Prayer

‘मेरे मालिक सुर बख्श दे। सुर में वह तासीर पैदा कर कि आँखों से सच्चे मोती की तरह अनगढ़ आँसू निकल आएँ।‘
‘My Lord, grant me the (perfect) tone. A tone that can create an effect of such beauty that sublime tear-drops, as pristine as pearls, flow from the eyes’

I, like many of you, completed my secondary schooling under the Central Board of Secondary Education. Years later, I remember only the language textbooks – English and Hindi. Maybe it was my love for the stories in them or just because of the interestingly named books in the course; Gulmohar in class 8, Flamingo in class 12 among other such titles. One such book was Kshitij, from the Course A curriculum for Hindi in Class 10. And the line you read above was from one of the ‘lessons’ that I remember till date.

The chapter from Kshitij is titled नौबतखाने में इबादत (Naubatkhaane mein ibadat) written by Yatindra Mishra. A Naubat khaana is either a small section of a (royal) courtyard or a section of a minar that is dedicated to musicians where they perform. Ibaadat means prayer. The chapter talked about the life and times of Ustad Bismillah Khan, a Shehnai maestro and a Bharat Ratna recipient. Hailing from a family of musicians, he took to Shehnai as a child and used to perform with his uncles/cousins from an early age. The ‘chapter’ goes on to detail Ustad’s life around the Ganga and his thoughts about Kashi.

What I did realize back when I read this and I continue to do now, whenever I revisit it, is the absolute simplicity of Ustad Bismillah. It strikes true that something absolutely simple is often very profound. When asked if he would eventually move out of his modest Kashi home, he had answered that he could live without seeing the Ganga and the temple of Kashi Vishwanath. But surviving without the Kachori and Jelebi from down the street connecting these two would have been more difficult.

The doors of the Balaji and Vishwanath temples opened to the sound of Shehnai, often played my Ustad Khan or one of his family members. Looks like the Lord was used to waking up to ‘Mangaladhwani’ or divine sound. And maybe the same master listened when Ustad said ‘फटा सुर न बख्शें’, or maybe it was the hours of practice everyday that gave Ustad the infallible ‘sur’. I am sure that it was the latter.

I wonder why I remember this one bit so vividly from years ago. Maybe it’s because I had never seen such devotion to music or art. It was probably the first time I was told that giving all of one’s devotion to an art form was legitimate. I don’t remember if that chapter had any mention of India’s highest civilian honour conferred upon him, but only the image of the earnest old man pining for the right note remains.

I read stories from Kshitij and Flamingo once in a while. I continue to idolize the man, and his earnestness to perfect his art.

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Humour, as seen from a rattling and vibrating seat of a propellor driven aircraft

So, she was laughing, seemingly uncontrollably.

I was on a LuxAir flight a few weeks ago. The Bombardier Q400 has two seats on either rows and two propellers on both engines. I was seated on the window seat of row 7 with the propellers a couple of metres away from my face with the hardened glass panes separating my skin from the metal of the blades. Yes, I was happy to have snagged the window seat because it was the dusk of a sunny September Dublin day. The sky had a strikingly deep hue of orange that I had barely seen before. The usual dusk is cloudy around here, and I would have been behind my desktop on an any other day. On unusual ones like this, I was peering out at the orange sunset. On a close second look, it seemed red, not orange. But then, where was the point of certain differentiation between orange and red? I should have clicked a picture. It was like a pit of coals on the horizon, burning without a shroud of ash around them. Burning clean, burning bright with it’s heat nothing more than ephemeral. No grandeur of a chariot, no fancy horses. Just the brightly coloured sky. I lean towards calling it red, rather than orange. Though I wish I had a picture, so you could see it and decide.

And that is when the plane took off. In most of the flights I’ve flown before, the take-off was marked by a sense of weightlessness, popping of the ears and a sense of accomplishment as a member of that remarkable species that has been successful in defying gravity.
But not this time. The take off was marked by intense laughter from a seat that was a few rows in front of me. She was hollering, from the moment the plane took off. She was laughing, seemingly uncontrollably. There were weird looks being thrown around by the rest of us. The laughter continued. I saw a few awkward smiles breaking out in the rest of the crowd. Everyone else was grinning too, except for those who had headphones and earphones on. In what I’d like to believe was a moment of genuine human connection, we were airborne. She stopped laughing after a while. I tried seeing her face, I couldn’t.

As we gained height, darkness enveloped the sky. Below was an orange hue of Dublin. Of those sodium vapour lamps, their glow between yellow and orange. I am not sure if they use sodium vapour lamps anymore, but the color reminds me of those. The same colour that was simmering on the edges of the evening sky is now below me. The oranges of Dublin, or of a far away Liverpool. The hues of the many English towns which I’ll pass over in a few minutes. The Bombardier Q400 flies at a lower altitude.

And out of nowhere, I wondered, what was she laughing about. It didn’t seem like nervous laughter, but it could have been. Stemming from the idea of flying in a metal canister a few thousand metres above the ground, with well dressed people inside who demonstrate how you can save yourself by blowing air into a life vest. Her laughter didn’t seem nervous, though, but of mockery. Mockery of the fact that from the metal canister, a lot of the cities look quite the same. Mocking at how each of them tries to separate itself from the others, only to end up looking like a bunch of bright orange-yellow grids from up there. The patterns of the hues may vary from Bangkok to Bath, but the colours seem similar. They are all the same from above. And maybe we are all the same too.

I then wondered if she was mocking me. At my inane romanticization of the ordinary. Of my privilege to wonder about her laughter. At the everyday events and at the seemingly absurd. Because it is indeed a privilege to be able to wonder fondly about the inconsequential. And to recollect it. To wonder about demarcations between orange and red. To fly over the cities of the world. To talk of hues and glows. To think of a Sufjan Stevens song and playing it on loop throughout the rest of the flight.
But I was making this about myself, yet again. I am the centre my perceptible universe. I wondered if this centre shifts when we try to see things from a different perspective. Is human empathy heavy enough to shift the gravitational centre to outside oneself. I looked for perspective now, so that I can understand the reason for her laughter.

It was probably the creaking noise of the propellers that had cracked her up. Or it could have been the collective laughs of all the people we flew over that night. People of quaint European towns living in their cosy homes. Or of the homeless and their guffaws at their despair of spending an October night under the dim glow of the orange hued street lamps. All of these echoing through her, in moments of disparaging passion, came out as uncontrollable laughter.

Her laughter did stop after a while. I wondered why, because the absurdity below hadn’t.

False Dichotomy

I never understood his fascination for the different shades of brown.
Sunglasses, jackets, socks, wallets and underwear, most of them of hues in the spectrum of brown. I never asked him why he preferred that colour. I’ll never know. Maybe it was something to do with his eyes, a deep sea of brown when I stared into them, unflinchingly, while his lips curved into a smile. He was always the first to blink.

“A bird in the sky or a fish in the ocean?” I used to ask him, always.

He was never dismissive of it, but I don’t remember him answering this question, ever. He had something clever to say, every single time. I try to recollect such instances, hold those memories on my palm and caress them with the tips of my fingers. I collect them in little vials and pour them into a pensieve. I am gentle with them, as they are fragile and they will get fewer as days go by.

In the recesses of the last twenty years, I had wondered how life would be without him by my side. In circumstances that ranged from hypothetical to morbid, I had asked him what would he do if I were to depart. I have always felt that his convictions were simpler than mine. His questions were easy to answer. My questions had no answers, only clues, only hints that led me on to other, more complex questions.

There was only one question that I had ever found an answer to, was, “Do you love me?”.

The answer was out there; in chambers of his frail heart, the convolutions of his cerebrum and in the stoic silences between his breaths. He had knitted a quilt of love around me with the fabric of space and time, warm enough to feel eternity. And when we made love in this void, I saw the birth and death of stars. I had asked him if he felt the same way. I have no memory of what he had answered.

I remember bawling my eyes out, my menacing tirade against the messenger of the horrid news, and then, denial. I didn’t collect the ashes. It took me weeks to realize that he had left behind an ocean of love for me to swim in. I was now a fish in the ocean.

I wrapped myself in the quilt he had so carefully knit to keep me warm. As time passed, it serrated the fabric of the quilt to let in a squall of wind into my being. I was shocked that the cool wind was actually soothing on my skin. I felt a pang of guilt for tearing his most beautiful creation and eschewing the warmth. But I had tasted the breeze and it held more promise that the warmth I had adored.

I was deep inside the ocean all this while and with his passing I reached the surface. I reached for the air outside, only to realize that I could breathe. The air infused life into me. I was annoyed at the relief, for I belonged to his ocean. I was now living on the surface, immersed only partially, until I glanced on an island. I wondered if there was a place for guilt here.

Was it wrong to feel so free?

I now reach an island, lush and green, midst my azure sea. My sea of seemingly intransigent love and comfort. Time had also ripped the quilt apart which I now held in my hand. As the breath hit my lungs and the cold air caresses my skin, I realize that I had never felt lighter. I crawled out of the blue waters and stood at the edge of the ocean facing the horizon. The familiar waves, now kissing my feet.

The ocean was as large as ever. But I turn around and walk towards the island, liberated.

Fish Curry

The house that he lived in was unremarkable with its black and grey ensemble. It had a beautiful yard which led the visitor into a nice little patio, followed by the living room, with its not so intricate woodwork. All the things in the room fit their places perfectly and nothing stood out. There was a huge CRT television that had gathered dust, its plug  dangling on the floor, lifeless. The brass trinkets, the miniature animal figurines on shelves, the rack of books gathering dust, the diwan having pillows with flowers printed on them and an ancient red hardbound book placed under his framed picture. The room was a silent narrative of Sudipto’s story, a reflection of his time and tumult of the intervening years.

The room had not always been like this; it had seen the variants of azure, shades of lilac and hues of ochre until a few years ago. Sitting on the same charred rosewood chair, Sudipto had seen the greens turn to olive and yellows turn to brown while his hair had turned silver. He was now the lone occupant of this ancient house. It was the morning of his 78th birthday and Chandra, the housemaid, had not yet come to clean the house and cook for him.

For Sudipto, birthdays were occasions to reminisce, or in other words, turn a little more cynical. Like every year, he sat down to write a letter to his friend Srinivasan, who lived in Coimbatore now. Both of them had been close friends for over 50 years while the latter was in Calcutta. The contents of the letter had been pretty much the same from the last 10 years. It revolved around weather, politics and increasing influence of the West on our country. But this time, it was different because of the events that had happened a few days ago.

15th May 2011

This is probably the worst time of our lives.

I am writing to lament the erosion of the Reds from Bengal. The monster in blue and white has routed the party that you and I, along with scores of others, had put our sweat, blood and tears into. This looks like the end. The communist ideology will soon become extinct.

What we had built has crumbled before our eyes and it will get overwritten by the stronger, greedier forces. What are we leaving behind, Comrade? What is our legacy?

Lal Salaam,
Sudipto

He inserted the neatly written letter into an envelope which he would give to Protiti, his youngest niece, to be sent to Coimbatore. He was sure she would come by in the evening to wish him on his birthday. As he got up from his chair, he glanced at the red hardbound book that was kept as a centrepiece for the room. It was the Communist Manifesto in Bengali, translated by him. With its yellow sickle and hammer, it was one of the earliest translations in the country and it had gained instant popularity within the party headquarters. He had become a hero in the local party circles after the success of the book. Enshrined in the living room was one of the first few copies that were printed. The nostalgic moment was disturbed by Chandra who walked in the house and headed straight to the kitchen, mumbling ‘Happy Birthday, Dada’.

Sudipto had only three obsessions in life. Marx, Chā and his late wife, Rinku. When it was pointed out that two of three were dead, Sudipto vehemently argued that Marx was immortal while pointing towards the yellow sickle and hammer on the red book. Rinku had passed away ten years ago due to a sudden cardiac arrest and had left him all alone. As for the only obsession that was alive, he spent an hour, twice a day, meticulously preparing tea (Chā, he’d correct) and drinking it. Protiti had kept a constant supply of exotic tea leaves from darjeeling to feed her kaka’s love for tea.

He heard a knock on the door. He thought of all the possible combinations. Chandra was already in the house, gas cylinder was not due, newspaper bill was paid and his niece would be at office at this time of the day. Who on earth could it be at the door?
Another knock. He walked to the door and opened it slightly ajar. It was the smiling face of a young woman whom he didn’t recognize. Only after she introduced herself as the next door neighbour did Sudipto recognize her and asked her to come in.

The woman had long hair and brown eyes, was dressed in a tshirt and jeans with a large purse slung on her shoulder. She looked very young, but it would be difficult to guess her age correctly. As she walked in, Sudipto noticed that she had a katori with a lid and a plate with a small piece of cake.
“Hello, Dada. Chandra told me it was your birthday today. This is fish curry and cake for you, hope you like it,” she said with a smile.

He had met the young couple a month ago when they had moved in, but had spoken mostly to the woman’s husband. Sudipto remembered being delighted about young people moving into Kolkata rather than away from it.

“Chandra is very talkative. You should not have taken the trouble,” said Sudipto, with a faint smile.

“I am glad she told me. Happy Birthday” she said as she waved goodbye and mumbled that she was getting late for work.

Moved by the young lady’s gesture, Sudipto took the vessels inside and placed them in the kitchen. He asked Chandra to serve their contents for lunch.

He sat down on the burnt brown rocking chair. The question from the letter that was bothering him echoed again, what would he leave behind when he died. He had become a party loyalist during his time as a lecturer in the government college for arts. He glanced at the red hardbound book and then at the newspapers. The front page was awash with blue and white. He felt his stomach churn with unease. He remembered his wife Rinku, the nonchalant one of the couple, and her disdain for legacy. They never had any children. After countless efforts to conceive in the initial years, Rinku had given up on the idea and had decided not to adopt either. But never had she turned bitter or complained during those intervening years. Sudipto, on the other hand, had grown to worry about this. Rinku would often chide him about this. “So, you think that translating a stupid political pamphlet and attending a few rallies is going to make you immortal, Mr Sudipto Ghosh?” she’d say playfully. Rinku’s interests had lain elsewhere. The Reds and blues of politics could never attract Rinku’s attention like the crimsons and purples of chiffon or silk. Giving sarees close competition were the yellows and browns of turmeric and cinnamon, from the kitchen. She spent hours in experimenting with the recipes that she knew or in learning new ones. He’d often criticize her for spending a lot of time on such petty endeavours, when there was so much to do for the things that mattered. She used to brush these comments away with something witty leaving Sudipto tongue-tied. The passage of these decades had been made breezy and light by having Rinku by his side, despite the trying circumstances and hardship. He should have died before she had, he thought. This was not the first time he had wished this in vain.

It was time for lunch. Chandra had set the table for his lunch and had left for the day. He saw the bowl and a piece of cake from the morning along with the other food that had been prepared. He added a heap of rice to his plate and topped it with the bright ochre gravy and a piece of the rui maach. In the first bite, he felt the pungent taste of mustard along with ginger. The flavour of the spice was strong and the marinated Rohu fish was perfect. Sudipto felt his stomach churn instantly. This was exactly how Rinku used to make the curry!
He took another mouthful. The generous dose of mustard, the absence of garlic and the familiar taste of pepper and chat masala in which the fish was marinated was unmistakable. This was certainly not the traditional recipe. He was never a particularly emotional man, but this was an exceptional instance. He was sure this was Rinku’s recipe.

Sudipto was unsettled. Usually, he would have shrugged off such an instance as a coincidence, but not today. Then an idea struck him; Protiti was coming home later and she could confirm his premonition.

“It has a lot of mustard, kaka. It’s marinated differently. It tastes good, but odd,”  Protiti answered when asked to describe the taste of the curry.

“Does it remind you of anything specific?” asked an earnest Sudipto.

“No, why?”

“This is just like how Rinku used to prepare it. It used to taste exactly like this!” he exclaimed.

“Aww, kaka,” she said with a wink, “You’re missing her on your birthday. That’s cute”

She won’t get it, he thought. Protiti gifted him another huge box of tea leaves which he gladly accepted and she left after dinner. He downed the drapes, shut the doors, turned off the lights and went to bed. Rolling around uneasily for a long time, he couldn’t figure out why the rui maach was not letting him sleep that night. So what if it was the same recipe, he had reasoned with himself over a hundred times now. Yet, peace eluded him.

He woke up tired the next morning but decided not to skip his morning walk. His mind was off the trivial fish curry that had bothered him the previous night. On his walk back home, he saw his neighbour leaving for work. He walked up and thanked her for the kind gesture and the food. He also mentioned that Chandra will be returning the utensils, in fluent Bengali.

“Sorry, I don’t understand Bengali,” she said with half a smile.

Sudipto realised that their conversation the day before had been in English.

“Oh! I assumed you were Bengali given how good the fish curry was,” He said, smiling.

“I am glad that you liked it. I belong to Madhya Pradesh, we moved here recently for work,” she clarified.

“The preparation for the curry was interesting, though,” he couldn’t help mentioning, “It didn’t seem like the traditional recipe”.

“Yes, I’ve heard that a lot. Actually, my mother taught me this preparation. She lived in Kolkata for a few years and learnt this from one of her friends who used to conduct cookery classes.” she said, in a matter-of-fact tone.

“Can you ask your mother if she remembers the name of the person who taught her this recipe?” he asked, half pleading.

“Yes, I can give her a call right now,” she said, puzzled. She walked to a side to make the call.

Sudipto didn’t need to wait for the confirmation. Rinku used to mention about these classes time to time, but he had barely listened to her stories. All that he knew was that she used to go to a house near Esplanade where a bunch of women used to meet and talk about cooking. This was a time when he was deeply involved with party work. He didn’t have to wait for her to confirm, he knew this, as she finished the call and approached him.

“Tilottama,” the young woman said.

That was the name the world knew Rinku by. He was right about the cookery classes. The mention of her name aroused mixed feelings in him, partly because it had been years since he had heard that name and also because this was the first time he got a glimpse of how the world saw her.

The fish curry was her legacy that had found a way back to his palate.

 

 

Clockwork

“Please come home early today,” said Sriram with eyes half mischievous and half pleading.

“Yes, yes. I’ve cancelled all my meetings today. But then, why are you so specific about today, surprise ideya yenadru?” Any surprises, smiled Kriti, as she finished eating her breakfast.

“No, no. Yenu illa,” he winked.

It was their first wedding anniversary and she knew very well where he had planned to take her later that evening for the ‘surprise’. Sriram had always been bad at arranging these little things but she liked to see him try.

“So, all set for your lecture today?” she asked.

“Kriti, you know how much I hate these public lectures! I’d happily teach a class of physics students, but not a generic audience. Theoretical physics is not as glossy as the movies or novels show you. It’s working on equations for many years together to see a fraction of truth about our physical world and then passing it on to the others who will slog further. Nature shows us its beauty one layer at a time and we are trying to peel out as much as we can to see what lies at its heart. Most of the people coming to the session today would want to know about how we can go back or forth in time or when the world will end. I know what to expect,” he stopped somewhere between disdain and disgust.

“If that is the case, why don’t you say no to the organizers?”

“I do this for the kids in the audience. If any of the schoolkids or teenagers present there would go on to pursue physics because of the lecture I am going to deliver, it would be worth all the pain”

Saaku. Don’t lie to me. I know you accept these offers just so you can sit on the stage and bask in the applause you receive,” teased Kriti, picking her purse and the keys.

He was laughing as both of them left after locking the front door shut.



“In conclusion, the Einstein-Rosen bridge, popularly known as a ‘Wormhole’, can connect two points that are far away in space, or in time. Any questions?” concluded Sriram, dreading there would be questions about how Matthew McConaughey survived a wormhole in
Interstellar.

A hand shot up.

“What do you mean by connect two points?” asked an enthusiastic young adult in the crowd.

“That’s a very good question,” he was glad that someone has asked this. Taking a queue from the same movie, he reached for a sheet of paper and a pencil. He drew two big dots on the ends of the same side of the sheet and explained, “The distance between the two points is traversed when we draw a line between them,” said Sriram while he joined the dots.
“In the case of a wormhole, imagine that the sheet of paper curves such that the two points are adjacent to each other,” he showed this by bringing both the edges of the paper together demonstrating the curvature. With a prick of the pencil, he could now make a hole through both the dots. “The paper is representative of space or of time. And that is how a wormhole would work, if they actually do exist in the universe”. The teen was satisfied with the demo.

Another hand shot up.

“Will we be able to travel back and forth in time during the course of next 50 years?” This was man in his 40s. It was a very platonic manner, how he had asked the question.

“It’s not that easy a question. We are still asking if time travel is even possible. Wormholes may be our best bet for this, but not a single one has been observed in our universe. I wish we would figure things out faster, but to answer your question, time travel is highly improbable even 50 years down the line,” he finished his session to a thunderous applause.

Sriram headed to the lunch table with the rest of the members from his department after he had finished speaking.

“Such lovely articulation. Well done, Dr.Sriram,” said Dr.Vanitha, the Head of the Department of Physics, under whom Sriram worked.

“Stop being sarcastic, now. This is the same routine, every single time. You can do this better than me, Vanitha”
“I couldn’t, even if I tried,” she winked. “Now, why don’t you take us all through the mechanics of a Chronosynclastic Infundibulum”
Most of the people on the lunch table gave out a hearty laugh, including Sriram, as they proceeded to have desserts. He took out his phone and sent Kriti a message to make sure she got home early that evening.



“Cheers” both of them said, clinking their glasses. They were on the terrace of a plush restaurant in one of the newer neighbourhoods of Bangalore. The candle light dinner and the restaurant were exactly as Kriti had guessed.

“I knew you’d bring me here for the surprise”

“How did you know that?”

“I know you all too well now”

“So you think”

“I know so”

He smiled. “To many more years, together,” he raised the glass and took a sip. She followed suit.

Sriram’s phone rang just then. It was from a number he couldn’t recognize.

“Hello”

“Hello,” came the reply. The voice of the other side was slightly gruff, but probably belonged to a young man.

Yaaru? Who’s this?” asked Sriram as he could not put a face to the voice

“Help me”

There was a sense of urgency in the voice.

“Who are you and what do you want?” Sriram asked with clarity.

“I don’t know who I am. I am stuck in my house with the door locked from outside,” the voice answered.

“See, I think you have called the wrong number. I am busy right now…”

“No. This is the right number. I have a piece of paper with your number with a note below. The note reads: VERY IMPORTANT- CALL ME FOR HELP.” interrupted the voice. “Please don’t hang up. I have been trying to reach you all day and I was able to connect only now”

The voice was gruff, yet feeble. There was a sense of honesty to it.

“I can’t remember anything, Sir. I don’t know who I am or what I do. All I can say is I am in my house right now and I have this note with your number on it. Please help me,” pleaded the voice on the phone.

“What help do you want if you are already in your house? Just go back to sleep until the others come back,” said Sriram, trying to end the call as soon as possible.

“No one comes back once they leave,” prophesied the voice.

“If this is some sort of a prank, I will report you to the police. It’s not going to end well. You better hang up”

“I need help. Please get me out of here,” the plea was earnest. Sriram felt a pang of pity for the voice. He held the call on mute and told Kriti about the man calling for help. What if he had a bad mental condition, both of them mused. Kriti felt it was worth a few more minutes.

“Ok. Tell me the address of your house and who is in your family. I’ll inform the police and they can help you.”

“I don’t know”

“Tell me what you know. Try hard to remember and tell me what you recollect?”

“I remember my childhood. My mother, my…”

“No, not those things!” Sriram said irritably. “Tell me something that I can use to find where or who you are. Like, look outside the window and tell me what you see. Any shops or signboards?” Childhood memories were the last things he wanted to listen to that evening.

As the voice on the phone proceeded to check this, Sriram said to his wife, “This person seems to be in a bad state. He has lost all memory. I guess we should help him through this”. She nodded in reply.

“What do you see from your window?” Sriram prodded

“I can see a hotel. It’s named Shanti Sagar”

“What else do you see?” Every street in Bangalore had a Shanti Sagar.

“There is a shop selling sweets right across it”

“That’s better, go on. What’s the signboard on the sweet shop?” asked Sriram, opening maps on his wife’s phone to search for this combination.

“It’s called Arun Sweets”

That was a revelation! The hotel and the shop were right across Sriram’s house. Kriti was also party to the conversation now. “Is he Shalini’s cousin or something? She had mentioned that her relatives were coming home this week,” she added. Shalini was their next door neighbour.

“Are you related to Shalini? Do you know the names of anyone in your family?” Sriram asked  the voice.

“I can’t remember”

“Hold on while I call for help”

He prodded Kriti to call the police. She was unmoved. “I think we should only go there and resolve it, rather than calling the police. Anyway, I don’t think we can enjoy the evening until I know that the poor fellow is safe. Yenantiya?”. What do you think, she had asked him. He knew that the night was ruined, so they might as well help someone out. “Sari, Ok, let’s go”

“My wife and I stay just around where you are. We’ll be there in half an hour to help you out,” consoled Sriram

“Thank you! But don’t hang up. I am very scared”

“There is nothing to be scared of. We’ll be there soon,” said Sriram, empathetically.

“Don’t cut the call, please”

He decided to give a piece of his mind to Shalini for leaving his number behind in the note.

“Ok. I’ll be on the line”

The couple headed down to the car and Kriti took the wheel and they started.

Sriram wonders, till date, why he asked the following question to the man on the phone.

“What all can you remember from your life?”

“There are a lot of memories, but I can only recollect a few fragments of it. It’s like watching random still frames from a movie. I don’t know the order, I don’t know the characters. But, I remember my childhood vividly. It plays like how a movie does. I remember my mother’s face very well. I can recognize my wife’s face too, sometimes.”

Sriram now felt for him. The voice on the phone, after all, did have an endearing charm.

“I remember going to ISKCON with my parents. I remember studying in Indian Institute of Science, playing cricket in the grounds there, my time in America, but all of these are just still frames. I married the most beautiful girl and brought her home. I remember only the highlights, nothing more.”

“I studied in IISc too! I did my PhD in the US too, coincidentally! Which department were you in, if you can recollect,” quipped Sriram, now with a smile on his face

“Physics, I think”

The resemblance was uncanny. All the incidents matched perfectly. Sriram got a little serious now.

“Where are your parents now?”

“They died long ago,” said the voice

“How?”

“In a road accident, when I was younger”

“Are you playing games with me?” Sriram was now furious. “What sort of a stupid prank is this? Who are you… What’s your name?”
Sriram’s parents had died in a road accident when he was a teenager.

“I can’t recollect my name, however much I try. I recollect only so much as I am telling you. This is not a prank”

Sriram calmed down a bit. There was a sense of honesty that he could feel in the other man’s voice.

“Do you remember the only time when your father had beaten you up?” Sriram felt the only way to understand more was to ask him questions

“When I had stolen money from his purse” said the voice

Perfect match.

“What for had you stolen the money?”

“I don’t remember” said the voice

“Try to recollect”

“It had to do something with a game of cricket”

Correct again.

“What is your best memory from school?”

“I remember getting a prize for a science contest”

Spot on.

Sriram was confused. All his rational mental processes stalled for a moment. These instances from his childhood were extremely personal and no one knew about them, not even Krithi. But the voice knew them with decent precision.

They reached Shalini’s place to find that her cousins had not yet come to Bangalore. Sriram got back to questioning the voice on the phone.

“Describe the insides of the house you are in”

As soon as the voice started  the description, Sriram recognized it was his own house that the stranger was locked in. He rushed to his house with Kriti following him.

Not a soul in the house. They searched all the rooms, twice over.

Standing in the living room, he reached for the cabinet.

“Open the cabinet in the living room” He said to the voice “How many shelves do you see?”

“Six.” Perfect match.

“Head to the bedroom. Open the cupboard, reach for my passport and read the number aloud”

The voice on the phone read the alphanumeric identifier. Perfect match.

Sriram’s head was spinning now. The voice knew all that he knew. The voice was in the same place as him. How could a person knowing all that he knew and being in the same place as him not be him?

“Turn to the last page in the passport. Look into the mirror, is it your face?” asked Sriram as a last search for clues.

The voice gasped softly. There was no answer this time.

Sriram was now trying to calm down. In a moment of sudden clarity, realization struck him like a shot from a 12 gauge shotgun. He had been asking the voice where he was again and again. That was the wrong question all along.

“When are you calling from. What is the time and date?” asked Sriram this time, more earnest than ever.

The phone had gone dead.

Kharaharapriya

The room wore a desolate look. With just a pile of cartons in one corner, the living room seemed pretty spacious without all the furniture and electronic gadgets. Remove all the clutter and it looks so large, she thought, just like our lives.

She sat there with a roll of duct tape and scissors, trying to bind the last carton that had to be packed before nightfall. She had placed two of her fingers on the roll and rotated it slowly, hoping that she would be able to identify the free end. She had done this four times over without any luck, her gaze on the window, hypnotized.

She was moving out. This house had been her only companion through all the turmoil and chaos that had played out in recent years. And now, the time had come for her to move on from this as well. It had not been an easy decision to take.

Something in the other room caught her eye just then and brought her mind back to the present. It was an old iron trunk, rusty and caked in a thick layer of dust. She could not recognize it immediately; it had stayed hidden in the attic all this time, resurfacing only now that she was vacating the house. She tried to open it, but it was jammed shut. Intrigued, she bought a wet cloth and wiped the trunk clean. Another jerk, and success greeted her in her attempt to open the  stubborn trunk.  She was not prepared for what she found inside.

She was a young girl of five when she first held a violin. The memories of waking up before sunrise to her mother’s shrill voice and the smell of freshly-brewed coffee were crystal clear in her head. She could recollect rubbing her eyes as she headed towards a prehistoric bungalow where Madam conducted the music classes. As a young adult, she had found her calling in music, falling in love with the classes and more so with the instrument. The diligence lasted for years, and she became a good musician.

She was now staring at the a black case which contained the old violin which she used to carry to the music class everyday. Its presence had escaped her mind completely. In a flash, she zipped open the beautiful wooden violin from its solid case and held it upright; this was a reunion of the master and her instrument. She bowed to the small picture of Goddess Saraswati in the case in an involuntary act as she held the violin in position. The cool scroll of the violin nestled on the side of her foot and the chin rest found its familiar position against her collarbone.

Memory now took her back to the day when the announcement came. The music school had been given a slot in the annual concert and they had called for interested pupils to audition. She was jittery with excitement when the results were announced; she had been selected. Weeks passed with little rest and incessant practice. She placed everything else aside – academics, friends and the weekend outings – as she devoted herself to preparing her piece. She could recall how nervous she was backstage. The troupe consisting of musicians on the mridangam, the veena and the violin was called on stage and after a quick sound check, the concert began. The horsehair bow on the strings made its mark right away; the notes were spot on. As the first piece came to an end with a thunderous applause, she started to feel a little uneasy. The unease increased as the second piece began. Subbu, who was on the mridangam, was giving cues which soon turned into stares as he saw the violin miss a couple of notes.  The aarohana of the second rāga began.

Sadja,

Chatusruti Rishabha,

Sadharana Gandhara,

Suddha Madhyama,

Panchama…

Her hands froze. The subsequent notes flowed in her mind but her hands gave up on them. The last thing she could see before the blackout was the image of her parents rushing towards the stage.

Her own sigh jolted her out of this painful memory. The violin was still positioned perfectly, with beads of sweat forming around her fingers where she was holding the bow. Why she had collapsed on that day, she did not know. All she could remember was how she had failed Madam and insulted goddess Saraswati when it mattered most. She had not played the violin since that day.

Sitting in her empty living room, she wanted to laugh at her younger self. Older and wiser now, the things that she had seen and the pain she had endured in these intervening years put this memory to shame. How naive it was of her to see that as failure and give up her passion. The disrespect to the goddess lied in abandoning the art, she realized.

She started playing the violin. The notes, now clearer than ever, hit their mark. The metal strings dug into the skin of her fingertips, giving her the familiar sense of belonging. The sultry afternoon departed, so did dusk, with rāga after rāga flowing from her violin. She started playing what she had erred with, years ago, with all the seven notes of the sampoorna rāga flowing effortlessly.

She felt joy for the first time in years. A rare smile made an appearance. It had all started with an old trunk, with its lid tight shut. In a serendipitous instance that afternoon, a spark had been reignited.

She was reminded of a verse by Camus.

“In the midst of hate, I found there was, within me, an invincible love.
In the midst of tears, I found there was, within me, an invincible smile.
In the midst of chaos, I found there was, within me, an invincible calm.
I realized, through it all, that…
In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.”

She played on.

Paisa

Kitna paisa lagega? How much is it going to cost?” asked Mark addressing the repairman.

This was the first time that Mark had asked the price of a commodity or a service that he wanted. He never got into situations like these as he usually dealt with plastic cards or virtual online accounts. Born in Bangalore to an industrialist, and a real estate baron, Mark was quite the Marie Antoinette of our generation. He loved Belgian chocolate cakes.

Mark attended college only in his ‘free time’ until his attendance percentage dropped below the minimum threshold. In one of the missions to float above the threshold, he was fighting off sleep in an economics lecture.
“The Indian rupee is an example of a fiat currency” explained Professor Sharma in his loud voice. He had delivered over a hundred lectures on this topic throughout his teaching years. “This means, the value of the currency notes are guaranteed by the government that has issued it. Take, for example, the 500 rupee note. It is valuable because the issuing authority (The Reserve Bank of India in our case) has promised its value to the bearer. If you look closely, you will find that any Indian rupee note will contain the statement saying ‘I promise to pay the bearer a sum…’”. Prof. Sharma was interrupted by the sight of a pupil who had dozed off.

“Markandeyulu” shouted the Professor.

Mark was unmoved. His neighbour ebbed his elbow whispering “YeddeLo. Wake up”.

“Markandeyulu” thundered the professor, now approaching towards him. Mark woke up rubbing his eyes and in a moment of stark realization of what was happening, he stood up.

“Get out of my class”. Plain and simple.

Mark glanced at his watch. Fifty-five minutes had passed in the lecture and five minutes left. To be thrown out now would mean on losing out on a class’ worth of attendance after ‘attending’ the (well, almost) whole lecture. The horror, the horror.

“Sir, sorry, sir. Last chance” he mumbled.

“I will be recording you as an absentee anyway. You better end our mutual misery by leaving the class right away” said the professor, with an snarky grin on his face.

Distraught, Mark left the class.

Named after his great-grandfather, Markandeyulu insisted on shortening his name to the anglicized and ‘stylish’ sounding version. His father had made it clear that the consequence of meddling with his name would result in the deactivation of all his credit cards. With friends, though this was easier to handle. Any person calling him by his full name would be banned from attending the parties he hosted.

Mark went home to find that the fancy biking gear that he had ordered had been delivered. This was the preparation for the solo biking trip which he had planned from Manali in Himachal Pradesh to Leh in Jammu and Kashmir. The schedule was such that he would complete the trip and be back in Bangalore on the morning of his 21st birthday. A grand party had been planned for the occasion.

Next thing he knew, he was in the hilly town of Manali. The lovely weather and beautiful place made for a great start to his bike trip. He went into one of the shops renting motorcycles and picked up a Royal Enfield Thunderbird. The store owner promptly pointed to a signboard that said “No Card. Only Cash” when Mark brandished his platinum credit card. He made the payment in cash and set out for the journey.

The view from Rohtang Pass (13,000 ft) was breathtaking. He was enjoying the ride, although he was starting to feel the fatigue. He had planned to stay the night in Pang (15,100 ft) which was on the Leh-Manali highway. With the altitude sickness setting in, he wondered if he could last till Pang. As he zoomed past Sarchu (14,100 ft), he regained confidence and decided to stick to the original plan.

The highway is an engineering marvel with the Border Roads Organisation making way in the cold desert and its unforgiving conditions. As Mark traversed the exquisite highway, he felt something was amiss and his doubts were put to rest when the Thunderbird coughed twice and came to a dead halt. Dusk was fast approaching and Mark was staring at the dry and arid desert, hoping for a miracle. He tried kick starting the vehicle, but with no avail. He had zilch idea of the workings of a motorbike to even take a look inside. All of this adding to his fatigue that had compounded into a splitting headache.

He stood on the side of the road with his gaze transfixed on one end in the hope of catching the glimpse of an oncoming vehicle. The sun was setting on Ladakh and the cold desert was preparing to live up to its name. Mark was on the brink of panic due to the miserable situation and a dearth of ideas.

He had stared at the empty road long enough to accept Zeno’s argument that all motion, in fact, was an illusion. A dark figure finally disproved this by moving towards Mark from the far end of the road. It was an old lady with a bunch of twigs on her back. He approached her and asked something that involved the words Motorbike, repair and night.

Yahan kuch nahi milega, gaav me jaana padega. (You won’t find anything here, head to the village)” said the lady.

She was old. Her face was wrinkled, yet firm. She spoke softly and her back had hunched because of the sticks she was carrying. There was a string beaded with colourful stones around her neck. She managed to respond in Hindi.

Kahan hai yeh gaav? ” asked a feverish Mark, desperate for any sort of respite.

Main wahin rehti hoon, chalo mere saath. Come with me” she said with a toothy smile.

Both of them started towards the nondescript village of the Manali-Leh highway.

Subah mein repair wala theek kardega, yahin se nakalta hai woh. The repairman will fix it in the morning” she said, looking at the bike in an effort to assure him. She succeeded.

The moon was out now and darkness had started to descend upon them. It was getting colder and the bike was getting harder to push along for Mark.

Kitne saal ki hai aap?” he asked, in a bid to strike a conversation to keep his mind off the hardship.

Solah. Sixteen.” she replied, laughing heartily.

He smiled and they walked. The old lady could walk a lot faster, but she had adjusted her pace to accommodate for Mark’s sluggishness.

He could now see a few structures at a distance as the dusk gave up upon them by embracing nightfall. She led him to one of the structures, which was a crude hybrid between a tent and a thatched hut. Mark was now having his doubts about spending the night here. What if a gang of goons who barged in and looted him? What if she was the goon? But then he had no other choice.

The ‘room’ in her house was strewn with blankets. One end of it was designated for cooking and the other led to an enclosure which Mark assumed was the toilet.

She brought out two glasses of piping hot ginger tea and held one out to him. He took a sip and was instantly impressed by the magic ginger and honey could weave.

Aap akeli rehti hai yahan pe?

Mera ek beta tha. Teen saal pehle mar gaya. My son died three years ago” She said it in such a matter of fact fashion that it caught him by surprise. She nonchalantly went on to prepare dinner.

As they ate steamed Momos, Mark put into words what he was wondering from a while.

Aap kaam kya karte ho? What do you do for a living?”

Sweater bunti hoon factory mein. I weave sweaters. Paas mein hai.” she said, beaming with pride.

“Kitna milta hai aapko mahine mein?” How much did she make in a month, Mark wanted to know.

Poore teen hazaar rupiye” Three thousand, she prided. Holding up three of her fingers to Mark’s face. She was now showing off, with a grin on her face.

Chal jata hai, teen hazaar mein sab kuch?” Mark wondered if three thousand was enough for a month. He could survive a week on that much.

Buddhu bacchha. Do hazaar mein sab kuch nikal jaata hai. Ek hazaar saving hai” she winked at him, grinning ear to ear. Two thousand was enough for her.

Mark was taken aback. She called him a dimwit for no good reason and he wanted to retaliate by telling her that his sunglasses were worth 3 months of her work. But then, he decided to take the high road and keep mum.

Taron ko dekha hai kabhi, bacchha?” Have you seen stars, kid? Asked the lady as she gestured him to follow her out of the house.

Of course he had seen stars, what kind of a question was that. Mark followed her and looked up. The question made sense to him now. Every inch of the night sky was filled with tiny dots of light. Each of these carrying the message of a billion years ago and billions of kilometres away. Spellbound, he stared.

A few minutes later, he sat down shivering. The lady was sitting a few feet away. Unexpectedly, she pulled out a bottle of Old Monk that was three-quarters full and pointed it at him.

Piyoge?” she asked him mischievously.

Bilkul”. Absolutely.

She brought out two steel tumblers and poured carefully. He sipped on to it with gratitude, humbled by the old villager’s generosity.

Dawn broke and Mark woke up rubbing his eyes. The magnitude of the events of the previous night struck him hard. The old lady might have saved his life, for all he knew.

He washed his face and changed his clothes. He went up to the old lady and pulled out all the currency notes that were there in his wallet. He offered them to her.

Amma, yeh aapke liye” Thanks for saving my life.

Arre buddhu, sab paisa mujhe dedoge toh gadi kaise theek karoge?”

She was right. He needed the money for the repairs. He promised that he would give her whatever remained after the repairs got done. He headed to the what looked like the only shop in the village.

Kitna paisa lagega? How much is it going to cost?” asked Mark addressing the repairman.

Teen Hazaar. Three thousand”.Mark counted the money in his wallet. Six notes of 500 each. No money left for the lady.

“Kam karoge?” He tried his hand at bargaining for the first time in his life.

“Teen Hazaar or no repair” was the response. He gave away all the notes right away. He failed.

The repairman replaced a few parts and got it working again. Mark took the bike to the lady’s house struggling with guilt. He had no money to give her. He thought of giving her his jacket or sunglasses or his shoes, but he was sure she would not accept. They were of no use to her.

“Sorry, poora paisa repair mein lag gaya” He apologised.

She laughed. “Mujhe paison ki zaroorat nahi”. I don’t need money. She waved him goodbye and left for her day’s work. He snuck back into her house and left her his sunglasses, just to satisfy his guilt.

He got his backpack from her house and started his journey towards Leh. He felt that he had validated her condescension. He was indeed a buddhu.

Mark had an enjoyable trip which culminated at Bangalore on the morning of his 21st birthday. Later that evening, during the party in one of Bangalore’s premier pubs, Mark was spotted sitting in the open air section.

He sat there, staring at the sky while sipping on lukewarm rum from a steel tumbler.