Saturday, May 06, 2017

The Merger

Not all relationships trace a linear path. Read this naughty short story published in Spark that traces a merger of a different kind.

http://www.sparkthemagazine.com/the-merger/

The Merger

“Was it good for you too?”, he called out loudly as he watched his companion for the night disappear into the bathroom, a sheet clumsily covering her bare back. She was aware of the casual light of the day, aware that the folds of her skin had nowhere to hide, mindful that her cellulite stood out to be counted and cognizant that her sagging breasts were on the verge of giving a mindful to gravity for its faults. Hearing his voice, she hastened into the bathroom.
Had it been good for her too? Oh yes, it had. Unshackled by any burden of knowing who he was and by any inconvenience of him knowing her, she had enjoyed the sex for the raw, primal, indulgent pursuit that it was meant to be.
There was no apology in it. She had enjoyed the taste of him, being engulfed in his arms in the dark of the night where perfection was a romp between two misshapen, misaligned and misguided bodies.
He pushed himself back on the bed, propping his back on a pillow that had been pounded out of shape. His phone was lying face down on the side table along with his wallet. He was only slightly hungover, only slightly disoriented. He was not a man of extremes. His deviations from the median were moderate, like his paunch, his thinning hair, or the small cavities that used to visit his teeth with great regularity. The most he would ever stray was indulging in an extra beer when he went out with his office colleagues. And yet, here he was, tired from a night of reckless passion from an unplanned rendezvous with a woman he had not met before.
The evening that led to the night they spent together was a blur now. Among the throes of people that had thronged the karaoke night in the restaurant, two people had clamoured for the same Beatles song. And aided by their raucous friends and some alcohol that had permeated their systems, they sang it together, both equally off key. What started with the singing of ‘Hey Jude’ led to a conversation grounded on flirtation and elevated with a desire to take a chance.
The sound of the shower hummed a minor note in the background. He picked up the phone and ordered some breakfast and coffee. The clothes strewn around the floor assaulted his sense of order and his obsessive compulsive need to maintain it. Bit by bit, he picked them up and folded them. He gently ran his hand over the soft fabric of her dress, noticing a tear at the back, an evidence left by their violent urges. He put it down urgently when the sound of the shower suddenly stopped.
With a firm hand, she wiped away the fog that had held up on the mirror. It was her alright. It wasn’t her bathroom though. Or her room. She put on a bathrobe that she was thankful to find in there and walked out, her heart pounding. He sat on the edge of the bed, dressed in the shirt and trousers he was wearing last night. The jacket had been abandoned, wrapped neatly around the staid chair near the writing desk.
“Good morning,” he said, with a gentle smile.
“Good morning,” she squeaked, her hands ensconced in the pockets of her robe.
“I took the liberty of ordering some breakfast. I hope that’s ok,” he offered.
“Of course. Thank you,” she said, he fingers involuntarily pressing her forehead.
“Aspirin, coffee, water. What works for your hangover?” he asked with a smile.
“All of the above,” she said with a smile, adding, “And running.”
The delicate dance was new to both of them, but the end of the song was approaching and both of them had to now gracefully exit the stage.
There was no sun outside. It had been eclipsed by a black veil of clouds, drowned in a continuous barrage of rain and replaced by flashes of lightning. There was nothing to do and nowhere to go in this weather.
They sat near the window and wordlessly finished their breakfast and sipped their coffee. As he disappeared into the bathroom, she wordlessly put on that which she had shed not longer than eight hours ago and slipped out of the room.
If there was meant to be an interregnum in their story, it was a short lived one. The business travelers all poured out of their rooms, in ironed clothes and formal shoes, slinging laptop bags on their shoulders.
Like two rivulets starting from different nooks and then merging into a big river, unaware of the fate of the other, the two lovers walked into the same conference room. From across the room, a knowing glance was exchanged and a hint of a sinful smile crossed their lips.
The room was a rectangular splendour, seemingly never-ending and punctuated only by a giant oval table that sprouted from the middle of the room. The oval table was ideal to put the two sides against each other. They were sizing each other up, scanning the hitherto unknown faces and the name plates that were placed in front of the seats.
The man in the center got up, straightened his tie and cleared his throat. The room fell silent.
“Welcome, everyone.”
He had the attention of all but two people in the room. She was staring at the little misshapen streaks of grey in his hair. He was searching for her right earlobe, hidden behind the tresses that eclipsed it. They were still somewhere between the sheets, taking in each other, each embrace eclipsing the other. The words around them were drowning out.
“…we are not leaving this hotel till we figure the details of the merger out.”
I am not leaving. We are not leaving. An exchange occurred. An understanding was reached.
Like a hung jury, the deal repeatedly ran into a block. What could have been done in two days took seven. Slowly, gratifyingly, teasingly, the merger was achieved.
And they all drank the night it was done.
And a man walked up to a woman he had known between the sheets in the night and across the negotiating table through the day.  It had been a week and yet they were practically strangers.
He leaned over and whispered in her ear, “Would you like to get coffee sometime?”
She looked into his eyes and smiled, a single word floating over the din to him.
“Sure.”

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Kishori Amonkar: A Tribute

We recently lost the great classical vocalist, Kishori Amonkar. A lot of more knowlegable people have written about her singular greatness as a singer, as a true genius, of her dedication to her craft. I'll talk about my personal connection with her.

This is a small anecdote from the early 90s. Her son used to live next door to me in Andheri, Mumbai. She used to often come and stay with him on weekends. She would get up early on weekend mornings and do riyaaz. At that stage, I had no idea who she was, but her singing was so stupendous, so special that even to my untrained ear, I knew something special was afoot.

I have put together a sampling of some of her work that I have enjoyed. Hope you enjoy it too.

1. 'Sahela Re' - One of her most famous renditions in Raag Bhoop

www.youtube.com
Mesmerizing song by Indian Classical Singer Kishori Amonkar

2. A beautiful song in the raag Sindhu-Bhairavi (many have heard a famous version by K.L. Saigal)

www.youtube.com
Eternal Jugalbandi. Raga Sindhi Bhairavi--Thumri in Kaharva Taal. By Hariprasad Chaurasia (flute ),, Kishori Amonkar ( Vocal )....

3. A beautiful rendition in the raag Yaman

4. A tarana in Raag Hamsadhwani


5. Raag Miyan Ki Malhar. You can almost 'feel' the rains around you.


6. Raag Malkauns 

www.youtube.com
Smt. Kishori Amonkar - Sampoorna Malkauns from the album 'Maestro's Choice'

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

An Ode to the Gulab Jamun

I am not a foodie at heart, but when I had to write for this month's Spark magazine issue themed 'Food', one dish that truly touches my heart came to mind. The sweet, delicious, sinful Gulab Jamun. Read my ode to it.

http://www.sparkthemagazine.com/an-ode-to-the-gulab-jamun/

An Ode to the Gulab Jamun


There you are, just a foot away from my restraint
You, floating like heaven suspended
Imperfectly spherical, like a hand-crafted ball of snow
Light as the feathers of an Indian bustard
Smooth like the marble of the Taj
Levitating, like a yogi in bliss
Caressed, cajoled, nourished,
by the sweet comfort of sugar syrup
Indeed, there you are, an orb ordained
Shades of red in a sea of brown
Like the glorious sun, overcooked
You are but a sweet, they say
A dessert just like any other
A messenger of decay, a sweet harbinger of death
To them I say, that is not true
For you are not a mere gulab jamun
You are the memory of my mother’s love,
A treat of joy for my limited glory,
A taste of the homes I have been in,
The shortest path to my heart,
An adjective I use to describe my children.
When all else fails and the day is
But another one in a quotidian life
You are my guiltless pleasure
My one act of bravery
That one thing I steal
From the confines of the refrigerator
When the night has gone to sleep
There you are, my sweet taste of heaven,
waiting to be consumed,
Completely missing the irony;
You have already consumed me!

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Talisman

Amitabh Bachchan. Haji Ali. A perfume maker and his son. A talisman. They all come together in a story of hope, prayer and unexpected miracles.

Read my latest short story in Spark


Talisman


The red thread was an innocuous-looking object.
“The object doesn’t matter”, his grandmother said. “It is just a vehicle to carry your prayer”
“No, no, it does. Why do you think I went all the way to Ahmedabad to get the right one?” argued his father Salim, who believed that the quality of that vessel was critical to the transference of the appeal.
“Look at Rafiq”, he said, “Didn’t you see his new Maruti? How do you think that came about?”
In the corner, Iqbal sat on his haunches, his back gently touching the wall which was adorned with framed pictures of his family. There was one enlarged close up of his late grandfather looking soullessly into the camera. There was one of his parents, stern, yet resplendent on the day of their wedding. And then there was him riding a bike with Taj Mahal in the backdrop. This was taken when he was three and they had gone to the fair and a photo booth using India’s most famous mausoleum proved too much of a temptation to resist.
“But isn’t there another way? Why send the boy all the way to Bombay by himself?” His mother Sultana’s voice, dripping with concern, floated into the conversation.
Arre, the boy is 22 years old. Don’t you think he can go there by himself?” Salim said, irritated by Sultana’s petition.
The 22-year-old had resigned himself to the fact that he had no say in this matter. How did it come to this, he asked himself? Everyone wanted a solution out of this mess and everyone had their solutions for it.
You see, Iqbal was in the possession of a completely ordinary fate. He was failing again and again to clear his B. Com. By making himself the first person in that family to have made it to a college, he had set up some rather false expectations from his family. There were visions of great successes that everyone from Salim to Sultana to his girlfriend Meher had claimed. Yet, Iqbal did not seem to be blessed with any penchant for education or enterprise.
Iqbal’s father had a shop handed to him by his father who in turn had received the key from his father and so on. They were dispensers of Ittar, the perfumes that were bottled up in the smallest of flasks. It was a business that spanned generations but in the age of deodorants and bottled perfumes from various companies, this was a dying art. Their fortunes had shrunk, mirrored by the smallness of the bottles in which they poured their art. There had to be another way forward and Iqbal was going to lead the charge into a new future for the family.
****
Salim, was an optimistic man. He was once pragmatic too. But dire times call for dire solutions. Having hedged his bets that Iqbal would change their fortunes, he was now shackled by his son’s lack of progress. Salim resorted to the one thing he would have labelled as superstition in his heydays when he had youth and money at his disposal and a reputation as a wild stallion in his circle of friends. His remedy was a prayer.
And not being of the religious dispensation, he sought to seek inspiration in the only higher power he believed in. Amitabh Bachchan. You see, Salim had little faith in the conventional Gods. He had instead decided to place his loyalties at the feet of the superstar. Lost in the wilderness of faithlessness, Salim had turned to the one true hero in his life. He never missed a release of his, and so inspired was he by the actor’s turn in the movie Coolie, he even named his son Iqbal after Amitabh’s name in the movie. In fact, Coolie had more than a fleeting influence on him. When Amitabh was injured during the shoot of the movie, Salim had, in a state of extreme delirium and desperation, gone to Bombay to stand outside the hospital where he was admitted. To make things right, he went up to the Haji Ali dargah and tied a thread in hope of a speedy recovery for AB.
That tide passed and as he grew older and got married and suffered the consequences of running a household, Salim never revisited that state of mind again. Until now. His favourite actor might not have been dying, but his family’s future was. So, Iqbal was sent to Mumbai, red thread in hand to the Haji Ali dargah.
****
Iqbal did not believe in his father’s fantasy. What possible powers could that little thread, which was ready to unspool into its constituent parts, hold? And yet, the lure of visiting Mumbai on his own was too much to resist. So, off Iqbal went, by bus to the station, by train to Mumbai, and by his own two feet onto the railway station where thousands milled around him minding their business. Once he got out of the station, he caught a taxi and went straight to the home of his maternal uncle in the suburb of Borivali where he enjoyed food and rest. Without any consideration for his exhaustion, he disinterestedly set off straight to Haji Ali in a local transport bus.
He had visited Mumbai twice in his life but this independence was a revelation to him. He kept admiring the chaos, star struck, until the bus came to a grinding halt. A film shooting was being set up. Iqbal got off the bus on a whim. Surely, Haji Ali could wait. The pull of curiosity was too much to resist.
“Who is the actor?” someone asked.
“Not sure, bhai.
“Bachchan sahib!
“Really??”
Pakka. I heard someone else say that!”
The rumour spread like wildfire and sure enough, the crowd grew exponentially in the next fifteen minutes. Iqbal found himself being absorbed in it, blown like a feather in the wind.
A Mercedes Benz appeared from the corner of the street.
“Bachchan,” whispered the whispers, loud enough to be a collective voice.
The crowd started pushing and shoving, trying to get a glimpse of the star.
Iqbal leaned forward too. The masses were being held back by a few security men and a frivolous rope. They should have known better. As the car hurried through the road, Iqbal felt the hand of fate on his back propelling him forward. He fell. He stumbled. He rolled on the road. The car came and hit him.
Bleeding from cuts to his forehead and scrapes on his arm, he looked up with a flash of anger, and had he paid attention to Coolie with any amount of diligence, he would have known that the passion of his namesake in that movie was evident in his face.
The car stopped, a towering man looked from the back seat, and in a baritone asked his driver to take Iqbal in. The next few moments were surreal for Iqbal as the man his father idolized took him into his trailer, had him patched up, spoke a few kind words of inquiry and got him a seat to watch the shooting.
The hours rolled on and the mission to go to Haji Ali faded in the distance. The shooting packed up.
“Take care of yourself,” said that baritone again and started to walk towards his car.
Iqbal had a vague recollection of having nodded and then the car became a blip in the distance.
He took out the red thread from his pocket and took a good look at it. That little object had borne the weight of his father’s hopes and had decided to reward him in the most unusual of manners. Iqbal’s destiny would not be fixed for the prayer had been answered with an unexpected blessing. A smile the size of a half-moon crossed his face and he hailed a taxicab.
Kahan?” asked the taxi cab driver.
Still grinning, Iqbal replied, “Haji Ali!”

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Good News

"Good news". A term of endearment and celebration sends Vibha down a path she has been trying to avoid.
Read my latest publication in Spark magazine to know how a couple deals with a difficult situation in their own way.

http://www.sparkthemagazine.com/?p=10562 

Good News

The lamp at the end of the street flickered as if it was about to be snubbed out. Vibha walked briskly towards the house that was standing as a sanctuary right behind the lamp. She was walking quicker than usual, the thoughts in her head prompting her to take her strides at a faster clip. Her job wasn’t much to write home about and it was her well-cultivated habit to leave out any thoughts of work once she took the train back home. She was however finding it difficult to do that today.
“Good news”. The phrase was ringing in her head with a volume larger than the combined sound produced by the bells of the local Shiva temple she visited every Thursday because she had been asked to do so by her mother-in-law’s sister. Vibha was in a foul mood.
It all started with a team meeting at her office in the morning. Her boss had walked up to the front of the room, addressing his troops as he did each Monday. After the initial hurrahs and reprimands, the weekly summaries and salient points, he decided it was time to celebrate some individual triumph and turned his attention to Vibha, who was halfway into a yawn she could no longer contain. He gestured and said, “Vibha has some good news to share with us.”
There was a moment of audible silence and then a deafening roar broke out. Vibha, whose yawn was in its waning phase, was caught unawares like a cartoon character who had been flattened on the middle of a road by a fast-moving truck. A poor choice of words by her boss had obliterated what could have been a moment to celebrate on her successful delivery of a project.
“Good news”. In an office where the boundaries of humour were always stretched thin, this was a red carpet laid out with an invitation to come and join the party. Vibha had no children. That little fact was wrapped up in the guise of a guffaw and presented to her by people who she wouldn’t normally term as malevolent. Through the entire day, they ribbed her and she had taken it on the chin the best she could, but now that she was on her way home, a storm was simmering in her chest.
She walked in the door, turning an errant key with great force, flinging the door open like a hurricane, disrupting the peace. Kavish came running out of the bedroom. Manchester United was biting the dust for the fifth match this season but his devotion to the team had him glued to his television. He was so startled by the noise, he assumed a burglar had broken in.  A burglar was something he could handle. Vibha in the mood she was in was a much tougher proposition.
He circled around her cautiously and wordlessly, waiting for her to settle. Vibha washed her hands and came and sat on the table.
Nervously, he asked, “How was your day at work?”
There was no answer.
A query for “Dinner?” was followed by silence.
The lack of clarity meant that he had to take the safer option. He brought the dinner out. He breathed a sigh of relief when Vibha started eating. The silence was punctured by the scraping sounds of spoons and forks on the plates.
Twenty minutes later, they were both in the bedroom, leaning against their pillows, laptops propped in their laps like mollycoddled children. That analogy occurred to Vibha and instantly she regretted it. She shut her laptop down.
It had been seven years since their marriage and every cosy nook of her house reminded her of the lack of a child who could have made it his or her own. It wasn’t for want of desire or trying. However, by now, her fatalism had convinced her that some things were simply not meant to be.
She wondered whether she should tell Kavish about what had happened today, but seeing him staring at his code on his laptop with the intensity of Arjuna trying to hit the eye of the bird made her change her mind. It wasn’t going to do either of them much good anyway.
She reached to the drawer in the night stand by her side and pulled out the novel she was reading. Books were her refuge but on days of dull despair, nothing brought her out of the troughs of depression than stories of a dystopian future where robots or zombies or aliens had taken over a post-apocalyptic world in the throes of a nuclear winter. The despair of the stranded humans gave her an odd sense of sadistic pleasure. She wanted them to lose, for the race to be eradicated, for them to suffer the ignominy of childlessness and then vaporise away without a trace.
Vibha read fifteen pages of the book and decided that the day was beyond salvaging. She shut down the book, closed the lights and tried to go to sleep. Kavish got up from the bed and left. She noticed his absence. A series of lights leading up to the kitchen went up in the house. Attributing it to his sweet tooth and a propensity for a midnight snack, she closed her eyes and continued her attempts (in vain) to fall asleep.
“Vibha?”
“What is it Kavish?”, she asked squinting her eyes against the light projecting from above his shoulder from the kitchen.
“I got us a cake.”
She realised in that moment that it was past midnight and that the clock had turned over to signal the start of 4th of January. That epiphany punched her in the gut, knocking the wind out of her.
Kavish added with a dreamy smile, “She would have been four today.”
A tear rolled down her cheek, encroaching on the little space between her heavy heart and her denial. She had tried to lock away the date she had lost her child, a premature baby lost to the wiles of illness. She had tried to consign that memory to the fires of a monotonous life, but Kavish brought it up each year like the blessing he believed it to be.
The irony of this did not escape Vibha. No one at office knew about her past tragedy and they brought up this topic. Kavish knowingly drudged it out for her to endure. Vibha could not fathom why he thought it was a matter of celebration, but had resigned to the fact that he saw a way forward in his healing by doing this. And oblivious to her disagreement, he expected her to heal the same way.
“One day at a time,” he said to her, his optimism and hope only matched with her resigned acceptance of that. Through this veil of pain of the past, he saw some hope.
His hope perplexed her. His hope strangled her. And yet, his hope bound them together.
She cut the cake with the butter knife he had brought along and fed him a piece. Kavish smiled. In between munching the piece, he repeated his question, “How was your day at work?”
“Oh, nothing special,” she said.
The smile that he expected to see was reluctant to come to her lips. The cake looked ready to crumble but had miraculously held on.
After a few eternities had passed, staring at the ceiling, she muttered, “I had some good news to share.”

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