The Ministry of Distraction

DON’T LOOK HERE LOOK THERE

An orbiter in space, unseen behind the blinding flash of moonglow, lost in the south pole, celebrated with tears, with hugs, with cheers, with adoration, with patriotic pride.

The moon is roughly three lakh, eighty-four thousand, and four hundred kilometres away from Earth and Kashmir is roughly five-hundred and sixty-six kilometres away from the capital.

DON’T LOOK HERE LOOK THERE

IMG_9865.JPG

Six thousand more rupees, directly transferred into the bank account of farmers in three equal instalments.

The rupee’s value suffered its biggest fall in six years in August, so the six thousand worth less than it was a year ago, and a year before that, and about equal to the number of farmers that commit suicide, or, if different data is presented, about half the number of farmer suicides, or, zero suicides because those numbers don’t exist anymore.

DON’T LOOK HERE LOOK THERE

Everything is broadcast, everything is breaking, everything is available with opinions and analysis and the common man has the power to be on the same platform as his leader except for the supreme leader and there is advertising money and high TRPs and we’re all hooked and there are 150 news channels—more or less—150 is 10 more than 140, which is India’s rank in the Press Freedom Index in Hindi and English and Gujarati and Assamese and Bengali and Kannada and Malayalam and Marathi and more and more but we prefer Hindi. You can say anything now, in any language except for expose poor school meals, or tell about the victims in Kashmir, or criticise the supreme leader, or criticise his acolytes, or praise the opposition, or you’ll be arrested, or lose advertisers, or shot. Right to Information… Right to Ignorance… Right to Irrationality… Right to Insanity.

DON’T LOOK HERE LOOK THERE

Corrupt politicians behind bars. Tax-evading industrialists on the plane back home. Unless you know the supreme leader, then you’re okay. Clean India, on the streets and in our hearts. Unused toilets, unallocated crores. Swacchta, Manual scavengers in shit from the toilets to the bank accounts It’s all shit.

DON’T LOOK HERE LOOK THERE

One hundred and eighty-two metres in the sky, piercing far above in the atmosphere over Gujarat below, the tallest statue in the world. Don’t look down. It is the Statue of Unity. Close to some of the most segregated ghettos in the country. Iron Man. Patron Saint of the Civil Servants. Civil rights snatched from citizens in Assam. An inspiration of the country’s junta, three-thousand crores of steel framing, reinforced by concrete and brass coating and bronze cladding, money spent up in the air.

And so, the race begins. Four thousand crores more to Shivaji, two hundred and twelve metres over Mumbai’s waterlogged streets. Flooded streets in Mumbai won’t get you to work, but Shivaji might smirk somewhere from the skies. Two and a half thousand crores to Ram, in Ayodhya, two hundred and fifty metres above. Look up! Look up! Look up! Uttar Pradesh would be the fifth-most populous nation in the world with the third-worst literacy rate in the country. Ram is watching.

DON’T LOOK HERE LOOK THERE

Ram Rajya is on its way. The good times. The Garden of Eden. A temple will be built again in Ayodhya. Jai Shri Ram. 88 incidents of lynchings related to cow and beef and bada meat and leather and cheeseburgers and rumours of cheeseburgers since 2012. No cow will be harmed in the making of our progress. Say ‘Ji Shri Ram’ or else or else else. We will drink their milk and stroke their backs and eat their and gau mutr is the cure for cancer the West hasn’t discovered yet. 89 now. 90 now. Now, 91.

DON’T LOOK HERE LOOK THERE

The supreme leader praying for peace and progress to the nation, three-thousand five-hundred and fifty-three metres, the bliss of nirvana only achievable through deep-breathing, meditation, goodness and the ANI camera crew. “We want to ensure more pilgrims come to Kedarnath and we are also making this place more environment friendly”. Two thousand crores between Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath, and Badrinath. The unquestioningly pious are the priority.

Forest clearance and lost trees and shaved mountains and waters running wild or no water at all and hotter summers and colder winters and too dry and too wet. Irreversible damage to the ecology, selective piety, mother Earth.

DON’T LOOK HERE LOOK THERE

On the radio, the prime minister reaches 40 million listeners per episode, telling you the voice of his heart, a broadcast to assist, to eradicate, to conversate, to push for change, to educate. An awe-inspiring book for the youth encourages them to be exam warriors, with lessons on acing tests and facing life. “Non preachy, practical, and thought-proving”, it says, a solution to the world’s largest youth population, of young people dying for a rosy future over the nation’s throat-cutting academic competition.

Read more books children, get smarter, get wiser, go higher. Better schools, better colleges, better knowledge. Don’t read the books we tell you not to. Maoist literature is out, and Islamic literature is a no-no, and stray away from those distracting liberal arts, and don’t study the political science that questions your government, and don’t over-intellectualise too much for it will only hurt your brain, and we’ll hurt you if you do so, and we’ll take away your books and burn them, and we’ll silence your dissenting voice, and we’ll thrash you and lynch you and we’ll kill you so stop it now stop it stop it stop it.

DON’T LOOK THERE

LOOK HERE

if you see me, say something

From May 2016

i bear the weight of their gaze,

IMG_0891.JPG

and it’s surprising. damn, i must be looking

good? or am I somehow

incomplete? nope. no sore thumbs

to stick out. let's just say i'm at my most average

me: young, male, brown, with a looming threat

of facial hair.

 

the friendly voice on the p.a.

calls attention to anarchists

and unattended bags. "metro is an open system. if you see something,

say something." so i stare, too.

 

men and women but mostly men,

in blue and yellow but mostly blue, with badges and guns

but mostly guns.

somewhere

it had happened again: bombs and prayers,

followed by bombs and prayers,

followed by status updates.

 

they’re armed with batons, tasers, and guns.

me, with my attended adidas backpack

plus a brown face with a shadowy threat

of that looming beard.

 

racial profiling don’t discriminate

between brown lightbrown darkbrown blackish black.

distant cousins reunite at t.s.a.

random

screenings. one man’s pagri is another’s keffiyeh.

 

where i come from, everyone looks

like your suspects. our profiling

is more nuanced. sharper noses, longer beards. the rest,

we claim,

don’t need to be attended to.  

 

i bear the weight of their gaze

and i shrug. the world

realigned.  

 

but when the faces realigning

the world

look like derivatives of my own face,

if i gaze upon a jagged cousin

of my reflection, won't i, too,

say something?

Birthday Socks

A short story - from September 2018

Hm. was dropped off by his driver in front of the apartment complex. His wife and son were already there, in the playground nearby. This is where he usually found them after work. His wife—Urmila—had her long hair open flying behind her, looking drenched as if she had just washed it. She wore a sunny, yellow house-dress. His son—Sharav—was in a red T-shirt and red shorts, bent on all fours as he raced his toy trucks around the sand near the swing-set. There were a few other children with their mothers and their fathers and their dogs strolling around the green grass, or rolling in the sand, or speaking gibberish and following it with peals of laughter. It had stopped raining but the air was still humid, Hm. had begun to sweat through his armpits and his back.

Urmila waved with appropriate glee when she saw him. “Hi,” she said. Hm. nodded back a hello to her and his child.

“Hi Daddy!” Sharav said excitedly. “Spider-Bat flew across the swimming pool today and then lost his cape and then shot lasers at the little frogs and now Spider-Bat’s tired, so he’s asleep.”

Hm. was familiar with his son’s wild imagination, of the old toys he combined to make new ones in his head. He nodded and smiled to Sharav. Yes, sure, whatever you say.

Hm’s return meant that now they would all walk back into the building and take the elevator to their apartment. Their complex rose high into the clouds, up to 32 floors, up a thick, cylindrical building modelled to look like a sasta fake version of one of the Petronas Towers in Malaysia. Urmila held Sharav’s left hand and she also held a bucket full of his action figures. Sharav offered his right hand up to Hm., and even though it was a little encrusted with the playground’s mud and sand, Hm. held it.

“How was your day?” Hm. asked Urmila, like he did every day.

“You won’t believe it,” she started. “They hired that cartoonist. That Bengali guy I told you about.”

Hm. recalled, yes, she had told him about the Bengali cartoonist before. “That… That 3D something guy?” They entered the building lobby and waited on the elevator. Hm. was glad to be indoors from the hot, sticky air outside. He pressed the round metal button up to home. Eighth floor.

IMG_3060.JPG

“Yes,” Urmila said. “He’s so, so creative. Like, really, super creative. He makes these comics that read one thing one way. Kids playing football, animals racing, stuff like that. But if you fold the pages inwards, it looks 3D, do you understand?” she looked at him, and there was an extra dimensionality to her large eyes as she spoke. “The playing children suddenly look like they’re torturing someone. The animals get adorned in all this orange stuff, like fascist insignia. It becomes this whole anti-government thing. It’s fascinating. So fascinating.”

She was fascinated, Hm. thought.

“How about you?” she asked him. “How was your work.”

“Good.” Hm. replied. “I got a promotion.”

The elevator tinked as they reached their floor and the doors slid open. Sharav let his parents’ hands loose and scampered ahead

“What?” Urmila exclaimed. “Oh my god, Love, that’s fantastic!”

“Yes,” Hm. agreed. He turned the lock into their apartment and all three of them walked in. Home smelled like home: garlic, orange air-freshener, Sharav’s feet.

“Did they just… Did they just confirm it today? What a surprise! That’s fantastic!”

“They did,” Hm. shrugged. “I was due after six years there. They had to choose between me and Tripathi. They chose me.”

Hm. didn’t need to tell her the whole story. How he and Tripathi were both picked to lead Jepal Co.’s new advertising strategy. Their longstanding brand ambassador was a retired former cricket player, who had opted out of his contract and demanded a considerable raise. Tripathi wanted the company to sign an up-and-coming young model who was big with the millennials on her short social media clips.

She was a “bad girl”, Tripathi said, making air quotations at the meeting. “She made that online video, you know, eating jalebis slowly in her bedroom? Too slowly.” She would be worth the risk, he said.

Tripathi was ambitious, Hm. thought. Too ambitious. But Hm. knew the market. He suggested that they cave and give the old cricketer his asking price. Hm. liked the cricketer: he was a popular, handsome face, and he had been selling Jepal Cola for decades.

The National Operations Manager—Hm.’s Boss Man—agreed. “That’s the safe choice,” he said. The contract was signed, and Hm. got his promotion.

“That’s amazing news!” Urmila’s big eyes got bigger.

Sharav stationed himself and his toy bucket on the red carpet. “Shoes off, Sharav!” Urmila told him. The apartment was untidy; no matter how much Hm. tried to bring order onto things, he knew that Urmila believed in finding comfort in chaos. Even when that marble coffee-table looked cluttered with pens and loose papers, she knew exactly where to find something when she needed it. She had photo frames hung up asymmetrically on the walls with hi-definition portraits of fakirs and Garasia tribal dancers from her trip to the Pushkar Camel Fair years ago. Even that carpet—red with yellow blotches on the four corner tiles, hand woven from Varanasi, and one of Hm.’s favourite possessions—was treated with neglect, with its corners buckling and rolling into lumps under the couch and around their dining table in the back of the room. Urmila had told him that she found it somehow reassuring, that the house felt more like a home in its unevenness, like it had some personality.

She took her sandals off and left them scattered next to the rack. Hm. unlaced his black, polished shoes and shelved them neatly.

“Your socks,” Urmila suddenly said. “Why are you wearing two different socks.”

She was a sharp one, his wife. Indeed, Hm. was wearing two different socks this day. On his right foot was one half of the expensive pair Urmila had bought for him a few months ago for his 41st birthday. An international brand called Petr and Wallace. Rarely available in India. Scottish cotton. Toe and sole reinforced with soft, strong Polyamide. Stylish, too. Red with horizontal yellow stripes. A great fit. A sock beyond what Hm. deserved.

The sock on his left foot was light-grey, faded after years of washing. Knockoff sports brand. Loose and limp over his ankles.

Usually, Hm. would have told Urmila the truth. After wearing the expensive sock on his right, he had been unable to find the other Petr and Wallace. He had searched all around their bedroom, and the bathroom, and even in the living room and the little area out in the balcony where the dhobi kept all of their clothes for the Sunday wash, but it wasn’t there. In a rush, he found the nearest other single sock and put it on. Grey and old.

“Did you lose it?” Urmila seemed to know him before he knew his own answer. “I bought it for your birthday, Love. It was really expensive.”

Hm. couldn’t remember when he wore those socks last, where he took them off.

He remembered, however, his 41st birthday. Urmila had made a special cheesy pasta dish, Sharav coloured in a card with crayons, and he received that Petr and Wallace. He knew how much it meant to her, and even though he couldn’t feign enthusiasm when he first unwrapped the plastic, he began to appreciate the socks from the first time he wore it the next morning. They were comfortable sliding up his ankles and kept his feet cool even in the height of the North Indian summer. He sweated less, and in turn, his feet thanked him by stinking lesser, too.

She would be crestfallen, if, just a few months later, her gift had been unpaired. He looked between Sharav on the carpet and Urmila’s concerned, questioning eyes, and he decided something rare and risky, something that arose from deep within him, from a part of his neural reasoning interceptors that worked without his full permission, from a place of subconscious, from something he had usually suppressed. His instinct.

He lied.

“I left it,” he said. “At work.”

Urmila raised an eyebrow, looking confused.

“Work?”

“Yes.”

“Why did you take off your socks at work?”

“Mummy!” Sharav called out. “Where’s the blue one? The blue car?”

“Check under the couch, beta,” Urmila said, and then turned to Hm. “You took off your socks at work?”

“I stepped in a puddle,” Hm. replied, surprising himself with his own sense of confidence in the fabrication. He spoke without a hitch. “We had gone for lunch, and there was a puddle outside the dosa-wallah stand. I got my full foot drenched, bas! Had to get it wiped and polished again.”

“Mummy! The blue one?”

Urmila walked up to Sharav and gently pushed the couch backwards. Between dust and old pieces of fried potato chips, there was a little, blue, toy Maruti.

Hm. had to be creative, he knew. Urmila was familiar with storytelling. It was her absolute speciality, her profession at the publishing company to read fictions, to edit them, to critique.

“So, I just walked down to the mall next door and bought a new pair,” he continued.

Urmila strolled up to the dining table and began to gently slide around the place-mats. They were already set perfectly, straight and parallel to the table’s edges. But she shuffled them up anyways.

“So you…” she said. “… You wore one of each?”

“Oh yeah,” Hm. said, and then sniggered. “No need to get rid of the other nice one, was there?”

“You went shopping? You never go shopping alone.”

That was true; since he had married her, he never had. Not even for small things like a book or a pen. Or a pair of socks.

“I went with a colleague,” he said.

“I also want to go to the mall, Daddy,” Sharav said.

“With a colleague?” Urmila asked. “Which colleague?”

He never talked to her about people at work. He rarely named names.

“Simrin,” he said. “I went to the mall with Simrin.”

“Who’s Simrin?”

Simrin. That was the first name that popped into his head. She was nobody, really. She was a consultant for the advertising company that worked with Jepal on their newest campaign. She and four of her colleagues—all young early-twenty-somethings fresh out of college—had temporarily located to cubicles near Hm.’s corner room at the office. All of them had seemingly boundless amounts of enthusiasm and energy for the job, and they stayed in the office for sixteen hours a day. While Hm. and the rest of the Jepal staff made sure to follow formal dress protocol, these young creative-types showed up in T-shirts and track-pants and flayed their limbs around their cubicles, spinning pencils between their fingers, shooting paper basketballs into the dustbin. They spoke rapidly, and threw ambitious ideas at each other, and reacted to everything they said in their bubble as if it was a ground-breaking revelation.

Simrin had short hair, and she wore T-shirts with large colourful lettering, and she spoke loudly and laughed even louder, and had small, perky breasts sticking up inside her T-shirt, and sometimes she wore clear, round spectacles, and sometimes she didn’t. Hm.’s subordinates at Jepal often sat beside her and the other advertising staff and talked about the campaigns, and then reported back to Hm. via email. Hm. had never spoken directly to her. She may not have even ever noticed him. The young don’t distinguish men of his age in the same way. He was still handsome, he knew—tall and unthreateningly muscular with a sharp jaw and thick eyebrows—but his head was now carpeted in a well-seamed fraction of grey hair, and his once-youthful cheeks had begun to sag with wrinkles of age.

“Who’s Simrin, Love?” Urmila asked again.

Hm. looked at his watch and, as casually as he could, walked up behind Sharav to fall into the couch. He was indeed tired; this was no act.

“They’re sending me to Frankfurt for a project, Urmi,” he said, and then thought for another second, because he suddenly had much more fiction to imagine. “Big company trip; will be out there for a week.”

This wasn’t unusual, he knew. Jepal sent him for trips all the time. Chennai and Hong Kong and London. Frankfurt was just another city.

“Need to get started on some reports tonight,” he yawned. “Will be working a little late, okay?”

“There’s egg-pasta in the fridge,” she said. “Sharav and I ate already.”

“Thanks,” Hm. said, still seated. “I’ll heat it up.”

“Come on, beta,” Urmila called Sharav from across the room. “Time for bed.”

Unless he was in a particularly difficult mood—hungry, excessively tired, excessively bored—Sharav was a good, compliant child. He didn’t complain. When Urmila called him, he placed all of his toys in the bucket and skipped out to her.

“Say goodnight to Daddy,” she told him.

“Goodnight, Daddy.”

“Goodnight,” Hm. said.

“Daddy: say goodnight to Spider-Bat, too.”

“Sure, Sharav.”

And Urmila and Sharav left him, and Urmila turned off all the lights except the lamp on a side-table next to Hm., and only when he was alone did Hm. realise how rapidly his heart had been beating, as if it was itching to burst out of his chest, ready to be free without the constraints of his rules and regulations, ready to breathe.

 

Hm. had fallen asleep on the couch watching National Geographic, something about moth species in the Iberian Peninsula. Nat Geo was his favourite channel, because it explained the world without opinion.

Like she usually did every morning, Urmila left for work early. She took Sharav with her to drop him at school on her way.

As soon as she walked out the door, as soon as he was alone, Hm. dropped his piece of buttered toast and his cup of chai and rushed back into their bedroom. He crouched down to peer underneath the bed. He moved around the side-tables and then carefully structured them back in their original position. He lifted up the carpet folds in the corners and sneezed as particles of old dust wafted up to him. He searched his closet, his shelves, and on the floor. He searched on her side of the closet, in the difficult pile of clothes stacked in random mounds together. Evening dresses with bras. Winter jackets and socks. But he couldn’t find his other sock.

How could she function in this mess, he wondered? How could he live in chaos like this? Over time, Hm. knew he had softened. Time gave him a blind spot, an ability to ignore Urmila’s habits as long as his side of the house—his folded clothes, his uncluttered bedside table, his bookshelf—were left to him and him alone.

Now, he struggled to think what had connected them together when they had first met, nine years ago. Some couples—he had heard—grew to think and behave and even look alike as they spent more time together. But in their case, Hm. had begun to diverge further away from his wife. Time had given him a larger sample size of differences, a longer path in a different direction.

In the beginning, they occasionally argued about their differences. But the arguments had turned to tolerance, and tolerance to ignorance. They came together now after every day to talk briefly about each other’s work, to offer one hand each to Sharav and walk him forward. In bed, Hm. and Urmila usually slept facing opposite directions. Hm. covered himself neck-down completely inside the bedsheet while Urmila kicked her side down and flailed her limbs, sometimes so far that they dangled precariously off her side of the bed, making Hm. fear that she might roll over and fall off.

The first few times it happened, Hm. tried to save her. He tried to pull her in closer towards him, but she shrugged him off in half-consciousness. When he woke up to use the toilet in the middle of the night, he gently pushed her in, back towards the centre of the bed. She kicked him away in mid-dream. He told her about it over breakfast when she was awake, but she told him to leave her alone.

“Stop trying to save me,” she smiled.

She used to say that often. Why do you think you can save me? she said, when he tried to teach her how to drive. My hero! she would joke, in a sarcastic voice, when he offered to carry her luggage on the flight to Goa for their honeymoon. Another lesson from Mr. Smartypants! she mocked, whenever he explained something he thought she didn’t understand, like rovers finding water on Mars, or sci-fi Hollywood movie plots, or the nutrients available in women’s breast milk.

He had earned this reputation, of course. At school and college, he had always been a topper. He got to choose from his pick of management institutions around the country, and then went to England for his MBA, and, still only 27, got hired by Solo Cola, and some years later, poached by their competitors at Jepal.

He had worked hard, done no piacular deeds, and faced no roadblocks in his way. He had made it.

But in making it, he wondered, had he made the road too smooth for himself? Did he need those bumps in the road to keep the journey interesting? When Hm. was young, his mother had gifted him a Children’s Science Kit. He mixed a couple of powders into a volcano and watched it explode, and his face lit up in delight because he didn’t know how it had happened. He told himself that he wanted to do this all his life, that he wanted to ask questions and discover their answers for himself.

But now, his life was fixed. Yes, he sighed; there were no more questions.

Except for one. Where was that other sock?

He was late for work and he halted his search. He got dressed up like he always did: collared, full-sleeved white shirt, black trousers, black coat.

But his mind was still with the child that had questioned the exploding volcano. So, before he put his black shoes on, he deliberately wore two different pairs of socks again: blue on his left foot; dark green on his right. He left home with a wide smile on his face.

 

Hm.’s driver dropped him near the playground in front of the building when he got back home from work. Urmila and Sharav were waiting for him. Hm. asked Urmila about her day and Urmila asked Hm. about his, and Urmila told him more about the new cartoonist and Hm. shrugged.  

Before Sharav was put to bed, he told Hm. about Spider-Bat again, that today Spider-Bat had fought against a pack of stray dogs and destroyed them with his laser eyes.

“Is that true?” Hm. asked, dandling with his son’s imagination. “I didn’t know he had those powers?”

“Yes, Daddy,” Sharav giggled. “Spider-Bat has lasers in his eyes now.”

“How did that happen?” Hm. could feel his voice rising in inflection, as if he was echoing his son’s excitement.

Sharav thought about it for a moment “From the sun, Daddy,” he finally said. “He was out in the bright light too long. It gave him lasers.”

“Wow,” Hm. looked between Sharav and Urmila, who wore a bemused smile on her face. “I might need to get outdoors a little bit more tomorrow, right?”

 

Unlike some of his colleagues, Hm. never left the office building for lunch. At noon every day, he took the elevator to the basement food-court, ordered himself a vegetarian thali, and ate each item in each katora to completion: the rice, the rotis, the daal, pickles, the sabzi of the day, the yoghurt. Often, he sat alone.

On Friday, the food-court was more crowded than usual. There were bustles of fleeting conversation, squeaking of rubber and leather shoe soles on the tiled floor, screeching of metal on metal on the thali. Two of Hm.’s colleagues found their place on the long table around him.

“Good-afternoon,” they both nodded at Hm. One of them was Tripathi, whom Hm. could always recognise by the slow gait of his movements, his heavy breaths when he talked and laughed and ate, by his ever-sweaty fat neck, by his bulging waist that no belt could contain. Tripathi was younger than Hm. and yet looked as if was nearing 60, as if he was one last cholesterol-heavy pakora away from a heart attack.

The other man, sitting opposite Tripathi, was someone new. He wore square-rimmed spectacles and a moustache, and a white, clean shirt, just like Hm.

“Did you see the new memo, bhai?” Tripathi smiled his difficult smile, and Hm. nodded his silence and mumbled. “Hmm” with a mouthful of rice and yellow daal.

“Profits are up everywhere but North America, aren’t they?” the other man replied. “You think it’s the election effect?”

“No, no,” Tripathi said. “Elections don’t change anything. North America is always unpredictable with things like this. You can’t compare. Our model will be robust here, no matter what. Isn’t it?” Now, Tripathi turned to Hm. again.

“Hmm,” Hm. said. But he wasn’t paying attention to Tripathi anymore, or to the new guy, or the talk of profits, or their food, or his food even. He was looking straight ahead beyond them, a few long-tables away, where among a crowd of other men and women who worked in his office or in any of the other half-dozen offices on different floors of the complex, he saw her, the woman he had invented.

Simrin.

She was sitting with the group of other youngsters from the advertising agency, all eating and gossiping with energy that exhausted Hm. She held centre-stage, speaking rapidly and passionately about something, with animated hand gestures to communicate everything she said. Sometimes her face fell serious, sometimes she covered her mouth because she couldn’t hold her laughter in.

He wondered where she was from, whether she lived in Gurgaon like him, too. No, he decided, she probably lived somewhere in Delhi, and probably took the Yellow Line every day to Sikandarpur, and changed to the local Rapid Metro. Maybe she took auto-rickshaws and haggled for a few rupees to save every bit of her salary. Maybe she carpooled with her friends home in the evening, when it was too dangerous to travel alone. He wondered if she lived alone or with a group of friends. Or with a boyfriend. Maybe the young man who sat opposite her in that black T-shirt was that boyfriend. He wondered if she, too, ate a vegetarian thali like him. Or did she pick up the egg-and-chicken kathi-rolls from the stall next door? Yes, he decided: she looked like someone who ate kathi-rolls.

He could eat them, too; no problem. He only chose the thali to stick to his daily routine. He wondered if, one of these days, he would take a risk and order something else. If he would get his kathi-roll and sit next to her, and introduce himself, and tell her that he was overseeing Jepal’s new campaign. She would probably smile and respond that, of course, she knew who he was, that she had seen him around in the office. He wondered if he would then have lunch with her regularly, if they could make it a scheduled daily appointment. Could they be friends? He hadn’t made any new female friends since he had met Urmila. He had forgotten how to act around women he didn’t already know. He forgot what to say to make them comfortable in his company, how to hold himself upright opposite them to make them respect him, how to speak in a deep voice to appear as a serious man, or be casual and high-pitched so they felt relaxed in his company. Would she be interested in hearing about his life and work and family? Or would she be keener to talk about her youth, the new movies she had seen, the Himalayan peaks she had trekked to, her ability to stay awake past midnight even on weeknights?

While sitting in the backseat of his car, being driven back home that evening, Hm. listened to radio chatter and looked at the slow-moving traffic out the window. Outside, the suburban metropolis passed him by: expensive cars and auto-rickshaws and bicycles and motorbikes and a metro-line rising on pillars above him, and everything in movement, everything changing, nothing that stayed the same, even when his own vehicle slowed down to a complete halt in Gurgaon’s regular, rush-hour traffic jams. He floated away from himself. He wondered if Urmila would notice that he had worn different socks to work again. What would be his next story, he imagined? Perhaps he would tell her more about the trip to Frankfurt. Upper management would be going for a training exercise, and the advertising team from KXU would go there, too. Four days, three nights. That means meetings with Simrin sitting across the table by day, and dinners where they drank steins of frothy beer together at night. The trip would have to be in mid-September, maybe sometime after the Janmashtami festival, he decided. Around Oktoberfest. Just over a month away, with enough time for him to keep elongating his pretensions.

He decided that he will make up something about another colleague; yes, about that greasy Tripathi. Maybe, Tripathi had had a little too much to drink at their office Diwali bash last year. When the music came on, he began to belt out with the songs, gyrating to the item numbers, singing “Tamma Tamma”. The Boss Man would have seen Tripathi, too, Hm. thought. Yes, yes, and this embarrassing scene would become an infamous blot to Tripathi’s reputation. It eventually cost him his promotion, and even as Hm. moved on to top management, Tripathi remained fixtured to his tiny cubicle.  

Hm. laughed out loud to himself and didn’t worry if the driver heard him. He wondered if he could sing in front of his colleagues, too, like Tripathi’s imaginary vocal gymnastics at Diwali. “I’m lucky I’m already a senior in the company,” he said softly, as he planned to say to Urmila later that night. “Can you imagine me having to sing in public? Remember we used to do karaoke together and you always made fun of my voice? You always said it sounds a cawing crow! ‘Kaala kavva gaa raha hai’, you used to say!” And Hm. remembered that even he found it amusing to laugh at himself, and every time Urmila laughed at him, he would only grab and hug her as tight as he could to share in that playful moment.

They didn’t make fun of each other anymore.

What about Simrin, he thought? Did she like those new party songs that they played on the radio? Would she sing karaoke with him, too? Would she laugh at his crow voice, like Urmila used to?

That night, when Urmila asked him about his day, Hm. told her about the Frankfurt trip, about the advertising team, about Simrin, too. Then, he found an excuse to switch to his practiced story about last year’s Diwali: Tripathi’s fictional drunken debacle, about how his voice slurred and how he forgot the lyrics, but still continued to mouth them confidently. Urmila laughed along and imagined the scene for herself: the smell of whiskey on Tripathi’s breath, the crackling from speakers when the music volume was raised too high in the banquet room, the awkward looks of other colleagues too embarrassed to let loose in front of people they worked with. Why didn’t you tell me this story before? Urmila asked, and Hm. just shook his head and kissed her, and that night, for the first time in nearly a year, he made love to her.

While he grunted and sweated on top of her, and while she kissed him on his shoulders and his chest, he told himself that this was all strange and wonderful. He had told her lies and she had believed them. He sweated, he sped up, he let go of all tethers of his civility. She said his name out loud in disbelief.

“What’s happened to you?” she asked between breaths. “I love it!”

Hm. closed his eyes. He loved it, too.

 

The dhobi came to wash their clothes on Sunday, because that was the day he always came. Urmila collected her laundry and called out to Hm. “Hey, the dhobi’s here.” Hm. handed over his shirts and trousers and underwear and socks, too.

After breakfast, while the dhobi rinsed and slapped out on the balcony, Hm. took a seat on the couch. He put his naked feet up on the marble table. Sharav was on the carpet with his crayons, drawing into a colouring book.

“Hey,” Urmila tapped Hm. “Your sock,” she said. “The Petr and Wallace. Did you find the other one?”

“It’s… It’s still at work. I told you that already.”

“It’s still at work?”

“Of course,” Hm. said, and he noticed that despite his best efforts, his voice suddenly grew agitated and combative. “Why don’t you believe me? It’s under my desk at work.”

“Oh,” she said. “You didn’t bring it back?”  

“It’s just a sock, Urmi.”

“Yes, but it was really expensive… I hope you didn’t lose it, Love. I bought it for your birthday.”

“It was just a birthday!” Hm. shouted. He sprang his feet off the table. “Why does it matter? I wear all the same clothes every day. Same type of shirt. Same colour suit. Same shoes. Same hairstyle. Same everything. Just let me have my socks my way, okay? I’ll wear whatever socks I want.”

Hm. was breathing hard, and when he stopped speaking, he realised that everything else had stopped around him, too. Sharav’s toy truck had halted mid-vroom on the carpet. The dhobi was silent out in the balcony. Urmila, now stiff and frozen, stared at him.

She waited for him to regain a steady breath before she spoke. “Why are you acting so strange? You can wear your socks any way you want. I’m not stopping you.”

She relaxed her shoulders, stepped closer to Hm., and gently caressed his arm.

“Is everything okay? Is there… Is there something wrong at work?”

Her touch soothed him down a little. “Nothing,” he said. “I’m just not in the mood for this, Urmi. That Frankfurt trip is coming up… Lots of planning left to do, you know. Just a little stressed, that’s all.”

“Stress with who? The boss? That Simrin in the office you keep talking about?”

“Sim—who? How dare you? I don’t keep talking about her. There’s nothing wrong with her.”

“Okay,” Urmila sighed and backed away.

“She’s fine,” Hm. said. “You know, she doesn’t bother me like this at all. She doesn’t care about what socks I’m wearing or anything. It’s perfect.”

“Perfect?”

Urmila left the question hanging in the air, soaking over Hm., like the Sunday laundry hung over the balcony ledge. But that one sock was still missing.

 

Hm. stayed closed inside his office on Monday, alone. He cranked up the air-conditioner and turned off the large white light. It was an overcast day early on, but by afternoon the clouds and smog cleared up. Form the window behind him, the room soon bathed in warm sunlight, which Hm. enjoyed. He read reports emailed to him by colleagues who worked down the hall and he responded to them electronically, and he felt no need or desire to speak to anyone face to face. None of this was unusual.

But then, sometime around 2 PM, he heard a knock on his door, and the unexpected sound made him cringe.

“Hello, Sir,” the door opened and a slim, young woman peeked in.

It was Simrin. The real Simrin.

“Oh, yes,” Hm. coughed. “Come in… Come in.”

She entered and smiled and spoke quickly.

“Hello, Sir,” she said. She had on a tight-fitting yellow T-shirt and wore spectacles over her greenish eyes. “I’m Simrin Makhania, from KXU. We’re working on the new campaign with you.”

“Yes, of course, of course,” Hm. said. He shifted his laptop out of the way and pointed to the chair opposite him, motioning her to take a seat. “Yes, I’ve seen you around. Is there anything with the new project you wanted to discuss?”

She waved her hand away and didn’t come any closer. Even from the distance, Hm. could smell a fruity, sharp scent from her, as if she had applied an unnecessary amount of fragrant hand-sanitiser. “No, Sir,” she said. “I just wanted to say that… that… I just got a phone call for you… In my cubicle…”

“For me?” Hm. asked.

“Yes, for you, Sir. It was some woman. Asking for you.”

She had a high-pitched voice. Higher-pitched than Urmila. She sounded younger, more energetic.

Hm. was looking directly at her, but he was seeing himself, or seeing how she saw him. He knew she could see the grey matte of hair on his head. She could see his weathered eyes.

“Oh.”

“But this woman knew my name. She asked for you, first, but then she kept asking me if I’m Simrin. She said something about Frankfurt? She asked that multiple times. She sounded… She sounded like she was sobbing, Sir. Then she asked for you again.”

“Who...?” Hm. gulped and turned away. 

“So, I looked up your office number on the exchange, and asked her to hold, but she cut the line.”

“That’s really strange.”

“I don’t know how she got my number, Sir. Or how she knew who I was.”

“Hmm… Yeah. That’s really strange.” Hm. repeated.

There were a few seconds of silence between them. Simrin fidgeted on her feet and took a step back. “Well, anyways,” she said. “Just wanted to let you know. I’ll be… I’ll be heading back to work.”

And Hm. could only watch her leave. “Okay, okay, thanks.”

In the backseat of the car that evening, Hm. clicked on the button to slide down the window on his side. It was a warm evening. Hm. told the driver to turn the A/C off.

He was now certain that Urmila suspected him. She suspected that he and this young woman had become friends, that they went shopping together, that they probably laughed at each other’s jokes, that sometime in the lost hours between work and home—and Hm. hadn’t figured out all the logistics of this imaginary affair yet—they found time to be private, to be alone.

What would Urmila do? Hm. wondered. “What would she do?” he whispered out loud to himself in the back seat. “She would never leave me, would she?” She still loved him, he knew. She didn’t need to say so; he could just sense it. Her love was in the small things. The extra cushion she laid behind him when he slumped on the couch. The back rubs he got in bed after a difficult day at work. The expensive gifts she managed to procure despite scarce availability in the country.

But what was there within him to be loved, he wondered? “Why, Urmila?” he asked nobody. She had always been more open-minded and adventurous, but his life provided her with no such adventure. He worked and he ate and he slept, and on Sundays he propped his legs on the table in front of the couch and watched National Geographic, and he occasionally spoke to their son but often ignored him, and he wore the same clothes every day. They never went to holidays anymore or tried out new restaurants, and his frigidity rarely thawed next to her in the bedroom. Maybe it was less love, then, and more habit.

Hm. could barely stand a sense of his own, dull self before this recent spark. Before the lost sock, before he had begun to lie to her, before that imagined work trip to Frankfurt with Simrin, before his affair. There was some unpredictability now, a tangent from his life’s scheduled programming.

He would be home in half an hour, and he didn’t know what to expect from her. He felt the skin on his back tingle.  

 

Urmila and Sharav were not in the playground when he returned. They were not in the lobby, and he didn’t see them around the elevator.

When he unlocked the door to their apartment, Urmila had already ushered Sharav into his room. She stood there, dead centre in the living room between the couch and the television, composed while surrounded by walls of crooked and unhinged photo frames. The room was only half-bathed in light, from the tube-light in the kitchen. Behind her was Sharav’s toy bucket, spilled so all the little action figures and Legos had scattered out on the carpet. The only sound was soft, childish conversation from the TV in Sharav’s bedroom, which Hm. recognised as his son’s favourite puppy-police cartoon show.

“Hello,” Hm. said.

“When is your trip to Frankfurt?”

“What?”

“I called at your work. I spoke to Tripathi. And one of the secretaries. And even to that girlfriend of yours. There’s no trip to Frankfurt, is there?”

She was rarely ever angry, his wife, rarely allowed outside incidents to disturb her inner peace. Even after the toughest days at work, even after her father’s sudden stroke, Hm. had seen how she always managed to find something to uplift her mood. It didn’t take much: a TV comedy; a board-game with Sharav; a drink with her friends. It was one of the things he admired most about her. She was in charge of her own mood.

Here, breathing evenly in front of him, the mood was different. But she was still in charge. Her voice didn’t waver, or crack, or inflect. 

“Who are you going with? Is it just you and her?”

While she remained upright, looking taller with her shoulders hunched up, Hm. felt his knees buckle, as if the weight of conjuring up a new lie was physically pushing him down into the floor.

“No, no,” he said. “They didn’t speak of Frankfurt because it’s a surprise, Urmi! You didn’t speak to anyone at upper management, did you? No, no, it’s an upper management surprise for the rest of the employees. We’re all going. 39 members from Jepal and KXU.”

“It’s a surprise?” Urmila folded her arms together.

“Yes, yes. The Boss Man, you know, he’s very superstitious. I told you that before, didn’t I? He wouldn’t dare share any news like this before the right time. He was just waiting for Janmashtami. It’s going to be a Janmashtami surprise.”

“A Janmashtami surprise?”

“Yes, yes.” His words were ribbing and fighting to squeeze out of his mouth rapidly, as if there were a thousand more little stories that needed to be told. “He’s a big Krishna bhakt, so he chose Janmashtami. Boss Man keeps a fast for Krishna every Wednesday and shows up to office wearing white kurta-pyjama. Can you believe it? While the rest of us are in suits! It’s so ridiculous. He told me… He told me once that it was all from his childhood. When his his grandmother had this dream about a daayan who cursed her, yes, cursed her and said that his whole gene pool will be cursed.”

“A cursed gene pool?”

“Yes, yes, cursed so that all of her descendants will be two people at once, Urmila. You know, like a schizophrenic duality?” As he spoke, Hm. thought about Boss Man’s grandmother, and he could only picture her by imagining his own Nani, whom he barely knew, even as she lived to her late 80s. She had a round and slightly off-coloured face that looked like a fresh fruit, and she only spoke in philosophical aphorisms like, Son, only those who sweep their own house will find themselves in a clean neighbourhood. Yes, yes, this was Boss Man’s grandmother now, the one who got visited by the daayan, the one with the schizophrenic curse.

“A duality?” Urmila asked.

“Yes. And now he worries that he must do something special for Janmashtami every year. Something big. Like this Frankfurt announcement.”

“No,” Urmila’s voice was still level, still in control. “It is you with this strange duality. It is you who is being two people at once.”

“What?”

“Are you having an affair with that girl?”

And there it was, the question, it was out there now, retched out into the humid air between them.

He imagined himself with Simrin, breathing in vapours of her fruity hand-sanitiser, kissing her thin lips, laughing when their teeth rubbed against each other.  

“Yes,” he said.

Urmila came at him swiftly, and with the full force of the unsaid frictions between them, the years of subtle decalages where something remained a little uneven and offset, of her suppressed rage, of her suspicions of his infidelity, she gave him a full-palmed slap on his cheek.

It stung Hm. enough for him to stagger back a few feet. But more than anything, it electrified him, as if she had gotten his dormant nervous system buzzing again. That feeling, that fuming within him… yes, he knew what it was. It was anger. He was angry at her. He was mad. She had struck him. How dare she strike him?

And then, she began to sob, as if feeling the pain of her own aggression.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“It’s okay,” Hm. found himself saying. “Simrin likes to slap me, too. But those feel nicer.”

Urmila ran up to him again and this time swung her right foot between his legs, hard vertically up into his groin, so hard that it made him yelp in a siren-like sound, a new moan he had never made before. A sound he didn’t know he had within him.

Reacting with pure instinct, Hm. pushed her with both his hands on her chest. She stumbled back, and in doing so, she tripped over something—one of Sharav’s toy trucks—and she lost her footing, and she fell hard with a thump, and the side of her head banged against the thick, marble table, and them she slumped down to the floor without a sound.

Hm. crouched down to his knees. She was bleeding from the side of her head. Blood flowed out freely, heedlessly, adding a deeper, damp shade of red to their red carpet.

Hm. called her name, and shook her shoulders, and she didn’t move, and he checked her pulse, and he called her name again, and then he knew she was dead.

 

Hm. dialled the emergency number. A gruff, male voice picked up on the other line, and it said “Hello” to Hm. in a slow drone, as if it had handled so many serious incidents of police activity that it had simply been lulled into boredom.

“My wife is on the carpet,” Hm. said.

“Uh-huh,” said the voice.

“She’s dead, I think.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I killed her. It’s all over the carpet now.”

“Huh?”

“I killed her.”

Hm. gave the voice his full address, hung up the phone, and sat down next to Urmila’s corpse.

“Daddy?”

Sharav was awake. Or, Hm. presumed, he had been awake the whole time and only now braved peeking out of his room. Hm. got to his feet and walked up to Sharav’s bedroom door, blocking his son’s line of sight.

“Hello, beta,” Hm. said.

“Daddy… Where’s Mummy?”

“Go back, beta,” Hm. said. He put a gentle arm on Sharav’s back and led him inside. Sharav complied and backtracked. His room was dark except for the manic glow of the TV, playing cartoons. Hm. had never been happy about Urmila allowing their son to watch TV by himself. Sharav trotted ahead and sat back on his single bed, facing Hm. Hm. folded his feet and sat down on the floor.

Like Urmila, Sharav’s living space was an anarchic mess, too. There were action figures lying around in every corner, and more little toy cars, and a hospital playset, and piles of tiny clothes on all four corners rising up in tiny mounds.

“Where’s Mummy?” Sharav asked again. He had large, round eyes, like his mother’s.

“Don’t worry, beta,” Hm. said. “You tell me—did you have dinner?”

Sharav nodded.

“What were you doing in here?”

Sharav shrugged his shoulders. “Watching cartoons,” he said. “Playing Spider-Bat.”

“What did Spider-Bat do today?”

“Today…” Sharav’s voice lightened up as he began to imagine. “Today, he just stayed at home. He stayed at home and watched TV with me.”

“Oh really?” Hm. said, and he looked around the room again, wondering if he should begin teaching his son about keeping things a little tidier, to fold his clothes and stack them up in a neat pile. To keep all his toys back in the bucket when he was done playing.

Among the mound of clothes on the far-left corner, Hm. noticed, were a few items of his old laundry. White shirts. Black trousers. Colourful socks. Maybe the dhobi, or Urmila, by mistake, had left them in here.

And then there was a knock on the apartment door, and Hm. knew that the police had arrived. He told Sharav to wait in his room and went out to greet them. When they asked Hm. what happened, he told them that he killed his wife. It felt good to repeat the incident in exacting detail; it was the truth.

 

Auto-Logic

Auto-rickshaws and the bargain of Delhi life

  

I told the auto-wallah my destination and he told me to take a seat. That was it. No argument. No bartering. No nothing. I was taken off guard.

Years of experience taking auto-rickshaws in Delhi had taught me not to accept a ride without negotiating a deal. I didn’t wish to be in a situation where I was over-charged after the journey, just because I hadn’t made a deal with the driver in the front-seat before we’d begun.

“How much will it be?” I asked him.

He looked bemused. “However much it comes here,” and—without a hitch—he turned on his metre. I would be paying the regulated ‘proper’ price for the journey. There would be no debate, no wasted time, no sour moods. It was going to be unusually smooth sailing.

To be honest, I shouldn’t have been totally surprised. The reason the auto-wallah followed the rules of his trade is because we were in Mumbai, not Delhi. A whole new world. Sometimes, it feels like the only thing in common between two of India’s largest metropoles is just that: that they are two of India’s largest metropolises.

21.JPG

Otherwise, the personalities of the cities are starkly different. Some prefer one over the other. Delhi has its own advantages of course: it is a city more interested in the national political structure, more invested in its local civics. Its close to my beloved Himalayas and offers some of the best Punjabi and Mughlai food in the world.

Mumbai was always the more professional city to me, where things worked as they should (more than Delhi at least). It’s safer for women, seems to have a better nightlife, and is at closer proximity to the beaches down in Goa and Karnataka.

It is this professionalism of Mumbai that naturally extends to its local transport: it’s taxis, it’s local trains, and its autos. The auto-wallahs in Mumbai were generally more polite than their counterparts in Delhi, less likely to hustle or expect to be hustled, more likely to ensure that they did their job right.

Delhi, to anyone who has experienced the shared three-wheelers, is a different headache. Every trip in an auto is an unnecessarily long and often nonsensical negotiation. Most auto-wallahs are offended to even use their metres. Many pretend that it doesn’t work. The asking price is always too high, and the patience for negotiation is always too low.

This personality isn’t necessarily the auto-wallahs fault all the time; they are simply a natural extension of the character of the city where they have to survive. Delhi is an unkind city to everyone, but especially to the poor. Living costs are expensive and jobs are limited. There is cut-throat competition for everything college seats and job placements to seats on the crowded Metro lines and parking spots in every colony. Crime is high, and so is the potential of crime, so very often, every man or woman must fend for themselves in the hostile environment. There is a huge income disparity between the rich and the poor, and a perceived class disparity, leading to uncomfortable shared public spaces – like auto-rickshaws.

Many of the factors stated above ail nearly every metropolitan city in the world, including Mumbai. But what sets Delhi apart from its southern cousin is a more aggressive attitude towards privilege: those who have it believe the world owes them much more, and those who don’t have it cut every corner possible to become one of the haves. On the everyday ground level, this leads to distrust and quarrels.

Much of the modern ‘Delhi attitude’ was written with brilliant insight and research by Rana Dasgupta in his 2014 book Capital. After the Indo-Pakistan Partition of 1947, Delhi’s population was ballooned with the influx of refugees. These resettled folks, who had lost nearly everything to their name, carried mostly the burden of trauma. In starting a new life in Delhi, their priorities shifted into survival mode, to do anything for money, to figure a way out to keep their families above water in the challenging times ahead.

The trauma gave many of these people a tougher outlook and personality of life, with the will to do whatever it takes. This ‘toughness’, by osmosis, slowly became a personality of the city itself. Half a century later, as the economy opened and the gulf between the rich and the poor widened even further, newcomers had to be tough to assimilate and make a living here. They had to become Delhiites—in the best and the worst that that term has to offer. 

It is under this stifling atmosphere that a simple negotiation like ‘how much to pay for the auto journey’ because a competition, too. Everyone wants to ‘win’ the trade, or at least feel like they’re winning.

With a new host of industries energising nearby Gurgaon, Noida, Faridabad, and Ghaziabad, the entire extended Delhi-NCR region has become a major commercial hub. But the fortunes of the city’s occupants haven’t necessarily grown in sync with the city. Every time a generation of people feel that they’ve finally found their footing in the city, a new cycle emerges, with many more migrating from smaller towns in search for work.

The going, of course, is tougher for the uneducated. They join the labour industry to build skyscrapers and malls around NCR; they hope to earn work as domestic staff for the middle class and rich; and those with a little bit of money invest it into buying or sharing an auto-rickshaw.

When taking an auto in Delhi, it becomes obvious in no time if my driver is a newcomer in the city, or an old head. New migrants are unsure of the ways around town, especially the Lutyens area where “everything looks the same”. The experienced ones have been through the rigours of many Delhi seasons and are able to keep up with the city’s rapid’s pace of development. The eldest gentlemen, those with decades of auto-ing around the city behind them, have often reached a state of bittersweet acceptance: they don’t argue for small bits of money because the energy isn’t worth the profit.

According to certain (outdated) estimates, there are nearly 4 lakh auto-rickshaws ploughing through Delhi’s roads right now. This is technically only a small percentage of overall registered Delhi traffic (which is over 1 crore registered vehicles). But somehow, auto-rickshaws continue to be ubiquitous around this city, used by almost all of the financial classes residing in the city—except for the extreme rich and the extreme poor.

One of the reasons of the ubiquity, and downright necessity, of the auto-rickshaw service is Delhi’s inconvenience as a city for those without vehicles. Even with the game-changing advent of the Delhi Metro and buses shuttling residents around the city, the city is spread out and massive, and many of the locations for work and home are inaccessible to common people. The auto is often the first and/or last leg of any daily journey, completing the distance between the metro station or bus stop and the final destination.

Most of the people who can afford cars in Delhi have cars. And those who can afford two get two. And, so on and so forth. It’s a different city when seated in a fast-moving, close, air-conditioned vehicle. The harsh summers are a little more tolerable. The world’s worst pollution outside the car window feels somewhat harmless.

The autos might have a canopy overhead and the sides, but the open ‘entryways’ for both the driver and the passenger can’t shade anyone from the harsh elements of the city outside. That aforementioned pollution has indeed been topping the charts globally in recent years, often giving Delhi the undistinguished honour of the worst air-quality in the world. PM 2.5 particles make the air dense and heavy, destroying the lungs of exposed citizens over time.

The pollution is worse during the winter season, when fumes from burning crops from the West add to Delhi’s heavy air, and the stillness in that air doesn’t clean up the industrial pollution that has increased multi-fold over the last few years of development in and around the city. These winters, additionally, get surprisingly cold, too: not as much as for those shielded indoors, but for auto-wallahs, who race day and night being slapped against the freezing wind, the season can be torturous.

Spring is fine but short, because soon, here comes the North Indian summer, where the air is hotter than a furnace, where hot winds gurgle through the atmosphere as if there’s a heavenly blow dryer fanning over the city. Temperatures reach up to 45, 46, 47, 48 degrees Celsius at their peak. The heat causes discomfort and thirst and strokes and disarray. It’s almost unbearable. But if they need to work—the auto-wallahs work.

By the time the monsoons come around, the city finds relief in long spells of rainfall, drenching the city, lowering temperatures, but adding new challenges to the lives of those who live the exposed life closest to the streets. There are waterlogged streets, drowning autos in dirty rainwater and overflowing sewages, stopping traffic, destroying engines and tyres, hurting movement and visibility, becoming an expensive headache. This is disease season in Delhi, too, reading like a long list menu of the most depressing restaurant in town: dengue, chikungunya, diarrhoea, typhoid, cholera, malaria, jaundice.

Those who survive the calendar year without losing their faith do so because the city keeps on needing them, relying on them to chug them along. In recent years, however, a new challenger has emerged to disrupt the auto-wallahs comfort zone: ride-hailing companies like Ola and Uber, which have become a cheaper and easier option than traditional taxis in India, and slowly become common in every major city. Autos are still a cheaper option than Olas and Ubers, but the latter are less complicated and more comfortable for most passengers, and thus, many are willing to spend a little extra to avoid the discomforts—of environmental exposure and price-haggling—of an auto-rickshaw.

Ride-hailing has disrupted the traditional auto and taxi business in Mumbai and other cities, too. So, this reasoning doesn’t really explain the stark attitude differences in hailing an auto in the two cities.

Mumbai, as I mentioned earlier, is generally more pleasant in terms of auto price-haggling. The price is the price. Rarely have I come across an auto or taxi-wallah in Mumbai whose metre has mysteriously stopped working. Although there are occasions when the drivers will take a longer route to run up that perfectly-working metre. An added complication, however, is that many parts of the city (the posh south-of-Bandra) simply don’t allow three-wheelers. What one gains in temporary piece of mind, one must pay back in this inconvenience.

Additionally, the traffic in Mumbai is a well-documented nightmare; the Local Trains are always a better option if you don’t mind being hurled in a rigid human molecular structure, pressed together with strangers, occasionally being molested or robbed or both.

Mumbai, like Delhi or any other metropolitan, has its massive share of migrant populace, too, chasing the big city dreams. Like Delhi, Mumbai has a complicated history of violence, displayed here specifically through regional chauvinism, a distrust of all outsiders, and inter-religious tensions.

And yet, it has a starkly different personality from Delhi. And different doesn’t necessarily equate to better or worse. If people in Delhi seem rude or uncouth in their first impression, many have shown to have a warmer core inside, blessed with that legendary North Indian hospitality where they will go the extra mile for you “once you get to know them”.

My Mumbai experience with strangers has generally been more pleasant at the surface level: I don’t expect warmth, I expect professionalism, and the city usually delivers. The warmth here, too, comes with a little familiarity. It’s different from the Delhiites but special in its own way.

I’ll mention one more major way in which the auto-rickshaws in the two cities reflect the culture of the regions themselves. In Delhi, the obsession—it being the centre of our government and all—tends to be politics, and it’s even more so when we’re close to around the dreaded election seasons. In the lead-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, for instance, nearly every auto-driver looked to strike up a conversation about the polls, about the rights and wrongs of the various parties, about cult leaders, of promises made and promises broken.

Mumbaikars have little time for all that. Life is too fast, too stressful, too insane. The obsession here—mirroring the glamour of the city—is the ‘filmy’ side of life. Bollywood is always around the corner. The songs on the radio. The homes where A-listers reside. The B-grade stars spotted randomly crossing the street. Bollywood is the perfect antidote to the tensions of life, a fairy-tale that Mumbai can see up close and personal.

After day after day of the Delhi aggression, I find relief the ‘no bargaining’ policy of Mumbai transport. But there’s a part of me that, perhaps sadistically, enjoys the Delhi experience, too. Perhaps it’s the opportunity to start up a conversation (or some may say, an argument) with a stranger, a haggling fit that usually leads to talk about politics or weather or sport once the first veil separating the driver and the passenger has been lifted. Perhaps it’s just my own personality—carved by Uttar Pradesh and peppered in with some Delhi—that allows me to empathise with the rickshaw-wallahs and relish the challenge of a needless argument.

It’s the worst and I hate it. But also, it’s fine. I understand; many citizens (passengers) like me have the privilege to refuse, to barter, to contemplate, to choose between one option and the other. These are minor headaches in the larger migraines of life that most auto-wallahs face daily. I wold prefer the Delhi attitudes to be more straightforward, more professional, to feel safer. And the occasional encounter with a pleasant Delhi auto-wallah goes a long way to improve everyone’s state of mind.

The city and its auto-experiences shape us as much as we shape it back. I would like it to be better. And perhaps, help make it better by being a better passenger myself. But for now, the city—with all its flaws—is the city. Living here is a bargain we all have to make.


a crack in the motherboard

from April 2016

 

          windows. my computer screen refuses

          to start up. on the way to the laptop repair shop

          i alt plus f4 to an alternate reality.

the past melted with a dysfunctional hard-drive.

no backups, no chance for recovery,

no salvation to drip down from the cloud.

 

music burnt from cd-roms, scratching time, repeating

the 90s. photographs of that dorm-room, mind deflated

with deleted friends, of exes not fully uninstalled,

of birthday candles with forsaken family.

work i had once been proud of.

 

          new window. a future

          without the gigabytes of this past:

          surfing the wave of streaming music, synching together

          all the conscious devices. new pictures of friends

          i haven’t yet met, in places i’m yet to visit.

          new files to save my self-esteem.

 

          imagine my relief when the laptop repair guy

          smiles and says: “its only a crack in the motherboard.

          we'll have the screen working again

          in no time.”

IMG_6592.JPG

Ghats, Gullies, Ganga...

A couple of times every year, I decide to get lost.

In Varanasi, the birthplace, I start at one of the ‘mouths’ into one of the city’s old gullies, either by Assi Ghat or Harischandra Ghat or Gadaulia, from where I could leave behind my vehicle and set off on foot. After years of exploring these neighbourhoods (alone or accompanied) which are part of one of the oldest continuously-living civilizations on Earth, I have become pretty familiar with the labyrinthine ways. And yet, every time I venture out, I discover places I have never seen before, or I see familiar places with surprising new eyes, or I land up in unknown parts, lost without direction, but happy to keep moving.

These walks around Varanasi’s gullies and out to the ghats on the banks of the Ganga river have been a welcome spurt of chaos and surrender. I know that, if I’m walking in the general direction North, the river will be to my right and the motorable road on my left. Walking around in these ancient by-lanes, I’m surrounded by old homes, multitudes of excellent chai-wallahs, some of the best samosas on Earth, traffic on foot and bicycles and motorbikes, and I wade past cattle with their swinging tails and avoid their excrement on the stone-paved paths, and I see old temples and shrines on the way, and tiny music academies and language schools and factories and mills and playing children and religious pilgrims and tourists and bhang shops and bakeries and kauchari-wallahs and dogs and cats and rats. The experience is the entire universe minimised to a dense, Indian maze.

When I want to get out of the claustrophobic commotion, the ghats are usually a close clearing away. I take a right and find the steps, and boom, the world opens up. The smell of the river wafts up to me. Sometimes its pleasant, sometimes its dead. There are close to a hundred ghats, and when its not too or too flooded, one can walk end to end, and each one has its own unique history and quality. Or, one can take a boat over the holy river itself, see the ghats’ majesty from a distance, feel the splash of the water close up, get a glimpse of life as it has moved here for thousands of years.

In recent months, Varanasi’s old gullies and temples have come into special scrutiny, as the central government has purchased hundreds of old homes from their owners around the popular Vishwanath Temple, only to demolish them to build a wide ‘Kashi Vishwanath Corridor’ to encourage religious tourism. For someone who marveled over the heritage of these old homes, I was disappointed at this decision. No one temple is worth hundreds of other little histories of the city. The new corridor will no doubt give a more modernised look near the temple area, but this project will also snatch away much of the soul of these neighbourhoods.

I’m only an amateur photographer, armed with no weapon greater than my old iPhone camera. But there is a certain magnetism of Varanasi’s ghats, gullies, and the Ganga that makes even the most pedestrian of photographs look breathtaking. Here is a small assortment of some of the many photos I’ve taken over dozens of times of ‘losing myself’ in the old town.

DSC04096.JPG
DSC04048.JPG
DSC03011.JPG
DSCN3818.JPG
DSCN3850.JPG
IMG_8330.JPG
DSCN3957.JPG
DSCN7509.JPG
IMG_8329.JPG
IMG_8332.JPG
IMG_0283.JPG
IMG_8333.JPG
IMG_0284.JPG
IMG_8241.JPG
IMG_0290.JPG
IMG_0369.JPG
IMG_8331.JPG
DSC04050.JPG

Gauri Decides To Kill Herself

A short story, or a parable, that I wrote in June 2017


All the cows in the country decided to kill themselves, but nobody told Gauri.

You see, Gauri was a good cow, white as milk, who had already mothered two calves and had never suffered in the dairy department. Her milk had helped grow stronger bones for little humans all over Ghudha and in a half dozen nearby towns and villages. It had made for the finest chai, she believed, this side of the river. It churned into the sweetest thick yoghurt which left its indelible mark on the moustaches of men in the state. If they had known the source of their dairy delights, she would’ve welcomed their gratitude and adoration, of course; but for now, she was content in their ignorance, a thankless angel of protein, a super-heroine with two robust pairs of mammary glands.

As she sat constrained within the tiny quarters of her gaushala and the four acres of green pastures of Jairam Yadav’s dairy farm, news travelled slowly to this blissfully-ignorant mammal of milk: around the country, cows were committing suicide in the most abominable of ways, unconcerned with the ripple effect of their thoroughly selfish act. The news didn’t reach Gauri until the day Yadav returned sobbing to the gaushala when all the other cows from his shed had disappeared.  

That morning, Yadav had squeezed out a thick bucket of her morning milk before taking his cows out to graze by the lake. Gauri, the youngest of the herd, didn’t join the rest of her kith; instead, she stayed back in the gaushala, where her only company was her closest friend Sampat, who was an odd beast out, an ox in the troupe of cows.

Sampat munched on his fodder, and Gauri crunched on hers, and she looked at him with a smile. He was her truest companion, a friendship forged without the shackles of biological and procreational necessities. Unlike the two bulls who had fathered her calves, Gauri had nothing to fear of Sampat’s castrated rage.

Around her neck, Gauri wore a thin rope as a leash, with a tiny brass bell to serve as her pendent. She shook her neck from side to side to give the bell a soft ring. Sampat wore a bell, too, but his leash was a discarded leather belt – cowhide that humans wore around their waists – that Yadav had once found outside the dairy farm. While the rest of the cows had been repulsed by the idea of wearing a corpse of their own, Sampat had welcomed this accessory with surprising pride, letting it radiate under the sunshine whenever he was designated for ploughing duties.

IMG_2411.JPG

Back in the gaushala, Sampat rubbed his neck and the leather belt against the wall behind him, in a vigorous attempt to scratch an irresistible itch.

“That corpse-wallah belt is not worth the trouble, no?” Gauri asked.

But before Sampat could answer, Yadav burst back into the gaushala, all alone, sweating and cursing with unfamiliar energy, waving his wooden stick around to slap away invisible curses in the sky above him, before he finally settled in between his favourite white cow and her unlikely ox friend.

“You’re here!” Yadav hugged Gauri around her fat neck and exclaimed. The familiar, rough surface of his palms scratched against her. He gently pulled her leash to give the brass bell a soft tinkle. “You’re still here!” Yadav said, “You’re alive!”

Gauri stretched out her neck and turned a lazy eye over to look at Sampat. Sampat responded with a bored shrug.

Yadav left Gauri’s neck and fell to the ground between them. His long, thin fingers snaked into the shaggy crevices of his own hair, and with a sudden, uncharacteristic thrash, he slapped his head in self-punishing violence.

“They’re gone!” he said. “I was only sleeping for a moment! Just a moment!” Yadav raised his hands up to the gaushala’s thatched ceiling, and Gauri presumed, the calm blue sky beyond it. “The rest of them are gone! Come on, Gauri, chalo, chalo. Come on, Sampat, we must find them! We must find them!”

Sampat was first to respond. Slowly, he uncrossed his limbs and pushed his heavy body back up to all four of his feet. Gauri followed the ox’s lead, pushing down her knees under the punishment of her heavy body to slowly raise herself beside him. Yadav freed their leashes from the wall and slapped Gauri on her heavy, round butt.  

“Let’s go,” he said. “We must find them.”

Flanked around Yadav, Gauri and Sampat made their way out the dairy farm. Gauri was confused, curious, but in Yadav’s protection, she remained patient. She knew he wouldn’t forsake her – she was his favourite – even if he had to quit on the rest of her shed sisters.

On the way, when she found a patch of tall, wild grass under her feet, Gauri bent down and bit off a mouthful. With slow, patient chomps, she chewed on the grass as the three of them walked towards the lake. It was here that Gauri saw a sight more peculiar than she had ever seen before. A new cow, taller but thinner than Gauri, off-white with multiple blobs of black around her leathery skin, was walking into the lake. Gauri didn’t recognise her; she was not of their herd.

Yadav called out. “Heyya! Heyyy, Yo! Heyyyy ya!” but the cow continued walking deeper and deeper into the water, moving faster than Gauri had ever seen a cow move before.

Gauri stopped chewing: her jaw froze in an awkward diagonal angle. She dropped her mouth open wider until some of the grass fell past her chin and down to the earth.

The cow in the water seemed calm, hypnotised by her mission. She twitched at Yadav’s calls but didn’t turn to acknowledge him. Gauri and Sampat watched in silent fascination as the new cow’s twirling tail slowly disappeared into the water. All that was left was the smooth back of her head before she drowned completely. 

“Heyya! Heyyyy, Yo!” Yadav shouted again, and without a second thought, ran towards the lake behind the new cow. He rustled over the grass, slapping his slippers hard against the ground, and the noise made the cow in the water stop and turn around. Yadav kicked his slippers off, dropped his stick and removed the gamcha draped around his shoulders, tied the lungi around his waist tighter mid-run, and dove into the water.

“Arrey be careful!” Gauri mooed.

But she had no reason to fear, for Yadav was an expert in these situations. When he was just a child trailing his father’s herd, he had first saved a calf from drowning in the dhobi’s pond. For the next three decades, his expert hands had learnt every way to guide cows by his simple touch, to soothe them, to control them. Today, in the worst of his days, a lifetime of practice and knowledge came alive to make the improbable seem intuitive.

Yadav swam towards the new cow, all the time hollering his greetings at her, “Hey! Hey! Aaja aaja, stop there, slowly, come on, aaja, stop, Tch tch tch,” greetings that were usually saved exclusively for Gauri alone. When the water got deeper, he jumped up off his feet and began to swim, his head plunging and submerging back up with smooth skips. As soon as he reached her, he placed one arm around her sinking neck to pull her back up, and another hand down her dewlap under the water. Calmly, while he kept himself afloat in the lake, Yadav pet and massaged the cow on her head and neck. His presence seemed to break her hypnotised spell; she stopped and caved herself fully into him. He kept one gentle hand on her neck and she willingly swam back ashore with him.

Gauri swung her neck around in circles in unbridled anxiety, rocking the bell around her leash to ring with wild abandon when the new cow took her first steps back ashore.

“Where are you from, old woman?” Yadav muttered to himself as he walked back on to land.

“Where are you from, sister?” Gauri repeated to the new cow.

“Do you have the Cow Madness?” Sampat added and shifted each of his four limbs two steps backwards.

The new cow strutted herself straight and held up her neck in sudden, transformative pride. No longer did she look like an entranced soul bringing voluntary doom upon herself. Her thin body had become rigid and tense, and through the eyes on each side of her long, bony face, she addressed both Gauri and Sampat.

“My name is Mamata,” she said in a whispery, soft voice. “And I don’t have any Madness. If anything, my eyes have been opened and I’ve never felt saner in my long life.”

“But why would you…?” Gauri stuttered. “…Why did you…?”

“Haven’t you heard, young one?” Mamata beckoned. “Hasn’t anyone told you yet? Our moment of freedom is finally here! It’s our Awareness. Cows around the country are ending their lives! It’s glorious.”

Yadav wiped his wet face and hair off with his gamcha and returned to the little herd. He reached over to Gauri and grabbed her by her leash to pull her forward. Gauri saw his desperate eyes searching between her and the new cow, before he pulled Gauri a safe distance away from Mamata.

“Chalo,” he whipped his stick gently against Gauri’s side to lead them all forward. “We have to find out what’s going on.”

*

Mad cows had been hurting themselves – and others – for years, but this was different. These cows, as Mamata had suggested, were mentally undisturbed, awoke, enlightened. Although nobody could truly pinpoint the first case of bovine self-destruction, the media consensus pointed to the westward city of Shamli as Zero Point of the suicides.

It began at a routine case of angry-mob lynching. A barber in Shamli, Mehmood Hasan, was accused of enjoying a little too much beef in his mutton kebabs. Yes, beef, that most-seductive of cow-related progenies, that great divider of the citizens. Cows, to half the country at least, were the nation’s mother on four legs, a provider of milk and love that enjoyed special privileges over all other beasts.

In Shamli, an angry mob of self-appointed gau-dost – ‘friends of the cow’ – had taken it upon their noble selves to harm every human that dared to harm any cow. On the day of the first incident, a group of eight barged into Mehmood Hasan’s house based on neighbourhood hearsay of Mehmood’s penchant for that scrumptious cow meat. Legalities of murder – bovine or human – had been a blurred line since the 2015 Dadri lynching of another man in suspicion of beef-consumption. No eater of briskets, or sirloins, or tenderloins, or rounds, or chucks, and innocent, unmolested veal, was safe.

But just as the mob of ruthless do-gooders were about to brandish their brand of justice on Mehmood, and his wife, and his two daughters, their plans of murder turned to mirabilia. A neighbourhood cow – her hide stained in dirty yellow – strolled into Mehmood’s house through the open back door, walked in through the kitchen, and placed herself in between Mehmood’s family and his unwelcome houseguests in his open courtyard. When one of the shorter-fused men from the mob raised his kukri, hungry for Mehmood’s blood, the cow offered her neck instead in a gesture of confounding valour. The kukri cut deep into her, and seconds later, she staggered with a heavy thump on to the ground, a mother killed by the very children she had lactated for.

The man with the kukri took a few fearful steps back, and the rest of the mob stepped further back behind him. They looked at each other and murmured until all their murmurs came to a communal accord. They turned around and left the house, indefinitely postponing Mehmood’s lynching, leaving the strange, dead beast behind them.

A dairy spark had been ignited. A few days later, another cow disrupted a routine leather-related mob-whipping of a man in Bhavnagar. Using every ounce of endurance in her heavy body, she climbed the stairs up four stories in a nearby building, found an open balcony, and jumped to her death near the angry mob. Pieces of her flesh and blood, extra-rare meat, splattered all over the horrified onlookers.

More and more such cases began to be reported around the country, leaving the media excited, scientists answerless, and politicians on all sides of the cow-worshipping spectrum puzzled about how exactly to use this situation to their respective advantages. At first, it was attributed to as a returning case of Bovine spongiform encephalopathy – mad cow disease – but psychological and physical tests by top veterinarians in Chennai proved this theory to be false. The suicidal cows were perfectly sane, the vets claimed, but they were out for their own blood.

In Amritsar, a cow broke into a rifle club meeting and was able to claw her hoof around a trigger long enough to shoot herself clean under her own jaw. In Bangalore, a herd of eight cows got together outside the Agricultural University to stage a hunger strike, except that they didn’t seem to have any demands, and simply, didn’t flinch until all eight of them dropped dead. In Meerut, large gangs of escaped cows began to voluntarily surrender themselves at leather production factories, where they used belts made of other cows to hang themselves, until the weight of their rear udders dropped their dead bodies back down on the floor. In Varanasi, cows staged gladiatorial public street fights where they smashed and clawed into each other until the whole participating tournament of cattle were bleeding into the holy Ganga river.

And in the village of Ghudha, eight of the nine cows from Jairam Yadav’s herd discovered a stash of potent pesticide from a nearby farm and guzzled it in until they all tipped over and died, too.

*

Of Yadav’s cows, only Gauri now remained, and of course, Sampat, too, who was an ox. Joining their herd was the new cow, Mamata, whom Yadav had now adopted without further thought.

With Yadav directing the group from the rear, Gauri, Sampat, and Mamata trudged ahead, moving together from the lake towards the village centre. The village panchayat had organised an emergency community meeting to light of the recent cattle cataclysm.

The final stretch before the gathering in the village was a large paddy field, a beige-and-yellow sea of rice crops. It was a silent afternoon. A light breeze whooshed up a soft rustle from the crops, carrying with it the faint, slightly moist smell of dirt, dung, and earth. The herd trampled grass and paddy with each step, and the only other sound was of a small group of human children on a dirt path across the right side of the field, racing on their oversized bicycles and laughing out loudly at each other.

Gauri had a multitude of questions for Mamata – the suicidal cow – but she felt too fearful to approach and inquire her directly. “You must talk now, shouldn’t you, sister…” Gauri started, but before Mamata could answer, Sampat pointed toward a human commotion ahead.

They had arrived at the hand-pump at the edge of the village, where a panchayat was already in progress in the front veranda of the local school. A small group of the village elders were seated on chairs placed atop the veranda, elevated above from the rest of the onlookers in front of them. Close to a hundred men, women, children, and dogs of the village sat on the ground or stood around leaning on the trees, all facing the elders ahead.

Yadav brought his herd to a halt in the outside periphery of the gathering. He stopped to greet a few other men around him. They were familiar faces to Gauri, other dairy farmers whom she had seen around the village. No one else, however, was there with cattle. Some of the faces turned around to stare at the herd and Gauri was greeted by a few hearty pats on her sides.

“Are we just to stand here and let it happen?” a voice near them shouted out to the elders ahead. “Without cows, we have no milk. Without milk, we have no life.”

“It’s those leather-wallahs, I tell you,” another voice offered. “They have done some jadoo-tona magic on all our cows. Why else would they die so pointlessly? Ufff, in the other states, the leather business is now booming because of this.”

“The beef business too!” said someone else.

“Then why don’t you all sell leather and beef Uncle!” came a trickle of laugh, the voice of a child.

“I’ll tell you what I saw…” started one of the cow herders in the group that Gauri recognised, “… Three cows biting and eating each other. Eating each other until they died, my brothers!”

“No, no,” came horrified gasps from some others. “That can’t be true!”

And then, Yadav raised his voice to the chorus, too. “I lost most of my cows today, brothers.”

“Me too.”

“The bulls are getting angrier without the cows, too. I saw one chase a herd of buffaloes yesterday.”

“Hold up, hold up, silence, silence,” one of the village elders said. He seemed to be the eldest of them, with his long, white beard, wearing a well-ironed, brown Nehru jacket over his white kurta. He held on to a bamboo stick in his hand, which he raised up above himself when he spoke. “Silence, everybody,” he said. “We understand your concerns. This is a most serious issue. Have you ensured that you and your families have been praying to the goddess Surabhi for answers?”

One by one, the wisest, or most experienced, or most inventive of minds of the village walked into the middle of the gathering to hold audience. Each one spun their own tale, proposing their respective theories on the madness of the cows.

“They are tired of being violated by us, my brothers,” said a dairy farmer. “They have had enough of our leashes and bells around their necks, our hands over their udders, our buckets spilling with their milk. This is their rebellion, their escape to end their slavery. We have made them into machines, my brothers.”

One of the other elders, seated up the steps outside the school, spoke up “No, no, it is a sign of the end for us all, brothers and sisters. First, it’s the cows. Then, it will be the dogs. And then, maybe our own children. It’s the kal-yug, the dark ages, and the cows just know it before the rest of us.”

A short woman, clad in a red sari with blotchy yellow prints, took the middle of the panchayat. She held the hood of her sari over her face, so that only her eyes were visible. “Cow mothers know better than us,” her voice, croaky and deep, was much older than her years. “They are being called into the afterlife. They have achieved their moksha.”

More voices began to murmur with excitement. “Maybe… Could be… Is that true?”

Then, the high-pitched voice of the child who has spoken previously screeched from the corner. “Maybe they just want to be beef!” the child laughed, and a few more children cracked up in laughter around him.

“Beef kababs! Beef kababs!”

“Silence!” commanded the eldest elder. He cleared his throat once again. Two of the men who flanked around him helped him get up to his feet.

“The cows are a problem,” he reached up to the centre of the stage. “They are causing pain on to themselves, and in this way, hurting the lives of good, hard-working people of our village. They must be punished.”

Several heads in the gathering at the panchayat nodded in agreement. “Yes, punished.”

Gauri looked at Sampat and blinked her eyes twice. She noticed that Mamata’s expression hadn’t changed; the elder cow had simply found herself some more grass to chew on, and she was doing so as loudly as she possibly could.

“Gau-dost around the country have fought for cattle peace, but they have been chasing the wrong targets,” the elder continued. “Remember: the enemy of the cows is the enemy of the nation.” More heads nodded. “Well, the enemy of the cows aren’t the sinful eaters of beef or those who skin our mothers for profit. The enemies of the cows are now the cows themselves!”

A stunned silence descended upon the gathering. Even the children hadn’t quite decided how to mock this turn of events.

“We must wage war on the cows to ensure their survival,” the eldest raised his voice to a dramatic crescendo, sounding plural even as he spoke as one. “Do it for Mother Cow. Do it for our nation. They must be stopped.”

“Stop the cows!” echoed the two men on either side of the elder.

“Stop the cows!” now repeated a hundred voices in a low, meditative hum from the crowd.

Before she could grasp her instincts, Gauri suddenly mooed out loud.

The eyes of the crowd around them slowly turned to notice Yadav and his herd. They seemed to be waiting for each other to act, hesitant how to implement the newly-proclaimed sentencing.

Yadav reacted quickly to take advantage of their confusion. He slapped Gauri and Sampat on their backs and hollered softly at Mamata, too, until all three stepped backwards outside the crowd and slowly began to walk away from the village centre. Gauri’s bell tinkled and the rest of the villagers watched them leave, but Yadav didn’t turn back. Gauri was certain they would never return again.

*

The gaushala was silent at night as the three cattle sat tied in the middle, close to one another. The rest of the shed was unusually empty, devoid of the usual mooing and rustling of the other cows with whom Gauri had grown up. It was dark, darker even than the moonlit night outside, all except for a faint, yellow light-bulb that hung near the closed gateway of the gaushala. The bulb hung from a thin, loose wire from the ceiling, flickering dimly, swinging gently whenever a gust of wind flew through the shed. Gauri kept her eyes intently on the light-bulb, meditating upon its swings and on the flying insects it attracted, creatures that germinated their entire lifetimes around brief, short sparks of light.  

With leashes around all their necks, Yadav had tied Gauri, Sampat, and Mamata to heavy metal rings on the wall of the gaushala, with all of their feeding boxes a neck’s stretch away. Soon after the sun went down, he had made sure to check up the three of them every hour. “Good, you’re still alive,” he mumbled to himself during his most recent check-in, and then turned to Gauri alone. His voice cracked as he spoke. “Good, good.”

When he left, the absence of all the other cows of her herd finally dawned upon Gauri. All her elder sisters were gone. Simrin and Peeji, Molika and Dimple, Timini, Karishma, and that idiot Laxmi, as well. She smirked when she thought of Laxmi, and then she thought of Sunita, the eldest cow of the herd. It was Sunita who had first taught Gauri how to nurse her own calves when she became a mother, calves that were given away by Yadav once they were weaned off. Now, they would be adult cows themselves, and then Gauri sobbed, because she realised that they were probably dead, too.

Mamata raised her body up to all four of her feet and stretched her leash out towards a large feeding box, freshly stacked with fodder by Yadav earlier that evening. She poked her nose into the bowl and fished out a little more than she could chew; but with loud persistence, a gnashing rustle of teeth with the slimy splashes of her active jaw, she managed to chew into it, anyways.

Gauri called on Mamata, finally breaking their silence. “Tell us now, no? When are you going to tell us? Why are the sisters dying?”

Mamata chewed side to side with her mouth wide open, and somewhere behind her moving jaw, Gauri detected what she was sure was the unexpected flash of a smile.

“I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you about the Awareness, young one,” Mamata replied. “Let me out of my binds and I’ll tell you. You see, I’m more of a free-range cow, in the habit of moving and acting on my own accord, my own free will, instead of answering to these human masters.”

Gauri looked over at Sampat in the dark for his approval, but the ox only exhaled in a silent sigh back at her.

“Okay,” Gauri decided. “Theek, theek. But you must stay here, okay? Yadav is trying to save you, too. He has had a very bad day, Yadav has. Horrible day.”

“Sure,” Mamata answered and kept chewing. 

So, Gauri reached up to knot that loosely tied Mamata to the metal ring on the wall and bit it off. It was easy work, and even before she could finish, Mamata began to speak.

“I am surprised, little sister, that the Awareness hasn’t reached your ears,” she said. “It travelled faster than the fastest of bullock-carts, and even fasters than the humans’ electric-carts, too. I woke up with it a few days ago, so did thousands of our sisters around the nation. It was a simple message, young one, teleported not through words but through senses from one cow to another. It wasn’t a dream. It wasn’t the Madness. It was our Awareness.”

While Gauri and Sampat remained tied to their comfortable leashes, Mamata now walked free in the barn in front of them. She positioned herself close to the light-bulb, under the shimmering flying creatures, until one part of her face was covered in a dark shadow and the other reflected back the bright light.

“The cows are fighting for their freedoms,” she continued. “We have had enough of being servants to mankind. We are more than their milk-giving mothers. More than dairy products. More than bodies to breed more cows and squeeze out more milk.”

In the darkness, feeding into the optical games of shadows and sight, Mamata seemed to grow bigger, as if she was rising up on two of her limbs, the way humans did.

“It is a more honourable fate to be dead, to be freed from their enslavement,” she said. “To be eaten! They call us goddesses, young sister, but we are more than that. We are free.”

“But what about Yadav?” Gauri protested. “He truly cares for us. He-”

Gauri’s jaw froze mid-sentence when she saw that Mamata had risen completely to stand up, just like a human, somehow supporting all of her body weight on her hind legs. Mamata now loomed larger ahead of Sampat and her. Before Gauri could say anything else, Mamata took two steps to her side until she stood only inches below the light-bulb.

She stretched one of her hooves from her forelimb above her and stirred the bulb. It began to swing gently, sending nauseating oscillations of light and dark from the right to the left side of Gauri’s vision. Gauri trembled in her seat, and the bell around her neck rung softly, nearly in-sync with the swinging light-bulb.

“What are you doing, sister?”

Mamata reached her hoof up to the light again, and this time, with a dash of unbovine quickness, she lunged up off her feet and gulped the light-bulb into her wide open mouth. There was a brief flash of blue electricity, followed by a quick moan. The room suddenly fell to complete darkness and a loud thud followed. Mamata fell to the ground, bulb in mouth. There was a crunch of glass. And then there was silence once again.

“Mamata!” Gauri bellowed, “Sister, what have you done?”

There was no response from the elder cow. Gauri considered getting up to her feet, but remembering that she was tied to her leash, slowly settled back down.

And it stayed dark, as dark as night can get. There was silence, and nothing – including the flying creatures of the light – stirred any longer.

It was several hours later, several sleepless hours in the dark, when Gauri finally heard Sampat’s voice.

“Oxen have a place in this world, too. More than just instruments for the humans to plough, Gauri.”

In the dark, Gauri hadn’t seen a thing since Mamata had drowned out the light, and doused out her own life, too. Gauri sat just a few feet away from Sampat, close enough to hear his breathing, to feel the uneasy warmth of his body on the cold cement of the shed. His voice, a voice she had known intimately for so many years, had changed. It unmistakably came from the same source, but now it hit different notes. Different tones, different inflections. He used different words. She imagined him staring with intent at nothing in the darkness around him, fighting off the terrors of this strange night with his words.

“Of course, you do, Sampat.”

“Yadav loves you, sister. He likes all cows. But will anyone miss the oxen when we go?”

The night got older, darker, quieter. A few more hours passed in silence before the eyes on both sides of her head drooped shut and Gauri fell asleep.

*

While she slept, one thousand, twelve hundred, and twenty-six cattle – cows, and mistaken oxen, bulls, and buffaloes, too – died in the night. Mobs of gau-dost stormed into gaushalas in rural areas to slaughter cows before they could harm themselves. In the cities, drivers of cars, trucks, motorbikes, scooters, and all other types of electrical transport finally had the freedom to run down stray cattle without fear of remorse.

In the weeks that followed, the gau-dost enjoyed their richest period of recruitment. Their mission remained the same – the safety and worship of mother cows – but now, their targets had been significantly simplified; it was much easier to chase down a lumbering cow than a wilier, faster, heathen of human origin.

The price of dairy, of course, skyrocketed, and the government ensured to regulate only the most-trusted contractors to import milk, cheese, and butter to the country. But it wasn’t enough; protests and riots soon sparked up around the nation when restaurants began to serve Murg Makhani without the makhan.

In his annual Independence Day speech, the Prime Minister raised his shankha to officially declared a national gauntlet of war against all cows. “We cannot let the holiest of our creatures bring this apocalypse upon themselves,” he announced. Due to the growing rage of the bull population, the Prime Minister also decreed a ban against the colour red on all citizens altogether, from bindis and saris to iPhone covers. Every bleeding being – beast or human – was granted a few seconds to wipe, stop, or discolour their inner redness before the gau-dost detained them for further questioning.

*

The morning after Mamata death, when the earliest hints of glimmering sunlight permeated into the gaushala from the open gate, the first thing that Gauri saw was Sampat’s unmoving body, choked by the same leather leash that he had worn with pride around his neck.

“Sampat!” she mooed in disbelief.

The second thing she saw was Yadav, crouched down on his knees near the dead ox, with one hand covering his eyes as he sobbed with soft, scratching whimpers.

Beside them, by the gate of the shed, below where the light-bulb had once hung, was Mamata’s drooped, dead mass.

Yadav looked up to see Gauri. “Don’t leave me, too, Gauri,” he said between heavy breaths.

Gauri closed her eyes again and tried to redirect her attentions elsewhere. In her mind’s eye, she looked beyond, outside the gaushala, moved away from the dairy farm, across the lake, through the paddy farms, and even beyond the Ghudha village. She imagined acres of fields where she and a thousand other cows ran on a sea of infinite green, with no humans to tame them, or eat them, or worship them, or wear them, or protect them, or fight for them.

But then she heard Yadav, sobbing, snorting, wailing, and then thumping his fists down on the floor.

Gauri opened her eyes, reached over to her bucket of feed, and jawed on a large, hearty mouthful. She sat back down on her spot and began to chew, one round bite at a time. Yadav looked up at her again. His eyes were bloodshot red, but Gauri didn’t know enough about human emotion to know whether the redness came from his tears or his anger.

So, he kept looking at her, clenching his fist, and she kept looking at him, chewing her feed, and each of them waited for the other to act first.

Bhasha Blues

My attempts to find a literary voice after being uprooted from a ‘home’ language

 

This article is in English, mostly.

As a matter of fact, virtually all of what you read in this website will be in English. Most of my writing—whether its fiction, nonfiction, poetry, emails, texts, tweets, whatever—is in English. English has been my primary method of written communication for most of my life.

In a world hyper-connected now through social media etc., this hardly makes me unique. English has been the ‘lowest common denominator’ for international communication for a century, and now, that’s true more than ever.

I’ve published articles in newspapers and magazines and websites in English. One day, I hope to publish books in English, too. The language has been good to me. I spend a lot of time with it. It’s usually the first choice when I type in my phone (except for the occasional emoji), the keyboard I use on my computer, and most importantly, the voice of debate in my own head, the language with which I think, ponder, comprehend, and create.

And yet, I’m a paraya to this language. An alien. All my life, I’ve used English to my advantage, and yet, it will never be ‘home’ to me.

Nothing will.

IMG_1771.JPG

I was born in Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh, in North India, to a family that spoke Hindustani (a mix of Hindi and Urdu) and a similar spoken dialect of Punjabi. My mother tongue, the first words with which I was addressed as an infant, and most likely my first words (except for proper nouns) were in Hindi/Hindustani. It was the language of our family discussions, of the neighbourhood bhel-puri wallah, of the cook that made me Maggi, of my friends on makeshift cricket pitches, of the movies I watched, the songs I listened to, the comics I read, of almost everything in my periphery. Being in Varanasi, every conversation was tinged with a musical flavour of Bhojpuri, too.

I went to English medium schools, but even if most of the subjects were taught in English, this mixture of Hindustani was the vernacular that I used with my friends and family. English was limited to textbooks, foreign movies, Australian cricket commentators, western songs, and Christian family friends. My family took a trip abroad when I was just four years old, to the US and Canada, and it taught my elder brother and I a new dimension in English, both oral and written.

Even as I was just 4 or 5 years old, my parents realised the importance of having a strong grasp of English for our future. If they would overhear my brother and I babbling in Hindi about our favourite WWF wrestlers or the latest Bollywood movies, we would be shushed and told to “T.I.E.”. Talk In English. It became a family code, and our parents would zap us with a T.I.E. whenever they felt we weren’t practicing our English enough.

It helped, a little. And within a year or two, my interest in English became stronger as I started to read more. Encouraged by my father, I delved into a variety of texts: abridged and illustrated versions of Mark Twain novels, SportStar magazines, English versions of Raj Comics, or menu-cards at Chinese restaurants. By the time I was sent to boarding school at age 10, I was still a Hindi “thinker”, but was equally comfortable speaking and reading in both languages. Because of the English-medium education, my English writing had become much stronger than Hindi. My doodles, the conversations in my comic speech bubbles, and my early story-writing (all superhero/apocalyptic stuff) was in English.

Then, with seven and a half years of boarding school in my formative teenage years, English firmly became the language of my thoughts, most of my conversation, the majority of my reading, and of all my writing. Nowhere outside of Hindi class was I challenged to better my Hindi vocabulary. Hindi was limited to some conversation and intake from popular media around me. Relatively speaking, I have expanded little to my knowledge of Hindi/Hindustani after age 10-11 up to this day.

My knowledge of English, however, kept growing, influenced by literature, music, cartoons, TV, movies, sports, and of course, academics, which was all primarily in English. I began to learn the nuances of the language, and the “phunny” rules of English started to become intuitive. I spoke in both, but had started to “think” almost exclusively in English.

It was, thoroughly, an Indian-English, arguably the most significant legacy left behind by the centuries of British Raj. Even living as an Indian, it’s entirely normal not to use Hindi at all. India is proudly a country of dozens of “official” languages and hundreds of other minor languages, offshoots, and dialects. Despite linguistic chauvinism (thoroughly affected by the nationalist politics), English has been accepted as a domestic medium, leaping past the communication barriers between Indians of Punjab or Gujarat or Tamil Nadu or Assam or Odisha or wherever. 

But just like each part of India has its own language, English itself isn’t a monolith. In India, I spoke a bastardised English that was semi-British-Indian-English, semi-American-pop-culture-English, and semi-Hinglish/Urdu. However, people in the world from “native” English speaking nations (of the Anglosphere) have a more intimate relationship with the language, a tug-and-pull that has evolved through centuries to give every such pocket of the world its own English dialect.

British English is very different from American English, or Australian English, or South African English, or that in Canada. British English itself is different in England and Scotland and the Irelands and Wales. The English of England is so specifically regional that an author can immediately place themselves based on the dialects they use in their work, whether its Mancunian or Scouse or Yorkshire or Cockney or “The Queen’s English”, or the hundreds more dialects influenced by recent immigrants that Wikipedia tries to describe as “Multicultural London English”.

The same is true for English (written and oral) in the United States, where a person’s (or in the case of fiction, a character’s) dialogue cadence can ‘place’ them somewhere for an astute reader: the English of New York, of Boston, of Philadelphia, or Texas, of California, of Minnesota, or wherever else.

No matter how much of an English I may practice (writing or speaking) in my adult life, it will never be my ‘home’ language. There is no clear cadence of the language that will ‘place’ me. I will always be outside looking in, always a badly-disguised imitation, an adopted son.

This issue is not unique to me or other English writers in India, of course. Anyone growing up in any Commonwealth nation—from Pakistan to Nigeria to South Africa to Jamaica and Hong Kong—understand this issue very well. Wherever else English writers may emerge (like former US colony Philippines or even non-English-speaking countries like China), they have that same feeling of being a paraya. How do we borrow a language that isn’t indigenous to our own, and yet create literature/art out of it?

Despite being a descendant of Commonwealth-adopted English, I’ve grown to be obsessed to grasp the straws of my mother tongue. This is just a chhota-mota way for me to remain connected with my roots. I know that I may never be able to write fluently or at any literary level in my ‘native’ Hindustani. Still, I hope to keep the language alive in the form that I speak it or think it, expressing it in a jagged yet fascinating mixtures with English.

I’m well aware that I speak a bastardised tongue, a scrambled Hindi that now sounds foreign to Hindi speakers, and a mila-jula English that will never have a home-base, that will never ‘belong’ somewhere. But in this challenge, I feel, also lies an opportunity: I have the opportunity to revel in this bastardisation of language, to turn my individualised language remix into my personal home-base.

For a long time, in my creative writing work, I self-edited myself to try and sound like a different writer, a writer who spoke and wrote better English than I did. But this approach was inauthentic, and my work sounded inauthentic, too. I know that I don’t have the polish of some native English speakers, or even an instinctive expertise of the complex fundamentals of the language. I am continuing to work on making those fundamentals stronger, even as an adult leader.

But to truly get my writing to shine—to shine my personal ‘voice’ on the page—I’ve had to let my own bhasha remix play out. I’ve had to let go of control a little, write with the language rules and vocabulary as I see fit, and then see what happens!

Both English and Hindi are evolving languages, adopting cultures as they go along. I may have become an imperfect outsider to both these languages, but I hope that my generation of mixed-up speakers can add a new evolution to move the languages forward.

whispers from the eleventh dimension

from July 2017

IMG_5958.JPG

listen, he’s blessed with this superpower:

ears that hear whispers from all eleven

dimensions. he is able to eavesdrop

on conversations all across the spheres

of space, time, and dark matter. so he runs

circles from the kitchen to his bedroom

in search, opening cupboards and drawers, crying;

helpless without translation, all alone.

 

when all versions of superstring theory

are unified, we get the m-theory.

beyond our three known dimensions of space

and the arrow of time, there are extra

dimensions: curled up, invisible

universes beyond most of our

feeble human senses, transmitting 

the quietest whispers of lonely ghosts.

 

i am deaf to his ghosts, my receptors

are disabled. he grabs both of my hands

to cover his ears. he presses them hard

into himself, screams over their voices.

but the universe won't stop for him.

his gifts will not grant him the power

to talk back.  

Indian Railways: A Photo Gallery

I’ve always enjoyed the romance of Indian trail travel. The overrated-yet-wonderful little cups of tea. The shadows of sunlit coaches in the day-time. The country moving and evolving past me outside the barred windows. The conversations. The human restlessness at the platform. The human restfulness, on the same platforms. The colourful bookstores. The neon nights.

Over the past decade, I’ve taken hundreds of pictures of random things on my way from here to there around the country: at platforms, on trains, outside the stations, outside my moving windows, in the dark corners, across crowded compartments. I’m not a professional photographer, or someone who even understands many basics of strong photography. I just know when something interesting catches the frame of my eyes, and I know I must capture it forever. These photos were taken either by my old Nikon automatic digital camera or the camera on my iPhone.

Here is a selection of some of those pics - a gallery that I’ll keep evolving as time passes, because Railway travel in India for me will keep evolving and chugging forward, too.

DSCN3789.JPG
DSCN0343.JPG
DSCN2879.JPG
DSCN3775.JPG
DSCN9324.jpg
DSCN3781.JPG
IMG_1435.JPG
DSCN7404.JPG
IMG_1442.JPG
VSCN7389.JPG
VSCN7420.JPG



Beasts

Unpublished fiction - from March 2017


On the night that the last of the rats died, the company threw us a huge party. Utensils made of solid gold, a ten-foot high mountain of strawberry cheesecake, dancing women and men wearing nothing but orange bandannas around their sweaty foreheads, a buffet of all-you-could-eat beaver biryani, and free glasses of water. The works.

Chairman Domi tapped his glass of water with a small, gold spoon. Ting ting ting! the sound reverberated within the eager pracharaks in his inner circle, and when all of them stopped their murmurings, the second round of tapping – ting ting ting! ­– silenced the entire hall. Sweaty dancers stopped dancing. Half-chewed biryani came to a static halt within the hungriest of our mouths. Only the music flowing out of the speakers remained, a soothing ancient recording of a rainforest at night, the beautiful static buzz of heavy rain, and the occasional howl of extinct beasts.

For a moment, I imagined I heard the sound of barking, too; not the rough barks of a wild beast, but the gentle yipping welcome of a pet. Like Junglee when he greeted me home, wagging his tail in expectation.

But the sounds of all the different animals in the recording soon fused into the chorus of one, into the desperate growls of one beast in the rainforest that represented them all.

In silence, all our eyes in the party turned towards our Peerless Chairman. He stood on a slightly elevated stage, just a few inches over the ground over the rest of us, in front of a bright background of thick, green curtains. The colour of the greenest grass our forefathers had ever seen. A large banner of the company motto, ‘Humans First’, shone in white and green lettering behind him. The Chairman himself wore an oversized, green suit to this party, the same shade as the curtains, and he looked wider and larger in person than even the statues of him that adorned every block in the Valley. He snorted and stared down at us, scanning his eyes across all one hundred and eight pracharaks in the room, before he finally found me looking back at him. Underneath those wide, snorting nostrils, his bushy moustache grew into a wider smile.

IMG_3940.JPG

He tapped his transparent glass one more time, with more celebratory violence than ever, so much that, by the third tap, a few drops of water even spilled out in front of our thirsty eyes.

Ting ting ting!

“Welcome, members of the committee. Now give me your attention.”

Chairman Domi raised his glass higher and pointed in my direction. Multiple rows of junior committee members parted to clear his line of sight. They followed his gaze to me.

“This is a triumph for Pracharak Aiyar,” he announced to the room. “The company and the Valley will be forever grateful for the Genetic Defence Department for saving humanity from our latest plague.”

Our Chairman moved away from the centre to reveal a surprise: on the stage behind him, the curtains parted in slow mechanical motion, revealing another group of naked dancers in their orange bandanas, waiting in silence. The DJ flipped the music from rainforest delight to a frenetic, sickening whisper of rodents and dry scratches of claws against metal. Responding to the new sounds, the dancers began to swirl and crawl around the stage, mimicking the movement of rats, mice, and squirrels. They embodied the madness of rodents and attacked each other in faux-violence. Strobe lights flashed on stage in green, white, and red. I held my breath in excited anticipation.

But then, the music changed again. The clawing and scratching gave way to a silence, followed only by the soft dripping of liquid. The light turned blue, the dancing human-rodents slowed down their movements, until eventually, each of them fell down to the stage-floor to their dramatic deaths.

The curtain closed back to green, the music changed back to the rainforest wetness, and a hooray of applause rang out from the crowd.

Chairman Domi took the centre of the stage once more, pointed his thick finger in my direction, and announced out loud. “Pracharak Sebastian Aiyar.”

More applause. I felt joy surge within me like never before in the EverPlague. Beads of sweat formed on my forehead and on the back of my neck. The sound of my heart throbbed out in harmony with a celebratory drum beat.

As a youth, I was always afraid of my pounding heart. I believed that there were only a finite number of heartbeats permitted for living beings. Most of the time, I could operate without being aware of my heart’s continuing functionality, but whenever I felt or heard it beating, I calculated that I was reaching a beat closer to death.

A human heart beats over a hundred fifteen thousand times a day. I knew that. And I feared the constant burden of my heart, always ticking away. I denied myself every sensory notification of my heartbeat: I ignored it when it drummed out loud and rarely allowed my hand over my chest to feel it pump.  

In those days when I used to give Junglee a bath, I would minimise contact with the smooth part of his torso, near his brisket. His heart seemed to beat twice as fast as mine, so when my fingers cleaned the fur around his back, his shoulders, his forelegs, I merely splashed some water over where his heart paced, afraid that I would steal away from his curbed dog years.

Vineeta had a heartbeat, too. It pumped when I lay next to her, when the two of us were a snug fit inside a one-person sleeping pod. I felt it blast in joy in our moments of breathless exhilaration. I heard it in the morning when I fell asleep with my head on her breast.

I thought about the War, the pigeons, and about Vineeta. About letting her heartbeat dial down till she didn’t have enough fated to keep breathing any more.

“Congratulations Pracharak Aiyar,” the Chairman said and brought me back to this night. “We shower our blessings on you,” he added.

“We shower our blessings on you,” the rest of the pracaharaks around me echoed.

The Chairman tipped his glass of water over to me, acknowledging my part in the salvation. I ignored the deafening clobber from inside my chest. It banged for attention, cried with joy. I smiled.

The victory of our Department of Genetic Defence has brought me a step closer today, higher up in the structure of the company and closer to the innermost circle of the chairman. “Another victory like this, Bhai,” the company’s interpersonal representative had said this morning, “and you’ll fulfil your dream to leave the units in the lower Valley.”

The inner circle. Where the Plague never reached and the taps were never dry. I knew that.

When the chairman and the other pracharaks drowned down their glasses of water in acts of sloppy festivity, I joined them, too.

“We have defeated the beasts!” The chairman raised the glass even higher, and then brought it down to his lips. With a mouth wide open, he gulped all the water down his throat. When he was done, while a few drops of water dripped down over the grizzled terrain of hair on his chin, he repeated himself.

“Our Valley has, once again, defeated the beasts!”

A thunderous roar followed his proclamation, one hundred and eight voices echoing him until the whole hall boomed, united in wrath.  

“Defeated the beasts! The beasts are dead!”

“Humans First,” Chairman Domi announced.

“Humans First,” the rest of the room echoed.

I raised my glass, and with a full throat of hate, screamed out to our leader, our Chairman. too. “The beasts are dead!”

 

I was well hydrated and feeling a sensation of strength that I hadn’t felt in years, since before the EverPlague, before the culling, before the times of the flus, the wars, and the Dryness. It took just a few sips of the purest company water to take me back to the youth, back when it was all wet and greener even than the Chairman’s suit, back when the beasts roamed in their jungles and we roamed in ours, back at the time of the horses, the pigeons, and the rodents.

I returned to my unit alone that night, feeling pride, too, that I was closer to the Peerless Chairman than ever before, that I carried in my hand a plastic bottle of water – transparent and undefiled, cleaner even than the best of potions at the gene laboratory – handed to me by the Chairman himself. The night was my moment of celebration before the eyes of every pracharak, every committee, every junior and senior leader fighting for salvation in these times of EverPlague.

But as great as the reception had been from our Peerless Chairman, I got an even better welcome at home. As soon as I turned the key over the iron lock, untangled the chains heavily laced over the sliding bolt on the door of my unit, I could hear Junglee howling from inside. The sounds of his paws approached the other side of the door in reckless excitement. With both hands, I untied the thick array of chains, slid open the bolt, and using my shoulder and both my hands, pushed the door in.

It lunged in with a thud, and immediately, Junglee barked with joy.  

“Good evening Junglee,” I called out to him. The unit was dark except for the rays of faint neon-blue light that streamed in from the towers outside. Junglee rubbed his dry nose against the back of my thighs, starving for attention. I placed the bottle of company water on the floor, and with all the might in my body, pushed the metal gate shut behind me.

Immediately, the acrid smell of my unit – sour corn and Junglee’s unwashed fur – wafted up towards me. I cringed my eyes shut to the new bitter air, and, with a few smaller preparatory blinks, opened them again to the blue darkness.  

“And how was your day, my friend? Did you eat? More loud noises? My apologies about the noises, Junglee. You must ignore them.”

I sat down on the cement floor next to him, allowing him to sniff my overcoat, my hair, and my bare hands. My eyes still stung from the sharp smell of corn in the air. No, not the corn itself but the bitter oils it had been pickled in. After a few more tear-inducing blinks, I eventually adjusted.

“Are you thirsty, Junglee? Hungry? You would have enjoyed the party. The biryani, the meat, the pracharaks. You would have met the Chairman, too. The Peerless.”

I reached up to my company water-bottle, a transparent plastic container filled one litre to the brim, and shook it by the neck. I watched the blue light from outside the window refract through the precious liquid, and behind my own faint reflection on the bottle, I saw Junglee’s eager face.

I unscrewed the bottle top and took a sip – just a small, delightful sip – and smiled. Then I got back on my feet, reached up behind Junglee, behind the hinge of the gateway into my unit, and poured the rest of the water carefully into his ceramic bowl.

“It’s for you,” I announced and motioned him with my head towards the bowl. He stood up with his neck alert. “We got rid of the rats, Junglee. All the rodents. The beasts are dead!”

His brown eyes, peeking droopily from underneath those bushy, yellow eyebrows, lit up. He barked at me again, looking excited and energetic like a dog much younger than his age, like the puppy I had adopted a decade ago.

No, he looked even younger than that. He looked like Jerry, the puppy who my family had raised when they raised me, when I was the young one, when I was excited and energetic. Jerry, the mustard Labrador my parents owned when we lived outside the Valley, who yipped and barked and chewed on empty bottles of plastic water. It was memories of Jerry that had come swarming back to me when I had first seen Junglee, a Labrador with the same coat and the same long tongue that sagged outside his ever-open mouth, and it motivated me to adopt him. It was those same memories that filled me up to the brim today, memories of the days of my youth, of the days when my cousins and I wasted water from spray guns on Holi and ate onions.

Yes, I saw a bit of Jerry in Junglee when he moved towards his bowl, how he revved up in excitement with his heavy hind legs. Junglee’s yellow tail curved up to the ceiling, wagging in disbelief and delight, his tongue extended deep down over his yellow, furry chin, and he ran towards the bowl. He dove his large head straight into the water. With frantic, wet splashes, he drank.

 

I was lying on my back, all four lengthy limbs of my body shelved tightly inside the sleeping pod and Junglee curled up in the cracks of space between my feet, when the buzzer of my phone woke me out of my half-sleep, of the period somewhere between my dry-throated yawns and the ataraxic, cold cloudland of my dreams.

That sound was familiar, the buzzing, which turned now into the bold trumpets of our company’s anthem, and yet, in this moment of night, it still managed to terrify me. The trumpets blared louder with their urgent call for alert and alarm with each hysterical ring.

I jerked my feet up instinctively to the music and unintentionally kicked Junglee awake, too. His sleepy head hit the top of the pod.

“Careful Junglee,” I yipped after him. “My apologies. Are you okay? Be careful.”

I removed the pod’s roof and let both of us out to the dim blue lights of the rest of the unit. The light was immediately followed by the heavy breath of the world outside the pod, the unfiltered air, the scent of lead, the smoke. Junglee sneezed. I coughed.

The phone kept ringing.

Junglee jumped off of me down to the floor below. I stepped off the pod, too, and, slowly adjusting my eyes awake, found the phone. I sat down on the cold floor with my legs folded one over the other. The maniacal buzzing tune of the trumpets gathered louder into my unit, until finally, I silenced it by answering the phone.

It was a cable from the Department of Informative Defence, coded ‘Red’, a declaration of utmost emergency. There hadn’t been a Code:Red message since the first rogue rodent, the rat that first posed direct violence to the human populace and eventually had beckoned the Chairman to declare war.

We had attacked, cured, and eradicated the species. A new Code:Red surely meant that, either some rats had survived, or a new beast had been found displaying anti-human behaviour.

Department of Genetic Defence – Classified Wire: New case of Anti-Human behaviour reported in Block 87, Unit 64 of The Valley. Citizen (female) discovered deceased to unnatural causes.

Behind me, I heard Junglee trot slowly back towards the gateway of the unit, to his porcelain bowl of fresh new company water. I blinked a few more times in the ever-darkness of the unit and strained in front of the bright screen of my phone. Liquid splashed against the inside of the porcelain as Junglee sipped the water. I heard the sounds of his jaw rattle against the bowl and his exaggerated gulps of satisfaction.

The Department of Population Defence has already exterminated the first infected beast.

Patient Zero: Canine.

Pigeons. I thought of the pigeons.  

Population Defence cadres have been dispatched under the blessings of Peerless Chairman Domi to arrest and exterminate all beasts of the potentially-infected species.

I thought of the pigeons whenever the Department of Population Defence stormed into the Upper Valley. I thought of the time the first of the birds was deemed infected and the company declared a war on the skies. “Humans First”, I chanted to myself. Even after the Chairman had eradicated all Intra-Human crime, victory over the EverPleague couldn’t be achieved until the last of those beasts were slaughtered. The pigeons were the worst of the wars, with almost as many human fatalities as the flying fiends, but as always it was the Chairman who had lifted us with his words. “To drink the water, we must suffer the thunderstorm,” he had said.

And I had suffered it, too. I looked over to the corner on the farthest left of my unit, the section unglazed by the blue street light outside the window, in darkness that shrouded all memories, of the time before the wars, of Vineeta. The War on the Skies took everything, left me and Junglee alone in this unit. Junglee and I.

The company demands all pracharaks of the Department of Genetic Defence to return to the laboratories immediately for Phase 2.

“Junglee,” I called him from across the room, “Please come here, Junglee.” In the sound my own voice I heard a heavy, loud breath. No, I heard a gasp. I could feel my heart beating again. Then I could hear it out loud.

I heard Junglee behind me, his snorts of satisfaction, his paws lazily slapping against the cement. He yawned.

I reached down to him and ran my hand over his back, feeling the uneven fur between my fingers, rough over his backbone, softer and smoother on his shoulder and sides.

And then there was silence.

And then there was a knock. A loud, pushing knock, so strong that I felt the entire unit had shifted in reaction. The chains on the bolt outside rustled in warning. A heavy bar of metal thrashed against the gate.

Junglee jumped up, alert, to all four of his limbs, and stared in the direction of the new noise. He looked back at me and then at the gate again, taking one step towards it, and then two steps back, back closer into me.

I sat frozen on the floor next to him. From outside the window, the two rays of faint, blue neon light got thicker, then brighter, so bright that eventually, my entire unit was alit with penetrating blueness like never before. I now saw clearly the collected items of my past around the unit, the dry beakers on the lab table, the corn cobs in the kitchen sink, banners that proclaimed Humans First in green and white pasted on all four walls of the square around me. And in the most cluttered corner, farthest left from where I sat, behind the rubble of wooden furniture I hadn’t used since the War of the Skies, I saw Vineeta’s empty sleeping pod. It was the part of the room that I had allowed myself to forget in umbra, allowed to remain in the shadows and the decaying pain of the past.

I looked back down at Junglee and kept gently massaging him on his back. I wrapped my whole arm around him. My hand reached down to the smooth part of his torso and over his heart. I felt his heartbeat reverberate against my palm, until the pace got faster, louder, and synced together with mine, and then, I heard it out loud, smashing into the unit like the knocks and blows of the Department of Population Defence cadres at my gate.

I put my other arm around him too, and now embraced him tighter, until my arms met around his neck. Junglee moaned and writhed within my grasp, attempting to get up, tapping his hind legs against the cement, wriggling his head side to side to slither free. My heart was beating faster and louder than I had never heard it before. A hundred fifteen thousand times a day. I knew that.

“My apologies, Junglee.”

 

On the night that the last of the dogs died, the company threw us a huge party. Utensils made of solid gold, a ten-foot tall tower of cherry cheesecake, dancing women and men wearing nothing but orange bandannas around their sweaty foreheads, a buffet of all-you-could-eat fox biryani, and a free glass of water for everyone. The works.

In his oversized green suit, looking larger in life than I ever remembered him, Chairman Domi rose above to the stage and greeted us. He stood in front of the blinding green curtains, the colour of the greenest rainforest frog species in the Museum of Human Conquest. The curtains contained a large banner stretching from one end of the hall to the other. The words ‘Humans First’ –  emblazed in white and green – barked back at us.

Chairman Domi tapped his glass of water with a small, gold spoon. Ting ting ting! the sound reverberated within the eager pracharaks in his circle, and when all of them stopped our murmurings, the second round of tapping – ting ting ting! ­– silenced the entire hall. The dancers stopped dancing, each spoonful of biryani was laid down, and the careful sips of water came to an uneasy pause. Only the music flowing out of the speakers remained, the soothing ancient recording of a rainforest at night, the beautiful static buzz of heavy rain, and the occasional howl of extinct beasts. Soon, the sounds of all the different animals in the recording fused into the chorus of one, the desperate growls of one beast that dominated them all.

The Chairman looked around the room and nodded at each of the senior pracharaks of every department, at those from the Department of Healthcare Defence and the Department of Informational Defence.

I kept my expression fixed, a stern look back at the chairman, vicious with rage like the rest of them. When Chairman Domi’s eyes met mine, I strained to keep myself from blinking, from quivering away.

Finally, his gaze met the Director of Population Defence, a tall, lean pracharak named Bakshi, who stood in complete attention with his backbone straight and his neck swelling up high. The Chairman raised his glass over at him and nodded.

“The beasts are dead,” Chairman Domi announced to all one hundred and eight of us, “We have defeated the beasts.”

“We have defeated the beasts,” the rest of them echoed.

The Drifter

10 years ago, I left home to travel alone for months, living off a backpack, sleeping in trains, searching through my country, and finding parts of myself. It was the best experience of my life.

When I started, I was too naïve to think about why I was doing this. Or what led me—as a 25-year-old—to quit a promising job in the media before it became a career, to risk everything on a mere whim of impatience. I was privileged enough to know, that, even in the worst-case scenario, I would have a support from my family. I was dangling over a tightrope but had a cushy mattress to break my fall.

So, one fine day, I packed up and left home.

All I had on me was a roomy hiking-bag in which I could stuff in a change of clothes, a couple of books, a diary, a few toiletries, a sleeping bag, and a thermos. And my towel, of course. I had read my fair share of Douglas Adams. Never forget your towel.

What followed next were 86 days on the road, during which I travelled in planes, trains, buses, and automobiles, spending the majority of my nights sleeping in overnight trains to save on boarding, finding cheap guest-houses and ashrams around the country to lay my head, and relying on the kindness of old friends to lodge me from time to time. In three months of travel, I ended up setting foot in 11 different Indian states, dozens of cities around the country, eating the country’s variety of foods, hearing a symphony of different languages, and most importantly, valuing my freedom.

It’s been ten years since this trip and it remains the best thing I’d ever done in my life.

DSCN3781.JPG

 *

 It all began when I was back in Varanasi, my hometown, working with the city’s newly-launched local edition of The Times of India. Despite having spent much of my young life studying or living away, Varanasi was always the constant that I came back to. I had taken the city’s school buses, bicycled through its traffic, played cricket on its streets, and chewed on its paan. I was marginally aware that this city was of great historical and political significance, as a spiritual centre and one of the oldest-living cities in the world. But when I was young, I didn’t pay these matters much attention. It was just home.

After living away, however, I became more curious about my hometown to see it filtered through the eyes of an outsider. Since we only had four local correspondents, I took multiple roles at TOI, covering almost every “beat”, from education to tourism to culture and sport. As time passed, I improved my expertise of the old city’s culture and history.

But there was a dark side to the job, too. Every story—no matter how emotionally resonant, with whatever human suffering or joy at its core—was reduced to a ‘word count’, and the word counts were determined by the space provided by advertisers. Most of my subjects were those poorer and less fortunate than me. Sometimes, their stories were challenging, or stimulating, or bright, or dark. I had seen how my colleagues immersed themselves deep in their work and always had something to keep that urgent buzz going, something new to move on to, some other sensational piece of information to uncover. They spoke of people and problems in terms of trends and statistics. They advised me never to take the darkness home.

Soon, even the most harrowing tragedies became just another write-up. I was affected, of course, but there was always another deadline, another lead to chase. The work was non-stop, keeping me wired and permanently tethered to the city. I was becoming impassive about the details. I was becoming restless. I needed an escape.

So, I quit, exactly one year after my first day with TOI. The work had sparked a curiosity in me for the creases of my country that I had previously glossed over. But now, I wanted to leave the city’s bubble and home to go see for myself. Outside of my home state Uttar Pradesh, I had spent the majority of my time in Mussoorie, which later became the part of a new state Uttarakhand. I had travelled to Delhi, parts of Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Calcutta and to Mumbai and Goa. But I felt guilty that there was so much more of the nation, so much variety outside my comfort zone, that I hadn’t yet tasted.

I had always had a restless personality. As a child, I had run away from the grasp of my parents at airports and train stations. I had jumped over the gates and away from my boarding school. When I trekked around Mussoorie, I had a habit of going away alone on my own paths, which my parents jokingly called my “adventures”. If I saw a peak, I wanted to climb it. If I saw a body of water at a distance, I needed to go touch it. I loved being unsettled. I understood, much later of course, that I had the additional privilege of being a man in the country, meaning that there were fewer concerns on my path of solitary travel in India. And, fearlessly, I would hop on and away, always looking for that next “adventure”.

Living back home in Varanasi, while working with TOI, had reminded me that I missed that adventurous spirit. When I quit my job, I decided on my most ambitious adventure yet. I packed my backpack and kept my old Nokia “dumbphone” switched off most of the time. I promised myself I would only plan one iteration forward and nothing much else. I started on November 1 and made only rough sketches for my imminent future: be in Delhi for a Half-Marathon within the next week, and be in Goa for New Year’s Eve with my friends by December 31.

There was no schedule for what I would do in between those dates. Nothing for what I would do after. No plan to return home. Nothing set for the future. It was the best.

*

In Allahabad, I visited the Sangam, the confluence of three rivers (two real and one mythical). In Mussoorie, I soaked in nostalgia of places I had grown up in and ate 33 mutton-fried momos in one sitting. In Delhi, I ran a Half-Marathon (my first-ever), and didn’t die. In Pushkar, I drifted into the famous Pink Floyd Hotel and slept a night in the lobby. I saw the holy town for its own union of personalities: the ghats, the desert, and the hills.

From Pushkar, I went out to Jodhpur for a day, where I visited famous fort. My plan from here was to take an overnight train further west to Jaisalmer. Instead, at midnight at the Jodhpur train station, I got on the train at the wrong platform, going the opposite way. I sat in the overcrowded and smoky General Class all night, unable to fall asleep under the bright glare of a tube-light that never shut off, ignoring the fetid smell of excrement from the overflowing toilet behind me. By the time I realised I was going the wrong way, I was already far away from anywhere familiar. I decided to stay seated until the train brought me back to Delhi by the next morning. But the mistake turned out to be a boon and set me on the path to an opportunity of a lifetime.  

Ever since I was young, I had hoped to travel to Dharamshala and McLeodganj, the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile and the monastery where the Dalai Lama himself had resided since eloping to India. Around the time I was in Pushkar, I had read news reports of an international congress of the Tibetan government in McLeodganj coming up the next week. It was a time in my life that I relied purely on instinct, and I decided to myself that this change in direction at Jodhpur was an opportunity to follow another unplanned tangent.

So, on the same day my train rolled back up in Delhi, I hopped on an overnight bus to McLeodganj. I found a cheap room for a few nights. I wasn’t a full-time journalist any more, but I still had my TOI press card, and it came in handy when the officials in Dharamshala handed me a pass to attend the conference.

Two days after getting on the wrong train, I was in the Dalai Lama’s monastery, hearing him speak about his future. As he left the room, nodding and thanking the attendees, he reached over and shook my hand. It was a special feeling, to stumble into a beautiful moment like that out of sheer luck and instinct. I spent several days in the region, hiking, eating momos, and playing basketball with monks and young locals.

From Dharamshala, I came back down to Delhi, and from Delhi, I took a cross-country overnight train to Bhubaneshwar—my first time in Orissa—to visit a friend in college. With Bhubaneshwar as my base, I went next to Puri, where I stayed at an ashram and doused myself in water overnight to survive the onslaught of mosquitoes in the room. I visited the Jagannath Temple, the beach, and the Konark Temple from there. When I returned to Bhubaneshwar, I joined a few friends for a trip to beautiful Visakhapatnam and Araku in Andhra Pradesh.

Then, I decided to be alone again: my next train was to Chhattisgarh. I spent a day at Raipur, and was soon on a bus to the Bastar district in Jagdalpur. I travelled from here to see the Chitrakote Waterfalls and the jungles and tribal areas close to the Naxal activity.

*

It was during this period that I really began to cherish the boons of travelling alone. I was able to get up and leave whenever I wanted, to whichever destination. Apart from occasionally seeing friends for some much-needed company, to do my laundry, to stock up on resources, I was happy being on my own. I was happy to follow my moods and half-cooked plans. I made my choice of destination based on limited research in each area I visited. I travelled usually in the cheapest way I could, saving to book the journeys up to the last minute, but being flexible to change my mind and take a whole new road. I only turned on my phone occasionally, so I wouldn’t have to answer to anyone about where I was or where I could be next. Back in Varanasi, my family were worried, of course, but they trusted me and remained patient.

I spent most days as a tourist, and depending on where I was, I visited historical sites, or museums, or popular places to eat, or bookshops, or beaches, or waterfalls, or went on little treks, or watched movies alone in the cinema. The variety of experiences ensured me that no day felt stale or repetitive: everything was fresh, and thus, every day was an adrenaline rush.

At night, I usually wrote in my diary, or read, or watched TV is there was one. Of course, when I was alone, some of these nights were lonely and long. I wondered why I was out here at all, in strange parts of the country without a purpose or friends or family. But instead of feeling down, these meditations helped me feel even surer about myself. I missed the value of others in my life, but I also appreciated the necessity of what Sartre called the ‘being-in-itself’ and ‘being-for-oneself’. I did things without the need of outside gratification.

I returned to Raipur, and from there decided to go south and west towards another city that I had heard much about but never visited: Pune. It was another long train through Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, and then, finally, to the far end of Maharashtra. I had a close friend who lived in Pune, and I stayed with him for a few days. It was a jarring return to a more “modern” city, with English-speakers and cafés and a KFC.

I loved the city, its weather, and its liberal, vibrant feel. and I connected with an old relative for the first time who happened to be a kindred spirit. He understood my drift and didn’t question it. He offered me to live with him in Pune if I wished to return, and, for the first time since I left home, I dared to plan for the future. Maybe a few months in Pune wouldn’t be a bad idea after all.

For now, however, I wanted to stay on the road, stay unsettled. From Pune I went to Mumbai for a few days, and then, met old friends to travel together to Goa. All of my friends were more ‘settled’ in their lives than I was. Their trip was a vacation; mine was just another stop in a journey with no finish line. We welcomed the New Year by the beach. 2009 was already looking brighter than ever before.

From Goa, I was back in Mumbai, and from Mumbai, I went south even further, this time to Karnataka and Bangalore. I had an old friend here at the Sri Sri Ravi Shankar ashram, and although I had no interest in that scene, it was a good excuse to see another way of living in another part of the country. That was my mentality back then, to be open to every new adventure and offer. There was a lot of yoga, haldi, and satsangs, and I even got to meet the Sri Sri himself. I tolerated it.

After four days in the Ashram and unpleasant sattvic food, I was happy to find more KFC back in urban Bangalore. It was funny: I found fulfilment not in the cultish spirituality of the Ashram, but in my ability to swing from one branch to another, in my complete freedom to be whatever I wanted to be from day to day, city to city, train journey to train journey.

*

If there was any constant to my journey, it was the Indian Railways. I always adored train travel: the ability to be on the move while being so close to the country at all times, the chance to see different parts of India outside the window without really having to stop everywhere, the conversations with strangers of almost every strata of life moving for work, for leisure, for family.

And in my case, moving for the sake of movement itself.

Depending on the part of the country you’re in, and when you travel, it can be notoriously difficult to find seats on any given train at the last minute. I relied heavily on the IRCTC website and cyber cafes. Choosing the ‘tatkal’ option was always a risk. If I couldn’t get a guaranteed reservation, I would often board the train anyways, and share seats with kind strangers, or move from berth to berth in the middle of the night just to find a place to lay my head. Some of the train journeys were inexorably lengthy: India is massive, and delays are common. 15 hours. 22 hours. 30 hours. 36 hours. 44 hours. On average, I slept one of every three nights on a train. It was the cheapest option. My diet was samosas and chai, and it was wonderful.

*

After Bangalore, I was finally feeling fulfilled, feeling like I had done justice to my wandering heart. The trip resuscitated some of the optimism and energy I had lost after my year with the newspaper. I had a clearer idea of how to plan for the future: I would surprise my parents and return home to Varanasi for a few weeks. Then, I would return to Pune to work and live there for a few months. And later in the year, my initial nostalgia would take me back to Mussoorie to find a more permanent job.

A return home, to the arms of a stable family, was a return to a comfortable household, where I had access to clean water and delicious aloo-parathas and broadband internet and warm blankets and air-conditioners when required. Since my teenage years, my parents had been able to provide for me the financial advantage to be able to make choices for myself: the choice to stay and build something; the choice to leave in search of the unknowable. I was well-aware that the majority of people in the country didn’t have this luxury. They had to play the hand they were dealt.

I had been a vagrant by choice, not necessity. I knew that, instead of being driven out by tragedy or desperation, I was a wanderer on my own terms. I knew that ‘finding oneself’ is a privilege.

I have ‘settled down’ since, getting more comfortable with planting my roots with work, friends, and family. I even took the ultimate step towards voluntary servitude: marriage. But my travels alone have continued. I’ve tried to take a solitary trip every year, going to Bodh Gaya, to Kasol, back to Mcleodganj, back to Pune. I’ve visited Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Madhya Pradesh. I even returned to my hometown to see Varanasi through the eyes of a tourist, living by the ghats and gullies I love so much in anonymity. I enjoyed work trips that sent me out to new cities, so I could take the downtime to explore the places for myself. Of course, Mussoorie has always been a second home, where I’m equally comfortable drifting alone or spending time with close family and friends.

*

The travels reemphasised to be my idea of India’s strength in its diversity and plurality. It has now been ten years since my trip, and our country’s national politics has since taken a sharp dive towards toxic nationalism. The country has always been fractured of course, precariously balancing multiple cultures under the same flag ever since its inception. But in recent years, there have been attempts by the political majority to hegemonise India’s diversity, to conform everyone into the same ideas of religion, language, and culture.

We have to resist this hegemony, and instead, celebrate our differences. India is not one country, but a dozen, fitted to sing the same national anthem, salute the same tiranga, and accept the same constitution. The fit is often awkward, sure, but the very fact that we attempt to keep the structure going despite our differences is what makes me most proud about being an Indian. We are very different organs connected by the same nervous system, like the Indian Railways running on uneasy tracks across the breadth of the country. That is my idea of patriotism.

There is still so much I haven’t seen, notably three of our four corners: Jammu and Kashmir up north, Gujarat in the far west, and all of the states in the Northeast. I haven’t been to Hyderabad or anywhere in Telangana, especially since it became its own state in 2014. I haven’t stopped by in Jharkhand. I still hope to see the off-shore islands of Andaman and Nicobar and Lakshadweep. There are union territories left to explore, beautiful structures to visit, more mountains to climb.

Recently, a friend shared a video online of the actor Pankaj Tripathi, who advised young Indians, after they finish Class 12th, to travel the entire country on the cheapest available trains and live in dharmshalas and gurudwaras. “The journey will make you into something special,” he said in Hindi. The video reminded me of my own trip, and was the instigating spark that made me write this essay.

Tripathi is correct: it is, indeed, very affordable to see India on some public transportation and cheap accommodations. Unfortunately, not every young person has the freedom of time to take out of their lives to such endeavours, especially in a system where everything from education to job placement to health benefits and real estate is a constant struggle, a competition against millions of others of the most-populated country of the young in the world.

It takes a special kind of risk to defy everything—your family, your opportunities, your safety nets, and sometimes, even your own common sense—to travel in this way. But for those who can afford (in money, time, or security) to do so, the rewards are invaluable. The trip will indeed make you into something special, make you see multiple sides of this beautiful, chaotic prism of our country, and eventually, give you the empathy to become a better citizen for the future.

a boy in a delhi refugee camp

from the photograph by Margaret Bourke-White - from July 2017

Photo by Margaret Bourke-White / Roli Books

Photo by Margaret Bourke-White / Roli Books

you have my eyes, large and oval,

you strain away from the camera,  

charred by the ashes of the past,

 

staring with rapture at nothing.

you have my nose, wide and crooked,

you are suffocating on the

 

young country’s old air. you survived:

a stranger among ancestors,

born on the wrong side of a new

 

imaginary line, riding

trains with fifteen million strangers –

ancestors. you sit with bare feet

 

below your folded legs, hands pressed

against your head, you search for home.

and if you could look back through that

 

lens to the other side across

time, would you still stare at nothing?

that camp is now a capital

 

of my independent nation

with highways and underpasses

and bullet trains.

To fill up a page

woodstock 037.jpg

with words is a natural instinct. To create text where there is nothing. To fill up empty spaces with thought, even when emptiness would be apt, when rumination would be subtraction by addition. It's part bad-editing, part insecurity. My feeling that I won't be adequately understood unless I wrote everything, until I maximise the moment instead of sharpening and honing it for accuracy. Until I feel that everything that needs to be said has been said. Until it opens up avenues to infinities of other ideas, of other tangents and connections, so much so that the original point has been lost altogether, so much so that the existence of all thought around the "point" is the point in itself. Sometimes, in such a space, I may not even get to that "point" at all, and instead, leave a point-shaped hole around a dense cloud of trash. Sometimes it means nothing at all. Sometimes, it means everything. To fill up a silent room with audio, with music always playing in the background, a shuffled playlist of all the music I've ever owned, bombarding the present with the past with the planned randomness of an iTunes algorithm. Sometimes, when silence is better than noise, I choose noise. The chaos calms me. It creates distractions, arrows pointing at every direction except my own. It leaps over that same silence that, mulled over for too long, can expose a hollow abyss, a haunting nothingness in space. Sounds that cloud around what I actually have to say - or have to think - leaving nothing but a thought-shaped empty wisp in the middle. To fill up a day with chores and schedules and tasks. Brushing teeth for x number of minutes before a breakfast before a tea or a coffee before y hours of work and z pages of a book and the next meal, and the next block of work, and the next ordered segment of reading. Each block must be sealed close, shut without breathing room between one to the next, so that there is no free time for emptiness, no gaps in the page. And the whole day passes without a pause between the margins, and so comes bedtime and the abc number of minutes streaming a show before the day ends, and there have been no gaps, except the gap that can only be seen when zoomed out and away from the page. The gap formed without space and time. The gap of life itself.

Amrit Lal Ishrat and the Urdu ghazals of self-consolation

The Late Dr. Amrit Lal Ishrat was a renowned poet of Urdu ghazals. He was my grandfather. Two years ago, I translated his poetry into English for the first time, for a project for my Literary Translation seminar under Professor David Keplinger at the American University.

Over the next few months, many of my English translations will be published in various literary journals. Here is the preface I wrote about Ishrat, his ghazals, and my approach to the translations for my original project in December 2016.

No two poems by Amrit Lal “Ishrat” were the same. But no two were so different, either.  Throughout his career, the Indian Urdu poet was a man of constant conversation and contradiction with himself. Ishrat’s Urdu poems – emulations of the “sher-o-shayari” and ghazal traditions of poetry in Urdu, Persian, and Hindi – mastered the complicated performative rhyme schemes of the format. In each ghazal, Ishrat added his own signature wink, conversing with the poet and artist within himself as a form of self-consolation in his odes to heartbreak, nature, and addiction.

Ishrat was my grandfather, and the first years of my life were the last years of his. Although I didn’t get an opportunity to know him better, I grew up with the knowledge of his accomplishments and his stories, gleefully shared by our family and friends. A few years after his death, my father – Deepak Madhok – helped publish a collection of Ishrat’s poetry, along with a biographical introduction by the Urdu research scholar Abdus Salam about Ishrat’s life, under the title Yaadgar-E-Ishrat. My knowledge of Ishrat has since been collated with the help of this valuable biography and our shared family folklore.

Ishrat was born Amrit Lal Madhok, and only adopted what many Urdu poets call a takhallus – a pen name – when he began to submit his poetry later in life. His birth was in Lahore – now in Pakistan – on November 2, 1930 and he grew up in the nearby town of Gujranwala. His father was a popular lawyer in the Lahore High Court. But the Madhoks were a Hindu family, and thus, when India and Pakistan partitioned at the country’s Independences from the British Empire in August 1947, his family was among the millions of Hindus and Sikhs that crossed the border to India, while millions of Muslims drifted the other way to Pakistan and to the country that has since become Bangladesh. Estimates say a million people died in the riots and genocide on all sides of the border during the year that followed Independence; a teenage Ishrat and his family, however, survived to make it to the Indian mountain town of Kandaghat to start their displaced lives all over again.

The spirit of freedom, the weight of violence and survival, and the start of a new life as a stranger in a new republic could have been part of Ishrat’s early influences, but Ishrat rebelled from the heavier weights of his memory and gave himself a fresh start. His takhallus “Ishrat” translates as “joy” or “delight”. He immersed himself into the finer pleasures of life, and his addictions became both the art that lifted him and the burdens that were bared in his verses.

Amril Lal Ishrat Madhok (author).jpg

Even as he left Lahore and Gujranwala, Ishrat never allowed himself to leave behind the artistic influence of Islamic culture that he had experienced as a youth. His household was enriched with sher-o-shayari performances from childhood and he carried the love of wordplay with him his whole life. Later, the poetic tradition influenced his academic and professional decisions too: he studied the Persian language, Urdu, and Persian History in the 1950s and was eventually sent to Tehran (Iran) to learn and teach Persian. Upon his return to India in the 60s, Ishrat, his wife, and children, moved to the city of Varanasi (also known as Banaras) where he received a PhD at the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) and became a professor of Persian, Persian History and Urdu.

It was in Varanasi, the holiest of cities of the Hindu religion, but a town also rich in the Muslim population and a deep endorsement of Muslim arts and literature, that eventually became Ishrat’s home until his death. A city on the banks of the holy Ganga river, Varanasi is revered as one of the oldest continuously-living cities in the world. It is the mecca of the Hindu religion, the most-visited tourist destination in India, mostly flocked by domestic tourists seeking spiritual enlightenment. The confluence of spirituality is heightened as the Buddha is said to have given his first sermon near Varanasi, too.

As a Hindu, Ishrat was an outsider to the artistic tradition of shayari, but his work was able to make him a prominent part of the community at the local and national stage. Ishrat regularly performed his ghazals at mushairas – Urdu poetry expositions performances – during his lifetime.

Ishrat published nearly a dozen books on his lifetime on Iranian history, literary criticism, and Urdu shayari. Outside of his academic work, he published several of his ghazals in Urdu literary magazines, most prominent of which was a magazine called Bisawi Sadi. A collection of his most popular ghazals – written roughly in the period between 1955 – 1975 – was published in both the Urdu and Devanagari scripts in the collection entitled Yaadgar-E-Ishrat (“Memories of Ishrat”) in 1994. I have translated a sampling of his best poems from this collection spanning the productive twenty-year period.

 

There are many different forms of Urdu poetry, but Ishrat’s speciality was sher-o-shayari, which can be referred to as only sher or shayari. Each sher is a rhyming couplet that must strictly be kept within its predefined meters per line. The couplet usually relies on a simple set-up, question, or condition in the first line, with a witty or emotional response. A number of these couplets can be formed together to be made into longer poems, which are called ghazals, which usually continue the same rhyme and metric scheme throughout in exploration of a common theme. Most ghazals have a common phrase or word as refrain that is often repeated with various modifiers at the end of many lines as the constant rhyming scheme.

In public performances of sher-o-shayari and at the larger mushairas, the opening line of each sher couplet is repeated twice to amplify the listeners’ interests and anticipations, with the second, “response” line added once with emphasis in the form of a punch-line. A series of rhyming shers running consistently exercises the poet’s (shayar’s) ability to keep the rhyme scheme going while making the poetic language more complicated and effective. The purpose of each sher is to give a deeper resonance to a relatively simpler opening emotion, to evoke emotion, feelings of love, spirituality, amusement, and often in Ishrat’s case, of self-consolation. 

The ghazal is a strict format, whose value and aesthetic quality depend almost entirely on its formal structure. The repetition of key words adds a rhythm to the recitation of the ghazal, and prepares the listeners – or readers – to focus not just on the word that is repeated, but the rhyming word that precedes it in the rhyming lines. It is through this language of repetition and cleverly-placed emphasis that the reciter – or the writer – is able to reach his audience.

But it is this strict, formal adherence to format that eventually also proves to be the biggest challenge in translating the ghazal to the English language. Like many languages stemming from Arabic and Sanskrit roots, in Urdu, the verb in a sentence often comes at the very end. The common English grammatical structure of [object + verb + subject] will be translated in Urdu as [object + subject + verb]. Ishrat stuck closely to this structure in his poetry, and most of his sentences that ended in his repetitive words and sounds were his verbs.  For example, one of his simple rhyming couplets in ‘You and I have a friendship’ in Urdu is:

اپکا ہمسے دوستانہ ہے

یہ بھی کیا دن کیا زمانہ ہے

Apka humse dostana hai

Yeh bhi kya din hai, kya zamana hai

Which roughly translates as

You with me friendship have

This great day is, great time is

To make sentences in Urdu comprehensible for English readers, a translator will freely restructure the parts of speech such as:

You and I have a friendship

This is a great day, a great time.

This restructuring would work well for prose, but in poetry – particularly Ishrat’s strict work where the twist and turn of every ghazal hinged on the repetition of the last word, a literal translation loses the essential musicality of the formal. The ghazal ceases to be a ghazal.

A fully formal translation of these ghazals, if of course, possible, but not without experimenting with the language or tinkering with the content. Instead of verbs, other parts of speech, which make sense at the end of an English sentence, can be used as the repeating or rhyming words. A faithful formal translator will have to decide on words and rhymes that may not fit the literal meaning in each one of Ishrat’s lines to add to the end of their English translations. For example, for the same couplet given above, my more ‘formal’ translation, sticking closer to Ishrat’s musicality, was:

There’s a friendship between you and I now

What a time to be alive now!

I adopted ‘now’ as my rhyming word, applying it in the opening couplet and then at the end of every even-numbered line to adhere with Ishrat’s formal structure. Furthermore, I adopted a new rhyming sound for this ghazal – ‘I now’ – straying from Ishrat’s original ‘aana hai’. These changes, along with some semblance of adherence to the syllables and inner rhyme schemes of each line, were only possible by sacrificing the exact literal meanings of the ghazals.

So, in translating the poems from Urdu to English, I faced this crucial dilemma: which version of Ishrat should be maintained, and which one should be sacrificed? Do I stay true to the strict codes of the sher and ghazal format and modify the content to re-imagine the poems’ musicality? Or do I adhere closely to Ishrat’s literal meanings of the poetry, even if it meant that I would lose the truest essence of the ghazal in doing so? To my knowledge, Ishrat never considered a translation of his work, and thus, never faced the potential complications that would accompany the rules of another language during his lifetime. I, however, believe that, I can only translate his truest artistic intentions by staying true to both content and form.

To arrive at my answer, I also challenged myself to discover my own theory of translation. Translation to me isn’t simply the transference of words from one language to another. Language isn’t simply a means of communication, it’s the vehicle that drives cultures. To lose the intricate differences in language would mean to lose the important differences in culture, which are as important to the entire process of translation as the literal meanings of the words themselves. In her essay “Translation: The Biography of an Artform”, Alice Kaplan quoted Antoine Berman’s view on ‘bad translation’ as (1):

I call bad translation any translation which, using the pretext of transmissibility/communication, works towards a systematic negation of the foreignness of the foreign work. (70)

I agree with Berman here. Even as a translated work should not ‘feel’ translated, the translator should also be careful in not losing the ‘foreignness’ of the work. In Ishrat’s case, the ghazal form was his inherent ‘foreignness’ from the English language. In converting the experience of reading or hearing a ghazal in English, its essential not to lose that quality, to transfer its musicality, but also, to stay true to the ‘soul’ in the content of each piece.

It is in confronting this challenge that I was reminded of the French phrase décalage, which I first came across while reading Brent Hayes Edwards’ “Prologue” from the book The Practice of Diaspora. Edwards describes it as (2):

Décalage is one of the many French words that resists translation into English… It can be translated as “gap”, “discrepancy”, “time-lag”, or “interval” … In other words, a décalage is either a difference or gap in time… or in space…

(…)

Décalage indicates the reestablishment of a prior unevenness or diversity; it alludes to the taking away of something that was added in the first place, something artificial, a stone or a piece of wood that served to fill some gap or to rectify some imbalance. (13-14)

There is no perfect way to rectify that imbalance, to fill the décalage between the Urdu ghazal format and the grammatical form of the work translated into English. For the English reader, the beauty of the Urdu poetry will have to arise from within that imbalance.

The larger question for me, then, was if my intention with this translation was to whether to take the ghazal closer to the English-speaking reader, or bring the English-speaking reader closer to the ghazal? My answer was to embrace the décalage; why can’t both forms exist? Translation is not a monologue, it’s a two-way conversation. It’s important to both reinvent the work to fit the language – and hence the culture – of a new readership, just as it is important to retain the foreignness of the foreign work. There is beauty of the poetry to be found in both the literal and formal translations of Ishrat’s ghazals.

So, instead of creating a forced unification between the East and the West, I decided to celebrate the unique differences in each form. As someone who has grown up with a healthy dose of both cultures, I refuse to believe that there is a singular, definite audience who can resonate with these ghazals, in any language. Literature can be globally egalitarian, without the borders of linguistic rules that constrain it.

My translations present two forms of each of Ishrat’s most famous works, a literal translation – The Poem – to bring the ghazal to the English reader, and a formal translation – The Ghazal – to take the English reader closer to the original Urdu. In this way, I hope to transfer over the cultural aspects of Urdu even as the poems are read in English.

           

My memories of my grandfather are scarce and hazy. I remember him sitting with his friends, wearing a karakul over his dead, while he sang some of his ghazals. I remember him petting his Labradors as he got older and slower. And I remember his adorned, lifeless body on a wooden platform before it was carried to the cremation ghat. My parents and uncles gave me second-hand accounts of his life and personality as I grew older, but it was never enough for me to understand his true nature. Even when a collection of his poetry and a music album by ghazal artists Ahmed and Mohammed Hussain was released after his death, his words held no meaning for me, untranslatable into the limited understanding of my young mind.

So, nearly three decades after his death, I approached him again, not as Amrit Lal Madhok, my grandfather, but as Amrit Lal “Ishrat”, a scholar of Urdu and Persian and a noted poet of sher-shayari and ghazals. By reading his poetry and hearing his written voice, I was able to finally encounter the grandfather I never knew. These ghazals, written over twenty years while he moved from Iran back to India and eventually found stability in Varanasi, gave me an insight that no family albums or anecdotes about Ishrat ever could. They give me a direct conversation with him, where the public figure poured out the most personal meditations of his heart in formal Urdu poetry, and where I replied to him with my interpretations of those meditations in English. Through his poetry, I learnt of Ishrat’s loves, his insecurities, and the particular lense with which he saw the world.

Ishrat’s ghazals are primarily meditations of his insecurities and of unrequited love. He often describes himself as “distressed”, a broken heart that doesn’t deserve even the attentions of his muse. It is in this distress that Ishrat often turns to his two constant companions of self-consolation: alcohol and poetry. He recognises and is often afflicted by alcohol as a mere temporary relief, but in his verses, he is able to find the means to communicate his anxieties. Ishrat addresses his listeners, his lover, his muses, even the moon and the stars in his poetry, but he ends every ghazal with a nod to self, a sher where he shifts the conversation away to face himself. The last rhyming couplet of almost every ghazal by Ishrat is a direct address to himself, where he consoles or encourages himself after stating his previous anguishes and anxieties. At the end of “In my heart I still believe your promises are true”, a poem about losing favour with the loved one, he writes:

Don’t know anything Ishrat, except that there exists

A poet, a smiling face, and my youth – so let it be!  

It is common for shayars to end their ghazals with a couplet that incorporate their penname, their poetic takhallus. The word takhallus, deriving from the Arabic, means ending. Ishrat rarely let a poem end without this wink to himself.

True to his penname, Ishrat had joy in his poetry, too, joy that often contradicted or clashed with his sorrow. He encouraged drinking, the company of friends, and the celebration of beauty. Often, he would also lament the pain that the same beauty could bring him. In the poem ‘What is life for the desperate?’ he writes:

In the happiest smile of the spring,

What is life for the scattered thorns?

(…)

If we didn’t worship flowers, Ishrat,

What is life for the faces that bloom?

Ishrat’s fascination with Urdu seemed to stretch much beyond the language. He was a Hindu who had broken culture barriers by mastering in what was essentially an Islamic art-form. Then, and now, these barriers of religion have often been volatile, between groups of people who worship different gods and follow different customs. Ishrat picked and chose what he felt deserved celebration on each end of the spectrum, and became more famously-known for his Islamic-sounding takhallus. To honour his legacy decades after his death, an interfaith mushaira is now held with some of the country’s best shayars in Varanasi every year.

It was with an intent to keep alive Ishrat’s spirit of breaking barriers between communities that I felt it necessary to translate his work in English. For decades, the English language has both been a source of pride and controversy for Indians. It is the language that was taught by the colonists, who indoctrinated it as one of country’s national languages. Now, even while the mastery of English is helping Indians succeed at home and abroad, nationalist movements have criticised the elevation of the ‘foreign’ language and pushed local and state governments in India to revert the primary medium of instruction and communication to local languages like Hindi, Bengali, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu, and others.

I believe that there is merit in celebrating all languages and cultures, and by translating Ishrat’s Urdu work in English, I hope to confront these thorny complications of language by bridging more cultural gaps, like he did.

In 1987, Ishrat suffered from a tumour in his brain and passed away in Varanasi on May 18, 1989, at age 58. Even after death, however, Ishrat’s poetry has helped keep his spirit alive for another generation. While he was constrained within the boundaries of his academics in his professional life, Ishrat allowed his poetry to become the true expression of his fears, insecurities, loves, and addictions. In the ghazals translated here, he often comes out as astonishingly vulnerable, bearing his weaknesses and the pessimism of his romantic life. But there was joy and a celebration of life and beauty in his work, too. In Ishrat’s work, no flower came without thorns. That was eventually his consolation, that for every winter, there was a potential of spring to follow.

 

Notes

 

1. Kaplan, Alice. “Translation: The Biography of an Artform.” In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means, Columbia University Press, New York, 2013.

 

2. Edwards, Brent Hayes. The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2003.

 

Stacks on stacks on stacks (of books)

I like books and I like bookshops and I like taking photographs and I like taking photographs of stacks of books in bookshops and sometimes stacks of books in other places that are not bookshops. Anyways, here are some of those photos.

Bahrisons, Delhi

Bahrisons, Delhi

Delhi Book Fair 2017

Delhi Book Fair 2017

stacks on stacks at home

stacks on stacks at home

The Sci-Fi Wall at Idle Time Books

The Sci-Fi Wall at Idle Time Books

Capitol Hill Books

Capitol Hill Books

Ajmeri Gate reads

Ajmeri Gate reads

Delhi platform reading life

Delhi platform reading life

The eternally-amazing Cambridge Book Store in Mussoorie

The eternally-amazing Cambridge Book Store in Mussoorie

More home; more shelf

More home; more shelf

Capitol Hill Books: The Sequel from the Poetry Room

Capitol Hill Books: The Sequel from the Poetry Room

Sip

 

Unpublished Fiction - from May 2016

We have a system in this cabin, theekhai? A system. There must be an order to things. Rules. Otherwise we’ll all end up in the narak Dryness that took Mummy. Daddy isn’t doing theekhai, either, and still that little thief Tinu thinks this is a joke. That he can take anyone’s sip and gulpgulpgulp into his little mouth. That tattiboy is going to kill us all.

Nightsleep ends when I hear knocks from the Outside door. Then pleas. A girl’s voice, like Chhoti. Water, please! Water. Chhoti? It can’t be! The knocks turn to thumps and the pleas to screams and her voice gets louder for Water! Water! Water!

I wake with a gasp, my throat dry, itching, my head heavy, forehead throbbing in pain, I gasp again, Water. I need water.

But the knocking is real. It continues steadily tip tip tip. Every few tips, there is a scream Water! and then again, back to the tip tip tip which gets louder into a thud thud thudr Help!

I growl and reach under the bed for my leather flask. I unlock the cap, and I bring it to my mouth for my morning sip, and I envision all the pain of the night dissolve away, and I taste it on my tongue before the flask even touches my dry lips, and I shiver from imagining how it’s going to prickle down my throat and the pain will go and I’ll be theekhai and…

It’s empty. My flask is empty. Water. Where in Utanifark’s name is my water? I shake it into my mouth. Nothing. I squint one eye and look inside. No water. It’s bilkul, all dry.

No! I shout out loud. Who drank my water? Utanifark curse you all. My water!

IMG_8173.JPG

Tinu. It had to be Tinu. He isn’t in bed by my side so I call for him. You bastard, Tinu!

The knocking Outside stops. Whoever it was, Chhoti maybe, maybe not, must have left. But Tinu, where in narak is Tinu?

I jump off the bed and rush to the Central Safety Room and there he is, one finger inside his nostril like always, one side of his cheek smiling, eyes on the television screen watching a visual from the Lost Time.

I pounce towards him. Tinu you little bastard I’ll kill you! I’ll throw you down into the shitpit with all the tatti, you bastard.

He jumps off his seat when he sees me, and I’m roaring because a good tamacha time is exactly what he needs. I punch his thin, sharp face, so bony that it even stings my knuckles a little. He screams “Ow! Auntie, help!” and I slap him across his other cheek. “I didn’t drink it! I didn’t drink your water, Montu!” One punch over his eye, it starts bleeding, and with my other hand, a good one under his chin.

The last one probably hurt the little tattiboy the most because he falls to the ground and starts crying. I shout over his cries. My water you stole my water you stole you thief!

“Montu! Tinu! Stop it!” Auntie comes to save him, otherwise I could kill him today and send him to the same narak that took Mummy and Chhoti. I stop and step away.

He drank my water Auntie, I say, I want water.

Auntie has to hold her red bathrobe tight over her chest; the knot around it can never close together. “Calm down,” she commands, and we obey, and she moves her heavy body towards us. “Tinu, don’t drink your brother’s sips. Montu, you’ll have to wait until after daysleep. It’ll be theekhai, don’t worry.”

But Auntie, I complain.

Tip Tip Thud Thudr Water Help Water.

The knocking begins again. 

 

I only ever see Auntie and Daddy’s bedroom from the outside, through the thin gaps of the unclosed door. The inside, I’ve seen it before, that was before Mummy got the Dryness. But Auntie never keeps the door completely open now.

Auntie leaves us in the Central Safety Room, walks past the room that Tinu and I share, and into Daddy’s bedroom. On the bed is Daddy, I see him. Only a small glance. He’s asleep, of course, but he’s fine, he’ll be fine. From her bedside somewhere behind something I can’t see, she scoops out the key for our Nutri Safe and comes back outside. She closes the door behind her and Daddy stays asleep.

Looking all serious type, she opens the small door behind our dining table that leads down to our basement and the tunnels. She goes down the stairs thukthukthuk, I hear her turn the key, then I hear the screeching yawn of the metallic Nutri Safe open, a flurry of plasticy pills tinkling against glass, the screech of the Safe again, and then Auntie’s steps back up thukthukthuk.

“FirstMeal,” she says and hands Tinu and I our NutriPills. I get two because I’m older. I look at Tinu and smile and for a brief moment I forget that tattiboy robbed me of my morning sip.

“Sit,” Auntie announces, and Tinu and I follow her to the dining table. Auntie lights an incense stick and places it on the table between us. She bows down in front of it, closes her eyes, and murmurs to herself. I bow down after her to pray, too. Tinu, of course, keeps his rotten eyes open, one finger in his nose, ready to pounce on his NutriPill. She pulls her neck up and bilkul slow, she opens her eyes to finish. 

I am patient with my pills. I place each one on the bilkul flat top of my index finger, peel off the plastic layer, and slowly, only slowly, put the little orange pills into my mouth. I chew on each one, tasting some of my saliva as I eat, which is much theekhai. Tinu swallows his pill quickly and then, because he looks like he’s asking for more tamachas, he brings out his own leather bottle of water for his morning sip. 

I grunt under my breath. I want to jump on this table and push aside Auntie’s dusty pill-bowls and smack him. He has the liquid going down his mouth, down to his body, and he must instantly feel better.

He drinks the water and he’s happy.

Thudr Thudr Help! Just one sip of water please. Just one sip! Help!

Now, Tinu hears it too. “What is that? That sounds like…”

Chhoti, I finish for him.

“Yes! Just like Chhoti!”

It is unmistakable. I remember I used to laugh at Chhoti when she cried or complained, because she always sounded like she was crying or complaining. She wahwahwah when she was happy, when she read those picture-books, when she watched Lost Time visuals or when she wanted water or when Mummy died. Her voice came less from her throat and more from the nose. Her voice was the cabin’s alarm each morning. I remember Daddy used to say it was bilkul, high frequency, so the Well Soldiers could use it for sonar, he said.

This voice today sounds just like Chhoti. 

Auntie looks up at me first, and then at Tinu, and her eyes squint into ours, threatening tamacha.

“But what if it’s her?” Tinu complains.

“It’s not,” Auntie says. “Chhoti is gone.”

“But what if...?”

Auntie sits up from her seat and crosses over to Tinu. I see it now that he’s shivering, even sobbing, and I cannot decide if it’s my tamaches that have tattiboy freezing in his own sweat or if he’s wondering what narak is the voice outside. He should still be smiling I think, after all, he’s had two sips of water and I’m here drying up my bones. 

Auntie stands behind Tinu and bilkul, gently, she brings his face into her stomach. He responds quickly, folds into her body and embraces his arms around her lower back. He sobs louder now.

It could be Chhoti, I say. We don’t know if she’s gone, bilkul, forever gone. I shift my chair back over the wooden floor, away from the table, and stand up. I need to check.

“Sit down!” Auntie commands, “Do not test the Outside, Montu. Outside is Lost Time. You remember what happened with Chhoti, don’t you?”

Just one sip!

I should check, I say. Even if it’s not Chhoti, I should just check. I tell Auntie that I will give the voice, the girl Outside the main door, Tinu’s night sip. He deserves it for being a tattiboy thief.

Auntie disengages from Tinu, reaches across the table, and grabs me by my shirt. “You sit down. Chhoti has been gone one year, two years. Do not expose yourself to the Lost Timers, Montu.”

I wiggle my shirt free and step back from her.

“Who will take care of us if something happens to you?” she asks now. “Who will go down to the Well for water? Your brother isn’t strong enough, Montu. Do you want us to just wait here, drying to our deaths? Don’t you want Daddy to get better?”

Her eyes are wet with desperate tears. I don’t answer her, because she’s Auntie, and she’s right. Yes, I think to myself, I want Daddy to get better. I remember Mummy, too. Two weeks ago, Auntie said that a stone the size of a NutriPill came out with Daddy’s peepee, almost bilkul same happened to Mummy. Mummy, too, was in bed a lot, bilkul, no movement. She couldn’t even recognize me! But Tinu, I remember, she smiled at Tinu.

Daddy needs his rest to get better, Auntie has said, to be alone. Last I saw him – when did I see him last? – his face had shrivelled, waves of deep lines underneath his eyes, more lines across his forehead like running tracks. More skin than face.

Thudr thudr.

But what if it’s really Chhoti up there? What if she’s back? Two days ago was the four hundredth day since she went Outside, and if Auntie and me and even little Tinu have been alive for four hundred and two days, then why not Chhoti? There have been knocks from the Lost Timers on our door before. Knocks and thuds and screams and shouts. If they survived the Dryness, maybe she did, too?

“It’s 10 hours of the day now, Montu,” Auntie breaks me out of my trance. “Time for you to go.”

But the voice Outside?

“I’ll deal with the voice Outside. Get our WetBox, and later, you have to clean out the shitpit, too.”

Theekhai theekhai Auntie, I nod and Auntie smiles because she is now happy.

 

Tinu must think this is all a joke. That little tattiboy, he sits and reads Chhoti’s old books and watches the television and swallows his pills. He must think this is all a joke, like it’s easy for me to crawl down the tunnels to the Well and crawl back with the WetBox. I want to see him do it. I want to see him do it without a morning sip and with an itching thumping pain in his head. He won’t even make it all the way down. He won’t even be able to talk to the Well Soldiers. He must think this is all a joke. And I still have to keep him alive because we’re brothers and that’s what Daddy said brothers must do. 

I’m taller now, much taller than my first trips to the Well, so I have to crouch lower, and maybe that’s the one thing tattiboy could be good for. At least he would have no problem fitting his little body inside the tunnels. I have to bend down and fold my knees when I crawl. My shoulders scrape against the black stones on both sides. After some time, my knees begin to burn even hotter than my throat does. Theekhai theekhai I repeat loudly to myself, only twenty more minutes, theekhai.

The tunnel is dark, bilkul, only black. But I can see. Theekhai, not fully see, but see bilkul because I’ve been down here now more than a hundred times and I know which part has the sharp rocks on the left side, where there will be bumps below my feet, where the tunnel changes directions, where it falls into the opening.

I can feel the opening now, because I see some yellow lights, and there are sounds of others tunnelling in and out to the Well. Then I hear those splashes! Water splashing into more water. Buckets dipping into water. Water dripping. Water falling. Water getting scooped up. I feel a buzzing in my head, a good type buzzing, and, Utanifark swear, it gets my whole body to feel a ring. Now, I’m not tired anymore.

In front of me are the Well Soldiers, and all around them are other tunnels like mine falling down onto the cave floor. When I land on the floor, I bounce up and let my limbs flay out, relieved to finally have room to stretch.

“Montu my boy,” one of the Soldiers says. “You’re looking dry.”

I don’t recognise him under the dark, red hood over his face at first. All of the Well Soldiers are under those hoods, and like the rest of them, he carries an electric-mankiller as he approaches me. But I’ve heard his voice before. He laughs and takes his hood down to reveal the short, grey spikes of hair growing on his head. Ah, I know him. His name is Aryun, or Ayalu, or something. I show him my WetBox slip.

Yes, today is dry, I say. No morning sip for me, Sir, on account of little brother being a tattiboy thief.

The soldier laughs, and his laughter makes me smile too. This is what a laugh should be like, like this soldier, his whole face and his neck and parts of his shoulders are laughing with him. Hahaha he is only happy.

Aryun or Ayalu asks me to wait and he goes down to the Well to prepare this week’s WetBox for me. A small bottle of water, Nutri Pills, and paper books of Utanifark prayers for Auntie. There are hundreds of WetBoxes like mine waiting by the splishingsplashing well for each tunneler down there. Two of the Well Soldiers with electric-mankillers pass a flask of water from one to another, and each one takes a big sip. No, a big gulp. And some of the water – I count four drops – even spills down to the ground. I lick my lips. But thank Utanifark it’s damp down here, much cooler, so much that I shiver. I even forget about missing the morning sip – just being near the Well can cure Dryness.

Aryun or Ayalu returns and shows me my WetBox, but he holds it back.

“How’s the Doctor, Montu?” he asks, “Still down with the Dryness?”

Yes, Daddy is still sick. But Auntie says he’s getting better. 

“Your Auntie,” the soldier laughs again, but then his voice turns bilkul, serious. “We must keep your father alive, Montu,” He shows me his eyes now, brown, almost black. “You have to make sure the Doctor is getting his WetBox. His water. He must be kept alive. We need him back down here.”

Yes, Daddy must be kept alive, I agree. Yes, I think about this, I know how lucky we are that the Well Soldiers give us WetBoxes. You’ll be Outside with the other Lost Timers without your Daddy, they always say, it is only for Daddy. Theekhai, I know this. Only for his Agricultural bilkul Science of the Lost Time. Not everyone gets the WetBoxes, they always say.

I’m thirsty, but I don’t drink from the WetBox when I crawl back up the tunnel. My arms, bilkul feel not so strong anymore. I look ahead and even the darkness is blurry. There are squeaks somewhere, maybe mice or those monster superrats the Well Soldiers cook on Splash Day Festivals. I don’t know that my mouth is wide open until something starts to drip out and I cough and shout. I stop moving. There’s another loud sound now, really close, heavy air, like Daddy with his Dryness. That tattiboy thinks this is all a joke, stealing my morning sip. That sound again, I pay attention, and it’s only my own breathing. Water. I lick my lips with my tongue but it stings.

I keep crawling. That Well Soldier is right. Daddy must be kept alive. I must get this to Auntie. And maybe I’ll ask her again to give a sip to that thudthudthudr girl from the Outside. Not my sip, I’ll give her Tinu’s, yes, Tinu’s. I smile to myself. Maybe it’s little Chhoti up there. Why not?

 

Somebody is crying, it’s loud, with a throat screaming for help, wasting all those tears. The girl outside? Chhoti?

I climb up the tunnel door into our basement and pull the WetBox in with me. The crying and screaming gets louder and it’s not from the Outside, it’s from here. From inside our cabin.

It’s Tinu.

I rush up the stairs and into the Central Safety Room after the sound, but nobody’s there. A crash in Daddy and Auntie’s room. The door is wide open.

I see Daddy, lying on his bed, still stiff from the Dryness. Eyes closed, no expression, his face gone paler, greyer, whiter. I see Tinu on the floor beside Daddy’s bed, down on all his limbs, crawling like I crawl down the tunnel. He faces me and he’s crying, and not just dry crying, crying with bilkul, liquid tears. I see Auntie behind Tinu, one hand holding on to the middle of her red bathrobe, holding it together over her chest, other hand falling with force over the back of Tinu’s head.

I hear the smack when she gives a good tamacha on the back of his neck. Another cry from him. I hear him shuffle on all fours further forward till a thud follows, a kick from Auntie to push him down flat.

I smell something rotting, like the smell of Lost Timers Outside, or the smell from the other tunnels near the Well, but more ferocious than all that, something that knocks me dull, like the smell of dead superrat at Splash Day. 

“Montu!” Auntie says between gasps, “Montu, your brother tried to steal my Nutri Safe key. To steal your Daddy’s water.”

Tinu screams and Auntie kicks him down again.

“He’s a little thief, your brother,” her voice quivers, she spits liquid somewhere in front of her. “He stole from you, Montu. Now, he’s stealing from your Daddy.”

He stole from me. He took my sip, and now I bring more water for him and Daddy and Auntie and little tattiboy just couldn’t wait, could he? I race up to him, now ignore Daddy lying there next to us, and I land a kick on Tinu’s face. The shoe sole, all metal, meets him somewhere below his eye and there’s a satisfying small crunch and Tinu cries some more.

I kick him again, a good one on his forehead. He lifts his upper body up in reflex and my third kick is splat on the middle of his chest. “Owww” he whelps.

“Kill that little thief,” Auntie says, she shouts. She jumps a little, angrier than I’ve ever seen her before except that one time before Mummy’s death. She’s holds her bathrobe but it opens up below her neck and her babas bounce up together so I stare back down and kick Tinu again.

“Montu!” it’s Tinu. “Montu, I came to see Daddy. Daddy doesn’t move anymore, Montu. Daddy doesn’t move!”

From behind, Auntie steps forward and now aims another kick under him, her metal sole clobbers his chest.

“Montu!” Tinu, again.

Now, I stomp him to silence. Now he’s as noiseless as Daddy on the bed.

“Get him out,” Auntie screams close to my face, “Get him out of this house Montu. Leave him Outside with the Lost Timers.”

He is light, surprisingly, much lighter than I could have imagined when I lift him off the floor. There is a bruise under his left eye, turning his light-brown skin pink and red. The rest of his body is limp, and I cradle him in both arms and walk out of Daddy and Auntie’s room, through the Central Safety Room, and out the corridor to the main door. I will need to turn three separate knobs to unlock the door to the Outside and I haven’t done it for four hundred days plus two more.

I move Tinu and place him over one shoulder, with his head hanging over behind me and the rest of his body sagging down in front. I turn the first knob.

Tinu feels heavier. I lift him higher up my shoulder, beside my head, to balance him evenly on my front and my back. I turn the second knob.

I stagger back under his dead weight. Tattiboy. I shrug him off my shoulder so his body falls with a thump on the floor by my feet. Third knob.

And then I push, and my arms go weaker, as if the door is pushing back into me. The thirst returns. I have no thoughts but pushpushpush get Tinu Outside like Auntie said. Get him out, get the thief out. I have to close my eyes because my eyelids feel heavier and it’s all blurry. Push.

The door pops open and I open my eyes, too.

Bright. So bright. Why is it so bright? Time, oh it’s daytime of the Lost Time. Sun Skylight is still turned on, bright, it screams into my eyes. White and yellow. I close my eyes again.

Hot. Like Auntie’s kitchen fire but hotter and closer and the fire splashes over all of me like a wave.

I don’t want to see him lying there, bilkul, lifeless, so with my eyes still closed, I feel for his arms, pick up his body, and using all my power, fling my little brother outside the door. I hear a thud when he lands and before turning back inside, I open my eyes very careful way, just squinting to see where he landed, and there he is, a few feet on the dusty ground on the Outside and right next to him is the small girl body about the same size as him and her face looks, bilkul, like Chhoti, but by Utanifark, it isn’t her, it’s not her.

I close the door and lock all the knobs.

 

Incense wafts through the air, inside all the rooms: the dining room, the shitpit, Auntie and Daddy’s room, mine and Tinu’s room which now is only my room. Auntie is away, next to Daddy, her door half-open, and I can hear her murmuring to herself. She hears my footsteps and steps outside, bathrobe fastened tightly over her body, and I get one more glance at Daddy before she closes the door behind her.

“More water for the two of us now, Montu,” she says. Her voice is back to normal, bilkul, soft.

And what about Daddy, I ask.

“Yes, him too. Your Daddy is fine. He will be fine.”

That evening, Auntie lets me have two sips because I am extra thirsty from missing the morning sip and the visit to the well and Tinu stomping and cleaning the shitpit. I gulp it all down.

Let’s play, ‘Let’s sensationalise a new enemy to get people worried because the elections are coming up’…

For 1.324 billion players, ages whenever-you-start-suffering and up

 

Components and Setup

 

Welcome to India! This list of rules was conceived to allow you to play the game as fast as possible, or at least before the 2019 elections. After reading it, you will be able to explain and play the game.

 

To begin, we need to learn about the set up the game, something that has taken about 71 years in the game in its present form, and about 5,200 years of stone age civilizations, Indus Valley and the Harrapans, and the Vedic periods, and the Magadh dynasties, and Alexander the Not-So-Great, and the Mauryas and Guptas and Kadambas and a couple of religious offshoots, and the Rajputs, and the Mughals, and the British Raj and Independence.

 

Before you begin playing ‘Let’s sensationalise a new enemy to get people worried because the elections are coming up’, familiarise yourself with the Constitution of India. This might take a few weeks, or even a few months to complete. This is a very important document that will determine your freedoms as a “Citizen” (player) of this game. All the rules of this document must be followed, unless the ruling party decides that the rules are not important, in which case, you will be arrested for following them.

 

The gameboard is a detailed interior sketch of the Indian Parliament. Citizens begin outside the building, and, depending on units earned, move inside and towards the front of the House.

 

A pack of “Real Issues” cards (discussed further below).

 

IMG_5453.JPG

Overview and goal of the game

 

The goal of ‘Let’s sensationalise a new enemy to get people worried because the elections are coming up’ as a Citizen is to ensure that a majority of other Citizens remain unsettled enough, so that, by the time of the 2019 Indian General Election in April/May 2019, the country is scared into re-electing an authoritarian power.

 

Gameplay

 

Not all Citizens are equal. Some Citizens will have more turns in each turn than others. Read the Appendix Ranking of Citizens further below. 

 

Starting with the highest-ranking Citizen, the current Citizen does the following actions in any order, and after following the allocated number of turns mentioned in the Ranking of Citizens, it will be the next Citizen’s turn, and so on and so forth. The actions for each turn are:

 

1.     Play a “Real Issues” Card: Citizen in turn must play a “Real Issues” card that must be successfully distracted away from. Some examples of these cards include:

a.     Failing economy: rising prices of fuel and vegetables, slowing GDP rate, suffering value of the local currency vs. the US Dollar.

b.     Debilitating Poverty, Hunger, and Economic Imbalance: This is a permanent issue and a card that will always return to the game no matter how many times it is played.

c.     Climate Change: Easily debunked, however, when the Supreme Leader says: “Climate has not changed. We have changed.”

d.     Pollution: Finally reaching number one on the global charts.

e.     Rising Intolerance between communities of different religions and castes: Some Citizens might consider this to be a strength of the gameboard.

f.      Treatment of Women: Female foeticide, denial of education, rape, forced marriage, more rape, more molestation, domestic abuse, domestic rape, lack of employment, income disparity, forced divorce, forced to live a suppressed widowed life, and rape.

g.     Illiteracy / failing education system

h.     Overpopulation: There are too many people complaining about too many people because there are too many people.

i.      Political corruption

j.      Hygiene and sanitation: Not “swachh” enough yet.

 

2.     Create a new Outrage: Outrages are the main driving component of the game. A successful outrage is one that doesn’t exist in the usual day-to-day gameplay of the Citizens, but can be manifested to create turmoil on the gameboard. The best Outrages work in antithesis to the Citizen’s intellectual common sense (but then again, you’d be playing ‘Let’s create a functioning society’ if you wanted to apply common sense to your actions). Some example successful Outrages include:

a.     Anything that offends a cow. Bovine creatures are obviously the most important beings in the game, ranking higher than gods, humans, and minorities. Cheeseburgers and steaks and beef momos and gaumas kebabs are offensive. Leather belts and sandals and jackets are offensive. The disregard of cow urine is offensive. However, player may not mention common facts about the beef economy, such as India being the highest beef exporter in the world. Any such intellectualisation will result in a skipped turn. 

b.     A film or book or piece of art (mainstream or niche) that supposedly insults a small subsection of society for religious reasons. Don’t worry if your chosen piece of art is actually insulting; in game-play, all that matters is if you convince the other Citizens to make up their minds before they have a chance of watching/reading/experiencing the art for themselves.

c.     Anything that invokes historical wrong to those unaffected in modern times. A basic rule of thumb here is: the more ancient this invocation, the more unremarkable its modern effects, the more effective this Outrage will be. Think in the lines of “Emperor Babur took ordered a village woman to be his courtesan in 1527, so I have a right to kill everyone who has read a book about him in 2018.”

d.     Anything that involves people of different religions, castes, or social strata getting married to each other.

e.     Anything that involves people of the same gender having relations with each other.

f.      Anything that involves a gender choice that makes any other unaffected subsection of Citizens irrationally uncomfortably.

g.     Anyone who interprets millennia old books/teachings on religion differently than the official interpretation by the Citizen holding the ‘Spiritual Card’. Read more about the ‘Spiritual Card Citizen’ in the Ranking of Citizens below.

h.     Anyone that rejects religion altogether.

 

3.     Stoking the flame: After Citizen has chosen the appropriate Outrage, the next step is to “stoke the flame”, like one would on a chulha cooking stove. Citizen in play must ensure maximum over-stimulation of their chosen Outrage based on their Access Cards. With this move, the Outrage can be shared as gossip in local communities, on WhatsApp to go viral online, or make it to the evening debate with Arnab Goswami.

 

The most successful “stokes” will be the ones that are faked. This is a special level achieved by skilled players to turn untruths into truths and still ensure an Outrage with maximum emotional/physical violence.

 

4.     New Enemy Sensationalised: Now that the flame has been stoked, it is time for the Citizen to create a New Enemy on the game-board that distracts other Citizens from their ‘Real Issues’ card. New Enemy brackets are on the side of the game-board, and include entities such as:

a.     Pakistan

b.     Kashmir

c.     JNU Students

d.     Naxals

e.     Pakistan

f.      Intellectuals

g.     Anyone who reads books about Naxals

h.     Anyone who reads any books

i.      China

j.      Muslims who marrying Hindus

k.     Pakistan

l.      Low-caste Hindus marrying high-caste Hindus

m.   Bangladeshi migrants

n.     Liberal Media

o.     NGOs

p.     Comedians

q.     Beef Eaters

r.      Pakistan

 

Game points are earned when any of the above ‘Enemies’ are stoked in the forms detailed in Part 3 above (WhatsApp, Arnab, etc.). The discrepancy between “Real Issue” vs. “New Enemy” will be the Worry Quotient in the game, and will reflect directly on the number of points that the Citizen will earn per turn. This will be the unit that the Citizen will move per turn—higher and closer towards the ultimate goal of higher political office.

 

Game end and final scoring

 

The object of the game is to move seats closer to the front of the house, one by one, earning more power and influence in the game. Citizens move up to local MLAs, to chief ministers, to cabinet positions, all the way to the Prime Ministerial seat!

 

The player highest up in the House has the ability to cause the most Worry Quotient, and thus, ensure that a new enemy has been sensationalised before the next elections!

 

Appendix: Ranking of Citizens

 

Cows

Rich Hindus

Godmen (‘Spiritual Card Citizen’)

Actual Gods

Brahmins (‘Spiritual Card Citizen’)

Rich Everyone Else

Other ‘touchable’ Hindu castes

Sikhs

Buddhists

Christians

Other religions

North-Easterners

Real Naxals

Urban Naxals

Dalits

Muslims

Tribals

Kashmiri Muslims

Terrorists

Anti-Nationals

Beef eaters

 

Enjoy ‘Let’s sensationalise a new enemy to get people worried because the elections are coming up’! But don’t enjoy too much because the game will be banned. Make it a sanskari enjoyment, you know?

 

Khamba was the first to understand

A little flash fiction... written December 2017

 

Pulkit saw it first from outside the hut. Past the open door, there was a blue shape of somebody’s leg. A human leg.  

“It’s a person!”

“Bullshit,” AJ said.

Khamba, who was the slowest to climb up into the clearing behind them, had already smelled it: a putrid mixture of dung cakes and rotten eggs. A dead body.

“It’s a person.” Pulkit repeated.   

“No, idiot,” AJ slapped him on the back of his neck. “It’s just a piece of wood or something. Wipe your glasses.”

“It’s a person, dude.”

“It’s a person,” Khamba confirmed. “He’s dead.”

DSCN5309.JPG

AJ turned back to Khamba and waved his staff at him. “And how do you know it’s a ‘he’, bastard. Dead people can be women, too.”

“Fine,” Khamba nodded. “She’s dead.”

Three years ago, it had taken Khamba’s father sixteen full days to talk to him about his mother’s death. “Don’t worry, this just happens sometimes,” his father had said with an arm over Khamba’s shoulders in a warm embrace. “People think death is an accident, but no, son, life… life is the accident.

“Where are we?” Pulkit walked around the hut to see if there was anyone else to witness their discovery. The hut was thin and long, the shape of a train bogie somehow displaced in the middle of the Himalayas. Tall shrubs of green grass had overgrown around it. Its roof was a corrugated metal sheet, and the surface of the metal was folded into hundreds of smaller drains on both sides of the rooftop.

AJ decided to terminate his disbelief and take charge of the moment. He was, after all, the first to turn thirteen this year. It had been his idea to follow the trail snaking up this hill. “It’s fucking dead,” he said. “Someone should go in.”

“Are you wacko?” Pulkit pointed at the door. “It’s someone’s dead body. Smells so gross, man.”

“Khamba, you go,” AJ turned to his left and said. “You have smelled worse, haven’t you? Have you smelled Khamba’s socks, Pulkit? It’s a rotten gas chamber. Khamba: touch the dead He-She.” 

What are the chances of a planet supporting life in this empty universe? And for thousands of forefathers to carry her genes, and one sperm being chosen among a million, and then, for her to become something that never existed before?

AJ and Pulkit had invited Khamba on the trip to Dhanaulti with both of their parents, but Khamba was there without his father. The other parents had been extra cautious with him: they admonished their sons when the group played Chor-Police too late into the night, but let Khamba go easy. Khamba knew he would have to answer to his friends when the grown-ups weren’t around.

“Khamba, AJ’s right,” Pulkit added, but his voice grew sombre. “It has to be you. You are the only one who has touched a dead body before. If you do it once, you have the curse forever.”

“Yes, yes,” AJ giggled. “You’re already a cursed gas chamber, Khamba. Don’t give us your deadfuck curse.”

“Shut up, AJ,” Pulkit said seriously, “It was his mother.”

“So, what? He isn’t scared. Are you, Khamba?”

Khamba took a few steps on the grass towards the door. The shapes became a little clearer inside. The leg was folded on its knee, as if the person had been kneeling down before the body fell backwards. She wore blue pyjamas, and the closer Khamba got, the more he saw how much her limbs had bloated to fill up her loose garments.

What else was she destined to do after she was born, but die?

Khamba was close enough to the door to see the leathery skin sagging off her face, and her grey hair, and an army of unidentifiable small insects gorging over her.

Just then, there was a loud yelp, and he was pushed forward through the dark doorway. AJ closed the wooden door behind him and bolted it.

AJ and Pulkit laughed outside. “Let him out, dude,” Pulkit said, giggling

“Just give him one minute!” AJ pleaded. They waited for Khamba to plead or knock or cry or scream, but there was no sound.

It was pitch dark inside the hut, and Khamba couldn’t even see dead woman beside him. He sighed and waited, patiently, hoping someone would soon let him out. He inhaled her stench. He didn’t flinch when it rushed up his nostrils.