Monday, November 06, 2017

A short story of a friendship that hits a pause button for years. What happens when they try to press play again? Do old equations change? Do people change? My latest short story in the Spark magazine. Read on. 

The Metamorphosis

Prashant first saw Sanjeev when he walked into his classroom on the first day of fourth grade and found a new addition to his class from the previous year. A boy was hunched over a wooden bench, carving something intently into it with a metal compass. His hair was dishevelled and the pocket of his shirt was torn. A crimson line streaked across his arm.
He had clearly been in a fight and was worse for the wear. Whether he had been victorious – it was hard to tell.
Prashant found himself inexplicably drawn to this battered and bruised boy who seemed to be lost in a world of his own. He sat next to him and struck up a conversation.
“Hey, what’s your name?”
“Oh, and where are you from?”
“What are you carving?”
There was an easy symmetry to their conversation. Sanjeev’s frugality with words was compensated by Prashant’s generosity with them.
Between the words and the silence, time ran circles around the clock, pages of calendars were turned many a time and the years piled on. Their friendship had grown as thick of the weeds lining the outer walls of their hostel.
On the last day of their school, they sat on the terrace of their hostel and drank beer for the first time in their lives. They could see the city stretch far into the horizon from that height, inviting them to join its masses.
Their lives took on different paths once they left the cosy confines of their boarding school. Prashant chose a path that would eventually lead him to getting an MBA. Sanjeev decided to join the armed forces. Prashant remembered being very surprised when he heard the plan. His friend Sanjeev, who had never vocalised his patriotism, was showing his admission letter from the National Defence Academy.
When pressed, the quiet fellow that he was, he merely said, “Someone has got to guard the gates.”
The two stayed in touch for the first few years. Slowly, new companions filled the void that they had left for each other. The words dried up between them and they fell out of being in each other’s lives. Prashant got his management degree, Sanjeev his military rank.
The fragility of the silence between them was broken when Prashant unexpectedly got a call from Sanjeev’s mother on a Sunday afternoon.
“How is Sanjeev, aunty?”, Prashant asked, surprised by the unexpected voice on the other end of the line.
“He is fine, beta. It takes a lot to get him to call us and tell us about what he is up to, but he is doing fine,” said his mother, laughing.
“Where is he?”
“In Kashmir.”
“Doing what?” Prashant queried, feeling silly even as he asked.
“Fighting the terrorists,” her voice quivered.
“You know, he is expected to come home at the end of the month. His sister and I thought we’d surprise him with a birthday party. We haven’t seen you in so many years; I thought he’d be really pleased to see you.”
“I’ll let you know, aunty” Prashant responded matter-of-factly. “Take care.”
Seven years, he sighed. “Seven years since I have seen him. How did we manage to do that after being so close?”
He opened the freezer and took out a bottle of cold Bira beer. Sanjeev would have liked it, he said to himself.
Sanjeev, my friend. He must be enjoying the famed apples of Kashmir while meditating on a rock covered with snow perched on a high mountain.
And now memories came flooding. Memories that were buried. Memories that were now the bottom layers of stratified rock, crushed and aged.
Suddenly, Prashant found himself opening up his laptop and starting to type, a subconscious drive coercing clicks on the keyboard from him. He imagined himself making a little speech in Sanjeev’s honour at the party.
“Sanjeev is a true friend.”
“In all the years that I had known him, Sanjeev has always been a rock. Never wavering, never dithering. Always sure of his beliefs and ready to fight for them.”
Prashant’s mind drifted to the solitary figure of Sanjeev standing in the middle of a circle, as the seniors who were ragging him, continued to heckle him for not going and proposing to a girl. But he hadn’t uttered a word.
“Sanjeev has always been a man of few words but the words he spoke were never said in vain. He has always been, above all, a genuine person,” he typed.
Prashant couldn’t help recalling how when his father passed away, Sanjeev had stayed by him for days at a stretch. In those silent days where Prashant mourned for his father, Sanjeev matched his silence, only breaking it once to put a hand on his shoulder and tell him, “I am sorry for your loss.”
The little speech took shape as Prashant emptied the vessel of his memories for his friend onto a Word document. He then pressed the Save button, shut his laptop and slept contentedly.
Days passed and one evening, when the neon lights across his building had come into life, Prashant’s phone rang. The voice at the other end of the line was unmistakable.
“How are you?” asked Sanjeev.
He had come back from duty a week early and surprised his mother. Her well-laid plans of a surprise party were thwarted.
It was his turn to surprise the people who had been there for him. Would Prashant like to meet?
“Yes, of course.”
The two old mates met the next evening at a bar.
“Beer?” asked Prashant.
“Whiskey,” Sanjeev asserted, smirking.
Prashant raised his eyebrows slightly in surprise. He sipped his drink quietly while a stream of words flowed from Sanjeev.
“Doing the right thing is overrated.”
“Why should only the bastards pulling the strings get a cut?”
“I am done with this job. Another six months and I am out.”
The city slumped into the depths of night as Prashant sat and listened to his friend from another age. That embattled, bitter pragmatist, who seemed to have buried the dreamer that Prashant knew, somewhere, much like his memories.
When the evening got over, they shook hands and went their ways. When Prashant got home, he turned on his laptop and pulled out the speech he was intending to give. As an afterthought, he typed:
“I missed Sanjeev. I will always miss him.”

Prashant realised that the last sentence read more like a eulogy. A remembrance to a person who wasn’t there anymore. And wasn’t that apt because the person he searched for was no longer there? Lost to life. Lost to war. Metamorphosed.

Friday, October 06, 2017

The Mirage of Choice

Choice is confining. Dreaming is limitless. And yet we are bound to what we manage by the choices we make.

Read my poem in this month's Spark magazine that explores this theme.

The Mirage of Choice

She wishes life was arranged like
The chiaroscuro of a cobbled street
The darkness allowed to coexist
With the light within her that
Waxed and waned like the
Trenchant moon outside her window
She wishes she was a tree
Whose roots she could hide
While they spread unbeknownst
To the world that pried and stared
And willed her to melt down
Like a cube of ice under the hot sun
She wishes that she could dream
Without the practical considerations
That shackled the flight that dreams
Should be allowed to take
Not weighed down by the drag of reason
Not burnt like the wings of Icarus
She wishes that she could choose
The life that she wished for
That she would point to a closed fist
And would always find a coin within it
That every choice was a deliberate move
Always made to move her forward
She wishes that true choice was not a myth
That she could choose the wishes
That would inevitably turn to reality
That her outcomes were not
The dispassionate verdicts of probability
And her choices were not curses in hiding

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Of Dreams

I wish I could dream
The dreams of my children
Those impractical, juvenile,
Infantine trips to worlds
That I now know to
Be fiction
There hardly is a point
In dreaming dreams
That are impractical
There are no gardens
Where the fountains
Have the elixirs
That imbibe me with powers
Or butterflies
Resting on rhododendrons
That are in fact
Filaments of gold
Sewn together
By a magical hand
That I waved
I’ll merely kiss my kids goodnight
And watch their eyes droop
As they fly out to their lands
Awash in belief
I will close the door
And silently bid them goodbye

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

An Ode to Lake Bellandur

The lake that catches fire. The lake that spews foam. And now, the lake that inspires poetry.

The Bellandur lake in Bengaluru is in the news for all the wrong reasons. Here's an ode to it.

#Bellandur #BLR #poetry

An Ode to Lake Bellandur

And the white clouds floated on land
Past the clutches of those pesky weeds
Trampling the iron mesh of tyranny
Snowy glory on a tar-filled road
Lake Bellandur flowed onto the roads
Spreading liberally, its blessings in foam
Like a Dali painting unshackled from a frame
White Christmas on a sizzling morning
What do they know of you, of Bellandur?
Calling you a lake of filth
A symbol of greed and decay
The death knell for a verdant city
Why do they only see that fire on your surface
As waylaid chemicals in a giant bog?
The stinging smoke as poison to the lungs
The clingy weeds as shackles on growth?
Ignore the accusers, avoid the guilt
Your sprawl matches that of the city
Your failures nothing but its inaction
You are but a mirror and nothing more

Saturday, August 05, 2017

The Birthday Party Juggernaut

Birthday parties. If you are a parent in this generation, you are either going to one or preparing to host one. Such is their frequency.
Read my latest publication in Spark magazine about how birthday parties are not the memorable occasions they used to be.

The Birthday Party Juggernaut

I am a child of the 80s who grew up in the middle of middle class India. This naturally meant that the things that today’s generation of kids take for granted was an exercise in extravagance at that time. A birthday was an occasion where you would mandatorily visit your local deity and garner some blessings (and perhaps a gift or loose cash) from your elders. The only party we knew was a political entity who came around the time of elections every five years to garner some votes.
I remember my sixth birthday celebration vividly. In Kodak Eastman color. I say so because the celebration was the only one I had in the first decade during which I also got the chance to take some lovely pictures with my parents, friends and family. It was truly a momentous occasion, a rare one.
Three decades later, while the earth has been quietly spinning around the sun, life has come a full circle for me. I am a parent of two Gen-Z boys. Parenting does not come with a manual, but does come equipped with a to-do list. One of those activities is chaperoning the children to birthday parties.
The math itself is intimidating. Both my children have twenty kids each in their class. Even if ten kids from each class invited them for a birthday, that takes away twenty weekends of the year. Add to that friends from the building and you realise soon enough that you can’t buy gifts at a pace that matches that of the party requests.
In full disclosure, everything that I state below will be applicable to me as well since I too host two of these birthday parties every year.
It doesn’t matter when the birthday actually occurs. The celebration is almost always pushed to the weekend. Months before the birthday comes about, parents have to pick the place of the jamboree. Should it be a new gaming zone or a new restaurant? Do it at home or in an indoor sports place? It can’t be too far, it can’t be a repeat of another birthday party, it has to be something your child likes, it has to be something the other children like too. Once you navigate the labyrinth of choices, the booking is made. Just as you heave a sigh of relief, you realise that only half the battle is won. The food has to be organized, the return gifts have to be bought and in today’s hyper-connected world, a WhatsApp group of all the parents who are bringing their tots to the party has to be created.
Note that it isn’t that simple though. There are people who aren’t able to confirm until much later and that dreaded head count that you need to provide to the place hosting the party isn’t ready until much later.
The day of the party nears. You have done your due diligence. A Ninjago cake has been ordered (because Mickey Mouse is so yesterday) and is set to be delivered at the right time for the party. The caterers have been told the menu and you hope and pray that their output matches the recommendation that led you to them. Everything is set. The birthday child, the siblings and the parents.
You arrive early at the venue to receive everyone. No one arrives on time. You wait, and still no one arrives. The birthday boy is getting fidgety. Hungry. And then they come. The swarm of parents and the attendees of the birthday party.
A birthday gift is recklessly shoved into your hands by the child as you are greeting the parents. The child attending the party has most likely got no idea what he or she is gifting. It doesn’t seem relevant to them.
“Come, let’s play” is the call, and off they go into the rumbly-tumbly world of bouncy balls and places.
An hour later, the famished masses are dragged away from the play area by their parents and the children are gathered for the most-awaited cake-cutting ceremony. The cake naturally tends to be the center of attraction and it requires an exceptionally focused adult guarding it to ensure that the cake is not squished before it is cut. The Happy Birthday song is sung with gusto, the cake is cut, pictures are taken and the children are distributed on the chairs in anticipation of the food. Most rookie parents make the mistake of giving hungry children the cake before the food. Sugar on an empty stomach for the little brats simply spurs them to more devilish deeds. Food is brought out but not all children eat the lavish spread well. The hosts generally always order more than what is needed because who wants to host a party with insufficient food? Birthday parties are a great example of how good food is wasted inconsiderately.
Eventually, when it is time to say goodbye, the return gifts are brought out. Kids are so used to getting one that I have had many a kid walk up to me at the start of the party itself and ask me what the return gift is going to be. The goodie bag with the little trinkets is one that all parents hate and yet they impose it on other parents.
The party ends and parents of the birthday child pack their cars with all the gifts and head home. The children open their gifts and enjoy them, but not with the same sense of awe and gratitude that we did. Often, when we celebrate my boys’ birthdays, we ask the guests to not get gifts but instead donate that to charity because the act can go a long way in instituting a higher sense of compassion in children.
The dauphins of France might not be as spoilt for choice as today’s children are. Which naturally means that they will be more dissatisfied than the brats of French royalty ever were. The ease with which they get everything also breeds a sense of entitlement.
Birthday parties have become an obligatory celebration for the parents because of peer pressure and an entitlement for the children because they know no better. Perhaps it isn’t too late for parents to stem the tide. To realise that hosting fewer but more meaningful parties is a better choice. That the yearly journey of the earth around the sun for your child can be special without streamers and a gathering and return gifts. The choice is ours.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

It is Alright

Read my latest publication in Spark. Their topic for the month was 'Night'. I have written a poem about the succor it brings, for those who dread it. 

It is Alright 

It is alright for your night to arrive
You have been embracing this world
Since the sun’s first surreptitious rays
Losing charge as the hours go by
Like the million devices you command
It is alright for your night to begin
Its cloak trailing in the gentle breeze
Gently concealing the world around you
The gains the city made
The losses its inhabitants suffered
It is alright for your night to pass
For what is night but an egress to many worlds
Where your rainbow tinted dreams
Meet your uninhibited thoughts
Under the canopy of closed eyelids
It is alright for your night to end
The first moments when your eyes open
Are your bulwark against reality
When you are neither awake nor asleep
And life doesn’t feel insurmountable

Monday, June 05, 2017

The Story of Our Lives

Read my review of the docu-drama based on the cricketing journey of Sachin Tendulkar published in this month's Spark magazine.
Or as I called it when I saw the movie - a pilgrimage

The Story of Our Lives

Sachin Tendulkar tickles the ball to the fine leg boundary. He completes a century and India completes a famous win in Chennai. It is not just a victory. It is a balm to the nation after the horrific attacks in Mumbai. It is December 2008.
I turn to my son and whisper in his ear over the din of the movie, “Do you know what’s so special about this match?”
My eight-year-old shrugs his shoulders nonchalantly.
“You were born that day.”
His eyes light up. I have just given him context.
It is a fleeting moment in a movie filled with many such moments. The movie is ‘Sachin: A Billion Dreams’ and it is a documentary drama based on the life of the legendary Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar.
I took my sons (8 and 5) to this movie so that they could learn about their father’s favorite cricketer. That was the purported reason and yet, it turned out to be a movie where they learnt a little bit about their father. They saw me animated, engaged, emotional. That is what context does. That is why the children of the 80s and the 90s have warmed up to this film.
This is not a story about Sachin. It is a story of our lives.
For many like me who have followed his career since we first heard of him as a precocious cricketer in 1989, our lives have been dotted with one Sachin innings after another. They ceased to be just runs made in a cause. They were milestones in our lives.
The movie lays them in our path within a span of two hours.
A young Sachin, born into the middle class household of a sensitive poet, a hardworking mother and loving siblings puts aside his love for mischief and discovers an undying passion for cricket when his brother takes him to the famed coach Mr. Ramakant Achrekar.
The movie traces these moments in Sachin’s life through the wonderful enthusiasm of the child actor portraying him. The movie takes you in through the journey of the little boy who combined his precocious talent with a formidable work ethic and a strong support system to make it to the Indian cricket team to tour Pakistan at the age of 16. The message that talent alone is not enough without the will and hard work to see it to its logical end is there for everyone to grasp.
Tendulkar narrates most of the movie himself, with his family members, his teammates and opponents all pitching in.
As the years roll by, his pursuit of the World Cup gives the movie its rhythm. Through this turmoil, the rise of Tendulkar paralleling the rise of India in the 90s is shown. His great innings start rolling on the scenes and I could hear knowledgeable people in the theater nod their head when he carts Caddick for a six or smashes Kasprowicz in Sharjah. Don Bradman makes an appearance when he talks about how Sachin reminds him of his younger self and Akram chimes in to say that their strategy to win against India was centered around getting Sachin out.
Sachin lays clear his self-doubt when playing his first test match, his frustrations at being dumped as a captain, his thoughts on the the match fixing saga that enveloped cricket, the pain of the many injuries he suffers. But those looking for spicy tidbits or controversy will be largely disappointed. To that end, the movie panders to the non-critical fan, not the neutral observer who might be expecting to hear about the Ferrari controversy or the famous 194 declaration incident.
We get a glimpse into the partnership that makes him tick – that with his wife Anjali. We get to see him as the goofball father who regrets not getting enough time with his children but makes every moment count when he is with them.
I sat through the movie absorbing this life story even though I knew everything there was to know about it. I could recognize every statistic that was mentioned. I had reveled in all the victories that were shown and I had felt heartbroken at every defeat that we had suffered with the little man at the center of it all.
And yet I stayed glued. A.R. Rahman’s pulsating background score with chants of ‘Sachin, Sachin’ remind the viewer of what stadiums felt like when Tendulkar was in the middle. James Erskine does a good job as a director and his most important feat was getting Tendulkar as a narrator to very simply and effectively tell his own story. Special mention must be made about the editing of the movie for it could not have easy to walk through hours and hours of footage and pick the right gems that people could relate to.
The movie rides on nostalgia. It rides on emotion. And that is appropriate. For calling Tendulkar a mere batsman, however good he may have been, does disservice to what he meant to people. There is a poignant moment at the end where Ramesh Tendulkar says with pride, “The thing that gives me most satisfaction is that people think of Sachin as their own. As part of their family.” That sums up the reaction to this film. That sums up my emotions as I sat through this.
Even die-hard Tendulkar fans accept that post retirement, his aura has dimmed as he tries to find a footing in the world outside cricket with constant product promotions and social media pandering. This movie can either be viewed cynically as another rung down the ladder for him or a sincere attempt to share his inspiring journey with the world. I chose the latter.
I have never cried in a movie theater before but found myself welling up quite often. My sons will grow up in the age of Kohli and in the razzmatazz of the IPL. And yet they’ll have known now that Sachin is special. Because the movie said so. Because their father was teary eyed.
Sachin wistfully says in the movie, “Cricket is like oxygen to me.” Surely he must know that for the India that witnessed his growth and continues to shower love on him despite him struggling to find a way to stay relevant post retirement, he has been like oxygen.
At the end of this very subjective review, I can only ask you to watch this movie in a theater. You’ll not be disappointed.