Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Deccan Queen

Life in Bombay was hard and who would know it better than him, having spent each night on a different footpath. When it rained, it usually got better, at least pandu on his midnight beat wouldn't bother to evict him from the park bench that was his for the night. The worst of course came around Diwali time, when some rascal would invariably plant a dada bomb under his bench. But overall he was happy with life. He would often look at the match-box apartments all around him and wonder how people could stand to live in the same place for more than a day. Other times, he would be found on marine-drive, just after sunset. Oblivious to all around him, he'd be lost in the riddle he'd invented for himself, namely, what would happen if the colours blue and green were swapped with each other. Green ocean, blue trees. And peacocks only mildly confused. And that's when it hit him, that he should visit the peacock bay in Pune. Granted it was inside the campus of the national defence academy, but the universe always seemed to conspire favourably in his wild peacock chases. Visions of dancing peacocks he could control no longer and before he knew it, he had made his way to VT station and into the general compartment of the Deccan Queen where no ticket collector dare ventured. Besides, he didn't have a rupee on him, and so the thought of buying a ticket never crossed his mind.

It was soon time for the Deccan Queen to begin its journey to Pune. The motions had to be gone through as they found their way to his seat. A warm tiffin box silently exchanges hands. One last embrace and wet cheeks touch. Shifty eyes meet, and avert as the engine sounds the departure whistle. She doesn't look back while walking slowly down the platform. The train pulls out and the rain plitter-platters on the roof, little rivulets of water rush down the window in ever changing paths, scattering the city lights as they flow. Fascinating, till they disappear into the gutter below. The inexplicable, yet inevitable had happened and emptiness lay ahead. Soon, the train began pulling into the hills and disappeared into the dark tunnels. He sat in the train door with his legs dangling carelessly outside. A homeless man lay asleep on the floor next to him. United by the rhythms of the train, they were together in solitude.

He thought his mind was going to explode from the sheer weight of memory. Memories of a past that held in its grip the dream of a future without fear, but was not to be. Memories of a love, that was no more. That night in the forest. The woods resounding with the piercing sound of the bansuri. Suddenly all around him lose the power of speech. Stand still, and play their parts mute. He shrieks into the pitch dark sky, turning to her for an answer that she herself doesn't know: Why? Why, he screams, when I can be all you want? He, who has long lost a measure of himself. She, who doesn't know what she wants, but knows who she doesn't. What can be worse, than to be denied resolution? Not by design, but by inability. Life's bitter ironies; she who had brought out the softest in him also inflicted the maximum cruelty, leaving a large gaping wound.

Hearing his shriek, the homeless fellow woke up with a start, and the two who were united in solitude not too long ago, were now one in alarm. His pleasant peacock filled dreams were suddenly cut short by this young boy, who, it seemed, wanted to be all that somebody else, a girl no doubt, wanted. How absurd, he thought. Well, only one way to nip this absurdity in its bud: out came the shoe whose sole had a hole and down it came, whack!, on the head of the boy with a hole in his soul. "You rich people never satisfied go home to mummy and let me sleep in peace!" It is often thought that such moments are ripe for epiphanies. What is not so well known, is that our epiphanies are often reflections of what lies beneath the veneer of our consciousness. And so, our hole-in-the-soul boy whose vision was clouded by the black smoke of immense self-obsession invented an epiphany that only somebody wallowing in self-pity could, that of jumping off the train to end it all. With tears streaming down his cheeks, he summoned up the courage to stand up at the bogey door and face the darkness that was rushing past. Liberation, any moment now! And that's when the grinding sound of train-wheels coming to an untimely halt shattered the darkness.

It was just his rotten luck to be thwarted, for somebody had pulled the chain just as the train was nearing Khandala station! With a heavy feeling, he got down from the bogey and walked up to the platform and found his way to the nearest tea stall. Maybe the hot tea will clear up his head, he thought. With the steaming cup in hand, he sat down on the empty seat on the bench behind the tea stall and was soon lost in reverie. It took him a while to realise that the girl sitting next to him was sobbing. And the sadhu sitting next to her seemed to be deep in meditation. And sitting next to the sadhu was the same bum who had whacked him on the head. He quickly averted his gaze from the bum, lest he strike again. How incredible, he thought, the bench was verily a microcosm for the world itself!

The girl had clearly been crying for a while, for the kajal around her eyes had been smudged to the point where she could pass of as a Gothic rock-star. Maybe she had also been planning to jump off the train? He offered her his handkerchief without a word and she was only too glad to have it. He waited for her to dry her eyes (and ruin his kerchief). "I have just run away from home." So she wasn't even on the train. Maybe she misses mummy already. Shh, don't say it out loud, the bum is sitting not too far off. "Nobody understands me at home. They all want me to be something else. Why can't I just be me?" The bum who had been listening to all of this burst out laughing and nearly fell off the bench. Having caught the undivided attention of the others on the bench (and a now-startled dog that was sleeping under the bench) on account of his little antic, he exclaimed "He wants to be somebody else and she wants to be herself. What's more, you both seem equally miserable!" Turning to the sadhu,
"O learned sage of the Sahyadaris
won't you explain these dichotomies?"

The sadhu appeared to reflect for a while.
"It is through contact with the six senses that is born desire, repulsion and subsequent attachment."
"The mind, of course! You could be 'watching' something or 'listening' to someone without anything registering. The faculty of the mind is involved, be it through a combination of memory, cognition or intelligence, in interpreting the various inputs that come by way of the sense organs."
"Haha, if that is so, then just by living in this world, we are bound to be attached to it, in some way or the other!"
"Clever, my friend. While it may seem that way at first, it might be possible to prevent attachment by being aware of the mind in its quest for identity."
"What's wrong with having a sense of identity?"
"Like with most things, there is nothing inherently right or wrong in possessing a sense of identity. I merely made a statement of fact, that the mind tends to be in a perpetual quest for identity and meaning. Astitva aur arth. Take our two companions this evening, for instance. Isn't their state of despair on account of a veiled quest for identity? Both want to be something. What, isn't very important. What is common, is the desire for an identity that seems genuine. And you can see where it has brought them."

By this time, hole-in-the-soul had earphones plugged in, and kajal-smudge had fished out her Ayn Rand novel. "Well?" asked the sadhu. Hole-in-the-sole got up, finished his last gulp of tea, and as he began to walk back to the train, said "Well, I am off to find them peacocks. As for what you just said, its probably best to quote Confucius;
Not teach ripe person: waste of person
Teach not ripe person: waste of words."

[Inspired by some, whose paths crossed. And one Kirli.]

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Poet

So poet, you think you're a mystic?
With oars of words and boats of paper
you navigate the gentle waters
churning them this way and that

But deep waters run silent and
I wonder if your oars can reach
the depths that a tiny pebble does

But who am I to say,
for Laozi says it better
Those who know do not say,
those who say do not know.

[Update: Also published in the Montreal Serai.]

Sunday, August 16, 2009


Imagine no possessions,
its easy if you have a grand piano
Imagine no attachments,
its easy if you have no one.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Ode to a parlour

Privy I am to secrets many
given succour to travellers weary,
comfort to couples horny,
and in my bosom heavy
soaked tears plenty,
in my embrace come equally
rear-ends ugly and pretty,
Nay, not cupid, nor clergy
merely the humble guest-room bed.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Who's bad

Its Paul, said Ma as the telephone's ring broke the monotony of the dreary afternoon. I had been staring at my geography homework for a while now, trying to draw India's map from memory. What a pointless exercise, I grumbled to Ma. Its not like I'm going to be invited to a round table with Mountbatten, Nehru and Jinnah to redraw the map of the subcontinent. Blank stare. If an esoteric skill such as map drawing from memory gives one extra marks on the unit test, it is good enough reason to learn, nay master, that skill. With this premise as the centre piece of her philosophy towards education, I, the overachieving only-child of my middle-class parents had reached sixth standard, effortlessly blowing away any competition with a nonchalance that had made me the apotheosis of all the school teachers.

Paul on the other hand, could care less about such mundane things as academics and school debates. Tall, dark and mischievous, he was easily the coolest person to be seen with, much to Ma's consternation. Baba I tell you, he's not good influence. I'd nod obediently, while wondering about the next dose of enlightenment coming my way thanks to the guru. Paul was single-handedly responsible for raising the level of conciousness among the members of our cricket club. After all, he had explained, in no uncertain terms, what was really implied in the innocuously titled chapter in our science textbook "Life Processes - Part 2". Part one was about birds and bees, so take a wild guess about part two. Of course, when you are twelve, he-who-reveals-the-secret-of-life is the undisputed leader of the gang. And so, the leader's approval of anything was like the Midas touch, it was instantly transformed into the cool and desirable.

Imagine my immense sense of satisfaction when Paul held up my latest acquisition, the cassette cover of Michael Jackson's album "Bad" and congratulated me on my fine taste. Acquiring the cassette was no trivial task. It required convincing father that I really needed it, in spite of his gruff declarations that one couldn't make out if "its" voice was male or female. While I was still contemplating my next move, one of his music videos appeared on MTV and much to my horror, involved one of his crotch-grabbing dance-moves. Instant failure, I figured, as I drowned my face behind my hands. With an air of resignation I went to bed. But as they say, its always good to demolish one's expectations, for after that, there is only one way: up. Lo and behold, the next morning as Ma was fixing my school uniform, she placed in a matter-of-factly manner, a fifty rupee note in my pocket. Go buy your cassette. Aha, sweet victory!

In any case, Paul sounded serious on the phone. I was to meet him by the library as soon as I could. I grabbed my cricket bat and dashed out. It was nearly five and time for cricket anyway. Cricket was always a safe excuse, while telling Ma that I was meeting Paul usually involved a few tedious questions. And so, two boys and a cricket bat are poring over the newspaper and only one has a clue as to what was happening. Soon, it was clear. MJ was accused of child-abuse. I had no idea what those two words in conjunction meant. But seeing Paul's expressions, I gathered it was something grave. Tricksters, out for cheap publicity, he declared. I agreed. Most unfair. Not surprisingly, Dad got wind of this as well which led him to state emphatically at the dinner table: I knew there was something fishy about "it".

Be that as it may, Paul and I decided that it was futile to spend any time reading about the scam that was being perpetrated against our hero and just to be safe, moved our MJ fan network underground. A single ring on the telephone meant that a MJ video was on the telly. We watched his videos repeatedly, till we were comfortable with our rendition of his famous moonwalk (which was a big hit at any dance party!). Dad could never understand our fascination with the man. To me, the magic of MJ wasn't just about his music. Hell, I couldn't even decipher most of his lyrics, what with his heavily accented American English. But more than just his catchy, foot-tapping tunes, the real treat was to see his extravagant videos, his awesome screen and stage presence and his outlandish dance moves: one moment he is gyrating like John Travolta, by the next breath he is gesturing like Audrey Hepburn and finally he has launched into a bizzarre anatomy-defying moon walk. You would be forgiven for forgetting to breathe. And it was in this defiant, genre-crossing, supremely energetic dance, that we saw mirrored our own sense of teenage rebellion.

Friday, June 05, 2009


One must be careful of words. Imprecise creatures they are, and often do they convey a false sense of agreement with intent and experience. If we willing to scrape below the surface, what will we get when the meaning of "void" is probed? At a first, obvious level, it points to the absence of some physical entity, be it an interstitial defect in a crystal, the loss of some item or the death of a living being. Of course, the deeper the personal connection with the entity, the more acute the perception of the void. It seems ironic; void, a synonym for something that isn't, needs for its meaning, the a-priori existence of something that was (for instance, would you feel a void at the passing of a person who you didn't know existed?). At this point, we're in a fix. If we suspect that there is any deeper meaning to void-ness, we will have to abandon the physical domain. No sooner have we done this, we are clueless in a pathless, abstract, Platonic world. So, is our quest entirely hopeless? Probably, but here is an illuminating analogy nonetheless. If we are to believe Hubble and our present knowledge of the origin and expansion of the universe, all of what we know exists was a single point at the very beginning of the creation of the universe. That single point, infinitely small and weightless "contained" all of existence (that was yet to "be"). Shunya or zero, is also a concept that has literally no measure (yes, one does run into the problem of defining something in terms of itself!). One might argue that it is a stretch of the word (however, words are imprecise, right?), but "void", at a deeper level can allude to this concept of no-measure or shunya. It should now be of little surprise that the concept of a point is Platonic (and hence non-physical).

Saturday, May 23, 2009


Look at yourself in the mirror. Sans judging. Look at the fluid motion with which the maid rolls the chapatis. An inconspicuous flick with the corner of her sari, wiping the sweat off her brow. Thinking of her child, wondering what he/she might be thinking at that very moment. Mother walking across the hall. A picture frame catches the edge of her eye. Memories triggered. Maybe it was too hot when that picture was taken. You're standing mute, watching. You see a curtain flutter on a chance breeze. Reminds you of your grandmother's house. A crow sits on the window sill. Hungry. You remember being woken up late in the morning by a raucous crow. A cloth being embroidered with no apparent pattern. Memories, glimpses, emotions, thoughts, hopes, dreams being woven in the cloth, some recognisable and some not. A cloth, or an allegory for life itself? No rights or wrongs. Just threads of varied colours, thickness and weaves in different patterns. Look around you. All the things you've collected. That bag. That camera. The bangles that sparkled much in the shop. The used bus ticket. The concert ticket stub. What would you try if you knew you couldn't fail? Its a hot afternoon. Sitting silently under the fan. Just being. What is to be done in life? Education, degrees .. to what end? To help myself? others? Maybe accomplish both at the same time. hmm, clever. Why does the maid sit on the floor and eat, and I on the table? Is this me writing my life, or me writing somebody else's life? Or is the question irrelevant and the reader and writer, one? Love. Maybe you've experienced it, maybe you haven't. Heard much about it. Dimly aware that there must be something profound about it? There is. No driving directions though. A sea gull plunges into the calm blue ocean in search of a fish. Imagine a day without speech. Your father stroking your hair as you drift off to sleep. All the world's a stage and some are too afraid to laugh. A dark night sky. Dark as dark can be. Not even the moon. The fuzzy milky way now comes into focus. A comet's bright streak appears across the heavens.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

City Life

The plane cruised effortlessly through the endless sky. It was that magical time after sunset, where the concepts of day and night held little meaning and creation was at the cusp of expression. A dense, brilliant orange glow just above the ocean rapidly transformed through shades of yellow and green, into the limitless blue that enveloped all of existence. Meanwhile nameless cities tucked away in the folds of mountains and clouds drifted by, vanishing in the blink of the eye. Soon, we touch down and the madness of city life is upon us, once again. City life hides away from us much that is subtle. The profound sunset that had demanded our attention but a few minutes ago, fades into a distant memory (It will revisit in a moment of unexpected reverie). In the meanwhile, we live in a light bulb. A light bulb whose bright, burning filament veils all that is mysterious and romantic.