Monday, November 18, 2019

"Don't Put Sugar, Please"

"Please don't put sugar, didi" I blurted out with my hand stretched, but I had used the word "cheeni" and before I could stop her, Maruti's wife had already put a spoon of "shakkar" in the lemon tea. Sugar gives me acidity and leaves a sour aftertaste. She looked at me, puzzled. Marathis call sugar "shakkar" pretty much like we do in many other Indian languages. I realized if I ask her for sugarless tea now, she would have to make it again. So I gestured that everything is fine and accepted the red tin cup with both hands. It was a tiny cup that had seen better days. But it was the best Maruti's wife had.
It was early in the morning and there was a chill in the air, and I was happy for the hot cup of beverage.
The previous evening, in a bid to find a place to stay near Panshet Dam, I had lost my way somewhere along the banks of the huge lake and circumnavigated the entire catchment in search of some GPS signal. If the motorbike had stalled, I couldn't have pushed it back to civilization, and if it fell, I didn't have the strength to pick it up.

Going back to Pune meant another sleepless night with my friends who are die-hard nocturnal beings. And I had to explore more of Maharastra after having covered Panchgani, Mahabaleswar, and Pratapgarh Fort earlier that week. I came across a signboard with Panshet Valley View Resort written on it, pointing upward into the hills, and reached the place after 30 mins of negotiating broken roads through dense jungles. The sun was going down, the cicadas were out with a commitment to make the entire place sound eerie, and the little man Maruti was standing at the gate like a spirit. He didn't look surprised to see me. "Come in," he welcomed me with a smile.
It was a sprawling resort within the jungle with a pool, tents, normal rooms, rooms on stilts, a basketball court, a dorm, and a kitchen. My spirits were lifted. Finally a place to shack up for the night, then. Where are the others, I inquired.
Nobody, sir, there's nobody. They come on the weekends from Pune. Couples, mostly, he added. Sometimes large families and groups as well. By now he had opened the lock to a room with a spectacular view of the lake. I was in two minds about staying there and going out again in search of another place in the wilderness. We settled for a price that included my dinner and breakfast, and by then the sun had slunk away behind the hills, leaving a last bit of orange and blue on the sky. I couldn't have clutched on to the colors to ward off the gremlins in my mind. They come visiting on a solitary night. The full moon cast moving shadows of trees on the glass door to the balcony, and some restless night birds joined the cicadas. Have you heard a frog calling for help as it slides into a snake's mouth? It sounds like a groan that starts off as a tenor sax, and then gets higher in pitch like a shrill cry, before suddenly going absolutely quiet. I pulled the curtains and could feel my throat going dry.
Somebody knocked on the door. Chicken sukka and salad for dinner, sir.
I don't remember when I slept. I finished a book I had been meaning to read for a long time. The epilogue talked about how the book was originally written in 69, but was revisited in 1984. Read like a pastiche, I thought as I pulled the patchwork quilt over me, trying to push away the cold, slithering snakes crawling up my legs.
The morning was at 6.25, and sunrise precisely at 7.00. I busily clicked some pics, packed my little bag, and left. On the way out, Maruti called me to his house. But you had asked for an omelet for breakfast, he asked. I tried talking to him about intermittent fasting and then realized I must sound like a joker to them. As we grow older, we should eat lesser. He nodded in silent agreement. By then a little kid with a warm smile had come out to play on the porch. I gave him my metal water bottle to play with, when Maruti's wife got me the lemon tea.
On the way to Sinhagadh Fort I could see the jawans of the army jogging up the fort road in full gear. I waved at them and they waved back. I found myself smiling as I kept rolling my tongue, waiting for the sour aftertaste of sugar to set in.
Strangely, it was sweet.

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Three States and a Biryani

When I came to, I could see myself fast approaching a gate that was coming down slowly, like an automatic boom barrier, accompanied with an intermittent boom boom sound... Dead Dog crossed the gate and I followed him...and immediately after that was a second gate, absolutely identical, which was coming down at the same pace as well! Only Dead Dog managed to cross the second gate, but I didn't. It was then that I realized I was on railway tracks, and had nowhere to go. There was another local fellow on a bike stuck with me.

I looked back.

Someone on the other side of the first gate frantically waved at us to come to his side of the tracks. The other fellow went across. I turned my bike and followed suit, and before I could realize, the Bangalore-Chennai Shatabdi Express thundered past just a few meters behind me. I had no clue where it came from and how fast, and that was when I properly woke up, shaken to the core. Someone was holding the handle of my bike steady to ensure I don’t get sucked into the vacuum and splatter against the train PHACHAAAAAK like in a comic book.

I was just about to die, a day short of my 48th birthday, but what was I doing asleep on a running bike anyway!

When you plan a day-long bike ride in June, you tend to forget that you’re gonna leave the cooler climes of Bangalore and head into the dense heat of the neighboring states. Dead Dog had this 350-km trail riding planned for Sunday, and we started early at 6 a.m. from Hosur Road. Hosur Road starts from Bangalore and goes southward towards Shoolagiri and Krishnagiri, from where one the road turns left towards Vellore and Chennai, and another goes straight toward Salem and Kanyakumari. But we weren't gonna stick to the highway. We had other plans. 

We both ride Triumph Street Twins, and have modded our bikes a bit. We've moved from Pirellis to Timsun 659s, for better off-road grip, changed the fork oil for a more pliant front suspension, and while I have left the springs untouched, Dead Dog has put progressive springs at the front and also rear suspension from the old Continental GT by Paioli. We have put handlebar raisers for a more relaxed riding stance. X-pipes for de-cat and shorter silencers will follow, but for now, we're both happy with our rides.
About 10 km after Shoolagiri there’s a left turn through village roads towards Kuppam in Andhra Pradesh. From the broad, open highway, we suddenly found ourselves on a narrow, tree-lined road, but well paved. Dead Dog stopped at a place and expressed his disgust with the road being so smooth and beautiful. So much for trails riding, he said, but frankly I was enjoying the road. There were twisties, very few vehicles, and some wide-eyed villagers wondering where these aliens came from. Most of all, even at 8 in the morning, we could hear the birds tweeting, a soothing respite from the din of the concrete jungle. We reached a place that’s at the border of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka. Only Karnataka was on the other side of a hill. 

Here we stopped to click some pics of the dense jungle, spotted some “elephant crossing” signboards, and as we went onwards to Kuppam, we inadvertently steamrolled some butterflies with our helmet visors. One might have entered my mouth. Didn’t taste anything like butter though.

I must have fallen asleep around this time. Maybe not fully asleep, but very drowsy. After finding myself on the railway tracks and narrowly escaping a gory death, I was wide awake and looking for some Red Bull, but found a lot of bulls and some coffee at a tea stall instead. The old lady sweetly asked us to stay back for lunch. It’s too hot out there, and am making brinjal curry and rice, she said. But we were headed for Khaja Restaurant at Vaniyambadi, for some mutton biryani. We were going along the railway track, criss-crossing it, and at one place even went underneath the track, squeezing through a narrow tunnel made for otters (video).

By 10.20 in the morning we had reached Khaja Restaurant. The biryani wasn’t ready, said an old man, but you can wait for ten more minutes. By then it was already very hot in Tamil Nadu, and we waited, tongues hanging, more for the heat than for the food. I watched how one man meticulously tied at least a hundred packets of raita in those ten minutes. Vaniyambadi is famous for its biryani, but then it isn’t a very clean town. The main road is rather congested like any other mofussil town of India, and traffic is chaotic. Couple it with the summer heat and the beggars on the road, and you have a very unsavory picture.  

The mutton biryani with quail pepper fry on the side was gobbled up in no time, but all I wanted to do was to head back home after that. It was around 11.00, the sun was looking fiercely down on us, kinda unrelenting, and I wanted good roads. Enough of trail riding on a Triumph Street Twin. We need a Hero Xpulse maybe.

Dead Dog would have none of it, though. He was determined to find his way through the villages of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh all the way to Mulbagal on Old Madras road.
He’s called Dead Dog because he once ran over a dog. Some call him Tandoori Nai, but Dead Dog kinda stuck. I followed him, and he followed Google Maps. Through some villages on Punganur Road, we were promised that Old Madras Road is only some 20 km away, when we suddenly came to the road’s end. A man hurriedly approached us on a Hero Honda Splendor and informed us that many bikers have vanished in the jungles mysteriously, while some were found in the ditch. “On bigger bikes than yours” he added. Must have been someone on a Triumph Tiger or BMW 1200 GS.

A little monkey brrrrred at me from the tree above when I drank the last few drops from my water bottle. I brrrred back at him and realized he’s probably asking for water. I had nothing left to give the poor little fellow, so made some unintelligible sounds, called it bubbi and kibbli, and went on my way. Back to the main road this time.

The last stretch to Mulbagal was a fair bit of off-roading because the road is being broadened. The front forks loaded with 20W Motul oil held up pretty well, and the Timsun 659 tyres instilled a fair bit of confidence in me. These are so much better than the OEM Pirelli Sport Demons the Street Twin comes shod with, and give you that extra faith to take your bike off the road.

Mulbagal to Bangalore is 93 km of straight highway, so it was an uneventful ride apart from a cooling stop at Polar Bear for some ice-cream. The overcast sky in the rear-view mirror was catching up with us, and during the last stretch we found a few drops of relief.

How long was today's ride, I asked Dead Dog on WhatsApp.
"Dunno, maybe 350 kms. But there’s a tri-state border with Kerala here," and he sent me a google maps location of a new place.

Dude, isn’t that gonna be an over-nighter?

Time to look for a tent now. Oh, and stack up on Red Bull, coz I don’t like trysts with bloody trains no more.

Sunday, April 10, 2016


“You know, home to me is memories of songs and familiar streets. Of tall trees and square ones. Of the fun of riding my cycle downhill from the 9th street of Newton all the way down to Marconi, feet spread on either side. Of the gradient of each road. Of coming home to find George Biswas singing "With a high hope" on the 33 rpm vinyl. Of the first footsie under Dhar Sir's bed that transported me to another land. It could have been Atasi or Sonali, but I have no way of finding out. Home to me is the fear of Mathematics and of rushing to Atanu's house for help. And of him making me smoke his dad's half cigarettes. 
When I speak with you, I have a tremendous urge to go home, only there's no home, just memories on YouTube, in forgotten songs that make my eyes well up.”

“Can you promise not to go to anybody else?” she suddenly asked.
"But, wait, didn't you say you aren't possessive just about half an hour back?"
"Oh, that was then. Now I think I love you."
"Err...what kind of love?"
"Oh, the possessive kind, I suppose? Like deep enough to say, don't go to that other woman.
Write to me about your memories."
"But, what did you say about love? Do you really mean it?"

She paused. I waited. I could see she was typing.

"Oh, that I can't tell. It is like Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, you can say. I can't determine my feelings very exactly."

And she logged out soon after. Schrodinger's cat was trapped in her closed chat window, strangely three-dimensional. But we will never know. And I lost my sleep that night, and many nights thereafter. This was love I hadn't known erstwhile. Of someone being able to defend her unpredictability with quantum mechanics. Usually, I was the one being mysterious. Now was my time to be hunted. Strangely, it wasn't fear. It was the euphoria of being tranquilized by an excess of lotus leaves.

A strain of a Julia Stone song wafted into the room:

"So come on Love, draw your sword
Shoot me to the ground"

So I started writing to her, and it made no particular sense. I didn’t know if I was cautioning her or pacifying myself. My heart just seemed to beat faster.

“Each new love comes with a strange humming sound. Like a buzz. Like a disclaimer, a fine print of sorts. Perhaps of the same old mothballed caution? Of thunderstorms and telephones that never ring? Yes, you know what I mean. It is repeated, this time in a careworn, raspy voice, drooping to almost the floor with the weight of collected wisdom, just about holding its own against gravity by virtue of its need to be heeded just once. An inch, perhaps. Do not fall in love again, it says.
But as expected, you don't. Heed the good advice, that is.
Mothballed stuff is never used, you argue, never have been, in a bourgeois household, like the unworn cashmere gets used to the damp comfort of a loft as babies grow up and give birth to new babies. And houses moved. Old luggage discarded with mixed emotions. That's where you leave caution and wisdom to spoon, strange bedfellows. Out of sight and forgotten. The image of the loft has a familiar dampness to it. Place it next to a leaky toilet, for good measure. There's seldom a Toy Story in real life, is there!
You turn off the radio and holler out to the first mate to flank her into the storm, full steam ahead. With each lightning strike, with each rising to the crest and tossing into the sea, the gentle whir of wisdom is drowned just like you cannot hear her engine anymore. And there's no disembodied voice from down below loud enough to tell you if the engine is running at all.
With each new love, remember to turn off the radio.”

And when I turned off the weather forecast and came back to the chat window, I unlocked the cat and let it go. It walked away or it didn’t.
She was calling out my name.

“I’ve baked you a shepherd’s pie. Come home.” And we logged in to Skype again.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016


It is a dry February day and even at 10 in the morning the sun bears down like it has plans of magnifying its heat and burn some DTC buses in Delhi.
Only it is Bangalore, and such heat is unheard of.
Even Delhi is pleasant now, "just lazily slipping into Spring," as one particularly jealous friend informed last night. "Let the summer come, and we will have reason to rejoice as you all burn there," I thought as I hung up on her. But to accept to the denizens of Delhi that Bangalore is actually rather warm, is hurting my pride. Where was it that I read "denizens of Delhi" first? In a letter from Upamanyu Chatterjee to David Davidar, in the files of The Last Burden, if I remember. I should have torn off that handwritten note from the file and kept it folded in my wallet, but my wallet contains other unwanted stuff now, and some long unused condoms.
As I wait on my bike for the signal to turn green, the heat is burning my right thigh. I desperately seek a bigger vehicle to offer some shade, but am in the right lane and nobody can squeeze between me and the median. A giant oncoming BMTC Volvo stops on the other side and I pretend to listlessly look inside. From the corner of my eye I can see a young boy ogling at my bike and trying to figure out the make. I sit up straight on the saddle, posing like a true biker. But the traffic moves and the relief of the shade is short lived.
Two elderly gentlemen in front of Moghul Durbar last night were discussing just this. How the afternoon namaaz on Friday burnt everybody black. How much blacker will they become, after all, one of them quipped. And they rued the chopping down of trees around the Tilaknagar mosque, and were lost in memories of the canopy of leaves.
The signal turned green. It has rained in Durgapur, and it won't be long before it rains in Bangalore. You talk of tabebuia and eucalyptus, but I say, give me a good old banyan tree any day.

Much like a banyan tree, I've been rather stationary all my life. If life is like the last bench in a Math class, I must have moved only a few inches here and there, as the varnish faded and the planks started creaking, the nails became wobbly and purposeless, and Trigonometry struck off the curriculum. I had been in love with Ani since the day I first saw her. And today, standing at the signal, when I think of her, I realize I haven't moved very far from where I started, unless there were tectonic shifts that I am unaware of.

It is a story from only a couple of Februaries back. "Why, Shubho?" she had been crying. "Why did he go to another woman when I was carrying his child and waiting patiently for his return? Am I not beautiful enough?" She started taking off her clothes and tossing them all around the room. "Let's place some on the staircase to give it a classic Hollywood feel," I suggested in an effort to lighten the mood, as I picked up her discarded denims and black shirt to drop them from the landing to where the stairs started. "They belong there, at the bottom of the staircase. And now for scattering some lingerie as we come up."

She alternated between being coquettish and violent. To disarm me with her beauty and also to try and erase the memory of her cheating husband with a vengeance. But cheating is a relative term. Aren't you cheating on him by being with me? "I'm not sleeping with you. In the last three years I have allowed you absolute access to my body, but I'm not sleeping with you. You pleasure me with a massage, and it doesn't constitute cheating. It isn't adultery, if you know your penal code well. But he was with her all these years! I've seen their pictures together."

As she took off her red bra, I stood transfixed. It happens every single time I see her undress. I picked it up from the bed and walked to the staircase, to gingerly place it on a step. To the untrained eye, it would have looked like the aftermath of unbridled lust, with the clothes strewn along the path in utter disdain. The borrowed Nikon captured every stage of undress with care, but she was untiring as a model. Am all yours, she seemed to say, but not just to me. To the world, in a Marilyn pout.

I ran my fingers through the scar on her belly and asked who was the first to see her like this. "Like what?"
"Like this," I looked up, "with not a single thread sullying your beauty by attempting to cover an inch of it?"

"Oh, there were many, many, Shubho. But the first would be one village boy in Santiniketan who watched me bathe one evening." And then him. And them. And me.
We made love that February morning for the first time in three years. She lay there, insipid, the Tamil Brahmin side saying she had sinned, and the Bengali genes saying you finished what you started. That was the last I saw of her. Like she had failed to show up on a designated Ashtami evening several years back, she vaporized again, leaving no trace for me to pursue. I could sense something terminal in the way she picked up each piece of clothing on her way down, with clinical precision.

Februaries have continued to become harsher ever since. Some say it is global warming, but standing at the traffic signal, with the sun baking my limbs, my eyes still dart around for a glimpse of her in her red little car.

Sunday, February 14, 2016


Memories are tricky. Some titillate you, some waft in like the smell of fresh bread from the oven, and some draw you back in time, just to remember a forgotten name.
My memories of Borkhola are tinged in various shades of green. Of fresh tea leaves, mostly. And the smell of sweat when I played with the Santhal boys, just behind our tea estate, where the laborers lived. The Santhals were brought to the British tea estates in the late 1800s, but they remained indigenous. Living on the fringes of a small village, bordering the jungles, they were the first to face the wrath of the elephants and lose their children to the leopard cats. They danced around the fire at night, and the jungle beat of their drums could be heard reverberating in the hills. The memory of that rhythm is fading.
The winter memories beckon, of the empty paddy fields, the tea gardens in the hills, and of Nara Tilla, the single barren hillock that I could see from my terrace. It can't be far, I thought to myself, and I must roll down Nara Tilla one day. That seemed like a singular purpose for the longest time in my boyhood. I can't remember having any such concrete goals in my adult life now.
A laborer's boy and I had gone in search of that lonely hillock one day, just to roll downhill. The journey to the hillock was arduous, although it didn't seem so far. And on the way down we went over the touch-me-not bushes at breakneck speed. The fever that followed lasted 18 days. There are memories of Ma removing the tiny thorns from my body. That pain is still palpable. I can almost feel the harsh edges of the thorns under the skin of my palms, close enough to pull out but deep enough to hurt. Just like it hurt when she walked out the door, taking a part of my soul with her.
I can't remember the name of the boy, though. He tied a red thread around my wrist when I was leaving Borkhola. Protects you from the baghdasha, he said.
Thirty years later, I had never seen a leopard cat in my life.
***************************** After Ma passed, I had not gone back to Silchar, but the winter offer on the return flight was irresistible. Everything seemed to have changed in Borkhola. There were so many more shops. "There's a big mall coming up near the bazaar," I was informed, but I went walking to the Santhal village. There was Nara Tilla in the distance, and I could see a trail of smoke coming up from the village. As I approached the gathering of men and women around the fire, an acrid smell of burning flesh hit me. There was a dead animal hung above the fire, and everybody was cheering. The fur was burnt black, and the body had gone stiff. One man was turning the body with a long stick, to ensure it gets cooked evenly.
"Sujan, isn't that you?" I heard a man calling out my name. He was a bearded man, squatting a few feet away from the crowd. "Am Ramdass, do you remember me?" There was Ramdass, my childhood friend and ace archer. He taught me how to make a bow and build two kinds of arrows. The thotti is to stun, and the gajal is to kill with piercing. I didn't have to tell him about my failing memory, so I just smiled and sat next to him.
"Nara Tilla, Ramdass, how can I forget? What are you people up to? Aren't the forests officials going to trouble you later?
"Oh, it was a baghdasha that we trapped after almost a month. It had taken away three babies last month from us," he muttered, "Dushman, dushman. The forest babus will turn a blind eye."
"I heard you've become a sadhu, Ramdass? That you are a clairvoyant of sorts?"

He smiled, exposing his burnt sienna teeth. "You've grown shorter than you were, Sujan. And don't worry, she will come back one day, only you have to unburden yourself of her memories first. But when she comes back, you won't want her anymore."
***************************** I don't know how one can "grow" shorter, but something tells me it means I lack the vision of a taller man, who can see clearly till the horizon, where the sun sets behind Nara Tilla.

(a story by Sujan Bhattacharjee)

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Muluk (Ashtami)


Muluk couldn't hear what Daaribaba said from under the tree.

Daaribaba sleeps on the platform at night and sits under the clutch of sal trees during the day. Muluk has seen him everyday the last 13 years he's been in this village. Ramu, Pocha, Muluk, his parents had run out of names and named their third kid after the village. He doesn't resent it. This is a little hamlet of about fifty families, and most of them are into tilling land. But they have a well-kept secret. The village of Muluk has created the best thieves, burglars and pickpockets in this part of Birbhum. Some have moved to Calcutta for better career opportunities, and Kartik'da is famed to have picked the pocket of the legendary Dharmendar in Bombay. Muluk loved Amitabh Bachhan better.

He dropped out of the village school after the master moved to another village. Apparently he didn't get his salary on time, but Muluk can't tell. Most of the breadwinners of the village used nearby Santiniketan for their daily haul. From bathroom mugs to slippers to dog chains, there's absolutely nothing that they didn't covet. "Don't be too discerning. Pick up what you get, and till the land during the day." There were little snippets of wisdom like proverbs in this community to whom stealing was a way of life in the absence of a religion. And the haul was traded every weekend near the railway station. It's the month of Aswin and time for Durga Puja, but there's no puja in his village. But the hope of new shirts and clothing from the clotheslines remains. The women prefer new sarees.

"Get me a towel. That Madrasi Mariamma of cobblers' street got a towel and says gamchhas aren't as good as towels. Can you find a towel for me today?" his mother demanded.

And Muluk walked along the rail tracks that led straight to Santiniketan, off to try his luck for the day. To find, among other things, a towel for Ma. Daaribaba was waving at him and saying something urgent. There was always an urgency in his voice as he nodded his head, shook his white beard, and lifted his emaciated hand to wave at someone. He had stories to tell, and nobody had the time. It somehow didn't matter,

It will take him a good one hour to reach Purva Palli, the area where all the rich folks stay, and he aimed to reach by twilight. "Make your hit either at twilight or before the birds are up." Muluk could never do 3.00 in the morning. He always chose twilight to do his thing.


It was the evening of Ashtami, and Anindita didn't like it one bit. She had a date with Shubho that night at the Central Pujo, and when they suddenly came off to Santiniketan this morning, she had no way of letting him know. She didn't have their number.
It made her very upset, but there was no protesting in the face of what had happened. Her dad's house in Santiniketan had been burgled the previous night and their neighbor had called to inform. The fun of Durga Puja for her was in Durgapur. And here she was, looking at the broken backdoor, the broken wardrobe from which the latest question papers were missing, and the dust around the rectangular spot on the mantelpiece where the radio used to be. They couldn't take much money because he had come to spend Durga Puja with them, but it was a burglary nevertheless.

"Let's check out the nearby pandal, why don't you take a bath and get ready, Ani?" her dad insisted. Prof Shankar Raman taught Physics at the university and although he was a Tamilian, he enjoyed celebrating Durga Puja with his Bengali wife and daughter. "Let's not waste the evening."

"How do you plan to lock the door, baba?"
"Oh, we'll leave it open anyway. They've taken what they had to take. I will make a new set of question papers for this semester. Come, come, hurry up. And Nobeen is coming to fix the door tomorrow."

Anindita went into the bathroom and switched on the light. The wooden shutters had been neatly lifted off their hinges leaving a gaping hole into the night. The neighboring land was vacant, home to wild shrubs and Giant Milkweed. If some house was vacant for a night, they didn't spare even the windows and doors.
Ani took off her chiffon kameez. Ma had bought her some pairs of Belle bras, but Ani didn't like them. Her breasts were pubescent, just showing up, and she didn't want to modify their appearance. The open window didn't bother her anymore as she gradually removed all her clothes.

The song from the nearby pandal had stopped playing, and the metallic sound of water filling the steel bucket shattered the silence. The Giant Milkweed has a thick white flower. The milk makes you blind, they say. She could see the white flowers in the dark outside, and the darker shape of a boy standing there, the light from the bathroom falling on him.

The boy was standing there, staring at her. He didn't have a shirt on. He was probably not even a teenager and Ani realized that he couldn't take his eyes off her. Ani stared back at him for a good long minute, without trying to cover herself up. The boy didn't try to run away.

Ani wrapped herself in the towel and switched off the light of the bathroom.

She didn't know if to cover her breasts or to cover the scar that ran from between her breasts down to the navel and beyond. She wasn't thinking. This moment hadn't happened.


Muluk couldn't register what had happened either. He had seen the womenfolk of his village bathing at the pond, but he hadn't seen anybody like this before. She was beautiful, like the earthen idol of a young goddess. And with her inexplicable act of generosity that night, she was nothing less than god. There simply couldn't be a bigger act of kindness, there couldn't. It was the day of his richest haul, Ashtami. Muluk could hear a buzz in his head, the drum-roll of a possessed dhaaki, weaving magic with his sticks. How could she be so beautiful? Even the railway track seemed to shudder mildly with the drums. It was loud enough to drown the sound of the approaching train.

"Don't walk on the tracks on your way back, tonight. There's a new express to Sainthia." Daaribaba still waves at people and warns them. Nobody listens to him anyway. It doesn't matter.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Fair Game

It was the last day of sales training for Suvro. He was unusually reticent, and not an expert at convincing people about anything. It was still a mystery how he managed to get selected at all. But then, the water filter people didn't care much about whom they hired. They were just bothered about numbers. And nobody in Calcutta had heard about arsenic poisoning before this. Armed with deadly pictures and pamphlets about the effects of various water-borne diseases and how the ground water in Calcutta is polluted, it was fairly easy for even a shy person to meet the monthly targets.

Suvro was introverted and withdrawn because of his heavy German accent. His parents moved back to Calcutta in the 80s when he was barely ten, and Suvro could never recover from the cultural shock of having moved from a quaint little European village to a bustling city with frequent power cuts and curious people. The kids in the neighborhood made fun of his accent, and the only respite was the Sunday service at the local church, where Father Gilson used to preach. He was Belgian and had taught Mathematics at St. Xavier's School, Ranchi, before moving to Calcutta. Father Gilson understood the troubled kid and took him under his fold. He could sense that the kid wasn't growing up to be a Christian, but Father Gilson believed one would seek god only if one needed him. He watched this boy grow up mostly an agnostic, immensely interested in European history, and caught in a cultural limbo. The last few years of school was at South Point, the largest school in the world, but Suvro could hardly make any friends. But there was a lot of space for an agnostic Christian boy in a city that had opened its arms to people of all faiths and even to those with none.

And there was Maya. Dark, wiry, a long jumper, and basically lost in her thoughts all day. She had learned very early in her life that although this city had made peace with atheists, pickpockets, authors, playwrights, musicians, and communists, there was still no acceptance for a dark-complexioned woman. A person's good looks are defined by the complexion, and even in her family Maya had to face a lot of rebuke for being dark. Her aunt, who used to live with them, would constantly keep reminding her father that he wouldn't find it easy to get her married. "Men will just use you and move on." Maya hated going home. She would often sit by the river next to the abandoned jute mill. She would go only when Baba was around. He loved her unconditionally, and called her his pretty little Sreela. Sreela Majumdar and Smita Patil were beautiful actors (despite being dark, as the industry kept reminding you). But Baba seldom came home. After the closure of the jute mill, he took up another job that involved a lot of travel.

Maya loved going to school because she found a friend in Suvro. He was this confused kid, mostly cornered and bullied by the others, and only Maya didn't make fun of his accent. It didn't take long for them to find comfort in each other. They would have their tiffin-time stories. He would tell her about Bach and the wonders of how multiple layers of simultaneous music could be composed by one man's brain. And about Edward Hopper.

They grew up together and stuck with each other through school and college. Father Gilson died of cancer. Maya was the first among the two to get a job with State Bank of India for representing Bengal in athletics, and Suvro, being a student of history from Calcutta University, was struggling to find a job as a salesman. That's all Calcutta had to offer in the mid-nineties. A job in sales for many, a career for a lucky handful. But the water filter people selected him. They were recruiting for an army of sales locusts to cloud over the city and were not very discriminating. Can you speak Bangla? Hardly. And English? What's that accent? We will give him the Alipore sector and Hastings to cover. All the rich English babus there.

Suvro got a job and it was the final day of training. Mr Devadasan was a brilliant trainer and had taught them all the techniques of sales over the last two weeks. About tricky situations, difficult customers, categories of customers, how to read their minds, how to make an entry, and so on. It is about instilling fear in the mind of the housewife about water. Doesn't she love her children?

"Today, I will put a special mantra in one lucky person's mind. And that person will never fail in his career." Mr Devadasan sounded mysterious. "I will hypnotize him."

Everybody was eager to be hypnotized, but apparently there was a game to be played first, to decide who is most suitable. Not everybody can be hypnotized. You have to be willing.

All the trainees were asked to close their eyes and straighten out their hands ahead of them, with one palm facing up and the other down. They were to imagine a balloon tied to one hand, and a pound weight placed on the other. At the end of the exercise, when they were asked to open their eyes, Suvro was the winner, with one hand soaring way above his head and another almost wilting, about to touch the table. Most of the other students hadn't moved their hands much.

"Like I said, you have to be a willing candidate, and let your imagination rule you. I cannot hypnotize someone who isn't ready to let me control his mind."

Suvro then had the most amazing experience of his life. Sitting in the room, he experienced being taken deep into a dungeon down a white marble staircase that slowly turned moss green. It was the inside of the redbrick Astorhouse, where he had never been. The voices from all around sounded like distant gurgle, and the only controlling voice was of Mr Devadasan's, whom he saw in a white suit, holding his hand.

Suvro came to with the sound of fingers snapping. All this while he was seated in the middle and Mr Devadasan had pricked two needles into his stretched arms. It wasn't hurting, and there wasn't any blood. But Suvro had no recollection of this incident at all. Mr Devadasan removed the needles and pressed some cotton on the incisions. "I've given you the secret code to becoming a successful salesman. Come back next year and tell me how you fared."

It was getting late, Maya would be waiting at Desapriya Park after 5.30. They had decided to celebrate with muglai parota at Adi Sutripti after he got his first salary, but for now, it was roasted groundnuts at the park. Suvro was breathless by the time he reached. Maya was waiting for him at the gate. It would be awkward for a girl to enter the park alone, infested with couples and hawkers. Suvro ran toward her and animatedly started showing the incision marks, not sure where to start his story. It might not be in the same league as Jasper Maskelyne's creation of a German warship on the Thames, but this was nothing short of a miracle. Mr Devadasan looked like god, you know? In white.
Maya hugged him and offered some badam bhaja.
Suvro wasn't listening. The needle marks were his trophies for the day.

But Maya's trophy was much bigger than that. Just that she chose to keep quiet about it.
More than the medals, the cups, and being photographed with the Chief Minister Mr Jyoti Basu, she had found herself a fair-complexioned boy.

It was time for a triumphant return home.