Monday, September 22, 2008

the monk on the 19th floor

Deepesh mailed me the other day asking if I was interested in this rather nice 3 bhk apartment being sold at the L&T. What's the price? Oh, I didn't ask, but you can calculate . . . the apartment is about 2060 sft and the going rate here is around Rs 4000 per sft.

I calculated and could just manage a wry smile that is best known as kashtho hashi in Bengali (literally translated it means a wooden smile). It costs a whopping 82 lakhs. Even if the guy negotiates, he will probably bring it down to 76? When did the property prices skyrocket like this, and who allowed it? When our parents, mostly government officers, retired, they made a paltry amount that they deposited in banks for a good return of about 15%. With the inflation rising and the banks making lesser profits, those interest rates came down to around 10, and even lesser. My dad suddenly realized he has to cut a lot of unnecessary expenses to make do. And meanwhile, the salaries kept rising beyond the limits of decency, and when the companies realized that it was probably sensible to hire an Irish or a Romanian instead, our economy had already been sitting on a huge ball of uninflammable gas. If the ball deflates, people would fall and die, so no need for me to make them burn for the sake of prose. They will die, that's it.

No Deepesh, how can I? I can't make so much money by selling my apartment, and it is indecent to ask for so much, I commented. Deepesh, however, left Mr Subramanium's number with me.

Came home and told Sayantani that we shouldn't keep dreaming of absurd things like a flat at South City in 2008. Maybe, if we bought one in the year 2000, it would still have been affordable. Now women, let me tell you, seldom like to see reason. She made me call the person.

"Hello? Mr Subramaniam? I'm Arijit. Got to know about your apartment and was curious about the price." I managed to squeak over the phone.

"Oh, hello. We can talk about the price later, Mr Arijit. You just come and check out the place."

So, we fixed an appointment with him and went over to check out his place. It was on the 19th floor, huge, and with an awesome view. "Where's your furniture?" I was curious because there was nothing in the house, making it look even huger. The marble on the floor shone like a mirror and the midday sun was reflected on it like a huge ball.

"Oh, I just use the kitchen to boil my vegetables and I sleep in that room," he pointed to the third bedroom that we hadn't checked out. I went in and found a mattress on the floor, with a pillow on it. Everything was very clean, but I was a little surprised because a person who can buy an apartment in a condo like this definitely is rich. Maybe he doesn't stay here, I was thinking, when he almost read my thoughts and said

"I do stay here, you know :). I have a phone, some utensils, my clothes in one of the wardrobes, and that bed. I know you are surprised, but that's all we ever need, don't we?"

"Oh, not at all. I wasn't thinking about that. Very true indeed... what else do we ever need?" I need my internet, my car, my mobike, my freezer full of meat, and also need to change my cell phone every two years, so I was another middle-class man with middle-class dreams. It reminded me of my mom. All she had as a teacher were a huge gladstone, a table fan, and a small kerosene stove. And she could survive on anything. She didn't splurge, neither was she stingy when it came to my needs, but for herself, she needed just a fan. It was hot in Durgapur and she was always overweight. Just a fan, now, but as a student we didn't have ceiling fans either, she used to tell me. I wondered how that was possible. To live without a ceiling fan. It always reminded me of how Gabriel Garcia Marquez keeps dwelling on how sultry and hot it is in his country. His descriptions of heat can make you squirm in discomfort at times. Where is he from? Spain or Mexico? Like Senator John McCain, I too forget my geography at times. And like my mom, Gabriel Garcia Marquez never allowed his protagonists the luxury of a ceiling fan.

"So..." I tried coming to the point, although I knew I could never afford even half of that amount even after selling everything I had and paying off my mortgages " much are you selling it for?"

"How much are you ready to pay?" he smiled at us.

Now it's coming, I thought, and was about to say something when I realized it's best not to give him false hopes. "Well, frankly, sir... we cannot afford this place at all, but then, we just extended our dream and made it spill over into our reality." I tried being abstruse. "If I sell my apartment and pay off the mortgage, I will be left with about half of what this apartment is for. And no bank will lend me the remaining amount because we cannot pay so much in EMIs."

He smiled and walked to the french window.

"I'm sorry, sir, we must go now. Thanks for being kind enough to show us around."

Sayantani looked at me and smiled too. I guess she too finally stepped out of her absurd dream and joined me in my reality. There, on the floor, were our Bata shoes, not Guccis.

"But I never told you my price, did I?"

"You don't have to, sir. I know the going rate, and it is rather high for us." I kind of leaned toward the door, pretending to leave...

"Hmm, see... I bought it in the year 2000 for 20 lakhs. Now I am leaving. So you pay me those 20 lakhs and the apartment is yours."

"LOL" I snorted and then broke out into a laughter. (Damn this chat lingo, man, I can't even laugh normally these days)

"Good joke, sir. And my son Aaron can pay you the remaining 60." I tried to continue the humor.

But it turned out that he was serious. Mr Subramaniam even worked out my finances for me. "If you sell your apartment and pay off your mortgage, you have x amount left. Pay me 20 from that, and the remaining can be your retirement package. Just retire and stay here."

I couldn't believe what he said. My wife was about to walk away, thinking he was deliberately insulting us, but he was serious.

Then he told us his story of how he turned into a monk. But now it is almost midnight for me.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Anne comes back

The last post about Anne Frank brought back memories of the other Annes in my life. Well, they were never part of my life and neither will they ever be, but they did take up a lot of time in my growing-up years, occupying a large enough RAM in my brain to deserve a mention in my blog today.

The first was Anne Frank, whose 13-year old photo was of the most beautiful girl I could ever imagine. As a 10 year old boy, I couldn't fall for anybody else at that time. Anne Frank, the girl who, if cryogenically preserved and brought back to life today, will be my girlfriend forever. I will make sure she never gets to shed a tear. I will make sure she never runs out of food. And many of you out there must have fallen for Anne like I did. It wasn't unnatural. Many of my friends were in love with her too. We were of course in love with little Priyanka Gandhi at the same time, because she was the most beautiful Indian girl we had seen, but then, Anne was dead and gone, and indelible from our memories, whereas Priyanka was probably still wetting her bed on troubled nights.

And another collective crush was on Nazia Hassan, who brought disco to India. Everybody I knew was in love with her. All the girls were in love with her brother, and their LP Disco Diwane was a must have in all homes, save the ones of the proletariat, who shunned these American influences on their carefully preserved culture. They welcomed Allen Ginsberg with open arms and Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong were revered, but The Beatles? Trash, I tell you. That's gonna ruin your culture.

I agree with the Bengali proletariat. Poor guys. But anyway, Nazia's LP was coveted as much for her picture on the cover as for the songs.

Meanwhile, most of Enid Blyton's characters had made a rather boisterous entry into the collective psyche of the school students. Sometimes to such an extent that the girls chose either to become the tomboyish Georgina (George) or to become Anne, the perfect British blond schoolgirl. We heard of sausages and bacon and made our parents run to Janata Variety Store in Benachitty to find out what these things meant. That man had canned food: the food of the whites! Every time we passed by, we looked at the Russian, German, and British engineers and their wives buying their monthly provisions. We were certain that they read Enid Blyton too and got the idea of having sausages from her stories.

I was in love with Anne of Famous Five. With the character, believe me! She was small, sweet, a little foolish at times, scared of darkness, and needed protection. Can't really explain to you here how she appealed to me. And to add to my wonder, they started telecasting the Famous Five series produced by BBC at more or less the same time. No, maybe I am wrong... maybe I had moved to Alistair Macleans by then, but I was in my early teenage years when they showed Anne on TV. We had a portable, b/w TV and the transmission wasn't clear, so it was difficult for me to get her name from the credits. Sometimes the credits move too fast, don't you think? I think I got her real name and also the address of the BBC, but don't know if I could finally muster the courage to write to them about her address. Maybe I did. I do remember that I never got an answer.

Many such crushes followed: Suchitra Sen in the movie Shaar-e Chuattor (Seventy Four and a Half), Meg Ryan, and later Helen Hunt. I would watch their movies and stay mesmerized for days, but all of this faded after a few days. There was also Carrie-Anne Moss in that list but I hadn't noticed the Anne in her name until recently. I was growing up, feeling responsible enough for my age, happy with the Anne I married (she too is afraid of the dark and needs a lot of protection) until another Ana arrived in the scene.

And this is Ana de la Reguera. She looks too beautiful for someone who can fall for Jack Black, but the beautiful sister in Nacho Libre looks like someone you can keep on the altar and worship all your life. A google search of her images will yield better results, am sure (if you want to see her posing in the nude), but I like her in her nun's habit, thank you. I guess she has never looked prettier in anything else, or rather, anything less. However, I saw her last night and already her memory is fading.

But I doubt if anyone can ever take my Anne Frank away from me.

Terrifying Lullabies

Why is the door open? Why can't I lock it? What if the robbers come in?

The door in question always remained just out of my reach. I would desperately try to close it, bolt it from within, but wouldn't be able to. When I later discussed my dreams with friends or read about dreams unexplained, it was seen as a plain and easy case of insecurity. You had an insecure childhood, people concluded.

So I believed them and blamed the insecurity on the communication gap between me and my parents. They were both 34 when I was born, and weren't very communicative, if you know what I mean. Of course my dad wanted to baptize me with Dialectical Materialism and Marx when I was in my kindergarten years, but then, there wasn't any kind of heart-to-heart possible with them. If I was insecure for some reason, I had to handle it on my own. And because there were no gods to turn to either, it was a helluva lonely experience. If I socialize a bit too much today, it is because friends meant everything to me.

Insecure childhood it must be. I was sold to this idea pretty much until the other day when a friend mentioned that her daughter wanted a copy of The Diary of Anne Frank. That's when it all came back to me.

My dad studied the WWII to the core and still has almost a hundred books starting from the proverbial Rise and Fall of the Third Reich to The Diary of Anne Frank. He didn't of course have those Commando series comics that I later read and thoroughly enjoyed. Were those published in the UK? The jerries always got beaten in those. Yeah, so my dad, when he put me to sleep, used to tell me about each day of Anne Frank. Or about how the French surrendered. Or about how some brave little boy in Czechkoslovakia fled with a German train! Stories of war. And then the stories of the Vietnam war as well. Pictures of how the Americans tortured the Vietnamese: of a smiling soldier twisting and breaking the arm of a lady or of three soldiers cutting out the liver of a live Vietnamese guy! Gore? Osama is a kid compared to the Americans in Vietnam or the German concentration camps. The Muslim terrorists of today are nothing. When you cut open a guy's liver, he stays alive for almost an hour after that, writhing and dying a slow death. Daniel Pearl died in about three seconds. Have you seen that video, btw?

So, these wartime stories, of bravado and victory of the good over evil, were playing on my mind. The enemy was on the other side of the door. I was a little kid, hiding inside, from the german troops, our dwindling resources getting over by the day. And the door, slightly ajar, was always just out of my reach.