Saturday, June 27, 2009

A childhood unexpected

Kulti is a little town in north west West Bengal close to the Bihar/Jharkhand border. During the early decades after Independence, it was a place bubbling with enthusiasm and energy with a steel plant and all the auxiliary government infrastructure that comes with it. A major portion of my dad's childhood was spent in this town, my grandfather being a government officer was posted here for a significant number of years. We had grown up listening to stories of the house where my dad and his 3 siblings had spent the formative years of their life but had never had a chance to see it yet at least not within my first meaningful memories. My cousin's marriage a couple of years ago afforded me an oppurtunity to visit this marker of my dad's past.

During a vacuum in the marriage proceedings, we as a family managed to sneak out of my uncle's house and drive a little down the road and up the hill where the house of childhood legend was located. When we got there, it was evident like the rest of Kulti this house too had seen better days. The paint was peeling, the garden was overgrown with weeds and the beauty of the spacious verandah was blighted by strings laden with drying clothes - all indicators of the less than ideal economic circumstances of the family residing there now. We didn't venture inside the house leaving it to its most recent residents and hoped that all the families that had lived in it and left since the 1960s when my grandparents moved out had found peace and happiness within its old walls. I looked upon the road below the hill which was quite some way down from where I stood on the path leading to the garden and the house, and contemplated some things which had never occurred to me before.

It is really easy to imagine mom as a child because like all women she is given to very visible displays of emotions, call them little displays of immaturity if you will. The pampering of my mom by my maternal grandparents right up to their last days gave me a clear enough picture of her as a child. The amount of time invested by moms in bringing up their children provides enough time for the kids to understand enough of their mom's nature to consider the possibility of her ever having a childhood.

But to think of the cheerful but notoriously stable guy who set out on his daily office trip like a man on a mission in the same uniform and in the same frame of mind, of having any other avatar was quite difficult. My paternal grandmom however had passed away before I was even born and my first memories of my dad's dad are those of a genial but painfully restricted and bed ridden old man. The only real display of my Dad giving in to emotion I can remember is when he let his stubble grow for a week's time on my grandfather's death, an unprecedented event in my dad's disciplined life.

To stand here on this ground was to discover a new image of my Dad's life. Of a kid who used to leap out of the back windows of the house when being punished by being locked into a room for some misdemeanour, the boy who would spend too many hours playing out in the sun with the family's pet Alsatian, Tiger pausing only when scolded back into the house at the end of the day, of a guy smitten by the huge American cars that plyed the roads those days and eager for any chance he got to ride in them, of the cycle trips that he and his classmates would undertake in what was then the wilderness of Kulti - all those much heard stories danced around me with vivid life. A child who I had never really thought existed was standing beside me and grinning.

Gilded cage

No one is really free inspite of their vehemently claiming so. Everyone walks around with a cage around them, all at once serving the dual purpose of restricting and protecting them. Like God, the rule of law seems like a sort of distant irrelevant reality until the moment of crisis arrives. Then it is the only shelter around from miles and miles of barren, unforgiving lands.

I found this out very recently when I was nearly swindled in a used car deal and managed to get justice through some rules I had hardly paid attention to before. I was glad that someone had foreseen the exact predicament that I found myself in and had ensured that there was a fair way out of it for me. We spend our happy-go-lucky lives thinking that the sun will always shine so very bright. The truth is that the sun does get blotted out much too regularly and that we can thank our lucky stars that someone had the vision to plan for it all.

These are not the laws of God that I am talking about. Its the laws of men, of civilized nations and borne out of great minds, of hundreds of sheets of paper where every possible scenario has been played out and there is an exact specification of how it is to be handled. I think every constitution is an infinite novel: mix and match, pick and choose and you'll have a billion possible combinations and a trillion interesting stories. Right from the day I was born in a hospital in Calcutta and my name was noted down on a piece of paper to the hour of my death when a doctor will pronounce me lost to the material world, someone has thought of every plausible or implausible mishap that might waylay me and that to me is a very amazing achievement. I tend to get dazzled by the flashiness of technology and swayed by the deep reaching impact of art. I tend to forget that the only entity that plans (maybe imperfectly) for a safe and happy life for all good individuals in a quiet, unobtrusive way is neither art nor science or not even God. It is the gilded cage we all choose to live in but rarely appreciate enough, called the law of the land.

Friday, June 26, 2009


It's the one word which sums up sufficiently these first 3 years of my working life. When it comes to learning some new skill or technology that might actually help in furthering my present career, I successfully ward it off till it ceases to be of any relevance. Civil Services preparation? Pushed back initially to a later time when I'd have more time on my hands and when the time came of not having less time as an excuse, kicked so far behind that it'll have to wait till my next birth (provided I am lucky enough to be a human again). Taking up anything remotely related to making my dream job of being a writer come true? Indefinitely delayed for very ill defined reasons. In recent times, all activity related to the purchase of an ultra necessary car and the paperwork related to my parents' coming over are the latest to be hit out of bounds by my incredibly powerful and fail safe 'postpone' club.

It seems that the completion of all meaningful targets and indulging in possibly life rejuvenating activities always come with three options for me - 'Yes', 'No' or 'Postpone'. It is easy to forget that the big red 'Postpone' button that I have nonchalantly hit every single time such a choice confronted me is linked at the root to the 'No' button. It is a strange way of buying more time even though the ultimate choice has already been made. A fine method indeed it is of accepting that despite having surrendered and laid down my arms, I am either too proud or too yellow livered to publicly acknowledge defeat. The need to work for making something interesting of my life should be my pressing concern right now but I find that like every other important objective of my life, this bold vision too has been postponed.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Pool cool

I was very enthusiastic about learning to swim, at least much more than my lazy bones sister. I recall clearly the eagerness with which I had bought my swimming trunks and the joyful thrill of entering a swimming pool on a hot summer's day for the first time. Then on the very same day, I managed to slip in the shallow end of the pool causing chlorinated water to surge through my nose and spent a few seconds lying prostate on the tiled floor of the pool looking at the glimmering sun through 3 feet of water. I convinced myself that this was a near death experience, a close parallel to how drowning must feel like and from that moment my urge to go swimming was nowhere to be found. However the Rotary Club's swimming coach cum lifeguard was dogged enough to teach me enough about swimming to help me keep comfortably afloat. I will be eternally grateful to him for his lack of patience, because one day exasperated by my reluctance beyond measure he simply chucked me into the deep end of the pool and I discovered that I could swim for the pool's edge like I was born in water.

Water is so not a human being's natural habitat and that is what makes swimming so much fun. It's the closest thing to flying that an ordinary man can come to even though he is gliding through a fluid of a different kind from air. The tiny bubbles of air leaking through the tiles at the bottom of the deep end of the pool were always such a tantalising attraction. Just to dive down into the deepest point of the pool (All of 15 feet) and place hands on the steady stream of bubbles trying to choke them out offered an incomparable thrill. When friends would get together, there were sessions of stunt diving with most of them ending in a disastrous, painful and comical manner. Amidst the anarchy caused by us kids, there'd be the serious types committed to doing their 50 laps for the day and often impeded by us the plastic ball chasing amphibian hooligans. Stern glances were dealt out to little effect because everyone knew that it was as much our pool as theirs. Then there were characters like the fat middle aged lady who'd start shouting from the other end of the pool, "Bacche log, hat jaoo! Auntyji aa rahi hai!" (Kids get out of the way, aunty is coming through) before wading her way through our pack like a wheezy whale leaving trails in her wake.

A summer evening spent in the pool letting the cool ripples of water wash over our bodies, packed as it was with screaming kids, consoling parents, irritated athletes and time killers like us was undoubtedly the best way to chill. Only when the sun went down below the horizon, the water started to turn a little chilly and the bottom of the pool reflected the floodlights in an eerie haphazard manner would we give up our 25m X 12.5m sea of comfort. Lumber out, limbs aching despite not having swum a single complete lap with serious intent, grab the tastiest plate of "bhel puri" ever made (at the moment, it felt so to our hungry souls) and trudge back into the boring and hot old world of soil & feet.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Uncool ninjas

There is a lot of effort required to make mysterious assasins, trained in the most lethal of martial arts look boring but anime the wildly popular Japanese style of animation manages to do just that. I wouldn't have had so much of a beef with anime and we would have stayed away from each other in mutual agreement had it not invaded my personal space for nearly an entire year. I had borrowed my friend Subbu's PC for almost the whole length of my final year of engineering and had had to patiently put up with the incredible stupidity and blind devotion of Naruto lovers.

I have always loved comics and animation and still do but somehow the Japanese style of doing things always manages to get my goat. The weirdly coloured hair, the boringly repetitive facial expressions and the unnecessary iterations of the camera panning away to reveal two opponents squaring off in yet another yawn inducing ninja battle were asking for too much if they were asking for my attention. Japanese voices sometimes too coarse and others too squeaky talking gibberish like the "chidori" (Thousand bird power), the triple seal curse or yelling "Sasuke Kan" had started to appear in my dreams. My room was always packed with Naruto fans who seemed to love even his retarded "ramen" weakness & giggled like teenage girls and the series ran in 24 hour cycles within the closed confines of my room. The show was astoundingly popular and I was frequently given incredulous looks by anime devotees for not having liked even the tiniest portion of it. Being in the same room as this shabby work of art was a pain but it was still my room so I had to manfully withstand this assault on my good taste. My stand was crystal clear: ninjas cool, anime totally uncool.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Shadowed by an angel

I was driving down to Braintree on Route 24-N, a dark mood weighing down my mind. My very first car, a used green 1997 Honda Civic which I had purchased with so much enthusiasm and a sense of achievement had turned out to be a heartbreaker. Within 2 weeks of taking possession of this car, I was on my way to return it to the used car dealer who had sold it to me and claim a full refund of the purchase cost. The Civic had seemed perfect on the outside and for a while ran like a dream. But very soon, there began significant clatters in the car and a Massachusetts Vehicle Inspection revealed that she had serious problems in her heart, the engine. What had seemed like the killer deal was now revealing many a skeleton in the closet.

So I rolled the windows down and turned the radio up old listening to my favourite station 94 HJY, trying to drown my disappointment in the pumped up guitars as I drove my first love for the the final time. After a few minutes on the highway, I looked up into the rearview mirror and found myself looking at a white Rolls Royce Phantom. It was a cloudy Saturday but to me it was as if the sun had come out. She continued to trail behind me, this phantom in white floating as it were on the same road that lesser vehicles like mine noisily grated their tyres on. There was no sense in holding up this divine creature so I slowed down to let her drift by. But she persisted in her chase slowing down too, to continue soothing me by her exquisite presence. Right upto when I took the exit 20-A for Randolph/Braintree, she continued to tail me, a constant presence at the forefront of my mind despite physically being behind me.

I was sad no longer. The heavens had given me a clear sign that in life there is always something better to come!
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The longest day

So today was the longest day of the year and Father's Day at the same time. I did talk to my Dad at morning time India but didn't quite wish him a Happy Father's Day. Like most other dads, he's not really a fan of such moments of overt sentimentality. I am quite sure that even though both Mother's Day and Father's Day are marketing gimmicks by greeting card companies, Mother's Day is much bigger business for Hallmark than Father's. Moms are much more likely to be thrilled at being the focus of such sappy emotions. The few Father's Day cards that do sell must be daughters buying cards for their Daddy dearests. Fathers and sons share a very covert form of male bonding not to be embarassingly proclaimed by lovey dovey cards or flowers. Instead I went ahead and did something which my father was likely to do. On the most prolonged evening of the year, I went for a walk in the rain.

21st June also marks the official beginning of summer in the US but there were no indicators of that here in Massachusetts. It was a damp 17 degree centigrade all day long with the accompaniment of the lightest of light drizzles, more spray than rain. I decided to wish the sun goodbye on his most stretched out work-day for this entire year and he lingered around till nearly 9:10 PM before finally turning out his lights on this part of the world. The rain came down silently, the notes of water rushing through the drains and dripping off leaves dominating the soundscape. The occasional car grabbed the spotlight for a few seconds splashing noisily through the puddles before the subtler noises returned to claim what was theirs to begin with.

People don't walk in this town and anyone who does gets the most curious glances as he were some crack dealer. I used to notice the attention being showered on me, the lone walker but have thankfully have developed a healthy apathy to it. Lights were coming on in the streets and the little pools of water in the potholes of the road sparkled with life, the only life it seemed there was in these parts. Back home in India, a rainy evening would mean the noisiest of frog choruses and the chiming of temple bells or the muezzin singing the 'azaan'. Here, it meant even more of a deathly calm than a normal day if such a thing were possible. Nonetheless, I walked through the silence deliberately crunching my shoes on the gravel of the sidewalks in a futile attempt to remind myself that I was in a street lined on both sides with wonderfully kept houses. No activity at all on those impeccable porches or the neatly mown lawns, no life, no none at all. Even the pet dogs, those normally noisy protectors of their home turf let trespassers like me jaunt by. Folks in the USA apparently don't like the rain and neither do their dogs.

I ventured onto Main Street and watched as a cop car blazed by siren blaring followed closely by a fire engine lights flashing. This rainy evening certainly wasn't turning out to be a good one for someone out there. The shops were already all closed, today being a Sunday with the well dressed mannequins inside the glass displays still patiently putting up with the permanent spotlights cast on them. Taunton is an old town (Established 1639) and though the shops in downtown don't look even a quarter of how old they should look, there is a languid old timer feel to it. Portuguese names abound in the names of the displayed shops as the town has a large number of Portuguese immigrants. Law firms, rental agencies, barber shops: all shuttered waiting for another busy (hopefully) week to begin. There were no lights inside the musical instruments shop but with the aid of the last few rays of the sun and the insufficient streetlights I could make out the outlines of guitars and violins, some beaten old wrecks and some flashily new, all equally capable of inspiring joy or feeding despair. As the light faded for the last time this year, before the days become shorter again starting tomorrow peaking into a brutal and bare winter, I ran my fingers through my rain dampened hair and walked on nursing aggravatingly conflicting opinions on the necessity of change.

Dream debut

Everyone has had that dream and there is no way anyone would deny it. Anyone who has ever played a sport even at the street level knows what I am talking about. It doesn't really matter if their sporting experience was only plastic ball cricket in the narrow confines of a lane or 3 a side soccer inside what would constitute just the D of a full size soccer ground. The television switches on and the best in the business take the stage with thousand of crazed fans hollering their deities' names. With every cracking shot of Tendulkar's or with every sublime pass of Zidane's, the casual player dreams. Dreams of walking out to the centre of the roaring stadium for the first time, an unknown name and playing a magic record breaking innings or scoring the most sensational goal of all time. The stadium going berserk and the halo of adulation shining bright behind his head, a legend being born, a name forever etched in glowing letters on the wall of fame.

And there is someone who has actually lived that impossible dream of every sportsman or wanna-be sportsman in the world. 16 year old Shahid Afridi, a little known name finds his place in the Pakistani cricket team purely as a leg spinner. 4th October, 1996: Pakistan v/s Sri Lanka and it is Afridi's 3rd international match but it is the first time he has had a chance to bat. He is sent in as a pinch hitter to hit 30-40 quickfire runs.

So what does he do? He goes on to smash the fastest century of all time (37 balls) ON DEBUT! Against the likes of wily stalwarts like Muralitharan, Jayasuriya (co-incidentally the guy whose record he broke) and Dharmasena. Afridi's cricket career has slid downwards from that day on but boy, could he or for that matter anyone who has ever held a cricket bat in his hands have asked for an entry more glorious.