Monday, November 15, 2010

Chaya Khel

छाया खेल 
(Shadow Play)

"What an absolute mess, this morning has been. It started with me being rudely woken up by the harsh sound of metal clanging against metal. Each clanging sound seemed to resonate with my throbbing head, as I struggled to open my eyes. Already things seemed very strange. For one, I wasn't on my usual, soft bed. I groped around for my glasses, but all that my hands picked up, was the dirt from an unfamiliar, cold, stony floor. I tried another direction, and to my horror, discovered that I had grabbed some body's foot. No sooner had I retracted my hands in alarm, than a brusque voice rang out, 'behind you.' That was enough to jolt me awake, this time fully. As I put on my glasses, I began to take in my surroundings, completely and utterly bewildered. That same horrendous, metallic sound, and this time I traced the source. An impatient figure, rod in hand, commanded 'You, coat wale. Up. Inspector saab is waiting.' What the. I racked my brains, frantically trying to find an answer to my predicament, but none was forthcoming. I wasn't at my fastest, either. I did remember taking a couple of drinks at the party last night, which wasn't is any way unusual, but, other than this and the head-splitting techno music, I couldn't remember much else. 'You are lucky that I am letting you go. Take your belongings and get out of my sight.' Thankfully, I had enough of my wits about me to not open my mouth. I just nodded along, signed where I was told to, collected my wallet (which, except for a ten rupee note, had been emptied), and stumbled outside, into the blinding sun.
It took me a while to recalibrate my senses, and get my bearings straight. 'Safdarjung bus stop', read the barely legible sign-board across the road. hmm. With ten Rupees in the pocket, there was little choice but to the take the bus back home. I sat at the bus stop for a very long time, but there was not a single bus in sight. A taxi stopped by, and the driver generously offered to drop me home for "only" twice the usual fare. "Saab, the other taxis are looting passengers by asking more than thrice the fare!" Of course, as one usually does in such situations, I ignored him. But soon it all made sense, for, during the week, the papers had been speculating about a strike by the bus cleaners. And that confounded day, had to be today. The taxi driver could care less about my indifference, after all, his services were in high demand now. And so, two rupees went in giving you a call, Pankaj, and six more in the tea that has been keeping me company. Now, I am paisaless, and at your mercy."

 "Well Sheshadri, you've landed in a quite a pickle, I must say! What madness drove you to sneak into this party? I'll bet that you were after one of your "exclusive scoops", weren't you? Hah, while you may grin away your sixteen pairs, I'll have you know that Aanchal has been calling me practically every hour since last night, when you went missing. What am I to tell her? That her unpredictable boyfriend was trying to infiltrate a rave? Oh, the lies you force me to say, if only I could have a buck for each one of them. And no, I am not curious to know why you were arrested, or how you got let off the very next morning. I am sure you will use the incident to paint a fascinating, but untrue story on the 'human condition' in one of your Monday-leisure columns."

"I don't understand why she has to know everything, and be kept constantly updated. But what need is there to explain to you, Pankaj? You remember her well from our college years, she wasn't at all like this. Carefree, reckless, and most of all, with such a refreshing sense of adventure. All that is now a thing of the past. Maybe it is the drudgery of corporate life that has beaten her down? Who knows."

"With a predictability such as yours, I wouldn't blame her for being anxious. A simple thing like your cellphone, Sheshadri. More often than not, somebody from your office picks it up when I call, saying that you're on a tea break."

"That cussed phone is the bane of my existence. I often get nostalgic about the pre-cellphone days, oh such carefree days, nobody knew where you were, or if you were alive! If it weren't for Aanchal, I'd have chucked it long back. You know, while growing up we used to have a dog called Sonu. Sonu used to hate the collar, but had figured out that there was no chance of her being taken out for a walk without it. I think I understand how the poor mutt felt."

"Wait a second! Is it Sonu that was the inspiration to your poem that appeared in last week's column? Written from a mongrel's point-of-view?"

"Yes! Who else?"

"Lovely, I particularly liked the ending .. 
'a descendant of Sirius, owned by none / with a mutton chop, I am won!' "

"I'm happy you liked it. How is your poetry coming along?"

"Well, you know how it is these days. The market for Hindi poetry isn't much, and one can't make a living off it for sure. Say Sheshadri, don't mind my asking, but are things okay between Aanchal and you?"

"I don't know how to answer that question, Pankaj. What does 'okay' mean? Some things are, while some aren't. What amazes me, is that in the midst of everything, somehow, the miracle of music hasn't left her. When she sings, she is transported into another dimension altogether, and by consequence, all those fortunate enough to be in audience. How can it be, that this elevating spark doesn't ignite the rest of her into a harmonious existence? This Pankaj, this, is her deepest paradox; through music she is able to touch those lofty heights of expression and emotion, that indescribable world where, as Goethe put it, 'the music begins where words end'; and, when the music does end, it isn't love that one finds, instead, a continuation of her obsession with work."

"I think, I see where you're heading .. "

"You do?"

"Yes. After all, in your accounting, you left out two rupees, didn't you? If I may venture a guess, a call to Vandana?"

"You know me too well, Pankaj! Yes, Vandana. She is that breath of fresh air that has made me revisit that illusive concept of what one calls love."

"Must you intellectualize even this? Why not smell the flower instead of trying to peel its petals apart? Heavens, I'm doing it too! Getting back to your earlier point about this apparent paradox. I think that the ability for creating great art can exist irrespective of other aspects of one's personality. Take Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, for instance. It is said that he often throws tantrums and even refuses to sing if deprived of his liquor. Yet, once he gets started, the music that flows, and the passion with which it flows, is simply superlative. So in a way, his spirits elevate yours! If you ask me, it is quite a waste of energy to try to reconcile these incongruent aspects of his."

"You make a fair point. I suppose it is better to leave some things alone. Now
 Pankaj, if you don't mind, all this chatter, especially after a very uncomfortable last night, has left me famished. And Bhabhi must be hungry as well, no? We can chat about Vandana, later."

And so, Sheshadri mounted Pankaj's trusted Bajaj Chetak and soon the two of them were driving back to Pankaj's place. The bus strike meant that the traffic was sparse, and driving through the shaded, wide streets of New Delhi was pleasurable for once. Sheshadri closed his eyes and soaked in the crisp, winter air as they leisurely drove on. Already his headache had lessened, and he was beginning to feel drowsy. As chance would have it, Pankaj needed to fill petrol in the scooter, and they pulled into a petrol pump. While Pankaj waited in line for the attendant to fill his Chetak, Sheshadri found a tree in the garden adjoining the pump, and flopped down at its base. The sound of the leaves rustling in the cool winter breeze had a soporific effect on him, and before he knew it, he was fast asleep.

He dreamt that the seas had risen at an alarming rate, and that the Deccan plateau was already underwater, and his neighbourhood in Dhaulakuan, was among the few places that was still above water. Hundreds, nay thousands, had perished in the rising waters, but he had been enterprising enough to build a decent sized boat that could take about fifty people, and construction was completed just as the waters began to drown his house. He found it odd that he felt no sadness watching his house disappear, or that no body he knew was on the boat. But this was no time for idle sentimentality, with limited food and water they needed to find higher ground, and soon. To his pleasant surprise, he spotted a flotilla of boats not too far away. As night fell, this motley bunch of survivors deliberated on a course of action, and figured that their best bet would be to head East. Eight hundred kilometres away were the foothills of the Himalayas, and the only hope for higher ground. Hours turned into days and after what seemed like an eternity, land was spotted - they had reached the Shivaliks. Nobody had any idea of how long they had been sailing because all their electronic gadgets had run out of battery power. But what's this? The mountains seemed to be full of people, buildings, and markets! It was most peculiar. The boat was docked and as people began aimlessly wandering around the shore, he decided to head in the direction of the market. No sooner had he reached the market, than he stood dumbfounded, staring at an electronic billboard with burgundy lights that read "Happy New Year 3010". Whisky Tango Foxtrot! Dazed, he walked into an alley of shops, but there was virtually nothing in the shops that he recognised. Maybe it was really 3010, he thought, and chuckled. And then, another bizarre turn of events unfurled. As he stepped out of a shop, he saw a familiar signboard, that of his high school. In a more reasonable time and place, he could have found his way to the school from the signboard with his eyes closed. And so, in spite of the high degree of absurdity that reigned all around, he recalled the route, and not before long, found himself in front of his familiar school. As he walked through the school, he realised that it had been converted into some sort of a student hostel. He thought, that if it were really a thousand years into the future, human beings would look somewhat different. But no, the only thing that seemed a bit amiss, was the closely cropped haircut that everybody seemed to support. He saw an open door, and cautiously walked in, half fearing being vaporised by a proton gun. It is good that he had a strong heart, for another shock was in store. The girl sitting in the room was none other than Vandana, staring at a blackboard that had a polynomial equation of some sort written on it. Well, looked identical to Vandana, at least, for this "Vandana" showed no signs of recognition when he entered the room and took a seat. After staring at her for a full ten minutes he asked if it was really 3010. She looked at him quizzically, and simply nodded her head. He had always thought that in a thousand years, human beings would have some sort of super powers and would teleport from place to place. But here it seemed as though they were a bunch of bald-headed math geeks. How disappointing. At least he had his hair, he thought, touching his head just to be sure. He plucked up his courage and asked her what she was doing. She seemed able to read more than the immediate question on his mind, and said "It is indeed a thousand years since your time. Yet, I know not, how you are still alive, or how you got here. We are very similar to you, except for one small difference - we can intuit the coefficients of curve fitting polynomials, we don't have to calculate them." And then, without warning, she grabbed his shoulders and began to shake him. He tried to get away, but she had a vice-like grip on him.

As he opened his eyes, he saw that Pankaj was trying to shake him awake : "If you've had your beauty sleep, shall we get going?" And so, the two of them were on the road once again, and not before long, reached Pankaj's house. 

It was the first time that Sheshadri has entered the house since Bharati's accident last month that had left her paralysed. To see a lively, energetic person such as Bharati go from being perfectly healthy, to what seemed like a vegetative state was too much for Sheshadri to bear at first. As they entered the small house, Pankaj motioned in the direction of the bedroom. "Why don't you go in, and see if she is awake? I'll start heating the food in the meanwhile."

Gingerly parting the tattered lace curtains, Sheshadri  took a deep breath and entered the room. As he stood at the foot of the bed, gazing at the calm, serene face of Bharati as she slept soundly in the late morning, he was filled with a tremendous sense of respect at the phenomenal strength that Pankaj had shown, and the dignity with which he handled matters in this last month. He knew that they were not the wealthy sorts, who could afford a round-the-clock nurse, and so, Pankaj worked tirelessly night and day to take care of his precious wife. Taking his eyes off her, his gaze explored the bare, yet functional room, moving over a few photographs from their wedding on the wall, a couple of water colour paintings that Bharati had done in a previous life, and finally resting on the lime green curtains that gracefully fluttered in the breeze from the window. A few shafts of sunlight illuminated the bottom of the curtains, and produced a beautiful play of shadows on the roughly textured floor below. He watched mesmerised, becoming acutely aware of his own cowardice in not being part of her rehabilitation, and contrasting at the same time with the trivial worries in his life, was filled with a much needed sense of perspective. As he prepared to leave, he noticed a little notebook that lay on the bed near her feet. He recognised Pankaj's tiny, meticulous handwriting and couldn't help but read the poem scribbled on the page ..

रात की गाढ़ी दलदल में
झील बनी नैनो-तले
निकली जिससे नमकीन धारा
और बरसी बूंद बूंद 
टप टप, टप टप
किया नम गाल और तकिया
सुलझा तो कुछ भी ना
हुआ मन कुछ हल्का

Moments like these made him feel like a sack of potatoes; heavy and afraid of the bottom coming undone, but he also understood that for Pankaj's sake, he mustn't break down in front of him, there would be plenty of time for that later on. He paid his obeisance to Bharati by gently touching her feet, and joined Pankaj in the kitchen, just as he finished decanting the coffee.

"She seems to be asleep. I can hang around if you want to feed her first."

"No, its fine, I usually feed her around noon. As you can imagine, the lack of exercise has reduced her appetite considerably. Come now, have the parathas before they get cold."

"You know Pankaj, I am really sorry that I wasn't around earlier. Truth is, I was terrified. Only today, when I saw her, did I realise how selfish I had been."

"Look, its all right, I can understand. I hope I'll see you around more often now?"

"For sure. What do the doctors say?"

"They say that the brain scans seem to show improvement, that she might be able to speak in a few weeks time. Every now and then when I feed her, she smiles at me, ever so slightly. That one precious smile is her only window to the outside world through which she peers and reassures me, that she will be okay."

Smiling, Sheshadri  gobbled down his first real meal of the day as Pankaj watched amused. The coffee was strong, as he usually made it, and slowly but surely, Sheshadri felt as though the rain clouds were parting, and he felt distinctly clearer in his head. He suddenly remembered his dream.

"When I dozed off in the garden, I had the most peculiar dream. At first I thought I was saving the world, but later on I reached this strange, futuristic land, and ran into Vandana! She didn't recognise me, though. I think the dream was a sign. Do you believe in such things?"

"Why not? After all, one has to keep oneself amused, right!"

"There's the trademark non-committal answer that Pankaj can be counted upon to produce! All right, I can see that I have eaten up a considerable part of your morning, and that you have more important work to do. I shall go amuse myself now, if you don't mind."

And with that, Pankaj bid good bye and walked the half kilometre to Vandana's college. It was past lunch, and a quiet period in the afternoon with no scheduled lectures. As he reached the threshold of her office, he heard voices intensely discussing something academic. So he took a seat, and waited for her to be free. Not much had changed in the anteroom in the past few years, he observed. Books seemed to be stacked in no apparent order, and a glass cabinet was stuffed with handwritten papers. It always amazed him how she was able to find what she needed in no time. He noticed something new on the top of the cabinet, beside a photograph of her son and her, a small plaque that congratulated her on "25 years of dedicated service." Wow, he thought, its been that long!

Presently, her visitor left, and after knocking on the door, Sheshadri made his entry.

"Hello Sheshadri, I am glad you called me earlier, I was originally planning on spending the afternoon in a theatre workshop."

"Writing screenplays these days, are we?"

"Haha, not there yet. A Greek professor of drama is visiting us these days, and I am hoping to get an easy introduction to Greek tragedy from him. After all, their ancients were masters of the game!"

"Why not just pick up a book and start reading right away?"

"Well Sheshadri, I am already doing that. But, I think that the sense of cultural and historical context that one gains from somebody who's rooted in that tradition, can lead to a much deeper understanding of a literary piece."

"I see. In that case, maybe I should come by later?"

"Not to worry, he is here for a few weeks and will be giving the same workshop later in the week. I'll catch it then. How are things with you?"

"Okay, I guess. I got some new ideas for next week's column."

"Nice! You have to give your first and foremost fan some hints now, I can't wait till next week!"

"I managed, don't ask how, to get into a party last night. It wasn't any ordinary party, and I am convinced that the cheapest pair of shoes at the party were costlier than my entire attire put together."

"Didn't you stand out, then?"

"In a manner of speaking, yes. I was disguised as a waiter, after all. My grandmother always warned me against loose women late at night, but at this party the word "loose" had no meaning, and everybody seemed to be either downing shots, or smoking pot, and a few loonies doing both. But, that's not the interesting part."


"I overheard lots of very interesting conversations, some arguments, and even witnessed a few fist fights! All in the name of love, as Atlantic Starr once sang. One thought led to another, and finally I got thinking about how arbitrary the distinctions between what we consider to be personal and private, are."

"Like lines drawn in sand?"

"My thoughts exactly!"

"So, how do 'we' draw these lines?"

"I'm yet to figure that. Maybe it has something to do with the sense of comfort that one feels with the other? And since this will vary with each person, the end result is a line that looks all sorts of wiggly."

"Wiggles in sand! That's what you should title the piece."

"I like the sound of it. Good, at least I have something to start with."

"Glad I could be of help. Will you have some coffee? I have it around this time, its the only way I can stay awake through the afternoon."

Sheshadri nodded, stopping just short of telling her about his inexplicable night in the lock-up. Vandana went over to the coffee machine, started the drip, and stood by the window. The view from her office was beautiful, and rather unusual for the concrete jungle that was increasingly becoming of Delhi. Only a matter of time, she thought, before the old forts get replaced by shopping malls. Sheshadri joined her at the window. The two had spent countless evenings looking out of the window, chatting about nothing in particular, listening to music, and coming up with conspiracy theories for current events. She enjoyed the boy's company, his fresh ideas, and his remarkable ability to tie himself in knots by trying to understand life through the prism of abstract concepts. She liked how things were left undefined between them, and could care less for the conspicuous stares that she would receive from people when he was around. As they had coffee, they discussed the bus strike and if somehow the ISI was behind it all. 

And so, the entire afternoon went by in such idle chatter. Through out, he consciously avoided bringing up Aanchal. Not that she didn't know about her, but he thought it best to not muddle the waters in his head. Some things, he must resolve on his own, he thought, as he took her leave. As he strolled down the college grounds, the intoxicating smell of water on dry soil hit his nostrils. Sure enough, the gardener was watering the rose beds in front of him. White winter roses, his favourite. In the distance, some students were playing ultimate-frisbee, an old couple was strolling leisurely, and a young boy was teasing his dog. Life was okay after all, he thought. As he stood tossing pebbles into the pond, he reflected on something that Vandana had said about relationships, in her typical theatrical style; 

"Its like a little skit. The first character is Love. After a while, Pleasure makes an appearance, and the two become synonymous for a while. Then, for some unknown reason, Love exits without cue, stage right. Now the rot begins, as Pleasure feels incomplete without Love. What follows, is a Bollywood musical of sentimentality and self-pity, whose eventual end is rather forgettable."

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