Tuesday, 12 April 2016

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 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 --------

Monday, 14 March 2016

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.

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 --------

Sunday, 13 March 2016

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 --------

Saturday, 16 January 2016

A lock and a key

I was writing at the Ellipsis café when my sister called to enquire of my whereabouts, and within a few minutes, rushed in, huffing and panting.

“I need a lock and a key!” She said before I could even open my mouth.

“A lock and a key?” I glanced at my watch, “at this hour of the night?”

“Yes.” She said, tending to her wild hair.


“I’m going out of the city tomorrow, and I have to lock the house before leaving.”

“But isn’t it locked now?”

“No. I borrowed a friend’s lock, but I’ll have to return it before I leave.”

“Aah! You should have told me earlier!”

“I’m sorry! I forgot!”

“Oh come on! Don’t You always forget?”


“Stop smiling. Alright? I’ve told you so many times to...you know what? Confound it. Let’s go look for your lock and key. I swear this is the last time I’ll help you.”

“Ok fine. But where should we go? All the shops will be closed now.”

“I don’t know. We can start at the market place. We may find something.”

"To the market." My sister ordered as we sat on the warm back seat of a black and yellow cab.

Barring a few shops, the marketplace was largely closed and none of the open shops looked like they would sell locks and keys. There was a diner, a pharmacy and a small car wash, none of which seemed like the prime candidates to ask about a lock and a key. Among the others, there were small eateries selling fast food, filled with as much junk in them as was necessary for the taste. We marvelled at all the people eating at these joints; so late into the night, the marketplace seemed like a different world, and the people there seemed like strange nocturnal beings very different from the ones seen during the day.

There was the homeless man, who could’ve been either thirty or sixty years old, nibbling at a piece of deep fried fish wrapped in a newspaper; a crowd of noisy college students, probably out for some cheap late night drinks; the couple who shared everything and ate from the same plate; the lonely lady stirring her glass of fake orange juice, and the doctor sitting across and staring at her- so many different people, just eating, oblivious to everyone and everything around them.

We targeted the diner first. My sister and I went in, keeping the cab waiting. The diner lady seemed or rather acted very busy, even though there was only one guy eating there. She eyed us with suspicion when we asked for a lock and a key, and denying the possession of either, told us to, “run along now!”. We assured her we meant no trouble, but she declared she could not help and refused to speak any further. We considered it best to leave the diner and entered the pharmacy. Who asks for locks and keys at a diner anyway? Maybe if she had one to spare...

As expected, there was no lock and key at the pharmacy, it being a pharmacy after all. The shopkeeper did mention having a spare, but he confessed having misplaced it a few days back. He was also unable to point us to any place that might have a lock and a key, but he was very insistent on selling us any medicines we might want, for whatever malady that might be ailing us.

At the car wash, three guys sat playing cards, whiskey glasses resting on their table. They did not seem very friendly, but when asked of locks and keys, laughed and said they did not have any, but pointed us to a shop at the far end of the street where we could probably find something. We thanked the guys and walked away to our cab, relieved at not running into any trouble anywhere.

There was no shop at the end of the street! We had been tricked. There was only a dark neighbourhood lost in sleep, its residents away in the land of dreams- not a soul stirred; a fine mist covered the land and the street light shining through it looked eerie as a ghost. Where were we supposed to go? Wherever we looked we only saw a row of streetlights and cars and people crisscrossing the streets, no shops or any other place likely to have a lock and a key in their possession- one that they would be willing to sell or spare.

This is when the cab driver stepped in, "I know a guy." He said confidently and dialed a number,

"Hello, is this Tom? Jerry here." So started their conversation, that lasted no longer than a minute and ended with, "Uh huh...alright. I'm disappointed Tom, I thought you would have it." He then turned around and apologised. We laughed. The man's sincerity was too much to bear.

"Let's just go a little further, at least to that truck over there. If we don't find anything, we'll go home." My sister said.

We drove towards the truck with caution. A lone truck, parked in the middle of the road on a cold winter night? My mind raced with a thousand different ideas, all bordering on the fantastical and bold, but very few of them pleasant. When we were near, we left the cab and approached the truck on foot. The driver decided he would stay behind.

It was a huge truck by Indian standards. Standing under the spotlight of a lone street light, it looked like a magnificent mechanical beast adorned with ornaments and trinkets from all over the country- chains and strange metallic objects hanging from the body, garlands decked at the front, reflectors in red and orange and green on all sides; the colours on it were fresh- a coat of bright blue on which were painted intricate filigree patterns worthy of a Mughal monument. On one side of it, a rustic landscape of India presented itself like an oil painting in an art gallery. Coloured flags, stuck to the sides of the hood, fluttered in the gentle wind; at the back of the truck, the all too familiar, ‘Horn-Ok-Please’ sign greeted us.

“What do you want?” A voice, calm and poised, came from somewhere.

“What are you doing out here so late?” The voice asked again. It was coming from inside the truck, but the doors were closed, so we couldn’t see who it was.

“We...we are looking for something.” I replied. My sister clutched my hand tightly; I whispered in her ear, “Maybe there’s a kidnapper in there” and laughed, but she only tried to pull me away. I stood my ground; there was something familiar and yet strange about the voice, something that told us we had come to the end of our quest.

“What is it that you seek?” The voice asked again.

“A lock and a key sir!”

“A lock and a key is all we ask for.” My sister added.

The door opened, and out came the driver- a dusky young man, dressed in gypsy clothes. Behind him, a kid pushed his head out.

The man’s orange turban lit up like a fireball under the street light, and his golden-brown vest sparkled like fine jewellery. He had tattoos all over his arms- faces, shapes, numbers and writings. On one arm, the phrase, ‘Sic-Parvis-Magna’, was tattooed, bold and confident. There were gloves hanging from his belt and I distinctly noticed a dagger tucked away in his left boot.

“A lock and a key, huh?” He asked, and smiled.

“Yes Sir. A lock and a key.” I replied. My sister still held my hand tightly and barely said a word.

“Allow me to introduce ourselves.” He said, “My name is Raihgir, and this here is Maanjhi”.

We introduced ourselves.

“Now you fine folks must be wondering what we’re doing here, right?”

I nodded, but my sister quickly spoke, “We just want a lock and a key, it would be great if you can spare us one, if not, we’d like to leave.”

“Leave? Surely not so soon. The show hasn’t even started.” Raihgir replied.

“What show?” My sister asked.

“Ahh…that my dear, you’ll have to wait and watch.”

And so saying, Raihgir climbed on top of his truck and unfurled a long white cloth that hung from two poles high above the truck’s back side. He then switched on a light that hung from a similar pole at the front. The light fell on the goods the truck was carrying, and only then did we notice that the truck was loaded with crystals of all shapes and colours and as the light reflected off them on the white cloth swaying in the wind, it lit up with the sheer magnificence of an Aurora Borealis. The northern lights danced before us and it seemed they were no longer confined to the cloth- the colours jumped out and exploded like fireworks, spreading through the sky. They were all around us until we were encircled, standing under a dome of celestial magnificence. Sparks of colour flew and danced around us and rested on our outstretched hands, the tiny particles sticking to our fingers like fireflies. My sister and I stood in silence, just awed at the sheer brilliance of this unearthly light show.

And then, in a split second, everything vanished, and Raihgir said, “So now that the show has ended, you may have what you seek.”

“Can we see the show again?” My sister asked.

“My dear, once the show ends, it’ll take another lifetime to begin.”

Disappointed, my sister asked him if he had a lock and a key.

“Yes. Here, take this.”

He placed the lock and key in her hands and started the truck; Maanjhi pushed his head out and waved at us.

“Where are you going, Raihgir?” My sister asked.

“Me? I’m on my own way, dear.” He said, and drove away before we had a chance to thank him or say goodbye.

We looked at his lock and key- an old bronze pair that had seen better days. Reflecting on the events that led to them, I marvelled at how, sometimes, you find what you are seeking for and more in the most unlikely places. “Thank you”, my sister spoke to the wind and we walked towards the cab, content with this little adventure of a cold winter’s night.

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

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

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 --------

Saturday, 2 January 2016

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.

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