Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Vignettes

Education isn't about mere numbers. It is a collection of memories we build when we are in school and college. My publication in this month's Spark magazine is a set of haikus on the moments that stay with us when we go through the grind to get a degree.

http://www.sparkthemagazine.com/?p=10269

Vignettes


Teardrop emerges
Resists and finally falls off
His first day at school

“Do your homework”
A voice asserts from the kitchen
He turns on the computer

“What of the other two?”
Eager eyes scanned the ground
In hope for the lost marks

“We are very inclusive”,
Stressed the Sister. The board warned
“No Hindi in here”

“A nationwide bandh”
A newspaper flung away
A bag flung happily too

“Akshay Sunil More?”
“Present Sir”, two voices shout
The dual proxies smiled slyly

“Homo erectus”
Few giggles are heard at the back
“Boys”, sighs the teacher

The dropout remembers
With his buddies on WhatsApp
“Sigh. Those were the dayyzzzz”

A Lazy Summer Afternoon

The Bangalore Poetry Festival released an anthology of poems from contributing poets who made the cut. Glad to get my first publication as a Bangalore poet after doing it in Seattle.

Here's the poem in question.

A Lazy Summer Afternoon


Our willowy fingers traced 
the shapes of clouds.
 
One was a face, the other a ship, 
a third an army in disarray
 
One was shaped like the memory we were making, 
two clouds floating on grass, 
dew kissing their tingly feet.

Friday, August 05, 2016

The Great Indian Road Trick

I have never driven in India. Yes, you heard me right. Hence, the first time I took to the streets was obviously going to be an adventure in the making.

Read on as I take my years of driving on American roads to a new potholed laced spread.
Spark magazine was kind enough to test drive this essay

http://www.sparkthemagazine.com/?p=10174

The Great Indian Road Trick

Let me get something out of the way at the very beginning. I have never driven in India. I have an Indian license that the fine state of Maharashtra issued to me and it has been valid for a long time, but I have never really driven in India. I grew up in Mumbai where owning a vehicle was never a must. The BEST buses and auto-rickshaws and local trains would carry you wherever you needed to go and more importantly, one could still walk on the road if your legs were keen on traveling.

I spent a decade and a half in the United States. For all practical purposes, I learnt to drive there. On those wide empty roads in a college town in Texas, where traffic was never really an issue and where the biggest challenge was getting used to driving at a high speed, being comfortable changing lanes and doing parallel parking. Since then I have driven over a lakh miles or possibly more. The way of life in most American cities requires you to drive. Incessantly. And while the monotony of it gets to you, I wouldn’t call it stressful. No wonder taking a long drive is considered as natural a thing to do as barbecuing food in summer and buying things on Thanksgiving.

However, now I am in India. Not as a visitor, but as a resident. I work here, live here and watch Indian television serials with a great degree of amusement. Specifically, I live in what was once the city of retirees but is now a city that might just force people to retire sooner. Bangalore. Bengaluru. I wonder if the city fell off the precipice when its name was changed. Most likely, it happened when someone looked at the weather and decided that this is paradise waiting to be inhabited and ruined. IT companies decided to land in droves and city planners put up IT parks like a 2-year-old would spread LEGO blocks on the floor by tossing them. No order, no arrangement, no roads to get around, no public transport to take you there. Folks familiar with the city tell me that the city used to be navigable in twenty minutes not more than a decade ago. Twenty minutes is the time you would need to cover a car’s length in a traffic signal in Marathahalli.

Back to my driving though. A month after landing, we bought a car. My wife turned out to be a bigger braveheart than me. She drove it back home from the showroom, ferried the whole family for a first ride out and two days later, started driving it to work in it. I on the other hand stared at it for a few days – a pristine beast that I was afraid to take out in an unruly jungle. You see, driving in India is not merely an exercise in sitting behind a wheel and pressing the accelerator. It is like playing a video game. Vehicles can come from your left, from your right, cut across you, come at you from the opposite direction and it is only a matter of great relief that no car drops on you from the top. Why just vehicles – pedestrians pose challenges too. You maybe driving at 60 kmph but that is no deterrent for the chap who jumps across the median of a highway and puts his hand out like Neo expecting all vehicular traffic to stop and drop dead like the bullets that were aimed at the hero. Perhaps India is the Matrix, where people are sent to acquire new skills as drivers before they return to the real world. Why else would you see on a perfectly busy highway of a crowded metropolitan city a herd of cows who couldn’t care less about turning a “green” looking Google Maps traffic status to “red”? What better test of skill there is than two cows exactly six feet apart, moving slowly at different speeds and you are expected to drive your car through it?

Nay, driving in India is not a boring affair like it is industrialized nations like the US where the roads don’t have potholes. In USA, the failures are never minor – your car may never fall into a pothole, but an entire bridge might collapse with you on it. Driving in India teaches you that you may have a 40 lakh car but you need to respect the ground realities. The potholes, that is. If you cover a distance of 30 feet without encountering a pothole, check your engine. You may not have started the car at all! I don’t think the municipal people are apathetic. They see the potholes for what they are. Beautiful examples of abstract art. You need the eyes of your soul to admire it. But nonetheless, there are some who don’t. Recently in Bangalore, people resorted to doing a ‘pothole puja’ or recreate the ‘Princess and the frog’ fairytale to highlight the pothole menace as they see it. But potholes are nothing but a silent cry to the masses to slow down. Take a deep breath. Take stock of your life. In fact, the whole of Bangalore city exudes that message. After all, it was meant to be a city for retirees who were never known to take things fast. Sitting in traffic at the Silk Board junction or the Marathahalli bridge give you enough and more time to introspect.

In the short time I have driven in India, I have learnt some tricks that help me. For example, never drive on the extremes. If you drive on the left of the road, you might encounter cars parked right below a ‘No parking’ sign. If you drive on the right of the road, you might be blocked behind an array of vehicles trying to execute one of Bangalore’s true specialties; the U-turn. Stay in the middle and hope that you don’t encounter the devil. Over my first few days of nervous driving, I realized that the ones I was scared of the most were the two-wheelers. Like bees buzzing around in Brownian motion, there is no rhyme or reason to the manner they drive. They change lanes with impunity, they squeeze themselves into the tightest of spots, they scratch your car if the spot doesn’t turn out to be as big as they imagined it and mostly drive like they are on a death wish. Auto-rickshaws are the worst offenders in Mumbai. Two-wheelers win that prize in Bangalore. Naturally, my attempts at principled driving didn’t get me anywhere. I tried sticking to my lane and almost got hit. I let other people through when it made sense and got honked at like catastrophe had struck. I used indicators to give people fair warning of turns that I am making but people drove on around me like my two-ton car didn’t exist.

There is much to fret about driving in traffic in India. The country’s motorists drive with no rules of conduct beyond “I’m going to drive as fast as I can in the direction I want to go until there is an immediate physical barrier at which point I will brake abruptly. I will then honk mercilessly until I am able to force my way through traffic.” What they don’t seem to realize is this only serves to cause congestion, making it such that no one can get anywhere. That civic sense does not exist in Indian drivers. You can fix the infrastructure all you want but that will only solve half the problem.
I realise now that I can’t drive like I did in the USA and I’ll need to build a lot of mental muscle to drive like everyone else here. I’ll work through this and find my middle ground, my little compromise between the Indian model of driving and the American one. As they say in India, “You don’t drive on the left of the road, you drive on what is left of the road.”

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

A Musical Introduction

"Hi, I am Kedar", he said over the singing

The girl shook her head, pointed at the stage and said, "Bhairavi"

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Shreyas and the Tyre

Shreyas was unbeatable, till a little incident got him down. Read my latest publication in the Spark magazine, a feel good story about a teenager's adversity and how he turns it into an advantage. Oh, and a tyre plays a big part in the story. I wonder why :)

http://www.sparkthemagazine.com/?p=10097


Shreyas and the Tyre


People could have been forgiven for believing that there was a halo over Shreyas’s head. Here was a schoolboy destined for great successes. His friends would chant his name, ‘Shreyas, Shreyas’ (set to the tune of ‘Sachin, Sachin’) when he would play cricket. A six needed of one ball – Shreyas delivered. A wicket needed to tilt the balance – just bring on Shreyas. An elocution competition is afoot – no one speaks as well as Shreyas. A song needs to be sung at assembly – let loose the dulcet tones of Shreyas. He was omnipotent and multi-talented. His place as a legend in his school was assured until the fateful day when Shreyas’s stoic balance deserted him. He had invited the jealousy of Anish, who had grown tired of watching the girls in his class call go ‘Shreeeeyaaaas’ longingly just to get his attention.

It was a wet morning at school. The children were stranded in their classrooms, asked to ‘do whatever you want, just be quiet’ by their teacher. It was a potent form of torture and the restless masses hushed and whispered and giggled and played games on their desks to pass the time. The decibel level was within the teacher’s comfort zone and so she merrily ignored them, sinking her heart deep into the Mills and Boons novel she was reading, which in turn was hidden within a large magazine. After a while, she left the class to answer nature’s call and left who else but Shreyas in charge of it. Shreyas walked up to the front of the class and stood still. The quiet authority he exuded had most of the class in control. Most, not all, because Anish saw this as a perfect opportunity to do some harm.

“Hey Shreyas, catch,” and he tossed a paper ball the way of Shreyas.

Instinctively, the top athlete caught it, and threw it back at Anish. Sternly, he said, ‘Stop it. Don’t do this here’.

“Come on, Shreyas,” said Anish, mockingly, “are you afraid of being caught?”

Shreyas didn’t take the bait.

“I bet you can’t disobey rules. There are some things Shreyas can’t do after all.”

Shreyas clinched his fist. There was nothing he couldn’t do. Everyone had been telling him that all his life.

“What happened, Shreyas? Are you scared?”

Shreyas snapped, “Shut up, Anish. I am not scared of anything or anyone.”

“Then prove it Shreyas.”

Mischief gleamed in the eyes of Anish.

“Stand on the teacher’s desk on one leg and catch this ball again!” He paused for dramatic effect. “With one hand.”

This is the moment where Shreyas paid the price of his greatness. Where his capacity to do the impossible made him fall prey to the mind games being played with him.

Shreyas stood as instructed and Anish unfurled a throw like Indra shooting a bolt of lightning. Shreyas, standing in the pose of a yogi, moved with the assurance of one and caught the ball with one hand. The table beneath him shifted, slid forward, and disrupted his balance. He fell backwards. Fortunately for him, the teacher’s chair was there to break the fall. Unfortunately for him, the teacher had left her purse on it. If that was not enough, the teacher had left her house keys in the pocket as well. And to add insult to impending injury, the keys were jutting out and pointing skywards. Unto this set of keys arrived Shreyas’s rear end. It settled on them with force and soft tissue. Shreyas did not know what had hit him but he felt the full impact of his impalement.

The rest of the morning was a blur for him. There seemed to be a collection of voices all playing in the background, each overlapping the other, a mixture of laughter and concern, instructions from the doctor and the sobs of his mother, creaking of a stretcher and his own wails that seemed to override all else. Shreyas’s rear end was front and centre of his existence for the next few days, as the doctors went to town fixing that which was broken in him. His recovery was expected to happen over a few weeks and until then, he was to now carry a most unique accessory – a tyre. An inflated rubber tyre with the right circumference and the right air pressure would relieve any pressure that his area of injury would have gotten otherwise. Shreyas and his tyre were now one. He slung it on his shoulder like a lifeguard tending to the kids of rich people at a pool party. He gained four inches while sitting on it and causing the kids consternation by blocking their view. He gained a new last name – “Tyrewala” as the merciless hordes, led by Anish, chipped away at his confidence bit by bit. Medical science had let him down. Was there no inconspicuous contraption the doctor could have given him? Slowly, the invincible Shreyas was losing. The boy who could do no wrong started making mistakes, withdrawing into his shell. The unthinkable was about to happen. Shreyas was thinking of not standing for the head boy elections. What would have been a cakewalk for him now would be gifted to Anish on a tyre.

Shreyas sat all alone one evening. Alone – save his tyre, that is – on a chair in the balcony of his house. The world was going about its existence, unaware of the pain Shreyas felt. His grandfather ambled out slowly.

“I am surprised to find you here. I thought you’d be working tirelessly,” chuckled his grandfather, much to Shreyas’s horror.

Instinctively, Shreyas responded, “The joke’s inflated, Dada!” It was hard to be mad at the chirpy septuagenarian.

“Shreyas, with the tyre, you are on a roll!”

And so on and so forth they went, grandfather and grandson, exchanging puns. Shreyas could feel the colour returning to his cheeks. His lost mojo was finding its way back to him through the uplifting roads of wit.

The sun dipped below the horizon and it signalled that the two had to step back in to escape the mosquitoes.

“Shreyas, remember this. Find a way. There is always a way,” said his grandfather, sagely passing wisdom between generations in the most pithy manner possible.

Shreyas spent the evening mulling over it, walking around the room and tossing the tyre in his hand. Then, it hit him. He furiously started scribbling some ideas and felt a resurgence in his spirit. He would not allow this tyre to bring him down – the tyre was going to see him through.
Shreyas stood for the elections. His confidence restored, he walked into each classroom with the tyre in hand to make his case, his humour as effective as his arguments. Anish fought hard and dirty, but there was no stopping Shreyas. The elections came and the inevitable happened. Shreyas was victorious. His injury had healed and he no longer needed any aid. It now had pride of place in his house – hanging next to photographs of Sachin Tendulkar and Viswanathan Anand. From his pocket, he took out a voting slip that he had kept aside as a memento. Next to Shreyas’s name was his election symbol. It was a tyre.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

The Annual Rendezvous

Kavya and Nikesh are like chalk and cheese. Yet, they meet year after year in Coonoor in the rains. Read my latest short story published in Spark to find out why. On a separate note, this story was entirely written while sitting in Bangalore traffic.

http://www.sparkthemagazine.com/?p=10066

The Annual Rendezvous


First the dark clouds came, marching on like an army without a general, displaying the kind of indiscipline that would have lost them a war had they been men. But men they were not and there was no enemy to contend with. In fact, their invasion was a welcome relief to the blistering heat that had filled the hills of Coonoor for the past one month. Kavya sat on the edge of the window, enthralled at the sight. Kavya was looking forward to the raindrops that were to follow. I’ll embrace them as I embrace Nikesh, with no intention of letting go. The monsoons this year had two ardent fans.
Nikesh emerged from the kitchen, carrying two cups of coffee in his hand, leaving behind a trail of steam emanating from them.
“Here you go!”, he said, offering up the serving to Kavya, who accepted the cup with a smile.
“Flattering to deceive?”, he asked, raising his cup and pointing towards the clouds.
“It always rains when we come here,” said Kavya. “Trust me.”
She was of course right about it, just as she had been right about many things over the years. This was the fifteenth time they had come here. Every year, like the ritual crossing of the earth around the sun, Kavya and Nikesh would come to the unimaginably named “Hill View” lodge. The rains were a subscript that had been written into that story.
Kavya remembered the first time she had seen Nikesh, looking out the window of her room. It was during her trip to this place 15 years ago, in 2001. He was rubbing his spectacles onto his shirt, so that he could see through them. Nikesh was drenched, having encountered the wrath of the Coonoor rains that had poured on him without any warning. Kavya was sitting on the edge of the window of her room. She believed that gazing into the expanse gave her grief some space to disperse. The hills were full of lush greenery, turned a shade darker with all the rains they were getting. The sound of the thunder found great echo in the valleys below her. There was happiness bouncing in the puddles of water. There was laughter of children in the street. The city was coming unburdened from the tight grip of the heat. Yet, Kavya’s grief couldn’t elevate itself above this.
Kavya had the most intractable of problems. She had the strangest of afflictions – one she believed would grab her and sink her to the abyss before the year came to a close. Her belief in her own fallibility was so strong that it threated to become a self fulfilling prophecy. Her phobia about living was going to kill her. Her depression was diagnosed, but not cured. Her support system had tried to revive her, but failed. Kavya looked at the ground outside, pelted with the rain drops and wondered if she too would wither away like a small plant, from the effects of the downpour. She had escaped Bangalore to come to Coonoor. No one in her family knew her whereabouts. She knew that they would be distressed, but she was beyond caring.
It was in this moment of helplessness that she saw Nikesh wiping his spectacles. There was nothing remarkable about the man. Everything about him was decaying in small measure. He had a small bald patch on his head, a small paunch, small legs that he was using to scurry into the lodge. Kavya barely registered him as he vanished from her sight.
The lodge was serving dinner each evening. Warm chicken soup with parathas and paneer sabzi and biryani, cooked up by the home cook awaited them that evening. Nikesh and Kavya both petered down, realizing soon that they were the only visitors to the lodge that day.
Nikesh, sensing that staying quiet was even more uncomfortable than saying something, chose the latter.
“Strange, isn’t it?”, he said, walking up to Kavya.
“Such a beautiful lodge, such good weather, and only two people coming over to occupy it”
She gave him a half smile of acknowledgement and went back to playing with the paneer with her fork.
“I must confess I am surprised that you are here by yourself”
“Aren’t you too?” Kavya shot back.
“Touché. Would you like to go for a walk tomorrow? I am quite the expert on the local vegetation here.”
Kavya decided to look up and scan the face of the man making a proposition that seemed odd to her given he didn’t know her. Should she go, she wondered?
“Trust me. I am not a serial killer” Nikesh joked.
After all, what have I got to lose?
“Don’t all serial killers say that?” Kavya replied, to which Nikesh laughed. His laughter unlocked a trapped door within her.
“Alright,” she said, and the evening drifted away with the gentle breeze outside.
The walk through the winding woods next morning winded Kavya up, while Nikesh seemed to float on air. He seemed accustomed to the mountains; to their harshness, their challenge and the prizes they offered once you surmounted them. Nikesh continued a stream of stories while Kavya tried to keep up. He spoke about himself, his life before as an investment banker, the pressures of his job that made him quit and wander about, his love for Coonoor, for the rains that he never missed. He spoke about the time last year when he had wandered into the woods for a long hike in the midst of heavy rains.  Every step of the journey was treacherous and yet he undertook it with gay abandon.
“Why would you do risk your life for something like this? Don’t you value it?”
Nikesh paused. “Do you?” he asked.
Kavya was taken aback by the question, surprised how he spotted the inner demon that she had not revealed to him. He looked at his eyes. He knew.
“Not all of us are made the same way, Nikesh.”
“You won’t know the value of something until you have lost it,” Nikesh said.
“How would you know? Won’t you have to die to find out?” asked Kavya.
Nikesh walked up to Kavya and held her hand in his gently.
“Maybe I have,” he said, hoping that the softness of his voice would make the truth more palatable to Kavya.
“My recklessness cost me my life. Let’s see if we can save yours, shall we?”
Kavya tried to register the many things that she was hearing. The irony of a ghost exhorting her to live was not lost on her.
“Let’s make a pact. You promise to live on and I’ll always keep you company. Both of us shall not be left wanting.”
“How so?”
“Let these rains unite us year after year. Come visit this place and we’ll exchange tales – stories of living on.”
“Even though one of us is dead?”, Kavya joked feebly.
Nikesh roared in laughter, an unabashed expression of joy that reverberated through the woods.
Kavya asked for time to mull over this proposal. More than anything else, she needed to breathe in this absurd reality that had been presented to her.
“I’ll wait,” said Nikesh, and they parted ways.
The following year, Kavya arrived for the season, like the gentle breeze that brought the rain clouds with it. She got off the car and looked around her. A man who was not alive smiled from a corner. An annual rendezvous was established. With the man and the rains that never let her down.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Vacating a home

Spark magazine's topic this month was 'Home' and it couldn't have been more timely. My latest publication is a straight from the heart essay about the difficulty of leaving a home - a space we inherit not only with our bodies, but also with our hearts. Read on.

Vacating a Home

Serendipity was tucked away in a corner of a box full of papers. It was a neatly folded letter from the early days of the new millennium, confirming my acceptance into a university in the United States. Long years have passed since. I went to that university, got a job, got married, became father to two lovely children and yes, became a home owner too. The clichéd pursuit of the “well-settled life” was done with great gusto and our house in the U.S. became a projection, a storehouse and a generator of our dreams.
Over the years that I have stayed in the country, I have walked through the Indian immigrant dilemma of whether to stay or to go back. After much deliberation, my family and I are relocating back to India. It is a momentous decision that was debated over and over, caused much heartburn and required overcoming that feeling of nervousness in the pit of my stomach.
Change, when foisted upon you, is easier to overcome. You are aware that the circumstances give you no measure of control. You have no choice but to react. However, change, when voluntarily done, requires quite often a leap of faith and overcoming of fears. Such a change is now upon me and I am embracing it with cautious optimism. I am not only leaving a house I have lived in for eleven years; I am also vacating a country I have been in for fifteen. It is now time to settle into a new house in an old-new country. However, before I get there, my house needs to be vacated. Emptied, like the corner of the heart it occupies.
If only I had the ruthless pragmatism to think of it as a place built of wood and plaster, shuttered by windows and doors. If only I could look at it and say, “what else is there to this place other than the roof that shelters and comforts?” It is not merely that. It never could be. It could never be just that because it would always be the place I brought my sons home to. And while I have lived in many houses all through my life, this is the only place my sons have known to be theirs. It is in this house that their laughter cackled in the bright sunshine that blessed it through the large French windows. It is in this house that their cries pierced through the walls of their room as they wrestled through the fear of monsters in their nightmares. It is in this house that we watched them lie on their backs and kick their arms and legs as parents and grandparent doted on them. It is in this house where their hesitant steps turned into a canter as their limbs found the strength that their hearts always had. No, it would never merely be a house for it is here that we have lived by ourselves and also as hosts, enjoying the company of countless people close to us, letting their memories leave a mark. Many a song was sung here, many a joke shared, many a toast raised and many a moment anointed to be special.
It is not a trivial task to vacate this house we made our home and leave, even if the newer surroundings are an adventure in the making. You have to steel yourself mentally, because every nook and cranny, every pillow you upturn, every cupboard you open treasures a memory that hits you like seeing a crush from the past after several years. A T-shirt from an event you had long forgotten, a gift given to you with love but one you never used, a toy in the garage that your kids have long since outgrown, a computer running an operating system that became irrelevant a long time ago and much more.
Every object is a problem that needs to be solved – are we going to carry this forward or do we let it go? What starts as an emotional question soon becomes a practical challenge. Moving from a well-established house in the U.S. to India means that downsizing becomes a pressing need. Not all the furniture can be taken along. Not all the toys need to be carried with you. Documents surely need a lot of triaging and the sheer difference in voltages renders many appliances difficult to use without additional work. It took us over a week to go through this sorting exercise.
I came to this country with two suitcases, flirting nervously with the maximum weight I was allowed to carry. As I saw the movers pack our stuff, I realised that those two bags wouldn’t hold a hundredth of the things I am taking back, enough to fill up a container that will travel on the high seas. Somewhere along the way, we all cross the sweet spot for our needs, waving our large houses and larger appetite for consumption in their face. The movers were at work for three days, taking the first two to pack and using the third to load up the container. The container would then go an arduous journey of its own, snaking its way through some shipping route in the Pacific Ocean and making its way to a port in India where the fine people of the Indian customs department would let it through once they have established the proper duties and taxes.
I am writing these words from an empty room in an empty house. We are bereft of furniture, the utensils have been kept to a bare minimum and the ominous presence of large TV screens has been dismissed. This is like a Benjamin Button story, going from 100 to 0. The style of living is minimalist, with sleeping bags and pillows and the bare essentials (roti and kapda to keep us company in the makaan). The epiphany about having too much is compounded with the epiphany that having little does nothing to deter us from enjoying our lives. Those same kids, who play with a hundred-dollar Lego set are perfectly at home bouncing a ball against the wall and playing catch or chasing each other in a house that now permits them the space to do so.
The day will come soon when we will vacate this house and another family will fill it with their furniture, memories and dreams. Until then, I’ll savour the place, sitting in my favourite corners of the house, sipping my coffee, mulling over the past and looking forward to the serendipitous discoveries that await me where I go next.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

A Close Shave

We all have our mirages to chase. Read on as I talk about mine. My love-hate relationship with shaving and that elusive goal of a perfect shave, published in this month's Spark magazine.

A Close Shave


We all have our mirages to chase. The loftiest of dreams are achievable, but it is the simplest of goals that sometimes stay out of sight. Einstein might have solved the toughest of scientific issues, but never seems to have figured out a way to a barber shop. Tendulkar might have scored more runs than any other international cricketer, but couldn’t ever get himself a tattoo with the number 100. No, even the greatest of men and women may have challenges that they can never overcome, targets that they never meet. I may not be great but that does not make me immune to the problem. I too have a simple little mirage. The perfect shave. Your hand might be on your chin in disbelief or have dropped off it in shock, but let me tell you that because something is simple doesn’t make it accessible to all.
Vanity inspires many dreams. Some want the perfectly sculpted body, some need the tresses that gently murmur in the breeze, some want the teeth that shine like diamonds, legs that tower and inspire poetry. Men and women, we are all alike. Let not the differences in gender confuse you. If you put aside Bhishma pitamahand Gurudev Tagore and Rajesh Vivek, most of the great men in the Indian pantheon have had cheeks free from the tyranny of facial hair. The moustache served as a compromise, a bridge between the clean shaven and the hairy brigade. The cleanest of shaves has always been the staple of Indian men (if you leave asides the Sikhs, for obvious religious reasons).
I remember the first time I shaved. It was in the year 1994. A family drama named “Hum Aapke Hain Koun” had released and my extended family decided to convert that into an outing. Me, my mother, my aunt, my cousins, all headed up to the Galaxy theater in Bandra to watch two weddings, fourteen songs and a funeral play out over three and a half hours. I don’t know why the occasion felt momentous but I decided to exercise the ‘Old Spice’ shaving cream that my father had with his embattled shaving brush to work up a lather and let a brand new Gillette blade loose on my unsuspecting face. It wasn’t the blade of a samurai making precise incisions into an opponent’s body. The razor worked more like a hacksaw in my untrained hands. The skin cut and burnt like a batsman hit by a sizzling Michael Holding bouncer. I had to get relief. Quick, go for the cologne, my brain asked me to do, just like my father would each day.
I used to wonder until that point the whole thought process behind the ‘Old Spice’ ad for cologne that used to come on TV. There was a dashing gentleman sailing a boat in extremely turbulent seas with ‘O Fortuna’ giving him rambunctious company in the background. For some reason, far from having the fear of drowning, he seemed to relish all that salty water splash on his face. The splashing of the cologne seemed to overcome all obstacles. They had it all wrong. I splashed the cologne onto my cheeks. If the pain was a slight murmur before, it had now turned into a raging scream. I was in a rarely felt agony. But a movie had to be seen and off we went. In the second half of the movie, the women in my family were shedding copious tears as intended by the director. I joined them as well, the stinging slap of the cologne still nascent on my skin.
Why is the story so important? Because it set the tone for my love-hate relationship with the act of shaving. It continues till date. As time went on, my apathy towards shaving also meant that the results were not good. I never enjoyed the process – I only wanted the results to be to my heart’s content and we are told time and again that the approach never works. On the odd day where I would decide that a close shave, the kind that they show on an ad in a movie theater and you still couldn’t see a single grain of hair, was in order, the results would never be good. Nothing mattered. I shaved with the grain, against the grain, with gel, with foam, with a single razor, a double razor, an electric razor, before a bath, after a bath, with piping hot water, with lukewarm water, in bright sunlight, with lamps, with Rafi playing in the background, with Kumar Sanu soothing the airwaves. Nothing, nothing, could give the satisfactorily smooth, seemingly definite, complete shave that I hoped for. A gentle layer of dark granules on my white skin would stick out. I would think I had the perfect shave going and just like that, like South Africans in a cricket world cup, I’d choke at the end. The flawless shave would evade me.
The apathy led to me deciding that shaving was obstructing my attempts to be cool. I went through my college years spouting a moustache and a five-day-long stubble. When I started working, it went down to three days, but did nothing to push me to a daily shaving routine that men like my father seemed to be employing without trouble. I even resorted to a French beard as a compromise that required me to shave everyday, but not in entirety. The stubble is an unwelcome taboo I have dealt with. My parents, my wife, my kids, each have at some time pointed out in subtle and not so subtle ways that I should shave more often. Unprofessional, itchy, pokey, shabby – the stubble was called many a thing and shamed with the regularity of a Brathwaite six off a Stokes ball. I am forever caught in the crossfire between wanting the occasional perfection of a close shave and being in peace with my bearded self for the rest of the time.
I don’t know how the ones who do it, do it. I don’t know how the effortless strokes of a blade on a bearded face can vanquish the stubble to an extent that you wouldn’t even know it existed. It is a demon I have lived with and continue to do so. There are a few days when I am satisfied, like one would with a cup of coffee that is freshly brewed even though the beans may not be the freshest, but the moment is short lived. So, I stubble along. Sorry. Stumble along the path in search of the perfect shave, when I can run my fingers smoothly along the face and feel it move without the slightest of obstructions, like caressing a slab of granite in the dark.
Time is running out. I have two sons who will suffer the same dilemma in a decade. No, not the one about watching ‘Hum Aapke Hain Kaun’ with the family. The dilemma on how to get the perfect shave. I need to find the answers soon or risk breaking the myth of the super hero Dad that my little cherubs cling to. The drama is heightening. In the end, it promises to be a close shave.