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Monday, 29 October 2018

# 59 - Short Story - Unbelievable!

I know that you probably won’t believe me, I wouldn’t blame you. No one in their right mind would believe a guy who hangs out with a bunch of drug-addicts and losers and does nothing all day. 

You'd probably laugh it off, shoo me away like you would wave off a beggar child with dried snot sticking out of his nose, the smirk on your face that might as well have said "your brain's gotten soft druggie boy. You imagined the whole thing."

Maybe you might give me a lecture on how bad drugs are. How even ganja is not okay, even though it comes from plants. 

But here's the thing, even though all my buddies are high most of the time from ganja, cheap home-brewed alcohol, and that stuff they inject into themselves - I am clean.

Well sure, I have tried the desi booze a couple of times, and when in the mood I do smoke a bidi or two, but that's it...Never did any of the hard stuff myself - no weed, no heroin, no nothing. Probably even cleaner than you privileged chutiyas.

But reputation matters, you are probably the office going kind, have a family, maybe even own a house; and if you say that I am full of shit, then everyone would believe you.

It's okay, that's how things are, I can't change any of that, all I can do is put my story out there, and leave it to you, if you want to believe it or not. 

Now Vishram society lane is fine by the day, school kids wandering about, fleets of autos lined up to refuse people, vegetable vendors with their carts, housewives in nightgowns arguing with the said vegetable vendors over onion prices.

And of course, us. 

Sitting right by Chaurasia Paan House, you would find me and the gang, doing absolutely nothing.
And since you have smelled the strong smell of weed or country liquor as you walked by us, you must have assumed that along with Vishnu, Chhote and Iqbal, I too must have been high.

Can't really blame you there. 

And of course had you cared to find out, the 4 of us did stay at the same chawl, so why should I be any different?

The difference was I actually made an honest living. Well more honest than those other three anyway.
See, when the clock strikes 12 in the night and your neighbourhood stores pull down their shutters, it’s then that I walked out to your rescue, with my trusty cycle and metal canister, selling tea, cigarettes, chocolate drinks, and if you asked the right questions, maybe even some of the hard stuff.

You probably have bought things from me, stopping your car long enough to buy your goods, never noticing my face or the surroundings, you drive in a car after all, you zoom past buildings and trees and other things, keeping your eyes on the road.

But if you were in my place, standing beside a rickety cycle on Vishram Society Lane daily from 12 in the night to 4 in the morning, you would probably start respecting me and my kind. At least a little.

Now I have been in this business for five years now, and I am still not used to it.
Let me elaborate.

Till 1.30am, there are enough cars and people on the road, folks returning to their homes, respectable people like you, drunkards, rag pickers, call centre fellows, and girls you wouldn’t introduce to your mother.

After that though, mostly nothing.

You know how they say that this city never sleeps? It’s true. But you can barely tell that it’s awake.
The cars and people gradually vanish, but not entirely. There are still cars that pass the street, but it’s rare, there are still people walking by, but only an odd one or two.

And that’s when the surroundings get to you. That’s when you start feeling colder than usual.
You start to note the little things, like how the street lights, in spite of their brightness, leave so many things in the dark. How it’s not exactly as quiet as it should be, how rats make so much noise by rummaging through the garbage and piles of leaves that are collected on the sides of the roads and still manage to be unseen.

And you wonder......are those really rats?

You look up at the buildings, their lights all turned off, and then you spot a window from which the glow of a solitary bulb shines through. This is comforting to you until you spot another window from which someone seems to have been watching you, the figure disappears as soon as you catch its sight, in panic you look back at the window which had brought you relief, but the light is off now.

Sometimes you get the feeling that someone or something is standing behind you, but when you look, of course, there’s nothing.

On other days, you are convinced that there’s someone behind you and on those days you don’t turn back to look. Too afraid of what you would end up seeing. 

The dogs growl at things you can’t see, and then they whimper and run away, their tails tucked between their legs.

And there’s that other thing.

I hear footsteps from around the corner of the street. The click-clack of shoes or pitter-patter of chappals gradually become louder and just as I hope to see a potential customer emerging – it stops. There’s no one there.

It is terrifying; everything about the night and my work is terrifying. And I haven’t gotten used to it over time, and never will.

If this hadn’t been the easiest way for me to make money, I would have done something else, long back.... but it’s only at these ungodly hours that you can sell a 15 rupee cigarette for 18 rupees, a cup of chai that otherwise costs 5 bucks during the day, you can get away with selling for 10 bucks and no one would even care.

And so I carried on.

Till 22nd April, 2017.

I don’t even know when my birthday is, but I don’t think I will ever forget the 22nd of April.

The night was almost over and I shook my canister to check how much milk was left; estimating that I could still sell three or four cups, I decided to wait a while longer. My phone told me it was 3:15.

One of my regulars showed up – he frequented mostly on weekends, I knew he stayed nearby because he walked to my place, he was in his mid-20s and looked like the office going sort.

Cigarette pila do yaar Mohan bhaiya.”
"Milds na, Aman sir?" I asked him, he nodded with a smile, “aaj pura din sutta nahin maara”, his eyes returned to his phone, and then he added “Coffee bhi dena” as an afterthought.

I stepped back to get the coffee when I heard the roar of a car’s engines and almost instantly saw it – a car swerving down the street at an alarming speed, the windows were up but the muffled music could still be heard over the engine.

I knew it was trouble the second I saw it, but it was one of the things that you can’t look or step away from. You have to see it even when you know that it might not end well. From the corner of my eye, I could see that Aman was looking at the car too.

The driver lost control as the car climbed the footpath, and even though it probably couldn’t have taken more than a couple of seconds, I recall the scene in excruciating detail.

The car missed the cycle narrowly and crashed into my customer. It happened so quickly that he didn’t even have the time to scream.

I heard the crunching of bones momentarily and then the sound blended into other sounds as the car crashed into a tree barely 10 feet away, pinning Aman to its trunk.
The hood of the car had given away and the windshield was completely shattered. The head of the driver poked out, shards of glass stuck all over it. His fancy golden yellow shirt was rapidly turning crimson, and of course, he wasn’t moving.
 I couldn’t tell if there were anyone else in the car, and frankly, wasn’t thinking about it either.

A mass of flesh resembling a human body was what was left of Aman.

Yo yo honeyyy singhhhhhhhhhhh.

Now that everything else had gone quiet, the music from the car’s speakers was the only sound in the vicinity.

And then came the smell - the overpowering and nauseating smell of blood. I had seen accidents before but never from this close, and my legs almost gave away, I could have fainted then and there but I somehow managed to collect everything and cycled away as fast as I could. It was a lesson I had learnt soon after I had come to this city and it had served me well many times - anything goes wrong, don’t be the hero, run like your life depended on it.

And so I cycled to my chawl, woke the others and told them everything, they laughed when they saw how I was shaking and when they realised what I had been through they told me that I had done the right thing and offered me a bidi.

I had the bidi and then smoked a couple of my own cigarettes.

It’s simple, Chhote told me, just don’t sell your things at that spot for a week, if the cops come to ask you questions tell them that you weren’t there because you had a fever.

Then they went to sleep again.

The incident did make its way to page 6 of an English newspaper after two days, no pictures though, the man inside the car was alone, so just two casualties. I also found out that Aman sir had lied to me about being from Delhi, like me he was a Bihari.

I stayed indoors like my friends advised, reliving the incident again and again.

On the third day, the police showed up, it’s amazing how good the police can be when they want to. They asked me a few questions, I told them about my fever, maybe they took pity on me because even though I didn’t appear convincing with my alibi, they figured that there was no use in pestering me.

Now here’s where you say that while the incident may have traumatized me, it wasn’t an unusual story. Bade bade shehro mein aisi chhote chhote baatein hote rehta hai.

Yes, the incident had shaken me up, and I couldn’t help but think of Aman, he was no friend, but he had been buying cigarettes from me for years...I knew the man.

But I was in the city to make money.

And so, in spite of everything, in ten days I was back to my business like nothing had happened, the bruised tree trunk apart there were no other signs of the accident. It was as if the city had lifted a rug and brushed two human beings underneath it. Their lives weren’t important enough to matter.

But, bade bade shehro mein aisi chhote chhote baatein hote rehta hai. And I all but forgot the accident in a couple of more weeks.

Of course the place was creepy, but it had always been like that.

22nd May, 2017.

As Sunday turned into Monday, I recalled that it had been one month. And for a moment I even felt sad for Aman, and angry at the other man, whose name was mentioned in the newspaper, but I had forgotten.

Just another night.

I had all but dozed off when a familiar voice got me out of my slumber...with a jolt.

Cigarette peela do, Mohan bhaiya...

It was him. Wearing the same blue shirt, the same glasses, the same smile and the same slightly crooked teeth.

I gasped for air and felt that I was going to lose my consciousness.

It would have probably been better if I had.

He stepped closer, the light from the streetlight confirmed that it was Aman.

Bahut dino se peeya nahin hu” he said and licked his lips. He looked sad. 

And then with some hesitation, he said, “Aur haan, coffee bhi”, he showed two fingers.

And that’s when I saw it.

Aman hadn't come alone.

Standing right beside me was another man, and while I couldn’t recognise him by face, I knew I had seen that shirt before, and I knew where I had seen it before.

Trembling, I left my cycle, my canister of milk, I left everything and ran, refusing to look back.

So that was it. I don't care if you believe it or not. All I ask is for a piece of advice. Be honest. Do you think it's safe for me to continue selling my things from that spot? You see, there's no other place nearby.  

Image phone's camera. 

Thursday, 4 October 2018

# 58 - Short Story - The Spectator(s)

I kept my umbrella and the bag of vegetables at the counter of the tea stall, next to the jar of biscuits, and wiped the sweat off my forehead.

It was a cloudy Sunday morning and it looked like it could rain at any moment, but I was not exactly in a hurry.

I ordered a cutting chai and sipped on it leisurely. The rains would be more than welcome, it was hot.
The resident stray dog of the shop stood nearby, his hopeful eyes caught my sight and he started wagging his tail, I had fed him a couple of times earlier and he was probably expecting a treat from me.
I asked for a packet of Parle-G and gave him a couple of biscuits. 

From the dilapidated building complex across the street, harsh words from what appeared to be a young man’s voice spilled over.

“We are done, you hear? We are through, it’s finished”, said the voice.

Ah, matters of the heart.

That no replies could be heard along with the fact that the owner of the voice fell silent from time to time, I figured that the young man (or boy) was having this conversation over the phone. Of course, the ten feet high wall around the garden meant that I wasn’t able to see him.

How dare you? I’ve told you thousands of times, and every freaking time you’ve said that you won’t do it again. Not anymore.”

My mind wandered off to a time long forgotten, a time when I couldn’t care less about the increasing price of vegetables, a time when I was not a father, not a husband, a time when I was more than a sales-officer at a small company earning an even smaller salary.

I brushed my hand over my scalp, facing little resistance from the hair I had once been so proud of.

How time flies.

“What do you mean it’s my fault? Tell me how many times I have done that?”

The words may have been different, but the tone and the pain sounded awfully familiar; how many times and with how many people have I had similar conversations? But then, who hadn’t?

“Don’t you dare hang up when I am talking to you. Don’t you dare.”

The last remnants of his pride were about to be shred apart. The extended pause told me that the person at the other end of the line had, in spite of the threats, or probably because of them, had hung up.

But our unseen protagonist was not going to take it lightly, was he?

“Hello. I told you not to hang up.”

My tea was finished, and I should have left for home, I instead fumbled around for a while around my pocket, brought out two worn-out notes and asked for another cup.

Surely, I could spend a bit of my Sunday the way I fancied.

The rage had evaporated from the boy’s voice now.
“Why are you doing this to me? You know I can’t live without you.”

I chuckled sadly, still no originality.

“Okay, I am sorry okay? Just, just, please don’t do this.”

He was about to cry.

I had a sudden urge to see the boy, to tell him that he was going to be alright, that she would move on, and so would he, that in a year’s time, he would probably forget all of this ever happened.

Instead, I took a long sip of my tea and listened on.

And then I saw him.

No, not the boy, an old man, inside the building complex, he was leaning against the window grill of his third-floor apartment, and he was following the conversation with as much interest as I was.
He was looking at the boy from above and his gaze followed the path of the boy much like a predator preparing for his kill. His face betrayed the pleasure he received from seeing and hearing others who were not aware that they were being watched and heard.

Meanwhile, our protagonist had started sobbing.

“I am sorry. Just that I read everything, and I couldn’t think properly.”

The old man licked his lips, he was enjoying this, probably more than I was. Maybe when I am his age –

Oh, he is gonna regret that.

“Wait wait, don’t hang up, I am sorry.”

The clouds rumbled and almost immediately it started raining, a slow drizzle to start off with, but I knew that it would start pouring soon.
I was safe under the shed and checking that my bag of vegetables was still in place, I asked for a cigarette.

“Let’s just forget all of this ever happened. Let’s go back to how things were.”

Yeah, sure kid. Good luck with that.

“I want to meet you. Right now.”

The old man’s unhappy stare told me that the boy was going inside his building.

He craned his neck as the subject of our interest went out of his sight and out of my earshot.
The man sighed and looked at the sky, and then muffling a cough; his eyes darted around for anything else worthy of his interest, and then our eyes met.

The abruptness of the moment got the better of me and I let out a smile, meant to convey that we had been witnesses to the scene that had been playing out.

Caught unawares, he shuddered and for a brief moment didn’t know what to do, and then in an instant he vanished inside his room.


I chided myself for smiling, I had probably embarrassed him, at his age he probably had little to look forward to; that window was in all likelihood, literally and figuratively, his window to the world.


I turned and saw the shopkeeper looking at me.

“Sir, will you be taking anything else?  I am about to close the shop. The rain doesn’t look good”.

I paid for my cigarette, grabbed hold of my umbrella and rushed out in a hurry, forgetting all about my bag of vegetables.

Image from here. 

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

# 57 - Movie Review - Veere Di Wedding - ek "commercial" film

Cast:Kareena Kapoor, Sonam Kapoor, Swara Bhaskar, Shikha Talsania, Sumeet Vyas.

Directed By: Shashanka Ghosh

Once upon a time, there lived a group of friends. One day, they decided to collaborate on a project that would showcase to the world their talent. Each contributed to the work in his/her own way. But once the project was complete and almost ready to be unveiled before the public, tragedy struck. One of the friends decided that she was getting a raw deal, and chose to back out. Not that this would affect the product - her work on it was done, it was just that her name wouldn’t be featured. So, the other friends went ahead and put the work on exhibition, and most of the people who saw it said that it was glorious. Critics were bowled over, the public hailed it as path-breaking, and while a few said that it made them uncomfortable, they were quickly termed ancient and standing in the way of progress.

In case it isn’t clear, the product in question is Veere Di Wedding and the friends are a car company, a ride-sharing app, a matrimonial website, an ice cream brand, a bank, a jewellery company, an airline that has seen better times, an educational institution, and a snack brand.

I may have missed a few.

Veere Di Wedding isn’t a movie, it is a series of advertisements around which something resembling a plot has been woven, rather hurriedly and rather shoddily.

Not since Yaadein (“Lo paas paas khao”) and the Krrish series (“Bournvita, Bournvita, Bournvitaaaaa”) have we been subjected to such blatant product placement in a film. Entire scenes, conversations and songs are set up so that a brand can be showcased.

"Oh Bournvita, is there anything you can't do?"

The plot is simple enough, four best friends with their own sets of issues and complications meet up when one of them gets married.

There’s  Kalindi (Kareena Kapoor) who is scared of getting married because she has seen the unhappy marriage of her parents, and oh, by the way, she is the one getting married here.

Avni (Sonam Kapoor), who is being forced to get married by her mother.

There’s Sakshi (Swara Bhaskar), the richest of the rich ones, she is the rebel of the gang as evidenced by her character always being depicted smoking, drinking, abusing, and wearing the least clothes.

Yes, yesterday’s vamp is today’s rebel.

Meera (Shikha Talsania) brings up the quartet, she is married to a firang, which is why her family has ceased all forms of communication with her.

"Okay gurlzz, just act like you are having fun."

There’s also Rishabh (Sumeet Vyas) who Kalindi’s getting married to and Bhandari (Vishwas Kini), who looks like a beefier version of Biswa and basically plays a skirt chaser who doesn't know where to draw the line Delhite

The plot could have worked and we could have had a light, frothy (but enjoyable) film, but way too much time is wasted in building up camaraderie, which in turn is basically an excuse for getting the characters to say out loud or use the many products written about above.

 Apart from the individual struggle of the protagonists, there are also a couple of subplots involving family disputes and gay relatives (a notch below typical gay depictions in Bollywood, but still playing up the stereotypes).

Of the performers, Shikha Talsania is the best of the lot while Swara Bhaskar puts up a fine performance as well (and no, she doesn’t seem out of place playing a rich girl). Sumeet Vyas is quite decent and Kareena Kapoor Khan is strictly okay.

But for me, the performance that really stood out was that of Sonam Kapoor’s.

In the industry for 11 years now, she is not counted amongst the better actors in spite of her winning a national award.

There’s a reason for that.

She is, to put it mildly, terrible at acting. I would say that Katrina Kaif looks like a three-time academy award winner when compared to Sonam Kapoor.

Sonam has two and a half expressions and no matter what a scene requires her to do she emotes and speaks the same way – somewhere between an 'awww' and an ‘ewwww’.

Sonam Kapoor is the one who settles the nepotism debate once and for all and single-handedly makes up for the talent that other star kids possess.

Thankfully, in Veere Di Wedding, it is her pathetic performance that makes up for an extremely dull second half.

"That's no compliment, is it?"

In films exploring the theme of friendship, it is not uncommon to have a confrontation scene which is followed by a period when the friends stop being friends. This is usually a transformative experience through which the protagonists understand the value of their friendship and often undergo a journey towards self-discovery.

In Veere Di Wedding there is such a scene, post which the friends stop being friends for an onscreen duration of 54 seconds.

How do they reunite? By one of them randomly proposing that they make a trip to Phuket.

One airline ad later all is right with the world again. Truly, a journey towards self-discovery.

Is Veere Di Wedding a progressive film? Yes, yes, it is, but only if you are the kind that feels a movie’s progressiveness quotient is directly proportional to the number of cuss words being spoken by the female protagonists.

Recommended for Sonam Kapoor fans.

PS. In case you’re wondering what the opening para is about, the jewellery brand is never mentioned (one friend backs out) even though there is a dedicated scene to promote jewellery.

PPS. The makers missed a trick. Kareena Kapoor is shown scratching her neck whenever she is nervous or indecisive, surely there was room for an ItchGuard ad. 

RATING: 2/5.

Here's a review of another masterpiece - Sarkar 3.

Images taken from here, here, and here.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

# 56 - Loadshedding - ek purani katha

A couple of months back, there was a power cut in my area. It was unusual given that during my half-a-decade stay in Mumbai, this had never happened.

The heat bothered me, the lack of wifi connectivity bothered me, the darkness bothered me, but what bothered me the most was that I had nothing to do.

So, I left my flat and the building, and walked around in circles around my society.

Dark and quiet but for the sound of vehicles carried over from the main road.

I wasn't alone.

Hordes of others had taken my approach and come out, we shuffled along slowly, zombie-like, our eyes unaccustomed to the blackness that the moon failed to penetrate. The uncertainty regarding what was to be done had drawn us out.

Almost like a post-apocalyptic event.

Someone commented that a transformer nearby had given up after years of dedicated service, and work was on to repair it, it shouldn't take more than 45 minutes.

Reassured, I walked on.


How long since I had used the term?

Growing up in a town near Kolkata, loadsheddings were a daily occurrence.

I remember that we got a generator, and subsequently an inverter, but before then, I had grown accustomed to it.

It wasn't unusual for the power-cuts to last an entire night. No fan, no AC, all we had was hand-fans, serving the dual purpose of a fan, and the weapon of choice for my mother on my exam result days.

Back before I knew what Murphy's law was, I knew the load-shedding law.

Exciting cricket match, one over to go, 6 runs needed, (yes, that was nail-biting), the power-cut WILL happen.

The night before exams, load-shedding will happen, and will last longer than usual. Note that this was used as an excuse come result day.

Peak of summer, with newspapers declaring that this has been the hottest summer in ten years, load-shedding will last the longest on the hottest day.

Just as you enter the loo to do your business and you are just starting to aim....well, you get the idea.

And while I don't know the scientific name of that insect that you see in the rainy season, I can describe it as the one which loses its wings, a lot. In times of loadshedding, they used to gather by thousands at the sight of a source of light, and since the light used to be from the lanterns and candles, you had those pesky little things all around you.

So, god help you if you happen to be having dinner.

But, it wasn't all bad.

More often than not, along with the old hurricane lamp, out came the ludo board, and we as a family cherished that ludo time.

On the summer days when the odds of the power coming back seemed remote, we went to the terrace with our pillows and chatais and just lay down and looked at the stars, and then slept without a worry in the world.

Sometimes our neighbours were also up to the same thing and we had conversations from our rooftops. It was like yahoo chatrooms, with different discussions taking place simultaneously.

My father, otherwise a man who uses his words with extreme economy, for some reason regaled us with stories on nights like those.

It could be because of the age-gap, or because of where you are from....but maybe you haven't faced load-shedding like I have.

And I am not sure if that's entirely a good thing.

I came back from my sepia-tinted memories and decided to call my parents, the number of zombies around me had increased in the meantime.

I asked my mother about load shedding and she confirmed what I feared, they had stopped decades back.

I asked if we could sleep on the terrace when I go home for Dusshera and she asked why would we want to do that, besides, it wasn't safe anymore, with all the crimes and robberies in the area.

I asked if we still had a hurricane lantern because it had been ages since I saw an actual one besides the ones seen in decor stores and village themed restaurants, or of course as an election symbol.

She said she was watching TV and that I should call later.

I hung up.

Someone around me commented that fixing the transformer would take longer than anticipated.

Thankfully, I was still getting a 4g connection and had more than 70 percent battery left on my cell phone.

I downloaded an app for ludo and started playing.

Image from here and here.