Slithering away

There were a lot of snakes in the house and in the nearby woods. They were everywhere- in the backyard, on the porch, on the ceiling, in the trees, coiled around the old tyre swing- the snakes were everywhere.

Black, brown, green, grey, yellow, red, so many different colours, they looked like a tapestry hanging from the clothesline.

At night, they would crawl around the house, in our rooms, over our furniture, on our wooden roof...

Sometimes they fell on the floor from the roof, sometimes on the mosquito net.

They were always everywhere.

Snake charmers, witch doctors, pest control, animal welfare, the neighbours, everyone tried to help my parents get rid of them, but they kept coming back. My parents left them alone. They never hurt anyone anyway.

They were there when my mother went into labour, they were there when I was born. After my birth, they crawled over my crib and over my tiny body.

They marked me as one of their own.

Then they disappeared. No one knew where they went. They just left and were never seen again.

Sometimes, when I lie awake at night, I can feel them, slithering away.

-------- X --------

One fine morning

I walked up the long, winding trail that led up to the mountain shrine. Below, the waves roared and crashed against the rocks, one Titan against another.

The road was a scarlet ribbon of fallen flowers and leaves from the late autumn trees. The wind howled across the mountain, blowing the leaves in my face and parting the early morning fog. My boots crushed the dead leaves and my breath left little vapour trails behind me.

Little bees and birds came to greet the dahlias and daisies and promptly fled when the flowers, pushed by the wind, hit them back. Undeterred, they observed and waited, and when the wind mellowed, the impertinent little brats quickly stole a kiss from the unassuming flowers.

After a short walk, I reached lookout point one. Here was an old wooden bench- standing precariously at the edge overlooking the sea. From here, one could afford a splendid view of the horizon far out at sea, and if one was particularly fortunate, he could see the white whales out on their daily swim. I lingered near the edge for a moment and promptly returned to the ritual of painting the bench; I took out my paint cans and smeared fresh red paint on the old bench with my finger- a gesture akin to offering a sacrifice to the Gods. Years of such offerings had made the bench look like a Jackson Pollock painting, standing as a chaotic display of art in the midst of tranquil natural scenery. It was said that the bench was constructed by an artist who painted it in fresh Aquamarine, an artist who fell in love with the sea and was consequently claimed by her depths.

I left my paint cans near the bench, along with countless others left behind by believers desperate for their muse. I did not bother staying too long at this paint garden and proceeded to vantage point two.

The remnants of an old Romani camp lay decaying at lookout point two. Their old lamp post, used to signal ships out at sea, stood over the treacherous rocks of the mountain. The lamp was no longer in service. Numerous dreamcatchers and pine cones hung from this lamp post, and the dew drops lingering in the spider webs shone like diamonds. I hung my pine cone and dreamcatcher from the lamp and tied a red thread around the pole. I paused for a moment to observe the fragile beauty of the place, and then walked up the path leading to the shrine.

At the shrine, the prayer flags fluttered in the wind; in the distance, a large bell, hanging from the sturdy branches of a tree, shone a bright golden in the early morning sun. I stepped forward and observed a young monk standing at the edge of the cliff, looking out towards the sea. The wind waged a war against the mountain and the boy held on to the rocks. I moved forward with slow, deliberate steps. The boy, unaware of my presence, gazed at the sea with fervent attention and with complete disregard to the wind hitting his body.

I shouted, trying to draw his attention, but the wind drowned my voice. A mighty gust of wind hit the bell and the mountain shivered. The boy looked back. I smiled and waved my hands. The wind struck the bell again and blew with such malevolent strength that I could barely stand. When the sound died, I called him again. He looked at me, smiled, looked at the sea and jumped.

I ran towards the edge, getting down on all fours and clutching the rocks at the edge. The wind died and I peered down. The sea lashed against the lonely rocks. As I stood up, a flash of blinding white light shut my eyes and then everything turned to darkness.

I slowly opened my eyes and looked around. A shadow jumped from my bed, disappearing into the night.

-------- X --------

Knock. Knock.

Working late in to the night, Ashi decided to sleep in the conference room. Again.

Like all nights, she laid herself on two carefully placed chairs, stretched her legs and fell asleep in minutes.

'Tap.' A sound woke her up. She opened her eyes and tried to identify where the sound was coming from.

Tap. Tap. Tap. She heard it again. She sat upright and waited in anticipation for the sound to strike.

Tap. Tap. Tap. She heard it clear enough. Sharp, distinct, short taps on the door of the conference room.

The office was lying in darkness. She couldn't see anyone outside. Was that a man's silhouette she perceived? As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she felt her mind playing tricks on her.

Tap. Tap. Tap. The conference room's door was closed and someone was knocking on it.

But how? She clearly remembered locking the outer office door. Could it be Sid? He had keys to the office. But why would he come at such an hour? And why would he knock?

She searched for her cellphone and spotted it at the far end of the conference table, well out of her reach.

She tried to get up. The door creaked. She sunk back in to her chair. The door fell silent.

The phone was too far away.

Tap. Tap. Tap. Someone unseen kept knocking on the door.

Ashi froze in her seat. The door creaked again.

In one mad dash, Ashi's trembling fingers reached for the switch.

In the light, she saw the door closing again.

-------- X --------

Polka dotted balloons

Polka dotted balloons. Red and white, red and white polka dotted balloons. Red and white because red and white are my favourite colours. Bright, vibrant, beaming with energy – red complements the soft, calm and meditative white. White polka dots on the red balloon and red polka dots on the white balloon – they make a lovely pair.

I bought these balloons for my birthday. Today is my birthday. I went out with my friends today. We had a lovely dinner at an expensive restaurant. Then we roamed the streets like vagabonds, role-playing as street urchins and beggars and hooligans. What fun!

We were singing and dancing and making a lot of noise when we saw a guy selling balloons. He had lots of them, lots of balloons in different shapes and sizes, and colours as many as you can think of. But I chose the round balloons in red and white. Because red and white are my favourite colours.

I did not like the man selling the balloons. He was very eager to get rid of them! How can anyone be so eager to get rid of balloons? Balloons bring joy to the world.

But he wasn’t laughing or smiling at all. He just put on a grim face and lazily stated the price for a balloon in a very matter of fact way. Ten rupees, he declared. And that was that! No bargaining whatsoever. I always enjoy a good haggle but it was only ten rupees. I bought two – the red and white ones.

I asked him why he was so eager to get rid of his balloons. He told me he had two kids waiting for dinner. I asked him if his kids liked balloons. I offered to buy a few for them. He told me his kids did not like balloons, but I could buy as many as I wanted. I did not buy anymore. How can anyone not like balloons?

We thanked the balloon guy and kept walking. Where we were going, we didn’t know. We just kept singing and dancing and walking to nowhere. I tied the long string of the balloons around my right index finger. They hovered overhead and I gently gave them a tug. They wobbled, bounced up and down, and hit each other like mischievous little kids! I squealed in joy just tugging at the string.

Our laughter echoed through empty streets. We talked of when we were kids and how Sally brought balloons to school every year on her birthday. She always gave us the biggest ones. Because we were her favourites. Best friends forever, she said.

I wonder where Sally is now.

In one street corner, little kids huddled around a fire with a few grown-ups. The winter cold must’ve been hurting them. Why couldn’t they just buy a few jackets?

The kids saw my balloons and ran towards me, circling around and making me the center of their ring. I had no idea what was going on but I became their leader.

The grown-ups frowned at them and called them back. “Leave them alone, you scoundrels.” They shouted. I assured them it was no trouble at all. They clicked their tongues, shook their heads and went back to chatting among themselves. They were probably happy to have the fire to themselves.

A little one pulled at my trousers. She was only as tall as my knees. She pointed at the balloons and when I gave them a little tug, the balloons jumped and danced and she giggled like she was the happiest kid in the world.

And how happy she was. All it took to make her laugh was a tug at the balloons. Such a simpleton. So easy to impress. When I was her age, I had so many toys and yet I always wanted more. Dad always got them for me. I told him I wouldn’t have dinner otherwise.

The kid kept pulling at my trousers and pointing at my balloons. She stopped laughing or giggling and just looked at the balloons with eagerness. As if I was going to give them to her. Why can’t she get her own balloons?

I pulled her away from me but she kept pointing at the balloons just the same.

I lowered my hand a bit. This seemed to please her, for she started to giggle again. I lowered my hand and untied the string. It was my birthday after all, I wanted to do something for charity. I looked at my friends and they all smiled at me. I tied the string around the kid’s tiny finger. She giggled in joy and pointed the balloons to everyone. All the other kids clapped and cheered for me. The grown-ups smiled.

How happy was the kid! She moved her arm and the balloons jumped up and down. How beautiful they looked at night- my red and white polka dotted balloons. I was almost sorry for giving them away.

My friends and I walked away, smiling, leaving the kids to their new found happiness. We talked about old times, and how we paid for poor Johnny’s schoolbooks. Everyone said we were really nice and kind kids, caring for others.

We laughed. It is so easy to impress some people!

-------- X --------

The girl at the stairs

In aankhon ki masti ke mastaane hazaaron hain...

There’s a girl at the stairs, waiting for someone.

She’s startled by the elevator doors opening behind her. I step out and our eyes meet. A hint of regret and longing mars her polite smile.

She’s waiting for someone, someone who’s not me.

I smile back and turn my eyes away. She goes back to gazing at nothing in particular.

She’s beautiful.

I step down and walk towards the gate. I want to look at her again.

But it would not be polite.

She stares at something in the distance, something that is quite not there. Is it a hint of melancholy I perceive? I wonder what secrets her eyes hold.

The pale morning sunlight flickered through the window and hit her face and her eyes shimmered and trembled like early morning dew lingering on a budding spring leaf. The golden light radiated through her soft pink skin, and it seemed she was receding, dissolving in all the light surrounding her. She looked ethereal.

I want to look at her again. I want to tell her she’s beautiful.

Should I tell her she’s beautiful?

I want to play a little game of hide and seek with you. But I’m afraid, if you hide, I will never find you.

I want to tell her she’s beautiful. Should I tell her? What will she say? What will she think? A lone girl waiting at the stairs, complimented by a random stranger! I wonder what connotations that event would hold.

What will she think of me- a pathetic idiot or a creepy stranger with inappropriate intentions? Or maybe she will consider me a polite admirer? Maybe none of these. Maybe she will just thank me with her melancholy polite smile and go back to gazing at nothing.

I wonder if the walls remind her of anything - its gray cement peeling away, exposing the brown brick underneath. Maybe our lives are like a weather-beaten wall, slowly revealing its layers while all we can do is watch.

It’s difficult to imagine someone so pretty beaten and battered by life. But the lingering melancholy seems to speak otherwise.

I wait outside the gate and hail a cab. It stops right in front of me. The driver smokes his cigarette and waits in anticipation, staring at something beyond me. Is he staring at the girl at the stairs?

I hesitate. I want to tell her she’s beautiful and I want to tell her she has the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen. I want to tell her her eyes are all I saw at first glance- big black eyes eager to tell a story. Alas, I was not the listener she was looking for.

I turn around. I want to tell her she’s beautiful.

The girl is gone, and only the empty stairs stand cold.

*In aankhon ki masti ke mastaane hazaaron hain…

The intoxicating beauty of these eyes attract thousands of admirers.

-------- X --------

God wears pink

I’ve always believed that a rainy day is best enjoyed by staying indoors, sitting quietly behind an open window and just watching the rain fall- like a sheet of white fabric swaying in the wind. An opinion that, much to my relief, my sister shared.

Given our natural inclination towards a warm comfortable shelter, and seeing how the night was turning out to be, I urged my sister to hurry up, but as anyone who knew my sister would tell you, she never paid any attention to my concerns. Where safety was what I insisted on, a hot cup of cappuccino was what she craved for.

And so this seemingly innocent craving found us on the streets that night- at 12.30 am, hunting for a coffee shop while the drizzle washed our faces and the loud ominous cries and glare of thunder and lightning threatened us from a distance.

The last of the movie goers spilled out on to the rain soaked street, hurrying to their shelters. The city’s neons reflected in the wet asphalt, painting a fresco in many colours that shifted and changed as the cars screeched away. Meenal and I stood at the theatre gates and surveyed the nearly empty road.

“Bru’s near” I said.

“Eww no! I don’t like their coffee” Meenal cringed.

“It’s the only place that’ll be open now, and it closes at 1 am”

“Fine! I can live on bad coffee for a night”

“You have to. I’m not indulging in your whims anymore”

“Oh but you love indulging me!”

“You keep thinking that little lady!”

A mere minute’s walk from the theatre, Bru was a quiet little café that I frequented, and contrary to my sister’s tastes, I quite liked their coffee. With nowhere else to go, we made our way to the Bru world café.

Close to the café, leaning against a silver Mercedes, stood a young man dressed in the most striking pink jacket I had ever seen. He was adequately tall and of an impressive athletic build. I presumed him to be in his late twenties.

He had an almost feminine face- delightfully charming and handsome- with high cheekbones, a sharp chin, hair combed back and a pair of glasses resting on his thin pointed nose, all the makings of a man who spared no expense in looking good- perhaps a model or someone from the very upper classes of this city.

In another time, Oscar Wilde may have written of him as Dorian Gray.

Gazing intently at the empty road, he removed his glasses and then put them back on- an activity that seemed to engage all his senses, so much so that he paid no attention to the stream running down his face, neither did our long, inappropriate stare lead him to acknowledge our existence. Perhaps it was commonplace for him. Beautiful things always earn your attention.

His face intrigued me. The street light illuminated his face with an almost unearthly glow. What was it about him that I- a completely heterosexual man, found so attractive? His face instilled in me a sense of repose; the very air around him was still. I felt at peace with everything around me. The rain and the distant cries of thunder were but trifling matters, all I wanted to do was stare at his face.

“What a cutie!” Meenal nearly squealed as we passed him by, bringing me back to consciousness.

“I know right? He’s so good looking!”

“I want to talk to him.”

“Uh he doesn’t look like he wants to speak to anyone. And what do you want to talk about anyway?”

“I just want to compliment him and tell him how good he looks. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind. Please please please can we go?” Meenal started pulling my hand.

“Alright alright. Let’s go”

We turned around. The silver Mercedes stood alone in the empty street. A strange sense of panic gripped me- like I had lost someone, someone I had known all my life, someone I shared an evening’s story with. Someone who was not there anymore.

We rushed to the car and peeped inside. Empty. We looked across the street. Empty. We ran towards the theatre and peered through its gates. Empty. We stood in the middle of the road. We looked to our right. We looked to our left. All we had was an empty road that ended in darkness at both ends.

Where did he go? Oh where did he go? Was he ever really there?

I surveyed our surroundings. It had been mere seconds since we passed him on the way to the café. No vehicle passed us by. He certainly couldn’t have walked so far away from our sight. From the theatre gates to the café, we’d only been walking straight. There were no turns or detours anywhere along the road. My skeptical mind refused to believe this turn of events, yet, after eliminating the impossible, I was left with only one solution, however improbable it may seem- the man simply vanished.

We stood there, staring at the silver Mercedes. Meenal broke the silence, “Coffee?”

“Twenty five minutes until closing time”, the waiter pointed at the clock as he rushed to prepare the last order for the night.

“Don’t spoil our coffee!” Meenal shouted.

“So who do you think he was?” I asked my sister between sips of coffee.

“I don’t know. Seemed like he was dressed for a party”

“Then why was he standing in the rain all alone?”

“I don’t know. It’s just weird. I also thought the Merc was his.”

“Yeah so did I. But you know what- I think it was your Lord visiting you.” I laughed as I said this.

“Oh my God! It can’t be” Meenal was so loud the waiter thought he was done for.

“What? I’m just kidding” I said, keeping my voice down so as to not scare the waiter any further.

“No no no! You don’t know what happened today”

“Wait…you believe it was him?”

“I was at the temple today. Feeling particularly playful, I asked him if he would ever visit me someday. And if he did, what would he look like? What would he wear? How would he present himself? He can’t possibly wear a dhoti now. It’s not really fashionable, you know.”

“I don’t think he would really concern himself with fashion.” I laughed again.

“I think he would. Anyway, I kept thinking what he’d look like, and then forgot all about it. Now, I think it must have been him”

“You and your God! I don’t know why I believe you.”

“I’m sure he’ll visit me someday. Anyway, let’s go home. I’m really tired now”

“Yeah. I’ll drop you.”

I dropped my sister at her place. A quick hug later, I was on my way home. The rain had long stopped and a mellow wind was blowing. Within minutes, I was lying in my bed.

“Kahaan. I’ve named him Kahaan”, my sister had told me on our way home.


“Yes Kahaan. It means ‘where’ in Hindi.”

“I know what it means.”

“I think it’s a beautiful name.”

“It is. It is.”

The events of the night- how fantastical it all seemed, how strange. Did it really happen? Was he really there? Is it possible for imagination to take form, come into being? To exist as flesh and blood, as surely as you and I exist? I certainly did not think of a God visiting my sister. Yet, I wanted to believe it was him.

Pale moonlight filtered through the wispy curtains and danced around me. As I lay waiting for sleep, the fantastic shapes on my bedroom walls seemed to tell me a story.

When evening sets in and the clamour and clatter of the day gives way to silence, a girl sits by her open window and lets the rain and wind tease her ever so slightly. She watches the moon- pale blue against a darkening purple sky. As night falls, she sings for the God she loves- a God she has never seen. Enamoured by his tales, she longs to be with him, anxious to be taken in his loving embrace.

In another part of the world, a mother lights a candle and begins her evening prayers. Her kids huddle around her, eager for a story- his story. Her eyes light up as she mentions his name. She speaks of him like an old friend, someone who has always been there with her. He’s seen her at her best; he’s known her at her worst. When everything is over, he’ll be the one that stays.

Somewhere, a girl dresses in her finest clothes and wears her finest jewellery; tonight, she wants to look her best for him, she is, after all, a princess. Why should she appear any less? Under the pale blue moon, she rides her horse through the forest. Each night, she goes out in search of her love. Each morning she returns alone.

She is Meera and she has devoted all her life in the name of her Lord.

Tonight, the faint note of a flute startles her. The night air trembles and she looks up. The moon casts a purplish-blue light on her face. She knows he is near. Her heart throbs in anticipation, each heartbeat a wave- rising and falling on a stormy sea. The rain and the wind stop. All around her is still and she is surrounded by silence. Out of the darkness, bathed in the purplish-blue light of the moon, a young flute player appears and asks her hand for a dance. They dance until the break of dawn.

It has been many a night since Kahaan appeared. I never saw him again and I stopped searching for answers long ago. I guess sometimes, even an atheist wants to believe in myths and legends.

-------- X --------