Friday, May 8, 2009

She knew her way...

Elaine was fidgety right from the morning. She was alone at home. DJ’s mom was staying with him and it’s been more than a week since she had some alone time with him.

Screw the hag. No, repent. Take it back. She’s going to be your mom-in-law.

The marriage was three months away but DJ and El were more or less like a couple for years. She had always proclaimed that she’s never going to get married. It was pointless as far as she could see. And worst of all marriage itself was a patriarchal institution designed to breed a culture of female servitude. But ever since that milestone of turning 30 started looming before her like a deathly shadow she had started contemplating giving in to the idea that her conservative parents had been trying to buy her into for the past eight years or so; ever since she graduated from IIT. 

She liked to think of herself as a self made woman. Right from an early age she had tried to be self reliant. Yes her parents had paid for most part of her tuition fees and other expenses till college but unlike most others in her neighborhood she didn’t make them buy her expensive clothes or cosmetics nor did they have to dish out anything for donations for her college admission. No not even tuition fees for coaching classes. Her NTSE and other scholarships had paid a part of her college fees. The highly skewed (in favour of men) male-female ratio in the IIT had only helped fuel her feeling of self reliance. She had fought against the odds and made her mark in what was believed to be a man’s world. She knew how to hold her own among men. And later in the corporate world she had smashed every so called glass ceiling that she had encountered. She felt like punching his nose out once when a colleague of her suggested that she got her way around because of her good looks. She had given him a sound hearing and he had never dared cross her ever again. Looking back she could see that she had pretty much done what she had planned as she first walked through the gates of IIT Kanpur. She remembered that first day. The single engine training Cessna taking off from the airfield inside the IIT had her thinking of her school project where she had made a model aircraft piloted by a remote control and her best friend Priya, who had decided to join an airhostess academy after her 12th. It was her idea that they team up to build the model plane. If she was so crazy about flying why didn’t she go for Pilot training instead of being an airhostess, she had asked Priya. The reply was “That’s not for girls, El”.

She hated weekends and this was a particularly long one, Christmas being on a Friday. She was stuck at home coz her car was in the garage and had decided to stay at home in her bed for the Saturday night instead of Geoffrey’s her favorite watering hole.

Mental Note: Don’t give the car for service anytime before Christmas or for that matter any major holidays.

It was one in the night. The cold was biting into her despite having downed at least four drinks since the dinner. She reached for the pack of Marlboro lights but found it empty. Well trust a pack of cigarettes to let you down when u most need it. But she had backup. She scrounged her bag, there had to be a few left from the joints that DJ had given her last week. Success. She smoothened out the wrinkles on the cig and lighted it. She took a long drag and kept the smoke inside her lungs for some time until she could feel her nerves calming down a bit. Without exhaling the smoke she took another drag in. This was good stuff, she thought.

Half an hour later she was still awake. The dark room was filled with cigarette fumes and she felt suffocated. The TV was also on in the drawing room. She was feeling as fidgety as before. She wanted to be with DJ. She reached for her mobile on the night stand and dialed his number. After what seemed like a hundred rings DJ’s sleepy voice answered.

“Haan kudiye kai zaala?”

She wasn’t in the mood for his broken Marathi. “Deeraj, just shove it ….”, she never liked him teasing her Marathi upbringing. But he loved doing it none the less and had in fact secretly put in much effort to learn the language. But she had called him “Deeraj” and that meant she’s really not in the mood. “Listen, DJ get your ass over her now, I’ve got to see you”.

“No way, I’m not getting out in this cold. And I don’t want to explain to mom the reason for my disappearance in the middle of the night. She’ll wake up the minute I turn the key on the ignition and there won’t be any going out for as long as she’s here”, he said.

DJ had a point his mom hadn’t taken well to the fact that he’s getting married to a Bombay bred Christian girl. She had lined up a list of homely Jain girls for Deeraj her only son when he decided to announce the shocker at home.

What the heck, if he’s not going to get here I’m gonna be there. She didn’t say anything more but slammed the phone down. DJ knew that wasn’t a good sign.

The digital clock on the nightstand showed that it was ten minutes past two. Going out at this time in Delhi in a taxi wasn’t safe, she knew. This was where she liked her hometown of Mumbai much more than Delhi. Raj, yea he could take her to DJ’s place. But the only thing is that she didn’t want to ask him for a favor. But she knew how to have her way around him.

Raj was a colleague in office. He pretended to be a perfect gentleman in front of her but she knew he wasn’t. She’d slice open a person, have him diagnosed with one look, a two minute conversation and a shared fag. That was her fool proof process of judging a man. It had never failed her.

She picked up her mobile again. Checked the twitter feed for anything interesting. Changed her status to “Out for a fox hunt”. Then dialed Raj’s number.

“Hey Raj, Elaine here. Hope I didn’t wake you up”

Indiscernible voices on the other side…finally there was a reply “Hey El, No no I was up reading a book, how are you?”

El knew he was lying, and that was what she expected him to do. “Raj, I feel like having a drink how about coming over?” Again she knew what the reply would be. And it was validated by the front door bell.

Raj was practically in his night wear over which he had pulled a jacket, but it was obvious he had tried his best to set his hair down with a quick dash of his wet set gel and the overwhelming scent of the deodorant just confirmed that he hadn’t taken a bath this weekend.

El handed over the pint bottle of beer that she had in her hand to Raj and they sat down in front of the TV on the midsized couch. El knew exactly how to play on Raj’s weaknesses. Conversation was on mundane topics, the TV was muted but the scene showed a new on screen actress trying hard to make her mark with the usual skin show. But El knew where Raj’s eyes were. The dirty bastard; his idea of Catholic girls were probably shaped watching pictures like “Julie”. She suppressed the urge to slap him on the face and said “Raj, let’s go for a drive”. Raj wasn’t exactly keen on the idea. His chances of something happening between them were in his calculations the maximum if they stayed inside the house. But still he reluctantly agreed.

El knew that the key in making him do what she wanted was to keep alive his hopes of something happening. Men!! She thought. She pulled on her worn out blue jeans, tied her hair into a pony, grabbed her favorite jacket from the closet and started to the door. Raj was still trying to gulp his beer down and El had disappeared outside.

“Where to?” asked Raj.

“Hmm, let’s take the highway and towards Noida”, said El. DJ lived in Lajpat Nagar which was on the way to Noida. She was hoping it didn’t come to his mind. She diverted his attention by touching the label in his jacket. “UCB? Cool jacket Raj”.

“Oh you like it? I got it when I went vacationing to New York during Diwali. My jijaji runs a store there.”

Despite the bitter cold El decided to pull the window down. Partly because she hoped the cold and the wind would clear up her head and partly because she hoped the noise of the wind would stop Raj from continuing with his blabber. But that wasn’t to be.

“Listen, El I know something is bothering you, you can tell me whatever it is.” Raj slowly put an arm around her shoulders and waited for a response. She felt as if there was a leech on her shoulder but still kept mum. A shudder ran down her spine the kind of feeling she used to get when she had to clean her bathroom drain. El decided to play along still. “Yea Raj, things haven’t been going well you know, generally”. She knew Raj would assume that things are not well between she and DJ and that’s what she wanted.

Raj grew bolder. This girl was apparently in distress. He saw his moment in that. Damsels in distress were his favorite prey. He brushed a strand of hair that was falling over the side of her face behind her ears. That was his standard modus operandi with women. He could see it working with the so far infallible El. Yes, finally this would be the day. They were coming up on the Lajpat Nagar fly over and the Yamuna appeared up ahead. The highway lay desolate stretching across the wide river bed.

“Raj Raj, are u sleeping or something. Stop the car over here”. He was brought back from the labyrinth of his sullied thoughts. What? What did she say, stop the car? Maybe she had to take a leak. No that can’t be it. Maybe she doesn’t want to wait till we get to the isolation of the Yamuna Bridge.

As soon as the car stopped Elaine opened up the door and jumped out. “I’m going somewhere, it’s just around the corner, you don’t have to come. I’ll see you on Monday then. Bye and thanks for the ride”

Before Raj could even realize what was happening Elaine had crossed the desolate road and had disappeared into a lane on the opposite side. For a minute he thought about running after her. But he knew there wasn’t any point. He had realized what the girl had done. DJ stayed in Lajpat Nagar, he now remembered. That girl was smart. Smart enough to outfox a fox like him.

Elaine reached DJ’s house. The light was on in his room. She jumped on to the guava tree in the yard and nimbly climbed to the balcony outside DJs room in the first floor. And just as she landed the door opened and DJ stood there smiling at the girls antics. “You know mom would be proud she’s getting a circus acrobat for a daughter in law”, he said smiling. Elaine laughed and gave a hard punch on his stomach as they moved into DJ’s room. “She’s getting much more than that, a fox tamer too”, she thought.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Letters from an era of 5 paisa candies.

If there ever is a Guinness record on most love letters handed over I guess I would be a strong contender for it. Ah if only it was an Olympic event, I would have probably got to fulfill one of my biggest dreams of representing India there. As a lanky school boy the only time I got to represent my school in the state athletic meet was in quiz competitions (don’t ask me why but the ICSE board had deemed quiz fit to be conducted as part of the athletic meet rather than the cultural meet) and watching the athletes garner all the glamour and attract all the eyes I had secretly pledged that it would be the Olympics or bust for me. Turning on the wrong side of twenty five I have all but given up on that dream. The easiest step now seems to get into that chair of the President of the International Olympic Committee and pull a few strings to get my desired ‘sport’ on the list of Olympic events. Coming back to handing over of love letters, I guess I still should have the knack for it. It’s an inborn talent, it wouldn’t vanish I suppose. But the last time I tried that out was I guess fifteen years ago.

Growing up in a residential society of around fifty families has its advantages.

Choice of cricketing targets: You get to have your pick of windows to break during cricket. Fourth floor windows came with an automatic prize of an egg puffs and drinks (ahh, memories of those two rupee cold drinks).

Anytime access to food: some or the other family would always have put out those delicious pickles in the sun to dry. The Konkani family in the third floor had a particularly tongue tingling recipe for sun dried mango pickles.

Free entertainment: Now this is complicated, but I guess you young boys who grew up in pre ‘tata sky’ era would know. A little magic trick using insulated copper wire connected to your TV and attached to a twisted metal shirt hanger placed strategically near the path of your neighbor’s cable gets you free cable television. My dad still thinks I managed without TV those times during the study holidays in March when the cable connection used to be disconnected.

Acrobatic lessons: You know that quintessential water tank in every housing society on top of a tower. Yea, even ours had one of those. It stood above even the tallest buildings in the society. And not many of my creed (that’s 12 and stupid) dared climb up the 88 rungs of that ladder to its top. Let me confess now Mukundan uncle, (he was the secretary of the residential society) it was me who threw all those plastic bags in the tank that blocked the water supply for three days. And also for the record that cricket ball that hit the back of your neck (he had to walk around with a neck collar for a week) , was intentional. And in those days if your Bajaj scooter refused to start in the morning it was probably because early morning pee (A lot of boys my age in that society perfected their aim on Mukundan Uncle’s scooter’s petrol tank mouth) and petrol didn’t mix properly.

But probably the biggest advantage of all was that you had guys and gals aplenty of your age to partner with in a thousand crimes (Don’t worry Jerry I’m not confessing to anything here). This brings me back to those love letters. Me being the innocuous little boy was the preferred love letter carrier for many hot blooded young turks in the society who decided to try their luck with the pretty maidens there.

There was this chechi* in the society, let’s just say ladyB. Now ladyB was 18 at the time and I was 12. She was the prettiest girl I knew. Her long frocks (ala Kavya Madhavan’s when she skipped across the green fields of paddy to the tune of a valluvanadan* song) as she walked in grace used to send my heart a fluttering. I was her only true friend (from among those other 12 year olds who used to ogle at her so rudely) and we used to have these intellectual discussions (I wanted to let her know that I was extra mature for my age and convince her that the idea of eloping with me is not entirely preposterous) every evening as it turned dark and the regular games of kallanum-policum (chor-sipahi) with the ‘kids’ was done. I saw myself as her guardian and wouldn’t bear it if any of the boy talks (and at 12 believe me there are many) started drifting to any‘thing’ to do with her. Sorry Satish for that broken tooth. Pals? now that neither of us got her?

It was one such evening when ladyB and me were engrossed in discussions (probably about the vanity of life or the transcendent nature of love) that Arunchettan called me. I hated that a*****. I was one of his primary ragging targets as a five year old (I spent more than a dozen years in that place), but now that I was all grown up we were buddies (or so he thought).

Arunchettan: Vinu kutta* how are you da, long time. We don’t spend time together anymore kutta.

Me: (Can’t you see that I was with my lover) hehe, yea ArunChetta, how’s your college going. Mom was telling me that you got into Engineering college (his dad in the gulf must have paid lakhs for that seat).

Arun: yea its great da..Vinu, do me a favour my man. Give this letter to someone wont you?

Now I’ve acted as a courier service to Arunchettan several times before (never knew what happened of it all) and I was glad to take up the call to what was now almost a vocation.

Me: Oh anytime chetta*, ippravashyam vellathum nadakkumo? (Will something happen this time?)

The bloody Casanova had raised his targets now that he was an engineer to be. As soon as he said that the letter was for ladyB the blood started boiling in me. My eyes bulged and the little sinews stretched and the next thing I knew, I had thrown myself at him and had knocked him over from the ledge he was sitting on. I was scratching his face with my finger nails and was about to bite his nose off. But Arunchettan was thrice my size and a regular at the local gymkhana. He regained his composure after the initial shock and just lifted me and threw me away as he would do a pillow. And before I even got back to my feet he was pounding my face with his huge fists.

A crowd quickly gathered and ladyB was also among them. Somebody pulled away Arunchettan from atop me. My spunk had still not been driven out (not a thousand of those mighty punches would have done it that day), and I was like a Doberman (some might call a dachshund, because of my size but hey I know better) tugging at its leash. I yelled out all the abuses that my ‘refined’ pals of the housing society had taught me.

“eda, patti (you dog) how dare you write a letter to ente pennu (my girl)”. I saw ladyB’s look change from wonder to shock, from the corner of my eyes.

Fifteen years ago and that’s how I sacrificed my career delivering letters. Well it didn’t go to waste. Arunchettan as far as I know never dared give a letter to ladyB. But on the flip side ladyB’s parents married her off before she turned 20. I was heartbroken and didn’t have dinner that night of her wedding despite mom having made her special fried rice and chicken curry. But all wasn’t lost. LadyB’s sister was coming back from her nursing studies the next month.

*chechi - elder sister literally but used for any female who’s older than you

*chettan - elder brother literally but used for any male who’s older than you

*valluvanadan- pertaining to valluvanad which I guess is somewhere in north Kerala.

*Kavya Madhavan – Mallu actress.

*kutta – affectionate name for a small boy (nothing to do with kutha in hindi)

PS: Mukundan uncle thankfully didn’t have burly sons who’d have otherwise shown me the righteous path. But in case he has grandsons of the type, please hear me out, you would have done the same had you been in my position.