Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Er..Another Scene- Scene 3

This would be the last time I'll post a scene from my manuscript on the blog. I still haven't managed to find the time to write a decent post. Next post will be a regular one, I promise.

"In the past two years I had got six of them but each time I had somehow managed to convince Ma that I wasn’t cut out for the job it offered. She had sulked but I succeeded in holding on to my current job inventing various excuses. Though not hair that can be combed I was blessed with a lively imagination and was able to think of some pretty good excuses. But as the envelopes started coming regularly once every few months, Ma’s sulks and threats became equally regular and bigger. Her one constant refrain was that I should settle down in a decent job and get married so she would have grandchildren to play with. Here I was, twenty five years old but still a kid in many ways and Ma was thinking of my kids.

She came out of the kitchen and sat at the table to watch me eat. She was about sixty, my frail mother, hair that had turned white overnight after dad’s sudden death. She was a shadow of her former self. When dad was alive she was beautiful and lively. Now she looked thin, haggard and tired. She looked like a patient. In fact she was a patient with imaginary illnesses. She fell sick frequently but wouldn’t go see a doctor. She told me quite often that if it weren’t for me she would have killed herself the moment dad had breathed his last. Whenever she said it I always felt very sad. The way she looked at me with those mournful eyes I expected her to say it now again.

‘Neel,’ she began in a soft voice. She called me by that silly name when she wanted me to do something I was absolutely not willing to do.

‘What?’ I asked, looking up at her sharply. I was irritated that she had served me more than I could eat. I had once again got the only wobbly plate in the kitchen. I was getting late for office and it also looked like it would rain any moment.

‘Nothing,’ she mumbled quietly and lowered her head. She wiped her eyes with the corner of her sari. I felt sorry for her. I was the only one she had in the world and I was being stubborn. But she was no less rigid herself.

‘What is it, ma?’ I asked again, this time in a softer voice.

‘Didn’t your father too have that kind of a job? Wasn’t he happy with it?’ she asked, nodding her head in an agitated manner.

‘Was he?’ I asked, raising my eyebrows. Dad had died suddenly more than ten years ago when I was preparing for my medical entrance test. I lost my father when I needed him the most. This became a trend in my life. People would disappear from my life when I felt I needed them badly. Dad was an engineer, a hardworking man but he was too sensitive and straightforward. He was unhappy with his job at the Secretariat. It showed on his face when he came home from his office every day. I also heard him tell Ma every day that he hated the inefficiency, the laziness, the petty politicking and the corruption. I guess it was something like that that killed him, not the hypertension everyone thought was the reason for his untimely death.

Ma looked at me but I was silent, lost in the thoughts of my wonderful father who loved me more than anyone else in the world. He had a lot of pet names for me and never refused me anything. I had asked him once if I could become a truck driver and he had said I could, an indulgent smile on his face.

‘You are so stubborn,’ she said, ‘just like him.’ She looked up at dad’s black and white photograph on the wall.

When dad was alive she would always say, ‘Why aren’t you like your father? See how organized he is, see how he goes out to meet his friends whereas you sit at home reading those useless film magazines all day.’ But soon after his death her refrain changed. She said I was just like my dad every time I refused something or was being ornery.

But of course, Ma was right. I was like dad in many ways. I even looked like him except for the hair. I was tall, thin and plain looking. She said I talked like him, walked like him, and even sneezed like him, loud and continuously. I also inherited his love for books, his depression, his sinusitis and maybe, his sense of humor. But I wasn’t clever like him or so gregarious. I was dumb which maybe one reason why I had so few friends. Just two, in fact, Mani and Venu.

Mani was now in the United States doing an advanced journalism course and Venu, my dumb friend, was working as an Agricultural Officer in the Government. It was the same job I was trying to avoid doing.

‘I’ll look at it later. I have to go back to the agency now,’ I told mom and held out the envelope. But she did not take it. She gave me an accusing stare as I threw it back on the dining table. Mom had the kind of look mothers in movies give to grown up sons who aren’t obeying their dictum to either get married or get a decent job.

‘This is the last time I am going to repeat it. I’ll never do that job.’ I said, and stepped out of the house.

It was the last thing I wanted to do, work for the Government. I wish I had paid the postman the money he had asked for handing over the envelopes to me personally. But I did not want to bribe the jerk. He made it appear as if he was doing me a favor by giving me the envelopes at the post office itself. Whereas I thought I was doing him a favor avoiding him the long trudge to our house to deliver the letter. He wanted two hundred rupees, the oily creep. Of course, I did not pay him. I wouldn’t do any such thing.

‘Wait until it stops raining, you will catch a cold,’ Ma called out after me as I rode out in the drizzle. I turned back to see her standing in the doorway, the envelope in her hand, looking forlorn."

Friday, June 25, 2010

Scene: 2

I am travelling again and will be travelling for another week. I haven't found time to sit and write a decent post so I am posting the second scene from my book. I had posted the first scene sometime in January.

"‘Why haven’t you opened it yet?’ Ma asked, coming out of the kitchen holding a vessel. She scooped rice from it into my plate.

When I did not answer she nudged the envelope closer towards me. I did not even want to touch it. I did not want to have anything to do with it I wanted to tell her. When I pushed it away she sighed and emptied the vessel of rice into my plate. The rice formed a mound that appeared like a small steaming white mountain just inches away from the tip.of my nose.

‘Do you know,’ Ma said, not meeting my eye, ‘I won’t die until you get a decent job and marry a sweet girl?’ She poured the entire fish curry from the vessel she had cooked it in into my plate. That was her way of telling me that she would go hungry. Ma did such things when she sulked.

‘Really?’ I said, trying to be sarcastic. ‘I didn’t know that,’ I said and pushed the envelope away again, out of my sight. Ma moved it back to its old position, right under the rim of the plate.

‘I am just twenty five years old while you are not even sixty,’ I said, ‘you still have a long life ahead. I don’t have any plans either of a decent job, or of marrying a sweet girl,’ I retorted, ‘so don’t worry about dying.’

‘Why can’t you be smart like everyone and grab the opportunity that’s fallen in your lap?’ Ma asked, picking up the envelope and waving it at me. ‘For God’s sake, it is a safe and secure job!’ She slapped it back on the table.

‘How many times have I told you that I can never dream of a more exciting and satisfying job than the one I am doing now?’ I asked, glaring at her and trying not to get irritated.

‘I don’t understand why you insist on doing that lousy job. You’re there in the office from nine in the morning until late in the night. For all that effort you don’t even get three thousand rupees,’ she said, standing in the doorway of the kitchen. The storm had begun. Now she would go on every minute of her waking day and also in the night, about how ungrateful I was, about how dumb I was not to accept the secure job, and about how I was wasting my time daydreaming and so on.

I did not know how to make her understand that with my present job as a copywriter in an advertising agency I was on my way to realize my dream. I wanted to get into the movies as a scriptwriter and graduate towards directing if I was lucky. Copywriting was hard work but it was one easy route to scriptwriting I thought. It also had a touch of glamour to it that the other job would never give me. But how do I explain all that to my innocent Ma?

I looked again at the envelope on the table after she disappeared into the kitchen. It wasn’t even a proper envelope. It was one crudely fashioned out of brown paper of a rough variety. I could see the dark stains where the flap on the back was sealed with homemade gum. There were half a dozen of those kinds of stamps which no one would even look at, much less collect them. They had also got my name wrong. It was spelt as ‘Suneel Kumar’ instead of ‘Sunil Kumar.’ I was tempted to tear up the stupid thing into a million pieces. "

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Sage Advice

The problem with sporting a beard is that it not only affects the appearance it also affects perceptions. In some people (like me) a beard lends an undeserving gravity to the face making one look like someone one really isn’t. I know it from experience. People have told me that they thought I was a scientist or even a professor judging from my appearance. I am routinely mistaken for someone of the thinking class who spend more time thinking than doing anything concrete. To the world most of the bearded ones appear like they know the solutions to a lot of problems. That must have been what someone in Suryapet recently thought about me when he approached me for advice.

The hotel where I eat regularly is a rented one and one day the hotel owner introduced me to the landlord who happened to work in the municipality. Whenever we meet he greets me with a great deal of respect that I feel I do not deserve. The other day I noticed him waiting for me to finish dinner. I felt he had some work with me. I am in a post where I am not in a position to help anybody in anyway. However after I finished my dinner he approached me in that manner subordinates in government service do when meeting officers. He said he wanted some advice, which was something I give a great deal to farmers whether they need it or not. It is my job. So I thought he wanted to know which crop he should sow or something of that sort. Or maybe he wanted to know about some government rule. But I was completely taken aback at his question.

The landlord wanted to know if it was advisable to have a cell tower atop his building. He asked if the cell tower had any effect on people’s health. Since my knowledge of anything connected with cell phones, computers and the like is rather limited I wondered what to tell him. I had read somewhere that the radiation from cell phone towers is dangerous to one’s health. Only the other day I had watched a breathless anchor on a national news channel go around with some kind of a measuring device in her hand and shriek how dangerously high the radiation levels were in places near cell phone towers. The next day one of the local Telugu channels did an exactly similar program which is what our Telugu channels are rather good at. They don’t have a single original program and always copy ideas from the national channels. Anyway, all that watching of television came in handy when it was time to open my mouth and dispense advice to the waiting landlord.

I told him the same thing- that the radiation from cell phone towers is dangerous. He pondered for a while and thanked me. I was relieved he did not ask me further questions about how dangerous it was and which part of the body the radiation affected. I had the answer ready though and was ready to tell him it was the brain that got affected. The next morning he appeared while I was having breakfast. I thought he would tell me that I was wrong. But he told me following my advice he had refused a mobile phone company’s offer to set up a tower on the terrace of his building. He told me they had offered to pay him a rent of five thousand rupees per month. But he was willing to forego the rent rather than face the dangers.

I felt he was suitably impressed by my advice because he thanked me profusely like I had saved his family’s life. I had not expected him to take it so seriously considering five thousand rupees is a lot of money in these areas. It was one of the few instances when someone had taken my advice very seriously maybe because of the beard.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Keep Eating

‘Khate Raho’ (Keep Eating) is something we needn’t be reminded to do because we Hyderabadis are at it all the time. So much so that it can be called the Hyderabadi’s unofficial motto. I saw this hoarding outside Baseraa in Secunderabad the other day while out shopping.

I guess no other city in the country has so many hotels and eating joints per square kilometer than does Hyderabad. Of course, when it comes to fancy restaurants Jubilee Hills takes the cake because that’s where those with big homes, big cars, big appetites and bigger wallets live. This side of the city we have to make do with Paradise, Garden, Alfa, Niagara and such joints where no one bothers which car you drove in and how big it is as long as you eat your biryani without the help of forks and spoons.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Andaman Revisited

As a matter of fact it isn’t unusual for me to be in such a situation- of being bodily present at one place and mentally elsewhere. It happens to me all the time not that I am in the Government. I’m in the office at Suryapet and the mind is at home in Hyderabad. I’m at home in Hyderabad and the mind is in some bookstore. I’m sitting before the laptop writing this in Suryapet and the mind is in Iowa wondering if the writing workshops have begun. But from May to July every year for the past four years since 2006 while physically I am in Hyderabad and hereabouts, mentally I’m in the Andamans. After my three months (87 days to be exact) stay in the Andamans nothing occupies my mind as much as the memories of my travels there. I had thought that as the time goes by I would gradually forget, bit by bit, whatever I saw or experienced there but curiously, the memories haven’t dimmed one bit, maybe because I have done something about them.

There’s a sort of journal I maintained while I was at Port Blair in 2006 from May to July end. This I take out religiously on the last day of April, the day I got on the plane to Port Blair. After I begin reading the journal I go back and relive each day, if not each moment, that I spent at Port Blair, Wandoor, Rangat, Mayabunder, Diglipur, Kalipur, Havelock, Neil Island and other places I can’t ever seem to forget. And of course, there are the numerous pictures I took that instantly refresh my memory whenever I look at them. They bring back the way the sand at the beach at Karmatang felt between the toes, the way the wind tore through the trees at Kalipur, and the magical feeling one gets when watching the sunrise over the sea.

There are some moments, some places and some people I can never forget. I can never forget the two lonely nights I spent at the resort at Kalipur listening to the wind howling outside and make a racquet rustling the leaves of the tall trees. I can not also forget the feeling of being lost in time standing on the desolate beach at Neil Island. I cannot also forget my room mates Rahul and Shamik and of course, all the people at the NGO where I was a ‘media fellow’ for three months. There were also fearful moments like the ten minutes or so that I spent waltzing with a huge, ferocious Doberman and expecting to die any moment. This experience I have managed to put in my novel, of course, in a different setting.

Everywhere I went, every place I saw made me resolve to come back, this time with the family. Alas, four years have passed and I am yet to make definite plans to go back to all the places in the Andamans. Maybe when my novel finds a publisher I will find the time (and also the money) to make the trip.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Sunday Haul

If not to places like Provence, Tuscany, Bali, Maldives and such places featured in mags like Conde Nast Traveller then I’d really like to go to Angola, Sudan and such places in the African continent. The reason behind such a desire isn’t because I want to disappear from the face of the earth but because what I’ve been reading (or read) about Africa. I’m half way through reading Edward Hoagland’s ‘African Calliope: A Journey to the Sudan’ that I had picked up at Abids sometime in March this year. Like all the travel books on Africa I’ve read so far, exactly two in fact, Hoagland too writes about the deprived lives of the people of Sudan, the numerous tribes with names like Dinkas, Nuer, Shilluk, Baris, Madis, Lotukos, Langos, Laconos, Logirs, Dongotonas, Kakwas, Acholis and so on. He writes about the lives these tribals lead in a land ravaged by internecine wars, famine and pestilence. There’s also mention of the wars and coups that always seem to be going on. He wrote the book sometime in the mid-seventies and now forty years later things are still worse if the Darfur horror is taken as an example. Hoagland has a style that is very different from other travel writers. After I finish this book I am going to look out for his other travel book- ‘Notes from the Century Before’ that I hope I will find soon.

Incidentally war was the major theme of another travel book on Africa that I finished reading just a couple of weeks ago- Ryszard Kapuscinski’s ‘Another Day of Life.’ It is a slim book but manages to say a great deal about the civil war in Angola. Funny how it falls on some travel writers to write about the ugly realities in countries while in travel magazines only the good gets written about. In any piece on Africa in travel magazines one gets to read only about the Big Five or the wildlife parks. By reading the travel magazines and travel books I am getting a hang or a complete picture of the actual ground realities in Africa. Not that it is going to take me anywhere but still it doesn’t hurt to know such things.

I do not remember now if Angola was one of the places he had been to but Paul Theroux in ‘Dark Star Safari’ too writes about his travels in Africa especially Malawi where he was in the Peace Corps teaching English. ‘Dark Star Safari’ was my introduction to Theroux and his compelling style of writing. Luckily the British Library in Hyderabad where I found DSS also had ‘Kingdom by the Sea’ that I read immediately afterwards and became hooked to Paul Theroux’s writings. Later on I found second hand copies of this book at Abids. Last Sunday I found yet another copy of ‘Kingdom by the Sea’ and got it for just twenty rupees. It was a decent enough copy that I plan to give to a friend. That was the only book I bought at Abids this Sunday though I saw a few titles worth picking up. I saw an almost new copy of Marquez’s ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ but didn’t buy it. Similarly I did not pick up Elmore Leonard’s ‘Touch’ with pictures of the stars who played roles in the film of the same name. Though I had decided to buy Louis L’Amour’s books after reading ‘Education of a Wandering Man,’ I did not feel like buying ‘Kilkenny’ that I saw at the same seller who had his other book ‘How the West Was Won.’ But I plan to buy it soon.

Of course there was the ‘Literary Review’ supplement in ‘The Hindu’ which was another highlight of the Sunday. Just about everyone seems to be taking swipes at Adiga nowadays. Smitha Rao in her review of Soumya Bhattacharya’s ‘If I Could Tell You’ has taken a potshot at the award winning writer which is quite funny.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Me and My Roommates

It probably gives one the impression that I live a rather solitary life sans company in my home at Suryapet. It isn’t an entirely lonely existence because I have lots of roommates sharing my living space. Living with me in my house are several representatives from the insect kingdom, a couple of reptiles, birds even (chicken actually) and a few species of the four legged kind. When I am in my office or traveling to villages my roommates stay back and look after my house whether I ask them or not. It helps that I am an entomologist by qualification or it would have been quite difficult to be in the company of so many insects especially of the eight legged variety- the spiders.

I share my house with so many spiders that sometimes I get scared that one fine morning I’d wake up and find I’ve turned into Spiderman (which isn’t such a bad thing considering how happy my kid would be to find his dad doing feats.) The spiders are everywhere, in all corners in the two rooms of my house, the bathroom and under the tables, shelves and even behind doors. With so many spiders for company one thing that occupies a large chunk of my morning time is clearing cobwebs that seem to appear overnight. I leave my sandals in a corner after my evening walk and a couple of hours later getting ready to go out for dinner I find a spider has already spun a web inside and having its own dinner.

After spiders my other roommates include two different armies of ants. One set, the red ants, marches all over the floor and the walls during the day time. The other set of black ants takes over in the night. Since I sleep on a mat on the floor I’m regularly woken up by a couple of persistent ants trying to explore the insides of my ears. Try as I might I cannot locate the spot from where these ants come from. Though I do not have any eatables in my room the ants turn up quite regularly everyday. Of course there are mosquitoes though it is not mosquito season now. I keep them at bay using mosquito repellants Vidya Balan so cheerfully advertises on television. If only these models in insect repellants ads know how poisonous the products are the smiles would vanish from their faces in a flash.

Mercifully I don’t have flies and rats for company. Suryapet is the cleanest municipality in the state so it means there are almost no flies. Recently I discovered that two large lizards had moved in while I was away at Shimla. They scurry across the walls for no reason. It is rather disconcerting to find a large, dark lizard clinging to the ceiling directly above you which is the first thing I see on opening my eyes in the morning. Since they seem reluctant to move out I can only tolerate them and hope they don’t have any ideas of dropping on my head without warning.

A hen wanders into my room every morning, coming in through one door and going out of another. I’m sitting reading and the hen doesn’t even bother but looks around before stepping out. The owner has acquired a black puppy with a bent ear and a drooping tail. It too drops in at least once a day as if to check out on me. Occasionally a horde of monkeys jumps into the corridor on their way to some other place.

In the villages it is the crowing of a rooster that wakes up the people. In my case the wakeup call happens to originate from a buffalo. The only neighbor of mine I haven’t seen is this buffalo that wakes me up with deep and loud bellows. It doesn’t calm down until it is given its food. These are my roommates and my neighbors who make my stay at Suryapet enjoyable in their own unique way.

Friday, June 04, 2010

The Sunrise Effect

The city I live in, Hyderabad, has a few irresistible attractions- the Charminar, Golconda Fort, Irani Chai, myself, Biryani, etc., etc. Though not technically in Hyderabad, the Shamshabad airport could also be called an attraction considering the number of people who are going gaga over it. But what not many know is that watching the sun rise over the placid waters of the Hussain Sagar lake from the Necklace Road is one thing worth getting up early in the morning. Not many really know it if the crowd that I see at Necklace Road on Sunday mornings once a month is anything to go by. We Hyderabadis aren’t the sort to jump out of bed at five in the morning for anything least of all watch the sunrise though we don’t mind staying up until unearthly hours in the night to watch cricket. Anyway I am glad I am one of the few Hyderabadis who know how stress busting it is being at Necklace Roads early in the morning.

The one or one and half hours that I spend at Necklace Road and later at Adarsh CafĂ© sipping Irani chai while reading the Sunday papers is very soothing to the nerves and very, very therapeutic. So soothing that for a couple of hours to half a day after returning from the morning rendezvous I feel almost like a saint especially on the road. I do not get annoyed when a crazed youngster whizzes past me on his bike with its horn blaring. I don’t even feel like bursting a major blood vessel when an autorickshaw driver cuts into my path dangerously and instead I slow down to let him pass and pray he reaches home safely with his and also his passenger’s limbs all intact and in one place.

On normal days I feel like strangulating certain drivers on the spot. But on days I’ve been to Necklace Road I feel like stopping such drivers and in a gentle voice advise them to take out an insurance policy if they cannot help driving fast without a helmet and cannot avoid driving on the wrong side of the road with one hand while the other hand is holding up the cell phone, with the entire family riding pillion. That’s how saintly it makes me feel. In fact I don’t even curse aloud when I drive over a super size pothole and don’t also get the usual murderous thoughts about doing things to the guys responsible for maintaining our roads. In fact, quite surprisingly, I feel sympathetic towards the GHMC engineers because, poor sods, they don’t have enough time to look after such things what with so many channels to watch on TV.

So the next time anyone catches me with a beatific smile on the face they know where I’ve been.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Meetings in Villages

Of the several interesting rural experiences that I have one that is fairly common is that of addressing a gathering of villagers of which more than a quarter are drunk to the gills. This, early in the morning. Anyone would have felt disconcerted in such a situation but I have learnt to welcome such meetings. Any gathering with one fourth of them in high spirits lends itself to an exciting event. It offers the only excitement in such meetings and I actually look forward to such gatherings. The odor of alcohol in the air is enough indication that one can expect a heady time at the meeting. Another thing I have learnt from my rural experiences is that there are people in this part of the world who begin their day not with a cup of tea but with a bottle of country liquor.

I have learnt to spot those who have had a drink before coming to the meeting. It is easy to recognize them. Their eyes are glazed and they give you a peculiar stare as if sizing you up. Of course, once they open their mouths their secret will be out. Not only will the smell be a dead give away their mindless talk is another indication. For some reason the people who have had a drink before coming to the meeting are those who are eager to say something. Their babble begins even before the meeting commences and goes on non-stop until they are driven away, which, I found out can be very difficult. What one does is continue with the meeting ignoring the interruptions. These guys shut up on their own but sometimes such meetings end in interesting ways. Like the one that I had attended the other day.

In villages the meetings are usually held in the open or under a huge tree in the village center or even in cattle sheds like in the accompanying picture. Sometimes someone arranges for a tent overhead for shade. It was under one such tent that I sat under in a village waiting for the farmers to gather. The farmers don’t come in a group. One by one they trickle in and take their seats on the plastic sheet spread on the ground. On that day there weren’t many farmers gathered to listen to us but it was a sizeable crowd numbering about twenty five. Of them at least three were drunk. The youngest was a dark guy wearing a lungi who was already mumbling to himself. After the meeting began he started interrupting the talk. ‘Saar, tell me…’ he would begin. Other farmers tried to make him shut up but he went on about some problem that was common to all. Soon, he got into an argument with another villager. The argument continued on the sides even as the meeting proceeded. Just as we were completing our talk the drunk and the other person got up and began gesticulating angrily at each other. In the blink of an eye they started trading punches and ended up tearing each others’ shirts. We did what the government usually does in such situations, which is, to simply watch the proceedings.

It is quite a disconcerting experience to be at the receiving end of a volley of abuses and taunts from someone you know. But it is an entirely different experience to face a torrent of abuses and angry talk from someone whom you have not seen until that day. This is what many government employees working in the rural areas face quite regularly. The villagers usually have some grouse or the other with the government and they take it out on the nearest available government servant. Of course, their grievance may be genuine but most of them do not know that not every government servant is responsible for their problems.

In the beginning of my career I was unnerved in such situations but I soon learnt that it is best to let the person give vent to his anger. Later on, they come closer to you and talk nicely to you, telling you that you were not the target of his outburst. The other day this is what happened the moment we stepped into the village. The entire team of officials accompanying me was subject to a fusillade of choice abuses from a couple of villagers. They don’t look at you while shouting in a loud voice about the injustice done to them. They usually calm down after sometime. What upsets me is that many people do not understand that not all benefits the government gives to people reach everyone. Only a selected and eligible few get the sops from the government. The only thing I learn from such visits to villages is that there is still a lot the government has to do for the people in the villages. Until then we government folks have to face the music.