Friday, 18 April 2014

The Domino Effect - Part 2 - Is It Worth It ?

Sameer sat, hunched like he was drawing himself into a shell, his breathing still ragged, drawing in deep breaths of air like he had just surfaced after a long underwater submerge stint. His eyes half closed, trying to gain a control on himself, feeling like a puppeteer whose puppet suddenly decided to cut its own strings, he sat still holding the phone, his hands clenched around it, knuckles white with the pressure he was exerting on it, almost as if his life depended on it.  It had been another of those fights, bitter and ever intensifying like a volcano building up pressure just before the blowout. He glanced at his watch and noticed that he had been arguing and fighting for nearly an hour. He felt exhausted and drained but still high strung and all nervy, waiting for some kind of a release.

It had been Anamika, his girlfriend now of over 4 years. Cat eyed and raven haired, she also had the temper and foul mouth that came with the territory. Theirs had been a meeting that seemed like it was destined. They had hit it off instantly, almost losing themselves in each other, wanting to and spending all their time with each other, unable to be without each other. It was like they had been consumed by each other. The intensity of their chemistry and emotion was something that surprised both of them at the start but only seemed to build with time.

Theirs was the ideal love affair, building up with time and never shy, always out in the open. Everyone talked about them being the ideal couple. He was a year senior and used to help her with all her academic work, spending time on her work as much as he needed to spend on his. They would do everything together, even if it was one of his friend’s birthdays or a party thrown by one hers. They could talk to each other for hours or so it seemed, about themselves, about each other, about anything at all that seemed important to either of them. They both loved music, going to every concert that came to town, often spending hours with an IPOD and each with one of the headphones, eyes closed and simply listening. And then they would talk about what they had imagined, in vivid detail, exulting when there was something common in their narratives. Driving was another passion, both just preferring to up and ride away by themselves and reaching some remote spot where they would spend the afternoon by themselves.

The idyllic period came to an end when he passed out a year ahead of her and got into a job. The saving grace was that he was still in the same city. So, they would still meet every day. There was a strain when they were not always together. They no longer went everywhere together. He would still want to take her everywhere. But she would refuse to go saying that all his friends would talk about was work, which was true at one level.  And she no longer invited him to go with her to her friend’s parties, saying that they were different and that he wouldn't enjoy them. Also, she now had a few very close male friends that she constantly talked about. He felt that she was constantly talking about herself and about her friends; she never had time to ask him about himself or listen to anything he had to say.

Then the next blow came. He got transferred out to Mumbai from Delhi, three months before her final exam. So, they met only when either of them made a trip down during a holiday. And they could rely only on the phone. The distance affected their closeness, getting in the way, casting clouds where there had been clarity before, creating breaks in what had been familiar roads and putting in a distance where there had been togetherness and closeness before. The telephone conversations started becoming strained. She did not have him to help her with her exams and so relied on one of her friends who happened to be a guy. So conversations dwindled and sometimes did not happen at all. And even if they did, they were short and staccato. Mostly about her exams and how the preparation was so tough and how her friend was helping her. It seemed like her friend was spending a lot of time with her. Jealousy reared its ugly head and they had their first big fight the day before her first exam – about her friend. It was a new experience for either of them, fighting like that. But the words came pouring out, as if a dam that had been built up over the past few months had broken and the waters surged forth. Faults were found, conversations were rewound and dissected, issues made out of small things and names were called, a lot of French and German was spoken. They didn't speak to each other for the next couple of weeks while her exams were going on.

She had then come to Mumbai to stay with him after the exams and the whole issue had just disappeared. The two months that she had stayed was like a throwback to their college time together. Every day was an experience that they built together and relived a countless times. They discovered nooks and crannies of the city that they doubted existed outside their imagination and spent hours there, just drinking in the silence and each other, an island of quiet in the river of noise that was the city. Then she had gone back to Delhi, having gotten a job there. The first months were a hangover of their time together and went with their spending time on the phone and money on their phone bills, calling each other at least a dozen times in the day to tell each other what had happened or what they had seen or what they imagined. The bond seemed to have been rebuilt and cemented for good.

Then came her training trip to the US, for a period of four weeks. He did not have a way of reaching her. She said that the company did not allow her an international roaming and therefore, she would email him and call him from a land line when she could. At first, there were calls on alternate days and photos mailed. Then the calls stopped and the photos became more sporadic with just one line emails about meetings and dinners out or parties. He felt a keen sense of loss, something like the loss of a body part.  He had been unable to deal with not being able to talk or see her for that long. The waiting became unbearable. Then the email came that due to her performance in her training, they had asked her to stay back and take an advanced training for another month. He had written back to her that he was missing her and that maybe she could take the training after some time. Her answer about her career being important and her wanting to succeed at her work stunned and shocked him beyond belief. After that, he had not written to her and she had also only sent routine emails about what was happening, a line or two here and there. It was almost as if, there was a crack in the glass bubble that held their togetherness and it had started draining out.

She had come back after two months and started her work. Her first phone call to him that weekend was their first fight. It was about all the things he had felt and all that he had wanted to tell her for those eight weeks and all that she didn't want to hear. They had both yelled, talking at the same time, not listening. They had both been right and the other wrong. After a while, she had cut the phone on him. He tried calling and after about eight attempts, she picked up. He had been shocked at her anger and her decision to simply cut him off. He did not know how to deal with it and though he was angry, his shock was like a bucket of cold water on the fire. He was apologetic and begged for her forgiveness. For the first time, he was unsure of himself in their equation and that scared him.

Their phone calls continued for the next year and they visited each other a couple of times as well. They had one or two more fights but he took care not to push it beyond, afraid that she would simply decide to cut him off. Then came the next change, she moved to another company in a senior role. This role needed her to travel more frequently.  And then the fights had started again. With her travelling, she could not talk to him sometimes for days and even then, they were very short conversations with very little said. She was always with someone or going somewhere or doing something. When he brought up the issue, she blamed him for not being supportive of her career and not being there for her when she needed him. He couldn't for the life of him understand what she needed from him. The fights had ended with either of them apologizing and promising to make it up, though they never did get around to it.

It was now a year since they had started fighting over this issue. The distance between them had worsened to the point where neither of them could understand each other. Most conversations ended in a fight and more lately, almost every one of them did. He had started travelling as well and between them, there was never time for a conversation. He would message her almost always when he went somewhere or did something or finished something. And she would respond hours later when she could. He was used to the time when she would respond instantaneously and they would have a mini conversation on the messages. He would call her at times but most often, she would either not pick up or would pick up and say that she was busy in a meeting and would call back. She wouldn't call back until a few hours later when he was already tired of waiting.

Finally the last straw came when he had laid all of this open in a conversation about three months ago. The lack of response from her, the lack of time, the lack of closeness was something that he could no longer live with and he decided to ask her outright if there was a problem. Only, the words didn't come out quite right and he appeared to be blaming her for all of this. Maybe at one level, he had been doing just that. It blew up in his face with her anger reaching a level that he had never seen before. She gave it all right back to him. A lot of bitter words were said and a lot of hurt caused that time. The conversation ended abruptly when the signal dropped. Neither of them called back. And that was that. For the next week, they did not speak to each other until one morning she called and just picked up as if nothing had happened. He was still smarting from all that and didn't give up. The fight reared its head once more and the gloves were off.

Since then, this had become the routine. He had reached the point where he no longer knew what they were doing with each other and whether there was any point to their fighting. He kept telling her that all he wanted was time from her and her attention. And he kept finding faults with her about things that she did and things that she did not do. The fights kept escalating and there were breaks in between when they did not speak to each other, almost did not dare to call. But the routine did not break and the fights continued. The instances different each time, but the reasons the same. He wanted her to be the same again. And somehow, she wasn't ready for that.

Until this morning and the call from here when he had just reached office, saying that she was in Goa with some friends. He hadn't quite understood what had happened and then had gone white in anger, remembering how he had pleaded with her for give him time two nights before and her telling him that she could not take time off as there was too much work. The trip to Goa just like that was the icing on the cake for him and he had gone silent first and then exploded. She had tried reasoning it out with him that she needed a break and when that was established, that she needed to be with her friends because she couldn't be with him. That settled it for him. And the whole merry go round started once again, going back to conversations a year old and what had been said or not said, what had been done or not done and why that had been wrong anyway. Both of them had grown increasingly vocal, almost yelling. He forgot that he was in office and when his colleague Ajay waved to him and motioned him to go to one of the conference rooms was when he came to his senses. She finally told him that her friends were waiting and that she had to go, something that sparked off the fight again. It finally ended with him yelling that she couldn't give him time or importance anymore and that she was just calling him because he would fight if she didn't. She simply put the phone down then and switched it off. He gave up trying to call her after a few minutes and now sat there in the conference room with the phone in his hand, like someone who had been battered from all sides and left curled up, wounded and bleeding.

There was a knock on the door and Ajay peeked in and asked, “Are you okay?” Not trusting his voice, Sameer just nodded. Ajay gave him a cup of water that he had been holding and simply patted Sameer’s back and walked out. The rest of the day was a disaster and Sameer quickly closed for the day and left office, waving his thanks to Ajay. Ajay was on the phone with someone and simply waved back. He seemed to be patiently saying something on the phone, taking care not to raise his voice and keep it flat and even, spacing his words out. Sameer walked out not registering what was happening, lost in his own world.

The next day, Sameer was back in office early, trying to catch up with the time that he had lost the day before. He had spent the night up, thinking about what had happened the previous day on the phone call and had been having a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach about himself and Anamika. Ajay came in talking on the phone, put his bag down, waved at Sameer and went straight to the conference room and continued his conversation. Disturbed by the resemblance to his own experience the day before, Sameer shook his head and after a few seconds, continued with his work. After what seemed to be half an hour, Ajay came out of the conference room, looking tired and worn out. His was the cabin next to Sameer’s and he sat down heavily in his chair. At first Sameer thought he would ignore it but then decided to simply peek into Ajay’s cabin and reciprocate the previous day’s help. He carried two cups of coffee into Ajay’s room and gave Ajay one of them and sat down opposite him.

“All well?” asked Sameer. Ajay mumbled a quick yes and then hit behind the coffee mug. After a couple of minutes of strained silence, Ajay broke it by saying, “I am sorry, I was on the phone with my sister. She is going through a rough patch in her relationship with this guy.” Sameer knew what that was like and simply nodded, not trusting himself to speak and waited for Ajay to continue. Ajay continued with a question that seemed to rock Sameer right down to his shoes, “Why do people in love fight? And especially, why do they fight about love itself and with each other about it?” Ajay seemed to be speaking to himself and didn't need a reply. Sameer kept silent wondering if Ajay was speaking about him and Anamika. Ajay continued, “My sister and her boyfriend seem to be fighting with each other about why they love each other and why they think the other person doesn't love them. I am very close to her and we have been almost friends ever since we were kids. So every time this happens, she calls me and wants me to help.  Last afternoon was a fight and I thought I had told her how to sort it out and now this morning, another fight and this one about his not calling her or messaging her enough. And she wanted me to help with this one as well.” Ajay stopped at that, suddenly catching himself, looking embarrassed for having spoken too much. He then changed the topic to his son Aditya and the school annual function that was coming up and how Aditya was playing the part of Little John in a play about Robin Hood. But the conversation kept playing back in Sameer’s head and he kept silent, just nodding encouragement without really listening.

When Ajay stopped his explaining after almost ten minutes, Sameer was unable to keep his curiosity under control and asked him, “So, what did you tell your sister? Did you solve her problem?” Ajay leaned back, took a deep breath and said;”I told her that I couldn't sort out her problem and that she needed to do it. But I also told her that you can’t demand love or time. It has to be given of its own accord. There is no point in fighting for what the other person doesn't give because they have already decided that they don’t want to give you that. So I simply told her to figure out if there was anything left between her and this guy and then act accordingly. In any case, there is no point in fighting for something that isn't there anymore. Is the fight really worth it then?”

Sameer hunched in his chair like he had been punched in the stomach. The words rang in his mind again and again. Ajay finished his coffee and excused himself saying that he had a meeting to go to. Sameer simply nodded and went back to his cabin, in a trance, still thinking about what Ajay had said. Slowly, but surely, the jig saw pieces began to fall into place. He realized that he was in the same boat as Ajay’s sister, trying to command Anamika’s time and attention which she didn't want to give him in the first place, be it a question of priorities or simply a desire not to. As it all fell into place, that sinking feeling, the quick sand at the pit of his stomach, slowly disappeared. A curious sense of calm descended on him. He walked out of office and went down to the cafeteria which he knew would be deserted now. He called up Anamika and in a calm and quiet voice, told her exactly what he thought they should do. At first she seemed surprised and shocked and then angry at what he was suggesting. But his calm voice and the clarity in his words helped. After a few minutes, he signed off from the conversation with a simple thanks and bye and walked back to his cabin, feeling a curious sense of relief and miraculously, a sense of peace about himself, something that seemed to have been missing in the past year. 

Saturday, 12 April 2014

The Domino Effect - Part 1 - The U Turn

The domino effect is a chain reaction that occurs when a small change causes a similar change nearby, which then causes another similar change, and so on in linear sequence. The term is best known as a mechanical effect, and is used as an analogy to a falling row of dominoes. It typically refers to a linked sequence of events where the time between successive events is relatively small. It can be used literally (an observed series of actual collisions) or metaphorically (causal linkages within systems such as global finance or politics). – Wikipedia on the Domino Effect

For those of us who have seen a domino effect in motion, two things keep us entranced – the seeming continuity of motion and the linkages at tandem between seemingly unrelated streams of dominos. The heart stops when a domino falls and almost whisper-caresses the next one standing some distance away and at an angle and causes it to fall, setting off another line of motion.

What if the domino effect was applied to humans? Could it be possible that every action of any human being has an impact or effect on the life of some other human being who could be completely unconnected with the first? At first sight this seems impossible. But for those of us, who believe in the serendipitous nature of things, know otherwise. Daily tidbits of human calamity that reach us that are based on a random set of events irreversibly changing lives.

And thus the inspiration for this set of stories where human lives are irretrievably changed by another, seemingly unrelated. Since this is a series, each episode will be short and centered on a person or persons whose lives change at random due to another. And there is a reason why this series is called a Reverse Domino, to find which, one will need to read through.


Part 1 - The U Turn

Ajay turned to look in the rear view mirror as he drove away. The small face crumpled and looked even impossibly small even as it receded. He could see or imagined that he could see the tears barely being held back, the whimpers shaking the small frame as the boy bravely tried to choke them. He felt a tiny flicker of pride at the change in his son – from crying openly for every little thing to being able to put up a brave face. He remembered his own words “You have to be tough and brave in the world. There are a lot of people who will hurt you. You need to become tougher as you grow up. There won’t always be someone to take care of you or protect you.” He had known he was being harsh but his own memories of endless hours of torment as he had grown up, the pain, the confusion, the hurt. And he knew that he wanted to protect his Aditya from all that at any cost. He had to make him tough and safe.

Even now, as he drove away, a part of him wanted to stop the car and run back, hug that little part of himself. But he forced that part of himself back into the deep recesses of his brain, somewhere deep in that pool of his brain that it could not come back again to the surface. His jaw clenched and he gripped the steering wheel harder even as his foot pressed down on the accelerator and he sped away, the dust cloud behind the car preventing his hungry eyes from sneaking a look back through the rear view.

He rejoined the main traffic as he drove towards office, his pace dropping to almost a crawl. He turned up the window and switched on the air conditioning. With the car stopping more than it was travelling, like some extremely tired beast that took more time to move than stop, his thoughts wandered to the morning and all that had happened.

It had been a normal morning with him waking up at to his usual clock and waiting for the alarm to ring and then shutting it off and waking up with the usual spring in his step. He had always been a morning person all his life, loving every minute of that alone time that he got for himself, switching on some music and getting everything in order for the day, for all of them. And the final part of the ritual, his extra large mug of coffee, straight out of the percolator, the only thing that he took time over in his routine, inhaling and sipping the coffee as it was the last he would have. Then his routine of waking up Aditya, cajoling him out of bed and often giving into the request for an extra five minutes of sleep. He justified the action to himself that maybe the boy had had a bad dream and so did not sleep well.

That morning went exactly as per the routine, like a screenplay enacted by a well rehearsed cast. Until the moment when he had seen the note in Aditya’s diary that he had not completed his work in class.  He had called Aditya down and had asked him what had happened and for the first time, he heard Aditya say what was apparently a lie, that his pen ran out of ink, uncomfortable and shuffling through the whole statement. Ajay filled ink in Aditya’s pen each morning and so couldn't believe that the pen could run out of ink. He pushed Aditya by asking him more questions only to get the same answer. And his disbelief had turned to shock and then to anger at having been lied to. He had asked Aditya whether the excuse was true, only to receive a hesitant and uncertain confirmation, but a confirmation nonetheless. He had turned away and left Aditya standing then, a first since his son had been old enough to talk. Unsure of what to do, his son had completed getting ready for school. And then the final straw had happened. He had brought the diary note to Ajay, asking him to write the reason and sign on it. A flash of anger had overtaken Ajay at that instant and he had lost his head, yelling and screaming.

He hadn't even calmed down after about 15 minutes of venting his anger. Aditya had turned pale, nearly white with shock at his dad’s anger, an extreme that he had seen for the first time. Tears had started to well up, Aditya had started to stare at the ground, a sign that he was going to cry. And Ajay had yelled at him once again, his anger searching for any outlet available at that instant, telling him to stop being a cry baby and own up to his mistake, to start acting responsible. Very adult words those had been, words that an eight year old could never have understood. But he had not stopped to think, his anger ruling his actions and his words just pouring out. Aditya had now focused on some spot on the floor, his hands picking and pulling at a loose thread on his shirt front for want of something to do. The thread held a button which at that instant came loose and fell. Aditya looked up guiltily as if he expected the next tidal wave for this. Normally, Ajay would have caught onto his look and would have reassured Aditya that it was not his fault. But Ajay was not normal that day.

The shirt was changed and Ajay realized that they were late for school. He started lecturing Aditya on being on time, the whole way that he drove to school. Aditya stayed silent, his hands safely clasped together, to prevent anything else from going wrong. And then they had reached school, a good half an hour late and Ajay had to talk to the teacher to let Aditya in, something that irritated him further. He had not even waited for Aditya to go in, had not said goodbye and just walked away to his car and driven away, thinking that his action will teach Aditya a lesson in lying to him.

A honk behind brought Ajay back to here and now and he realized that the light had changed color and he hadn't moved forward. He put his hand out and waved an apology as he started the car and drove the short distance till he caught up with the next car in the long queue to his destination. He then saw a boy selling sun blinds for car windows, the boy just about Aditya’s age or maybe even slightly older. The boy would go up to every driver’s side window and would put the blind onto the window and would peek through the windshield to make his pitch. A couple of drivers took and interest and he closed the sale. One driver rolled down the window and gave him a Re 10 note, something which the boy simply gave back, shaking his head, his pride not allowing him to accept alms. He muttered something to the driver inside and the driver withdrew his offer, rolling up the window. The boy was walking towards Ajay’s car now and just as he reached Ajay’s window to begin his spiel, someone called him from the sidewalk.

Ajay watched the boy go through his spiel and rolled down his window, thinking that the boy was tough and so worldly wise, exactly the same way that he had asked Aditya to be. He felt a pang of regret then that he had left Aditya like that at school. But he brushed it aside nonetheless, telling himself that it was for the best.  He decided not to buy the blinds and watched the disappointed boy go across to the next car. The driver was a man in his late forties, same as Ajay and a boy sat in the front seat. The whole sales routine of the sun blinds was run through and the man decided to buy a set but did not have the exact change. The boy who was selling them offered to get change but the man decided to walk out of the car and go across to the boy’s father and get the change.

The man came back to the car, the traffic not having moved an inch in the meantime. As he got back into the driver’s seat and belted himself down, his son rolled down the window on his side. Ajay could now clearly hear the conversation between them. The boy asked his father why he had gone out of the car and his father explained that he had gone to get the change. The boy did not leave the matter at that and asked his dad why he had not allowed the boy who had sold the blinds to get him the change. His dad was obviously uncomfortable at the question and finally muttered something about not being able to trust a strange boy with so much cash. The son quieted down at that, thinking something over. Then Ajay heard him clearly ask, “Dad, is it the same reason that you didn't trust me when I told you that another boy had taken my pen and so I could not complete my class work?” The man replied, “But how could he have taken your pen and why did you let him do it?”

The exchange went on this way as the boy tried to explain to his dad about a school mate who had not brought his pen and how he had given his pen to the boy and they had taken turns to write the class work and both had not been able to finish. When he finished, his dad simply turned to him and said, “I am sorry I didn't believe you. But why didn't you tell me this when I asked you?” The boy simply said, “I thought you would get angry at me and so decided to just make up an excuse.” The man looked as if he had been struck in the face and said nothing for a second, then finally, simply leaned forward and hugged his son and said, “I want you to always tell me everything from now on and I promise to try and never get angry at you.”

Then, sensing Ajay’s eyes on him, the man looked up and saw that Ajay had been observing the whole interchange. He looked embarrassed at first and then simply laughed at himself, finally talking across to Ajay, “Kids nowadays! You can’t be their father anymore, you have to just be their friend. You have kids?” Ajay didn't know how to react and simply nodded yes. Luckily at that moment, the car ahead of him moved forward and Ajay moved ahead of the other car, saved the discomfort of having to face the man. As he sat in his car, he thought about what had happened, how the boy had chosen not to tell the truth to the man and made up a white lie, and wondered if the same thing had happened with Aditya. By becoming angry, he had only made his son’s fear come true. He sat there stunned at what had happened and how quickly he had simply chosen to believe a lie.

The car behind him honked again and he looked up to see that the traffic had moved ahead once again and he had been caught thinking. There was a break in the traffic to his right and he saw that there was a break in the road just there with no oncoming traffic. He thought for a moment about the time and the fact that he would be delayed to office and then decided that he needed to go back. He turned on the car’s indicator and quickly shifted into the right lane and took the U turn, not noticing the “No U Turn” signal right there. The traffic cop standing just ahead waved frantically and blew on his whistle but Ajay could not be bothered. He joined the traffic line back towards Aditya’s school, only wanting to suddenly see his son and hug him and somehow make all the nasty things he had said go away.

Suddenly, the boy selling the blinds came back to his car, starting his sales pitch and then somehow recognizing Ajay, stopping it and preparing to move on. It was then that Ajay looked at the man on the sidewalk and he saw a man sitting cross legged on a sheet, surrounded by small stacks of the packed sun blinds, staring at something. After watching him for a couple of moments, Ajay suddenly realized that the man was blind. And with that came the realization that the man had no choice but to believe his son and depended on his son to see for him.

Ajay felt very small right then, shrinking in stature in his own eyes, for having done what he had that morning. He sat silently, patiently waiting and driving the small distances forward until he could take the turn off the main road towards Aditya’s school. The security guard looked confused as Ajay ran towards the gate and simply let him in. Ajay sprinted all the way to Aditya’s class room in the annex building at the back, running up the stairs to the first floor and down the corridor to the last room. He stopped at the door and saw Aditya with his head down writing something. He looked at the teacher and simply raised his hand asking for a minute. The teacher nodded and Ajay walked into the room towards Aditya. He reached Aditya’s desk and simply stopped. Aditya stopped writing when he felt someone standing next to him and looked up, his questioning eyes suddenly turning a little scared when he saw that it was Ajay. At that moment, all Ajay wanted to do was to simply wipe that fear away. He bent down and simply hugged Aditya hard. His breath seemed to have caught in his throat and his eyes threatened to spill over as a blanket of relief settled over him. A few minutes and a hasty explanation to the teacher later, Ajay was driving away from the school with Aditya, towards their favorite haunt, the beach. The office and the world and everything else could wait, he was with his son now ….

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Pangs of Separation - Part 3

He stepped outside the door and looked on either side of the corridor, half expecting to see her, maybe in conversation with a neighbor or maybe coming back from some errand that she had suddenly remembered. The corridor was deserted, children having gone to school by now and the adults getting ready to start their treks to their workplace. There was a sound of someone sliding the latch on a door and his heart leapt up as if this were the door from which she would emerge. A door opened half way down the corridor and an old lady with her walker and the girl attendant walked out, most likely on her daily walking routine. They passed him on their way to elevator, the lady staring at him openly and not bothering to look away when he stared back.

He came back into the house, closing the door behind him. And then, as he sat down, he was struck by a thought that the locked door might make her think that he had left. So he went back and opened the door, leaving it ajar. He sat down on the sofa, his thoughts wandering to the conversation that they had been having the previous night, her sitting on his lap and brushing away his hair from his forehead as she had grown used to doing. They had talked about what she would do over the next few days, setting up the place, how she would like to do it and how she wanted him to help. He had offered to take the next few days off when he realized that she had been pulling his leg, her whole body shaking with suppressed laughter at his gullibility. He had decided to take revenge then and …

The door bell rang loudly, breaking his reverie. He almost jumped out of the sofa and ran to the door, not realizing in his haste that she wouldn't be ringing the bell on an open door. The old lady in her walker stood outside, the girl attendant in tow. She looked impatient, as if he was somehow late in coming to the door, even though he had run to open it. He said, “Hello, can I help you?” and the lady replied, “Tell your wife that I have got her the Tulsi plant.” It was then that he noticed that the girl was holding a small pot containing a Tulsi sapling. A wave of relief washed over him. Finally, someone had met her and would now know where she was! He just stood there letting his relief wash over him when the old lady dashed his hopes to the ground by saying, “So, call her out, will you? I haven’t got all day.” He automatically muttered something about giving it to her and took the pot from the girl. The old lady turned to go and he suddenly asked her, “Where did you meet my wife?” She turned back and stated as if it was the most obvious thing, “Why, on the roof terrace of course!”

He ran back into the house, leaving the old lady standing there, her jaw dropping at his reaction. He ran outside to the terrace and then realizing that he was carrying the pot, he kept it at the bottom of the stairs that led up to the roof. He clambered up the iron ladder, taking two rungs at a time, his eagerness almost giving him wings. As he raced up the stairs, he realized that he had missed her so much the past couple of hours, he didn't actually want to go to office or anywhere else that day. He made up his mind to call in sick and spend the day with her. As his head cleared the roof, he saw a couple of ladies standing some distance off, talking. He could instinctively see that she was not among them. He almost ran towards them and then realized that he would look foolish running up to them to ask about his wife. So, he slowed down to a walk and tried to appear as cautious as he could, his heart racing inside at a pace that he was sure would show on his face. Taking a couple of deep breaths, he approached them, forcing a smile on his face that completely belied his anxiety.

One of the ladies saw him coming and muttered something to the other, both ladies now snickering, an obvious reference to him in some way. His resolve almost quaked away into nothingness, the only thing still seeming to make him walk towards them was his desire to know if they had met his wife. He stopped short some distance away from the ladies who were openly enjoying his discomfiture and asked them if they had met his wife. First he drew a teasing response about having brought in a new wife and then when the ladies realized that he wasn't biting, they responded that they had bumped into his wife in the morning, drinking her coffee on the roof. She had struck up a conversation with them about the place and nearby shopping haunts, the vegetable seller. Then, the old lady from the same floor had come out onto her terrace and had called out to her. They had been talking for a while and then his wife had gone back down to the house. All this seemed to have happened about an hour ago.

Muttering a hurried thank you, he went back down the ladder. He was none the wiser for this episode but he at least knew that she had met three people all in the space of the last hour or hour and a half. Where could she have gone, the question resounded in his head and he almost missed his footing on the ladder. Luckily he was on the last but one rung and he landed sharply on one foot, twisting it a little and falling awkwardly down. Cursing, he picked himself up and tried to walk, feeling a sharp twinge when his foot landed. He hop-walked it back indoors and fell heavily on the sofa. Pulling up his pajama bottoms, he saw that the ladder had torn a strip of skin from his ankle and it had now started to bleed. He got up to wash the wound and disinfect it. In the bathroom, he found the Dettol in the cabinet but nothing he could actually use to swab the wound. His eyes fell on his favorite green and white checked shirt that he had been wearing yesterday, the one that she hated and kept telling him to throw away. She said it made him look older and a little outdated. With a wry smile, he picked it up and blotted the antiseptic with it and proceeded to clean up the scrape.

The job done, he dumped the shirt back into the wash tub and then shaking his head, finally decided to consign it to the dustbin. But that couldn't happen without a celebration now could it? So he picked it up and carried it through to the living room where he draped it like a flag of surrender on one arm of the sofa. He sank back onto the sofa, laying his head back and closing his eyes, wishing that this was just a bad dream and that he would wake up from it any moment now. Unwittingly, his mind flowed back to the previous evening and how they spent it. Lying next to her, watching her eyes look back at him from behind the curtain of her hair, mischievously darting about, crinkling with laughter that she was trying to suppress, the dimples in her cheeks deepening and inviting. The whispered words, disappearing into long stretches of silence and then resurfacing as if they did not want to lose the night to Morpheus. Her fingers intertwined in his, never for a moment letting go, cherishing their togetherness. The thoughts and words said aloud again and again, marking the start of their life together, alone by themselves.

At that thought, he woke, alone by himself, in the harsh light of reality. A sudden feeling of loss swept through him inexplicably. He almost groaned out aloud at the coldness of it. Feeling a shiver like someone had just walked over his grave, he hugged himself, wishing she was there to envelope him in her warmth. He remembered feeling like this when she had left for a week on a trip abroad to visit one of her cousins. She had not activated the international roaming on her phone and so could not call or message. Three days into her visit, he was badly sick, a case of shivers and fever that foxed the doctor at the nearby clinic. The next day an email came from her and immediately he recovered. He mailed back asking her for a number at which he could call her. And the very next night, spent three hours nearly on the phone with her. He was right as rain the next morning, even though he hadn't slept. And when the telephone bill for that month came, he fell off his chair on seeing an amount that was ten times his normal bill. But then, that conversation had been worth it. Talking to her had brought his temporarily lopsided life upright again.

After that, he would call, no matter how much money it cost and they spent hours talking, telling each other about the things that happened around them, to them, their dreams, their disappointments. Each day had been incomplete without them first talking their hearts out. They could talk for hours or so it seemed. He remembered watching her speak about the police atrocities in the aftermath of the Delhi rape incident, her eyes flashing and voice quivering with indignation. He also remembered her eyes, soft and moist when she recounted the incident of her school friend who had suffered an accident. She always did get caught up in her emotions. Suddenly she would stop, to find him watching her intently, drinking in her expressions, her words and would smile sheepishly and say, “I've been going on and on about it, haven’t I?” And he would always deny it, the sheer pleasure of listening to her and watching her, sometimes overwhelming him with the sheer intensity of it.

Suddenly, the thought struck him that his entire life in the past few months had been defined by her. Each moment, each memory, framed with her in it. In fact, he realized that he could not recall any specific thing that she wasn't a part of. Even the office party that had happened had been made more special by her calling him in the middle of it and him screaming responses to her to be heard over the noise. It seemed like his life had now become a series of memories that had been stitched together by her, each one sharply etched in his brain. The coldness that surrounded him seemed to get worse. He shivered, despite the sunny morning all around him. How he wished he could hold her in his arms again, letting her warmth drive away his chill, tell her how much he had missed her and that she should never ever go away like this again without telling him where she was going.  His longing was like a physical pain, a blow to the gut that made him double up as he sat, hugging himself.

Suddenly, out of the blue, like the child that can hear his mother’s voice amongst a babble and turn unerringly, he heard her laugh, that lilting, floating laugh that always brought a smile to his face. It seemed to be coming from somewhere down below, the sound floating in through the balcony door. He stood up, almost thinking it was his imagination playing tricks on him. But no, her voice followed next, laughingly asking a question or so it seemed. His feet moved towards the balcony, his mind barely registering the action. He quickened his pace and reached the balcony, stopping at the railing. He could see her, or someone that looked incredibly like her and also sounded amazingly like her. She was talking to a heavy set old man who was sitting on a scooter and she was holding a bag of what appeared to be groceries. She looked up suddenly, as if sensing his eyes on him and smiled. That smile was enough to drive away all his worries and anxiety. She shouted up, as usual, uncaring about protocol and public posturing, “Mamaji” And he recalled that she had mentioned something about a mama in this town who had been estranged from the family. And the pieces of the puzzle fell into place and the clouds finally cleared up, the worms went into their wormholes and the sun came out again. He raised his hand and waved, his heart drumming a crazy three step tango, which he was sure, could be heard all the way down. Mamaji waved back and then waved goodbye as he started off on his scooter. She turned back, her step quickening at the thought of being with him again. The grocery bag that was precariously loaded to the brim suddenly seemed to give up on itself and decided to split open. And she reached out for the falling groceries mid step.

From his balcony high up, he saw her missing her step and going down on her knees. He reached out involuntarily, as if to support her and stop her fall. And suddenly found his feet slipping out from underneath him. He had leaned out too far across the railing and now he found himself tipping over. It seemed an eternity while he slowly toppled over the railing, screaming out her name and hearing her screaming out his. It seemed a long way down and he could see the sun shining out brightly from behind one of the buildings. He turned to look down at her and saw her stricken face, blanched white and wanted to tell her not to worry. It would be alright now that he had found her, they would be together and he would tell her how she had become the seamstress of his memories.

He was rushed to the hospital, bleeding profusely. The doctors took him into the OT immediately and came out seven hours later declaring that he seemed to be OK except for the multiple fractures of his hands, legs and shoulder. There was only a small note about his possible concussion and the fact that they had to keep him under observation. She was completely distraught and in the arms of her parents and his, not willing to listen to anyone or anything. The doctors’ words gave her the first signs of hope.

It was thus that he woke up, bandaged hand and foot, his body a mass of bruises and one continuous channel of pain that seemed to build up and run down in cycles. He saw all the equipment around and the place and realized he was in a hospital. He saw his parents there at the bedside, their faces tear lined and weary, as if life had shaken the will out of them. He wanted to raise his hand to wipe their tears away, to tell them that he was OK or will be OK soon. His mother held his hand, a fierce grip that seemed to give strength to him and solace to her, her fingers almost crushing his in relief. His father seemed to have grown a lot older than he had last seen him, head bent as if with the load of the burden that life had placed on him. He wanted to hug both of them, telling them it was alright, he was there and that everything would be OK now.

Then another set of old people came into view, their kindly faces as tear lined as his parents. They were younger than his parents but had the same time worn quality about them. He couldn't quite place them. His parents seemed to be telling something to them and they seemed to be telling his parents that he would be OK. He guessed that they must be parents of someone else like him.

His parents then left his bedside and a young lady came in. At first he thought she was the doctor. But then, her face and her voice betrayed her. She seemed somehow related to him though he could not place his finger on how. She was really pretty even in her distraught condition. He noticed her eyes, large and expressive and the dimple spots that creased her cheeks. He had a feeling that this was a woman who could light up with her laughter. Her voice sounded husky, a strange quality about it, like something he could keep listening to. He racked his brains for some idea of who she was and why she was sobbing uncontrollably at his bedside. She lay her head down on the bed beside his hand and he almost reached out to lay his hand on her head, the crow black hair hiding her face completely from view. And then, not realizing why he felt that way, he dropped his hand back, choosing to remain silent.

After a length of time, the nurse came in announcing that visiting hours were over and she stood up and walked away, dropping a kiss on his forehead, her lips warm and moist, wetted with tears. As she walked away, he lifted his hand up, wincing at the sudden intense wave of pain at that and touched the spot where her lips had been. The warmth was familiar and yet distant. As she had leaned over him, he had smelt a curiously musky smell that he was sure had come out of a high priced bottle off a department store shelf. And yet in spite of this, he could not place her. It was almost as if he were throwing each of these hints at a blank white wall that was absorbing them and giving nothing in return. That curious sense of knowing and yet not knowing, something at the edge of his memory, almost peeking from around the edge of that white blank wall but quickly retreating as soon as he turned to catch sight of it.

At the door, she turned back and smiled at him, a smile that lit up her eyes and creased her dimples just as he had somehow known it would. And her lips curved up in a smile as she mouthed “I love you” and then the door slid closed behind her. Seeing her go, he felt a pang, a sense of loss that he simply could not explain. The pang seemed to break open something in his head, almost like a crack in the cover of ice that seemed to hide a whole lot of secrets in the lake underneath it. He wished for someone who could help him completely break down this layer of ice and uncover the secrets that lay beneath. It was only a momentary lapse, for, seconds later, the ice had completely closed up and the lake lay silent and dark beneath. 

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Pangs of Separation - Part 2

While the worm of unease made its way through the dark caverns of his brain, his strong rational impulse strove to assert itself, like a sapling that rights itself after being bent. He shook his head trying to rid himself of the senseless thoughts that threatened to pull him into a panic. Of course, nothing could go wrong. They were there in his apartment, the new one that he had moved into a month ago, coming up in a newly developing suburb of the city which was yet to become a landscape dotted with concrete monuments dedicated to progress, standing in worship of the city’s growing need of space. He had come to the city a month ago when he had got the new job that seemed to be the answer to everything that he had been searching for. And it had happened just two months after he had met her and he had joked saying that finding her was the key that had unlocked this door as well. And he remembered the doubt in her voice even as it had reassured; the flicker in her eyes as she had showed her support of his decision.

That had been a stormy evening indeed as he had planned it as a surprise announcement and was surprised by the second thoughts she had. And while he sought to convince her about the decision and that it was exactly what he had been looking for, that little bird at the back of his mind tweeted that her instinct for these things was very strong and that he should listen to it. He brushed off the thought and went ahead cheerfully to make her feel alright with the decision. They had then fought about it as well, their first fight of that intensity. Previously, they had only had minor arguments and then she would use her special magic on him to make him understand, capitulating to conquer, until he actually thought he had made the decision in favor of her suggestion.

But this time, the fight had erupted over his wanting to take her out for a drive and her refusing saying that she had to go early for work the next day. It had escalated into something that was bordering on vicious for some stupid reason that neither of them could remember. He remembered almost walking away and then cursing himself and turning back, only to find her in tears. He had run back, hugged her in desperation murmuring apologies that neither of them understood and making promises of never hurting her, clinging to her for life itself. Neither of them referred back to that evening anytime thereafter, choosing to simply shut it off from memory. The fact that he remembered the incident at this instance was itself disturbing, making the worm in his mind larger and stronger as it whispered its way through the caverns, rustling as it snaked through.

He walked out into the hall, turning slightly sharply at the door to avoid the extended nail that for some reason had been left jutting out of the door frame. It had already left an imprint on him when he had first moved in, deeply scratching him just above the ankle. He had been resolving to get that nail removed from the frame for some time now except that he had not yet got around to it. It was one of the things that he had shown her yesterday as soon as she had come in, cursing himself for forgetting to repair it and hoping she wouldn't get hurt while promising himself that he would get it pulled out the very next morning. He suddenly stopped and looked back at the nail, afraid of what he would find. The sight of a dark piece of cloth snagged in it alarmed him and he bent quickly to look at it closely. He pulled the cloth from the nail and brought it close. It was a strip from her pajamas, the favorite that she had insisted on unpacking and changing into even though it had been quite late. The dark grey one with the puppy embroidered down the leg. The one that he had just stopped short of laughing at, the first time he had seen it, luckily guessing that it would have been a gross over stepping on his part. He had then realized that this was her treasured possession, something that she had grown to see as a lucky charm, along with her dark pink top. It was what made her sleep well, she said.

He stood there with the strip of fabric in his hand trying to figure out if it had any blood on it or on the nail. Luckily, it appeared that only the fabric had snagged and torn and no injury of any sort had happened. He was sure he would have to pay dearly for even the tear. She would have been so upset. Somehow, thinking of her upset made his stomach flop, almost as if someone had upended it and all the contents had rushed down leaving a completely empty air space on top that threatened to stop his breathing. He had to find her and get to her quickly. Only he knew how to make it alright again. He turned around with a quick step, looking around the living room. The two chairs and bean bag that he had brought in were still there but nothing else. He glanced across at the dining area where he had a couple of chairs and a small table. He half expected to see nothing there as well. But his heart quickened a beat when he saw a cup standing on the table. His stomach flipped back into place again and he nearly ran towards the table.

Reaching it, he stopped short again, for the cup was still half full. In all the time he had known her, nearly six months now, she had never left a drop in her first cup of coffee in the morning. It was very unlike her to simply leave half the cup. A thought struck him and he quickly dipped his forefinger in the coffee, expecting to find it at least slightly hot. It was tepid, down to room temperature, the skin on top having clearly formed across the surface of the coffee. He stood there for a moment wondering what could have happened that would have dragged her away from her dear coffee. It had to be something very important indeed. Then something caught his eye. Something black and shiny was lying on the ground next to the chair where she had sat down to drink her coffee.  He bent down and realized that it was the bead bracelet that she normally wore. She must have worn it after getting out of bed. She alternately used it as a bracelet or a hair band, looping it around her hair when she wanted it tied up.

As he picked it up, the beads slid from his hand in a rush, falling onto the floor and bouncing off in all directions, skittering away from him. Startled at first, he realized that what he held was only a small piece of the band that held the beads. It must have broken and one part had fallen off and was lying there. He knelt down on the floor, down on his hands and knees, picking up the beads one by one, as if this activity would give him something to do rather than think of what had happened, as if these beads were the most important thing in the world at the moment. He finished picking up all that he could find and started to get up, when he banged his head on the dining table under which he had been reaching. His head swum with the impact, his eyes tearing, and he fell down on the floor. He lay there for a few seconds getting his wind back. Finally, he made as if to sit up when he saw a few more beads lying on the floor off near the chairs in the hall. How the hell did they get there, so far away?

He stood up and walked to the spot, expecting to find the other part of the band. However, he saw that the beads were all lying scattered around, as if they had been broken in some force and had gone flying. There was also an impression on the cushion of someone heavy having sat down, or was he seeing things now? It sure did not seem like the kind of impression that he made when he sat down. Or did it? He went and sat down on the other chair and then got up to examine the dent on the cushion. He could not clearly say whether there was a difference. He tried to think of when he had last sat on the cushion. And then remembered that it had been the previous evening when they had come home. After showing her around the house, they had come back to the living room. They each sat on a chair and then finding it too distant and remote, she had simply come over and sat down on his lap. He had held her and then they had talked about the apartment and what she wanted to do in it. He had listened to her, a slight smile on his face, imagining the way she painted the picture, her hands darting all the while, shaping this, pointing to that or describing something else. That must have been the reason for the deep imprint on the cushion! He almost sighed in comic relief, his mind giving up the ghost that he had almost started chasing.

But he still could not explain the broken bead bracelet and how it came to be lying there. He walked across the window sill from where the road outside could be seen. He stood there for a few moments, looking down at the street. People were already up and about now, school children waiting for their bus, the newspaper van dropping off bundles at each apartment and the maids and drivers making their way to their jobs. A few early job goers stood waiting for the bus to come. There was no sign of anything amiss. The world had started its routine that day just like any other. He came away from the window still clutching the beads like he had grabbed onto a lifeline that he would not let go.

He walked toward the kitchen then, some degree of desperation now casting strong ripples across the pool of his rationality. Some part of his mind was hoping she would be there, bent over the kitchen counter, her hair hanging down and covering her face from both sides. It was only after he stepped into the kitchen and found it empty that he realized that he had been holding his breath in anticipation. The cooking range had a bowl of milk that she had boiled. The counter had the cutting board out and a knife there but nothing had been taken out to cut. There was a pan with water in it that had been kept ready for something. It appeared that she had been about to do something when she had simply stopped and walked away. He stood there in thought when a sudden loud thump from the hallway brought him back to earth in a hurry. He turned around and almost ran into the hall, hoping it was her.

He heard a couple of more thumps from outside and realized that it had been the newspaper being dropped off at his door step. He walked towards the door to open it and was shocked to find it open and slightly ajar. The newspaper boy had thrown the sheaf of newspapers and they had hit the door opening it even further. His alarm bells went off now in full force and his face furrowed into a frown as he furiously thought back to the previous night. Had they left the door open after leaving the basket out for the milk? They had spent about half an hour searching for the basket which he had placed somewhere in the kitchen and then for the milk coupons which he had kept so safely that they could not lay their hands on them. Finally, after having located both of them, they had argued about how much milk they needed. His justifications that a half liter would be sufficient since there were only two of them; were met with mischievous denial. Finally, they had put the basket with the one and a half liters of coupons out and he now remembered distinctly that he had locked the door, an elaborate procedure made more so by her holding him from behind as he locked it.

Would she have brought the milk in and left the door unlocked? Though it was highly unlikely, it was the only possibility he could think of at that moment. Or alternatively, she had stepped out of the house and left the door open. This possibility was even more unlikely given the half drunk coffee and the cutting board and knife in the kitchen. And then there was the broken bracelet with the beads lying scattered on the floor. His brain was on fire now, the worms having lit the whole place up. 

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Pangs of Separation - Part 1

The sun came up, lazily rising, reluctant to resume normal duty as if after a holiday break. The streaks of sunshine spread tentative fingers across the clear blue sky, lighting up the wisps of clouds like a bulb switched on inside. As the sun slowly but surely walked across the streets of the city, it passed one other reluctant window where the day was not yet welcome. The window was not particularly different from any other, housed as it was in a structure seemingly entirely of glass just as many others that were housed in that part of the city. The window itself allowed a peek into an apartment, very similar to many others in shape and size except that this one looked as if it was in a state of flux, caught between a major turbulence, a sea of change. A set of suitcases lay, some partially opened and some still to be explored, a new set of curtains lay unopened in their covers, closets looked as if they were either being filled or being taken down entirely. It looked like an apartment where people were moving into or was it moving out? And in a corner was the bed on which the man lay. He was still asleep, his deep breathing filling the room, arms akimbo and face turned sideways into the pillow. He was dreaming …

Something about the dream made him frown in his sleep, heavy eyebrows bridging that short gap between them. And then the frown dissolved, just the way the breezy sunshine clears the clouds, and a smile stole across his face. Starting from his lips, the smile spread across his whole face like someone had just taken a spoon and spread it out across his face. His face creased up entirely and made him look years younger than he actually was. Just then a noise from somewhere around intruded into his dream and threatened to wake him up. He resisted, turning his face almost entirely into the pillow, lest his beautiful dream be lost. But the noise was as persistent, forcing its way into his thoughts and blasting out the cobwebs of sleep one by one. Finally, he reluctantly gave up. The eyelids opened once and then shut again, almost as if the reality they saw was no comparison to the dream they had come from and they wished to go back. Another thought then stole into his mind, this thief being the most daring of all, for what it made him do.

The thought stayed as he reached out to the other side of the bed. His arm flailed for the warmth that he knew would be there, seeking and searching. Not finding it, he turned his head and opened his eyes, a quizzical look on his face. The depression in the bed told him that she had been there, the pillow and the mattress shaped with her form. He lifted the pillow that she had lain on and brought it to his face. He could smell her on the pillow now, that unique smell that was only hers, like bright sun shine in the garden on a spring day.  That smell was always hers, a smell that he had first thought came from a bottle but soon grew to realize was her. He could remember her lying facing him, her hair falling across her face, dark as a crow’s wing, partly hiding her eyes, making him want to brush the strands up and away and yet holding back, somehow hesitant to even touch the image for fear that it would disappear. He remembered the way her hair felt, softly tickling his cheek, the errant strands caressing his face as he held her close, enveloped in a cloud of her. And the way it felt as he ran his fingers through it, soft and yet gently gripping, not letting go.

He felt a sudden pang at her not being there then, a murmur that was completely out of place, a blot of black on a snow covered mountain top. Where could she have gone this early? She must have woken up early to make some coffee, he thought. He half sat up in bed, thinking he would sneak up and surprise her. She didn’t like him doing that, he remembered. The last time he had done it, she had gone crazy in fright and almost started trembling. Okay, so he wouldn't creep up on her. He sat up on the bed trying to think of how he would surprise her. Suddenly, he realized that he couldn't hear any noises at all from around the apartment. He stopped and listened carefully, trying to pinpoint where she was and what she was doing, smiling slightly at the thought. After a couple of minutes, he gave up, the silence around strangely unnerving.

A weird feeling descended on him, like a cloud that had suddenly blotted out the sun. He called out her name, once, twice and then with increasing sound until he realized that he was almost screaming for her. And yet, there was no answer. No sign of that familiar face that had grown so quickly dear to him, no sound of that voice that suddenly switched things on for him when he heard it. His eyes grew wide with the realization that she might actually not be there in the apartment at all. For some strange reason, he didn't react well to the thought. Of course, she was a literate and well traveled woman who would be able to find her way around a place. So why was he reacting so strangely, an inner voice asked, in a mocking tone. His practicality seemed to have deserted him as well as all reason that he normally took pride in.

Another inner voice, starting out feeble but growing stronger with his acceptance said that she had only arrived here yesterday and would not know of any places or people around. He thought back to the conversation of the previous night, where they had stayed up most of the night talking about what they would do the next few days and how they would do up the house. In between all that, he could not remember talking about the apartment or surroundings or any details that she would have been able to work with to go anywhere. With that thought, he got out of bed, struggling to figure out what to do, but goaded into some sort of action.

As he stepped forward, he felt a sudden sharp sting on his foot, as if something had pricked him. He looked down and saw that it was the ear ring of hers that they had spent over an hour searching for immediately after they had reached. It had fallen out of her hand as he had grabbed her and held tight as soon as they were home, within the walls that they henceforth would call their own. After her loving hug back, the missing ear ring had resulted in a veritable hunt. It was a sentimental piece of hers gifted by her mother. They had both searched around the room but were not able to locate it even after shaking out the bedspread, stomping around on the carpet and looking on the floor. They had missed the spot on the carpet right next to the inside of the leg of the bed, where it had somehow rolled. He remembered her sadness then and then the child like attempt at smiling as she tried to make him feel better that she would anyway be able to find it with the maid the next morning.

He wanted to call out to her to tell her that he had found it. And wanted to put it on her that very moment and see the joy back in her eyes. The way they would light up when she had got a thing she wanted, and this ear ring was something that she cherished and so the lights would on in full force. He wanted to see the child like joy that surged behind the practical smile that would make her lips curve upwards, stretching till they ended in the dimples that so endearingly adorned her cheeks. On those rare occasions that she would actually succumb completely to his wit, the way her face itself brightened and brightened and the dimples on her cheeks danced in tune with the sparkle in her eyes, her laugh like the peal of bells that rung in the spring merrily.  The very same dimples that he teased her about mercilessly and she turned away in mock irritation, trying to hide the fact that her eyes were dancing still.

He wanted to hear her voice, that husky tone given to high pitched laughter, a combination so incongruous that it would have been funny if it weren't for her. It made her what she was. He could go on for hours listening to her voice, the inflections in it. She was given to not revealing herself too much but he could now read that tinge of disappointment in her voice when he had to go off the phone to a meeting and the reluctant goodbye which made him want to stay on for a few minutes more just to try and bring the joy back into it. He could read that hidden excitement when she had done something and she called him in the middle of everything just to tell him first, and then she actually wanted him to find out without her telling, leading to a series of questions and guesses. He read the joy in her voice when he called her every morning and evening, just to hear his hello. The wistfulness when they talked about the future, like last night. That note brought reality crashing back in, a realization that she was not home.

He kept the ear ring on the side table next to his clock and then changed his mind to keep it in between the pages of the book that she was reading. He wanted her to find it as a surprise, wanted to see her reaction. The book had been something that she had picked up at the airport before she had boarded the flight and when he asked her about it as he met her at the arrivals gate, she had launched into an animated explanation of how it was a wonderful combination of mythology and science and romance. She went on and on until she suddenly realized that he was barely able to contain his laughter and then sheepishly admitted that she had got carried away, the blush sweetly darkening her cheek. And he, the occasional reader of the current affairs and business section, who preferred to get his news on the television and entertainment on screen, finally burst out laughing at how she had been trying to convince him to read a thousand page book on the intricacies of the evolution of science. And then, in her unique way, she told him that she would explain it to him and he knew that she would – in her earnest way, hands moving with and describing every word, punctuating every sentence. He had teased her about her talking with her hands, about how, if he were to hold them still, she would not be able to speak.

The thought made him want to hear her voice. And he turned away from the bedside table to go to the hall. As he was stepping out of the room, he saw that her suitcases had been opened and some things were missing. It seemed like someone had hurriedly opened the suitcases and taken some things out and left the rest. A couple of her dresses lay partially open on the floor next to the suitcase as if whoever had been searching the luggage had pulled out things and dropped them in their haste. He saw her favorite peach dress lying rumpled on the floor and a sudden stab of worry went through him. It was completely unlike her to simply leave things on the floor and in disarray and go away to something else. For the first time that morning, he felt a vague sense of fear creep into his thoughts.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Yesterday's Newspaper Club

Welcome all you brothers and sisters, to our clan of Yesterday’s Newspapers. It is a rare honor bestowed on us, for we carry the tradition of creating history in the name of news. It is our sacred oath to record and carry the tidings of the days gone by. Of course, there are those cousins of ours who are part of this sacred blood oath, that carry tidings of Page 3 and the advertisements for massage parlors. However, we do not discriminate. The bond between us is strong and we will not let the newspaper barons segment and subdivide us. We will stand strong and united, my friends, and we will fill the archives that the generations to come will pore through to learn about history as it was reported.

Why, it was only yesterday as I had stopped to exercise my elbow at the Typesetting Pool, when one of the tabloid cousins was talking about their circulation going down with the increasing prevalence of the internet and television. As if that monstrosity will ever replace the dignified and time honored habit of news reading. What would ever replace the joy of waking up to find the newspaper on the doorstep and opening it to read about the world? And even if there were 24 hour news channels as one of the new fangled magazine cousins was rudely pointing out, I am certain that nothing will ever replace the experience of reading the morning newspaper with one’s cup of tea or coffee.

The magazine cousin was also pointing to the dwindling addition to our numbers, now that digital newspapers and archives have started taking over. I mean, how rude and ignorant can one get? But what would you expect from a magazine or a tabloid anyway. Where is the pedigree, the breeding and the social grace? They are uncouth, that is what they are. A couple of us were so put off that our noses went up in the air and we would have cut them down with a fine choice of scathing criticism. But, better sense prevailed and we let them be, drawing into our own corner, with the high brow of publications. Who wants to really mingle with these yellow types anyway? Would be getting down and dirty now wouldn’t it?

There in our corner, we discussed the history that we had helped create. We remembered the time when newsprint was so expensive and rarely available. That was the time when it used to take more than a day to reach newspapers to various parts of the country; the time when the people could only read news of the day before, at best. That was the time when only one copy of the newspaper would reach a town and the arrival of the newspaper was such a momentous occasion that all of the men folk would gather around the town chowk to hear the most learned of them read the paper out aloud and explain it.  And then the debates that used to ensue from this, they were so splendid that those of us that belonged to that era felt proud of the views and movements that they helped propagate and fuel.

That was the day and age when yesterday’s newspaper was veritably the hero of the times. That was our heyday. The age which we heralded in, where we shaped the future, the way things happened and how people understood what was happening all around them. We raised many a toast to that particular memory and many of us got goose bumps recounting incidents that they had helped spread word off or movements that they had helped spark off. And then someone had one too many and spilt their drink, all over the first page of the August 15th edition of the nation’s pride, can you imagine!! The top right column was washed away before we could get some blotting paper and stop further damage. What a disaster! That incident kind of sobered us up.

We hung around there for a while, remembering how archives of us were created in local libraries and we were indexed and stacked up, neat as the day we were printed. And the locals and the school teachers who came to refer to us, searching by the date of events for the exact details of what we had reported and kept alive, making copious notes and taking this back for their work. The environment wasn’t always friendly, stored as we were in dank and recessed shelves where the older publications soon succumbed to the termites sating their hunger and seeking to build new nests while the more recent ones developed terminal allergies of mould and fungus. Those were trying times indeed, where one had to really fight to survive. And those of us who actually made us out of these times were considered the survivors and we proudly recounted our tales like we were doing at the Pool.

That was also the time when newspaper cuttings were a way of keeping records of things that happened. People took the pages out of the newspaper and carefully cut out the sections that they wanted using a pair of paper scissors and then stuck them onto the pages of their diaries or memoirs with gum. Oh, what joy it was for them to read and re-read these columns and relive the memories and the moments. And though it was painful for us to give up a part of ourselves, it was always a proud sacrifice that one made, in the larger interests of society’s need for keepsakes. After all, how many people have gone under the scissor willingly and smiled through the operation, living to show a gaping hole in the middle of oneself? The worst of them were those who, after cutting what they wanted, simply discarded the balance sheet. How rude of them, how uncouth? Don’t they even care for the sacrifice that the poor brother made? But these uncivilized kinds did not society make and the larger population valued our contribution surely.

Then came the really trying times when distribution of newspapers became more efficient. And the cost of newsprint went down and the people could afford a newspaper each. Then the people could read yesterday’s news that day and everyone had a newspaper at home each morning. And our place in the sun was taken over by the latest print. Though, there was still that Sunday tradition when the men folk would take out the week’s newspapers and pore through them, reading and re-reading them until they were more dog-eared than could possibly be imagined. It was a way of keeping track of the changes that were happening around the people said one of the distinguished lots. One of the back benchers unwisely chose that moment to retaliate and yelled back that there was little that passed for entertainment on weekends in those days. After all, the magazines had not yet started making a popular entrance. We chose not to respond, simply holding our peace until the raucous laughter had died down.

One of the barkeeps joined in the fun and mentioned how the only use for us yesterday’s newspapers in those days was the weight in paper that they would fetch by the kilo. The newspaperwallas that used to come by once a month and weigh the newspapers with their crooked scales and the horrid negotiations that would ensue and finally the money that would change hands and off we went into the garbage where we would be put into multiple other uses. Imagine, the newspaper that proclaimed India’s independence, being used as a wrap for a measly 100 grams of peanuts off a side street thela or even more horrid, the same paper being used to hold the hot oily bhajias served down to the eager grasping hands. The very hands that would scoop out the nuts or the bhajias and then uncaringly, unseeingly, drop the prestigious purveyor of news down on the ground where it would be trodden upon by so many feet.

Though this comment drew a snicker from the back benchers, it hushed up almost all of us. This was not the elite vs. commoner’s battle; this was an issue that affected all of our existence. Ah, the ignominy of it. Gone were the days when paper used to be considered holy, never to be touched by foot and revered. Those days, we were only worth our weight – literally. And we were considered junk that needed a place to be kept in, and when the newspaperwalla would get late, we were cursed and complained about until he finally blessedly came and took us away. And then the whole resale bit where all sorts of shop keepers and sellers would come to buy us in bulk. Again weighed and doled out like scrap, like we weren’t worth anything but the paper that we were printed on.

And then, we were kept in a dark storage room in stacks that were of no significance, rubbing shoulders with all sorts of dates and types, waiting for the next step in the journey to oblivion. Till the man came and took out bunches of us and tore us up into bits of the size that he wanted, with no care for the section margins or the news items which were torn up in the process. And then off we went to the street side shops where we would await our fate in silence – to hold the nuts or fried stuff for human consumption. And when the purpose for which we had been bought had been completed, we would just be crumpled and thrown, often wiped hands on. Lying on top of a garbage heap, soiled and oil stained, the only thing that could have been worse was to have garbage dumped on oneself. And that happened too, with unfailing regularity, adding insult to injury. Lying there, with all that much, one had to be really strong to carry forward the tradition.

But there were exceptions. Limited they were but they did exist. Like the odd boy who would try and practice reading under the street light with the pieces that he found thrown about. Opening up the crumpled balls of paper and smoothening out the creases to make it more legible, he would peer down at it and try to read past the stains and dirt. Haltingly, he would piece the letters together and get each word out, the reading a labor that he would persist in. It made us proud to think of how we helped that boy and any others who would still read us and learn from us. We swelled our chests at that thought and the barkeep proclaimed one on the house for the noble task that we had performed even as we perished. Some of us were far too gone to continue and those of us that did, willingly made up for their share of the free round. The mood was distinctly somber, Times typeface distinctly prevailing. No italics and no exclamation marks around.

That comment somehow seemed to set off a distinct downturn in the conversation at the watering hole. Some of the oldies left the bar and wandered down to their respective slot shelves. Some of the more recent editions left along with their groupies, those plagiarizing tabloids that hung onto their every word and mimicked their actions perfectly, fawning over them and almost falling over themselves in the haste to keep up. The attendance really thinned down by then. Only some of us old timers, dated sheets, yellow with age and type fading, were left around. Even though we were still going strong, we found the mood completely downhill after that episode. And the drink continued to fuel it all, the liquor fumes swirling around the bold headlines, almost making them bleary and fuzzy in the smoky bar lights.

Talk revolved around the modern times and the move towards news and information on the tap. How it had gone to a point where there was breaking news every minute. Whatever happened to the headlines and the privilege of waiting for the news? How could anyone want news on the tap and even if they did, how did they have the time to even read it as soon as it was broadcast? Besides, how could you even bear to listen to someone else reading the news? For the moment, let us ignore the wisecrack from the back about the old practice of the learned man reading at the village chowk. Just imagine tuning into the television any time of the day and finding out what happened! What would people do while they drank their morning cup of coffee then? Watch TV? Impossible!!!! The current day and age sure gave people a lot of time besides their work and personal lives. While the wise men among us shook our heads knowingly at this, even the back benchers were in agreement on this change in trends that was affecting our very livelihood.

One of the financial publications remarked that space being such a premium in this day and age, everything had become digitized. Even newspapers had become digitized, the “e-paper” taking over those people who actually wanted the pleasure of reading a newspaper but without the paper edition. How could anyone actually open their tablet or laptop and flip through to the sports section along with their morning coffee? Or read the editorial, with its mocking wit and keenly discerning perception at the breakfast table, hanging on just that little bit longer after the coffee? Or split the sections among the family and trade the sections over the long drawn out breakfast, arguments erupting in which member would get which section next. Those were the traditions that made newspapers what they were. All of them simply thrown away with the e-paper? How tradition itself could have such little relevance now-a-days, one wondered.

Added to this, the digital archives and e-papers took away the need for the newspaper cuttings and stacking of old. Anyone who wanted a particular section only needed to use a few key words to “search” and then could copy the article or section that they wanted. Why was the world in such a hurry, we wondered. How could you ever replace the joy of looking at the yellowed, faded newspaper cutting in your diary with the experience of looking it up on your tablet or PC? Would the digital copy be yellow and as authentic? Though one of the smart alecks did mention that with modern day science, even this was possible. But then, would they be able to give the same smell as old newsprint, I ask you. Or even the same crispy crackly feel as old newsprint?

One of the back benchers quipped that the value of the newspaper itself was almost the same that it was at twenty years ago and even dropping below. He said that the newspapers were getting advertising revenues that had helped bring down the costs. But then the newspapers of today had become almost full blown novels, with two or maybe three supplements each day and pages after pages of advertisements that most of the people barely saw. One cynic who had been down in his pegs, remarked that if the people did not pay a price for the newspaper, they would not value it at all and that the only way to make them value old newspapers also was by charging more for the paper in the first place. A host of encouraging “Hear Hear” shouts egged the speaker on and he continued denouncing the degradation of quality of the newspapers. The content had gone to bits he said, with the air of an expert. Most people today did not read the full newspaper, he said. They only read the bits that they wanted to. One would actually need a full day to read the newspaper from end to end.

With all this happening, how would anyone place value on the newspaper itself, leave alone on yesterday’s newspaper, asked the barkeep. It was true enough; most houses did not get newspapers and even those that did, barely read them fully. In the brief fifteen minutes that they had, they barely glanced through the paper while gobbling up what passed for breakfast these days. And they barely had time for the important headlines before they realized that it was time else they would get caught in the traffic and get late. Some of them bravely took the newspaper along and tried to read this in between hours of waiting or breaks at work.

If this was the treatment that was meted out to that day’s edition, what could you expect to happen to the previous day’s paper? And then they were in a hurry to get rid of the old newspapers. There was no space to keep the old newspapers. Where before, there had been a shelf dedicated for this storage, today, there was hardly some space on one shelf where the newspapers could be placed and which soon overflowed if not cleared. Which is why, people considered old newspapers a nuisance, being of little value in the first place and then occupying precious space next. So, they couldn’t wait to get rid of them, giving them off at the first chance, not even bothering with the money that came from this disposal, most of which was done and pocketed by the maid anyway.

And in the meantime, look at what yesterday’s newspapers were used for in the house. Lining the shelves was an age old tradition, choosing the glossiest paper to put on the shelf and regularly replacing it. Today, the shelves were not lined at all and things were kept as it is on them. Most of the times, the newspapers were used for odds and ends. Why, the disgust of it! The latest was that used baby nappies were being wrapped in yesterday’s newspaper to throw. How demeaning it would have been for that cousin to be treated this way? These and other horror stories were traded around the bar. One heard episodes of the newspaper being used as blotting paper to mop up a spill (shudder!), to mop up the waste from the floor, to prevent the floor from being stained when the walls were being painted or when nuts needed to be mashed up. What value for the newsprint within, what respect for the service to society that we perform? A collective nod of disapproval went around the bar at the treatment meted out to our society at large.

One of the latest trends was recycling, something that held promise for all of us. A noble end, giving birth to the next generation of newsprint, this was something that all of us felt was the way to go. No more peanuts or baby diapers. No more cursing for occupying space. No more callous disregard or ill treatment. We all resolved to die for the cause of the next generation, as martyrs that would proudly go to the crushers, giving up our identities to become a collective defaced mass, our typeface obliterated and our total selves mashed to pulp. And this would then go to the making of the next generation. Let us forget for the moment, the glorified paper bags and even tissues that are now being made out of the regenerated paper. Why dwell on exceptions when the cause is so noble and pursuit worthy? It was closing time then and we all shuffled out, careful not to get our page bottoms wet in the puddles of rain on the road. Some of us teetered and tottered on our heels down the road to our shelf spots, the bar keep reminding some of the regulars to pay up before the week was over, who knew what would happen to them the next week?

However, this is not all, my brothers and sisters. The society of Yesterday’s Newspapers rules large. We are still a dominant force in the society and our numbers swell in ranks in spite of all the threats. We come in many shapes and sizes, but one single thread binds us all - the honor and the pride of being the carriers of information and ready to serve up so many alternative purposes to the human population. We have our annual convention coming up the next month on the eve of the New Year, at the place where it all began. Come one and come all of you, let us make this an occasion to be remembered for all of us Yesterday’s Newspapers.