Wednesday, 31 December 2014

where do we go now?

I’ve realised that I end up taking stock only at the end of the year when it hits me that I need to change the dates on letters and posts yet again. Just when one gets used to writing 2014, it changes to 15. And so on.

2014 was maddening for me. In good ways and in some very, very bad ways. The beginning of the year was not too great and it went on to become horrific for my family and I when we lost my cousin and his wife on Malaysia Airlines jet MH370. I worked on auto-pilot that month till I was packed off by my mother to Beijing to help with my cousin’s two little boys.

Last night a missing aircraft was found in the Java Sea, which brought back memories of MH370 all over again. I’ve had to accept now that we will never know what happened to my two family members on the flight, along with 237 others. It wasn’t so much the incident itself that pushed me over the edge. It was humanity itself. People, their reactions, their inability to leave it alone instead of pondering the million things which could have happened, it all got to me. And while many people (including ones who barely knew me) were surprisingly thoughtful, many were also surprisingly callous.

The world seems to have moved on, but I don’t think my family ever will. Each time we look at my nephews or hear about their nightmares, their fears or them missing their parents, we will be reminded about what happened, or in this case what could have happened.

While the first half of the year seems to have been dominated by this, the second half brought more changes. The shift to a new city, a new part of the country, was something inevitable that I’d been putting off for a couple of years. The capital always seemed a daunting place, especially to someone from a relatively placid south Indian city.

Delhi has so far been everything that people warned me about, but other things as well. Yes, it’s aggressive and loud, it’s callous, ruthless, does everything it can to make you stronger. But it also has options like no other city. It’s hard to be lazy in Delhi. I’d planned a long break, but somehow, even without really pushing myself to find work, I’d got three job offers within three weeks of moving. And all in a new field (after I’d decided the media didn’t do it for me anymore).

The city always has something going on, and for everyone. For someone who doesn’t like noise and big crowds, even Chennai didn’t have too many options sometimes. But the capital is full of old buildings, beautiful monuments, large green parks, and I’ve found book stores to roam in when I’m bored. Dance performances, rock shows, talks and lectures, you name it and Delhi has it. If I feel like going out, I know I can. And yes, you have the large groups of teenagers and couples everywhere, but it’s not unusual to see some lone rangers doing things on their own. For every action here, there *is* an equal and opposite reaction.

It may not be home yet, it may not have a beach or endless options for a cup of good filter coffee, but I’ve noticed a few things not relating to just the aggressive gun-toting Haryanvis and Punjabis here. While Chennai was placid and laid-back, I’ve realised people there are too inert sometimes. If a boy had arbitrarily reached out for a girl from behind and grabbed her at a party in Delhi, it would not go easily dismissed. Whereas I’ve seen the very same thing happen in Chennai in front of a large group (everyone pretended it didn’t happen, including her male best friend and even me). Peoples’ sense of their own rights is very acute here in Delhi. Women’s safety is a big issue, and hence made a hue and cry about. I find changes in my own behaviour in less than two months here. Even jokes made about women are not as easy to forget as before. In a country full of culture, rich in history, people seem to have forgotten about equality and respect. Not just for the opposite gender, but for humans in general. In that sense Delhi is a lot more accepting of different types of people than Chennai.

If I am likely to stand up for myself or another woman in my hometown, no doubt I will now be classified as a pushy Delhi-ite. But in the capital, I would just be normal. And while I was part of a small group in the ‘unmarried girl in late 20s’ section in my hometown, here I’m just a girl, or a woman, depending on who’s looking. The tendency to colour outside of the lines is much more common in this city, which is something I can definitely get used to.

The year has also taught me a little more about myself. Like all other years, I suppose. It has brought me some surprising friendships and bonds, and has allowed me to let go of some surprisingly unhappy friendships too.

I can’t say I have any regrets. Maybe I could have been more patient with a few people, but I’ve become more attentive to time – whom I give it to, and why.

For the first time perhaps, I have no idea where the next year will take me. Physically, I will be in the same city. But emotionally and mentally, I’m completely unprepared for what’s coming. I’ve seen many people come and go, but only this year did I realise just how everything can change in an instant. With a single phone call or text, lives and paths can be altered forever.

I know I’m tough enough to handle whatever is coming. I just hope I’m accepting enough to manage the joys as well, without asking too many questions or wondering how it could turn to ashes in the future.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

457 Oak Wood Circle

I stood outside the house. 457 Oak Wood Circle. How pretentious did that sound for an Indian home? Did I really want to meet the people inside? What if they were having a get-together? What if they told me to go away? Worse, what if they were having a party and invited me in? What would my family say if they knew where I was?

The air was crisp as I took a deep breath. Fresh and a welcome change from my hometown’s heat and pollution. The house was large from the outside, it looked tastefully done with its manicured garden and ornate black lamps hanging from various ceilings. I didn’t hear any voices – what if they weren’t home.

Answering my question, a figure walked through one of the rooms while switching on the lights. I couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman. Then I heard a dog bark. My heart jumped. Anyone who owns a dog and is good to it has to have a good heart, even if it’s buried somewhere deep. My friend had laughed when I told her that. But I’d always believed it to be true.

So I opened the gate and shut it behind me, as quietly as I could. I walked up the sloping driveway. Another tiny rose garden on my right and two cars before me – a silver small one and a larger red one. Who was the second car for?
I should not judge a book by its cover, I reminded myself. It had happened very often as a child with my mother. She never married. We were constantly judged. You get the gist.

I tried not to think of my mother. Memories from my childhood, adulthood, from her funeral – it was all too much.

I took a deep breath and looked at some of the other houses. The smell was unlike anything I had ever come across. Fresh, clear, leafy, it cleared my head as I breathed it in. If it had a colour, it would be one of those deep orangey-browns, I decided.

The other houses were as perfect as the one I stood in front of. Spacious lawns, big windows, clean cars in the driveway.

I turned around and looked at the door once more before walking up to it. I wiped my palms on my jacket. My heart was beating so hard that I didn’t hear the doorbell when I rang it.

The door was opened by a older woman, dressed neatly in a sari with her hair tied back in a braid. She smiled politely.

“Hi. Can I help you?”

“Does Rahul Wadia live here?”

“Yes. Both of them do.”


“Yes, junior and senior,” she laughed.

I swallowed. “Well, I think I’m here for the senior.”

“You think?”

“I’ve never met him before, so...”

Her eyes grew suspicious. “Who are you?”

“I’m his son.”

I wondered if she was going to let me inside.


All I did that night was watch her.

She was attractive, to say the least. But she was a walking cliché I had never met or expected to meet. She may not have been older than the two girlfriends she’d come with, but the way she carried herself seemed more... mature.

I did not know her name. Yet.

She was in a black and white dress with loose straps, that fitted loosely across her waist. It did not reveal much, but it was enough. Slender legs in flat open-toed slippers, a large purple bag across one shoulder, black and white pearls across a neck and her very visible collar bones. She did not smile often at the man with them, but when she smiled at her friends, it lit up the dark pub.

She drank beer.

I was working that night, so it was distracting me that she was at my table. I wondered who she knew from my office, whether she was already dating one of my male colleagues. I hoped she was not that stupid. I wondered why I had never met her during my six years in the city. Although I had a feeling I already knew the answer. She did not seem the extremely social type.

When I saw a colleague go up to her and throw her arms around her, I heaved a sigh of relief. I'd finally find out who she was.

Merin returned and I tried to ask her if she had called friends to the event, but we got dragged into hosting yet another contest to give away some freebies.

Every minute felt like a year, but finally we wound up at the table reserved by our office. The girl was still there; she had asked a friend to take off her beads for her and was in the process of tying her hair. It took all my will power to stop from asking her not to. Her almost waist-length black locks were part of the reason I could not stop staring at her.

Merin finally introduced me to her, over the loud music and beer in our hands. She smiled politely and was about to walk away when she heard my surname. It turned out she was also from my part of the country.

Fifteen minutes later, when the pub was closing and we were all leaving, my mobile was richer by ten digits.

I stepped out and texted her.

“Hey, this is Daniel. Just thought you could save my number ”. I knew it was cheesy, but it had been a long day.

She did not reply.


All I did that night was watch her. She was so happy. Fiddling with her brand new Canon, clearing dishes from the table, chattering with her roommate and mother, occasionally bending down to kiss her dog on his whiskered cheek and returning to another friend who was teaching her to use the Canon.

It should have felt like I was coming home when I came to her. But I knew in two days she would be gone. To distant lands, beautiful skies, scenic beauty, snow, festivals and state of the art libraries.

My heart broke a little that night, but she just thought I was feeling tired. It broke when she leaned her chin atop my scruffy hair. She probably thought I was too tired to respond, but I felt something die when I felt her. I knew it could be the last time.

I thought of the first few times I saw her – in her black and white dress, in her orange shirt and jeans, in her night shirt and ethnic looking shorts when she was unwell... that was when her facade first cracked, when I bought her medicines and chicken soup, forgetting she was a vegetarian.

I memorised her face that night, as she bent over the camera. With her grey framed spectacles, black t-shirt and red pajamas. The orange slippers she slipped on when she dropped me home. I inhaled the scent of her as I sat beside her in the car, as she drummed her fingers on the steering wheel along to a song on the radio.

It took everything in my power not to hold her when she left me, as she was sitting in the driver’s seat, brows furrowed as she looked into the rear view mirror. And when she said, “See you on Saturday, dollface,” I tried not to crack and tell her I would not be there to say goodbye.

It was raining that night, but I did not notice. I had to handle another deluge.

Day sleeper

Scratch, scratch, scratch.

I tried hard but couldn’t reach the itch on my back. Right smack in the middle of my back. Smack.

I growled. A passer-by gave me a strange look and walked away faster. Who cared. Why was he walking the streets that late at night anyway? I growled louder as if to affirm that yes, indeed, I was violent and it was better to walk away from me. I was too bothered by the itch to care.

I tried scratching my back against the wall. Didn’t work. I tried rolling on the pavement. Didn’t work. I gave up, panting, sweating profusely from my pink tongue. Pink. Bubblegum pink. They said it was pink. I don’t know. I can’t tell pink from brown. They said I was brown too. Like Jignesh’s skin. Like everybody’s skin. Not white, not black but deep, dark brown. Not that I knew the difference.

I could smell Jignesh. I waited. And waited. I was going to try scratching myself on the pavement again when I heard his steps. His smell grew stronger. I heard my name. “Murukku!” I broke into a run. I liked running. It made me sweat. And then I could see my tongue hanging from my mouth like an extra appendage. My pink tongue. So-called pink.

I ran and ran and ran. And then ran some more. I began to tire. I couldn’t run too far. He knew that I had only three legs. Where the hell was he? I smelt a million things. Not that it made a difference. Only Jignesh did at that moment, so I kept running in the direction of his smell.

His smell grew stronger as he got closer. I finally found him.

He looked happy to see me. I was overwhelmed with relief. I rubbed myself on his knee, as if I was asking him to scratch my back. He didn’t get the hint. Humans could be so dense sometimes. Ok, so I loved him, ok so he was my so-called master but that wasn’t more important than my persistent itch.

I gave up subtlety. I rolled around madly on the road, whining, growling and making funny noises. He got it. Relief. He scratched my back. More relief. Bliss.

Ah! So now that the emergency is over I suppose I can fill you in on my story. Not that it makes a difference to me but well, I should be polite. After all, a master is known by the dog he keeps.

I say poor because he is poor. Not out of sympathy. He is poor, so I am poor too. We are a pair or poor, brown animals. I say animal because he is one. All humans are animals. They just refuse to acknowledge the fact. Poor brown animals who think they’re smarter than other animals. I’ve heard they vary in colour and that there are many, many more. Not that it made a difference to me.

It was time for some food. I knew the road I was on. Mudaliar Road. I had no idea why these animals bothered naming roads. But then I figured that’s how they identified it. Anyway, I could not read. But I could smell. I could smell which roads had the food, which ones had just trash. This one always smelt good. There was always the strong stench of meat coming from Mudaliar Road. The other dogs knew this too. This wasn’t my turf so I always got their left-overs from the left-overs. If there were any.

There were this time. I silently thanked the people who cooked too much that week. The scratching had made me hungry.

I rummaged around the smelly bin and found what smelled so wonderful. Old dosa and biriyani. Heaven. I loved this street. People would cook too much wonderful food and throw away most of it. What a shame. But it fed us, those who walked the street. The street walkers, the rag pickers, the crows and a whole lot of other animals. It was the essence of our existence.

Even poor Jignesh. He was often reduced to eating out of the same bins that his dog ate from. That would be a blow to most human egos. Most. But it didn’t matter to Jignesh. He was so poor that he couldn’t even afford an ego. It didn’t really make a difference to him. Only one thing did seem to make a difference to him.


He was the only one who stayed at home when it was bright and came out when it was dark. They made fun of him. The other dogs. They mocked poor Jignesh. Not that it made a difference. They were the ones who got beaten up. Not me.

I feasted on the remains of the remnants of the biriyani. It wasn’t enough. I trotted off in search of smellier bins. You see, the smellier a bin is, the nicer the food in it is. It is not the other way around, as the humans think. The stronger the stench from these bins is, the faster they run away from them. They have this strange habit of closing their nose tight with their fingers when they near these bins. I wondered what it would be like to hold your own nose. Anyway, so we survived on food from the bins. So did Jignesh sometimes. I told you he was different.

I couldn’t smell him nearby. I guess he had gone to finish his work. Yes he did ‘work’. He picked up trash. I generally accompanied him and ate what I liked but I was preoccupied today. The itch had disturbed me. I needed some good smelly food in my system before I got back to normal.

Then I saw him. Or rather, he saw me. And he was not alone. No, I’m not talking about Jignesh. I was not supposed to be there. But I hadn’t expected him to be there either. I decided to be friendly. If I ran he would catch up with me and tear me apart. He came towards me, his paws not making the slightest noise even at this time of the night when everything was silent. Or should I say morning. The others followed, obviously following his lead. I knew he recognized me. They all did. I didn’t belong to any pack, I was a nobody. I was the loner, the wounded soldier, the perfect catch for any of them.

He sniffed at me. I sniffed and wagged my tail. He looked at me. I made sure I did not blink. Then he lifted up his head and barked. It was a half bark, half howl. At least that is what I thought it was. Maybe only leaders of packs did that so their bark-howls were different. The rest followed suit. I did too. I liked howling. I did it very rarely. It was fun.
He stopped. He walked away. Relief, for the second time that night. He walked towards the pavement. I knew what was coming. Up went his hind leg.

Marking territory is an art. Some dogs did it with flair. Some just looked like mediocre dogs trying to be the leader of a pack. This one appeared to be in the former category. He seemed dangerous. He let me go this time. I didn’t know if he would allow it to happen again though. I did not know if he was a friend or an enemy. Hence I placed him in the dangerous ‘neither friend nor enemy’ category.

I knew that I only had one friend. Jignesh. I went looking for him. I thought of when he had first found me. On the pavement, very late at night, many hours after I was left for dead. After the dogs had ravaged my body, at least a hundred pairs of legs walked past me. The crows were waiting on nearby trees, waiting for me to stop breathing. But only Jignesh picked me up. He took care of me and gave me everything he could. I was nearly dead, yet he took me home and helped me heal completely. Well, almost completely. My right hind-leg never healed properly.

The city was a cold one. I did not like it. It didn’t seem to care. For anybody. Whether it had two legs, four legs or even three. I wanted to go away with Jignesh. But he wouldn’t leave. He always hid when the sun came out. So I remained there. I didn’t know if people really managed to live in the city. We all just existed there. If some dog chewed your leg off you would die of pain or die trying to drag yourself off to safety. There was only one Jignesh after all and he had done his good deed already. He had already saved one life.

There was also a strong possibility of getting squashed by a vehicle. Squashed like a bug. I’d seen it happen. The animal’s insides would be outside. And nobody but the scavengers gave it any respect. They respected it. They cleaned up the mess.

That was one stench even I did not like. The ‘squashed bug’ stench.

I nearly got run over once; I didn’t want to die like that. Squashed like a bug. I did not want to die at all. I had nearly died once earlier as well, that was enough for me. I was saved by Jignesh the first time. A three-legged stray dog made no difference to the truck that mowed it down. Or the person behind the wheel. But I made a difference to Jignesh. And so I accompanied him in the dark hut during the day from then on.

Being in the city during the day was great sometimes. I missed it. I missed the light. But I realised after a while that I liked it better at night. Silence. I could hear things that weren’t heard otherwise. I saw things that weren’t seen otherwise. And so during the day I was inside the little dark hut. I spent it with Jignesh.

The hut was by the side of the city river. People washed clothes in the river, urinated in it, threw their garbage in it, bathed in it, played in it... They seemed to do everything they could in that greenish-brown muck. We isolated ourselves. Our hut was as far away from the other huts as possible. Of course that didn’t stop others from coming and poking their noses around. In a slum you can never be completely alone. It was obvious that Jignesh wanted to be alone, yet they would not leave him alone. Children would come and barge through the door, hurl insults and even stones at him and leave without closing the door. They would just open the door and leave, with Jignesh trembling and shielding himself from the light in the darkest, coldest corner of the small enclosed area.

I was a smart dog. But in the beginning I was stumped. I figured something must have happened a long time ago. Something which led to Jignesh avoiding the sunlight. But he never spoke about it. I had resigned myself to remaining in the dark when it came to Jignesh’s fear of daylight. At least I knew he would never go anywhere. He was too scared. I had seen him cower when the door burst open. I would try nudging it shut. At first he seemed surprised that I tried to understand his reaction to the light. I wondered why. How stupid did people think we animals were? Maybe he was surprised because nobody else understood it or tried to help him but a so-called ‘animal’ could.

In the beginning, I could not understand what made him act so crazy when it came to something as simple and essential as daylight. But then I sensed his fear, I could smell it. I saw his extreme reactions to the light – the shivering, the fits he would have, the sweating. I heard his cries when the door would burst open. Then I just tried to help in every way that I could. After a point of time I could sense his hunger, some of his essential needs. I would forage for food and bring back something for him if I sensed he was hungry. And I kept the door shut always. Always.

I remember the only time he ever fell ill. I did not know what was happening, but he smelt different. His smell got weaker and he smelt sour. He would shiver and then sweat, even though there was no light in the hut. I brought him newspaper to cover himself when he shivered. I stole bottles of anything I could find. Water mostly. And then I found a shop where those sour smelling people went. They always left with bottles or paper packets. I stole some of those bottles. ‘Medicine’ they called it. I had no idea what it was; I only hoped it would help Jignesh. I dug up the mud around the hut and stuffed it into cracks I found peeping out from under the door and walls. It prevented light from creeping through. I was scared then. But he got better. And then so did I.

How long would it take for Jignesh to get over his fear? How long would it be before he tried to live instead of merely existing? I didn’t even know if he had any family. I didn’t know if that would make much of a difference though

I continued walking through the streets, aimlessly. That’s when I found Mirchi. Quite by accident.

Mirchi was black with a white patch on her long, pointed tail. I didn’t know what friends were but perhaps you could call her my friend. We got along well. I was the only male dog who seemed uninterested in her and she was the only dog I liked. Perfect. She never liked any of the dogs who were interested in her. She just had their puppies.

She pretended to be cold and detached when in fact she had a heart of gold. She had saved me many a time from the jaws of death. Literally. Being an outsider, most dogs thought they had reason enough to kill me. Many had tried. Many had nearly succeeded. Mirchi had rescued me most of those times. Of course she was detached too. She would disappear suddenly for long stretches and reappear as suddenly. She always left her puppies to survive on their own and she never stuck to any particular male.

One would think that most female street dogs were like that. Not true. Leaders of packs did not like sharing. Mirchi was a different case altogether. I suppose she was an outsider too in a way. Like me. But she was hardly ever alone. She was often with her ‘men’ or puppies. This time she was alone, though.

I never asked where she went. I didn’t want answers and she didn’t like questions either. Perfect.

We ran in circles around each other. Detached and alienated we were, but I was happy to see her. I had fun with her…Running across different nieghbourhoods, eating to our hearts’ content. Then I saw that the sun would come up soon. I knew Jignesh would want to get back before... Well, before the sun rose.

I heard Jignesh’s whistle and a distant yell. ‘Murukku!’ I ran. With a limp of course. But I still ran. Mirchi knew about my strange life as a night creature. She never asked questions either.

I used to get bored. I never needed much sleep. Sometimes I would think to myself, why can’t I go out, and I used to slip out while Jignesh slept. I don’t know why I felt guilty about it. It was not as though he had imposed his schedules upon me. He never minded if I left during the day. That day I was bored. I decided to go hunt for Mirchi.

I found her. She was being harassed by some dog I didn’t know. I watched from a distance. It wasn’t long before she got rid of him. We did our usual crazy things after that. Stopping traffic, stealing food from vendors, that sort of thing.

I lost track of time. It was around noon before I realised I should be back in the hut with Jignesh. So I raced back as fast as I could to my ‘master’. I stopped running only when I could see the hut clearly. My tail stopped wagging. The door was open. I went inside careful not to open the door more. But Jignesh was not there.

I looked for him. For days. I went everywhere I could, went to every place I had ever been with him. I asked for help from other dogs. Some laughed, some helped. I couldn’t understand what had happened. Did he finally get better? Why didn’t he take me with him? Did he die? Did he get hurt because I left him alone? But he managed to survive before I was around. I left him only for a little while. The questions and the guilt slowly ate me up from inside. I had let him down.

I never saw him again.

Later I heard from Mirchi that he had died. She had found out from one of the other slum dogs. They were laughing about it; about how it should have happened earlier and how the crows ate him up. I never knew for sure. I checked at the bridge where they said he might be. The Indira Nagar Bridge. But he was not there. I found part of his slipper. Nothing else remained. No sign of him. The smell of him had nearly been wiped entirely from what was left of his slipper too.

I took it home and kept it where he used to sit during the day. The house was soon taken over by other people. I was thrown out and whatever few belongings Jignesh had were left on the side of the road. I did not take anything. I didn’t need to.

Some part of me still thinks that he is alive, but I’ll never know for sure. So I’ll just keep looking.


It was the smallest big toe I had ever seen.

That was the first thing I noticed as I was picking up the milk packet.

Crooked toes with veins running like highways and by lanes on a map. Jagged, irregular nails – chipped and twisted.

I stood up, slowly, to bowlegs and thin knees. The kneecap, visible and twitching. They were that thin.

A wrinkled cloth, dripping wet, covered his bony waist that supported a sunken stomach – bare. The water trickled down and into the wrinkles across his stomach. They ran along his ribs, this way and that and cascaded down like a Feng-shui waterfall.

His chest was wet, frail with extended and prominent collarbones that held his bony shoulders up.

Bent back. Arms, bent, that ran down to his long and thin fingers – crooked and shivering. The water ran down along his veins, gathered at his fingertips and awaited gravity.

He saw me seeing him and into him with his twinkling big eyes. The water slid along the wrinkles on his forehead down to his high cheekbones and seemed to form a pool in the hollow of his cheeks. They were that hollow.

His shivers made the water hide down into his thick pedestrian-crossing moustache. The water emerged to line his blackened, thin lips and moved down to his most prominent feature. His jutting and bony chin before the end of which the water stopped… for a bit. To choose which way to take to move on.

That was Madurai – my ‘paalkaaran’.

* * *

With the unmistakable swipe of his ‘veshti’ round his hip and into a knot, holding it tight, Madurai swung the door open.

Madurai – My ‘paalkaaran’.
Barista seemed cold. Aloof.

He shivered at the gust of freezing air. It was cold inside. Already bent at the back, he huddled in. Feeling cold and lost.

Barista – 1. Madurai – Nil.

Today was Match day. The day of the Battle.

Barista beckoned like an adversary’s “Va Da Dai” with its tongue curled downwards and in.

“Yes Sir, how may I help you?” the boy in brown asked as if his mouth was filled with coffee beans.

“Aaaa…. Hmmm.”

Madurai didn’t know English.

Barista – 2. Madurai – Nil.

Already all eyes were on him. All around. All eyes. The tension was mounting.

“We have Café Latte, Espresso, Mocha, Mocha Fizz, Café Italiano, Brazil Berry, Raqhwa, Black Coffee, Espresso Café, Café Margarita, Fizz Italiano, Black… Smoothie… Cooo… ffff…eeee…”

Madurai’s head spun. He was numb. The crowd, all around, waited. Holding their breaths and coffee mugs in mid-air.

“Chudaana Filter Degree Kaapi, Shtanga, Chakarai kami.”

“Uhm… Sorry Sir. I am afraid we don’t have that, Sir. But I can…”

“HmmH… Washt!”

Madurai turned back with a flourish, swung the door open the other way and walked out. Proud.

Barista was stunned.

Perfect Three-pointer shot from nowhere.

Barista – 2. Madurai – 3.