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Friday, September 12, 2014

The Last Laugh

“Ye Nastika, I have an offer for you”, Seemanna called out.

Seemanna’s offers usually spelled trouble.

As I saw him approach, I remembered our conversation from a week ago: he was falling short of vanaras for his performance at the jatre and was on a mission to recruit volunteers.  

“Seemanna”, I said pre-empting his offer, “Don’t bother trying – I am not acting in that godforsaken dance-drama of yours.

Godforsaken dance-drama? Aiyo Nastika, how can you say such things? If there is no God, how can he forsake things?”

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Blue

My novel -- published by Harper Collins -- releases on the 15th of June!


To regular readers of this blog, a BIG thank you. Early drafts of this novel was serialized and written here. Then, I didn't know what I was doing. I wrote because I liked the idea of writing on the Ramayana. I continued writing because some people liked reading it, a smaller number commented here and encouraged me to plough on -- it was fun!

The novel has four sections: Book 1, Book 2, Book 3, Book 4. With three of those Books, I wrote for the sheer joy of seeing where Reddumone would take me, where Rama would take us both. With the fourth, I took Reddumone back into his past. It is the most personal of the Books because I cannot tell where his past ends and mine begins.

Do grab a copy, if only to re-read an edited, crisper, modified version of posts long forgotten!


Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Loved (Part III)

(Continues from below)

Do you remember our argument before the first split? It wasn’t a fight as much as the voicing of an end, a comma, perhaps a full-stop. At least, that’s what I felt.   

I celebrated at Keventer's. I bought myself a strawberry shake: thirty rupees, one giant glass, seven sublime slurps, a burst of dreamy whistling somewhere in between. I was sitting on the second stair of a flight of steps that led into the higher levels of the marketplace, my head four-feet above the ground, my eyes level with the waists of the many students who walked past, oblivious to my presence, gripped as they were by the complete sense of self-absorbedness that affects one at that age.

What did I do? I watched legs: some bare, some hairy, mostly blue.  

One pair of legs really caught my attention: they belonged to a fashionable young girl, who wore, as December would demand, a warm black blazer above her waist and, as fashion would demand, a pair of skimpy shorts that barely extended beyond the upper half of her thighs. On another day, I wouldn’t have noticed those legs at all; on another day, had you pointed them out to me, I would have pooh-poohed them, scoffing the peculiar demands that fashion makes of people.

And yet, that day was not just another day: I watched them approach and I felt myself breathe heavier; they were a beautiful pair of legs— long, sexy, suave –  the cobblestones seemed to roll-out in front of them like red-carpets. I watched them all the way to the corner of the road. Only then, did I notice my own self.

I was whistling softly, an old, flirty duet.
I was ogling
I was free.

*

Recently, a friend of mine told me she always sensed I was distracted, like I was running multiple trains of thought inside my head. I had this image of my brain as a giant railway junction: Neuron-Sarai, thought-trains criss-crossing,  running in parallels, a series of signals at the many intersections; and my own hassled self, working overtime on a single switch-board, pulling levers and ensuring the absence of collisions and cross-connections.

As my friend spoke, I was struck by the memory of a conversation you and I had, strangely also at a railway station. As you chatted about some character you had read in a play, a segment of my mind wandered with my eyes as they followed a greying man in a frayed suit, presumably the Station Master. He seemed flustered, like all the world had dumped its problems on him. I think you noticed my attention drift and paused. Almost on cue, I said, surprising myself: “But wasn't Igor an anarcho-communist?” “Exactly",  you said, beaming, as though pleased with the fact that I was indeed listening. I smiled, because it was wonderful to see you satisfied and talk away, a wave of stray, luscious hair reaching for your ears from across your forehead.

I smiled some more, barely believing my luck.

When I pictured myself in my head, as the switch-board operator of Neuron-Sarai, I seemed to bear a striking resemblance to that Station Master.

“See?” I found my friend telling me, “there you go off again, smiling to yourself”

*

If only love died abruptly. And if only such deaths could be foretold.

On his last night, Radheya, son of the Sun and the Mahabharata’s most heart-wrenching creation, sat by himself in his war-tent and recapped his life. I don’t know if we ever discussed this event: I don’t remember doing so. Fully aware of his impending death,  Radheya sits alone and walks his memory, deliberately—every thought, every event, every person is carefully (even lovingly) plucked out of his past, turned around, examined, and dropped back into the basket of forgetfulness. He could afford such an act, because he couldn’t bother with forgetting: death spells the end for things far worse than memory and regret.

I wish I could have done the same when you had moved on: mark out a night, drench myself in nostalgia’s heady wine, and walk out into a fresh dew-drenched morning, a new soul within, a new life to look forward to. But, I never gathered the courage to voluntarily walk down our past; and forgetfulness slowly chipped away at memory’s walls, until all I have now is a confused collection of thoughts, full of wonderful, visceral, floating emotions, not always moored to any context.

*             

I bought myself a string of fancy, decorative lights a few months ago. They are a series of small, yellow bulbs, encased in punctured, perfectly geometric, octagonal (almost circular) cases; and, as they glow, they throw the most fantastic, interconnected patterns of shadows on the walls. I love staring at those lights, they seem to stand for something new every time I look at them.

There are fourteen lights, the eighth doesn't glow, the bulb long being fused. Sometimes, I see those lights as metaphoric for my own self: difference facets of the same base working in various directions simultaneously and frantically, yet outwardly, projecting one whole image. An isomorphism—a real-world, visual equivalent of the Neuron-Sarai. 

The last time I looked at them, I thought of the one light that didn't glow: it stood, like the great Godel's Proof, as testimony to the fact that the most beautiful things are never complete, never perfect. What is the self, after all, but a continuous, iterative collection of past selves? Of a conscious made from memories, some scattered, some diffused, some fused with a being residing deep inside one’s subconscious? And memory, by nature, is chaotic, murky and often indeterminable. Consequently, the self, built on the bedrock of memory, is imprecise, yet affectingly beautiful.

Once I dreamt that you had married a rich, old businessman: his face was lined, but he wore a smart suit and a tie, and the news of his marrying such a pretty, young thing as yourself was the toast of the town, splashed across newspapers. When I woke up, I remembered that, in the dream, I hadn’t felt terrible that you had married, thereby rendering the idea of us, as two letters fused into one whole, forever lost to the realm of possibilities. I also remember being surprised by how long it had been since I had seen you and yet, how strange it was that I had dreamt of you.

Sometimes, the bulb that doesn’t glow stands for you: as the one that got away, yet exists somewhere, casting its own shadow on the rest, quietly, perceptibly: the beautiful blemish of imperfection on an incomplete self.  

(Concludes)

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Loved (Part II)


(Continued from below)

A few weeks after we split, I remember bumping into S: he asked about you. I was still reeling under the new sense of freedom I had acquired after the split, the loss hadn't sunk in. I must have been in a talkative mood, for I remember we ordered several rounds of coffee—we were at that South Indian place you and I used to frequent ever so often, with its laminated table-cloth and steel tumblers and davaras and wooden benches.

We broke up, I said solemnly. He was taken aback: ‘But, you seemed so happy. I met P last month, he said you both were going strong’. I made a mental note to tell P not to air his assumptions about my personal life to all and sundry, and proceeded to explain, like a talking head on television, the reasons for the split: one, two, three, four, I reeled off reasons. S had tried interrupting and I remember saying, in the same clinical vein: ‘Let me finish, you will get a chance to speak soon’ (See what I mean by talking head?).

It was a good show: I had done this often in the recent past and I was getting to be adept at it. Just the previous week, I had put on a similar performance for Uttam, who, subsequently, seemed thoroughly convinced that the break-up was the only logical option available.

But S was different: younger and wiser. He listened to what I had to say, waited patiently for me to finish and watched as I slurped my fourth coffee, fully pleased with myself. You speak like a lawyer, he said eventually, but when did love and logic become best friends?

Later that evening, one I had whiled away staring at the skies from the terrace with not a shred of responsibility on my mind, I received an email from S. It had no subject, no greeting,  and abruptly began with an extract from Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines:

“ … It is because that state, love, is so utterly alien to that other idea without which we cannot live as human beings—the idea of justice. It is because love is so profoundly the enemy of justice that our minds, shrinking in horror from its true nature, try to tame it by uniting it with its opposite
 [...] in the hope that if we apply all the metaphors of normality, that if we heap them high enough, we shall, in the end, be able to approximate that state metaphorically. And yet, between the state and it’s metaphors there is no more a connection than there is between a word, such as a mat, and the thing itself … ”

Underneath, in stately Times New Roman, was the sentence: “Lawyer saab, what do you think?”

My reply to that email was characteristically flippant, reflecting the state of my mind:  ":D"

*

Some memories, surreal, stand out. ‘Memory resides at the intersection of truth and imagination’, your balding literature professor used to remark, drawing circles in the air with a bent forefinger.

But, what if, as in this case, the truth feels so impossible that it seems imagined?

I do not know why we climbed the tree: I did, because it was one climb-worthy tree too many to resist. Growing up where I did, in the midst of mangoes and guavas and neems and peepals, trees seemed to exist to be scaled, their branches beckoned me— bent forefingers wagging, ushering. It was a quiet afternoon, the sort where lunches snoozed in blown-up bellies. The odd bird purred contently, the traffic beyond the college’s walls was refreshingly absent.

Half-way up the tree, I turned around, and crinkled my nose: coming? You had a desirable body, but it would be a stretch to call it athletic—I half-expected you to decline, even look down on my own childish urge to climb trees. Instead, you threw your bag on the unkempt lawns and made for the tree.

The scene remains etched in my mind: your nose-ring glinting in the afternoon sun, your bag—abandoned, gay—it’s many hues standing out against the soft yellow-green of the grass; and the guitar that, on cue, strummed in the distance: C-G-G-C.

In seconds, you were beside me, perched somewhat uncomfortably on a strip of dull-brown that nonchalantly bore our combined weights; I stood up, my head brushed against a branch, we were showered with dry, crisp leaves, you rose too, we kissed, my hands slipped under your kurta, you shut your eyes, we kissed some more, the branch underneath began to crack, you wrapped your legs around my waist, hoisting yourself with the help of the base of a branch above that snaked from the trunk, I bit your neck, you threw your head back, the branch cracked some more, tilting precariously, more leaves swirled and swung, the sun hid behind some clouds, I used my free hand to grip a branch above, the branch beneath our feet broke, my legs dangled free, you almost shrieked, but then, when we didn’t fall, your legs wrapped themselves tightly around me, relief flooded your face, tickled your eyes, your eyes sparkled like ripples caught by summer sunlight, and there we were, two souls torch-lighting into each other’s beings, dangling from trees and breathlessly kissing, barely concerned about how our arms would ache afterwards, or the mini-fall that would bruise our knees and elbows, or the tree-huggers joke that would haunt us for months to come, but we didn’t care yet, because then, that moment, you were there and so was I and even the passionately poor voice that accompanied the guitar strumming couldn’t distract us from knowing it.         

*

At our best, art spoke to me. You lit up and exposed sides of me I hadn’t explored previously, allowing art to seep into and imbue these corners with life. An evocative passage, filled with direct, bland prose, but brimming with poignant meaning— the sort I would dismiss previously as unimaginative— seemed to tease out a wry smile, a soft tear.

I have always been cinema’s genial uncle, nodding encouragingly at all the bilge that passes for mass entertainment.  But, ever since we met, these darkened halls have come to seize me by the scruff of my neck: I have scarcely come out of a theatre—pop-corn and butterflies swirling and dancing in my insides—not being affected by it all.

Indeed, people speak of how love is blind, I sometimes find it laughable. If anything, love is blinding: every pore in your being is alive, a crackling receptor of a profound, sensory assault.  As your brain grapples with the impossible task of indexing, neatly filing and storing all the beauty and the madness the world constantly churns out and one you’re only now suddenly experiencing, love, in a wonderfully self-referential manner, drives home the fact that love is incomprehensible. To love is to first give in, then give up.     

In some ways—and I say this without the sentimental extravagance of the romantic, but the pragmatism of a logician—you made life speak to me.

*

There is a photograph of us somewhere: you are saying something, your forehead is creased with exquisite, premature lines; I listen on, rapt, my eyes hidden behind my spectacles. Between us is an upturned fork, I cannot tell whose hand holds it, I cannot even tell if there is a hand holding it all. There is a sense of timelessness to the photograph, not because it could be from today, but because I do not remember when exactly it was taken.

I can guess, however.

We seem happy, like we haven’t yet tired from reaching out to the other’s hand in the middle of a conversation. On the other hand, it feels like we are no longer bewildered by love,  no longer willing happenstance to bend on demand: we don’t exude that aura of utter assuredness—of togetherness, of deterministic meaning— that marked the first half of our time together. The fork that stands between us, apparently defying gravity, seems to stand for something larger, something indescribable but appropriate.

I stared at that picture for long, watching something within me swell and ebb, hiss and leap. In that instant, my mind shot through our galaxy: words, images, conversations—all garbled and clear, quietly overwhelming—flickered in its wake, the incandescent tail of a shooting star.

A proud sadness descended upon me, the kind usually reserved for martyrs: it felt like something great had fleetingly touched me and escaped me forever. And, like martyrdom, the essence of this greatness lay as much in its occurrence as its subsequent vanishing.        

*
To conclude. 

Monday, March 25, 2013

Loved. (Part 1)


Writing this is going to take a lot out of me. An image comes to mind—that of a giant, disembodied arm, reaching into my subconscious through my throat, excavating a mountain of memories that have been layered with locks. I don’t know if this is good for me, but I have been excited about it ever since the idea took seed in my mind—to write of you, on you, on us; to say what has never been clearer in my mind:

I loved you.

*

Do you remember the time we went to that Baul concert? We hadn’t met for months, we’d barely spoken. I’d called you, you were surprised I did and didn’t hide it—a trifling detail that, nevertheless, made shutterbugs flash in my lower-abdomen. Sleep coloured your speech, stultified your vocabulary. You once told me you thought you sounded cute when you were sleepy; I never told you this, but you sound extremely sensuous, like a fingernail trailing my back.

Before the concert, we were shooed into this hall by a volunteer who seemed to suffer from verbal diarrhea (Do you remember him? Stout, unibrowed, excited: I was, and remain, convinced it was your presence that made him jittery); it was filled with paintings from old Bombay. We’d gone for a talk on those paintings before—it’s remarkable how much of the talk came back to us, as we repeated lines from a year ago verbatim, flitting from painting to painting, like frenzied butterflies.

At some point, I remember standing a few inches behind you, as you stared at a painting of a perplexing three-headed man; your hair was bunched up, your bare neck—slender, delicate—was against my chest, your hands behind your back; for a brief second, I thought your hands were beckoning my own, and, instinctively, I made to link my fingers in yours, but better sense prevailed. I don’t remember much of the painting, even though we both agreed later on that that was the painting of the exhibition. How could I? The line of your neck— one I had traced with fingers and tongue, teeth and toes, a line I had clasped in my palm and caressed with my cheek—all that stood between that line and I was a still but crackling four inches of space and a line we couldn’t cross.

Did you feel it too, our presences mingling in the air between us, as you stared at that strange painting? Perhaps not, because, afterwards, you seemed to have so much to say about the three-headed man, peeling off layers of subtext like flakes of paint. Wasn’t that the evening we had a mild disagreement? Gone are the days, I remember thinking, when we had full-fledged fights, for even our disagreements are but mild.

But, I got to you that evening, didn’t I? I knew where you’d hurt and I was gentle and blunt: I called you the quintessential theorist, incapable of producing any true art, but adept at reading meaning into another’s. Someone else would have taken that as a compliment, but, for you, it was always a sore point: can’t draw, can’t write, can’t produce music.

*
Vexing.

Under the stars, your hair acquires a life of its own. You know it, just like you know when I am aroused by you. It’s a pity our night-skies in the city were usually coated by a thick sheet of white-grey—let alone the stars, even the pale moon merely marked attendance.

Which is why that night on the hills of Himachal was special. You must remember the guest-house we stayed at, overlooking the valley. It was perched right on top of the hill; the balcony we sat in afforded a priceless view of the skies. The stars twinkled—‘like a thousand Dumbledores’, I remember declaring—and you smiled. I must have gone on for a while about the stars on that moonless night, because, you seemed to drift into some sort of an uneasy equilibrium. ‘What is it?’, I asked. You shook your head, nothing.
I kissed your hair and asked again, softly: ‘What happened?’

You turned to look at me and said: ‘this is all so vexing’. I hadn’t heard anyone say ‘vexing’ in a conversation, so it took me a fraction longer to register the word.

‘I think the lights in the valley are more alluring than the stars—I am listening to you, but I keep looking at the wrong set of lights’, you explained, ‘and I don’t like it; for one, they are town-lights—street-lamps, tube-lights, head-lights—all man-made, artificial; and what’s more, you don’t even seem to notice them. Why don’t we see the same thing?’

And that’s when I looked down, at the valley: it seemed like someone had held a giant, psychedelic, dynamic mirror to the skies: unlike the lights above, these lights seemed to imbue the darkness with a wider palette—red, yellow, orange, even green dotted the valley of black; some lights even moved, streaking across the darkness like shooting stars; it was just as spectacular, perhaps even better than the stars above.

Later that night, as I hugged you tight and stared into the darkness beyond our thrown-open French windows, I remembered thinking of those lights. You were right, from where we sat, the town-lights outdid the stars and I hadn’t paid them the slightest attention.  I had always prided myself as being aesthetically aware, of being really drawn into my element by nature’s magic; but, clearly, my own understanding and appreciation of beauty was clouded, guided by what was conventionally needed to be seen than what was inherently pleasing. And, for you, beauty was immediate, profound. This realization didn’t hurt me as much as see you in a new, haloed light.

I love you, I whispered into your sleeping ears, stroking your hair. I love you.             

*

I know what it is to wait for a phone to flicker. I know what it is to share that sense—of twin phones beeping in the darkness, strings of lifeless alphabets communicating a gamut of emotions, reveling in a shared sense of breathlessness.  Equally, I know what it is to no longer share that sense, when I hoped to breathe life into a phone by simply staring at it for hours together.  

I wept. I hadn’t heard myself sob in years: it felt pathetic, hearing my sobs echo in the stillness. Remember ‘sound of your voice?’—our mock code-word for shut up? Remember the quirky tune we designed, the way our decibel levels rose, from the pale whisper of ‘sound’ to the shrill, shriek-y ‘voice’? Well, that night, when grief manifested itself in a discrete stream of broken sobs, I desperately wanted to stop, to not hear my pitiable self. And my mind, ever alert, chose your voice to issue the order in: sound of your VOICE.
I couldn’t get away from you even if I willed—for you had conquered my words, my silences.    

*

When did I know? Remember, you’d asked me the same? Us, snuggled like snails on the sofa, my hand in yours, your voice—sprinkled with charming innocence, fresh like coffee beans (amongst the few things that remained the same about you)—whispering to the darkness: ‘When did you know?’
I drew a line on the bridge of your nose with a finger and bought time. ‘When’, I said more to myself than you and pretended to be deep in thought: in truth, my mind drew a blank, not because I didn’t know, but because I was lost in the bubble we’d fashioned for ourselves. In those early days—of whose every tiny detail I can recollect like verses rote-learned in childhood—I spent many a night lost in love; hours sped without notice, my mind filled with a blissful, all-encompassing emptiness.       

I then picked out the party at Rishabh’s, when you danced like life was a big, wide tub of ice-cream; you looked perfectly happy, arriving at my state of inner emptiness in a manner that was the inverse of how I seemed to achieve it—while I needed quiet, darkness and the sense of your breathing self by me, you thrived on what, to my novice eyes, was staged chaos: loud music, frantic, semi-synchronized body-contorting and some beer.

At some point in the night, I remembered looking for you under the jazzy party-lights (I was away from the dance ‘scene’—sprawled out on a comfortable bean-bag in the corner of the room). I found you jumping by yourself, rising and falling on your feet lightly, slowly; I watched until all I knew was your body, the absence of gravity and a sense of space-less-ness; you seemed to function in a universe of your own: the song was yours, the stage was yours, the world was yours. ‘I knew then’, I told you as we lay on our sofa, ‘I knew then that this was it’.

It was a good story, possessing just the right dash of drama. Like all good lies.

In fact, I only really knew, I can now say with little doubt, many days after that party. I lied when you asked that night, because, as I explained, I wasn’t thinking. And, to pinpoint a specific instance in a fuzzy world—where the leap from not knowing to knowing can encompass a fraction of a moment— requires considerable reflection.

This is how I knew.

I was lunching at the Dhabha with my three newspapers in tow, having neatly made my way through two Paranthas and two sets of opinion pieces.  In between newspapers, I paused to look up: it was a clear winter day, the leaves on the peepal trees glistened like they were photoshopped, the skies were painted by someone who didn’t believe in subtlety—they were blue, as blue as blue could be and more; and the steam rose from the chai-cups, fingers reaching out to the sky’s bosom.

And, acquiring a mind of their own, my legs kicked my chair away. I stood up. And walked out of the dhabha, out of my hostel, and into the gully that led to the main road; I passed the back-gate of the hostel next-door, the small kirana shop with its grumpy owner who never had change. On reaching the main road, impulsively, my legs turned right, gathering pace—I was now trotting, overtaking cycle-rickshaws pulled by men twice my age; soon, I began to run, for no reason at all, hopping across gaps in the pavement; the ridge on my left was a green-blur, the odd passer-by turned to look at me or let me ahead.

I ran till my knees cracked, till my head spun, till my heart pounded against my chest.

I ran till my initial surprise at my own behavior gave way to a sense of calm.

That winter afternoon, in the middle of a nondescript University road, as a Sardarji Uncle with a blue turban spluttered past me on an old Chetak, my arms on my knees and gasping for breath, I realized that this was it: this dizzy sprint, this tranquility, this world with its idiosyncrasies. For that was how it was with love—a spell of rushed madness, a womb-like web of security and background noise.

I knew.

*

Do you remember the first time we kissed?
I don’t.

*

(To continue)

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Suttal Suttal

Suttal = Sleep

In Motihari, a Panchayat Rozgar Sevak was murdered.

The first shot grazed his elbow. He ran, not because his elbow ached, but because the shot resounded in his ears. The second was a better shot-- the bullet tunneled through his back and emerged from his paunch, dripping in blood that looked, in the faint moonlight, like petrol.

"It was really dark. He may have escaped", the Mukhia told his men later that night, between chuckles, "If he wasn't shouting in a frenzy .. And what was he shouting? .. 'Suttal, suttal'*[1] "

The group exploded in laughter.

"Imagine Mantriji running, his legs spread wide, belly and all, and shouting in the darkness--", the Mukhia said snorting, "--Suttal, Suttal"

Someone brought another round of chai. They slurped, drawing heat from their cupped hands. The fire between them blazed, the fireflies danced in the trees.
Someone else suddenly said, '"Suttal, suttal", and the second 'Suttal' was drowned in another wave of tumultuous laughter.  

*

In Motihari, a Panchayat Rozgar Sevak (PRS) was murdered.

That evening, the PRS was particularly busy: he helped distribute wages and noticed that the Mukhia was behaving oddly. The Mukhia was doing a double-role from the Bhojpuri movie he had seen the previous week, alternating furiously between the hero’s doting grandmother and the evil step-mother. Relations between the PRS and the Mukhia had been precarious for a while.  

How had it come to this?, the PRS wondered.   

Wages were disbursed in the usual manner. The Mukhia landed with a stack of money, three hours late; the labourers queued up, uncomplaining. He called out their names. They approached, saluted and went away with a wad of notes; as they left, the PRS had them sign on a blank piece of paper. The Mukhia slapped a youth whose walk he found callous and swore at a middle-aged man who thrust his left hand out. "Never use your left hand", he barked, "Learn to respect the Goddess Lakshmi".

Later that night, three-hundred-kilometres away, Raghuram Pandey's phone rang. The ring-tone was a famous, steamy Bhojpuri song, sung in a manner that was uncharacteristically earnest and funereal. He had sung it himself, having got a sycophantic nephew to record and set it as his ring-tone. He waited for the first line to finish before answering the call-- he hated interrupting himself. 

The voice on the other line announced flatly that a PRS from some Panchayat in Motihari had been murdered by the Mukhia. The name of the Panchayat struck a bell somewhere, but he had to confirm.
"Is the PRS the chap with the NREGA-tummy? Previously thin, now fat?" he asked.
"Yes"
"Okay", he said and, without much ado, cut the call.
When Raghuram Pandey, President of the Bihar Panchayat Rozgar Sevaks Union, went back to bed, his wife asked him if it was something important. He yawned, scratched his back, and turned over. In seconds, his snores reigned over the night’s quiet.

*

In Motihari, a PRS was murdered.

The Minister looked at the file placed in front of him. The file had a bunch of paper-clippings and a survey-report. The survey had been conducted by some obscure organization in Delhi he had (unsurprisingly) never heard of. Attached to the report was a one-page summary of its contents, neatly hand-written by his secretary. 

The summary informed him that the survey had exposed corruption in the NREGA: the report (ominously titled “Terrorism of the Poor”) estimated that ‘leakages’ in the scheme had cost the state a whopping 6000 crores. The media had had a field day: the findings had made the headlines in seven major newspapers.  

He glanced through the file, called his secretary and said, softly:
"Order an enquiry".
Before his secretary left, the minister showed him a headline from one of the clippings he found particularly clever:
"MaNREGA ab bana DhanREGA"

*

In Motihari, a PRS was murdered.

Ali called Raghuram Pandey, who he thought was a first-rate opportunist. Ali usually did mass-interest stories-- a euphemism for crime largely-- for the Hindi daily he wrote for. A PRS murder wasn't mass interest, but this was a lean period for Patna-centric crimes (which, of course, grabbed maximum eyeballs). Irritatingly, Raghuram Pandey always took his time answering the phone.

'Pandeyji, Namaskar', he began, when the man eventually answered.
Pandey responded unenthusiastically. Ali, for him, was a lazy bum and at an irksome stage of his career: too big to be taken lightly, too small to garner any serious attention.
'Did you hear about the PRS murder case in Motihari?', Ali asked.
'Yes-- very sad', Pandey said.
'Any comments? Allegedly, it was committed by the Mukhia?'
'We condemn murder’, Pandey said in a flat monotone and added, ‘but we would not like to jump the gun here. We are waiting for more evidence'

Later that evening, Ali received an e-mail from Raghuram Pandey that had an attachment he downloaded after repeated, frantic checks for viruses. It had a perfunctory two-line statement in perfect Hindi, reminiscent of an NREGA instruction-manual:

'The Bihar State PRS Union mourns the death of one of their own in Motihari. We await further details and hope the deceased’s family is duly compensated'

*

In Motihari, a PRS was murdered.

Sixteen days before he was shot, the PRS had had tea with Bablu. If, like sunrises, death could be tracked back linearly to a single cause, then this conversation-- slow, meandering, simmering with only the lightest tension-- would perhaps be the best candidate.

Bablu informed him— in Bihar’s distinctive garrulous drawl— that a few months from then, all payments to the villagers would be routed through him. He was a banking correspondent, BC for short. He was to be the final link between villagers' bank accounts-- registered in banks separated from the villager by a gulf both geographical and social-- and the villagers themselves. Equipped with a biometric device and tonnes of money, he was to be a walking, talking ATM. He had met the Mukhia, who he had found very personable. What’s more, they—the Mukhia and the BC— had agreed to split the spoils two-way.

"50-50?", the PRS exclaimed, "Oh!"
"What was your share earlier?", Bablu asked.
"50-50"

It was actually one-third, but he didn't know why, he felt like lying. He didn’t like this new, third cog in the corruption band-wagon: what was once a smooth bike is now a clumsy auto, he mused.   
"Ah", Bablu sang and paused awkwardly. The Mukhia had told Bablu something else— that the PRS’ share was only one-third. "I like you”, the Mukhia had declared warmly then, “I will give you a higher share than what I used to give Mantriji". The old bastard had lied with a straight face!

"But, how will you make money?", the PRS asked Bablu, "I heard your machine talks when a payment is made? So, won't the villager know he's being cheated if you give him some money and the machine says he is entitled to more?"

Bablu’s face contorted into what he hoped was a clever smile: he came off looking, at least in the PRS’ eyes, like a monkey with spectacles. Holding the smile for a while, Bablu responded, in a sing-song manner that resembled a terrible vocalist’s morning riyaaz:   

"The machines were made by a partner company-- we ensured that a mute button was installed"

The PRS chuckled unhappily.    

*

In Motihari, a PRS was murdered.

Sixteen days after the murder and four days after an enquiry was commissioned by the Minister, auditors descended on MNREGA Offices in separate teams across the state-- from Siwan to Araria, Kaimur to Sitamarhi-- arriving in cars, bikes, buses, autos and, on one occasion (because the auditor's driver had overslept and switched his phone off), a bullock-cart. A total of nineteen district administrations had begun enquiries into the 6000-crore scam. When, later, reasons were asked of the remaining districts for their absences, most officers complained of a curious head-ache, almost as though the head-ache bugs had awoken that very morning with the collective intention of targeting District Chief Social Auditors of the MNREGA.

Where the officers did manage to show up, documents were seized, notes were copiously taken down, money was exchanged.      

Across the state, The Panchayat Rozgar Sevaks panicked. PRS’ were easy pickings—the Mukhias, democratically elected, answerable to none, rarely, if ever, were apprehended; on the other hand, PRS’ were contract-workers, not even full-time government employees and functioned at the lowest level of the heirarchy: the Panchayat. 

Some PRS’ hid in their homes, others mysteriously 'lost' documents; one, apparently distraught, PRS claimed that Agni-- the Lord of Fire-- had consumed his office that very morning (and, therefore, destroyed all evidence against him); and another was found atop a grape-fruit tree. When, later, those absent filed in their applications for leave, several claimed to have had a head-ache.
On that chilly December morning, the head-ache bugs had chosen to go after one more class of people after all-- curiously, those seemed to be NREGA-related staff too.

*

In Motihari, a PRS was murdered.

Eight days and twenty-six chais before a bullet grazed his elbow, the PRS had met with the Mukhia at his residence. The Mukhia gave him tea in a fancy cup, one he usually reserved for officers. It was comforting, but they still had terms to negotiate.

The PRS decided to be direct: ask for a flat thirty-three per cent of the overall commission from payments made to workers. He laid down his arguments methodically. Technically, the work itself was now split three-way. He managed the works, the BC made the payments and the Mukhia supervised. So, it made sense to make a neat three-way partition of the spoils too. He also appealed to the Mukhia’s human side: he was a poor man, had five mouths to feed. Moreover, he had access to funds from only one scheme; the Mukhia had a whole host of schemes to work with—pensions, rations, house-construction.

The Mukhia listened with interest, not interrupting even once. When the PRS was done, he said flatly: “Fifteen per cent to you, twenty per cent to the BC and I take the rest”

The PRS was understandably aghast and stuttered.

The Mukhia explained, patiently, like a friendly headmaster: “Look at this tea-cup. It is fancy and looks like it contains a lot of tea from the outside; but it’s base actually starts half-way up the cup. So the cup you hold in your hand has, in fact, very little tea. That’s how we work with this MNREGA too: pretend to be doing a lot of work, deliver a little and pocket the rest. The trick now, for you, is to serve more tea-cups. That will make up for your decreased share. Work harder, pocket your share—that belly needs some trimming, anyway”

The PRS stared at the his feet, ground into silence. When he found words, he strung them together:

“But, Bablu-- the BC-- said he is getting fifty per cent”

“Bablu is new to the game and quite cocky; with time, I am sure he will fall in place too”, he paused, then added, “just like you have

*

In Motihari, a PRS was murdered.

Six days before he was relegated to history’s quagmire, the PRS was asked to remember the past.
Even though he was fleeing when he was shot, in the larger scheme of things, he went down fighting. The PRS and the Mukhia were caste-mates, both from the land-owning Ahir community. The PRS complained to some caste-elders about his being sidelined and his shrinking share in the NREGA-pot; some sided with him, others clicked their tongues in disapproval, still others asked him to work out a compromise solution, or lay low for a while and act when the opportunity arose. He was careful not to bad-mouth the Mukhia, for within the community, information flowed like the Ganga during the rains— freely, everywhere.

One evening, he arrived home to find the Mukhia sprawled on his favourite easy-chair, staring intently at the TV screen. Visuals of snakes climbing trees flashed on the screen, repeatedly, in slow-motion. Below, a ticker screamed: ‘Breaking News: Flying snakes in Araria’. The PRS entered and quietly touched the Mukhia’s feet. The Mukhia blessed him, his eyes never leaving the TV screen.
They had two rounds of tea; the Mukhia rambled, uncharacteristically. He spoke of the PRS’ house, how things had changed over the years. Where was the TV five years ago?, he asked. Where were these extra bed-rooms? Where was the marble-flooring in the prayer room, the Silver Flute for the Lord? Five years ago, he said, you only had faded pictures of the Goddess Laxmi and Rani Mukherjee; this Laxmiji, he said, gesturing in the direction of the prayer-room, how did she descend from that photograph and stamp her glorious imprints on this house?

“Who”, he finally said, getting down to business, “Who got you your job? Do not forget us humble-folk in times of wealth. You may regret it”
“How can I forget you?”, the PRS replied, “I have only had praise for you—you have made me what I am”  

“Mantriji”, the Mukhia said sternly, “Yesterday, Netaji—that old hag—told me gently to take care of the community’s interests and not act selfish. Selfish? How am I being selfish? Everywhere—in every aspect of my life, in my past, my present, tomorrow-- I make place for this community, like Laloo did for the Yadavs, Nitish does for Bihar. And now, to be spoken of like this! This is not good; this is not good”

When, later, the Mukhia left, his Bolero leaving behind a trail of dust-smoke, the PRS remembered the day he was offered the job; then too, the Mukhia had left against a dying sun; then too, the pits of his stomach were churning, working overtime; only then, the Mukhia had cycled out, his towel fluttering in his wake.

Six years had flown since. How had it come to this?   

*

In Motihari, a PRS was murdered.

An emergency meeting of the Bihar PRS’ Union was convened. Ali was the only reporter present—he had landed there by chance, having boarded the wrong bus and slept off. Stuck forty-five kilometres from Patna, with nothing much to do, he was, for once, glad to receive a text message from Raghuram Pandey announcing a meeting in a run-down former computer-centre around the corner.

In the midst of what Ali would recall as the original graveyard of unused computers—‘like aborted lives, condemned to die before birth’—Raghuram Pandey resurrected a man from the dead, lionising him as an honest man with a thirst for work, a brave soul who stood up for the truth in the face of immense pressure, who thrived under tension. “A true hero, a soft-spoken man”, he bellowed into a microphone that wailed and echoed, “Mantriji of Motihari is a PRS we must stand up for, whose death teaches us that enough is enough

For the first six-and-a-half minutes, as Ali stared around, watching the crowd grow softly restless under their sorrowful exteriors, disbelief flooded him. He always thought of the PRS’ as a sorry lot—inefficient simpletons; the Trishanku’s of the state’s hierarchy, condemned to spend their time in an uneasy nether-world between the promised heavens of permanent government offices and the hell-like portals of unemployment.

But, however unfortunate they may be and however slowly their minds may work, surely, it wouldn’t take them sixteen days to register sorrow? Where was this rage, this dejection, when he had made the call to Raghuram Pandey two weeks ago? Where was this crowd of people, their collective fires, their thirst for justice?

Someone in the audience blew into a kerchief; another yawned loudly.

And then Ali saw it—a rolled-up newspaper stuck out of the back-pocket of the PRS sitting in front of him. From it, stared the headline: “State Officials begin audit of the NREGA; Documents seized”.
“We will go on an indefinite strike”, Pandey was saying, punching imaginary Mukhias a foot above him, to a roar of approval from the crowd.
The headline connected the dots in Ali’s head, the lines formed a brilliant, if obvious, picture. He chided himself for not seeing it earlier. This strike was as much about the dead PRS as the NREGA was about work on demand.   

The ulterior motive was simple: who would the Auditors bring to the book if the PRS’ went on strike? How would anyone audit a scheme if it’s most populous functionaries are in absentia? How does one audit a scheme whose wheels have come off, that would not run— not until the audit is called off? The PRS’ were the scheme’s past and future—custodians of whatever little institutional memory that existed, protectors of any shot at progress. In his note-pad, Ali scribbled, admiring the child-like simplicity of it all: ‘No PRS -> no scheme; no scheme -> no audit’

Later, Raghuram Pandey, in the spirit of modern democratic protests, lit a candle and held it aloft, encouraging his people to follow suit. ‘To Mantuji’, he said, loud and solemn, before a hissing voice corrected him.
‘To Mantriji’, he said hastily, slightly flushed.

Seventeen days after his death, Mantriji—Panchayat Rozgar Sevak, Rampur (North) Panchayat, Motihari— became the poster-boy for a strike that was never meant to be about him.


The strike ran a full seventy-two days.

Meanwhile, the Minister busied himself with a trip to London and a series of rallies across the state; the Auditors went back to their offices with three newspapers and six chais—tired from their exertions on that December morning, when they hounded PRS’ in air-conditioned cars.

Ali landed his first big break, covering the dramatic saga of an MLA whose wife was molested by Railway Officials in the second-AC compartment of a Kolkata-bound train.

Raghuram Pandey addressed several meetings and managed to hold out long enough for everyone to forget going back to the Audits. 

Mantriji’s wife got her first month’s widow-pension, a feat that took the average villager up to eight years to achieve—she used it to buy the Regional Entertainment Pack on her TV connection, something her late husband would never have allowed.  

In Motihari, a PRS was murdered.

And, even three months later, when it was night and the stars threatened to shower like embers from glittering firecrackers, as he rose to go to bed, the Mukhia would announce to no one in particular-- “Suttal, Suttal”; and guffaw.  



[1] ('Sleep, sleep')

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Slap


He sang in the morning, sang to the dying stars; he sang to his whitewashed walls, his own voice bouncing off them; he sang for his morning coffee, one-and-a-half tea-spoons of sugar; he sang for spring, for leaves that twirled and girls who flowered with the blooming chrysanthemums; second-most-of-all, he sang because he could unite, even if only in short, elevating bursts, music’s sacred triumvirate: shruti, laya and raga; but most-of-all, he reflected, he sang to communicate joy.

He sang for free. It cheapens your music, they warned him, those Sabha owners, his ‘well-wishers’. People will tire of you, they cried. In response, he let loose four typical phrases in Todi. They shook their heads in appreciation, clicking their tongues, beckoning imaginary birds. 'People have sung the same phrases for centuries', he then said, 'have you tired of them yet?' Most of them made like they understood, but he knew from the looks on their faces that they didn’t—their eyes seemed to humour him, like he was an old man lecturing them on the benefits of walking barefoot.  

For twenty-two years, he had sung across the peninsula, often travelling six-hours second-class between successive performances, changing into a fresh veshti backstage, powdering his neck and smearing, in haste, a handful of vibhuti over his forehead. He sang for his audience, picking ragas and songs based on the demographics of his crowd. Kanakadasa stormed into a concert in Shimoga and, when in Thoothukudi, if a Dikshitar Krithi was the Sun—the centre around which the rest of the concert pivoted—then a song each by Bharatiyar and Umaru Pulavar were twin moons, one resplendent, the other an inspired apparition.

His grandfather was close to the Wodeyar Kings, a Minister of some sort. His father ran the family trust with the tremendous wealth his grandfather had amassed, feeding the poor and funding the education of the children of the neglected. His father encouraged him to sing, to see music as an entity in itself, beyond the maya of existence. Until he was twelve, his father pushed him to sing and learn, and he did, sometimes grudgingly. Then, one morning, he instinctively shut his eyes as he practised and sang Mayatheetha Swaroopini
He opened his eyes to see his father and mother sitting in front of him, watching him intently; his mother’s face mingled contentment and tears, brimming with unspoken pride, his father smiled like he knew. Three full hours had dissolved in one raga, the passing of time had never tasted so sweet. There is Maya, he declared to his father, beyond the Malavagowla

Ever since, music was the language he thought in, the force that allowed him to navigate the prosaic and scale the pristine. Sometimes, music let him blur the boundaries between the mundane and the magnificent. When he first set sight on his wife’s breasts, he said, more to himself than her: they are like Khamas’ Nishadas, distinct, yet equal.

And within him, unknown and unacknowledged, rested a quiet pride, not so much in his art as his philanthropy. He threw his doors open to the public. Anyone, beggar or businessman, rasika or novice, could walk in when he practiced. Wherever he sang, even at the Academy, no tickets were sold. One year, the Academy, citing rules, disallowed him from performing—this created a storm of gargantuan proportions in his microscopic music circles and the suspension was revoked. As the years rolled on, he lived off his grandfather’s dwindling wealth and his fans’ goodwill.

Within him, he felt, was something that transcended price-tags, to put a value on it would be to de-value it; and to share it without restrictions was service. Award citations extolled his selfless heart, a newspaper dubbed him ‘the voice for the voiceless’; in an interview once, he called himself the ‘servant of God and of the people’.

*

That morning, he wanted water. Sixteen minutes into Abheri, his throat itched. He called out to his wife who didn’t respond, but vessels clanged in the kitchen, water gushed from an open tap. Water. He vented his frustration on Abheri, letting out a volcanic burst of swaras, but Abheri wouldn’t get angry, it wasn’t in her nature. This caused him more agitation, he slapped his thigh and broke into another volley of frenetic phrases, introducing the Shuddha DhaviathaAbheri swung from calm to melancholy and tended dangerously towards violence. One manic phrase landed furiously on the Tarasthai Shadja.  Water, it demanded.

His wife appeared finally, a steel tumbler in hand, and said, softly: Don’t be so harsh.      

‘Harsh?’, he said, working himself into a rage, Abheri fled from his system, music hid in a corner, as he hissed, in a whisper that evoked the sharp edge of a knife: ‘People are sitting here listening’

There were six people in his spacious, sparse music room, one that his grandfather built and where his father conducted his weekly meetings with the directors of his now-dead trust; they were all dressed in crisply ironed shirts in varying shades of white and veshtis, regulars at his morning practice sessions. Taking them in in one sweeping glance, he returned to look at his wife, who still clasped the tumbler in her hand, and said:

‘You owe it to them to make sure I have my water on time, not to me’

His usually patient wife, perhaps stung by Abheri’s travails, flung the water at his face.

‘To them?’, she asked, laughing angrily, ‘You do not sing for them, they can live without your music. As can everyone else. When you sit on your pedestal and demand that entry be free and open, how many poor walk in? Can a shirtless man wearing only a torn pant, dark as the night and smelling of the sweat of toil, walk into the hallowed air-conditioned chambers of your Academy? Two streets away from this house and this hall with its chandeliers and windows the size of elephants, in tents lit only by kerosene lamps, lives are birthed, lived and ended: none of those lives are touched by you or your music'

'You do not even know of their existence', she spat, 'yet you pass by them every second day'

You sing because you can', she said finally, 'and that is all there is to it’ 

***