Saturday, April 19

Think for yourself

It was a gesture for formality’s sake. Every one of them knew he wouldn’t... couldn’t refuse. And felt a twinge in their hearts… pity, empathy, frustration. Not one of them, though they envied him at random moments, really wanted his job or his life. It therefore came as no shock when he accepted the invitation to the party and the only consolation was that he’d never be accused of doing so, cheerfully. Not that it was going to absolve him later of course. That was out of the question. But at least history would decree that he was consistent.

Or so he hoped.

At the party itself, he found himself with his usual group. They seemed unusually tense, but he put that down to the rather hostile atmosphere that palpably floated around them. He wondered why the whispers & sniggers seemed so loud, but fought the feeling of panic by passing it off as mild paranoia. He’d never really liked coming to his relatives’ place, but couldn’t say so because etiquette had been drummed into him practically since he was in the womb, resulting in him being regarded as an excruciatingly polite man in later life. He hoped his cousin wouldn’t drink too much and create a scene. Somehow though, he knew it was inevitable that ‘something’ would take place… it always did. He thought back to the various slanging matches, accusations, counter-accusations, threats and tears that had marked previous family gatherings. God! He was tired of it all. He often wished his father had never inherited all the property and money. It had effectively alienated his uncle, who, being rather stubborn to begin with, had now also become rather bitter and stomped around as if he couldn’t see a damn thing… even issues that were staring him in the face. These feelings, his uncle had passed on to his kids which ensured that his cousin loathed him. A feeling he reciprocated, even though he wouldn't admit it to his most personal confidante.

He heard his name being called and felt his heart drop into his stomach. The voice belonged to the one person he loathed above all others, a man who was his uncle by marriage. Words like ‘snake’, ‘oily bastard’ and other less charitable ones always flashed through his mind when he was forced to interact with this loathsome specimen. Taking a deep breath, he turned around and his eyes widened in shock before he could help himself. Not only was the old sod worse for drink, he was arm-in-arm with his cousin, who was similarly tipsy.

He sighed as they made their way over and steeled himself for the verbal barrage that was sure to follow. And he wasn’t disappointed either. The conversation, or what passed for it, began politely enough; after all, expensive educations have to express themselves somewhere. But he could feel silence sweeping across the room to be accompanied by a sense of foreboding as they began to harangue him over his work, finances and social life. His cousin, especially, seemed to have come prepared with a list of innocuous-sounding but effectively cutting remarks. He didn’t allow his temper to rise, however… kept telling himself that they were drunk and it would blow over soon enough. And then, it happened.

His uncle said something about the party being rather boring and his cousin, almost as if on cue, suggested they have some fun and games. This of course involved high-stakes gambling, which all & sundry knew was his only weakness. Or maybe, it was a compulsion. Being aware of this, he politely excused himself, all the while aware of the dull thumping of his heart. As he turned to leave, his cousin asked him in a voice that attempted to sound casual but was shaking for some reason, “How about you… you are playing, right?”

He froze… and so did everyone else in the room. And the feeling of foreboding that had been present all evening suddenly made it difficult for him to breathe. He felt his fingers trembling and couldn’t say whether they did so because of excitement or fear. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his younger brother frantically shake his head but did not acknowledge his presence.

His cousin’s eyes were narrow slits as he asked him again… “So, yes or no?”

Even time seemed to stop and watch the spectacle... and then, his shoulders sagged & he thought then that the day could just end badly, for himself and everyone and everything he cared about. Maybe it would not be so bad...

He hoped they would understand… and forgive him… he was just doing his duty. It had to be done, yes?

Refusal was out of the question, after all. Wasn't it?

He had to be consistent, no matter what the outcome. History would validate his actions. Wouldn't it?

His cousin asked him a third time, knowing all the while what the answer would be…


Song for the moment: Roadhouse Blues - The Doors

Monday, April 7

Whiskey, Mystics and Men

I don't know whether it's me or the beer, but it occurred to moi that there are less than 3 weeks left to the end of the semester & possibly, my stay in this apartment. Sure, this place is nothing special. It has the required number of walls and windows, strategically placed, with the kitchen and bathroom thrown in. But, this house was home for 2 years. And, it takes a few things, events, people etcetera to make that transition.

I shifted here from my temp accommodations on a Sunday afternoon at 4:00 pm. I remember a flutter of trepidation in the pit of my stomach as I contemplated the front door to Building 1509 - Parkview Apartments, no. 6. Having never stayed by myself before, I wondered whether things would work out... I'm afraid that vague thought cannot be elaborated upon further. I opened the door, expecting to be greeted by the typical 'new place' smell and instead reeled back a couple of steps, having been assaulted by the fragrance (if one could call it that) of garlic. At least none of the guys I was sharing the place with was a vampire. Not in the accepted sense, anyway.

The moments pass quickly when you are setting up house; one minute I was unpacking my clothes and other stuff and before I knew it, a week had passed and I found myself eating dinner with the guys at 1:30 am by the glow of the kitchen light. That was our first semester... we actually ate lunch everyday, were in the computer lab till closing time i.e. 1:00 am, made our way home in a group, laughing and joking by the light of the autumn moon, cooked and had dinner by 3:00 am and sleepily opened our eyes to realise it was 11:00 am. Those were the days of experimental dishes, discovery of culinary talents or the lack of it, and importantly, the first tentative understanding of each other as people.

Eventually, everyone settled down to their individual routines and the semesters flew by. While we didn't meet everyday, each of us in the house knew that we'd be there for each other if needed. That's about all we expected from each other, since we were probably the only bunch of Indian students who didn't have a fixed schedule for who'd cook, who'd take out the garbage and who'd buy the groceries. We're pretty casual people, all four of us. We enjoy drinking, listening to music and cracking inane jokes. It's be nice to say we got along famously all the time, but Shangri-la is a myth, an ideal. While appreciating each other's individual quirks and alcohol consumption abilities, we occasionally saw the beast flash in each other's eyes. And acknowledged the kinship, even as we swallowed the revulsion. That's what alcohol is for, right ? Discovering and dancing with demons ?

The good and the bad have together made the past 2 years real. Unlike students in most other apartments, we lived with each other. I'd like to think maybe we learned something from each other along the way, but that would be wistfulness on my part. But, I do know that the odds of finding four quirkier people living together in Birmingham are rather slim.

Here's my literary doff...

to that first spicy daal-chaawal + beer combo, all those many months ago
to the 25th of February 2007, to 5 guys and 48 beers from 12:30 to 6:30 pm
to the beer wall of fame... 35 varieties and counting
to the messy kitchen & unforgettable food
to never taking each other seriously, especially when the going got tough
to not sweating any stuff, never mind the small stuff
to the incidents I can't mention here, but know we'll remember for a long time
to the house in Birmingham, AL and to the guys who made it home
to us.

Song for the moment: Old friends / bookends - Simon & Garfunkel

Friday, April 4

El Camino

The first thing one will notice on reaching Birmingham is the absense of people on the roads. Or the footpaths. Or the... never mind. The point is, coming from a place like Pune or a country like India, it throws you off. Your equilibrium, or whatever is left of it after a 30 hour journey, is not really equipped to handle the mausoleum-like atmosphere. Your alleged knowledge of 'Amreeka' is based on a a strict diet of Hollywood movies, which show lots of people hustling and bustling squawking "Time is money, people... chop, chop, chop!" or a bunch of attractive, scantily clad women strolling about the beach. You quickly realise that you have been cheated... that there are no people around, much less semi-nude dames. No, in the real U.S, everyone and their dog drives some sort of auto-mobile. Walking is an exotic form of exercise only beaten out by Yoga and Tai Chi. Effective public transport is relegated to places like New York, Seattle, Chicago etc. so the only thing left to boast about in Birmingham is the crime rate. 6th most violent city in the country, people !!

Naturally, we guys didn't have a car when we first got here. Fellow Indians who had been here for a while and did own cars were nice enough to drive us around, but strictly as a last resort. We walked everywhere, which is fine if the weather is pleasant. Unfortunately, no one had thought to warn us that the temperature in summer is around 38 degrees. Celsius, that is. Ofcourse, summer 2006 was the hottest in 5 years. It had to be. It's like being toasted to death and our complexions at the end of 3 weeks could only be described as a nice dark oak finish.

Although beggars can't choose and all that, living very close to campus meant that getting to class wasn't a hassle. What was troublesome was getting anywhere else. Privacy is very important in this country so practically everyone lives a good distance away from everyone else. This would be acceptable, were it not for the fact that the grocery stores also follow this principle and are therefore located in the middle of nowhere. Or 4 miles away, give or take... It was quite plain that we needed a car of our own.

Luckily for Grandpa, another Indian student was leaving town and was anxious to sell off his car for practically nothing. Or at least, that was the reason he gave anyway. Everyone including Grandpa could hardly believe his luck when this paragon of generosity sold him the car for $1. Yes, one dollar. The transfer papers were signed quickly in case the bloke changed his mind and Grandpa got the car registered soon after. The old owner, mission accomplished, slunk away.

As expected, the car began to give problems almost immediately. Various parts, which had been held together by chewing gum and prayers decided to protest this abuse and broke down one by one. As I write this, Grandpa has spent about $1200 to ensure that the car actually moves. Anyway, this experience made the rest of us leery about buying a car on the cheap and Batman's car, which came next, cost about $4000. Apart from the battery quitting on him permanently 1 month after he bought it and the coolant tank leaking continuously even today, the car's just dandy. A couple of months after that, I decided to get in on the act as well. My classes were scheduled late in the evening and I was not enthusiastic about the prospect of being mugged as I made my way home. So, I asked around and was told that a friend of a friend was selling his car. A bottle-green 1992 Toyota Camry. When I went to see it, I found that the external body pretty much screamed out that it was an old car. The sides were rusted and peeling, the wind-shield had a thin crack across it and the tyres looked a bit tired (hehe). But the interiors were in great shape and and the engine was running well and had been serviced recently. Or so I was told anyway.

The owner of the car was not really interested in making a profit on the sale which got me quite suspicious, but there were really no other affordable vehicles on the market. So, I asked him how much he wanted for it and he in turn asked me to name my price. I brooded, examined the situation from all sides and decided that it was 50-50. I could end up with a decent car or with a wreck. With my rather infamous luck, the odds weren't looking so good, but I had to take a chance. So, with my heart in my mouth, I made my offer.

He accepted, we signed the papers and I got the car registered soon after. On the 7th of July, 2007 I was the proud owner of my first car. It hasn't given me a problem till today either. I guess the devil does take care of his own.

As for the price ?

There's a legend among the Indian students in Birmingham about a guy who bought a really good car. A '92 bottle-green Toyota Camry, to be exact.

For $200 dollars.

That guy is me.

Song for the moment: Faith in something bigger - The Who