Friday, November 27, 2009

My Country In Bed With Me

























I went to my hometown a few weeks back for a surprise visit to my mother. Three days later, while President Pratibha Patil was probably doing an extra kilometer on the treadmill preparing for her historic flight in the Sukhoi, I was slowly losing my health to my first major illness ever- dengue. Not that I was complaining. It was after all the gravest thing happening to me since common cold four years back.

I lay there, in the hospital bed, feeling like shit, vomiting, venting, sweating. And like the IV fluid that snaked its way through my system, in the rest of the country, memories of 26/11 were surreptitiously creeping into open minds. The first year anniversary of the Bombay terror attacks was drawing close and people were venting, sweating and spewing…has security increased? Do we have better arms and ammunition? Are the victims compensated? The date was drawing close.

Seven seas away, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was warmly welcomed by President Barack Obama. 350 guests were privy to the young President’s first state dinner, complete with curry prawns and aged basmati rice. I, on the other hand, was restricted to mashed rice and lentils. But I had guests visit me as well...relatives I hadn’t expected to see, certainly not every day at the hospital. I was happy they gatecrashed. Don’t know if Obama can say the same about his two aspiring reality star guests.

In total, I spent 7 days bedridden at home with a fever that stubbornly refused to leave my side. On the 8th day, I broke our relationship by getting admitted to the hospital. I spent 5 days there. I thought of Bombay everyday. I was itching to get back to my life. I had an interview lined up as well! And while I itched to get hitched to a production house, Bigg Boss starlet Shilpa Shetty was planning to get hitched to multi-millionaire Raj Kundra at one of the most hyped wedding ceremonies in Bollywood. I didn’t have a job at hand. The soon-to-be-Mrs turned down £75,000 for rights to her wedding pictures. I was keeping score.

I’m cured! And I am on my way to Bombay! I have a meeting lined up at noon. I take the train, then the bus, all the while taking in the city I sorely missed for three weeks. Ecstatic, excited, impatient, overwhelmed- emotions wreak havoc with my system. A friend calls, tells me of a new website- stereomood.com. A music playlist for your every mood. I select sloth. Yes, I’m back!

26th November. I can’t keep track of the money flowing out of my pocket. Train- Rs 4. Cab- Rs 60. Movie Ticket- Rs 200. Drinks- Rs 500. Small solace- the rest of the country doesn’t seem to be doing too well with money either. Latest report- food inflation jumps 1% to 15.58% in a week. Potato prices are up 132% since April this year! And that’s not even the news. The Opposition takes a dig at the PM on the price rise issue and 7 out of the 11 rows of Treasury Benches in the Parliament are empty! Less than a dozen Congress MPs are present to counter the Opposition’s attacks on the day inflation numbers are announced. This on the same day we’re celebrating the first year anniversary of 26/11, when Idea Cellular runs a campaign called Talk for India Hour, donating call revenues for better protection gear for the police. Wonder who’s doing the talking. Certainly not our elected officials.

PS: I’m still glad to be back.

Friday, November 20, 2009

She's Always A Woman To Me


(She can kill with a smile
She can wound with her eyes…)


Lips the color of fire. Flaming red, raging. That full mouth, moistened ever so slightly with the tip of her tongue as she scrutinizes herself in the mirror. She presses her ring finger against the metallic insides of her silver kohl box and expertly applies black midnight to her eyes. With the curve of her hairpin she extends the line of darkness, arching it up, outside her eyes making them appear so big you can glimpse the universe in them.

(She can ruin your faith with her casual lies…)

She blinks once, twice, then reaches for the white packet, removes the transparent cover and peels off a big round bindi. Red again, this time a ball of fire that rests in the middle of her arched eyebrows.

(And she only reveals what she wants you to see…)

She stands up. Her white petticoat rises and falls with the curve of her hips down to her tapering ankles. Her blouse outlines her cleavage, teasing, taunting, working its way from her bosom to the hollow of her shoulder blades and then gliding down to her elbows. With the flourish of her hand she opens the sari lying neatly ironed on the bed. 5 meters of cloth- white with thick stripes of red and gold catches the wind, bellows and settles on the floor with a whimper. Round and round she wraps it, tucks in the folds just below her navel, smoothens out the creases with her hand and as the finishing touch shrouds her bosom with the free end of the cloth. It sticks on for dear life, hugging her frame, touching and letting go- her long legs, her flat stomach, her heaving breasts- before throwing caution to the wind and flying freely down her back.

She was almost done. She lifts her hands to tie her mass of black curls into a loose knot at the nape of her neck. Tendrils tantalize her bare skin, leaving her with waves of goosebumps when she walks. Glass bangles slip on effortlessly over her delicate wrists and with lowered eyes that hide the anticipation mounting inside her, she leaves the room, ready to meet the man she was to marry.
(She hides like a child
But she’s always a woman to me…)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

My Land Is Not Your Land


‘You know why it rains?’ Little Akash is picking his nose. 6 year old Siddharth is keenly watching his friend’s struggle. ‘Because god is crying.’

Siddharth’s eyes open wide. ‘Really?!’

‘My mummy told me yesterday.’ Akash examines his treasure. ‘She said if I don’t finish my homework, god will get sad and cry. Then it will rain and no one will come out to play.’

Blind faith because mummy said so. The kid doesn’t know any better. Let’s laugh it off. Give him a year or two and he’ll be rattling off the definition of evaporation and condensation.

What do you do with adults though? Many a school year has gone by and all definitions are in place. What do you now do with those who choose not to think and make up their own minds?

Case and point, Ayodhya. This ancient city, located in the state of Uttar Pradesh, has been referred to in the Hindu Epics and is described as the birthplace of Hindu god, Lord Rama. So far so good. It was taken over by Muslim invaders in the 16th century and Mughal emperor Babur is said to have built a mosque called Babri Masjid in the city. In the late 20th century came the claim that Babur had destroyed an ancient Hindu temple built on the very site where Lord Rama was born to make way for his mosque. 1992: Hindu-Muslim riots ensued in Ayodhya, Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad in which around 2000 people lost their lives- all because a group of Hindus destroyed the Babri Masjid so that a temple could be built on the site again.

1: Which year was Lord Rama born in? If we had a date (which we don’t), we could have retraced our steps in history to put archaeological facts in place.

2: Whether Babur had destroyed a temple or simply renovated an existing mosque to make it the Babri Masjid has not been confirmed.

3: Where in Ayodhya, Lord Rama was born has never been confirmed. Till the 19th century, Hindus and Muslims prayed side by side in the Babri Masjid complex, as both held the site sacred.

4: In 1986, L.K. Advani, president of the ruling national party BJP embarked on a mission of advocating Hindu nationalism. In 1989, he began the agitation of rebuilding the temple in Ayodhya as part of his political agenda. It worked and the BJP formed a coalition government. Ayodhya locals say they had never seen anyone from the party show interest in the city before that. (Courtesy: In The Name Of God)

Conclusion: Looks like mummy didn’t take a backseat when we grew up; she’s just taken the form of anyone we’re willing to follow. It doesn’t rain because god’s crying. It rains because he’s peeing. My mummy said so.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The King Khan Ages


Shah Rukh Khan, one of the greatest actors ever in Bollywood, turned 44 on the 2nd of November. What fun! The man’s lopsided grin, his famous stutter ‘K-k-k-k-kiran’, even his suspiciously built abs have the power of attracting attention equivalent to that of Princess D in her heyday. And no, I’m not exaggerating.

Here is a man who in his 40s, still plays roles of young 20-somethings, knowing very well that he’s way over his head with a character he stopped identifying with twenty years ago. Yet, you will see him donning tight jeans, the graffiti t-shirt and spiked hairstyle- something only capable of a man who has nothing to lose, and knows it.

There was a time when you only saw him on screen once a year, when he did some big budget movie with Karan Johar or Yash Chopra. Today, he still does only one or two movies, but you see him all year round- that’s because he’s selling you tea, watches, cellphones, cars, soft drinks and even lures you to watch the IPL…because he also owns a cricket team! And here I thought, the older you got and the more secure you got financially and otherwise, the less you would sell yourself for money.

So you know what happens when something becomes ubiquitous, right? You take it for granted. And it tips dangerously towards the ‘banal’ category. I like the King Khan. He knows what he’s good at (a.k.a melodrama) and does it with flair. But Mr. Khan, how about using your mass appeal to push for better cinema…controversial themes, experimental roles? You have a production house to call your own. How about getting some ‘art’ into filmmaking, sir?

Don’t get me wrong. I wish you a very happy birthday. I also fervently hope you preserve your name and the aura you exude. But as with everyone else, here’s hoping this year is different from the last. And I sure as hell don’t mean adding ten new endorsements to your kitty.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Riding The Qawwali Express


I pulled the shawl tightly around myself and with chattering teeth to keep me company, made my way to the railway station. It was twenty past ten. I had half an hour to spare. The biting cold was a bad host- the streets were almost deserted. Winter is only fun when you know you have a warm bed waiting somewhere. I was headed for an 8-hour train ride from Lucknow to Delhi.

As I neared the station, wisps of music reached my ear. There were people singing nearby. The melody of rich voices, the consistent clapping, the harmonium…I increased my pace and there, in front of the station gate was a gathering of about thirty people listening to one of the most enchanting forms of music- Qawwali.

This traditional and mystical form of Islamic songs promulgates dictums of prophets and praises of god by weaving spirituality with art. It is inextricable linked to the Sufi tradition, where Sufi saints believe rather than prohibiting music, it should be used as a medium of zikr, or remembrance of god. It is no wonder therefore, that like the repetitive turning of wheels, Qawwali songs include a persistent repetition of lines such that the listener and performer enter a trance like phase some believe is ideal for spiritual enlightenment.

Waves of goosebumps traveled down my body as I felt the energy of this confluence of past and present. Here I was, in a street in Lucknow listening to an art form that has its roots in 8th century Persia. Like then, even today it is a communal experience…with a group of Qawwali singers sitting on the floor and the audience actively participating in the performance. But while Qawwalis took almost five centuries to reach their current musical form in India and Pakistan, it took less than forty years for this music to make it to the global platform.

A Qawwali had just ended, and it was time for me to leave. As I walked towards the station entrance, I couldn’t help but look back. Across the road I was seeing a celebration, a pleasure ride as every participant took a swig of spiritual ecstasy. This was devotion sans strings attached. And like the long journey ahead of me, for those sitting outside, the night had only just begun.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

We Fools Who Love The Idiot Box


It is 8pm. Rakesh is back from work. The kids are back from playing. Sunita has just finished preparing dinner. But it’s too early to eat. The Sawant family will not eat for another half hour. That’s because Balika Vadhu (Child Bride) airs on TV between 8 and 8:30pm. And no one wants to miss that.

It’s a show that revolves around child marriages in India. It’s set in a traditional joint family, where a little girl Anandi gets married to the young grandson of the house- Jagdish, himself a young boy.

We were all intrigued with the concept. We knew it still happened in rural India, but this was going to be beamed into the TV sets of urban India. Child marriage, seriously?!

What is it then that clicked with us boot strapped, mall frenzied, cosmo drinking city dwellers such that the show recorded the maximum 10 points on the television rating scale on many occasions since its first season last year? And with every episode being a tearjerker, is this really a reflection of our taste in entertainment?

It seems that seeing another person (real or fictional) in a worse predicament than yourself (aka, married off young) has a soothing effect on people who aren’t too happy with their lives themselves. Recession and loss of jobs haven’t helped either.

‘Atleast she’s worse off than me!’ – Quite the balm.

And then the crying. There is so much crying on the show that it almost seems rude not to cry along. And rather rapidly, you will lose track of why you were crying. Was it because little Anandi was locked up in a room or her friend couldn’t marry her lover …or because you had a shitty day- you fought with your boss, you missed your loan payment, you’re just lonely?

True, the show highlights the plight of girl brides. If it wasn’t for flamboyant sets and heart wrenching soundtracks, this subject wouldn’t have garnered the attention it does today. Other shows have taken their cues from this golden hen and have adopted girl-centric themes as well- like Na Aana Is Des Lado which focuses on female foeticide and Aapki Antara- a story of an autistic girl.

Unfortunately, breaking up serious issues like these into episodes has also trivialized them…how best to stretch the death of a relative over two episodes, or extend a wedding into four. Shows that I like to believe started with a public message in mind have now become morbid entertainment and it looks like we are happy to be entertained five days a week.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?


‘Bhaa-ee-ya.’

Mrs. Sharma seems to yawn and smile at the same time as her red lips form each syllable over gleaming white teeth.

‘Bhaa-ee-ya,’ the Hindi teacher repeats.

‘Bhaiya means brother. Behen means sister.’ 40 students of Class II A repeat the words after her. The school bell rings.

At home, Arjun makes a fuss over dinner. He doesn’t like spinach. His 15-year old brother Karan is fussing over his girlfriend through text messages. Lt. Col Joshi isn’t paying attention to his sons. He’s busy watching the news.

‘Reports are just coming in of fresh violence in the city following the arrest of Raj Thackeray, founder of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena…’ the pretty anchor on TV seems upset with the news herself.

‘His second bloody arrest in eight months! And what happens? His honchos go on a rampage, looting and vandalizing everything in sight. Can’t they see what makes Mumbai Mumbai is that it’s a cosmopolitan city?!’ Lt. Col. Joshi looks incredulously at his wife.

‘North Indians are adding to the city and the state’s economy, goddammit! And he wants us out! This is sickening to watch!’ Lt. Col. Joshi bellows in anger. Karan stops messaging.

‘Ramesh, calm down. You’re scaring the children, baba,’ Mrs. Joshi puts a spoon full of spinach into Arjun’s mouth.

‘Look on the bright side,’ she says. ‘The Congress won because of the cat fight between him and his uncle! Let’s hope they stay at each other’s throats.'

10:00pm. Mrs. Joshi forgets to set her bedside alarm.

The boys wake up late. Morning ablutions are performed in a hurry, school bags are packed and the front door bangs shut as the boys run to catch the bus.

‘Karan bhaiya wait!’ Arjun struggles to catch up with his brother as he sprints after the moving bus.

It’s too late. The bus leaves a cloud of dust in its wake.

‘Arjun, hurry up. We’ll catch a rickshaw. I have 10 rupees.’ Karan stands at the edge of the road, waving his arms, hoping to flag down a rickshaw…fast!

‘O Bhaa-ee-ya!’ He screams out at a passing rickshaw, but to no avail. Minutes tick by. The traffic on the road increases, rickshaws on the road increase- only none of them stop.

‘O-Bhaa-ee-ya!’ Karan tries again. Bingo! It stops.

‘Bhaiya, Mount Carmel School.’

‘Who are you calling bhaiya, you North Indian bastard?!’ the rickshaw driver spits out in Marathi. ‘You’re in aamchi Mumbai. Speak Marathi!’

‘I…I didn’t mean anything by it. I was just calling you.’ Karan instinctively backs away from the vehicle, pulls Arjun with him. They walk hurriedly in the opposite direction.

‘Aye! Where are you running off to, stupid coward! You people stay here, steal our jobs and don’t even care to learn our language! Filthy polluters!’

Arjun is crying. Karan is badly shaken.

Half an hour later, they reach school. It’s 9:00am. School assembly has started and the two boys are late. They are made to stand outside the hall as punishment.

Inside, 650 students are reciting the National Pledge.

‘India is my country. All Indians are my brothers and sisters….’

Note: This article, along with others I'm writing on cultural/political issues in India can be accessed here.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Tata ByeBye CNBC-TV18

video
So I gave up my job at CNBC-TV18. Finally mustered the courage after two years to do the womanly thing- give up a secure, well paying job in pursuit of happiness. Atleast pursuit of happiness sounds more filmy than ‘to figure out my life’. If I end up anywhere close to being the financial genius Will Smith was in the movie, you can imagine the irony in my leaving the leading business news channel in the country.

I wasn’t doing anything related to news at the channel actually. Except for three minute news updates on the weekend which I secretly hoped would make me appear to be more well informed than I actually was. It worked…till people started asking me details of such and such deal and I looked at them like I’d left my brain at home that day. Oopsy-daisy. Will set a reminder to pick it up from my bedside table tomorrow.

Looking back, my biggest takeaway from working at CNBC-TV18 was the fact that I learned to be creatively stimulated. Oh yes, and I learned to work in a team. Because I didn’t think I was cut out for that. Funny, how life throws you a curveball and you surprise yourself by diving like a pro to catch it. Ok, I wasn’t really a pro at it, but I gave a pretty damn good impression of it.

Now, if there was something I was a pro at, it was juggling. I never realized how closely my skills came to those of a professional juggler till I started producing a weekly show. Simply replace those ten balls in the juggler’s hand with the faces of the cameramen, directors, library personnel, editors, makeup artists and PR agents, and you have a circus in your hands right there. CNBC-ishtyle! Actually, ask any producer of any show and the story’s the same. Skills like juggling humans make us TV brethren dangerously similar.

But yes, I learnt how to juggle and I learnt how to dig. Dig myself out of crazy situations. Houdini could do the vanishing act pretty well, but then again he probably never had Mumbai cops to stop him. I have and let me tell you, when one of those overzealous entities decides to wreak havoc because you’re shooting without permission at the Bandra Kurla Complex, then the disappearing act becomes a little hard to pull off. So you pick up the spade and start digging. Dig deep into a person’s psyche and see what makes them tick. Or talk. Marathi, no matter how jarringly spoken, is always a boon. Then comes the press card and the spiel on how this ‘news’ story you’re covering is timely and has to be shot urgently so that our teeming population can know how rising gas prices are affecting the sport of remote control cars in the country. (Did I tell you I worked on a weekly technology show called Tech Toyz? Well, now you know). Everything that’s beyond the realm of common sense should be tried during the event of digging, and you will be surprised how quickly you hit gold. And I was a fast learner.

It’s funny how slowly but steadily I am realizing that in life that I am best at things that are most vile, baseless, cunning, conniving and manipulative. Yes, I derive innate pleasure in spelling this out because it drives home my next point- about having CNBC-TV18 to thank for infusing me with a steady dose of creativity (the good stuff). Here’s where I backtrack a little to my creatively stunted days. At one point of time, I used to file feature stories for the channel, and one of them was on the launch of an international chocolate brand in the market. Let it suffice to say that the creative peg I gave to my story was so bad that my boss used that piece as reference in one of his seminars under the section of ‘what not to do when you’re filing stories.’

Looking back from that high point in my journalistic career, I’ve certainly done myself proud. I say proud because I had sufficient grey cells screaming at me to stay on in a company that could only add value to my career, and I paid heed. A story on accessing internet on the phone? Why not get to the top of a crane and access the internet from there? Reviewing a camcorder? Why not shoot a short film using it and let the viewers decide if they like the quality….and this is just the tip of the tip of the iceberg that was my team at CNBC.

But despite that all, I left. And here I am, talking about my time at the channel, like a withered, old woman reminiscing about the good, old days. So why the hell did I leave if it was so damn good?! Because unfortunately for us, we’re wired to be curious cats and we live on a celestial body that’s too big a playground for our own comfort. There is so much more to do and see and experience (…and the fact that I’m not paying any loans right now or taking care of the 7 kids I want to eventually have) hell, I’m jumping into the wild right now. What’s the wild, you ask? It’s the tangled mess of writers, documentary film makers and globetrotters. That’s where I’m going. Till curiosity kills the cat. Or better still, sends her back to an air-conditioned office.

See more of my videos here.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Landing In Nepal


I had met Zuze maybe three times before this trip. There are no actual names in this story- my friends don’t seem to care about the real stuff. So, as I was saying, it was Zuze’s wedding we were all attending in Nepal. He was marrying his childhood sweetheart- whose name evades me right now. The wedding was to be in Kathmandu- a three day event, after which some of us were going to go exploring other parts of the country for a week.

There were many people flying down from many places for this wedding- Calcutta, Assam, Bombay, Bangalore and Chennai to be precise. Everyone in their late 20s mostly, some married, some not. And everyone knew everyone else- besides me. I was the new entry. We were seven of us flying down from Bombay. We met at the airport and took our connecting flight to Delhi.

Delhi airport. Had a layover of about three hours. Time to kill and what better way to do that than to stuff our faces with food.

One hour later. The announcement. Over the airport intercom.

“An unidentified blue bag has been found near the Subway counter. Could the owner please come collect it.” Heads whip up, Tuktuk and I are scrambling to the counter, and in Mission Impossible fashion I land knees first in front of my bag.

Tuktuk, the beautiful boy of our group, who had courteously offered to carry one of my bags happened to leave it for over half an hour unattended, outside the Subway counter while we munched on our food in the waiting room, blissfully unaware of the missing luggage. That’s till the blasted announcement.

“You idiot! You left my bag here!” While I’m on the floor, busy spewing expletives at the beautiful boy, three suspiciously official looking men surround us. They might have waited a while, hoping for some acknowledgement of their presence. I gave none because I seemed to think it was imperative I shower all my attention on the beautiful boy.

“Uh-mm! Madam, bag me kya hai?”

Now I look up, taking in their batons, their rifles and their badges, in that order. I stammer that it just has clothes, nothing else. They didn’t seem to give two hoots about my pretty-girl-in-distress look.

“Madam, bag ko kholo.”

“Because of you, they think I have a bomb in the bag!” My voice rings loud and clear, I turn to Tuktuk and I see the boy prancing like a young gazelle.

“Don’t say bomb, don’t say bomb!” he wails.

A few feet away, the remaining five of our traveling party seemed to be having a whale of a time, cokes in hand. I was given to understand later that a boy doing the fire dance around a squatting, screaming woman with her head in her bag isn’t an everyday phenomenon at the airport. We seem to have hiked sales that day at the Subway station.

Coming back to the story, it turns out the official looking men were official men. They saw skirts and spaghetti tops spilling out of the bag, realized that we were indeed two stupid commuters wasting their time and they sent us on our way, terse warning in toe.

All well that ends well, they say. Despite the bomb scare, the rest of the journey was pretty uneventful. I had only two pieces of hand luggage and I hung on to them for dear life till the airhostess kindly, yet firmly took them from me and deposited them in the overhead bin. We made it to Kathmandu after a five hour journey from Delhi, I got my bags out and then had my laugh for the day because no international journey could be complete without bags being lost in transit. Only this time, it was the checked-in baggage of every passenger on our flight.

There was nothing else we could do. We were asked to come back the next day, and hopefully the airport authorities would have located the missing bags by then. By the time we got out of the airport and made it to our hotel, it had been three hours since we had landed. An evening meal and cold shower later, we found ourselves on the terrace of our hotel, taking in the sight of Kathmandu for the first time without any distraction, barring the beers that were yet to be opened.

We had finally landed in Nepal.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

One Step Back

It felt like home. At last. He caressed the guitar like the body of his lover; the touch slight, the anticipation real, the tremor mounting as he awaited her response. It had been so long, too long. Why had he left it, and what for? What had he achieved so great it warranted his giving up playing?

He clenched his fist and let the emotion wash over him. Those days of obliviousness of the big, bad world. Just khadi kurtas, torn jeans, guitar and the gang. The man of the hour, the master of his world, those hours of fame.... everyday for four years. And then came the promise.

"I shouldn't have done it. I shouldn't have given in. I should have listened to Aditya and opted out of it."

He cursed softly. It was too late. Surya was dead, Mridul in another country, Gem still refused to talk about it.

"We grew up, that's what happened." He laughed bitterly. "We grew up in one fuckin' day." He drew blood. He absently looked at the lone drop on the white carpet and then at the string he had run his finger on.

Each drop seered through him. He stumbled back and fell against the wooden chair. Like the splatter of an inkpen on a Monday morning shirt, red drew a pattern on his otherwise bland shirt- dark, real and final. He felt the heat on his face, the warmth on his eyelid as the drop trickled down his nose.

The man fell limp in a second. They scrambled out, skipped the stairs, in a hurry to resume their boring existence with blood on their hands.

He looked at Surya. He looked at the unconscious man beside him. Someone uttered a wail. Mridul clutched his hand, then moved forward. She calmly took out her phone. "Mein Jamshed College se bol raheein hoon. Mere dost ko kuch logon ne mar dala. Ek aur aadmi zakhmi hai. Science Wing, Classroom 27."

Gem fell on her knees, grabbed Surya's shirt in her hands and let the anguish engulf her as she felt his lifeless body. "Aaaaaaaaaaah!! Aaaaaaah!" Sobs racked her frame and she let her head drop on the chest that had been her sanctuary, her safe haven till five minutes ago.

The stranger groaned. Mridul moved to towards him as if in a daze, put his head on her lap and pressed down on the gaping wound with her jacket.

He stood watching. Aditya had told him. If only. If only he had stayed away, stayed in class. Not rounded them up. Not convinced them to make up his audience for the new song.

The riots had started two days ago. In the melting pot of culture that Bombay was, anger and hate had been slowly brewing…simmering, and had now scalded those had tried vainly to reduce the flame. Maharashtra seemed to jar against the frame of the country, metamorphosing 'us' into 'you and me'.

College was different. Emphatically, vainly they denied it. Not college, not our college. Maharashtrians vs North Indians! Now, that was laughable. Liberals, free-thinkers, philosophers, modernists, those are how distinctions were made. Faint lines are drawn between free trade supporters and protectionists, between Pink Floyd and Beatles fans- lines easily drawn and easily erased. Not this time though. This time dots were connected discreetly between groups.

“Dragging Amitabh into the mess is a hoot man!” Surya laughed as he read the day’s headlines. “Seriously! Bollywood practically revolves around the man, but of course the man needs to do MORE for the fuckin’ state!”

“I don’t know, u know.” Gem was scribbling with chalk on the blackboard already filled with physics lecture notes. “I mean I agree with you, but there are tons of people who would disagree. Heard someone today say Maharashtrians should be given preference for certain jobs atleast. Quota system of some sorts.”

“Right of course! Then why have soldiers fight for the country? Why not have Gujarati soldiers for Gujarat, Bengali soldiers for West Bengal, Tamil soldiers for Tamil Nadu?” Mridul quivered with emotion. “Stupid shit. Can’t believe people are beating each other over this crap.”

Fly by me with all you got
I ain’t gonna leave you just yet
Took the strength of David to see me through
Took the mind of the Devil to get me back
You said you cared, you said you loved me
I ain’t gonna leave you just yet

He barely heard them at all. Needed to complete his song. “This verse needs to fit better.” He was muttering to himself.

“He’s lost again!” Surya threw a piece of chalk at him.

“Hey, piece of shit,” he was laughing now.

“Your half Maharashtrian aren’t you? Any two cents worth? Or is music all you choose to talk about?”

Things hadn’t been going too good on that front. There had been an ugly debate over the issue just last night over dinner. As usual conversation steered towards the day’s news and dad who usually busied himself with eating and throwing compliments in mom’s direction, this time calmly stated Raj Thackeray was right in supporting his people. He was flabbergasted. “Hell no. No way dad supported that mad man.” “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Dad looked up, the rice ball still balancing on his fingers. “Well, he’s a leader. He’ll do what’s best for his people, that’s all,” he said shrugging his shoulders. “But he’s segregating dad! Creating unnecessary animosity, all for popularity, for bloody MNS votes!” Dad laughed, in that patronizing way he does when he’s about to embark on a long speech. “Of course he’s doing it for the votes! I’m not denying that at all. But if you keep that aside for the time-being, his decision to focus on the Marathi manus.....

He knew he was clutching at straws. Guilt gnawed at him and threatened to leave a permanent scar. It was so many years ago, and it felt like yesterday.

"Goddammit. It's over. This is me now. A new man, a new life." His jawline jutted out, like it always does when he grinds his teeth in resolve. He rang the bell, little knowing that the whimsical hand of fate had brought him back to history's doorstep.

“Ma, an uncle has come. He says he wants to meet you”. The pattering of footsteps and he sees shiny black shoes of a ten year old disappear into the dark interiors of the house. Impatiently, he taps his feet. This shouldn’t take more than half an hour. He had the money, he needed the place for exactly six months and then he was a free man.

Footsteps again, heavier, lazier, and then a searing pain. The pain of seeing a familiar face you intended to forget. The pain of many years of anguish and denial being sucked into a single glance.

Gem’s hand stopped in midair. Her crumpled pallu still in her hand, two inches from her forehead, from the beads of sweat she had intended to wipe away. They now luxuriously traced a path down her temple. Two feet away, another halt in motion, this time just off the ground, because his foot had to abruptly stop its impatient dance. It stood there, as though waiting for a cue, balancing precariously on its heel, toes itching to touch the ground again. How long did the clock tick before child comes between two adults struggling to forget?

“Ma, can I go to play? I’ve finished my homework. I promise, right hand swear!”

Tugging of the pallu, and the spell is broken. Shock reroutes into maternal duty.

“Come back in half an hour ok? Dinner will be ready”.

“I didn’t know. I was told there was a vacant room in plot number 27. You have a son.” Toes touch the ground, pallu reaches face.

“Yes, Neil. He’s 8.” She gestures, he follows her inside.

The smell of old wood, garnished with the whiff of brewing curry plays havoc with his mind. God, it had been so long since he’d been back. Back to the neighborhood he had once known so well.

“You need a place to rent? When did you come back? How long are you..?” So many questions…so many questions. Where to begin?

“I’m a guest lecturer at National College. I teach Anthropology. I’m in India for 6 months, working on my thesis. I was looking for a place to rent…..” Again a pause.

“How are you Gem?"

“As I should be. Neil keeps me occupied. I meet the others, not as often as I would like. Ajit and Kavita are bankers now. Aditya works with Times Of India. I haven't met Mridul in 5 years.”

“Where's your husband?”

“Neil’s father. He died. 8 years ago.”

8 years ago. 8 years ago. 8 years ago. A hollow echo reverberates inside him. An echo that had its roots 8 years ago when the walls of a classroom shook as a bullet found a better home in someone's pulsating heart.
(...still a work in progesss)