Friday, January 06, 2017

Breaking Free

I don't always write science fiction, but when I do, I publish it in Spark.

A Rockstar dies, except that he is not allowed to. My sci-fi story tackles life, death, rebirth and the challenges of encashing one’s karma and the Rockstar’s gambit to escape it all!

http://www.sparkthemagazine.com/?p=10511


Breaking Free

The music crashed. The women slept. I died.

I would have raised an alarm about such a drastic outcome for an evening had this been unusual. I had however died many times by now. What was the point of being dead if you could never truly die? It took away all the excitement of having the heart stop beating.

You see, my problem was not that I couldn’t die. My problem was that I wasn’t allowed to stay dead. As per my contract with the Committee for the Restitution of Extraordinary Souls, I had to perform my duty as a duly deranged Rockstar until such a time as I turned 27. By a random circumstance, I had come to be among the chosen few who were considered extraordinary – malleable, durable, receptive, high quality souls. The contract allowed me to live the life I wanted to and die the way I wanted to as long as I committed myself to fulfilling the conditions of the contract.

I spent considerable time thinking of the way I wanted to die. There was always the overdosing on drugs, a traditional manner of passing away. Or the touch of martyrdom in being shot by a deranged fan. I was imagining something different though. A spectacle to mark the end of my days. With a crowd of mad cheering listeners holding on to every note that I played, I would pull the plug in the most unexpected manner. I wouldn’t consider that a success unless at least ten percent of the audience fainted with shock and at least a few would join me in the afterlife, their hearts having come to a complete halt.

How did I, Viral (the name I chose for my current life. Quite clever if I may say so myself), get to this stage, you may ask. Don’t trust all the stories you hear about the purgatory and the saving of souls. There is no one to do that. There is no God. Maybe yes, if you could call that organic network that spread its tendrils all over space, and by space, I don’t mean the atmosphere, but the area behind the curtain from which all of life on earth is being observed. In the beginning, there were a trillion souls, all at a time. No one knows where they came from or if there was ever a first soul. You can’t have a trillion souls and not have them do anything and so everyone existed in this charade of well, existence. You earned karma by being, by breathing, by killing and maiming and providing for others, whatever your deigned role may be. And based on how much karma you had earned, you got to select what you wanted to be. And so on and so forth the wheel would turn.

The chances of me meeting my fans in the afterlife were of course very faint. As soon as my soul would leave my newly deceased body, I would be whisked away into the changing rooms of the netherlands, what with my extraordinary soul needing to be nourished and rejuvenated for its next turn. Those ordinary souls would be staring at the board where the choices for the next life would be highlighted. all they will be able to do is sigh at the category that says homo sapiens. In fact, if their karma was exhausted, they would have to keep scrolling down that list. The tigers of the world, the blue whales, the elephants and the pandas would also be out of their range. No life as a dog or a cat such that they would be petted and taken care of, no existence as a beautiful flower (yes, yes, you could be reborn as those as well) or a coral settling into a life of relaxation at the bottom of the ocean. The choices for them would be none of these. They would be left to choose from the life of cretins.
I used my privilege of being an extraordinary soul to choose the life I wanted. Of all the things I could have been, I chose to be a Rockstar. Of all the human professions I could have chosen, I chose the one where dysfunction and by nature of that, excitement would be the name of the game. How hard could it be? And yet, by the time I was 23, I knew I was done. There however was no release. So, the music crashed, the women slept and I died and yet I was alive because I hadn’t fulfilled the contract.

There must be a way out, I thought to myself, even as the needle marks on the vein vanished magically. There must be a way to break this cycle. I had heard whispers of a way out, a dark deep secret hidden away in the vast recesses of ether. It wasn’t as if everyone was queuing up to break free. Most people were happy with this cycle of rebirth. Even biting a human being as a mosquito gave them a sense of purpose that they cherished. But I was done.

I decided to use the night for something better since I was now alive again. I suddenly remembered that within my drawers was a card with a symbol of a mandala that a man in a cloak had handed to me in one of my Wednesday night orgies. The text on it was “Mocksha – Follow the light within!”. For days, I scratched my head through my ecstasy-induced haze to figure out what it was. One day though I held it up against the light and there it was – an address to a third-rate pawn shop in the decrepit part of the city of Varanasi.

I journeyed up to the place and when I got there, I walked in gingerly, laid down my bag and said “hello” in a timid voice. Salvation was within reach. I could sense it. And then a white light came on. And a booming voice spoke, “Your participation in this program has been terminated for breach of contract. Please proceed to the gate.”

The promise of deliverance was a trap and I had fallen for it. It was when I was being led out the gate that I realised that the promise of release was but a ruse by the administrators to fool the masses. I walked out the door and felt my body wither away. And suddenly, wings appeared out of nowhere. I found myself right outside my house. My former house. I flew in unnoticed. There was a condolence meeting going on for the deceased Rockstar. Everyone was sad. No one noticed the fly on the wall.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Annus Moviebilis part IV

Year four of tracking movies seen and I am happy that the #100moviepact that I signed up for was met. This was my highest score in recorded years.

Scores:

2008: 99
2014: 86
2015: 105
2016: 116

The full list of movies can be found here: https://1drv.ms/x/s!AsQ_MU1XkvrDiLUY9rmoBJQRL5Tz0A

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Shadows at Twilight

What does it mean to let go of a past love? Do you let go of the whole or hold on to the parts? Read my latest poem in the Spark magazine that tells a tale of a woman caught between holding on and letting go of a memory


Shadows at Twilight

The sun strained through the smoke
To take a look at her,
Through the rings she blew;
An art perfected
Over many a dead lung cell
As she rested her restless legs
On the rim of her balcony
Was he dead? Alive? Did it matter?
If he was enjoying the breath of life
He might as well be dead
For what was he but a memory
Of the man she once loved
If he were burnt to ashes
He might as well be alive
The torrid touch of his fingers
Was a phantom memory on her breasts
Above all, beyond him, the song,
That wistful, sinful ballad
Would never leave her
His voice graced her home, her ears, her soul
Her own voice betrayed her
Joining him always as she played again
The CD over her sound system
She knew each bend and curve
Each imperfection in his voice
Each strum in minor G
She could see herself in that sound
Holding a lipstick stained glass of vodka
And a portable audio recorder
Trapping his voice for eternity
Like a shadow tethered to her
Often growing, often withering
She knew not if it was him she had to let go
Or that memory of him in the moment
Lost to the world, lost to her, surrendered to the song
She had let go of his callous hickeys and careful caresses
And of the lack of drama in the way they had drifted
She felt strong nameless hands on her neck
Compensating their anonymity with a massage
“Nice voice. Whose is it?”, the man asked
She waved the smoke away and unleashed the sun
And in a cold, firm voice answered, “Nobody”




Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Hitman

Excited to share my first publication at Terribly Tiny Tales. It is a short, sweet and (hopefully) smart story. Read on.


Antakshari

Who doesn't love Antakshari? Read my latest article in the Spark magazine about the beloved movie song game that is a ritual whenever a group gathers for a long bus ride or simply has time to kill.

http://www.sparkthemagazine.com/?p=10389

Antakshari

The hero wins a bet and places a condition to the girl that she must confess her love to her with the words “I love you” in front of everyone, which, when one realizes is a spectrum of random onlookers to the hero’s parents to his nosey relatives, is a big deal. The heroine has a gargantuan task in front of her. Luckily for her, a brilliant idea from the movie’s director, Sooraj Barjatya, comes to her rescue. An Antakshari ensues. To the uninitiated, Antakshari is really an amalgamation of two words: anta (meaning end) and akshari (meaning letter). The game is fairly simple. A participant sings a song and the next in line has to sing a song that starts with the last letter with which the previous song ended. Back to our heroine in distress. An Antakshari ensues and like a truly competent family, everyone in the group belts out Hindi numbers, passing the baton so to speak from one person to the other. The songs range from ‘Hum to chale pardes’ to ‘Hothon pe aisi baat’. The clincher however is that the heroine ends the Antakshari with the song ‘Kaante nahin katate yeh din yeh raat’. Why was it a great choice? Well, it ends with the words, “I love you”. With a deft move, the heroine meets her challenge and everyone gets a happy moment to remember the movie by.
In retrospect, the brilliance is not the lead-up to the Antakshari or the heroine’s confession. It is the director’s nod to a very popular game that is embedded in the psyche of the average Indian. A game to pass the time. A game to relive that which comes to the tip of their tongues. Movies may be integral to the Indian landscape, but the music of the movies is even more so. It can be argued that the quality of the music in the early decades (40s-70s) exceeded that of the films that they were a part of. More people remember ‘Mahal’ for ‘Aayega aanewaala’ than the plot that drove it. Rafi’s rendition of ‘Chaudhvin ka chaand’ is the best part of the movie of the same name.
Antakshari as a game has been around for a while now. It consisted of singing folk songs and the like once upon a time. My anecdotal learning is that it was around the 1970s that Antakshari of Hindi film songs became popular. For as long as I can remember from my substantial years on this planet, every road trip, every college gathering, every dull moment in search of an inspiration found an outlet in this game. Form two teams (generally divided along the middle road of the vehicle being traveled in), sing the Antakshari kick off song (‘Baithe baithe kya kare …’) and off you go.
The first thirty minutes of the contest clears up the most common songs of the ground. Everything from ‘Na na karte pyaar’ to ‘Nanha munha rahi hoon’ to ‘Dum dum diga diga’ and ‘Lekar hum deewana dil’ get out of the way. It is as if everyone is wired to sing these songs up front. As if these are the most obvious conclusions one can draw to the puzzle of what to sing when a common letter like ‘Na’ or ‘Da’ is presented to them. The length of the game of Antakshari before someone struggles to come up with a song is directly proportional to the number of people in each team. The most beautiful part of the game is the fact that it encourages even non-singers to channel their inner Kishore Kumar or Lata Mangeshkar. It essentially takes the singing out of a competition that is all about songs. The most reluctant of people find the first three bars of a song and someone else will readily join him or her. An hour or so down the line, the repetition of “Na” might put someone in a spot. It could also be that some Hindi purist might start differentiating and insisting that the songs start with the right letter. I have never seen an Antakshari contest end in blows, but it does tend to get heated occasionally.
A striking part of this is that almost everyone universally gravitates towards old songs. And while I agree that the definition of old varies depending on who you ask, I’d wager that anything pre-1995 qualifies. ‘Ghum hai kisike pyaar mein’ comes to mind a lot quicker than ‘Ghumshuda, ghumshuda’. I have often wondered why that is the case. Why is it that even popular Rahman songs don’t strike me as easily as a Usha Khanna composition? Is it the fact that I grew up with these numbers, passed onto me like a family heirloom? Is it the fact that these compositions were inherently very simple and melodious, where the words mattered and did not dissuade? Or was it the case that the words simply got to the point? It was perhaps a mixture of all of them. Think about it. Take the case of the title track of “Rock On”. Now quickly try to remember how it starts. Do you remember the first word? If not, you aren’t going to sing it in an Antakshari. One of the thrills in Antakshari is to focus on what your opponent is singing and jump to the last word even while they are in the middle of the song. With limited time on offer, you are not likely to sing songs whose beginnings aren’t at the tip of your tongue.
Antakshari hit prime time on TV when the contest aired on Zee TV with the very knowledgeable Annu Kapoor enthusiastically hosting the show. Its form has evolved from the humble contest to a game with complicated rounds and variations. Its rounds span anything from identifying a song from its video with the sound off to singing only duets in a given round to singing as many songs as you can where the given word occurs in a mukhda (the initial lines of the song)
No matter what shape and form it takes, the simplicity of the game is never lost. Without any electronic device, without a pen or a paper and without a high degree of intellectual involvement, one can play Antakshari. It is the way a long lost song finds its way back into your heart once you hear it in an untrained voice singing it with enthusiasm. It is a game that gives you the impetus to go to the Internet and seek that long lost song again, for your heart now calls out to it.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Killjoy

This theme for this month's Spark magazine is 'Fun'. I, however, have decided to take the curmudgeonly route. This month's publication talks about things that people think are fun but don't appeal to me. Are any of your favorites on the list? Read on.


Killjoy

The issue of this magazine is all about Fun and I know that you, dear reader, have come to this page waiting for fountains of joy to erupt and smiling daisies to blossom in your imagination after you read what is written here. Sorry to burst your exultant bubble. I don't intend to be a Pollyanna. I will not tell you about the things that give me joy. Instead, I am going to tell you about the things that drive me up the wall; things that others think are fun but what I can’t fathom for the life of me. To each one his own, they say. Let that be true of joy and revulsion. Here goes my top picks from my curmudgeonly list.
The Cake Smear
Imagine it is your birthday. The one day in the year in your limited time on this planet where you get up beaming and feeling special. The one day where your friends and family will remember you, either aided by memory or reminders from Facebook. You wake up and get to work, safe in the knowledge that your colleagues will cut you some slack if you didn’t finish some work, crack some good-natured joke about your age and let you remain in that happy bubble. Then the end of the day arrives and a meeting is gathered. A cake with your name, ordered from the local bakery, is brought to the scene. Three candles are tactically placed inside on it. Someone realises that there is no matchbox to be found and goes in search of that one smoker they know, who’ll be resourceful enough to lend their lighter. The candles are lit, you sheepishly blow them with restraint. You hear the wonderful strains of the ‘Happy Birthday’ song but then the song is abruptly cut short as you finish cutting the cake. And then, the moment when your smile diminishes a little for the first time since morning, arrives. It is time. Goaded on like a hesitant butcher, one of your colleagues approaches you with a glint of mischief in his eyes. A piece of cake is taken and smeared over your face. Smeared, plastered, spread, pasted. No number of adjectives are enough to describe the degree to which the cake is decimated and put to the more unnatural use you could put a cake to. Why a beautiful cake should meet a beautiful face in this ugly fashion is something that drives me up the wall. What possible pleasure could one get from this, escapes my rational mind. This is a particularly Indian tradition. In that, it happens a lot in India. In college hostels, at the work place, and I am extrapolating, in senior centers as well. You can have your cake and eat it too, birthday boy, but only after 20% of it is wasted on your face and your hair. Sigh.
Halloween
Halloween is a source of joy for many. People like to dress up in costumes, have parties with the same exhausting themes and they turn it into yet another source of Facebook profile pictures. I personally don’t see the point in it. Yes, my children dress up and go to their schools and neighborhood because that is simply the way of life for them. Also, they are children. Why adults need to spend so much time and energy dressing up in clich├ęd costumes of exasperating characters is something I have never understood. Pass on the candies to me. As for the costumes – no, thank you.
Jumping in the air for photos
Gravity exists for a reason. It is to keep you grounded in literal and metaphorical ways. Beautiful sights also exist for a reason. They are there for the eyes to soak them in and enjoy their vastness and grandeur in a moment of stillness. And yet, some people have this strange fascination to defy both at one shot. They stand in front of beautiful vistas and do the most unnatural thing. They jump in the air. Not just once, but many times until the photographer confirms that the right combination of shutter feed and dumb luck has resulted in a picture of them suspended in the air. I simply don’t see the point of it. No need to hold your breath. We all know what happens. They all come crashing down.
Roller coasters
Imagine that you ate a tiramisu. Layer upon layer of deliciousness that puts you into a blissful mood. Imagine now that I put that tiramisu in a blender and cranked up the setting. The beautiful tiramisu would toss and turn and be destroyed while ruing its dumb luck. That’s what a roller coaster feels like to me. Why would I take a perfectly well-balanced state of being and subject it to twists and turns and dips and raises of an artificial nature? Why should I let the food inside me churn like it’s in a mixer, causing nothing but upheaval, while waiting with bated breath for the ordeal to get over? Why do I need an artificial roller coaster? I already am on a real one. It is called life.
Shopping
Someone needs to do a study on this because I have a hypothesis that walking into an IKEA or a Walmart can actually give people headaches. It does to me. Human beings parsed themselves into hunters or gatherers at the onset of time. In this post-industrial age, we are all simply gatherers, all primed to pick fruit from the aisles of consumerism. It is a royal waste of time and resources and yet many treat it as therapy. I am a reluctant consumer. I hate shopping and am often found requesting my spouse to help me find the artifacts I need to continue being a member of society. For that, I am grateful. Otherwise, my eyes always scan a coffee shop or an exit, whichever comes earlier.
WhatsApp flooding
I want a minion bot that can sit and delete jokes, forwards, inspirational messages, videos, urban legends, greeting cards with good morning messages and other "awsm" thoughts from my WhatsApp feed before they reach me.
WhatsApp feels like a giant spam folder to me for the most part! And yet, I must be in a minority, for the world is full of people who think that sending WhatsApp messages of the kind I dislike is an act of love, an act of charity. They press the forward button without compunction, keeping the rest of the world plugged into the lowest common denominator of textual entertainment. Alas, I find their jokes rather unfunny.

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.”