January 29, 2006

The 'Discount'

There are some people you don’t tangle with. You don’t tangle with them because you’ve searched the whole place for a book you hope is the one your friend wants but haven’t found it no matter how many shops you stepped into asking “Do you have something on pottery, pottery techniques that is?” only to be shown designer art-books showcasing riveting designs but very little about how to go about creating them, and you’re close to giving up after what you promise yourself that you’ll try one more time, just one more time.

My ‘One more time’ came on a sultry day in Fort off Victoria Terminus (renamed CST) in Bombay (renamed Mumbai). Ajay had asked me to look for a good book on pottery, particularly one about glazes. He’s set up a small studio on the first floor of his house in Goa, actually he’s using the entire floor for his clay-work. I thought I had a good chance of finding the book in Mumbai until I began to draw a blank shop after shop. But when I walked into Sterling Book House off DN Road in Fort after dodging a water melon stall and nearly bumping into two people tucking in red melon pieces with toothpicks from paper plates I was at the end of my search.

Once in, I had difficulty in getting the young shop assistant to understand what I was looking for. The word ‘pottery’ did not draw any response, he looked at me with a blank look.

“It’s what people prepare from clay, like pots, jars, cups and saucers,” I said, using my hands to shape a pot out of thin air. His eyes lit up and he disappeared between two narrow shelves in the elevated portion of the shop reached by climbing two steps a few feet off the desk where an old man sat, collecting payments and answering queries of people stepping into the bookshop looking for a book. The shelves were placed very close together to make up for lack of space in the shop. There was space only for a single person between them. If any of the shelves were any taller and if you were searching for a book near the top of the shelf chances were the back of your head would brush books in the shelf behind you. Outside the shop, beyond the hawkers’ stalls on the pavement adjoining the road, the sun shone bright and vehicles drove past, honking as they went. However it was cool inside the shop.

The shop-attendant came up to me with two books, the kind I find ornamental because apart from gorgeous designs and cursory information on pottery there is little else to satisfy an advanced amateur looking for techniques to advance his craft of pottery. As I waved them away the shop-attendant said, “Saab, we don’t have those kinds of books here. We only have these kinds.”

Most book shops did not. They kept a few titles which typically lasted them a year or two, sometimes more.

“Look again,” I said. He went away and returned the books to their sections and looked up another section. I saw him pluck a book out, dust it and head toward me. Glazes for the Craft Potter by Harry Fraser read the title. It was highly technical, dealing with the chemistry of glazes and formulations. I asked the shop attendant for a piece of paper and copied down the contents page and read them out to Ajay over the phone that evening. He was pleased with it. “What’s the cost,” he asked.

“₤14.99, about Rs. 1,300,” I replied.

“Ok, get it,” he said.

Two weeks later I returned to Sterling Book House. The old man was still there. The book was an old edition and had probably lain on the shelf for years, and two weeks was not about to see someone step into the shop for it I thought as I walked into the book shop.

“I want to buy the book ‘Glazes for the Craft Potter by Harry Fraser’,” I told the old man at the counter. He wore a white shirt, full sleeves. He seemed to favour white shirts, for he had one on the last time too.

“We don’t have it,” he said. Taken aback it took me a moment to recover. In two weeks a book that’d lain in silence for several years was gone! A sinking feeling took hold of me, somehow I could not believe it was gone. Surely there was a mistake somewhere.

“Someone bought it?” I asked him.

“No. We never had it,” the old man replied.

Colour returned to my face and I smiled. At least no one had bought it I thought.

“No, it can’t be,” I said. “Just two weeks ago I saw it here.” I was alarmed at the turn of events.

The old man put his work aside, adjusted his glasses and looked up at me.

“We don’t have it. I know we don’t have it,” he said. His tone had a finality generally common to old men. “Maybe it is there,” he said, pointing to a bookshop across the street from his. “Go there, maybe you’ll find it,” he said.

“But I saw the book in your shop here, just fifteen days ago,” I said, exasperated.

“That’s our shop too,” he said pointing at BookZone across the road. “Check there, you might find it.”

Reluctant, I made my way out. Maybe they’ve shifted some books there I thought. But I had a strong feeling that BookZone didn’t have it. I was correct. They didn’t have it. I made my way back to the Sterling Book House and confronted the old man.

“They don’t have it,” I told him and taking a slip of paper from my pocket I held it out in front of his face. “Look, this is the page on which I copied the book’s content page, and this page was given to me by your shop attendant.” I looked around to see if I could recognize the shop attendant I met the last time I was here. He was nowhere to be seen. Then turning to the old man I repeated, “It was only two weeks ago that I saw it here,” and drew his attention to the contents in the slip of paper and the title of the book written in capital letters on the page.

“But we don’t keep those Harry Potter kind of books around here,” he said.

“Harry Potter?” I exclaimed at this unexpected turn of events.

“Yes, we don’t keep those kind of books,” he said dismissively. I smiled the second time that day.

“Sir,” I said, relief washing over me. “It’s not a Harry Potter book. The book is titled ‘Glazes for the Craft Potter’ and is by Harry Fraser.”

He kept quiet for a moment and turned to look at the shop attendant who was listening on, and then he let out the faintest of smiles and signaled to the shop attendant to go get it. In two minutes the book was on the table. Considering that the old man had hid his embarrassment rather well I thought I might succeed in wrangling out a discount on the book. Some bookshops are open to it considering that they get paid a sales commission between 30% to 40% on the book price, and do not mind passing some of it to the buyer. Moreover this particular book had lain on the shelf for a long time, I thought that he must be pleased to see it ‘go’. So when he drew his calculator from the drawer to convert the ₤14.99 into rupees, I suggested that he give me a discount on the book. Without looking up at me, busy punching keys on the calculator, he said, “you’re getting it at a discount.” And he presented me the bill. I had one look at the figure and half-shouted, “What discount!”

He had converted the book price to its full equivalent in Indian rupees, totaling over 1,300 rupees. “You haven’t given me any. You’ve drawn up the bill for the full amount,” I said.

“This book in your hands is the old edition, costing ₤14.99. The new edition costs five pounds more at “₤20.00,” he said looking up at me. “If I had covered this one’s price with a label showing ₤20.00 you wouldn’t have known. But I didn’t do it. I let the original price show, so I’ve saved you five pounds. Consider that your discount.”

I looked at him silently, wondering if there was anything in his hard boiled face that I could identify that explain his cheekiness. There wasn’t. He was serious, dead serious.

January 20, 2006

For three rupees I fell for it

“Company ka gaadi hai, wholesale rate hai, kewal teen teen rupaiyya,” the voice announced. Curious, I retraced my steps. It was a Saturday, and with nothing in particular to engage my attention I had ventured out to Fort to explore the bylanes of Bombay.

I find a rickshaw carrier parked in the middle of the street opposite The Fort Central hotel. 1942 read the letters on the hotel’s display board. Unlike some old hotels you see in Bombay, this one looked refurbished, nothing to show from the outside its sixty four years. I was disappointed. I was hoping to see the original d├ęcor and furniture, and feel to the place. Outside the hotel, people sit in the shade of trees. A banana vendor sits down and prepares to set up his basket. A group of three in white topis and dhotis sit in a circle talking, under a tree. Another group is in the middle of a card game, gathered around a newspaper in the middle and laying cards on it. A man sits cross-legged engaged with a crossword. A shoe-shine boy has set up his shoe-shine box and already has a customer.

“Company ka gaadi hai, wholesale rate hai, kewal teen teen rupaiyya,” the voice blares out again. The rickshaw-carrier is painted light green. In small letters, Sadguru Prasanna graces the top of the windscreen. The rickshaw-carrier has a Maharashtra number plate, MH-14 AH-192. To the back, under a canvas top, is a freezer and a callow youth stands beside it, bending awkwardly to avoid brushing the canvas top with his head. The freezer has two openings. He has opened one and reaching in draws out two ice-cream bars. Three people are gathered around the back of the rickshaw-carrier.

“Malai chocobar, malai chocobar. Sirf do minute rukhega,” announces the driver, his right leg jutting out of the carrier, steering the vehicle while announcing in the microphone. More people gather. The rickshaw-carrier is parked in the middle of the road. Playing cards are returned in a pack to their case and the men troop to the carrier to buy the chocobars.

“Sirf teen rupaiyya. Wholesale rate retail mein. Sirf do minute rukhega. Maallllllaaaaaai Chakobaaaarrr.” At the back of the carrier, the youth is overwhelmed with hands stretching out in his direction. He works furiously, reaching in the freezer to draw the chocobars in cardboard covers out. The crowd draws more crowds. People in crisp grey trousers and creased shirts, office-goers taking a break from work, crowded the back of the carrier offering five-rupee coins. Women came out, in salwar kameez, denims, saris, skirts. Infused with energy from seeing the response to his exhortations, the driver went one notch higher. He roared.

“Company ka gaadi hai, wholesale rate hai, kewal teen teen rupaiyya. Maallllllaaaaaai Chakoooobaaaarrrrrrrr. Siiirrrrrrffffff teeeeeeeeeen ruuuupyyyyyya.”

Emerging from Fort Central Hotel, a tallish man pushed his way through the crowd and strode up to the driver’s cabin and pulled at the door harshly. Startled, the driver moved his elbow out of the way just in time to see the man slam his door shut.

“Get Ouuuuut,” he screamed at the driver, pushing at the door with his left hand as the stunned driver tried to push open the door. The microphone was still on, and the driver’s curses in marathi muttered under his breath are broadcast to the crowd. At the back, the crowd surges and the youth gives out the chocobars as fast as he possibly can, collecting three rupees, and giving out the change.

Seeing the man seething in fury at his rickshaw crowding the street in front of his hotel, obstructing his customers and possibly drawing their attention away, the driver wisely chooses to move ahead, still cursing in marathi under his breath. “Ya aila.” He moves a few metres ahead in front of a side street and promptly blocks the traffic emerging from the side lane, descending into verbal slanging with angry motorists in the side lane. Empty cardboard packets now litter the street.

“Teeen rupya, company ice cream, straight from the company. Just three rupees,” he announces into the microphone, having regained his composure and steadfastly ignoring the motorists gesticulating from behind car windscreens. Two of them have stepped out of their cars now and are walking briskly to the driver. More trouble. Undaunted, he calls out “Malai Chokobaaar. Maaalaaaaai.”

Eventually I fall for it. I knew this was a con job. For all his announcements of this being a ‘company offer’ nowhere on the vehicle, advertising the chocobar on the sides, was any company information. There was no company name mentioned nor its location, not on the vehicle, nor the packets, only a picture on the carrier showing the chocobar and text celebrating its taste: Chocobar Ice Cream. Wah! Kya Swad hai. The Chocobar itself came in a cheap cardboard pack without any company name nor location details. On one side of the pack, information listed the content of the Chocobar's outer layer, inner layer, and ingredients. The only ingredient I could recognize was ice, and I feared its quality.

“Paanch rupaaiiiyyya ka teen,” he announces to speed up the sale. There isn’t much time left now. It is a narrow road and he has invited angry responses from motorists using the street. Dhondi, the old lady, buys one chocobar and returns to her place on the pavement by her cow, Sita. I reach for one, handing over three rupees to the youth. Just one bite and I knew I had been had, royally. The chocolate layer was no chocolate, only chocolate colour. Underneath was ice. As for malai, the cream that the driver announced repeatedly, it was imagination. There was no cream that I could identify. As for sweetness, I only imagined some, but there was none. I smiled, embarrassed at having fallen for it despite initial skepticism, and looked around sheepishly to see if anyone was watching me. No one was.

“There is nothing in this, just ice, no cream (malai),” a boy eating the chocobar tells me. “Since there is no cream, only ice, how can I call it an ice cream? I’ll call it ice instead, na chocolate ice is a better name,” he says, grinning. I smile back. Just one bite and I cast the ‘chocolate ice’ out. It’s over twenty minutes now that the rickshaw-carrier has been in business on this street. Empty packets litter the street, over a hundred of them. The carrier moves ahead, forced by the motorists it was obstructing.

Two policemen on patrol stop their bike and ask the rickshaw-carrier to park on the side of the road, and ask for his driving license, as is the practice with cops when they want to probe you. I notice the driver trying to engage the cops in a conversation at which one of them snaps at him in marathi, “Samjath nahi ka Marathi.” (Don’t you understand Marathi?). Marathi is the local language, local to Maharashtrians who’re fiercely possessive of their own, almost parochial, and dismissive of others. It is common knowledge that if you know Marathi and can pass off as a Maharashtrian you’ll have little trouble with the local cops.

Within minutes the crowd that had thronged the street has dispersed. I make my way to the narrow lane, past Dhondi and Sita. I pat the cow on its hump. To its left is parked a scooter with a sidecar. A teen is ensconced in it and eating the chocobar. The old lady, Dhondi, turns to him and pointing to her chocobar, says,” There is nothing in this. It’s not even sweet.”

I cannot resist recollecting the taste or the lack of it as I walk past them. In a few minutes I emerge from the lane into the bustle of D.N Road, near Alice building and turn my head to see its empty arches. To my left is Flora fountain. I turn right and find myself in the middle of hawkers running helter skelter, carrying away their wares. I 've unwittingly walked into a raid on hawkers by the city Municipal Corporation, and I find myself beside an elderly gent in an Islamic skull cap and flowing beard whom the hawkers call Bohri bhai. But that is another story.

January 19, 2006

Because cows don't talk

They made for quite a sight not that anyone bothered looking at them in the busy street. People using the inside road that branched off the Cawasji Patel street were those who knew their way about the place, knew why they were there, and went about their daily way with minimum fuss. The unlikely couple at the street corner appeared to be a permanent fixture on the narrow pavement that turns off the Cawasji Patel street into Nadirsha Sukhia street, a narrow lane that joins the DN Road near the Khadi Bhavan chowk, a short distance off Flora Fountain in Fort.

At the turn where the narrow pavement runs past a shop selling suits, jodhpuris, and sherwanis, an old lady in a green, cotton sari sat cross-legged on the pavement, her back to the wall showcasing colourful suits and sherwanis in a glass display behind her. To her right, stacked lengthwise were grass stems in a small bunch, whittled down to its current size by passers-by buying it off the old lady to feed her genial cow tethered in front of her, now regarding its surroundings with a timeless calm that few other animals are capable of, with the possible exception of ruminating buffaloes. And the only buffaloes I’ve seen in my time in Bombay are at tabelas (shelters for milking cattle) I pass on my way to SEEPZ on the Jogeshwari link road. But cows can be found in Powai, by the side of the road that leads past Hiranandani. I cannot remember seeing untended buffaloes on the roads.

Like most Jerseys, this one too is a mix of black and white spots, and big liquid eyes. I cannot resist touching a cow when I see one. It could be that the reverence for the animal stems from growing up in a hindu household. I patted the cow’s face and trailed my finger along the outside curve of the horn before bending down toward the old woman, and pointing to the grass stacked by her side, I said, “Give me for two rupees,” offering her a two rupee coin. Eager to make the extra rupee before leaving for home now that her stock of cattle-feed was almost over, she said, “For three rupees you can have the whole lot.” I gave her the extra rupee and collected the small bundle from her before dropping it in front of the cow.

It was nearing half-past two in the afternoon. I imagine the old lady and the cow took their places at the street corner early in the morning. The stack of cattle-feed must have been sizeable when they started out early in the day. Watching the cow bend to chomp on the feed I’d just placed before it, I wondered if the cow knew what was expected of it when offered the feed by anyone buying it from the old lady, for, if it were to ignore it from being full from eating such offerings through the day, the old lady would lose business. She counted on people buying cattle-feed from her to feed her cow. It helped that people revered cows and considered it poonya to feed one.

In villages, even small towns, stray cows visit homes and wait to be fed before visiting the next one. By the end of the day their foreheads are heavily coloured with kumkum and haldi powder that women adorn the cows’ forehead with before offering them food, usually rice, gram, and the like, sometimes leftovers from chopping vegetables. The scene repeats each day at the same time. I suppose if a cow can read time without having to look at a clock, it can surely understand what it needs to do to keep it’s ‘owner’ in business, for, I’ve never seen them refuse any such offering made, even those that I’ve seen from the bus along LBS marg in Mulund, and the one before a temple past Asalfa in Ghatkoper on my way to the office. Each one is tended by a lady. The Mulund one has two cows tied near barbed wire fencing.

In three minutes, Sita, that’s what Dhondi, the old woman, said her cow’s name was, finished off the fresh feed. I looked at Sita. She looked back at me, ears still. We said nothing to each other. She did not blink nor move her face away when I stretched my hand to pat her snout. I wondered what she made of me. I can only wonder because cows don’t talk.

Then I wandered off into the lane, reading name boards as I went. Flavours and Aromatics, Sheet Exporters, Chemicals.

January 14, 2006

Margaret and Stream of Consciousness

The second day of the Writer's Workshop 'Authentic Voices' conducted by Margaret Mascarenhas at the Fundacao Oriente was unconventional in as much as it exasperated and thrilled. As she handed us yet another exercise I remember thinking 'Wow, she sure is a mean one.'

Margaret called the class to attention. Like on the first day, we began yesterday with 'journalling' or what Margaret called 'stream of consciousness writing'.

"Write continuously until I say 'stop'," she said. She had insisted on this exercise in her previous workshop too, before beginning each writing session. “The rules of 'journaling' are: Don't think, write whatever comes to your mind, even if it's rubbish," her voice pierced the silence in the room, drowning the low hum of the air conditioner at the back. Beyond the room the rain fell hard, drowning noises from the street. It rained heavily yesterday.

"Most writers are schizophrenic," she continued, "There is a constant conflict between the writer as a creator and the writer as an editor. The editor is mostly in control, telling the writer-part 'write this', 'write that'. If the editor in you starts talking during journaling', ask him to shut up. All that matters is - don't edit, don't cross out, don't worry about punctuation. Just keep your hand to it, and write." About then she smiled on noting surprised eyebrows of those confronting this for the first time. Absurdity, even if just on the surface, draws attention, and hence would appear to have a definite purpose. I thought her crisp voice, unmistakably American, having spent time in that country after majoring in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley, complimented her persona, sharp nose et al. She would make for a good teacher, I thought.

I had only recently finished reading her first novel 'Skin', published by Penguin over a year ago, telling the story of Pagan Miranda de Flores reverting to her roots, traveling from America to Goa, long after her paternal family disowned her Goan father after his marriage to her American mother. Her writing fairly raced, chronicling a fascinating story, lean in patches, and expansive otherwise.

Margaret stepped behind to the board that hung from a hook between the two windows that opened into a small garden adjacent to the road that led to the building. With her left hand she picked up a piece of chalk and wrote on the board the first few lines that she expected us to begin writing 'our rubbish' with. The sentence read : 'When I die, I will miss ....'

Then turning to face us she commanded, "Start with this take-off line," pointing to the intriguing sentence on the board behind her.

Wendell Rodricks, Cecil Pinto and I shared the same table. We put our heads to our writing pads and began writing all the things we would miss out on after dying. Elsewhere in the spacious hall, others were busy with their pens, and their dying thoughts. Margaret's voice rang out again, drilling into perplexed minds her faith in this exercise.

"Don't worry," she said, "I'll not be asking any of you to read out this part of your writing. This is just for yourself, to clear your mind for the serious writing ahead, to clear it of all the influences of the day as it prepares to focus on the task at hand. I use the method regularly before beginning writing, and have found it to be very useful." Then she narrated an incident where her friend had evinced curiosity in her notebooks containing her 'journaling' exercises.

"I've over twenty notebooks of this garbage," she said, smiling, "and I gave her the notebooks to read. After she went through some of them, she told me 'Wow, now I feel great.' I asked her, 'Why?' She replied with, 'Now I know that a published writer can write such shit.' Around the room, smiles broke out, indicating acceptance of using 'writing rubbish to clear rubbish out.' Five minutes later Margaret called out: "STOP." And we stopped writing. Strangely, I remember feeling exhausted after this exercise. Then it was time to begin learning about character development.

"Writing is a lonely process,” she said looking at her class. "When you build characters that you might not like, go for it, even if it is scary," she said as we plunged into an interesting second day full of exercises, readings, critiques, and smiles.

"My way of embracing the lonely aspect of writing - I embrace my characters. I talk with the 15 characters appearing in my book," she explained as we got down to tackling an exercise in developing a character.

Later, different aspects of writing dominated the remains of the Fontainhas evening. Time had closed out yesterday's session rather quickly, I thought, remembering the details as I looked up the road for signs of other participants. It was about time for the third and final day of the workshop, today, to begin.

Note: Margaret's Home Page.

January 13, 2006

At Willy's place in Khotachiwadi

Willy Felizardo sitting outside his house in Khotachiwadi in Girgaum, Bombay. Willy works at Bothello's garage, and 'enjoys' his drink, and plays the guitar in impromptu singing sessions at birthday parties, and church programmes.

Behind him on the wall is the tilework he did, as also the floor in the small courtyard inside his house where he stays with his brother's (John Felizardo) family.

To one corner of the courtyard is a fish tank. He pointed out to me a biggish bloke swimming inside. "He's been with me for 14 years," Willy said while I looked on trying to comprehend what it means to have a fish for a companion for 14 long years. Behind us in the courtyard near where a door opened into his house, a sloping roof dwelling dwarfed by tall buildings, his friends lazed out in the warm afternoon sun, sipping beer and liquor, an East Indian couple among them.

Away from Goa for a long time, "born and brought up here, in Bombay," Willy's konkani is hesitant though he tried gamely to match mine. "I hardly get to talk the language here," he told me.

He invited me into his house, introduced me to his friends settled in a circle around a low table, sipping drink from glasses, and then went out to fetch me a cold drink from the shop around the corner. I sure needed one in the sun that day.

Seeing me trail my eyes over some artifacts, he showed me his driftwood collection that he had fashioned out into interesting forms from driftwood he had collected from various locations on his trips around the city. "I found this one near a construction site once. I hired a taxi, lashed it down to the taxi roof and brought it home," he said showing me a largish artifact at the far end of the courtyard.

A low wall with a gate opening into his courtyard runs along a narrow path that separates his house from James Ferreira's, the well known fashion designer before passing by a small church on its way out of Khotachiwadi on the Girgaum side.

Khotachiwadi was a settlement started by the Pathare Prabhus, a brahmin sub-caste, its earliest history dating back to the 1700s. Eventually East-Indians made it their home, followed by Goan Christians, quietly settling into the rhythms and colours unique to their communities, culture, and lifestyle, until now that is.

Lately, moneyed businessmen have moved in, apparently reveling in changing the wadi's decor of old-world style houses and comely balconies to shiny granite exteriors, replete with modifications more in tune with the crowded apartments of Mumbai than the heritage of Kotachiwadi. Turning those quaint balconies into rooms brings Bombay into the house. It's happening nonetheless. Willy is not happy with the "kind of people ('mostly marwaris, bhaiyyas, and the new local rich') buying their way into the locality from widows and families whose children are settled abroad, and with no one around here to look after them or their property."

"These people (the new occupants) have no understanding, appreciation, or aesthetic inclination for the architecture or the culture of the place that's survived centuries," he said as I photographed him against the cheery lemon-yellow backdrop.

Then we walked to the small church.

On a cardboard display, Willy pointed out the families signed up for the Family Saturday Rosary at the cross.

"We gather here each saturday with the family praying a Rosary, and pray together," he said, pointing out a family listed in the table against their scheduled Rosary date.

Usually, the Rosary begins with the invocations of the Apostle's Creed, followed by one Our Father, then the three Hail Marys (offered for the family praying the Rosary, for increase in faith, hope, and charity). Then Glory Be ('Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.') , concluding with the Hail Holy Queen. The sequence or the number of prayers are open to change. Willy gets his guitar on Rosary days. "I play for the kids, and for everyone," he said.

"Then I distribute chocolates. The kids love it," he smiled. We sat down, and talked. He spoke about his days growing up in the area. His youth. And now. In the serenity of the narrow lane, the story took on a poignancy of worn cobblestones on fading paths, their history passing with them. I listened mostly. His presence abutted my thoughts in a melody of its own. Then it was time for me to leave, I had kept him from his friends for some time now. We stood up and shook hands.

"Come again," he said, his ponytail swaying side to side, when I thanked him for the time at his place. "The next time I'll introduce you to some of the old families around here."

"I sure will," I said and waved back before retracing my path past the small church, and into the hustle of Girgaum. The next time I'll ask him to play the guitar, I thought, as the first sounds of the traffic on the road outside swallowed me.

January 12, 2006

The Timeless is Temporary

For ten months I let it lie in the brown paper envelope in which the India Today magazine is posted to my address back home in Goa. I collect these envelopes. They are sturdy, and I particularly like their feel. For ten months it lay quietly. And for ten months that it rested in that brown paper envelope, Parul didn’t say a word to me. She didn’t ask me if I’d read it. She counted on me to tell her when I was done reading it. She waited. I waited. And the book waited – until new year day.

After the clock struck midnight bringing 2005 to a close, and firecrackers exploded outside the building, lighting up the night sky near where I live, I dusted the slender brown packet on an impulse and drew the book from its resting place. The Bridges of Madison County. By the time I finished reading it, only taking a break to SMS Parul that ‘Yes, can relate to Robert Kincaid, some characteristics seem familiar territory. All too familiar actually’, it was past five in the morning.
For a long time afterward, the curtains sheltering me from the Sunday sun waking up to a new year, I lay on my back running scenes from the book through my mind, turning Robert Kincaid over in neat somersaults through compact hoops of experience honed from living on the far side, to an extent like him or so I believe. The more I did that the more Robert Kincaid came alive, in memories from long ago, and some in the notes Parul made and stuck them to pages at ‘appropriate’ places meaning to remind me, moments spanning a private sky and parts that I shared with others, and they, with me.

I don’t usually tuck books into brown paper envelopes. I like them out in the open where I can see their covers. When I’m reading them, I let them lie where I can see them from across the room. I did that with Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, that lemon yellow swathe dwarfing the three protagonists, one of whom is backed up against a closed door. Yes, the door. Ditto with Camus’ The Outsider though the cover reminded me more of the Titanic than Meursault, pictured against the hulk, alone – the outsider. And Jack Kerouac’s On the Road too. But I returned The Bridges of Madison County to the brown envelope. I had my reason for doing so. I did not want to lose those notes on lemon-yellow stick-it paper pasted to pages.

It was last Feburary that Parul gifted me the book with her observations, recollections, and reflections (written in blue ink, sometimes pink, other times black, occasionally red, and light orange, once violet, yet other times green, another time star-dust pale white, and occasionally in pencil) on lemon-yellow stick-it paper. The small, square pieces of lemon yellow were scattered through the book, stuck to paragraphs and lines in the book that she drew parallels with from occasions we shared in the years we have been friends since the day we met at Ratna’s apartment in Borivali, nine years ago, and occasionally with moments from her own life married to R, and bringing up P, her angelic daughter, and other times spent clambering over gates in the dead of night to share girl-talk with Aksha, her friend.

I met Ratna at a wildlife sanctuary (Tadoba) in the central heartlands of India where fifty of us spent five days camping in Tiger territory in the middle of the Naxalite tracts of central India. Parul was Ratna’s friend from Elphinstone college. Four years after corresponding intermittently with Parul by post, lunch brought the three of us to Ratna’s apartment in a dusty locality in Borivali that I cannot quite recollect now. Parul met me at the door. I hadn’t seen her in person until then, having come to Bombay to work at an Infotech major who’d taken me in in my final year at the university. Parul, ever the mischievous imp, took one look at me (I’d just recovered from food poisoning), and promptly directed me back the way I came, down the four floors I’d climbed up, when I asked her if this was Ratna’s house. “No. I think you’re in the wrong wing.” After I had taken the stairs down and walked out into the blazing sunshine, sweat gathering under my collar, irritated in the heat of a blazing sun, two voices called out to me from a corner window, Ratna’s and Parul’s. I retraced the path, not amused but smiling none the same.

In the story where Robert Kincaid steps out of his pickup on sighting Francesca ‘sitting on the front porch swing, drinking iced tea, casually watching the dust spiral up from under a pickup coming down the country road,’ smiling as he asks her, “I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m looking for a covered bridge out this way, and I can’t find it. I think I’m temporarily lost,” before wiping his forehead with a blue bandana and smiling again, the note penciled in Parul’s handwriting, pasted to the paragraph, reads: “Is this Ratna’s house?” “Hmm.. No! I think you’re in the wrong wing.” REMEMBER?!

Yes. I do remember. It’s close to ten years now. But how could I forget it.

Another day. Another time. Parul, Aksha, Asif and me start out from near Dadar station. Asif and me are carrying cameras. I like shooting city life. People. Faces. Places. Activity. Moods. Vendors under the bridge outside Dadar station are hawking flowers, vegetables, newspapers. One old lady. Wrinkled face. Sari pulled over her head. Selling ‘luck’ - Green chilies strung together and stitched to a yellow lemon. People who want to ward off ill-luck or ‘buri nazar’ (evil eye) will buy it off her, later nailing them to corners of door frames back home, or hanging them from their vehicles. She has a meditative face, calm, composed, and intelligent. I kneel down and take a few pictures, then take a narrow road, step over the railings outside, climb up the empty crates. Some more shots. All along talking to Parul. Explaining why I’m doing what I’m doing. The angles. The composition. The colours. The light. The works.

The folded note in Parul’s hand, written alternately in orange and blue ink obscures the portion: ‘He (Robert Kincaid) couldn’t get very keen on the idea of fashion. People threw away perfectly good clothes or hastily had them made over according to the instructions of European fashion dictators. It seemed dumb to him, and he felt lessened doing the photography. “You are what you produce,” he said as he left this work.’

I open the folds, straighten out the note and read her hand.

The old nooks and curves of Goa. Unlikely places in Mumbai, Dadar market, wild forests, machan . . . .

“Look at this one. It’s one of my favourites.”
“Hey, it’s good. The colours merge well.”
“Yeah, but there is something else which is striking about this picture.” I stared blank.
“You see this white object?” It was a table. “See the way it’s cut off at the edges, just where these colours begin. It is because of this bright white that the colours look lively.”
“Uh-huh,” I stared, meaningfully, this time.

The objects blurred. The colous began to pace out. The sharp images smoothened and what remained was only white. I don’t remember the picture. I remember ‘the white and the words’.

I remember this, too.

I turn the pages to where Francesca directs Robert Kincaid to the Roseman bridge. And where she ‘watched him walk up the country road, taking a camera from the knapsack and then slinging the bag over his left shoulder,’ I lift the note pasted to the page and continue reading.

‘It was quiet. A redwing blackbird sat on fence wire and looked in at her. A meadowlark called from the roadside grass. Nothing else moved in the white sun of August.

Just short of the bridge, Robert Kincaid stopped. He stood there for a moment, then squatted down, looking through the camera. He walked to the other side of the road and did the same thing. Then he moved into the cover of the bridge and studied the beams and floor planks, looked at the stream below through a hole in the side.’

I let the note rest on the page, unfold it and read the pink handwriting.

Just short of lake, you stopped. You stood there for a moment, then squatted down the steps, looking through the camera. You walked to the other side of the steps and did the same thing. Then you moved to a spot on the steps, sat on it and studied the old buildings and their worn out walls, looked at the lake below through the camera . . .

It was quiet. A pair of crows sat on the tree branch and looked in at us. Nothing else moved in the “white” sun of june . . .

Banganga. My first visit here. June. Parul. Asif. Aksha. Me – on the steps. In the water before us – geese. Parul has been here before. A man on the opposite side, stripped down to his shorts is drying himself with a towel, facing the massive walls. I frame him. Click! The shutter releases.

‘Francesca peeks through a crack between two of the side planks, down toward the stream where Robert Kincaid had gone.’

‘“It’s real nice here, real pretty here,” he said, his voice reverberating inside the covered bridge.’

Francesca nodded. “Yes, it is. We take these old bridges for granted around here and don’t think much about them.”

The note. Blue handwriting.

“It’s so calm here.”
“I’ve come to Banganga quite a few times but have never found such peace.”

The calm waters!
The ducks!
The steep steps! The steady cooing of pigeons.
An ordinary day at Banganga! Yet, a lasting impression on mind. The minutest detail that you captured of the man against worn out walls of buildings; the play of ducks, waters caressing our feet, the shared giggles . . .
Washing face with soda?!
How can one . . .?!

An extra-ordinary day, timeless!

January 11, 2006

Both Missing

The rickshaw driver told me I was lucky today. I nodded and replied, "we both are lucky." He said, "Yes, yes, we are."

It’s been a long time since I got through to office this quick. At the turn that takes the rider through Saki naka, past the main signal where roads carrying people traveling from Ghatkopar, Kurla, and those from Thane, Bhandup, Kanjur Marg, and Powai meet, it is nice and proper chaotic on regular days. Today, there was little resemblance to the otherwise frothy tide of vehicles, honking, and dust jamming the senses on the daily ride through Saki naka on the Andheri-Kurla road. If you’re lucky, it’ll take you about thirty minutes in the morning to travel the four kilometers from L&T Gardens, past Saki naka, to Marol naka. In the evening rush-hour it can easily take you an hour to traverse the same distance. Once it took me two hours in a BEST bus. I spent the time dreaming at the window that day when I was not looking at the vegetable vendors hawking the only freshness to be found in that part of town.

I wonder if it is a holiday today. I remember only those holidays that I get off from work. Today isn’t an off. So what is it about the light roads then I wonder. I see rickshaws parked on the sides, indicating slack business. I recollect newspaper headlines for an answer to light traffic on the roads. There is none I remember that’ll answer my query. About then the rickshaw driver turns to me and says, “Today is a holiday na, that’s why.”

Then things fall into place. Over the last few weeks, shops, and other establishments lining the route showed off a fairly large population of garlanded goats, some sporting green ribbons on their small, pointed horns and tied to metal or wooden pegs, doors, railings facing the road on either side of the route. Today there was not a single goat visible, nor were the kids who played with the goats as they stood silently, turning this way and that as the children yanked their ears or pulled them by their horns.

I sift through my mind and watch out for shops and establishments from recent memory that hosted in the narrow space fronting them children playing with the goats leading up to Bakri Eid day, today. I find neither. No goats. No children. Both missing.

Surely, only the goats will have copped the knife. But for a moment I wonder what if one of the faithful can’t afford a goat, and is bound by his god to kill today, ‘sacrifice’ as they term it, and has eleven children to feed, but no money to do so, and a god too powerful not to appease.

Shades of Silence

The day had started out like any other till the moment the lights went off. The old Orient fan slowed down before creaking to a halt. A light drizzle fell outside, and a lone mosquito came to life now that it did not have to contend with the whirring contraption setting up swirl upon swirl of damp air in the musty room, smelling strongly of fungus, their lives extended and strengthened by Goan monsoons.

Waking up, I noticed that it was one in the morning. A quick glance outside confirmed the blackout. A short while later, the drizzle petered out, and from somewhere in the distance came muted croaks of frogs. Otherwise there was silence. Total silence. I had drawn the windows shut, so if there were any crickets prancing about in the dark or calling out to one another for whatever reasons that crickets call out for, I wouldn't have known of it. Silence had settled her weary limbs in the room. I lit a candle and placing it on the floor lay down again, on my back.

The candle quickly came to life, casting the room in a yellow mould. I fixed my eyes on the ceiling, now cut into four sections by lumbering blades, their ungainly shadows marking out territories where they had slowly ground to a halt. Some other time, when they would cut the room into four sections after yet another blackout, the sections would diminish or increase in size, depending on where I chose to place the candle.

Unlike mirrors which compel you into paying attention to details, shadows, in extending the outlines of forms, help the eye focus on the wider context set up by shapes contorted by space constraints, and reaching out only as far as the candle allows them. I now watched the shadows the blades threw, cut by ceiling corners, elongated, and twisted into strange shapes. It was as if in their silence they had relaxed and let their bodies sag into forms worn from age, but glad to lie still once in a while.

Outside the room, darkness framed against the glow in the room had lost its contours and appeared like an unending swathe of the unfathomable, hiding shapes where they lay. The silence had made the swathe even more mysterious, and trailed faint noises in the distance like shadows. I had sobered to the realization that it is in the dark that silences acquire long strides. And though there is nothing to tell where they passed by, or how quickly, silences manage to heighten the sense that the inevitable is … well, inevitable; the inevitable of dreams, of nightmares, of hopes, and of foreboding. And knowing that there is silence to be had if it can be taken, voices cease to let ears pick up nuances we know are out there. And the small things begin to matter once more, all over again.

Even out in the wilds when you're far from the hustle of everyday living, typified by life in towns or village squares, it is never so silent. It surely matters that one lives amid noise of the kind cities come to accumulate, to enjoy the silence that comes from sudden stillness brought on by power failures, or worse still, riots. Over there, gusts of wind set up a low moan, and accompanied by rustling trees silence never quite attains the character it now did in the room, where on the wall to my right, a smiling Buddha on pink handmade paper watched over me. The head study, done by Wilson in his first year at the Goa Art college, still sat where it was put up by him before his family shifted to their new residence. The Buddha was at home now and in peace with the candle.

Beyond the room there were no utensils clattering in the kitchen, no honking vehicles, no conductor whistling from a bus, no dogs barking at real or imagined enemies, no children playing nor birds calling from trees, no conversation among friends and family, and no fan spinning about itself and contributing the reassuring sound of blades in setting up draughts of air to cool the skin and keep a persistent mosquito away. Not even a cough in the night. Nothing. Nothing at all.

It was then I became aware that I had lost touch with silence. To be able to hear my breathing, the many alienated thoughts and imagined noises of turbulent memories, once again turned into an alien experience. The silence I associated so long with the absence of people and vehicles bore little resemblance to the dark curtain with infinite folds now squatting lazily about the place.

I could hear my thoughts as they rearranged themselves into coherent entities, in the process forcing me to think about myself more clearly than anytime I can remember doing so. It was as if the mind, and hence the thoughts, did not have to contend with distractions at however subconscious a level, and as a result it could bring to focus the blurred vision that everyday living brings to bear upon every little turn fixed into strange and unfamiliar paths that destiny maps out for us. And, I could now hear my thoughts and distinguish between my priorities as if they were people extolling their attributes in a language that carried across, facilitated by the invisible whip of silence loitering with the easy exuberance of the very satisfied – and the very smug.

January 10, 2006

But she had no way of knowing that

She had the same voice as those who’d called before her, and there were many before her. Maybe she was the same person. I cannot be sure. But when the phone rang in the morning, I picked it up thinking it must be from one of my team mates on the project. It wasn’t. Nobody calls me ‘Sir’ where I work except for the credit card salespeople who dial my number. Actually they don’t know it is me on that number. They know the number, not me.

“Sir, good morning,” she said over the phone.

The voice had acquired the eager tone that is peculiar to people making a sales pitch. The tone turns apologetic in that extra effort to sound friendly, tinged by a tentative, often over-the-top softness that results from knowing that you are making an unsolicited demand on another’s time, and that it is important to say whatever you want to say, quickly, before the other person bangs down the phone.

This places me in an awkward situation: to bang the phone down on the caller or not. Try as I might I’m rarely successful in finding a pause in their sales pitch that I can latch on to and tell them ‘I’m not interested,’ or fob them off with ‘I’m busy right now, and cannot take your call.’ Like people on railway platforms awaiting local trains, their sentences are strung so close to each other, and the torrent of ‘benefits and opportunities to be had from the credit card’ so many that I almost never manage to get a word in, and I bang the phone down, at times, specially when work-deadlines stare back at me from the screen.

Today was different. I’m not sure if it was because there was no pressing work on my desk or because this sales pitch was different from those I’d heard before. For all I know she may have been different herself.

She introduced herself as Nisha from Standard Chartered. I couldn’t help wondering if that name was an interchangeable mask they wear when it is time to dial a number from the list before them because those before her had similar sounding names, easy on the tongue and common enough not to stand out.

The calls are usually made in the mornings, an hour or so after Bombay has settled down from the swirling traffic kicked up by office-goers negotiating the dug-up roads.

She proceeds to offer me a small loan facility of Rs. 15,000 that Standard Chartered has thought up for people who might baulk at larger figures. “All you need is a visiting card, company’s identification card, and you can repay it in six months. The interest rate is so negligible that you could actually think of gifting it,” she said.

“Gifting it,” I exclaimed. This was the first time I’d heard a loan packaged as a gift you can make to another.

“Why not,” she persisted. “You can convert it into a fixed deposit in the name of your parents. After all the interest rate you’ll pay on it is less than what you’ll get from making it a fixed deposit.”

She refused to believe that I had no use for 15,000. “How can you not want 15,000?” she asked, surprised. “How come you don’t want it,” she rounded off. It amused me no end to know that I’d managed to perplex her.

“Because I don’t need a loan,” I said.

She had dialed the number not knowing who would pick it up. She knew it to be a software company though. “I know you’re a software engineer and you earn lots, and 15,000 may not be lots. Maybe you can use it for a party,” she took a different line now. After I was asked which banks I bank with, the cards I use, she asked me to try Standard Chartered. “But I don’t need any. Moreover I don’t use credit cards, only debit cards,” I explained, admiring her persistence. “I’m happy with what I have,” I tell her.

“Imagine you ate pani-puri at a stall, and that you liked the pani-puris from there” she said before continuing, “Then there is this second pani-puri stall that you haven’t tasted yet.” I go ‘hmmm’ wondering what she is driving at.

“So, if you don’t taste the pani-puri from the second stall, how’ll you know it is better than the one you ate,” she asked me.

“What if I fall ill from eating pani-puri from the stall I haven’t eaten from before? Isn’t it better to stick with the one I know is safe?” I counter her.

“But you need to try once else you might be passing up an opportunity,” she refuses to give up, “this loan is an opportunity for you.”

Then I tell her of stories I’ve heard of Standard Chartered hiring criminal or criminal sounding elements threatening the elderly and housewives with physical harm during their loan collection drives.

“But you sound so decent, why should you worry when you pay your loan on time,” she says. I sense she’s taken aback by the turn the conversation has taken. “Have you had such experiences with Standard Chartered?” she asks me.

“No, I haven’t. I never had an account with your bank,” I tell her. “And its not about me having to be worried,” I explain. “It’s about not wanting to have anything to do with a bank that employs such methods. It just shows their mindset,” I tell her, confident she will give up on me now. But I had underestimated her resolve.

“How can you believe other people just like that,” she asked me, defensive.

“Because they’re people I know and trust,” I clarify.

She asks me for their numbers. “I’ll call them up and sort out their problems or misconceptions,” she tells me. I tell her that I appreciate her initiative in wanting to sort out their problems to help clear her bank’s reputation. I meant it. Few people seek to take the kind of responsibility she sought to take.

“Imagine you and your friend are answering the tenth standard board exams. Your friend is not serious about it and has not studied well, and finds the exams a difficult proposition, and hence is apprehensive about answering it. Would you also not answer the exams?” she asks me. “Why should you believe what your friend says, because if you’re well prepared you won’t find the exams difficult.” I see the point she is trying to make.

“Ok,” I say. Her approach, and persistence induced in me a politeness that I rarely display with unsolicited sales pitch. “Leave a contact number behind and I’ll get back to you when I need to avail of this particular loan scheme,” I tell her.

I’m averse to taking any loan unless it’s an emergency, and I haven’t faced an emergency yet. But by the end of her sales pitch I surprised myself by actually thinking of what I could go for with this short-term small loan. I actually pictured the Tamron 70-300 mm lens that I’ve been meaning to buy for quite some time now but could never budget for. I even picture the photographs I aim to take.

Strangely, I sense a hesitation in her voice when I ask her for a contact number I can get back on if required. Her voice is muted.

“Leave a contact number behind, and I’ll call you back if I need the loan,” I repeat. It is met with a murmur at the other end, silence mostly.

I’m surprised at her hesitation. It strikes me then that maybe asking for a number to get back on later is a common practice used by people to shake off the sales pitch, and that most people never get back, mostly because they never meant to, and to the sales person those words indicate that their sales pitch has failed. I’ve done it myself several times, using the same approach, with the same words. But this time around I was serious even if the words I used were the same; I did mean to get back if I felt a need for this loan, and it was likely I would have.

But she had no way of knowing that.