Monday, October 29

The Waiting Game

You could just about make out the tiny, strawberry tip of her tongue sticking out as she concentrated on her movements. She knew that getting the combination right was all that mattered and her face was Mona Lisa-like; the ghost of a smile suggested itself at the corner of her mouth but her eyes betrayed the inner demons of fear. They were waiting there for that one slip of the foot, one suggestion of disruption in her focus before she completed the sequence of the ritual. It almost came. As she made her final leap, she noticed the bluish wisp out of the corner of her eye and it rattled the gates to her own personal hell. Her leg, so sure until that instant, landed awkwardly, wavered, shivered, but ultimately stayed put. “Too close”, she thought. It was done, for now. In illogical indignation, she turned toward what had almost caused her failure.

Some distance away was the villain, a svelte spire in the shaded doorway, slowly rising toward inevitable dispersion. The cigarette was the only indulgence he had allowed himself in all those years, but it still made him slightly uncomfortable. He would have preferred to be completely imperceptible, but for what he did and how he did it, it was a small concession. Or so he hoped. Articles about lung cancer had been flooding the papers in recent years and each garish headline and each obstinate statistic only served to remind him of mortality. But he was a cynic, if nothing else and told himself that people died mundane deaths everyday. He had seen men go in myriad ways and as he unconsciously glanced at his hands, reminded himself that he had personally contributed quite a few. He had a reputation in that department and it helped. In the circles that really mattered, his sobriquet was ‘Katana’ and both he and the infamous Japanese blade were blood-brothers; they were swift, sure, and deadly. Unlike the yellow-haired warrior in the latest action flick however, his weapon of choice was a gun.

He had always prided himself on his ability to remain perfectly still when waiting. That was one of the tenets of his ilk, after all. He had done it numerous times over the years, many times in horrendous weather and he smiled as he thought of the time he had to be suspended by ropes to… but forcefully shook himself out of his trance. At the back of his mind, relentlessly eating away into the core of his brain was the thought that this time was different, this time there had been an ultimatum and consequently, there was pressure. He hated pressure. It stifled him and robbed him of the feral instincts that were a large part of his legendary skill. But, he reminded himself, they were not the only contributors. He could, he would, make sure he was successful, pressure or not. He was ruthless in that regard. But there was stress, which he could not deny and it caused him to move to adjust his position and the doorway momentarily offered no protection. She saw him then and she also saw the gun at his side. It rooted her to the spot some distance away behind him and her child-like fascination ensured that she would be a witness. She craned her neck to trace his line of sight and found herself facing the white marble steps and imposing doors of the City Administration building. A small crowd was milling about and she could make out cameras and television crews as they readied themselves. A reporter she recognized from the local news channel was nervously patting her hair and plaintively asking the cameraman whether she looked okay. His answer was to nod in an exasperated and completely unconvincing way which only caused her to fidget even more. Suddenly, the buzz increased as the doors began to open slowly and the reporter, all frantic a moment earlier, now confidently faced the camera and began addressing the lens. One could hear snatches of words… “Senator Smith… nominated for the… votes have been counted… possible victory…”

The striking looking lady in the smart blue business suit made her way out the doors and onto the steps, to be surrounded by flashes and rapidly fired questions. In this maelstrom, she remained calm, poised and seemed to be confidently answering the questions. Something in her demeanor suggested that she would be unfazed in any situation. In this case, the very air smelt of victory and the tentative flutters of celebration. She was noticed by both individuals across the road, him in the doorway and her, behind him.

He watched her; almost with admiration it would seem, mixed with a few stirrings of regret. It was now or never. Tensing himself, he stubbed out the cigarette, broke out of the protection of the doorway and began to briskly walk toward the crowd... toward the lady. Behind him, she noticed for the first time that he was dressed just as smartly, in a suit that matched the colour of the woman's, across the road. The gun was now just intermittently visible as his overcoat swayed with his strides. She realized that no one else knew what she knew, that no one else had even noticed him much less the gun and she tried to say something, to scream. But the words just wouldn’t come. She found herself unable to make even a slight movement and watched him crossing the road as dread, absorption and helplessness all rolled together in the pit of her stomach.

She stared as he crossed the road and made his way up the steps, one at a time, almost deliberately delaying his approach. The lady noticed him too and for the first time, the confidence in her face wavered but she continued to address those surrounding her. The crowd of reporters and pressmen continued to chatter and the noise reached a crescendo as he expertly weaved his way through, relentlessly getting nearer. Across the road, she held her breath without meaning to, as his arms dropped to his side and in a quicksilver movement, broke through and came face to face with the lady.

The cameras flashed furiously as the man with the gun enveloped the senator in a hug. Once again, one could hear phrases… “Congratulations, darling… didn’t expect to see you… got out of work early… made me promise... shall we ?” The local news reporter accosted them as they walked down the steps and began asking them questions. The couple smiled at each other as they turned to face the television camera.

Across the road, in the Home for Orphaned Children with Disabilities, the mute girl turned away and continued her game of hopscotch. She was on Square 7 when the shots rang out, just two of them.

Headlines: Senator Laura Smith and her husband, Police Commissioner Paul Smith were assassinated yesterday. The gunman, a local news channel cameraman…

Saturday, October 27

His-tory of music

The room was a mess. The walls were lined with shelves of books, music and knickknacks, all arranged higgledy-piggledy, suggesting a long lost battle with organization or devotion. The table was in a worse state. Random ink blotches peppered the worn brown surface like Rorschach pictures beyond interpretation and a growing pile of crumpled paper balls threatened to do a Vesuvius on the Pompeii that spread itself on the rest of the table. The pale green lamp, bent over like a tired old crone, had not bothered to do its duty for many a year. Perhaps it had simply forgotten how. Perhaps it had not needed to bother. Who knew? Even the pen-holder, a beautifully crafted wooden piece, was empty; it, along with the other paraphernalia on the table mutely and gently implying that things here were past their prime. The table faced a window which opened onto bleak, gray skies and a plot of land that could no longer call itself a garden. ‘Scrub jungle’ was perhaps the right phrase. The whole setup reeked of desperation and broken spirits.

He shuffled into this room, so slowly that one instinctively knew that he was reminiscing about the past. Cliché it may be, but his memories of that room were happy ones and the knickknacks on the shelves, which, on closer inspection would prove to be rusting or tarnished awards and framed citations, were proof enough. He stopped in the middle of the room, as was his usual practice. Slowly, almost as if his legs were forcing him against his will, he turned toward the door. And he waited.

Would it happen today? He could not say for sure. Under his breath, he began to mutter the same prayer his grandfather had taught him as a child and one which he only chanted in moments of stress. He was one of those people who pretended that the almighty did not exist, until he needed the divine intervention. Then, the bribery and supplications would begin. Depending on the result, his faith or the lack of it was reinforced, rather like the flame of the diya which dances seductively for the breeze. Either way, he was in a win-win situation which was the way he had always liked it. Not for him, the joy of victory or the sorrow of defeat. He had always tried to stay immune. And failed spectacularly.

His rasping breath caught, as he heard the familiar padding sounds that announced the arrival of the creature. Atleast it was punctual, he thought. He had never been able to sweat and had compensated for this failing by chewing on the ruins of what had once been fingernails. He proceeded to do so now. As the creature walked into the room, his heart began thudding, so loudly, he thought, that surely it would notice his presence. But the creature seemed completely lost in its thoughts and failed to acknowledge him. It moved toward the table, sat in the chair with its characteristic, animal-like grace and proceeded to begin scratching at the fresh sheet of paper that lay there. Ever so often, it would sigh and stare out of the window, almost as if it were willing the desolation outside to provide it with any form of inspiration.

Suddenly, as if an unseen bolt of lightning had struck it, the creature jerked and froze. The man in the middle of the room sighed, as if he knew what was coming next. He wanted to reach out and disturb the reverie, but always gave into the allure and inevitability of the next few moments. The creature shook itself and began to feverishly do something as it hunched over the table, its body not allowing him to see. The clock ticked away and he waited. He knew the creature intimately and was aware that the feverish activity would only last a short while longer, which it did. Just a few more dragging minutes. Almost as soon as it had started, the activity stopped and the creature’s drooping shoulders rested themselves against the back rest. That fluid motion made the sheet of paper discernable and the man noticed that the previously empty sheet was now covered with scores of black parallel lines. He marveled at their uniformity and wondered how the creature had made them, so neat and sharp, as if each were a miniature needle.

The same thought passed through the creature’s mind, only it viewed the lines in despair. If this were all it was capable of, it was time to face the inevitable. It glanced at the first lines and it seemed then as if an age passed between the strokes of the needle marking the passage between two seconds. The creature’s throat gave a strangled gasp, almost as if it were laughing and sobbing at the same time and the dual roles were beyond the ken of the vocal cords. One last time, the creature placed its cheek on the warm surface of the table, rose and reached out into the open drawer.

He watched the creature with sympathy as it tiredly rested its head on the table, watched with rising curiosity as it reached into the drawer, watched in stupefied horror as it blew its brains out and watched in helplessness as its hand, slumped to the side and the creature slid to the ground. Slowly and surely.

Deja vu, thought the man.

The lines on the sheet of paper, on the old table in that untidy room burned their way to the top of the song charts, mimicking the flames that rose at the cremation grounds.

He shuffled into this room, so slowly that…

Sunday, October 21

monkey see, monkey do

It is with incredulity that I've followed the newspapers from back home in the last few days, my increasing disbelief safely attributable to the charges of 'racist' that some idiotic cricket 'fans' have managed to tag themselves with.

I wonder which genius tried to spin the idea that the hooting and mimicry that went around the grounds had anything to do with misunderstood celebrations. If those sounds and actions are in a local language, then every evolutionist and linguist worth his\her salt needs to hotfoot it to India. Apparently, quite a few chaps in the country haven't bothered to make it onto the evolutionary ladder at all, forget qualifying for one of the numerous ancestral classifications, and getting these specimens under the microscope would be scientifically invaluable.

I suppose it's hard to get one's head around the idea that Indians, who are not the 'fairest of them all' by any stretch of the imagination, can be racist. People are, of course. And it didn't need the pictures and the media frenzy to bring it out. Every culture has words and expressions to describe another, and usually in a nonchalantly degrading way. It's part of the lexicon. Not everyone may choose to use those words, for the sake of principles or political correctness.
But in a country famous for its diversity, it becomes even easier to make distinctions. And Indians have been doing it for ages among themselves. Now, when the cricket team is being clinically taken apart by a superior team, these attitudes boil over onto the international stage. It helped that the Aussie who was playing a major role in the demolition job was non-white. All the better for the local morons to prominently display their lack of any cranial matter. It would be interesting to see how many of these reprobates would repeat their actions in front of Symonds, without the protection of group anonymity and the fences on the boundary. If there was anything left of their remains for positive identification, they could count themselves lucky.

Those harping on about our glorious culture and ancient traditions barely have a leg to stand on, in this case. If this is the end result of a 1000 years of culture, I fancy that the train got derailed somewhere along the way. Our newest captain or any one of the stars the team is chock-full of would have earned themselves some serious brownie points had they appealed to the public to at least make a pretence of intelligence. All quiet on the Eastern front, this time.

No doubt, Indian cricket related personalities have faced different shades of racism all over the world. For example - Harsha Bhogle at Lord's and the BCCI President at the Champion's trophy ceremony. And the public is aware of it. How can it not be, when the media whips up the appropriate amount of frenzy ? But, were the latest incidents necessary ? Where was the media indignation now ?

Granted, the whole world engages in racism, but what misplaced sense of competition led these alleged aficionados of the game to think that they needed to be crowned champions in this area ?
An eighty six day tour of Australia approaches, with a number of local fans already swearing holy vengeance. Never mind that Australia is pretty infamous for being racist itself. Got to give something to national pride, no ? After all, India doesn't own the patents to that emotion.

It's going to be an interesting tour, that much is certain.

Uttering idle words from a reprobate mind,
Clinging to strange promises, dying on the vine,
Never bein' able to separate the good from the bad,
Ooh, I can't stand it, I can't stand it,
It's makin' me feel so sad.

The glamour and the bright lights and the politics of sin,
The ghetto that you build for me is the one you end up in,
The race of the engine that overrules your heart,
Ooh, I can't stand it, I can't stand it,
Pretending that you're so smart.

Dead man, dead man,
When will you arise?
Cobwebs in your mind,
Dust upon your eyes.

Bob Dylan

Monday, October 15

Gaining my religion

To say that religion is an important part of India is the ultimate understatement. The country is steeped in religious fervour, is the mother of all melting-pots when it comes to gods, goddesses, idol-worship, non-idol worship, sadhus in various stages of undress, intoxication and malnutrition and host to festivals right throughout the year. It permeates everything, and I mean everything and apart from cricket, is quite likely is the major fuel for the great joy, sadness, celebration and social crime that ignites India.

Very Jekyll & Hyde.
Very public, very personal.
Very tricky, very touchy

Think about it. The field trip lasts for 12 - 14 days. In this time, we have to introduce ourselves, get accepted by & worm some extremely private details out of a group of people who probably have never seen any real strangers and are therefore perfectly within their rights to be reluctant to let on, if not be downright hostile. And this just describes what we are up against for the census data. Which is why you, dear reader, will understand the idiocy of attempting to question the people about their various deities, obscure rituals and beliefs in magic, of which the practice of the black kind is illegal and perversely ofcourse, prevalent. The researcher would be leading a charmed life for those 12 - 14 days.

Basically, challenging stuff. Which wasn't the reason I crossed it off the list of 24 as the only one I was against. I'm interested in mythology, religion and whatnot. But I was dead set against any of it at the time this trip took place. Call it a reaction. So, no.

Apparently, the class had misconstrued it a shade when the professors told us to pick topics for ourselves. We went ahead and chose and promptly had the professors smile at us in a sickly fashion and assign us completely different ones based on their own logic of what was appropriate for each student. "This is your destiny..." as it were. Completely filmi, I know, but that's the way it was.

24 topics, 19 students. Some topics wouldn't make the cut (shocking and heartbreaking, really, but the world is an indifferent place). Even as the student's name and his or her topic was called out, I had this premonition (ironic, isn't it) about the topic I'd be assigned.

I kid you not about this next part. I was number 19 & there was only 1 major topic left on the list. Sometimes, its just not worth your while to hold your breadth.

Oh well.... onward, philistine.

Thursday, October 11

Coming of age in the Department OR " Where's Ms. Mead when we need her ?"

Right throughout the 1st semester, we kept hearing about the field trip; an almost-mythical rite of passage that students of anthropology underwent after the final exams. Our curiousity being piqued, we naturally asked around and all we ever got were infuriatingly superior looks and sneers that suggested that those hapless missionaries who travelled through deepest Africa had been on a picnic compared to what awaited us. Left with no option we obliged, waiting and wondering.

Just before finals week, our professor handed us a list with a rather grim air (he had the grim air, not the list). Or maybe the fact that we were in the lab with the skeletons contributed to the atmosphere. Anyway, the list contained a number of things one would normally take on a camping trip and a few items I'd never seen on any sort of legitimate camping list before. Beedis, for example. Since finals were hovering, we didn't pay too much attention to the list and by the next Friday, exhausted and shaken by the effort of the papers, we didn't rightly care. All I could think about, writing that last exam was the first cold beer that I'd down the moment I got out of there. The thought itself had me dreamily nodding and smirking at odd moments, no doubt leaving the supervisor to wonder whether the strain of it all had finally caught up with me.

3:00 pm and we were done... or so we thought. Apparently, the tradition at the anthropology dept. was to discuss the details of the field trip in excruciating detail immediately after the exams and I literally mean immediately. Ergo, instead of beers, my classmates and I found ourselves distastefully eyeing a list of topics for the trip and listening to the professors drone on about the importance of selecting a good topic, doing it adequate justice & a plethora of unnecessary details. I glanced through the titles, all 24 of them, and mentally crossed out just one. There was no way in hell that I was picking that topic.

The Fates glanced at each other and sniggered.

Wednesday, October 10

Scars and Souvenirs

The plan was simple. Intrude upon the lives of a hapless group of villagers and get what we want.

This is not a story about some nameless corporation exploiting innocents for oil and mineral wealth but the tale of a field trip that certain students of Anthropology went for in December 2006. Which means that it was a regular potboiler. There was exploitation, selfishness, and intrigue. There was laughter, romance, the odd song and dance sequence and even a marriage. There was magic, ghosts & demonic possession, allegedly. People were seriously injured and some flirted with death. Somewhere in this jamboree, diaries and field books were written up & photographs taken.

One of those experiences that nerds like to think of as the most exciting time of their monotonous lives and the cool ones chalk up as another interesting interlude.

Either way, it was not easily forgotten.