Category Archives: Life

The Last Train Home

The neon lights flickered fitfully as Lisa walked down the now motionless escalator, one of the stragglers going home at midnight to cold dinners and indifferent beds. She and her companions, acquaintances by sight, were regulars on the last train at night, alighting in ones and twos at the stations on the North-East line. No crowds surged in to push them backwards, imperilling their exit; the bullet-like whoosh was the only sound they heard as the train chugged forward through the cavernous tunnels, being swallowed into the darkness and disgorged again, intact, by sterile, white-lit platforms.

Lisa stepped off the escalator and sat down on the nearest steel bench, sitting down with her back arching uncomfortably against the odd angular curve of the cold chair. She smoothed her brown uniform skirt over her knees and fished in her large, square handbag for one of her newly-bought paperbacks. These were about the only books she read now, fresh off the press but then gathering dust in supermarkets, spines cracked and pages thumbed by various uninterested fingers. She almost felt a sort of pity for these neglected books, lovingly sent into the world by writers who thought their fortune was made at last, but then trashed and denigrated by harsh criticism, ensuring the author was never heard of again. They were books with stereotypical covers, raised gold letters and extravagant blurbs; they didn’t make any demands on her intellect at that unearthly hour, when all she wanted to do was stumble into bed, too tired even to dream.

You read far too much, said her friends at work, when she had burst upon them, bespectacled and glowing with the pride of her newly obtained college degree. The timing wasn’t too good for her, though- she wasn’t wanted where she wished to go, so off she went disconsolately to assist at one of the numerous fashionable shops dotting the island. There may not have been enough jobs, but there still was plenty of money. The rich continued to buy diamond-encrusted watches for their lovers, and she waited on them. She would meet some interesting people this way, she thought, and write about them. She would be discovered. All she needed was patience.

So when her slightly bemused, vaguely respectful colleagues had accused her of reading too much, she initially waved an autocratic hand at them. Reading feeds the imagination, she had said, thinking of the worlds she fled into when the demons of reality bore down heavily upon her. The idealism she worshipped was the stuff of legend, the halo she imbued herself with existed only in the world she had imagined into existence, piece by piece.

Sadly though, Lisa missed the bus when adulthood beckoned. She forgot to grow up, and realized too late that the companions of her childhood had gone ahead, leaving her behind with her own fairy dust, a grown-up Disney princess swathed in pink gauze and wearing ribbons in her hair.

The transition had been difficult, but almost complete. Realising that she was capable of love surprised her pleasantly; knowing that she could have her heart broken made life seem worthless for a while. She thought a lot, and she thought deeply. The names she assumed changed- she was no longer a Bathsheba or an Irawati, but plain Lisa. Two syllables, rolling easily off the tongue, with no quirks of pronunciation. She was getting herself a new identity, becoming a new individual. She didn’t want a sparkly tiara on her greying hair. The veneer of refinement faded as she settled into her role of working girl, imagining, in moments of romantic weakness, that she was living the life of Lily Bart without the suitors. Those who had started the journey with her had struck out on their own, going their own separate ways, meeting occasionally to celebrate spouses and jobs; she had- by some stroke of misfortune?- kept her hermetic life intact. The real and the presumed still confused her, but she was getting better at sieving the ideas presented to her, learning that the inner child that had to be guarded wasn’t physical, but purely platonic.

The last train whooshed into the station and Lisa looked up with a start. In three quarters of an hour, she would be walking home past the restaurant with its little cluster of smoking men, their cigarettes creating single points of light amidst the silhouettes of the ornamental plants that lined its front. Their beer cans would be crushed and discarded on the pavement in due course, and she would pick her way through them distastefully, muttering at their capacity for idleness, then pull up short as she remembered her own situation. Maybe they were stragglers, and perhaps she belonged with them, too. She’d know in a few years

The fast car experience

I remember the last time I screamed along with a revving engine. It was 5 years ago in Kerala, in a stripped down Maruti Esteem, and by stripped down, I mean the rally-car way. Factory fitted seats replaced with 2 Sparco bucket seats and 4 way seat-belts, a roll cage, a free-flow exhaust and all that you need to generate enough torque in a 30 metre run-in enough for a decent drift.

For those fifteen minutes, we felt every pebble that the tires crushed, and all of that ended in a smooth 360 degree stop. If I had had a driving license or a fair amount of experience behind the wheel, I may have had a chance at that car.

That short trip down memory lane was a result of watching the Fast Five at the theatre yesterday. The grunt of the GT40 would be wasted on you if you don’t have theatrical sound. Boy, that was the beginning of a parade of muscle and beauty. The only places where better choices could have been made were the monster SUVs which The Rock arrived with and the silvery sissy looking car standing beside Vin Diesel’s beast towards the end. The SUVs seemed ill-designed and bulked up to match Rock’s physique. The rest of the cars have my approval.

Fast five is years ahead of Tokyo Drift (the third of the sequel) in entertainment value. That said, do not fly to the theatre if you sniff a good story here. If that’s what you are after, the trailer is enough. To put it in short, this could be the work of a director who has a Michael Bay’s craziness for trashing good lookin’ cars (but has a much better idea of how to) and a fetish for the Tarantino-Rodriguez style of bringing things down with a machete. I sometimes wish director Justin Lin would rope in an intelligent script writer suggested by Chris Nolan and then continue stealing vaults the way he did this time. I would love him for it.

It’s a must-watch if you don’t have a fast car or a car at all. Those who do can learn to drive during the movie. The best way to rob a bank is to rip out its vaults:

A Summer Afternoon

Little can compete with the atrocities of the Indian summer.

Endless kilometres of land lie parched in the sweltering heat; where there once was verdant greenery now grow straggly brown plants, struggling out of the crevices on hard brown ground, choking in heat-induced suffocation. Cows forage for food in the tiny patches of green that have braved the merciless rays of the white-hot sun blazing in colourless skies. The normally hardy, mange-infected stray dogs are now docile and acquiescent- they seek the relative coolness of tree shade, their usual numerous ferocious scrums restricted to situations where absolutely necessary- it is just too hot to scratch or fight. Enervated birds chirp listlessly at noon, sequestered in their leafy canopies till the sun begins its descent and they can go grubbing again. The butterflies flit out only when they cannot help it any longer; where do they get their nourishment from, now that flowers are only sadly faded, drooping shadows of their former healthy selves?

In the little market across the road, the one-roomed shops have their shutters firmly drawn down against the heat. Even the small Hanuman and Shani temples in the vicinity have been closed and locked up- god or insect, the summer is uniformly unsparing in its ferocity. The area will begin to buzz again about six in the evening, when the owner of the tea stall puts out four rickety stools on the pockmarked remains of the road in front of his shop. His regular customers settle down with their kulhads of cha in one hand, cigarette in the other, dressed in cotton shirts and kurtas, and gossip the evening away, even as the mound of discarded earthen cups nearby piles up steadily.

The evening might bring respite from the sullen, dead hush that lies over the quietly sleeping town, saved from being sepulchral only by the vast, wide, dusty yellowness that pervades the thick languor. The stir of life, the only fresh breath that billows through comes from hope and anticipation, from the collective sigh of the owners of the keen eyes that look towards the horizon, divining or actually sighting that elusive grey rim.

Shelves

I have memories of a sunshiny, airy house in Hyderabad, whose walls were kissed by the swaying branches of trees on soft summer afternoons. This house was populated by kindly spirits and filled with a quiet salubrious energy. I particularly remember a room lined with large bookcases- they might have appeared mammoth and daunting to a seven- or eight-year-old who was just learning to enjoy abridged illustrated classics, these bunches of different spines- but I also found it very welcoming and awe-inspiring.

More than fifteen years have gone by and much has changed. Two of the people whose kindness I remember from when I was a young girl have passed on. Aunty’s shrikhand has sadly disappeared from memory. Uncle has left behind something more enduring- plenty of stories. I was enthralled when I came to know that this Uncle I knew was a celebrity in his own way; his stories won competitions for adults in Tinkle and were published in CBT books (an important part of my childhood reading), and how delighted I would be to see them in print! I stopped buying Tinkle a few years ago, but when I bought a copy on a whim, I’d be doubly thrilled to see one of Uncle’s stories in it. And I came to know yesterday that there wouldn’t be any more of them. I see a blank spot on the shelf.

******

His daughter is trimming her collection of books. I ask her how she can summon up enough strength to sell away well-loved books. She tells me with a laugh that she has reconciled herself to it; these are books that she has read twice or thrice every year, over many years. She is circulating the list of books she is giving away among a close circle of friends, people who she knows will care for them as she has. I’ve asked for some of them- Ishiguro, Dick Francis, JRR Tolkien, Sheridan Le Fanu. I don’t know if I’ll ever have enough courage to give up my own books. I gave away a copy of Kafka on the Shore a couple of months ago, and I still regret it at times, even though I know the recipient well and am sure that he will look after it properly.

Sometimes, though, keeping your bookshelves stocked isn’t the most important thing in life.

Illusions

The bus trundles into the city just as the sun begins to struggle its way through the clouds and I feel the difference. Bangalore’s unbroken skyline of glass and concrete, the result of an almost rabid, ruthless growth whose only aim seems to be to blank out every trace of tradition and history, gives way over a journey of ten hours to a timeless city that is in no hurry to grow out of its skin. I’m in Hyderabad.

The muezzin’s calls to prayer rise over the roar of traffic and impatient honking; spanking new specimens of modern architecture take turns with graceful domes and minarets in their quest for the sky, their motives carefully demarcated. Smiling families look down from hoardings at the lonely old bearded man sitting in front of the meat shop, his dhoti tucked up between his legs, looking out at the road despondently as he awaits business. Boys perch precariously on their bicycles as they manoeuvre through dried slush and narrow gulleys, the result of the heavy rains of the past week.

The arrival of the month of Ramadan is evident. For a change, the self-proclaimed merits of Hyderabadi biryani are relegated to second place as Haleem signboards pop up indiscriminately, on the walls and in the hands of young men outside the restaurants and dubious food stalls. Rows of lights adorn shop-fronts, men in white caps and knee-length kurtas mill around the mosques freshly re-painted green and white. Ordinarily placid streets are packed with pedestrians trying not to get run over by cars with bumpers kissing and two-wheelers fitting into abnormally tiny gaps, the bustle of Ramadan mingling with frenetic last-minute shopping for Raksha Bandhan.

I ride through the familiar lanes with old friends, and unwelcome doubts assail me. Do I miss Hyderabad? Why do these roads that once seemed jaded and devoid of charms suddenly seem spellbinding? I know. It’s that old trick that the mind and the heart conspire to come up with, that disillusionment that hits you like a hurricane and throws all semblance of sense out of gear. It is absurd to compare the known streets of Hyderabad to Moroccan souks, but that is where fantasy decides it wants to go, and I shall let it wander thither. Of what use is an imagination if you don’t let it run wild, especially when all else is so rigidly held back by unreasonable restrictions and rules?

And then, as the bus wends its way through the tree-lined streets of Bangalore on my ‘homeward’ journey, I realise that what I felt in Hyderabad was, indeed, a momentary restlessness- I don’t despise the city any longer, but what I’d felt for it over the weekend was just a nostalgia-tinged infatuation. I might want to live there again, but not right now. Neither city has been able to give me what I seek- but because I’m still discovering Bangalore and have a little faith in the nooks and crannies I don’t know of yet, I hope to come one step closer to that elusive thing without shape or form that lingers within my grasp, and yet refuses to let me close my fingers upon it.

Stubborn- that’s what life is.

The Unknown

“The road has always led west.”

Journeys are always fascinating, aren’t they? More so when they’re undertaken without a plan and do not come burdened with the traditional tourist trappings?

Imagine a profusion of wild, open, untended spaces; skies that unroll expansively into infinity; acrimonious battles of dreams with norms- a journey into nothingness, at once frightening and reassuring.

Into The Wild is more than a book or a movie. It is a chronicle, the story of a young man who dared to flout the rules that people were setting themselves for incomprehensible reasons (and still do), about the journey he undertook without a materialistic motive. It requires a great amount of extraordinary courage to take off into the wildernesses- well might we talk about it, but would we really do it? Can we summon up the guts to cut up our plastic cards and burn up our paper money, throw away an inheritance and set out into the unknown, to rough it out where common comforts are unheard of and the only way to live is by going back to the lessons of our ancestors, the times before the wheel was invented? Imagine living in an abandoned bus and knowing your next meal will come only when you shrug off indolence and go out into the cold to hunt it down. Or leaving behind the people who’ve cared for you, the last shreds of gratitude and love shaken off with apathetic indifference.

Christopher McCandless did it. An extensive amount of reading- Tolstoy, London, Thoreau, Auden- shaped his principles, imparted to him his loathing of money and luxuries. With no specific routes in mind, he left home after graduation to journey into Alaska- the people he met on the way were his teachers, his friends, more understanding of his needs than the ‘society’ he had grown up in, of which he spoke with sneering contempt. The duplicity of his father’s life and his mother’s quiet resignation to it didn’t improve matters for him at home. The only person he could confide in was his younger sister, and to her he spoke of his dreams and frustration.

Jon Krakauer, in the book, charts the path that Chris McCandless- or Alex Supertramp, as he chooses to call himself- took over two years, teaching and being taught, ending up in the pristine wildernesses of Alaska. Emile Hirsch portrays the young adventurer in the film version- and for once, it doesn’t seem fair to compare the movie to the book, because both, in their own ways, are a tribute to the dauntlessness and faith of McCandless.

The imagery in the movie, the play of light and shadow, is haunting- McCandless trying to tame the rapids between the enclosing walls of canyons, running amok amidst the wild horses silhouetted against the sun, leaving his footsteps behind on fresh white sheets of snow as conifers close in on him, dipping his blood-stained hands that have just killed a moose in cold, foamy Alaskan waters. Eddie Vedder’s powerful vocals coupled with a haunting background score enhance the realism of every scene- his voice bounces off canyon walls and echoes through emptiness, redolent of raw, primitive cries of freedom and abandon.

Chris McCandless identifies with nature- his assumption of being an entity one with it and inseparable from it is almost palpable. He doesn’t crave a moment in the spotlight or a place in the record books. He sets out on his own because he wants to live, to get away from the dysfunctional family that is fettering him with its hopes. A short life well lived is worth much more than endless years of misery. An uncharacteristic error of judgement cost him his life just as he was beginning to gain cognizance of his desires and preparing for a return to the people he had abandoned; but he must have had the solace of an adventure lived out to completion. We won’t know if the haunted look in his parents’ eyes and his sister’s anguish kept him awake on lonely nights. There must be people who call his actions selfish and unreasonable- but who lays out the norms, after all, and why do we decide to obey them? When asked to find a job and make something of his life, McCandless denounced the idea, as he called careers a twentieth-century invention. One that we insist on believing in stubbornly, despite the dissatisfaction and hopelessness it engulfs us in.

Give a man his freedom. There is nothing less moral about a nudist colony than about the ‘civilized’ lust for power and money. Deep down, all of us crave the delight of pink sunsets and virgin landscapes. The fear of a judgemental society is what holds us back- McCandless stood up against it. He bruised egos and hurt emotions in the process- as every person does- but also found what he sought. He accepted advice and gave some back. He loved people for their kindness. Supertramp he wanted to become, and he did it with conviction.

RIP. 

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