Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Russian old man

There's something surreal about coincidences, like an intriguing splash of crimson on a painting that makes you believe that's not an accident but is an orchestrated event, a sign, an omen. It starts when you wake up every morning a second before the alarm goes off, leave your house to find the same auto driver on the road with his trademark vermillion, watch the same sights on your way to the hospital, only to reach there and find the watchman collect his first glass of tea EVERY single morning as you walk past those doors. Feels like you are stuck in the same day and are living it over and over again ... until you settle in your cabin, with electrodes stuck on your back listening to the stories of Nurse Rosakutty.

Of course, as you must have guessed, Rosakutty is probably not her real name. I just like to call her that. I wouldn't be able to tell you if the name would suit her either as you see, I have never seen her. But I know enough to meet her entire family and have an affable tea time conversation - for every morning, she would sit in the cabin next to mine and narrate in her imitable shrill voice, every single event of even the most trivial consequence to her fellow nurses, interspersed with an equally shrill laughter. Sitting there, I could share her anxiety over her daughter's oratorical competition the day before, and her relief the day after, her husband's temper and her neighbours nagging. And I forever wonder if I could do something to make her life better - probably meet her daughter sometime and tell her how proud her mom is about her.

It's something about being hospitalized that suddenly shrinks your entire world into a cabin and a lone, dull view from a window that you forever try to reach out, break through and believe anything is possible 'out there in the real world'

And one day, she stopped coming.

He had a way of talking that you would immediately attribute to someone who studied arts in one of those christian colleges back in the forties and fifties, and has seen life from behind his impeccably pressed shirts and trousers for over half a century. Someone who never forgets his daily walks in the morning, writes letters to the editor in 'The Hindu' and speaks in a tone that demands attention. He was not a man of many words - he quietly listened to the instructions the nurse gave him, settled down in his bed and soon sunk under the same blanket of silence that I spend my mornings under.

Looking back, I am not sure whether I missed Rosakutty's stories that day. It must have been like sitting next to a fountain for hours and suddenly realising the void around when it stops - a feeling that's neither relief, nor panic but an emptiness that accompanies silence.

The next day, I could hear the old man coming in and settling down in his cabin. But in a couple of minutes, I could hear the words clearly delivered in perfect diction.

"GROHOLSKY embraced Liza, kept kissing one after another all her little fingers with their bitten pink nails, and laid her on the couch covered with cheap velvet."

I am by no means an authority but there're very few things that are written to be read, as is Russian prose. And of all russian authors, if one had to choose a writer's work for his leisurely hours at tea, it must be Anton Chekov. Such is my admiration for the author that you will not be surprised that I realized right in the first few lines that it was one of Chekov's earliest stories - 'A living Chattel'. I smiled to my pillow, kissed my luck and sat there in pindrop silence listening to him read. By the end of the morning, he was done with the story and I could hear him pack his bags and leave. Unfortunately, I was still under a mesh of wires to be able to go thank him personally for making my day.

And since then, every day I was treated with a new story. So many times, I wished to interrupt him to applaud, appreciate, share an anectode or request for a favorite story. But I found it extremely disrespectful to interrupt him while he's reading. Soon, it was a pact between us that I would continue to enjoy his stories provided I don't disturb him during his reading sessions.

I have for long tried remembering the details of the day it all ended. But try as much as I might, the details remain sketchy. I have a feeling that he was reading the "Grasshopper" but I can be wrong. But somewhere in the middle of the story, he paused longer than a breath. As I waited for him continue, I heard him call out in a distinctly shaky voice.

"Hello, can you hear me?"

I was not sure whether he was talking to me. So, I remained quiet and waited for him to end the conversation. But he continued to call out, each time his voice getting louder and shakier than before. I realized that he might indeed be talking to me. Strangely, I felt offended and even mildly irritated - he had broken the pact and I didn't see why he wanted to induldge in a conversation and that too, right in the middle of story. I buried my face in the pillow and waited for him continue. After a few more persistent attempts, he fell silent. A couple of minutes later, I could hear him leave.

As much as I wanted to stop him, I was still angry at him for having broken the pact. I then deemed it fit that I should emphasize upon him the clauses of the arrangement so that it would never happen again. I decided that I will indeed have a conversation with him tomorrow, thank him for his efforts so far but make it clear that we abide the pact. Tomorrow dawned, and I settled in my cabin rehearsing my lines.

It was only an hour later that I realized that he wasn't going to come. I wanted to call out for him, in case he was waiting quietly in the cabin for me to initiate the conversation. I didn't know what to call him and decided to call him the 'Russian old man'. Soon the nurses arrived - I asked them about the Russian old man who reads out chekov's stories. They said they didn't know any one like that and worse still, they said there was never an old man in the adjacent cabin. I found it ridiculous and told them so. I could see that they were trying hard to suppress a giggle. Suddenly, it stuck that they were lying to prove me a fool, an idiot. I didn't want to cry and let them know that they have had their victory. I turned away and started drawing figures on the wall that my mother taught me. I hoped they could go to the other side of the wall and tell the old man I am sorry. I realized, he was indeed reading The Grasshopper the other day. I could even remember the line he stopped reading ....

"Dymov!" she called aloud, "Dymov!" She wanted to explain to him that it had been a mistake, that all was not lost, that life might still be beautiful and happy, that he was an extraordinary, rare, great man, and that she would all her life worship him and bow down in homage and holy awe before him. . . .

But now it was all too late.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Chronicles of Nariyal*

What happened was the stuff the befits serious art cinema - An overworked, disillusioned software engineer, caught in the rot of material bliss, fights with his conscience on an especially sleepless night (caused by gastric than moral issues) and resolves to return to his roots; decides to go back to his family home in a sleepy little town in kerala after (about) half a dozen years.

The names are revised, the contact list refreshed, numbers punched and stored (and mapped to mental images, stories and current affairs - fodder for "how is the little wart in your toe" talks over coffee). Tickets checked on land, rail and air and (against all hopes and prayers) found available. Itenerary checked and rechecked with parents and the local astrologer. And armed with a week's schedule, rapidex's best selling "learn malayalam over an overnight bus journey" and a digital camera, I set out to criss cross the district of cannanore and around.
No one's exactly sure who named me. It's more an anonymous voice that forged the destinies of my self and my name together till death does us apart. But one reason that could have gone in favor of the name is my half namesake in the fairer sex. She's called Rathi (which in the waft of coconut oil transforms into Rethi with an especially nascent flavor) . And in these all years, she's among those very few people who I have a relationship that goes beyond the ties of blood; someone I can have a real conversations with, about issues that matter to me; someone I truly, genuinely love listening to. She has the unique distinction to be among the chosen few who find their place in both my brother's and my list of favorite relatives (talk about chalk and cheese).

Why am I telling you all this? Because, she deserves special mention in the present context of my trip. Uthara is a three month wonder, my most recent niece and a toothless fairy who has a darling for a mom. And I was curious to see her in flesh and blood, hoping that the apple never falls far from the tree. It hasn't.
Family etiquette (which includes gift buying, small talk and table manners) is a very tough deal. "A 5 year old gets a tom and jerry game. The current middle school fad in the north part of kerala are the cricket stats cards. Girls prefer dresses. Babies look good in pink. In case of doubt, buy sweets. Maha lacto is not cool anymore (Was it ever!). Never volunteer to take the (plantain) leaf off the table (in case of close relatives). Always volunteer to take the leaf off the table (in case of distant relatives)" And this whole argument about how much do we know a person (in the orbit of relatives we have no idea how we are related to)? Do we know them enough to go meet them? to sit and have coffee? Lunch perhaps? Stay overnight? Phew!
I am going to write a book now, for I know the perfect secret to break the ice with relatives. Forget the diapers for toddlers, the tom and jerry and the packet cake (a speciality of cannanore). Bring on the Digital camera baby! Everyone, I mean EVERYONE, loves being on the camera. And to see how they look in the snap, as soon as it is taken is like the icing on the cake. And that's where sony's digital camera comes in. From the most reticent to the most vivacious, from the most elderly to less than an year olds, it's amusing watching them getting ready, and bringing out that flashing this-is-how-I-look-best smile on their faces.

And kids, there's nothing lovlier than watching them opening up, and pampering you with their little acts of love [grandma's affection is a close second]. You know you have made the cut when they start showing you their karate costumes, their notebooks (and the miraculously get your attention to the occasional v.goods) and slip into your rooms in the early hours of the morning (when the mothers scream to wake them up) and snuggle by your side under the special blanket you get.
And you always thought, such places are in a time-warp where nothing changes or ages. Where edifices and the people who inhabit them remain the same across the axes of time for that's how you remember them. And then you grow up, get busy, travel all around and forget how it feels like to climb those trees again, and walk on those cluttered pathways through paddy fields. And one fine day you are swept back and you realize that nothing's spared by the winds of change. The houses have either been painted afresh or left to creak and crack. The people have aged, lost hair, gained wrinkles. Kids have grown up, have a vocabulary, can express themselves. Some have flown away, defiant and independent. What are left are faint traces of places you remember and faces you can recollect.

You also realize how much you have grown up. In the last six years, I have traveled right till the other end of the country and then made my way to the countries I never dreamt of seeing, speaking dialects I still don't understand. And I have survived. But those back home are not sure whether I can make it to my uncle's house an hour away in a land that speaks my mother tongue. Coz for them, I am still the gawkish, absent-minded, bookish teenager who will anyday prefer to retire into a room with a book (which I admit I did, but VERY rarely - TWICE!). The kids look at me like a cartoon character whose stories have been fed to them since infancy ("Eat this or I will leave you with Rathish Chettan" or "If you don't do this, you will also start looking like Rathish maman")

And there sitting through those uncomfortable silences, you realize it's not just the language (damn those rapidex courses!). It's also that you have drifted away to other lands, other endeavours that don't hold the interest of people you "belong" to. Talking to them is surfing channels in a foreign country. You flip along first looking for that common channel (BBC) and settle onto harmless stuff like weather, politics and daily news. You soon get bored, flip to other topics you either don't understand or are not interested in and finally, a white noise fills the room. A monotonous drone. Pause. Silence.

But amidst all these are those few conversations, those few faces you wanted to see so badly, those little glances kids give you when they think you are not noticing just as you walk away for another half dozen years and this feeling of belonging somewhere (that's truly precious to a wanderer like me) that make it all worthwhile!

* Written between the 29th and 31st of december 2005.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Unconsoled* - A tribute

It is difficult to pick a moment and carve it in gold as the split second when it all changed - but if I have to pick the moment when I understood how much I loved her, it has to be now - when I see her laugh for the last lame joke, how her lips curved even before she understood the joke, and a second later I notice the joke dawn on her, first in her eyes that widen a trifle and then glide to her nostrills and then to her lips which by now frame a well aligned set of beautiful teeth. She rocks back and forth, holding her stomach, the hair carefully tucked behind her ears drawing a dark line now across her face. She stops suddenly and in the bluish gleam of the TV that fills the room, I catch her expression - there's a half smile on her face as if she read my mind. She snuggles between my face and shoulder and gives a half moan that is a question, a statement, an exclaimation and a sigh at the sametime (an impossibility accomplished only by a woman)

She continues to laugh, and intersperses them with words - which in a sane world will amount to gibberish - and I sit there holding her, watching our entire life playing itself before my eyes. Suddenly, it was probably something she said, I feel I have been here before and we have had this same conversation before. I faintly remember that it ended in an argument in the end. The whole memory seems a blur but real enough not to be a dream or a deja vu. However hard I try, the details slip me by a whisker, and lying there I was getting increasingly frustrated at my inability in not being able to remember the exact moment.

I am not sure how long I spent trying to remember the moment - but when I came out of my reverie it was already beginning to dawn outside. The red curtains were silhouetted with a crimson streak as if on fire. Suddenly I realized that I had a whole day waiting in front me and that I haven't had a wink of slip. As soon as that realization dawned, I felt weighed under a heavy pall of fatigue and stress. I try to make a mental itinerary of the things that I have to do but was too tired to even think and before the curtains caught fire, I was fast asleep.

By the time I was awake, it was dusk. The house was empty and the last rays of sun were on their way out. The TV was switched off, and the house was dusted. For a moment, I was scared if I had slept through the whole day. I looked around for her, straining to hear any sound signalling her presence in the house. Suddenly, it didn't matter. I opened the door and braced the chill evening wind, working out a foggy idea of where I have to go. I had to be at the rehearsal, I remembered but didn't have a clue how I could reached there on time. And after what seemed like eternity, the brown doors of the lift opened and an empty chamber invited me. As soon as I got in, I noticed something I had never noticed before. The mirror on the rear wall was a door leading where, I knew not. The lift stopped suddenly and a very preoccupied elderly gentleman got in. He had had a bitter fight with his daughter, Jenny and had sworn never to get back to the house again. And just before he got into the lift, he looked back at the door to see whether his grandson was there at the door asking him to come back. This was not the first time such a thing has happened. As a matter of fact, much to the discomfort of everyone this has become a regular occurence these days. But the old man knew this would never happen again - his grandson was not there at the door this time. Even he's lost faith in the old man and now, he had no reason to fight. I could see that he wanted to talk to me about all this but I was afraid - knowledge of someone's life is not much information as much as it's a responsibility. Suddenly, in a desperate attempt to shake off the reverie, he smiled at me and asked me where I had to go. I told him that I had to be at the school for my rehearsal but had no clue how to reach there. He beamed and said that I could take the glass door in the lift and that would take me faster to the school.

I took his words (for I had no other choice) and opened the door - For a moment, it was pitch dark and then slowly I could see that there was a road that was getting better with every step. And soon vehicles streamed in from all directions and the road was jam packed. I hopped into a bus and found myself an empty seat. I peered out of the window and realized I was very close to the school, and that I was very close to the cinema hall where I was supposed to meet Kalyani later this week. The roads were surprisingly busy for such a time of the day and the traffic was inching slowly till my eyes could reach. Suddenly, I felt someone tap on my shoulder and realized it was Arun who was sitting next to me. I also remembered that his house warming ceremony was to happen sometime this week in the little town where I grew up. He looked sullen and without greetings or warnings, started talking. The ceremony was canceled he said, because everyone refused to come. I wanted to explain to him how I was too held up to make it. But he wouldn't want to hear. He turned his face to the sprawling buildings and pretended I wasn't there which, right then, suited me fine.

After about an hour of silence, he started talking again - about the old days in school, about the fun we had and about how all of us are now in various corners of the world like strangers bound only by a flimsy thread of memory. He gave the same cold stare again, marking me as a chief culprit for the situation. I didn't reply because I knew I was to blame. I did try once to bring all of us together. But with time my efforts fizzled out and I knew I didn't try hard enough. I wanted to explain him all this but before I could, I realized he had left the bus and disappeared between the busy streets.

In a couple of minutes, the whole bus was empty and I was the lone one sitting there. The driver was patiently waiting for me to get out, smiling all the while an hoping the ride was not very inconvenient. After an entire day of misses, that little gesture felt like a kiss of first rain. I thanked him profusely, opened the rickety blue gates and went in. There under the century old tree, I could see everyone sitting and working on their parts. I was late but no one seemed to be angry about it. Kalyani's ammachi came and told me it was ok and that it happens to everyone once in a while. Probably it was the events of the day, or the kindness of her voice I held her hand and wept like a child. And from the corner of the eye, I could see kalyani and ramu sitting on a red stool and playing their parts with gaiety. It must be a silly joke, but they were laughing about like there was no pain in this world. And that moment, it all felt ok, like the world was cleansed forever of malaise and sorrow. Right then, kalyani looked up at me and smiled and Ramu waved at me with his script. I wiped my tears, waved back and started walking towards them, for the first time being completely sure that all is going to be fine from now.

*The Unconsoled - 1995 (Fiction) - Kazuo Ishiguro