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A Season That Isn’t

A tepid breeze floats through the wire-meshed window, keeping out the pests, real and imaginary. The voices have died down and been drowned out by the excited shrieks and argumentative voices on the news channels. A bus comes to a screeching halt on the main road- traffic ceases on this already quiet day, the apprehensions have been unfounded; are we finally learning the right way to live, if there is any such thing?

It is unusually warm for the end of September. Isn’t this when the humidity of the monsoons is supposed to have said a firm goodbye and yielded its place to the first chilly warnings of winter, when leaves should be floating off trees forming yellow and brown crinkly heaps to be crunched underfoot- but wait, this isn’t New England. So how relevant is it for me to revel in Steinbeck’s luscious prose in Travels with Charley or be seduced by Keats’ Ode to Autumn?

“Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, -”

These lines, printed on the cover of a CD of instrumental music supposed to depict the magic of autumn in New England, first introduced me to John Keats’ breath-takingly wonderful description of the season. You don’t have to have known the season to see it in your head, to imagine the fragrances and the soft wind billowing through an enchanted evening, and add your own pictures to them. I have ever since been besotted by the idea of autumn- and here I must admit I like the word ‘fall’ better, because there is a soft, simple, unpretentious ring to it, as opposed to the slight grandioseness of ‘autumn’, which doesn’t seem to go with the earthy beauty of the season. Having always lived in places perennially under the sway of clammy heat and white-hot sunlight, broken only by unexpected cloudbursts, the very idea of skeletal trees against ominous skies is enchanting. And there is nothing quite like lyrical prose and poetry to reinforce those distant ideas that they themselves give birth to.

Call this nostalgia if you will, my brooding over a season that I don’t know. This is what I’m thinking about on a sticky, tropical night, when the stars are barely visible through a thick blanket of purple clouds, and the persistent song of crickets breaks the quiet in tandem with the low electric roar of the fan cutting through the stillness. Everyone I can talk to is asleep and the words have shrivelled up and gone away, fickle things, leaving me bereft of company.

This is when the imagination takes flight. I think of white adobe structures in Greece, blue domes in Turkey, gigantic bridges spanning broad blue-grey rivers, snow-capped mountains, green minarets down the road. And mostly of autumn in a distant land that I may never set foot on. Pictures aplenty in my head, and not enough words to match them. All I can think of, when the world is on the verge of burning, is a pretty little season. In a few weeks, the snowflakes will follow.

And perhaps that is why, all is right with life. When all else fails, the imagination comes to your rescue and weaves you the Utopia you crave for.

Published!

The first line on what will hopefully, eventually, turn out to be a Roll of Honour:

http://asiawrites.blogspot.com/ has published a story of mine.

I wrote it quite a while ago, and I’m glad I can get it across to a few more people now. Do let us know here what you think of it.

Waving the Flag

A hard-earned victory for Spain brought down the curtains on the FIFA World Cup 2010. The ill-tempered final saw a profusion of yellow cards and a first-time winner; but there are better reasons for which this tournament deserves to be remembered.

World Cup football came to Africa for the first time in its eighty-year-old history, and South Africa won the honour to host it over Egypt and Morocco. Perhaps it is only fitting that this troubled country should have received the privilege- it gave South Africa the chance to bury its stained past and portray a new, vibrant front, sending out a strong message against racism. There were concerns over the nation’s preparedness to stage the tournament and the pace of organization, but South Africa managed to dispel these fears and pull off a splendid event.

South Africa has not had it easy. A tremendous amount of strife, racial tension and colonial exploitation wreaked havoc in a country richly endowed with natural resources. Apartheid broke the spirit of the country, but one man stood tall and led by example- Nelson Mandela’s determination did not crumble in the face of political disturbance, and he was the force that pulled the country together.

Not very many years have passed since apartheid was entirely abolished, and South Africa has had a lot of rebuilding to do in this period. The economy suffered; poverty and unemployment were rampant. Political systems underwent changes, crime and disease- AIDS, in particular- reared their ugly heads. Having been banned from international sport as a result of sanctions imposed during the apartheid era, South Africa had to struggle back into the fray and make its presence felt. And today, it has just finished playing host to an international sporting event- one of global proportions- with remarkable success.

Reeling under the effects of major societal challenges, it is indeed a stupendous achievement for South Africa to have put everything behind and dedicated itself to producing a marvellous festival- for the World Cup was never just about sport. When different nationalities and ethnicities come together, the tension in the air is palpable- but there is also a spark of excitement, the desire to pummel barriers down and celebrate sport, talent and youth. Afrikaans met English, Shakira gyrated in a Johannesburg stadium, vuvuzelas (and sockzelas) made a smashing (and not easily forgettable) appearance. South Africa has been lauded unanimously for a spectacular event, and rightly so.

While African football didn’t scale great heights, it did have a thumping presence in the tournament- positive signs for a continent that is more often than not remembered for rebellion and disease. South Africa’s success at hosting the tournament should also provide a ray of optimism to its neighbours, struggling to overcome their own problems of politics and racial differences.

Hosting a major sporting event is not the antidote to all political and social troubles. It does, however, create a multitude of opportunities to be capitalised on and generate interest and business. It involves massive expenditure, but if rightly built upon, can be a source of enough positive publicity to attract investment and foreign business. With the world watching, the last layers of diffidence and hesitation are peeled off, and a sparklingly confident front (cleverly concealing the hiccups) reveals itself.

As India comes close to its own sporting extravaganza, the Commonwealth Games, albeit on a much smaller scale, there is a lot it can learn from China, hosts of the 2008 Olympics, and South Africa. Budgets inevitably inflate themselves and spending goes well over the estimates; this, however, need not put paid to our hopes of a successful event. Building on it in the long run is essential- a one-off event which ends up in a large number of arenas that nobody has any use for later is an unforgivable drain on a developing country’s economy. The Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing, for instance, hasn’t been put to any great use since the Olympics in 2008- a circumstance that had rather be avoided.

That said, hosting events which provide global exposure gives a fillip to countries that are usually better known not for all the right reasons. South Africa has done itself proud, and Brazil will hopefully carry the mantle on in 2014 as the new powers assert themselves.

Forca, Football!

Scoring a jaw-dropping two points out of twenty in the preliminary round of a football quiz made me aware, for the umpteenth time, of my painful lack of knowledge of the game. I might have heard the lyrics of ‘Waving Flag’ sung and re-sung and distorted to glory, groaned over the inevitable ubiquitous use of ‘Waka Waka’ in the newspapers, but I soon realised what I didn’t know was central to the theme of the quiz- in short, trivia about the game. Intelligent guesses and wild shots in the dark are always thrilling when the answers turn out right, but sometimes, when confronted by people who know their stuff inside out, ignorance isn’t quite bliss.

The sulking skies opened up just before the quiz competition was due to start, and my teammate Airborne and I were hoping for a slice of extraordinarily good luck- the kind that led India into the 1950 World Cup finals, instead. It is another matter that they didn’t play because they weren’t allowed on the ground barefoot, as one version of the story goes. We were spared major embarrassment, of course, as people trickled in to increase the amount of competition (presumptuous of us to consider ourselves part of it, even so)- the quizmaster wanted atleast six teams to make a decent match of it, and his fears were unfounded. A decent number of people braved the rain to turn up at the prelims, and but for a bit of sparring, Airborne and I might have reached the royal score of four, halfway to the cut-off. Six teams made it to the final round, and no, we didn’t rue any lost opportunities.

As the questions flew around, we were treated to an intriguing collection of trivia scooped out of the massive amount of history the World Cup has accumulated over the years. Humour, controversy, corruption, and the crowning glory of triumph- football has seen it all.

Sport is no exception to the curses of human arrogance and senselessness. The brutal murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics and the ostracism of the Jews at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin are some of the more famous examples of politics sullying the reputation of global sporting events. Evidently, football has had its share of controversies- the inaugural edition of the World Cup at Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1930, featured only four European teams, a surprisingly low number for a continent that is home to some of the powerhouses of the sport. Defending champions Uruguay sought to retaliate by boycotting the 1934 championship in Italy, another controversial tournament where the hosts themselves had to qualify to play.

This is just a sample of the trivia that we were treated to. There were references to bizarre incidents, such as the one about a dog running on to the field to be caught by England’s Jimmy Greaves, who in turn had his lap graciously soiled, at the 1966 World Cup- yet another example of nature triumphing over man.

The magnitude of football’s reach is incredible. Its being a sport that can be played on the streets with a battered ball and goalposts traced out with a piece of chalk on a wall greatly helps matters. India may not have latched on to the idea of football asWe may be a long way off from having a football team to cry ourselves hoarse for. At a particular World Cup hockey tournament while India was still under British rule, the Indian team is reported to have sung ‘Meri Bhains Ko Danda Kyun Maara’, a folk song, to avoid singing God Save The Queen- Indian spirit, drawn straight from the rural heartlands. Maybe it won’t be too long before we have our own football anthems (and no, we’re certainly not taking the services of a certain bejewelled music director, thank you very much), and a football team that will give us someone to burden with our hopes and expectations (isn’t this what we do best?).

We returned from the quiz with our curiosity whetted- it was the perfect curtain-raiser to the approaching weeks of unbridled sporting passion, raw and real. The 2010 World Cup kicks off tomorrow, and here’s to the thirty-two teams that made it- the major hopes and the underdogs, the rookies and the players who will fight painstakingly to reach that one epoch before the swansong- this is one festival the world will feast on, undivided in spirit, for one magnificent month.

The Awakening

A soft splash sounded through the quiet night. The oars glided softly into the water, cutting through it effortlessly, ripples spreading out in moonlit serenity.

Devi stood at her door, watching. Her back ached after long hours in the paddy field- her husband was away in the village, where he would get drunk and spend the night in a brothel. He never told her so in clear words- but the furtive look in his eyes every morning, clouded with defiance, was proof enough of his guilt. Not that he regarded it as a crime. Man of the house, breadwinner that he was, he had the right to spend his money as he liked. He could choose his drink and his women.

A sigh involuntarily escaped Devi’s lips. She turned to look inside her hut through the darkness, the solitary lamp that burnt by the window every night now having been extinguished. The children were asleep, their stomachs sated with the thin gruel she had made. They had never had a chance to know a good appetite. “At least they will know what moderation means,” thought Devi, smiling bitterly to herself.

She stepped out into the night, her lithe brown body silhouetted against the moonlight. She cast a quick look around, pulled the door shut and walked quickly down the slippery steps hewn into the hard stone of the hillock upon which the house stood. Her breast heaved with fear and excitement- she had long anticipated the liaison and now the night was upon her, awakening her senses to new experiences, to satiation instead of obligation.

The boat sailed smoothly towards the shore, and the boatman laid his oars aside. He stood proudly upon it, back straight and strong, eyes looking straight ahead at the woman who waited bravely for him, unshackled and free. As he came closer, he saw a strange fire in her eyes- a glimmer that shocked and enthralled him at once- and then, still looking on with wonder, gasped and fell back into the water, thin lines of red mixing with the muddied waters and forming whirling pools of red.

The knife slipped out of Devi’s grasp. The feelings that had lain subdued in her bosom, the occasional bouts of intense desire that she had quenched with bitter remonstrance, were all crushed into the earth in one fell swoop. The deed done, she was a wife and mother again. Her jealousy against his wife had found vent in his death- and now, she wept with impassioned grief, primitive animal-like cries ringing through the countryside, for the sister-woman she had widowed. But she wiped her tears hurriedly- no woman deserved to live with a man who betrayed her, and she was glad to have spared another woman the agony that she lived through listlessly, every single hour.

The Roommate Chronicles- The Sequel?

So I’m now supposed to start a new series of the Roommate Chronicles. I’m in a new city (four weeks isn’t a very long time, after all), and I’m just about two weeks old in this flat, thrown in yet again amidst a set of new people.

And this time I’m not complaining.

When people groan in unison at the story of business school aspirants who unanimously declared that Chetan Bhagat was their famous author, you know you can strike a chord with them. Pottering around the room, you find an unmutilated copy of Animal Farm and you know you will never be short of good reading. An abundantly-stored ‘larder’ and plenty of fruit juice in the fridge tell you snacking will soon become your second-most-favoured pastime. And finally, when on your first day among three girls who’ve been through college together, you’re not treated like an outsider but are gracefully allowed to watch the Formula One race without demur, you know you’re going to enjoy living here.

I am the Old Maid of this house, over six whole months older than the eldest of them. Staid, sober and steady, I’m supposed to be a towering pillar of influence and an epitome of good sense. Which, of course, I’m not. When we’re ordering dinner on a Sunday night, I conveniently choose to just say yes or no while the others pore over the closely-printed menu. “Madam!” calls out one of the girls, the spunkiest and funniest of them all. This is a sign to me to get my nose out of my book and make a pretence at decision-making.

I live with three girls from three different states in North India, so Hindi is inevitably the language spoken most at home. I give thanks for the gazillionth time for my decent knowledge of the language- my years in the North haven’t gone waste. I don’t speak with an accent (and certainly not the kind that a bad actor fakes when doing a crass imitation of a Tamilian speaking Hindi).

The IPL matches have helped a great deal. Divided loyalties lead to pitched battles, but no, we haven’t gouged one another’s eyes out yet. We unanimously trash advertisements (and the IPL has brought along a spate of some astonishingly terrible adverts which make you nostalgic for the old ones with bad special effects- really, they were much better!); drink very milky, sugary coffee with potato chips- this, because we’re sick, almost literally, of the boxes of Frontier biscuits that have been pouring in from Delhi. We know the uncles and aunts love us, but we could really do without the pampering.

And as I write, we’re waiting for the cook to come and rescue us from the throes of hunger. Why settle for noodles when we can actually have a proper meal! The spunky girl cannot bear to look at food on television for now- it is a painful sight to comprehend on an empty stomach- and the rest of us have settled down to the bliss of nothingness on a weekday night. Commentary-infused peace reigns.

Prelude to The Roommate Chronicles, Season Two

I wasn’t expecting it to be easy. I didn’t expect to walk into the first flat on my list, be confronted by a plush carpet, impeccable furniture and a room with a skylight that could be all my own, so I could say, “Bingo! Here’s the room I’ve always wanted for my own,” and spin off a sequel to The Room on the Roof. Creative satisfaction, sadly, takes second place. What I need now, at this very moment, is a room with a roof.

I’m not technically homeless, but will be, soon, if the city of Bangalore isn’t kind enough to conjure up a decent little hovel for a moderately choosy young woman with few friends. Airborne was cruelly dragged out of bed (technically, he didn’t even have a chance to get into it after a night of work) bright and early Saturday morning to accompany this stray waif.

A sheet of paper scribbled over with numerous addresses was our only guide- and Airborne’s slight familiarity with the locality came in useful. His dashing good looks didn’t help, of course, because leaving girls speechless and have them gape at him wasn’t quite part of the plan- detrimental, rather, to what we were supposed to be doing. I cut him some slack, though- it wasn’t his fault, after all- and we trudged down the sunshiny lanes, looking at houses that flattered to deceive.. Some places even veered towards being seedy- the cramped rooms filled with girls were rather reminiscent of brothels, which isn’t a very nice comparison, but perfectly true.

I questioned potential roommates. It didn’t help that the girls wore inanely deadpan expressions- one of them looked like she’d just finished watching The Blair Witch Project (what was actually playing on TV was a Katrina Kaif movie, so I wouldn’t really blame her) and would burst into tears any moment. That said, I didn’t make a dazzling exhibition of intelligence either. CID-ish interrogation not being my forte, I’d ask a couple of questions, smile, blink and say goodbye. I beat a hasty retreat wherever I was told I’d have to cook my own food or share a room with two others. Forget three, two is a crowd when you’re talking roommates.

Reprieve came in the form of a kindly aunt’s place, litchi juice, an offer for lunch declined politely (in Airborne’s words, to avoid being barbecued by a friend who we were supposed to lunch with- and who might potentially be my saviour) and decent conversation. The relief, of course, was momentary- because before the next installment of The Roommate Chronicles finds its way here, there is quite a bit of traipsing to be done, and all kinds of men and women to be dealt with.

The Roomate Chronicles, Part Three

Here we go again. Another session of cribbing- but I’m being quite gentle this time.

The truth is, my roommate and I hardly see each other- and this unintentional arrangement works out perfectly for both of us. She is hardly ever home on weekdays, and I’m at my grandmother’s place on weekends, pretending to be a sylph in the wooded backyard and watching dead leaves burn.

She walked in last evening in salwar-kameez. I blinked.

“I’ve never seen you in anything but jeans.” (Oh yes, she works at a place that actually allows jeans all days.)

She smiled coyly (okay, I exaggerate) and went about her work. She actually looks good in salwar-kameez. One of my flatmates had given her the are-you-prettier-than-I-believe-I-am glance the day she arrived, and reported with satisfaction that she wasn’t pretty, to some scrutinising questions. Catty, yes, some of us are. (Living with girls is an eye-opener- they make you realise the existence of different kinds of behaviour- I recommend it if you’re planning to study psychology.) My roommate is really quite an easy person to live with, very tolerant of me, and helps me keep my Hindi (bless my years in MP and Bihar) in shape, even if I sprinkle it liberally with English words.

One of my flatmates has the most hideous taste in cinema. Have you ever met a person who is desperately in love with Karan-Arjun and has watched it so many times she knows every scene, every dialogue by heart? She shrieks in delight at the most unremarkable jokes, guffaws so loudly as to shake the night watchman out of his stupor. She knows of every movie that was ever released during the garish nineties and adores the oversized, ill-fitting costumes and outlandish jewellery. Oh well. She and I have diametrically opposites. She adores Chetan Bhagat and deifies Sidney Sheldon, has a boyfriend, likes eating at roadside stalls and enjoys shopping. About the only thing we have in common is our love for coffee.

I seek shelter- the room upstairs holds The Roommate who calls, “Lights Out!” and jumps into bed promptly as the clock strikes nine. I suspect she had an overdose of St. Clare’s as a little girl. Because even Minotaur cannot force me to stay in my room for more than ten minutes when she is around- and as I can’t read in the dark- I end up in the hall with Sridevi and her ridiculous gyrating moves (and my flatmate’s humming) for company. (Note: The platonic romance between Paul and Miriam and the Swiss honeymoon locales of Yash Chopra are a nightmare-inducing combination.)

And as I talk in such flattering terms of the girls I live with, I’d love to hear what they have to say about me. A blog entry they write might sound like this: “She is an antisocial thing who has books strewn all over the place and cannot appreciate fine cinema. She lives in the nineteenth century and seeks more privacy than Brangelina. What a prude.”

Thank you. I’m flattered.

PS: Have I told you that one of my flatmates is an F1 fan and has a red Puma Ferrari bag that I envy? Now she’s a girl I get on rather well with, but she is hardly ever at home when I am. Sigh.

The Business of Worship

It is about half-past eight, the coconut vendors are just beginning to set up shop, the women in their bright sarees are starting to heap pink roses and yellow-white garlands on rickety wooden stalls. The sun is making its way up from the east, slowly but surely gaining ground, promising a day of white heat. The colorful gopuram of the Balaji temple peeps out through the branches of the trees that grow in front of it, in this famous little village of Chilkur.

Business, as usual. The barterers are at work. Promise me what I want, and I will walk around the sanctum sanctorum 108 times. If I have nothing to ask for, if I only want to give thanks and maybe make a paltry wish or two, I will make 11 rounds of your shrine.

Faith does strange things. And so you see this stream of humanity- the rich and the poor, the healthy and the sick, the agnostics-turned-believers- circumambulating within the old walls of the temple, prayer and chanting filling the air, mingling with the clink of anklets and snatches of gossip. They rush in confused, shoving masses, borne along by a spiritual strength that supersedes physical discomfort. A bell tolls by the pipal tree where Shiva, anointed with turmeric, is being worshipped. Urchins sell unsealed bottles of ‘mineral’ water to tired and spent devotees. The business of worship is never effortless. People come from afar to have their wishes granted; more often than not, they are satisfied. Faith, hope, gratitude.

The whitewashed walls are cobwebbed, heaps of dust lie in a few corners, a large goat trundles in and munches on garlands discarded in a blue plastic bin; the premises are not scrupulously clean, but pretty decent for a place that sees thousands of visitors everyday and charges them nothing. Hidden away from the heat of the open roads, the stone floor chills your bare feet and corrugated sheets hide the sun.

Exit the temple premises, and you are confronted by rows of stalls under a large canopy. Colours abound; sacred threads, metal rings, key chains, bangles, beads- souvenir shops of the kind. The dusty road to the temple is lined with tea stalls, nondescript restaurants and little shops that stock colourful balloons and toys. Old, bent men and women walk around, leaning on their sticks, asking for alms. A narrow building calls itself a police outpost.

This is a village straight out of a time-warp. Ask them for a place where you can find a taxi, and they laugh out loud. Machines noisily churn out sugarcane juice. A man puts on sparkly purple headgear and piles more on a wooden table- where are the children? The pleasures here are simple and rustic- time doesn’t speed by like it had a job to finish, you savour every minute as you take in the delightfully relaxed surroundings.

And yet, at the end of it all, as noon approaches and you are on your way home, you are glad. You leave the barren earth behind, the hillocks of large brown boulders piled anyhow one over another; civilisation approaches in the form of spaceship-shaped buildings and residential complexes of tall buildings. You want your lunch, the comforts of your existence, and the lovely, unhurried hours of the morning are just an illusion to be talked about some distant day.

The Roommate Chronicles, Part Two

The bed was freshly made, a rucksack all packed and ready sat on it. A knock sounded on the door and when I unlatched it, she burst in hollering, her cousin in tow. The other girls screamed out their hellos, and we had a happy reunion.

All because I’d been away for the weekend? I really couldn’t fathom the ritual of the endless protestations of how much they’d missed me and the hugs. They’ve known me hardly a few weeks.

The first thing I noticed when I entered my empty room was that it was unusually clean. I had been away over the weekend, of course- but my roommate’s bed was cleared of every trace of debris as well, even the thin once-pale-pink blanket that was normally kept folded at its foot was tucked away elsewhere.

And what a propitious moment the raucous girls had chosen for their warm welcome. I was on a conference call, and it was one of the few spells when I wasn’t on mute and was being asked a question in a twangy drawl. Needless to say, I missed the point, didn’t even realise I was being spoken to till my manager nudged me, mumbled a reply in my defence, and got away with it for the moment- thankfully. Why everybody in the house had to discover my existence that particular minute, I really cannot tell. Murphy’s Law is a very cliched explanation I’m no longer willing to succumb to. There are other conspiracies at work.

I carried my phone out to the balcony to avoid screaming girls, only to be confronted by the relentless roar and thrum of the city, of the children playing in the clubhouse, of unrecognisable voices and sounds. When the crowds get you, they really clamp you inextricably in their jaws, and they’re everywhere, invisible but relentlessly existent.

Having struggled through the call, I went back in. My roommate was lugging her rucksack and a suitcase out through the door. I looked at her questioningly. She just might have seen the slight, but almost certain, glint in my eyes.

“I told you I was going home. To Jaipur.” Oh yes, she is from Punjab (and from Amritsar, in fact, as I had once predicted in a fit of reckless fun- creepy how these things turn out true), but she has lived in Gwalior and spent her vacations in Jaipur- no, we’re not kindred spirits just because we have similar stories.

“I thought you were leaving tomorrow.”

A long-winded explanation followed.

“I’ll be back next Monday.”

“Oh. A week. Have fun.” I could barely keep the enthusiasm out of my voice, apparently. Because she seemed to read my mind- and I don’t know if her reply was meant to be malicious or reassuring.

“Yes. It’s just a week. Then I’ll be back.”

She looked contemplative.

“Yes, I’ll be back for good. I won’t go anywhere, I’ll be here permanently.”

She’s nothing if not honest. True to her word, she has been home every waking (and sleeping) minute she doesn’t spend at work, and even comes home in record time- relegating me permanently to the hall downstairs, where there is already a dent on one of the new sofa cushions.

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