spoon

Let me breathe

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Life. It’s one of those lousy words you keep hearing all the time that will practically make your life hell, if you know what I mean.

Existing has taken precedence over living, ‘follow your heart’ has become an overstatement, you talk about your passion and all you get back is a lecture on reality; you find ways to motivate yourself, you somehow deal with your frustration in your own way – by listening to music or with an intense workout session or by drinking that hot cup of coffee, whilst enjoying the nip of cool breeze or maybe by doing something utterly crazy; and just when you have started to think that you are in good shape, it all begins – ‘Look at him, look at her, why can’t you think and be like everyone, why don’t you just swim with the current, why don’t you go to temple, why don’t you believe in god, why do you take so many chances, why can’t you be pragmatic, what’s wrong with you, what’s your problem, what have you thought about your future, what are you thinking now, what are you going to do, why do you have to run so much, your legs are going to give away someday, be in your limits, when are you going to settle down …?’

Well, why can’t you just let me breathe, for heavens’ sake? I’m not trying to be different from the rest of the folk. I simply don’t care about what others do. Now just leave me alone, goddammit!

As if this is not enough, the world is rotting. Hell, yes, it is rotting in hell. People don’t have courtesy anymore, they don’t have manners, they’ve confused assholitude with attitude; those presumptuous bastards! Yet they have the audacity to point a finger at me and say that I ain’t good. But you know what the crazy thing is? They are right in their own way. That’s the way to live. Be a dissolute asshole and you are a cool guy. So listen to me you freaking pieces of shit, here I come. The ‘cool’ guy.

Some loser once said, ‘Manners maketh man.’ Bring him to me and I shall break his neck, for I committed the sin of believing in his words and paid for it. It ain’t true, what he said. Bad, uncouth guys are the cool ones these days. Even the super-duper hit Ra. One says that. No, seriously, trust me on this. You are not supposed to reply when someone sends you a text message, you are not supposed to call them back when they are trying to reach you; courtesy, anyone? Come again. What’s that word? Nope. It’s obsolete. You are absolutely right when you say you are busy. Some pathetic losers visit your blog and read your literary masterpiece and leave behind a comment. What next? You are not supposed to reply. It’s as simple as that. I mean, why should you? Those morons don’t have anything to do, right? They are worthless, they are miserable. You don’t have to acknowledge them. Really.

You should learn some profane words and brazenly use them. Why? Because it’s the in-thing, man. You shouldn’t hesitate even when there are elders or children or women around. You should learn to use the word ‘fuck’ in different ways; as a noun, adjective, adverb, etc. If you don’t learn this art, your English is no good, believe me. I have thus learnt it and learnt it well, you fucking freaks. Oh, wait a second. It feels good to use the word. It feels fucking good. There you go. A gerund.

You don’t have to know the meanings of words like joie de vivre, ebullience, blithe or entrance, but you should know how to use ‘fuck’ in each and every fucking sentence you use. It doesn’t matter if your grammar is bad, but you’d better know how to use ‘fuck’. Or else your ‘additude’ gets fucked up. Big time. Also, you should incorporate phrases like, “I was like, ‘oh, what the hell!”, “yes bro, no bro”, “howz you?”, etc. Mainly, the preposition ‘like’ is the new rule. Even facebook believes in it.

Talking of language, there is one more thing: never use your mother tongue when you want to get across with someone at, say, a kick-ass mall. If Kannada is your mother tongue, you’d better hide it and speak English. People may not respect you if you go about speaking Kannada. You then have a petit bourgeois mentality. You don’t believe me? I dare you. Go to some Café in Bengalooru and try.

Did you understand everything I said, you fucking assholes? And hey, get a tattoo. Tattoos have a history of their own. Tattoos, like perfumes, should reflect your personality. I don’t know which freak said it. But don’t you worry about it. Just get a tattoo, all right? Any design will do. Many film stars and rock stars have them, you know. That’s why you should also get them.

Do you understand, you freaking phoneys? Do it because everyone else is doing it. That’s the law. Support slut-walk, support tomato festival and support everything that’s western. Watch and encourage shows like Roadies and Big Boss and the lot, and learn how to be an asshole, for assholes and bitches are the new gentlemen and ladies. Did you get my drift? So, arise, awake! Stop not till you become an asshole!

I believe in every word I said. I have sworn to be like that. Maybe I already am. But if you think I’m not and yet to achieve the above standards, I promise you I’ll try my best to be one, soon. All I ask in return is one little thing: stay the fuck away from me and leave me alone. I don’t care about your success, I don’t care who your girlfriend is, I don’t care if you’ve bought a car, I don’t care if you’ve cleared some super-difficult exam; unless you are an important person in my life, I don’t care about anything that’s related to you.

I’ve lost interest in Cricket, I’ve no interest in reality shows, I rarely watch movies; for my world is something else, something beautiful, let me live in it. I don’t want to attend your parties and functions; so stop inviting me. I have no interest in your affairs, maintaining two girlfriends doesn’t make you a hero, so stop boasting about how and when you did them. I don’t give a rat’s ass.

For once let me live in the moment. Let me have my coffee, without your bugging about my life. Everyone has his own baggage and I have mine. For it’s heavy with lots of dreams and my creativity, it takes sometime for me to lift it. I’m not in a hurry. Let me travel, both inside and outside of me. Freedom is one of the easily available things in life, yet so costly. You have made it that way. Let me buy it for once. Get away from me. Get away from my world. Let me enjoy the silence around me, and if possible, the silence inside me. Let me run peacefully early in the morning, and while doing it let me try and grow wings, let me fly, leave me alone, let me breathe, let me live; let me live, while I’m still alive…

Copyright © Karthik 2011

Kaivalya

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Stories have always ruled my world. Right from my childhood. Whether it's fiction or a real incident, as long as someone narrates it in an interesting way, I am game. Nothing fascinates me more than a good story.

When I grew up and started reading novels, I entered into a whole new world – a world where I made a lot of new friends, a world in which I want to spend the rest of my life.

Talking of reading novels, thriller/mystery has always been my favourite genre. Although I enjoy other genres too, a good thriller on any given day works better. Nothing beats that. Romance is the only genre I don't prefer. And horror/paranormal is the only genre I wished to have read, but never could (for reasons unknown).

After watching the movie, The Shining, I cursed myself for not having read the novel first. However, that got me thinking. When it comes to Indian authors, there are of course superb storytellers like R. K. Narayan, Amitav Ghosh, Vikas Swarup, but there has never been an author who could make up for a thriller similar to Forsyth or Ludlum or King. Sure there are plenty of award winning writers like Adiga and Rushdie, but in my humble opinion, they are not as entertaining as Archer, Sheldon, Brown and the lot. (Ashwin Sanghi and Amish are exceptions, maybe. I haven’t read them yet. So can’t speak for them.) Genre authors are scarce in India. But this all changed when I picked up a brilliant novel called Kaivalya, by Sumana Khan.

Until Kaivalya happened, as I said earlier, I had never read a paranormal thriller. Set in the midst of lush forests of Sakleshpura, Karnataka, it starts off with a bang. Before you know it you are sucked mercilessly into deep forests and the mystery that unfolds there.

Kencha, a tribal, is found dead in the forest under strange circumstances. His body is branded with a mysterious message written in Halegannada, an ancient and defunct version of modern day Kannada. As Dhruv Kaveriappa, the Chief Conservator of Forests, starts investigating, it gets more and more complicated with each step he and his team take in the forest. Animals die for no reason. An ominous shadow hovers around the people. A vacationing tourist finds an ancient gold and diamond studded pendent in the forest. If you find all these things horrific, then wait till the woman wears the pendent …

Parallel to what is happening in and around the forest, a handsome man in his mid-twenties, Neel, starts experiencing strange things in his lavish penthouse in Bangalore.

The branded message on the tribal man written in Halegannada speaks of Vijayanagar Empire of the 1500s.

What is Kaivalya? Or perhaps who? What is Kaivalya’s story? What is the relation between Kaivalya’s story and the dreadful things that are happening now? How is the Vijayanagar era linked to the present day, i.e. 2005? (Yes, the story is set in 2005. There is a reason for it and you’ll know when you read it) If these things don’t stir your curiosity, then what will?

The two stories (one that is happening in Sakleshpura and the other in Bangalore) that seem unrelated to each other merge towards the end and bring the story to a shattering climax. The truth is far more terrifying than you could have imagined.

I have watched a lot of horror movies that provide a lot of good thrills. But can a book provide the same amount of goose bumps, I wondered. That was before I picked up Kaivalya. Sure it has a lot of scenes that will make you jump. And this is where Sumana Khan scores. Scaring the readers is not easy. For instance, a movie has a lot of things to offer – performance of the actors, a forbidding background music, camera angles, etc. But when it comes to a book of a similar genre, it’s a different ballgame altogether. You only have the power of your words to paint that scary picture.

As I read on, I could hear the screams of the victims, I could smell the foul smell that occupies the house and forest, an indication that something terrible is about to happen, or perhaps, that has already happened. I could even feel that menacing shadow hovering above me when I’d slept for a while after reading about 80 pages. That’s the effect the book will have on you.

Then again, it’s not a typical whodunit story. The twists come subtly, when you’ll be least expecting. The characters come alive beautifully. All are ordinary people going about their lives in an easy manner. But when the same ordinary people are thrown into an abyss of horror and mystery, when pitted against an impossible enemy, they don’t have any other option except to fight the battle in an extraordinary way.

Characterization is one of the most important aspects of storytelling. And Sumana Khan handles it expertly. There are plenty of characters and each one of them has an important role to play. None of them is sidelined. Be it Drhuv, the hero; his love interest, Tara, DSP Joshi, Dr. Bala and Dr. Nithya, Shivranjani and her husband Ravikanth, Inspector Rao, Neel and his friend VJ, Inspector Shakti, Arundhati and finally, a bewitching, cold-blooded villain, Matchu – one of the best negative characters I’ve ever come across. Brutal, handsome, a genius in his game. He’s certainly one of the highlights of the novel. Whether you are a man or a woman, you just can’t stop yourself from falling prey to his charms.

Each and every character will be etched in your memory. Although some of the characters are away from the main action scene, yet fighting their own battle, they are all interlinked and brought together in the end to fight the bigger enemy. As a reader and as a person with a lofty ambition of writing a novel someday, this, to me, was an important lesson in storytelling.

Right from the first page to the last, the pace never falters. It moves at a rattling speed. And when the climax hits you, you’ll be dumbfounded. The last paragraph or for that matter, the last line is like a kick in the gut. It takes sometime to come out of Kaivalya’s effect. This is how a good story should be. It shouldn’t leave you even after the last page is turned.

There are one or two weak points in the story though, but they are trivial and sure to go unnoticed. Not related to the main plot. For example, a character called Shivanna, (a close associate of the protagonist Dhruv), who is depicted like an important character in the beginning of the story, suddenly disappears. He never comes back into the story. Whatever happened to him is never revealed.

Anyway, in the midst of stupid novels with stupid names (Oh, Shit! Not Again, to name one) that are coming into the Indian market, Kaivalya is a welcome change. For one, no other Indian author (at least not to my knowledge) has tried this genre.

All in all, this is a brave book written for brave readers. Definitely not for the faint-hearted. If you enjoy horror / mystery / paranormal thrillers, then don't miss this.

******************

You can order the book here.


The Girl in Orange Dress

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The following post is written for the topic, Take Flight with Colour; a contest on
Indiblogger, in association with HP Laserjet.

Contest Rule: Think of anything that is Black and White. A picture, a movie, etc. Now would you like that to be in color? Tell us why.

*********

A few years ago … well, I’m not going to tell you when exactly, for time is irrelevant here. The only things that matter are that specific moment when the picture was captured and the events that led up to that moment

If computers had not been invented, if technology had not been advanced, if there were no ATMs, then probably I’d never have met her. It was at the ATM that I saw her for the first time. As always I was with my three best friends. And she was alone, waiting for the person inside the ATM booth to come out. Standing with her arms folded and lips pursed, she looked out of place. After all she was standing in the midst of four hooligan boys.

It was a cold July. The rain had just stopped and a jet of cold breeze pricked us out of our senses. “I hate this season,” grunted one of my friends. I didn’t respond, as I was busy watching her. She brushed her curls to the back of her ears and stood silently. There was a delicious sense of repose on her face. The person inside the ATM booth was really taking a lot of time, the wind was chilly; but nothing irritated her. It was as if she was in a meditative state. If this wasn’t enough, she looked divine in her orange salwar suit.

It wasn’t love at first sight. I never believed in it. But still, for some reason I didn’t want to lose her. Some people say that it’s a small world we are living in and wherever we go, we keep bumping into each other. That’s utter nonsense. It’s a big world out there, all right. And when it comes to a beautiful girl, it’s a bigger world. You see a girl like that and you don’t talk to her immediately, she’s gone. You are never going to find her again. Co-incidences never occur. Not unless you are a hero in a movie. I knew I wasn’t. So I had to talk to her somehow.

Now what are you going to say to a girl you have just seen? If you don’t have any romantic thoughts about her, it’s easy. But what if you are mercilessly attracted to her? What’s your opening line going to be? I didn’t know. I decided to think. It was a mistake. If only I knew then that one should never think before approaching a girl!

You see, approaching a girl is like writing. You should never think. The first line, the first paragraph, or even the first chapter, should be written without thinking. Write what your hands write, is the rule. Thinking comes at a later stage, when you re-write those parts. Got to go with the flow. Got to be spontaneous. Go stand in front of her and whatever that comes out of your mouth is just fine. Even blurting out ‘Eureka, eureka!’ is fine. Maybe you can edit the lines later. But first say something, anything. If you talk to her, say something, there is always a 50-50 chance that she is going to respond positively. But if you don’t say anything, don’t make a move, then there is no hope at all. Unfortunately, I didn’t have this gyan then. I hadn’t started writing then. I kept mum and started thinking, or perhaps, started dreaming.

The man, who was busy printing money inside the ATM booth, finally emerged from there, grinning, as if he had got more money than he had asked for. The girl in orange dress went inside. I continued to float in my dream world as my friends continued with their nonsense talks. By the time she came out, I was having al fresco dinner with her in a fancy restaurant. She was in a magnificent red dress. With so many types of dresses that girls wear these days (leggings, handings, headings, etc.), I didn’t know what exactly she was wearing. Nonetheless she looked lovely. Her wavy light-brown hair was let loose; a winsome smile lingered on her face as she listened to my narrative. I don’t remember what I was saying, but whatever it was, she was completely immersed in it. I think my storytelling skills were just developing. Anyway, when I was having such a heavenly time, the waiter arrived and said in a gruff voice, “Don’t you have to draw money?” It was only then did I realize that it wasn’t the waiter, but my friend, Chandi. I was back at the ATM. The girl was gone. The dream was over. I was a loser.

“Where did she go?” I almost screamed.

“Who? The orange girl?” asked Gilly.

“Yes.”

“She’s gone, I think.”

“I know that, you moron. Where did she go?”

“She just drew money, right?” Praveena began, “If my analysis is right, she must have gone to buy a pair of sandals.”

“What?” They were really getting on my nerves.

“Yes.” Sherlock Praveena Holmes continued, “Didn’t you observe? She was in an orange dress, but her sandals were brown in colour. From the looks of her, she was going somewhere. A party, perhaps. So her dress and sandals should be matching-matching, no? She really wants to buy a pair of sandals that goes well with her dress, trust me. Girls and sandals go hand in hand, don’t you know?”

“Girls and sandals go hand in hand? Irony, that,” said Chandi as they all started to laugh. I’d have joined them too had it been a different girl.

“One thing is sure. She is definitely not from our college,” said Gilly.

I nodded. So did the other two. Our nods were with respect to a theory we firmly believed in: Girls in your college are never beautiful. And girls in your class are definitely, definitely not beautiful. There might be room for some argument when it comes to the former though. There are always exceptions. But it isn’t the case with the latter part of the theory. Definitely not. So when a boy goes out with a girl from his college (with exceptions), or worse, from his class (without exceptions), you can be sure that he has run out of patience. The lazy bugger is just not ready to look outside. Open your eyes, get out, explore the world, said the crazy four. That’s we.

Coming back, I was deeply disappointed to have lost the girl in orange dress. I hung my head and walked back, without drawing money. I thought I was never going to see her again. Luckily, I was wrong then.

I sat pillion as Praveena kick-started his bike. “By the way, she is not that beautiful,” he made a frivolous comment on the girl with whom I had had a dinner date, with whom I was planning to go to New Zealand, Switzerland, England, etc. I mean only countries, whose names end in ‘land’. You get the picture, right? But that filthy twit had the audacity to say that she wasn’t beautiful. Saying the girl in orange dress was not beautiful was like saying Cameron Diaz was beautiful. And those of you who say that Ms. Diaz is beautiful can go to hell. So, I had to teach him a lesson and make sure it didn’t happen again.

I got off the bike, kicked him in the gut, he screamed, the other two laughed, I sat pillion again, he muttered something as he shifted gear and we rode on.

I didn’t see her again for another two weeks.

***

It was August. It was cold. She was still missing. University Cultural fest had begun. We were on a roll.

We regularly took part in cultural programmes. Not because we wanted to win prizes and make our college proud, but because it was an opportunity to bunk classes – officially. We missed a lot of classes and still got the attendance. That means we had the cake and ate it too.

The fest was hosted by NMAM Institute of Technology, Nitte, Karnataka. The place was marvelous; the architecture of the college, exquisite. Rainy season in a coastal region, that brooding silence all over, wonderful friends for company, coffee and pretty girls everywhere – we were in a paradise. Only those who have spent some time in a coastal region in the rainy season will know what I am talking about.

It was slightly drizzling on the early morning of the first day. My friends and I had got up early and were headed towards the coffee shop. Unlike our college, where we only had a pathetic canteen that served awful coffee, here there was a separate coffee shop, along with a bakery and a canteen at different locations in the campus. As far as we were concerned, the basic necessities of life were not food, water and shelter; but food, coffee and food.

I didn’t mind the rain, I didn’t mind the cold; I only minded my camera, given to me by my uncle after many days of begging. A Nikon D40. On that memorable morning, I didn’t know that my camera would soon play an important role. I shifted my sling bag, which held my camera and walked on, rubbing my hands together. It was horribly cold.

We were about a hundred yards from the coffee shop when I noticed her. The girl in orange dress. Only this time she was in blue jeans, shoes and white woolen jacket. She was drinking coffee, holding the cup in both hands. Her friend said something in her ears. She almost spilled her coffee as she laughed. I was in a trance.

I had already stopped walking. My friends stopped walking too. They knew instantly. Chandi had already spotted her. Gilly was already yelling, “Girl from the ATM.” Praveena grinned and jogged my arm.

Without thinking further, without any preamble, I started walking towards her. My heartbeat was normal. Going and talking to her seemed like the most natural thing to do. I walked on with certitude. My friends followed me, slowly. After all, they needed some fodder for the day.

She and her friend were still giggling. I stood a few paces away from her. She didn’t notice me. It wasn’t surprising actually, for there were a lot of students around. I was just one among them.

I took a few steps and stood right in front of her. They stopped chatting and giggling as they looked at me. Before I could give them an impression of a psychopath by staring at them continuously, I said, “Hi.”

It was the safest way to start a conversation. They furrowed their brows.

“I wanted to talk to you for a few minutes,” I said, not knowing what I was going to say.

Her friend took a step back. I held her gaze and said, “No, no. Please stay. It’s OK. She doesn’t know me.”

The girl in blue jeans was looking at me curiously, with the same calm expression on her face I had noticed at the ATM.

I hopelessly searched for a hint of smile. Nope. No luck there. She took the last swig of her coffee, threw the paper cup in the nearby wastebasket, folded her arms and flashed her eyebrows, as if asking me to go on. Must admit, her confidence made me a bit nervous.

I started with a big smile, “You are from Davanagere too, aren’t you?”

She nodded. That’s it. Just a nod. No words.

I was still smiling. I actually believed that it was my James Bond smile, but seems like it wasn’t the case. It’s a big baby monkey’s smile, she would later tell me. OK, let’s not get there.

“From GMIT, I guess.”

“How do you know?” her friend asked.

“I’m from BIET and obviously you are not from my college. The only other engineering college left in our city is yours.”

“Right.”

The girl in jeans kept mum. I tried again, “OK, tell me something. You were at the PJ Extension ATM two weeks ago, weren’t you? In an orange dress?”

Her friend smiled. I could also feel my friends’ gaze on my back.

“Well, I could’ve been there. In fact I was there two days ago too. And the day before that. And the day before that.”

“Why, you think it’s a video game or something? With so many buttons and a touch screen, did you get confused? It’s ATM, my dear. Why can’t you draw enough money at once that would suffice for the whole week?”

“Huh?”

“All right, smarty,” I grinned from ear to ear as I continued, “Listen. Beating about the bush is not in my nature. So I am going to tell you directly. I saw you a fortnight ago and was kind of hoping that I could meet you once again. But then, I didn’t believe in co-incidences. Until now. When I saw you here today, I couldn’t stop myself from coming and talking to you.”

Though I was still a stranger to her, I could sense that she and her friend were quite comfortable in my presence.

She looked at her friend once and almost smiled. “So?”

“So I was wondering, would you like to have some Vodka with me sometime?”

“What?” Well, this time she did laugh.

I was still smiling sheepishly. I shrugged.

“Vodka?” she said and stood with her arms akimbo.

I copied her stance and answered, “You know, all great people say, ‘aim high, think big, dream big’. That way, if you aim for a Ferrari, even if you don’t get a Ferrari, you’ll at least get a Jaguar. But if you start off with Maruti 800, there is absolutely no hope. So I figured if I asked you to have Vodka with me, chances are that you’d at least have coffee with me.”

She threw her head back and laughed wholeheartedly. For a moment I was confused as to who was more beautiful. Her person or her laughter? I usually don’t like to have confusions, for I’d like to keep things simple. But now, I was enjoying those simple confusions. Life had never been simpler.

“What are you?” she asked.

Notice the question. It’s not ‘Who’ but ‘What’. Maybe she was still thinking that I was some silly clown, who was trying to flirt with her. I didn’t mind and answered her ‘what’ question as honestly as possible.

“Well, Senorita, to define is to limit.”

“Ah, Oscar Wilde.” She seemed impressed.

A few things were perfectly clear now. She was a reader. She was exceptionally beautiful. Totally my type.

“Yup. Oscar Wilde, it is. So tell me. Vodka?”

“No. No Vodka.”

“Great. Coffee then?”

Her thin eyebrows playfully danced over her sparkling eyes as she smoothed away a few wisps of hair. “What if I said ‘No’?”

“In that case, I shall have to ask you if you’d like to have a cigarette, or ganja, or gutka, or good old local tambaaku, or –,”

“Coffee is fine,” she said at last.

“Fantastic. Let’s meet here in the evening. Say, at five o’clock? After the programmes?”

“OK.”

“All right then. Have a lovely day ahead. See you in the evening,” I said as I turned to go.

“Oye, wait up, man,” it was her friend. She was kind of cute too. “You didn’t even tell us your name?”

“Yes, right,” ATM girl added, “You didn’t even ask me my name.”

“What’s the hurry? We’ll talk in the evening. In detail. And on the morrow. The day after that and the day after that.”

“If you didn’t tell me your name, I might feel compelled to treat you as a stranger.”

“Haven’t you heard? There are no strangers in this world; only friends who haven’t met,” I said with a wink and walked away.

***

I don’t remember what we performed that day, but I do remember one thing. That entire day and the days that followed, I only thought and dreamt about her.

Although she had said that she would meet me, I was still skeptical. I went to the coffee shop at 4.45 p.m. and waited. Needless to say, my friends waited along with me. She arrived at about 5.20. My hooligan friends introduced themselves and narrated the ATM incident, with some extra masala. She didn’t complain. Rather she thoroughly enjoyed the story. Then, they took her friend aside and started flirting with her. I was left alone with her. Thankfully.

That evening we talked. We talked for over an hour, until her bus arrived and picked her up. They had been given the accommodation in a nearby girls’ hostel.

It is, without a doubt, one of the best times I’ve ever had. At the end of the first day, I was almost in love.

***

The next two days followed smoothly. Coffee, laughter, fun and frolic; coffee, laughter, fun and frolic; followed by coffee, laughter, fun and frolic. Those are three of the most memorable days of my life. And with each passing minute, I was hopelessly, deeply, madly falling in love with her.

On the fourth day, i.e. the last day, she had worn the same orange dress. I don’t know whether she wanted to tease me or play a naughty game with me. But the moment I saw her was the moment I decided to tell her about my feelings.

All these days I had never given my camera to any of my friends. They didn’t complain as long as I took pictures of pretty girls they pointed their fingers at. It seemed like there was some tough competition between the memory of my camera and the girls in the campus.

Now the time had come to pass on the baton. I gave them the camera and asked them to take a few pictures of me and her – without her knowledge. I would show her later, of course. It’s just that I wanted the photograph to be as natural as possible. After warning them not to change any settings and just click the shutter button, I met with her at the coffee shop.

The campus was throttled with cold wet chill. I bought two cups of coffee and we started walking towards the basketball court. It was much calmer there. My friends greeted her, cracked a few stupid jokes and excused themselves, leaving us alone.

After talking for a few minutes, we went and sat on a nearby stone bench. The weather was cold and cloudy. The mood was warm. Coffee was hot. Even with so many students around, a blanket of idyllic quietness floated in the campus. We sat there in silence, enjoying the simple pleasures of life. None of us spoke for a long time.

There was a mild clap of thunder in the distance, an indication that it was about to rain. Then, as the first few drops of rain touched my skin, I turned to her, looked her in the eyes and proposed to her. She was startled beyond means. For a moment she thought I was joking, but soon realized that I was serious.

“Maybe you are thinking that this is all too early,” I began. “I understand that. Maybe it is early. Maybe I’m quite impetuous by nature. When I got up this morning, I didn’t have any plans to say all these. But the moment I saw you today, I realized that I had to say. Look, if not today, I’d have said it eventually. Maybe tomorrow, maybe next week …”

And thus went my monologue for about five minutes. And then she spoke for about a few minutes. And then we both talked and discussed – for a long time. At one point of time during our conversation, her body was angled towards me; with her left hand tucked behind her right and her chin resting on her right palm as a beatific smile played on her lips. I, on the other hand, was enthusiastically telling her something with subtle hand gestures. If, at that moment, anyone had seen us from a short distance, he/she would have seen a beautiful girl in an orange dress, completely engrossed in an interesting conversation with a boy in lemon-yellow t-shirt and blue jeans, sitting next to her; with a cheerful setting in the background – green trees and plants dipped in mist and rain, a wet basketball court, a few boys and girls in colourful clothes, chatting and laughing. It would have made a grand, ethereal picture. As luck would have it, someone did see us at that particular moment. Gilly. And that, my friends, was the moment captured in my camera. Only I didn’t know then.

I came back to my friends when she was gone. I didn’t tell them that I had proposed to her. Gilly handed over the camera to me. And when I saw the picture, I almost yelled at the top of my voice, “What the hell is this?”

The photograph was in black-and-white. I looked at them, seething.

“Don’t look at me like that,” said Gilly. “I didn’t change the settings. I just clicked. Ask Chandi. He’s the one who wanted to take pictures of those girls in black t-shirts. He’s the one who handled the camera before me.”

“What?” Chandi jumped in. “No. I swear on Pamela Anderson’s eyes, I didn’t change the settings.”

“Pam Anderson has eyes?” It was Praveena. “No one told me. I always thought…"

I ignored them and browsed through the photos. Except for the first few photos taken that morning, all the remaining ones were in black-and-white. Including the picture of me and her. To make things worse, they had taken only one picture of us. The rest of them were all girls.

Although I like black-and-white photographs, which exemplify nostalgia; I still wanted that particular picture in colour. The setting, the moment, the atmosphere, everything was impeccable. A colourful moment was discoloured by a stupid negligence. Maybe I could have taken another picture, but that magic could not have been recreated. The moment had passed.

Well, that’s all. I am not going to tell you what happened next. I am not going to tell you whether she accepted my proposal, whether she decided to remain as just friends, whether I accepted that, whether we kept in touch after that, whether we are still in touch, whether we are a couple now, or whether we even met after that day. All these are irrelevant. I’m not even going to show you that photograph. This too is irrelevant. There are two reasons for this. One, that picture is too sacred, too precious. Not to be shared easily. Two, a picture speaks a thousand words. And I prefer the thousand words.

But then again, what is relevant, what is important is the moment I spent with her that day. Even today when I hold that photograph in my hands and see, all those things flash in front of my eyes as if they happened an hour ago. The first time I saw her at the ATM, then in Nitte during the cultural fest, our first conversation and many such conversations in the following days. And finally, the last day, when I proposed to her; that particular moment on the stone bench when she sat next to me, listening and talking and laughing …

As Baba Will Smith said in Hitch, “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but the moments that take our breath away.”

It was one such magical moment indeed. A moment captured in black-and-white. Every time I remember those days, those blissful moments, I can only imagine her in that orange dress. But unfortunately, the girl in orange dress was now in black-and-white.

I wish that picture was in colour. I wish I could change things. I wish I could go back in time. I wish …

***************

Copyright © Karthik 2011

P.S. Click here to ‘like’ and promote this post.

Artistic Freedom?

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The artist is the creator of beautiful things. Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect few to whom beautiful things mean only beauty. ~ Oscar Wilde

Going by the above quote, or going by your own ethical standards (irrespective of your religion), what kind of beauty do you see in the nude pictures of Hindu Goddesses painted by M. F. Hussain? Or are you one of those who 'try' to find beautiful meanings in ugly things? Irony, eh?

I wouldn’t have bothered to write about this had it not been for some 'intellectuals' going gaga over M. F. Hussain’s 'artistic freedom' and crying as to how he was humiliated in his own country. He was forced to leave the country and for a valid reason.

I don’t believe in superpower. I don’t believe that there is someone else above my parents. In this regard, I’m an atheist. But it doesn’t mean I don’t go to temples along with my mother when she wants me to. It doesn’t mean I don’t take part in Poojas and festivals. It doesn’t mean I don’t belong to a religion. I do. I am a Hindu – who enjoys listening to the stories of Gods and Goddesses, and believes that there is something good to learn from them. I do have immense respect towards those teachings, towards those who believe them and pray without asking anything in return. It’s just that I don’t believe that I have to please someone I don’t see (or feel) to get things done. It’s irrational to me.

Stories have always ruled my world (they still continue to do so). It began with my mother. I never went to sleep without a story. Gods and Goddesses, Ramayana and Mahabharatha – that’s all Mother India chose to tell me about when I was little. And I enjoyed them to the core.

As I grew up my convictions about an external influence began to falter. Bhagavad Gita says that one should first believe in himself. I believed in that. In the midst of these doubts and confusions and arguments (with my mother and also with me), my respect for the mythological stories and what they had to offer to us never deteriorated. When I go to a temple and see the deity, Saraswati or Lakshmi or Hanuman or any God that is beautifully adorned with festoons of flowers, vermilion, turmeric, tulsi leaves, etc., I automatically join hands. I, like most Hindus, have grown up with this culture. I am used to it.

‘Mother’ is the most beautiful, most sacred and the most powerful word. No matter what language the term is associated with – Maa, Amma, Mummy – the feeling behind it is same. That’s why Goddesses like Lakshmi, Saraswati, Durga, Kali are prefixed with Maa or Amma. And when a person, who doesn’t know anything about these sentiments, about the culture, paints these Goddesses in the nude, in the name of artistic freedom, how can it be tolerated? When I’m used to seeing these Goddesses clad in beautiful saris, how can I tolerate when they are painted in the nude? Artists have always painted nude women, but they were just common, unknown women, and not Goddesses. But M. F. Hussain did the exact opposite.

Goddess Durga is shown copulating with a lion/tiger, a nude Sita is sitting on the thigh of Ravan, while a nude Hanuman is trying to attack Ravan; then a nude Sita is sitting on the tail of Hanuman; a nude Hanuman with his genitals pointing towards a woman, a nude Lakshmi sitting on an elephant, a nude Saraswati playing Veena, a nude Parvati, and finally, a nude Bharat Mata. These are M. F. Hussain’s so-called artistic works.

It wouldn’t have been termed as blasphemy (maybe a pervert mind’s output) had he just mentioned them as common women, but he had the audacity to mention their proper names. Is doing whatever one wants is freedom of expression?

If painting Hindu Goddesses in the nude is indeed artistic freedom, as some say and believe, then why didn’t he paint his own mother and daughter that way? Why did he choose to dress them up when he painted them? Double standards? Maybe it’s inappropriate to say this, but nonetheless this point does come up. To hell with being inappropriate, this point should be brought up.

There is another painting where a nude Brahmin is standing next to a fully clad Muslim King. Why not paint both in the nude? Didn’t his artistic freedom allow him to do that? Wonder how the people of Qatar (and Muslim people in India) would have reacted if he had painted a nude woman and given the name, Fatima or Nasreena! Maybe it’s easy for him to play with the sentiments of other people.

Page 3 darlings cried at the top of their voices when he was forced to leave the country. They did it again when he passed away, saying that he wasn’t understood in his own country, that people didn’t know what artistic freedom meant, that they didn’t have respect for an artist’s freedom of expression. They continue by saying that although he yearned to return to India, he was forced to stay away. Without an option, he accepted the nationality of Qatar – a Muslim country. Now, would the people of Qatar have kept quiet if he had painted some Muslim prophet in the nude?

In the early nineties, in the children’s section of The Hindu, a cartoon picture of a Muslim prophet had been published. In that cartoon strip, the prophet was found teaching some lessons from Koran. It was all done in good faith, to teach children some valuable lessons in the form of a cartoon strip. That is all. A public outcry broke out in the country for showing the prophet as a cartoon character. The Newsstands that sold copies of The Hindu were burned down. Goons rushed into the office of The Hindu. A threat to raise the issue in the Parliament through a Private Members Bill was held out. The very next day the newspaper published an apology letter in the front page. Ironically, the editor of The Hindu, N. Ram supported M. F. Hussain, saying that the latter was an artist and was free to imagine things (read Hindu Gods and Goddesses) in anyway he wanted. Talk about secularism!

Those who support him bring up the question, “Khajuraho sculptures also depict sex. When that is acceptable, then why not Hussain’s paintings?” That’s because those are just sculptures of ordinary men and women. They are not labeled as Durga, Saraswati, etc. like Hussain did. Those were the times when electricity was not invented, let alone computer or Internet. So people could not have visited any porn sites. No Raginis and their MMSs. Some sculptors chose to sculpt their fantasies. Maybe Khajuraho sculptures have deep meaning, I don’t know. But what I do know is that they are not the sculptures of any Gods and Goddesses.

Agreed Indians gave Kamasutra to the world, but then again, imagining a nude woman is totally different from imagining one’s own mother or sister in the nude, isn’t it? Only people with pervert minds are capable of imagining like that. What kind of sick comparison is that anyway? Comparing Khajuraho to Hussain’s nude paintings of Goddesses?

Apart from these, his paintings range from a woman copulating with a bull, a horse and other animals. How is this art? Oh, no, wait. This is modern art, eh? Anyway …

Almost every Hindu family’s Pooja room is adorned with those famous portraits of Saraswati and Lakshmi. Saraswati, clad in an elegant white sari, is sitting on a small rock and playing Veena; whereas Lakshmi, clad in an orange sari, is standing on a Lotus flower in a small pond, with a few elephants and swans playing in the background. These are painted by Ravi Varma, one of the most profound artists. Now after seeing these portraits regularly, try and have a look at the so-called Indian Picaso’s nude paintings of the Goddesses. If your stomach still doesn’t churn, then maybe you are having some serious mental problems.

Art should inspire people. It should never hurt anybody. It should drive people towards betterment. An artist should create things, beautiful things. In that process of creation, he transforms himself into someone more than a mere mortal. Creating something new, something that doesn’t exist is not easy. It requires tremendous hard work coupled with an incredible imagination. An artist calls upon his creative faculty and creates a world of his own. Ordinary mortals are mercilessly sucked into that world and are not allowed to get back to reality that easily. This is the power that an artist holds. But it becomes ugly when he creates a despicable thing in the name of creative liberty and conveniently tries to convince people that it is art, that it is beautiful, that it is creativity. Some people that cannot think from their own brains believe him; some can’t differentiate between right and wrong, and end up supporting the famous names in the society (thanks to media); only a few stick to their convictions and know exactly which art is and which isn’t.

He is no more and as I said earlier, I’d not have bothered to write this, but some people don’t seem to shut up. According to them it’s the people that were hurt by his atrocities drove him away from the country, thereby making India suffer a great loss of a great artist. According to these connoisseurs, those who complain about his ‘modern’ art are the ones with bourgeois mentality; and the ones who admire his nude art are the elite. Morons, I say.

Sure he has contributed a lot to the world of art and has been one of the prominent artists who made other countries crane their necks towards our country, but sadly, whenever I (and many like me) remember him, only those ugly paintings flash before my eyes.

Doing whatever you like is not freedom. But doing whatever you like, provided it doesn’t cause any problems to others, doesn’t hurt anybody – that is freedom.

May his soul rest in peace.

***

Here are the links to Ravi Varma and BKS Varma’s paintings:

1. http://www.cyberkerala.com/rajaravivarma/

2. http://bksvarma.com/

And here is the link to M. F. Hussain’s version of Hindu Goddesses:

http://www.metrojoint.com/photo_view.php?userid=5&aid=119985


Beauty, Perfection and the Brand Ambassadors that represent them

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Passion.
One word that defines the true character of a man, one thing that tells whether he is really living or simply pushing time, one yardstick to fathom his ideas and ideals, and thereby his true identity; the one thing that moves the world towards betterment.
The most beautiful smiles are often priceless, as they are not easy to come by. Sometimes it takes years of hard work, mostly driven by one single entity – an unalloyed passion, towards one’s work of art.
It’s been said that basically every work is just a craft in the beginning. But it takes an art form when it’s driven by a raw passion; be it music, painting, sports, writing or even a simple clerical job at a bank. Maybe the latter cannot be termed as art in a conventional way, but it becomes a sort of subsidiary of art, when a person does it with tremendous passion.
To start with an example, I consider my mother to be the most beautiful woman on earth. No competition there. But she looks something superior to the used adjective, when I see her working (she is a special assistant in a bank). The glow on her face when she is typing numbers and names on the computer with rattling speed, or when she is interacting with the customers, is divine, is magical. And that, to me, is beauty. More than twenty years of service, and she still has the enthusiasm of a newly recruited 20-something employee. Not one single complaint about her job till now. Reason: she loves her job to the core.
Same is the case with my father. Both being bank employees, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing my parents go about their jobs, with love. I vividly remember the days when I, as a little boy, used to prance around in the bank. They simply love what they do. Although I didn’t understand these things then, and thought everybody went about their jobs in a similar fashion. But it was only when I grew up did I notice the difference. Some of their colleagues were/are way too rude with customers, and they often whine.
A person’s face when encapsulated by that magical glow and raw intense force while he is doing something that he loves and enjoys the most, is beauty. One look at him and you’ll understand that nothing in this world is more important than what he is doing at the present moment, irrespective of the standards of the job as set by some ordinary and presumptuous minds of the society. Whether he’s a cricketer, musician, writer, cobbler, or an engineer – doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is how much he loves doing it, how passionate he is about it and finally, how well he does it. And watching him do his work, with all his sense organs focused on only one thing – that’s the most beautiful sight on earth to me. Nothing, absolutely nothing, can beat that.
***
Very recently, while walking down the street with a friend, I slipped and fell at the expense of a torn sandal. There was a cobbler nearby, sitting in his tiny wooden shop. Charma Kuteera, the name of the shop said. Apparently that’s the name given to every such shop in my city. Must be some rule. Anyway, I went to him and gave the torn sandal. He went about his stitching, while I stood with my friend and watched him fix my sandal. It was ready within a few minutes. I paid the money and went my way.
Few weeks later, a similar thing happened with my friend and we went to another cobbler. It was only now that I noticed the difference. Unlike the previous one, this person started working as if it was the most supreme thing in the world. His concentration, total. The look on his face, sublime. I’m sure I saw a smile on his face when he was done with it. Mending shoes is the most beautiful thing to him, and to me, watching him do it was beautiful.
Ever wondered why we find babies and kids charming and gorgeous? It’s not only because of their tiny bodies and baby smell they carry around, but mainly because whatever they do, they do it with interest. Nothing is unimportant to them. Everything is magical. That inquisitiveness is what drives them. Unfortunately, as they grow up, that curiosity dies down. That passion is lost somewhere. Everything becomes routine. Do it because you have to do, not because you love it, is the unspoken statement. But a few people retain that passion. Unlike kids that are curious about every little thing around them, these men and women retain that curiosity towards one specific thing of their liking. And that specific thing becomes their world, it surrounds them completely, they become obsessed, they can’t talk and think about anything else except that. That’s what passion does to a man. It drives them crazy, and it’s inspiring.
And when I see such people immersed in their work, enjoying every second, I revel in it, I get inspired. Observe their faces when they talk about the work they love doing, and you’ll find a divine radiance there. That sight, to me, is delicious.
***
When Sachin Tendulkar plays that marvelous straight drive, he doesn’t change his stance for a few seconds. He just stands there, without moving a muscle, and watches the ball. Or when Rahul Dravid plays that magnificent square cut. Oh, boy. How much I love to see it again and again. They don’t jump up and down with joy, and their faces look as intense as ever. But one can easily see these men enjoying every moment of it. Although Saina Nehwal is pretty, she looks her best when she is playing. Skimming the sweat off her face, getting ready for the next serve, playing her backhand and forehand strokes with incredible brilliance – all accentuated by that winner’s attitude and winning smile in the end; that is lovely.
Though these men and women look tired while performing, one can see a beatific sense of repose on their faces.
I can give hundreds of such examples where I see beauty in its purest sense. Musicians, painters, sportsmen, photographers, writers, engineers, architects, doctors, a tea shop owner at my place (whose shop is elegantly named, Tea Lounge), a mechanic where I get my bike serviced and many others – all these people worship what they do.
I recently watched the latest Royal Enfield commercial. If ‘Show, don’t tell’ is the golden rule of storytelling, then the ad maker, who made that commercial knows how to tell a story. Here, the story of Royal Enfield. It’s a very simple ad, with no dialogues, no glamour and no big stars. A regular middleclass man gets ready for work in the morning, with a kiss from his little daughter. He then kick-starts his bike – Royal Enfield Bullet 350 – and moves on. The bike itself is not shown from stylish angles. It’s just another bike there, but as the ad continues, with a mellifluous piece of music playing in the background, you’ll realize that the bike symbolizes attitude. The man rides slowly through the narrow lanes of Chennai and reaches his workplace – Royal Enfield factory. At the end, an old man – probably the chairman – stands behind a basic model of Bullet as three words flash on the screen. ‘Handcrafted in Chennai.’
When they say, ‘Handcrafted in Chennai,’ they mean it. The finishing touch, those royal, radium-yellow lines on the fuel tank, is actually painted by a man, and not a machine. It’s not some graphic design either. That’s the signature of Royal Enfield. How he does it can be seen on YouTube. Seeing him paint it, without any kind of ruler or compass, is just fantastic. The only tool he uses is passion.
I experience the same heavenly feeling when I see the mechanic, working on my bike. I ask him to do a simple, regular service, but he doesn’t get satisfied until he breaks my bike into a hundred pieces and checks every part. Sitting in his garage and watching him fix my bike is terrific. His hands and clothes are all greased, his hair all rumpled, his face sweaty because of the scorching heat outside; but he looks immensely calm. He is at peace with himself.
I don’t mean to exaggerate on this, but here’s another fact. Everyday a young boy, who looks my age, comes to pick up the garbage. He’s one of the people appointed by the city municipality. Just like everyone, he’s given a particular area, from where he has to collect the garbage. He comes at about seven or seven-thirty in the morning and shouts ‘Amma’, at the top of his voice. One of us, usually my granny, goes and gives him the garbage bin. He empties it in what looks like a small pushcart and gives the bin back. That’s his job. I’ve seen many guys like him. But unlike others, he doesn’t cringe when the residents don’t answer to him immediately. He always has earphones plugged in, keeps murmuring a song until somebody shows up with the bin. Once it’s done, he moves on, singing to himself. One look at him and you’ll realize that he has no complaints about his job whatsoever. Sometimes, having woken up in a bad mood, I go out to answer his call and see him going about his job. He takes the garbage bin from my hand, all the while murmuring a song. He looks so happy. And looking at him is so inspiring. If this is not beauty, then what is?
***
Some say that watching sunrise/sunset is one of the most beautiful sights on earth. Maybe it’s true. I enjoy it too. It’s certainly beautiful. But once in a while a crazy photographer comes along, stands beside me and starts clicking. Everything changes at that moment. The definition of the word ‘beautiful’ changes for me. Watching that photographer play with his camera, who is trying to make the beautiful sunset more beautiful, is absolutely delightful to me. If indeed the beauty of nature is divine, if it is perfection, then an obsessed, passionate photographer improves upon that perfection – thereby proving that perfection exists in this world. What we can’t see with our naked eyes, is shown splendidly through the eyes of his camera. Showing an already beautiful thing in a more beautiful and innovative way is not easy. That’s creativity, that’s genius … that’s beauty.
One of my friends, who talks about nothing but photography most of the time, is crazy about that art of freezing time. We meet almost everyday and discuss about the most inane things. But when the topic of photography comes up, an unfathomable force takes over him. He just can’t break free from it. And that force is nothing but sheer passion. The glow that comes on his face then, is angelic. It’s similar to the glow I see on Jeffrey Archer’s face when I see and hear him talk about his writing.
***
A very long time back I had an opportunity to watch Rahul Dravid practice in the nets in Chinnaswami Stadium, Bangalore. It was quite early in the morning. Being an ardent fan, I was naturally excited. But when I saw him up close, hitting the balls furiously as they came, he was not Rahul Dravid, the star cricketer. He was a man possessed; a man obsessed; a man crazy about his game. Until then I had only watched him play in real matches. But when I watched him practice, it was totally something else. It was godly. Watching that process of perfecting one’s craft is nothing but beauty of the highest possible order.
Mostly we get to watch and enjoy the end game, but should I get to watch them practice, trying to hone their skills to perfection, it’d be one of the best times of my life. But these things are rare, they are sacred. We don’t usually have that pleasure. A painter painting, a musician composing, an architect planning his building, a scientist experimenting, etc. – all in the privacy of their room, their personal space, untouched and unseen by any external entity.
Of all the people, authors (novelists, mainly) inspire me the most. I’d give anything in the world to watch a great writer working on his manuscript, silently writing and re-writing, editing, in the privacy of his den. I’d just want to sit there and watch him. That would be the best. But then again, it would be witnessing beauty, although I don’t mind it, at the expense of a crime: Sacrilege.
These men and women, these men and women driven by raw passion towards their art, their work, are the people that not only love what they do, but also make love to it. And watching them do it, watching them ensconced in their place of worship and executing their jobs with finesse, is inspiring. This, to me, is real beauty.
************
Copyright © Karthik 2011
P. S. For the question: What does real beauty mean to you?

Manasvi

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1

I was happy in my own world, living my own life, playing with my best group of friends; cricket, football, riding bicycles, climbing trees, wrestling in the mud, swimming in the lake. It was the time (probably it still is) when we hadn’t heard about a dirty word called,’cleanliness’. Apart from our school uniforms (which looked OK only in the morning) we wore brown clothes all the time, or perhaps they looked brown, no matter what their original colours were.

We were playing hide and seek when she moved into our neighbourhood, along with her humpy-dumpty-looking parents. It was then the confusion started. It was then that so many questions cropped up in my head. Dressed in white frock and white shoes, she looked so clean and out of place. How anyone can be so clean, I wondered. When the workers started unloading the furniture from the truck, Mr. Humpty-Dumpty picked her up and walked towards their house. I frowned. When my mother came outside and stood beside me, I asked, “Is that an angel?” It was a serious question. My mother laughed, “Why don’t you ask her whether she is one?” I never did.

How could a 6-year-old boy ask that? Let me rephrase that question. How could a boy of any age ask that? He couldn’t. He wouldn’t. He shouldn’t. Some questions are never meant to be asked or answered. Else, the magic will be lost. And she was magical.

***

She was not seen for the next two days; although we played cricket right in front of her house to get a glimpse of her. Mrs. Humpty-Dumpty called us in. We threw our bats and ball, and ran inside. We sat on the sofa with a ‘thump’ as angel’s mother brought us orange juice. Our eyes swept the house as we drank, producing all sorts of creative sounds. One of my friends even rinsed his mouth with a gurgling sound.

“Manasvi has gone out with her father,” Mrs. Humpty-Dumpty said.

We were four boys in all and everyone chanted the name one after the other, as if the name was a difficult poem. Years later I would realize that she was indeed a poem. Difficult, yes. But also lovely. Manasvi, Manasvi, Manasvi, Manasvi … The name had a beautiful ring to it. Sitting in her house that day, drinking juice, I didn’t know that I would be chanting her name for the rest of my life.

***

The next day when I saw her in my class, my happiness knew no bounds. I kept grinning and the girl who was sitting beside me kept staring at me. “I know that girl. Her house is nearby our house,” I said, as if she was a celebrity. The girl didn’t respond. And I didn’t care.

After our class prayer, our class-teacher called the new girl and introduced her to the whole class. Manasvi stood there and surveyed the class. For some reason I’ve never found Barbie Dolls cute, but if the makers of those dolls had seen Manasvi that day they would have agreed with me too, for all the dolls looked pale in comparison to her. Her uniform – blue and white chequered shirt, blue skirt, black shoes and white socks – was spotless. Her hair was neatly combed and two pony tails were tied with blue ribbons; not a strand of hair was out of place. Mrs. Humpty-Dumpty had taken good care of her.

Her sparkling eyes surveyed the whole class as I tried to look bigger by sitting straight. A moment later our class-teacher sent her back to her place. I scowled. Years later when I asked her whether she noticed me in the class that day, she said, flatly, “I don’t even remember my first day.” Splendid.

I could never talk to her in my primary school days. Though she lived nearby (she still does), went to the same school in the same school bus, studied in the same section, I could never make friends with her. All those monkey tactics I tried to impress her and get her attention never worked: deliberately playing in front of her house, falling down and bruising my legs, smiling when it hurt like hell. Nothing worked. Now when I recently asked her about it, she said, sadly, “I was jealous of all the boys. I wanted to play cricket and football too, but my mother never allowed me. So, no. I was busy imagining as to how I would’ve played when I stood behind the gate like a prisoner.” I silently thanked Mrs. Humpty-Dumpty, for I preferred a girl who was girlie; not a tomboy.

2

I was in 10th standard when I talked to her for the first time. I had practiced it for five days and when the D-day arrived, I delivered the line with utmost honesty and confidence: “How is your preparation for the exams?” And she sweetly replied, “Good.” And that was the most beautiful word I’d ever heard until then. Well, it was a start.

Manasvi had become quite popular already; dancing, singing, et al. And the competition to get her attention was fierce. As the exams were coming up, I couldn’t think much about it. But there was improvement finally. It was the day of our first exam. We were going through our books during the final moments. She passed in front of me, looking down at her book. “Hey Manasvi,” I called out. She looked up and raised her eyebrows, her lips still moving.

“Studied well?” I asked.

“Yes. You?”

Ah. She asked me something. Finally. Looking back, I don’t know whether my answer would have meant anything, but I am an eternal optimist, you see. So I really thought she was interested to know.

“Yes. Kind of.”

“Kind of? It’s our board exam, for heavens’ sake,” she laughed.

Let me not describe how she looked when she laughed and how I felt about it, for I’m afraid I’m going to bore you to death. On second thoughts, I don’t care. So listen. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen her laugh. But it certainly was the first time in front of me, in response to my answer. We had our English exam that day, and W.B. Yeats, P. B. Shelley and many others’ poems were being learned by heart, ferociously, without understanding what they actually meant. Our English teacher had repeatedly said, ‘Understand the poems properly. Only then you’ll be able to enjoy them.’ None of the students seemed to have grasped it. I was the only exception – to a certain extent. When others were reading and reciting poems, I was literally seeing one in front of me. I do not know whether I understood it (I still don’t know whether I do), but I thoroughly enjoyed its beauty.

I was lost. She said when I didn’t reply, “All right. You seem to be tensed. Good luck, Sawant.”

“Huh? Oh, yes, thank you. You too.”

Do I really have such a good name or is it just that it sounded good because she said it, I asked myself. And I still don’t know the answer. Though I strongly feel it’s the latter. Well, I think it is the latter. Wait a second. I think? No, it is the latter.

***

When the results came, I had scored more than she. I didn’t know it until she said it.

“Congratulations.”

“What for?”

“You’ve scored well. You’ve scored more than I. Damn it. How did it happen?” she said in mock anger.

“Maybe because you wished me before exams.” I swear I wasn’t flirting.

She laughed, wholeheartedly. “That’s very sweet of you.”

***

School days were over. But that didn’t bother me much, for I was looking forward to my new life ahead. I was sad about only one thing: Manasvi would not be there. Luckily, I was wrong. She had taken admission in the same Pre University College as I. Boy, was I happy that day!

I had taken Biology and I was interested in only Anatomy. But my specimen had chosen Statistics. Whatever for, I didn’t know.

Two years passed in a jiffy; tensions, headaches, worries – about board exams, CETs, etc. I sometimes wonder; from the day we are born, we are made to think in only one direction. Work hard to get good grades; work hard to get good grades in 10th standard, work hard to get good percentage in plus two, which will land you in a good college; work hard to get good percentage in college, work hard to get a good job, work hard to get a promotion, work hard to get a salary hike, work hard to get a good wife, work hard to make children, work hard to make your children work hard, work hard to get them into good colleges, work hard to die peacefully. So basically you only live to die. Is that it? Monday blues on Mondays and TGIF on Fridays. Aren’t we supposed to do something that doesn’t require hard work but lots of love and smart work? Aren’t we supposed to do something where Monday blues and TGIF do not exist? But every day of the week is pure fun?

My mind was wavering, trying to find answers to all these questions. I was also aware that nobody was going to ask me these questions. Everyone would ask only one question: how much did you score?

In the midst of all these ‘mental’ problems if there was one thing that kept my sanity, it was certainly Manasvi’s presence. Unfortunately I could never talk to her much in those two years and I thought she’d go away after plus two, to some ‘top’ college. I was about to be proved wrong.

3

I had turned eighteen, and along with the driver’s license, I had also secured a license to practice Ornithology. I brazenly did it. I believe practicing ornithology and flirting is every boy’s birth right. No one can take it away from him. All these things came to an end on the third day of my college life, for Manasvi arrived on the third day.

I was astonished. “How come you are here? I thought you were going to Mysore.”

“No, I chose to stay. I had come to your house last evening. Didn’t your mother tell you?”

“No. I was off station. Returned this morning. She must have forgotten.”

“OK. Seems like we are going to be together for the next four years,” she laughed. Years had passed but her laughter had never changed. Perfection can’t be improved, you see.

We were together for the past twelve years, I wanted to say. But didn’t.

“Yes, right.”

Though we had known each other and stayed in the same neighbourhood for twelve years, we had never really become friends, or perhaps I had never tried. This changed soon. We became good friends in college. And it wasn’t a good thing. Being ‘just friends’ with the girl you love is very dangerous, because there are good chances of remaining ‘just friends’ forever. ‘Make your intentions known’ is the mantra, and I never chanted it.

The only good thing was I got to spend time with her: College, library, movies, parties, visiting each other’s house during festivals and exams. But I was still ‘just a friend’. I didn’t complain, thinking that I had three more years to let her know about my feelings for her. I was wrong. Time was running out.

***

We were in our second year when she announced that she had a crush on Abhilash, the so-called ‘hunk’. They became friends very soon. As the days progressed she started spending less time with me. I was her friend and I was supposed to ‘understand’ it.

‘Hunk’ had one more name: Ghost Rider. There is a curious story behind the name. He had a Royal Enfield Bullet Electra 350cc bike. It suited well for his personality. When every boy in college either had a Pulsar or Yamaha or TVS, our hunk stood apart with his monster bike. When he was in first year he had a girlfriend named Namitha, who seemed to be a permanent pillion rider. Nobody ever saw him alone on his bike. Now, Namitha darling was a dark girl and weighed around 80 kilograms (conditions apply). She had an amazing dressing sense. We sometimes wondered whether her father owned a textile factory. Not because her clothes were distinct, but because we never believed that jeans pants came in such distinct sizes. They had to be specially made. Another thing was that four days in a week she wore tribal dress; the ones with tiny, round shaped mirrors all over. As an icing on a cake, her hair was always let loose. And like a double icing on a cake, she had loads of ‘additude’ (not attitude). Some called her African jungle baby, some of us simply called her, The Ghost. So she was the ghost, who rode pillion on ‘hunk’s bike. Hence the hunk became Ghost Rider.

And now, my love rode pillion on his bike. Though the name Ghost Rider stuck, everyone changed his tone: ‘He finally has a nice-looking girlfriend.’ Needless to say, my stomach churned.

There were only a few minor differences between me and Ghost Rider. He was well over six feet tall; I was (and am) five-seven. He had a well-built body, whereas I only had a body (like everybody does). He had a monster bike, and I had an old Hero Honda Splendour. He participated in glamorous activities like dancing and music (he played guitar for a band) and I took part in dramas and skits. He played Basket-Ball and I played chess. He anchored and gave opening/closing speeches to important college functions, whereas I wrote speeches, which somebody else delivered and got the fame. The bugger even studied well.

When an incredibly beautiful girl like Manasvi falls for such a guy, it’s not a surprise. Now what was I supposed to do? I didn’t know. So I didn’t do anything.

***

“So tell me, Sawant. Do you have a girlfriend?” Ghost Rider asked.

“No.”

We were sitting in an ice-cream parlour. It was owned by a local boxer and Ghost Rider was a good friend of his. Both went to the same gym. Since it was a boxer’s ice-cream parlour, all the ice-creams had distinct names.

Ghost Rider was about to say something when the waiter arrived.

“What will you have?” asked my arch rival.

He was already eating Rocky Marciano and I don’t know what Manasvi was eating. Perhaps she was having Laila Ali. I didn’t want to be left alone, so I ordered Raging Bull. Five minutes later when my ice-cream arrived I found that it wasn’t as good as its name. Just like Ghost Rider.

I took another spoonful when Ghost Rider asked, “Don’t you really have a girlfriend?”

I eyed him once. He was definitely well-toned. He was definitely more handsome than I. There was no way I could have challenged him and made Manasvi promote me from ‘just a friend’ to ‘someone special’. But as my Guruji Mark Twain once said, ‘It’s not the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog.’ I fought on.

“As a matter of fact I do,” I said, taking another spoonful of Raging Bull.

Manasvi stopped eating and looked up.

“But there is a small problem,” I continued, “I’m not her boyfriend.”

Angel raised her eyebrows and tilted her head sideways, as if asking, ‘What are you talking about?’

“What’s the problem?” It was he.

“She is with someone else.”

“You never told me,” Manasvi cried.

“I wanted to tell you, Mans. But the time wasn’t right.” Irony, that.

“You are such a moron. Who is she? From our college? Do I know her?” It was a typical girlie question. She wanted to know everything at the same time, irrespective of the priorities.

Before I could think of something, she said, giggling, “I think I know. It’s Ashwini, right? I knew you had a thing for her.”

“So what is it? It’s just a crush or you have feelings for her?” Ghost Rider asked.

“More on that later. Now let me ask you the same question. Is it just a crush or do you really love Manasvi?” I said, smiling at both of them. It was a very direct question and it startled them to the core.

When none of them replied, I said again, “Tell me. Where is it going?”

“I’m not sure,” he faltered. I looked at Manasvi. She didn’t respond.

“So you are just friends?” I probed further.

“No,” he was quick.

“Then? You are not just friends; you are not sure whether you love her. So what’s the name of this relationship?”

“She is my girlfriend.” There was some mild anger in his voice.

“That’s the problem these days,” I said. “Everybody says the same thing. ‘She is my girlfriend. He is my boyfriend.’ But what nobody says nowadays is, ‘I love her or I love him’. Saying that you are in love with a girl is termed old-fashioned,” I paused for a few seconds, letting the words sink, and then continued. “All right. She is your girlfriend. Or perhaps your Champion’s Trophy. Right?”

Manasvi didn’t speak a word. Perhaps she wanted to know what her ‘boyfriend’ would say.

“Look, here’s the thing,” Ghost Rider began. “It’s like this. Before you buy a bike, you have to take a lot of test drives. Once you are convinced that a certain bike is comfortable, you go for it.”

I didn’t dare look at Manasvi. Rather I asked, simply, “So, how many test drives have you had so far?”

It was then it hit him hard like a thunderbolt. I had done the necessary damage. Damn it, I am not guilty of it. Everything is fair in love and war. It may sound a bit clichéd, but it is relevant.

“Oh, no, Manasvi. I didn’t really mean it that way. I was just trying to give an example …”

No use, my boy. No use.

“Answer his question, Abhi. How many test drives have you had so far? And how many do you intend to have in the future?”

Gosh, was I enjoying this! If I was, I didn’t evince it.

“Why don’t girls understand me?” he cried.

Oscar Wilde came in handy then. I said, “Women are meant to be loved, not to be understood, you know.” That was some salt on his wound.

I could see Manasvi from the corner of my eye. She was staring at me.

Oscar Wilde had fallen on his deaf ears. He said to Manasvi, ignoring me, “Come on. Don’t say that. I can die for you, you know.”

I suddenly looked at the wall behind me and checked the calendar. It was unquestionable. The year was 2010, all right. For a moment, after hearing Ghost Rider’s dialogue, I was a bit confused. I thought it was 1960.

“Oh, really? You can die for me, yet you don’t know where this relationship is going, huh?”

He opened his mouth to say something, but words wouldn’t come out.

Moments later she got up and left. I followed suit. Ghost Rider was left alone among boxers.

***

Ghost Rider was really a nice person. I liked him a lot. But the boy didn’t know what he really wanted and how to say things. If he were not Manasvi’s ‘boyfriend’ we would have been good friends.

Over the next few days he kept trying to reach Manasvi, but to no avail. She didn’t return my calls either. Why would she? After all, I was the culprit.

They were back together a week later. They had somehow reconciled. And I was back to square one. I was still ‘just a friend’.

She invited me and a few other friends (including Ghost Rider) to her house. It was her birthday. Over the past few years I had just wished her, verbally. This time I wanted to give something adorable, something worth remembering. But what? I had no idea.

Mrs. Humpty-Dumpty welcomed me, lovingly. I had grown fond of her over the years and she always treated me like her own son. So, naturally, I was the star guest. Two hours earlier I had decorated the house for the party. It wasn’t too grand, but had an aura of elegance. Manasvi didn’t speak much, as she was still angry with me over the ice-cream parlour incident. At least I thought like that.

After the cake-cutting ceremony, snacks were served. Everyone had bought cool presents: Teddy bears, big, musical greeting cards, a pair of high-heeled sandals (girls, I tell you!), etc. A huge, life-sized teddy bear was of course given by Ghost Rider.

When my turn came, I carefully took out a thin 5” X 5” square gift-wrapped pouch, with a silver-coloured ribbon on it. Manasvi said a mild ‘thank you’ and opened the wrapper. It was a DVD.

“What’s in it?” she asked.

I shrugged my shoulders.

Everyone was eager to know. Manasvi ran the disc in her DVD player, connected to TV. A movie started to play on the screen.

I have always believed that going to a gift shop and buying gifts is easy. It’s too formal, it’s too frivolous. Also, birthdays are not remembered these days. Mark Zuckerberg reminds people of their ‘friends’’ birthdays. Telling the birthday boy/girl, ‘I remembered your birthday and bought you a present’ is not important. But showing how much his/her birthday means to you is. This could be your birthday, but it’s my special day too. Time is the greatest gift one can ever give to a friend.

What I had done was simple. I had compiled all her photos; right from her childhood days, right from the day she moved into our neighbourhood. Photos of her birthday parties when she was a child and all the little boys and girls of our neighbourhood were her guests; photos of school days, photos of her on stage, reciting a poem or singing or dancing along with other participants; photos of her in the hospital when she was sick with typhoid (I had taken it without anyone’s knowledge), photos of send-off parties in school and PUC; photos of little trips we had been to, along with other classmates, and many more. Almost every type of emotion was captured. In fact many photos were being seen for the first time. Even Mrs. Humpty-Dumpty was surprised. “When was this?” she kept asking me from time to time. Bottom line: Her whole life ran like a movie, with suitable captions and quotes and mellifluous music in the background.

I was increasingly becoming emotional with every photograph. I got up to go, but Mrs. Humpty-Dumpty wouldn’t let me. The movie got over. Everyone looked at me. Two girls that had come were impressed. But the birthday girl stayed silent. Not a word.

“But how come you are not there in a single photograph? Those Deepavali photos. You were here that day. Why haven’t you included a photo with you in it? Not even one?” asked Mrs. Humpty-Dumpty.

“At least you could have put your name in the end. Something like, ‘Video created by Sawant’,” said a girl.

I cleared my throat and replied, candidly, quoting Oscar Wilde, “To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.”

After that I couldn’t stay there. I wished her once again and left. Had I stayed there a moment longer, they would’ve noticed tears welling up in my eyes.

4

Manasvi didn’t talk to me for over a week and I didn’t try. I left her alone. Then one day she called me and asked me to meet her in the reading room of our college.

“Thanks,” she said.

“For what?”

“For the memories.”

“Oh.”

I said a moment later, “That hospital photo is damn good, isn’t it?”

“Yes, right. Get ready to die.”

We laughed, deliciously, holding each other’s hands.

I began when the laughter had subsided, “Look, Mans. I never got a chance to apologize. I’m really sorry about the other day. I should have kept my mouth shut.”

“It doesn’t matter. I’m not with him anymore.”

I was shocked and happy at the same time.

“What? What happened?”

“Nothing big. We didn’t have a fight. It’s just that I realized that he was not my type and I was not his type. Also, thanks to you. I wouldn’t have realized this if not for you. Whatever you said made sense to me later. Abhilash is a good guy, but not good enough for me.”

They had never had a fight after the ice-cream parlour incident. As the days progressed they had drifted away, respectfully, in a decent manner. No goodbyes, no ‘let’s break up’, no nothing. Just a simple understanding.

“I’m so sorry,” I mumbled.

“Don’t be,” she snapped.

***

Days and weeks passed and we started spending a lot of time with each other. It was just like before. One day when we were sitting in the reading room, writing our lab records, she suddenly asked, “What about Ashwini?”

“Ash who?” I asked, without looking up.

“Don’t act now. You were about to say something about your secret one-sided love story in the ice-cream parlour the other day when the conversation took a different turn. Now tell me about it in detail.”

I stopped writing. “Forget it.”

“I won’t, my dear.”

“It’s not Ashwini, all right.”

“Then who?”

I had always fantasized about my proposal; a nice evening in a restaurant, with a magnificent gift in hand, and so many other filmi things. But when I actually did propose to her, it was in the most awful, unromantic place on earth (college reading room), at the most awful time (two-thirty in the afternoon, when the sun was having its vengeance on innocent college boys and girls), wearing the most atrocious dress possible (jeans, t-shirt, sandals).

“You,” I said, flatly, looking straight into her eyes.

She stared at me, probably looking for some sign of naughtiness.

None of us spoke for two minutes. Then she said, “You are serious, aren’t you?”

“Of course, I am. Since eternity. I just wanted to play with you when you moved into our neighbourhood; I wanted to make friends with you in high school. We did become good friends later on and we still are. Whatever happens, I hope this will never change. But the fact remains. I’ve always loved you. If there is any girl with whom I want to spend the rest of my life, it’s you.”

She didn’t respond. I continued, “Throughout the centuries people have been telling that a boy should find a girl to die for. Somehow it doesn’t apply in my case; it doesn’t make any sense to me; because you are the girl I want to live for.” I paused for a minute. Her expression remained inscrutable. “Look, I know this is coming as a shock to you. I wanted to tell you two years ago, but I ran out of time. You were with Abhilash already. Never found the right time. I still do not know whether this is the right time.”

Silence sang in the air again. “I know I am not a romantic person. I won’t say that I’m going to die if you don’t accept me. I won’t become a lovelorn tragic hero. I love myself too much for that. But remember this: You were, you are and you will always be the one. Whatever I do with my life, you’ll always be my muse, my love, my reason to live and achieve.”

Several minutes passed and she still hadn’t said anything. She never took her eyes off mine. And then, without saying anything, she collected her books and walked away.

***

The next two weeks were unbearable. She neither called me nor replied to my calls and messages. I was confused. I had already lost hope of even being ‘just a friend’. I thought I had lost her forever. But if such a thing had happened, I wouldn’t have had any purpose to write this.

She visited my house one evening. After having a pep talk with my mother she entered my room. I was writing my assignment then. She came and stood next to my table. I got up. Our eyes met. A moment later she slapped me hard across my face. What just happened? I was about to find out.

“Who said you were not romantic, you moron,” she said as a tear rolled down her cheek.

“Wh … wha ... –,” she slapped me again.

“That video you made me says everything. I should’ve understood it then. In fact a thought crossed my mind, but how should I’ve known for sure? You’ve no idea how many times I’ve watched it in the last ten days. Why didn’t you tell me before?” she burst into tears as she slapped me once again and hugged me.

I held her in my arms, not wanting to let her go. She didn’t mind. A few minutes later I asked, smelling her hair, “Hey, Mans, your hair smells great.”

“Wish I could say the same about your hair, your shirt, your room. Such a dirty scumbag you are.”

A new problem had begun. Cleanliness. It was only my mother till now. Now there were two women. God, where are women manufactured? Sterilized room of a perfume factory?

***

It was Valentine’s Day. We were sitting in a cozy restaurant, enjoying every second. Today was a special occasion and she looked ravishing in her red dress. I could never take my eyes off her. “Thank you,” she said, brushing her curls to the back of her ears. I don’t know why but I’ve always loved to see a girl do it. And when the girl is Manasvi, it’s still better.

“So what’s that you are hiding in that bag?” she asked.

I took out a neatly bound book, which had Manasvi written on it, and pushed it towards her, on the table.

Manasvi? What is it?”

“Remember that video I made for you?”

“What kind of question is that? Of course I remember.”

“Well, this is the book version of it. I’ve penned down everything. From the day you moved into our neighbourhood; from the time I asked my mother whether you were an angel to the recent times. A sort of memoir, an epistle, a symphony to my Valentine.”

She didn’t say anything for a few minutes as she leafed through the pages. The book was handwritten.

“You are a nerd. Do you know that?” she said at last.

“I knew you’d say something like this. That’s why I’ve also bought a big box of chocolates, a fancy greeting card and a teddy. Here, take them. Enjoy,” I said, handing over the bag.

She pushed the bag aside, without taking a look inside, and continued to go through the book, all the while smiling. I knew she was overwhelmed with joy, but would never admit it. When she couldn’t go further she kept the book back inside the bag and asked me, “Tell me something. What’s the most you can do for me? It’s Valentine’s Day and I have a right to know.” She was anything but foolishly romantic. My lady love was just teasing me.

“The most I can do for you, Mans, is to be with you always,” I said, looking at her delightful face.

She smiled and looked away, not knowing how to react.

My Guruji Mark Twain once said, ‘Never say the obvious thing, but leave the obvious thing to commonplace and inexperience people to say.’

Sorry, Guruji. It doesn’t work always. I’ve learned from experience that when you are with a girl, don’t act smart. Just say the very obvious thing.

********************The End********************

Copyright © Karthik 2011

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Karthik's Book Montage

The Negotiator
Malgudi Days
As The Crow Flies
Swami and Friends
The Devil's Alternative
The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Godfather
The Seven Minutes
The Prize
Atlas Shrugged
The Fountainhead
If Tomorrow Comes
Digital Fortress
The Chancellor Manuscript
The Bourne Supremacy
The Bourne Identity
The Fist of God
The Fourth Protocol
The Odessa File
The Day of the Jackal


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