earth wants to explode by December, we can’t really fault that.  We might as well put that thought aside until December 1, and live the way we want to, because by suddenly altering our natures or desperately seeking a role model in order to redeem ourselves over the next 11-odd months is a sheer waste of time.

To stay alive, we just need to live.  Too simple?  Not really.  There are many ways to stay alive.  New Year resolutions is a great and time tested way – that is, if you can focus on following them for a month or two, and then not.  That will sort of fill you with guilt and all sorts of other useless emotions, guaranteed to remind you that you are human, and alive.

The other way, the bar-headed geese’s way, is worth considering.  Bar-headed geese are one of God’s most special creations.  Lily Whiteman writes in Audubon Birds about the impossibly daunting landscape where these surreal creatures survive.  As Lily says, imagine this: At 29, 028 feet, where the tallest peak Mount Everest reigns supreme, oxygen is scare (about a third of that available at sea level), and life is rare.  Mount Everest is tall enough to poke into the ‘jet stream’ – which is a high-altitude river of wind that blows at speeds of more than 200 miles an hour.

If we were at that height, our exposed flesh would freeze instantly.  Kerosene can’t burn here, helicopters can’t fly here.  Yet, flocks of bar-headed geese – the world’s highest altitude migrants – fly from their winter feeding grounds in the lowlands of India through the Himalayan Range, directly above Everest, on their way to the nesting grounds in Tibet.  Then, every fall, these magnificently brave birds retrace their route to India.  What’s more, it is believed that with just a little help from the tailwinds, they may be able to cover the one-way trip – more than 1,000 miles – in a single day.  Wow!  If a 5-pounds, 2-feet-high bird with the ability to fly over 50 miles an hour can show that kind of spunk, we don’t need to wait for December 2012 to justify our lack of life or ‘flight’ this year.

The bar-headed geese’s awesome engineering defies logic, but then, so does our existence.  We don’t do much to keep our world alive.  Our natural instincts have been practically scraped off our souls through the years, and our intrinsic oneness with nature leaves us bashful at best.  Only when our materialistic existence is threatened by a trauma or loss, or if we perceive that our life with all its New Year resolutions continues to remain imperfect, we worry about other ‘bigger ideas’ like World Hunger, Doomsday, and Big Boss Season 5 being rigged.

So, here’s to 2012, whether it is ending or not with a cosmic bang, live the high life. Take flight!

Dazed And Confused In Search of Our Dreams

dazed-and-confusedTake a page out of your Life’s book today. Is it legitimate? Or are you aping a journey that is based on the reality or illusion (trust me, it could be either) of another person’s whom you envy or admire? Sometimes we confuse our deepest desires and electric dreams with someone else’s, because we can’t really see ourselves being original and unique.

We want their fame and glory, their money and power, if possible, their bodies and souls. Take Dirty Picture — it set tongues wagging and hearts pounding. People are outraged, seduced, stumped and awed by the sensuality of the idea of a movie which is so bold and raw. Why are we talking about this? Because Milan Lutheria, the director, had the audacity to trust his own journey leaving half of Bollywood to slap their foreheads. “Sheesh! Why didn’t we think of that one?”

Originality does not necessarily mean you have to try and fit into your teenage daughter’s clothes even if you feel young at heart; it does not permit that you go to work looking like a skunk either, without make-up and slippers, because you think you look cool; and if you are a man, it does not warrant that you buy a Harley Davidson at 57 out of your retirement fund because that’s what successful men do.

English hypnotist and self-improvement author, Paul McKenna says, “The map is not the territory”. What he means is that we interpret situations based on what we feel and whom we are at that point of time. So how we interpret things affect our state of mind, expressions and behaviors. It keeps us away from being true to our most important dreams and realizing our potential.

If you are feeling ‘old’ or ‘unattractive’ or like a ‘loser’ lately, stop and think. Maybe you are vaulting down the road with someone else’s illustrious and affluent map, without having that person’s originality, intellect or talent. How can you succeed while trying to imitate someone else’s journey? Try to take your own path to success. If you don’t know the path yet, create one. The territory lays ahead – your territory – and you can make up the map as you go along.

Delhi’s Belly

India-Gate-DelhiThere’s something about New Delhi.

Besides the India Gate and the Red Fort, the greedy shopping experiences and gastronomic delights, there is something else: Prized Arrogance (PA). So, what is it about the capital city of India with its PA that awes and repels us in equal measure? For some, it is the lewd Punjabi aggression. For others, it is the scary tales of abusing women. For me, it is the fascinating greenery amidst which No.10 Racecourse Road turns its nose at the ghettos of Purani Dilli (Old Delhi).

For many of my southern friends, Delhi is about the so-called Prima Donnas of South-Ex, who may very well become totally irrelevant once they open their mouths to speak. Evidence of over-confidence without substance, perhaps – or simply, PA at its best!

Yet, PA or not, in winter, if you happen to be in Delhi, you are likely to be charmed. The crisp cold air is complemented by smartly dressed Delhites in their leather jackets, knee high boots and woolen berets. Very European! While you are dwelling on that pretty picture, throw in a driver who doubles up as a tour guide, giving a running commentary in Hindi. But, despite everything, the PA never really leaves the scene – and you can’t really ignore it.

Imagine this: We are returning to the hotel after a long day of meetings. The luxurious homeliness of The Lalit at Connaught Place beckons. All we’d like to do is really eat and sleep – and prepare for another long day of more meetings. Wazir Singh, our reluctant driver, is quiet, in keeping with our low energy levels. As we halt a few meters short of one of the traffic junctions, one of the many cars itching to get going, a white Maruti Swift on our left side wakes up. The car door opens, and a tall, fair, handsome man with spiky hair decides to step out. No harm done really, except his car’s door blatantly bangs against ours. As if for effect, he tests how far the door can open again, banging our car again, before he steps out.

Outraged, my colleague demands to know why the man was behaving this way. Wazir Singh gives the door-banger an equally outraged look, but remains mute. I chip in softly, saying the man was indeed shameless and must be told to behave, and also possibly taught not to step out between traffic lanes. Wazir Singh still remains silent. The door-banger lights a cigarette which he takes out of the boot of the Swift, and then he readies to hop back again into his car. While getting in, he opens his car door again, wide and hard, banging again against our car. Wazir Singh apparently has had enough this time, so he rolls down the window pane and says to the man: “Please watch out for the door.”

The man hurls the choicest of abuses and then, for effect, again bangs the car door against our Innova. The traffic lights turn to green and he speeds away. Wazir Singh sighs and says, “People are like this only in Delhi.”

For Better Or For Worse

Better-Or-For-WorseIs there no way one can find an ideal life partner these days by being simply being themselves?

Irrespective of the mushrooming matrimonial sites, singlehood like motherhood and fatherhood seems to be eluding the upwardly mobile men and women. We may have become too educated for our own good, and that has changed the rules of the game.

It is no longer about a steady income (contributed by the man) and multi-tasking abilities (expected from the woman). Marriage by the rules of our forefathers is now extinct. Men are seeking women ten years older than themselves, and women are looking for men who have more than incomes. Strangely, during the search process, women come out looking stranger than fiction, because they dare to be honest about their goals and dreams. The fastest way to lose a prospective groom online is to tell him the true story. Perhaps women need to focus only on their culinary skills in the brief description of themselves that matrimonial sites encourage. Men on the other hand, downplay their affluence to test the women. “Ah, let us see if she’s after my money or she really likes me.” Seriously? Unfortunately, yes.

Imagine going through your whole life without finding that special someone – and then naively believing that ‘The One’ like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix (my favorite, really) is tucked in somewhere between the pages of a matrimonial site. Imagine believing that every word said and exchanged online with a complete stranger is all true, without having conversed or met the person in question. Also, while surfing through the ocean of so-called ‘great catches’ you are likely to find, profiles of men are blatantly claiming they are “separated” or “in the process of divorce”…which means…what? Are they emotionally available for another marriage when they haven’t even finished the first one? Well, your guess is as good as anyone else’s.

So, where does that leave the quest for that elusive soul mate via the tantalizing world of matrimonial sites? Increasingly, statistics displayed on matrimonial sites alarm prospects of either gender when it screams, “More than 10,000 new people register every day”. If only choosing a partner online could be as easy as shopping for a dress or an accessory on an online store where everything was clearly mandated: SX, S, M, L, XL, XXL? Black, red, green, white?

Agreed, that is wild thought and possibly not practical, but it is certainly not wilder than what happened to a friend of mine (let’s call her Gina). Some years ago, Gina wanted to marry an American-Indian-Citizen (let’s call him Robert), whom she had met on one of the matrimonial websites. The romance progressed well for several months – declarations of love and parcels between continents were exchanged.

Then Gina went to California on a paid holiday by Robert to meet with his family. Imagine her horror when Robert suggested she join the ‘family bath’ on the second day of her visit. A bit perplexed, Gina asked what he meant. Robert explained (without batting an eyelid) that his family members bathed together every day in a common bathroom ever since he could remember. Needless to say, Gina fled back to Mumbai.

Where does this leave the hopeful, unwed, millions then? Well, right at the beginning. Online or offline, the basis of an intended life-long relationship cannot be intrigue or politeness. The sooner the real truth is revealed, the better it is for both parties because the seekers do not have the time to assess and romance for years before they marry. Online technology could be used to speed up the process, but it can’t replace the ‘right to information’.

So, don’t give up yet. The key to finding your soul mate, irrespective of the mode of search, is awfully simple: Just keep it honest.

Incredibly Invincible

Salman-RushieThere is something to be said about the written word. Apologies, letters, books or poetry. Once they are written and shared, they are no longer yours. They give new meaning to the critical mass theory. They refuse to die, staying alive in the minds and hearts of those who had the good fortune of chancing upon them. I can’t help but jump on to India Inc. Bandwagon where Salman Rushdie, author par excellence, aided by the erudite Hari Kunzru, and at least 25 million Indians across India, are today holding up the national flag in support of the written word.

So, the point of all the brouhaha over the-book-that-shall-not-be-named is that it raises a bunch of succulent questions that are not just palatable to politicians and activists alike, it is also relevant to ordinary mortals. In my world view, all the sentimental and outrage kind of questions point to one thing (not the same old ‘freedom of speech for writers’ thing) that is: The Indefatigable Point of Invincibility.

There are many ways to achieve invincibility, I am sure. My Chemistry teacher, Mrs. Matthews, made herself invincible by terrorizing us even before she actually stepped into the classroom. We waited for the inevitable decimation by her laser sharp tongue and encyclopedic mind every other day as we struggled to rattle off Chemistry formulas before saying ‘Good Morning’.

Coming back to my first love, the written word, it is truly the way to gain eyeballs, money, fame, and if you are lucky, invitations to literary festivals. But the only pre-condition to gaining invincibility for your work is that you must not make a big deal of it, but let others take it up and do what they will. Of course, your perspectives, feelings, opinions have to challenge the status-quo of Life. So, if it is about love or hate, sex or taboo, religion or politics, what you write with your alternate perspective could be the next target.

Also, if you want to take the international fraternity’s attention away from our national problems of corruption, polls and scams aside, it is perfect to find authors who presented these signs of invincibility decades ago. Many pundits have nodded their heads and said, “Is it worth the angst, the alienation, and the obvious defamation worldwide for a few words which the majority people on this planet will never read or understand?” That is a question that we have to ask ourselves, not political leaders, paid mobs or pundits. If words can stir up “India Spring”, thanks to the-book-that-shall-not-be-named, then let us hope that Harry Potter is preparing a new magic spell to increase our invincibility and decrease intolerance.

 

Of Bengalis And Brotherhood

Goddess DurgaIt is hard to be a Bengali during Durga Puja if like me one has left the warm cockles of Bengal’s heart 18 years ago.  Come Durga Puja, and one is forced to reincarnate one’s universally appealing persona into native Bengali’s.  Like Tenualosa Ilisha (Elish Fish), the stalwarts of Bengal expect the natives to abandon the sea of anonymity (meaning other States of residence), swim upstream to spawn the eggs of Bengali Brotherhood in Kolkata, and partake of the ‘real’ thing…resplendent pandals, goddesses, gluttony, and including strangers.

Outside Bengal, it is a Herculean task.  If you must imprint these un-replicable experiences, then start early.  Seek out all the Bengalis in your neighborhood; count the number of Chatterjees, Deys and Gangulis in your office; and, if you are the sort to take it a bit far, reconnect with estranged friends (non-Bengalis) who have friends (Bengalis) affiliated to one of the few Bengali clubs or committees in the city.  However, your diverse attempts to swim upstream and regain your ‘Bengaliness’ could leave you exhausted.

To retain visibility like a fish out of water, float between Indira Park, Keyes High School, Banjara Hills and Kalibari in your finery at Hyderabad. Make a fat donation to the biggest samiti. Use colloquial phrases – “Dada, ektoo jaagaa deben?”  meaning “Sir, could you give me some space?” Greet grim Bengali brothers and sisters. You want to be ‘one’ with the community. Still, you go unnoticed, unappreciated and unanswered.  Self-doubts…Is this a Chinese New Year celebration and am I deciphering the riddles on lanterns in Beijing?

Suddenly, after hours in the cue for a splattering of afternoon bhog, an epiphany occurs.  Surprise, surprise! Every Bengali becomes an ‘outsider’ in local Bengali communities when out of Bengal. It is Bijoya Dashami.  Good triumphs over evil?  Involuntarily, you peer into the mirror.  At least, you still resemble an arty Bengali.

To Be Or Not To Be

Tree on Ellis IslandEver since Shakespeare penned the fatal words, “To be, or not to be…” the majority of Earth’s citizens have been haunted by them. Life is no longer an experience to be lived — it is a potpourri of questions that need to be answered now. Will Obama win the elections? Will I lose weight before my next birthday? Will my ex call me? Will Oprah visit the Bachchans next year? Will my next book merit a fatwa? Do these questions form the basis of our moral and intellectual stimulation and growth today other than books, films, people, sex and religion? Now that is another darned question.

Do we really need to know everything about everything, all the time? Even our good old Earth, which breathes the uncertain air of its own polluted existence doesn’t know if we are going to continue loading it with more chaos or love. And, much as we would like to believe, the Universe for sure doesn’t have definitive plans to keep all the planets in the same line-up as we discovered decades ago from the awesome picture of the Solar System in our science books.

Do we have to be certain about things or people, else die? Naively, we actually believe we can find bliss if we get answers to every single thing that bothers us. This whole need of wanting to find life-settling answers began before we discovered the steam engine, computer, World Wide Web, and iCloud. Our forefathers began to equate answers with IQ. Over time, IQ got replaced by a hunger for information which could wield great power aka Julian Assange.

In this glorious tech age, our pathological need for answers is confused with our love for Google. We all love Google because we would certainly die without having the option of randomly typing words into the search box to find out about stuff – more answers!

But, mostly, the stuff is just stuff, and of no further value than the random reference material from our college days. We can’t even accept our normal human train of thoughts, unsteady emotions, natural reactions, actions and stimuli without analyzing them to death with our buddy, Google. Everything we do — believing, thinking, cheating, working, feeling, eating, loving, hating, avoiding, building, hyperventilating or even writing — seems to be subject to what Google’s content managers have to create about our unique lives’ unique experiences.

By now, the myriad follies of our yesteryear should have already taught us that uncertainty is the only certainty and, answers aren’t ‘people’. It is okay to accept, that we DON’T know. We can all take a deep breath and shift the focus from our current national tragedy, starring Salman Rushdie and the-book-that-shall-not-be-named, to our inner selves. We can even group-hug for unconsciously embracing uncertainty every morning when we step out of our homes in a blissful state of mind. Then, we can blow a kiss to our illogically ‘certain’ instinct, which keeps us alive through the day, so that we can watch our favorite TV show.

And when it boils down to the status of our current love affair, giving rise to the question, “To be or not to be,” I would say, just let it be.