Saturday, 27 December 2008

"Come forward, my sons," said the old master, "Come tell me what you see."
The first young man in line stepped forward and scrutinised his surroundings.
"I see crowds of people, an unguarded entrance, an express train drawing into station. I see you, my master, and my brothers standing beside me. I see two coolies haggling, an overweight stationmaster, a shop selling newspapers and lemonade, an abandoned luggage trolley, a queue at the ticket counter- "
"Stop," said the master. "You see too much and not enough."
The young man fell back, confused, and his brother came up to take his place. "Tell me, son," said the master again, "What do you see?"
The second young man took a deep breath and began. "I see a great city, awash with light and rich with commerce. I see its giant throbbing heart, fed off the lifeblood of the peasants and the sweat of the poor. I see exploitation in every mighty building, and I see the greed of the oppressors who have denied us for too long- "
"Enough," said the master. "You are not yet ready."
The young man looked as if he was about to protest, but the third brother had already run forward eagerly.
"Well," said the master, "What is it that you see?"
The third brother spoke, and his voice was shaking. "I see infidels and traitors, idolaters and heathens. I see the filthy foreign dogs who have murdered our brothers, raped our sisters, and invaded our motherland. I see those who hate us, those who persecute us, those who would kill us. They are the enemy..."
"I see," said the master, "that so far you have learnt nothing."
The young man stopped, stunned, then spat angrily upon the ground and turned away.
"Do you see anything different?" said the master to the fourth brother.
The fourth brother hesitated, then spoke softly. "I see... a young executive calling up his wife to say he'll be late... I see a group of girls out on their first college trip... I see a shoeshine boy counting out coins to buy a cup of tea... I see a family travelling to a hard-earned vacation, though they only have second-class seats. There is a child with a red balloon..."
He stopped short, embarrassed. He was the youngest in the group.
"I see," said the master, more gently than before. "This work is not meant for you."
Then the last young man in line stepped forward and the master repeated his question. "And you, what is it that you see?"
The fifth brother looked his teacher in the eye and replied, "I see my target. Nothing else except my target."
"Nothing else?" persisted the master, "You don't see their different histories, their social backgrounds? You don't see their faiths or their nationalities, their prejudices and their flaws? Do you not see each as a representative of the greater system, a symbol of a greater evil? Do you not see the different faces or the different names, the men who rule them or the gods they bow before?"
The young man's face remained impassive as he shook his head. "I see nothing but my target," he said quietly, "And I know what I must do."
The master was satisfied. "Go then," he said. "Shoot."
His brothers stood watching, disbelieving, full of awe. The young warrior, his pale cheeks faintly flushed with triumph and a hard glitter in his eyes, walked forward a few steps, raised his weapon, and took aim.
At the other end of the platform, the child with the red balloon had begun to scream...

Monday, 22 December 2008


Did Cinderella 'accidentally' lose her glass slipper or did she chuck them because high heels are always infernally difficult to run down palace stairs in?

Did all those various woodland animals- toad, woodchafer, mole- really wish to marry Thumbelina or just have her for a between-meals snack?

Did the Ugly Duckling have to become a beautiful swan to give the story its moral? Did its name suddenly become Glorious Swan with the metamorphosis? Did it even have a name?

If Aladdin was originally Chinese, why did Disney transport him to Arabia and give him a harem pants-wearing princess called Jasmine?

Doesn't the fact that the Handsome Prince kissed Sleeping Beauty despite her surely having terrible morning breath prove that men are unhygenic pigs?

What would happen to Little Red Riding Hood's identity if one fine day she lost her red riding hood and no longer remained little?

Having very smartly destroyed the wicked witch, why did Hansel and Gretel leave the gingerbread and candy cottage and skip along home to their cowardly father who had abandoned them in the woods in the first place?

Why did Pinocchio ever want to become a 'real boy' anyway?

Oh well. They all had their happy endings though.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Except for the balloons, it looked like anything but a five year old's birthday party.

The lot of us arrived just as the cake was being cut. The lady of the evening, buttoned into a pink frock with matching scarf tucked around her ears- well, she was running around somewhere below eye level, weaving around adult legs, chased by a shrieking train of daddy's friends' kids. I handed her the present we'd picked up on the way, and although mummy urged her to say thank you, all she had for us were beaming hugs. As I was about to concede that some kids can be nice, she wondered loudly why this box was lighter than the others. Ran off again to stow away her new treasure in the next room where a towering pile of packages was collecting on the bed. Branded bags and cascades of ribbons and lurid birthday cards from Bulbul Pishi addressed to a kid who couldn't read yet. I began to regret having wrapped ours in "classy" newspaper.

The population was now drifting towards the buffet table. Haggling over the size of the biryani chicken- "no, smaller, smaller please." Pink paper napkins certifying that our mutton chaap was, indeed, courtesy Nathuram Caterers. We wandered around, plates in hand, following my more self-assured friend at a safe distance, watching in admiration as she flitted from cluster to people cluster, dropping a comment here, a smattering of laughter there. I theorised in my mind as to the origin of the phrase 'social butterfly'. Jeweled heels crossed smartly over trousered knees. Lipstick stained the rims of crumpled plastic glasses in the dustbins. A little girl sobbed because someone had stolen the toffees she got out of the khoi bag. The cake was pink too, with inch-high sugar people dotting a strawberry landscape. We washed it down with discreet swigs of something stronger.

As the night wore on, it was the grown-ups, however, who started drooping rapidly. Rubbing of kajal-ed eyes; someone grumbled about a deadline the next morning. At any given moment the verandah was found to be crammed with people out for a quick smoke. The kids were still having a ball. Probably all that sugar. The streamers had come off the walls; the khoi bag was reduced to a bedraggled glittery wreck that a group of toddler boys, with typical machismo, were using as a football. The toddler girls, led by the aforementioned lady of the evening, were ripping balloons off the furniture legs and jumping on them with no obvious intent. When they succumbed and flatly exploded, they were not discouraged. Didi, please get me another. Here, tie it for me, didi please.

I reached up obligingly and pulled off some more, handing them to the jostling throng. A particularly expressive friend of mine, watching, with evil intent growing in his brain, suddenly leaned forward and snatched one out of my hands. "Here, let me show you how it's done."

Wham. Full force of a size 10 boot down on red elastic. Stunned silence. Open mouthed wonder. Then, slowspreading delight. Excited grins. Do it again. Again, again.

No stopping us now. Through a tiny hole in that tight stretched atmosphere, a whisper of recklessness, a whiff of juvenile joy had escaped, and nobody wanted to plug it up. We were grabbing, ripping, wrestling down whole streams of balloons to the floor, fighting to see who could destroy them fastest. Bang. Wham. Stamping with shoes, stabbing with stilletos, smothering in your arms, somebody enthusiastically elbow dropping his victim into submission. The kids screamed with glee, and we showed them how to join in. That's it, harder sonny, jump with both feet, you can do it, come on, it's just a balloon, and it's fun isn't it, you want more, of course, there's plenty, go crazy. More, more.

Soon, the dropouts emerged from the verandah, drawn either by the series of explosions or the sudden loud laughter that no children could make. And this is the part of that evening that I remember best. They came in, a little groggy, a bit bemused, but nobody wanted to know what's going on here. A few sheepish smiles did the rounds; an adventurous kaku cheered us, and soon all was pandemonium. Of course they joined in- they didn't have much of a choice. Elegant chignons came undone, sari pallus flapped, elderly uncles romped with ten year olds, parents exhorted their offspring on in the mad frenzy. It was better than fireworks, and probably louder than the stipulated decibel level imposed during Diwali. Irate neighbours complained later about those horrible noisy children keeping decent people up at unholy hours. The children themselves maybe learned a thing or two about the techniques of anarchy. But nobody stopped until every balloon in that apartment had been punctured and given way to a satisfying bang. When it was finally done, we stood and looked around at the awful mess- the smears of cake all over the floor, the tattered bits of elastic floating everywhere, the rented chairs overturned- and the gaggle of bright-eyed children, breathless, bubbling over with giggles, hardly able to believe that adults could be so cool. 

Somebody glanced at a watch. It was getting late. Parents rounded up their offspring, others collected shoes and coats. One by one we muttered our goodnights, filed out of the room and down the narrow stairs. "You could have saved a few for me," the birthday girl's grandmother was heard remarking. I knew I ought to be tired, but I couldn't stop smiling. The friend who had started it all winked at me. "Lucky bastards. I never had such a brilliant birthday when I was a kid." He only looked puzzled when I squeezed his arm happily and spun twice on the spot. For how could I explain to him or the laughing stars above how wonderful those few words sounded... "When I was a kid."

I try to grasp pictures but all I get are words. Words that somehow seem terribly inadequate.

Who would have thought the walking thesaurus would ever have a problem with expression? Although, to be honest, I never found my own copy of Roget's particularly useful. Draw the parallel, if you can.

This space shall be in memoriam of one that I couldn't quite save. Mea culpa.

The afternoons here used to be hot, very hot. Outside the iron-grilled window koels uttered thirsty calls from the branches of the guava tree. The boy, barefooted, swaddled in a white towel, took his time. One of the servants would already have carried up two steaming buckets and hung up a fresh kurta on the hook behind the door. But the boy did not notice these just then. A glance up and down the empty corridor, the door creaked shut behind him and a wooden bolt fell into place. Bare feet slapped against the red stone floor and a hand reached up to pull down the window shutters. Barred sunlight glanced off his dark shoulders as if in mild reproach and, so denied, stealthily picked out other details of the room- the cumberous marble throne, dust motes dancing in the corners, the gentle bobbing of the plastic mug in one of the buckets. Shyly, it came back to rest at his feet again, and the boy, shrugging off the swathes of coarse cotton, nodded a brief hello.

 Even in summer, the water was always hot enough to make tea with. He bathed as all Indians do- dip and pour, dip and pour, scalding streams running off his back, beads of hotness quivering on his skin. His arms burned with goosebumps as he did this; his feet, rooted to cold stone, would shiver. This part of the house was deserted. The heavy door blocked out all sound except the tinny buzzing of the bluebottles. Only that, and the voices of the ghosts rising out of the mists. Those who lived deep in the walls and only emerged in this place of half-shadow in the dead of noon while everybody else slept. 

The boy knew them well, although they never spoke. They were curious, and always hungry for stories. They knew, without his telling, of his past and his present. They knew the shape of his body shining translucent in the mist. They knew the depth of his thoughts, of his diffidence and his tender youth. They had already claimed him as one of their own.

The boy understood all this, and he accepted what they had to give. They sent him dreams, vivid watercolours of greengray meadows and vast silent marshes. They came to him at night when he lay in a bed much too big for him, creeping through thick walls and running like thieves up many stairs, down dark corridors. They brought faded images of people he had never seen and poured waves of sepia deep into his brain. They stretched midnight long and taut until the day seemed unreal when it came and he woke up feeling many years older. Once he had complained of nightmares, but he knew better now. All they wanted, in their insistent, wordless way, was to keep themselves alive. He understood, and he never forgot.

An hour or so later, a darkheaded boy in a new white kurta emerged from the rarely used 'downstairs bathroom' and climbed up the courtyard stairs to the terrace, leaving a trail of wet footprints that soon disappeared in the fierce sunshine. The maid who collected the empty buckets later grumbled in the servants' quarters that chota sahib would surely catch his death of cold one of these days.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008


I stood at the ghats at sundown and followed the river with my eyes.
Pale ribbon of gold meandering surely into the sky.
How often had I sat on these smooth rocks, feet dangling in the shallows, counting sailing clouds, losing track of time.
Time was always on our side.

But this sunset was different.
Today the waves were in a hurry and I could not stay.
Averting my eyes, I lowered the pitcher in my arms and poured.
The stream flowed swiftly. Ripples blossomed on the glass and spread where my voice could not.
I let it run, not checking the flow, nor holding back.
Everything the river had given must be returned.

I came back to the place that should be my home.
The walls bare, the floor unswept. I put down the pitcher and unfastened the window shutters.
Far away in the evening I see the gleam of familiar waters.
Turn away, wordless yet again.

It is then that I notice what I should have seen all along.

The pitcher is no longer empty.
To the brim it is filled with clear liquid, slopping over the sides, warm to the touch.
No explanations given. None required.
I kneel, cupping in my hands this small miracle. Their last gift.
This time, I know it is mine to keep.