Friday, November 1, 2013

     In Ashtown there is a road that runs just parallel to the walls of a part of the factory. It is the only place in the whole town where those who are not employed by the steel plant can come closest to it without really getting in. The road, after taking a sharp turn, runs with the visible slice of the factory on its right for some three minutes of a moderately speeded vehicle. What this section offers up to the view is a stretch of conveyor belt. A completely black arrangement of a wide panel running along the side, possibly to conceal some rusty machinery, and a length of dusty, almost mossy belt around it, conveying its load between two intercepting towers. While passing it one can invariably hear it groaning and creaking – an abandoned creature with its weaknesses out there for everyone to see.

     However, contrary to the poor show which may lead people to falsely believe in the impotency of the steel factory, the town is actually ruled by the phallic supremacy of the tall chimney that is visible from almost anywhere. Unlike the conveyor belt, one cannot be sure of its exact position. So tall and massive it is that it gives the impression of moving with you wherever you go. You know, like the moon or like those freakish eyes of the painting that you sometimes see in a gallery which claims to follow you everywhere with its gaze. This Pater familias Chimney rules along with a few sons and there are the two court eunuchs, neither tall and straight nor completely curvy but somewhere in the middle, the Cooling Towers.

     Taking cue, the families of Ashtown centre around their pater familias – the source of subsistence, existence, gossip and status. Living quarters are assigned according to the position of the microcosmic pater familias in the court of the Ruler. The wives have accepted their fate and regularly fuss to set their schedule to match the five ghoulish hoots that are daily obliged by the factory. 6 o’clock- get up, 8 o’clock- breakfast at the table, 1 o’clock- lunch at the table, 5 o’clock refreshments at the table, 10 o’clock- dinner at the table. Status of the microcosmic pater familias, while makes all the difference elsewhere, hardly ever affects this neat schedule of the wife.

    The Lord Chimney smirks at his good fortune. At the end of the day, letting out a puff of smoke, he lets his gaze travel to the ground below him. My sons to carry on my legacy and my conveyors to feed me  perfect.

     Meanwhile, the huge round furnace with its bellyful of molten wrath conspires with the wind.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

I opened the book to the page I had left last night.

‘Besides, breaking off from the…..’

Ripples around, sucking me in. Viscous glug, glub-glub. Nails and their color, the dust and dusting, bookshelves old and new, books more – less space, two dead insects at the shadowy end of my table, split ends and hair loss, night guards’ gossip, their steel lunchboxes, the impending trip, the dresses to wash-iron-pack, dates, dates, dates, alphanumeric passwords- must have at least one capital letter, ear drops, savings, hospitals, father, mother, sister, god, debates, Eliot- George and Thomas

‘……could boast of travelling in such unmatched luxury.
                Besides, breaking off from the Mistrie firm would inevitably have entailed…….’

Promises, once ambitious dreams that now have become jokes, photograph of group smiling, uneasiness, ‘Reference manual for X and Y’, a journey by train, green fields on both sides, butter muffin, rumblings in the stomach

A call for dinner.

Frustration welled up. That particular page is worn worse than any other. Almost three days now that no progress has been made. As I placed the mark, closed the book at the same place for the fourth time and placed it on the table, I prayed, really prayed that the thought demons won't get to me the next time I try to read. That they would really leave me alone so that there would be no words, no sounds, no smells, no sights, swarming my brain and that I could suck up those black marks on the white page like a starved anteater.

Turning off the light I left the room. I thought I heard a laugh behind me. A snigger. And thought I heard someone speak. Couldn't get the entire thing but thought I caught two words – ‘Alpha Que’.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The boar crossed from side to side

‘Stay. I’ll bring you a plate of those pakoras I prepared’, said Mrs. R.
I was ready to leave. My maths tuition, held at my friend A’s place was over. And I did not like hanging around. I never bothered much about people. As I was about to reassert my need to leave, the house was plunged into darkness. It was six o’clock and power cuts were unusual in Ashtown.
Candles were lit and my attempts at leave-taking were thwarted by the sudden turn of events. I was sitting in the drawing room sofa, with A jabbering at my left ear and Mrs. R pushing the obnoxious smelling pakoras under my nose.  Just then the bell rang.

It was S from the flat above Mrs. R’s. S was in the same class as A and me and even in the minimal light we could make out his ashen face and hear his loud breathing.

‘Aunty, lock all… doors…windows. There are four or five Outlaws on the…, roaming the streets of Ashtown. This couple from the first lane…. taking their evening walk when one Outlaw asked for the lady’s golden chain… Refused, her throat… slit and her husband… tend his dying wife. Then again another lady…. her dupatta tugged by another Outlaw. The police could not be reached, so everyone is being asked to fend for themselves.’

Stuttering out so much, S rushed off home, making loud sounds on the stairs. As Mrs. R stood dumbfounded with her hand on the open door, only crickets could be heard from the pitch black outside. A shiver ran down my spine. Suddenly coming to life she banged the door shut and got busy locking the windows.

I was worried. Knowing mother’s nature, I was sure she had already left home with a torch-light to fetch me. The thought of her out there with the Outlaws on the prowl gave me cold feet.

The Outlaws were known for a casualness of attitude. They did the most horrible things and all with a sense of fun. There was something very youthful about the way the Outlaws seemed to enjoy their deed to the fullest and then soon after forget about it and move ahead as if it was already old. They could carve a bloody smile simply because they thought you lacked a sense of humour.

Mother finally arrived. Half an hour later. She had heard nothing about it. She listened to the animated retelling of the events and her face registered a shock that made me scared. But we had to leave. My grandparents were at home waiting. My voice croaked at the goodbye.

We reached our apartment. Ours was the first floor flat on the right. It was full moon. Both my grandparents were sitting out on the balcony overlooking the entrance to the apartment.  They laughed aloud in greeting. Mother and I entered, shivering silently.

Inside the doors, we told the elderly couple about the recent happenings. They took it rather lightly. Father joined in. He did not speak much, only smiled a sad smile. The five of us moved to the balcony where moonlight played on the wrinkled face of grandpa as he boisterously talked on.

Suddenly a wild boar ran out from the bush beside our apartment gate and went across into the street. It screamed and suddenly there were other voices also screaming. The boar gave a final screech of pain and then stopped. Mother rushed to the edge and peered out of the balcony. She jumped back and pushed us all inside, whispering urgently, ‘They’re here, they’re here.’

Things suddenly happened in utmost haste. From the corner of my eye I saw a group of five enter the main gate. We had forgotten to latch the door of our flat. Mother and father threw themselves on the door to shut it and latch it. But it was too late. Hurried steps were heard coming up the stairs. The door was being  pushed from outside, I was plastered against the opposite wall between my old folks. I was trembling in fear. And then I caught the first glimpse of an Outlaw’s face.

He was young. Blunt nose. Glittering eyes. A colourful skull cap. The door burst open. Mother and father both fell motionless on either side. The first Outlaw, followed by the rest slowly made their way towards me. All of them wore such colorful dresses. Multicolored drapes and scarves. The leader approached me and looked me in the eye. Then he smiled…

[P.S. This is the first of a two-part nightmare that I had on a winter night. I remember it in vivid detail to this day and the piece above is an exact representation. The only detail that I opted to omit is that in the dream I had recognized the face of the leader. It belonged to Anu Malik.]

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Happy Nursery School

It seems like long ago, probably another life, when mother used to dress her up in red and white checks, white socks and black shoes. On a rain-washed day such as today, father would take her by the hand, with an umbrella colourfully filtering dull grey light. Sometimes when there was a puddle, she would ride in father’s arms, blabbering about school. Finally, on reaching the gates of the small building that was school, she would be excited by the sight of red and white checks running around in the garden and a few bawling their heads off while detaching from their mothers. 

She would smartly bid goodbye and run to her class. Morning assembly would be cancelled today. The wet, slushy grounds were unfit for forty impatient feet. Filling in colour in an apple or turning to a new page of handwriting was exciting. 
Especially when rain is beating an unsteady rhythm outside.

The lunch break brought the smell of boiled eggs, now dewy and stinky with being stuffed into the boxes while still warm. Handkerchiefs. Meant to be dirty. An occasional neighbour would extend a piece of apple or guava as a token of friendship. But some things were to be guarded like dragons guarding castles. Water-bottles, fruity erasers, and tall new pencils. Broken crayons, pencil shavings and torn pages could be traded for friendship. Like apples or guavas.

In winters she would often return, too excited to keep still, with a bright red button tightly enclosed in her fist. It was not from her sweater. Hers were black. She had found it. And she pleaded mother to sew on the bright thing right next to her boring buttons. 

She would have a glowing coal for a heart.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Lantana Camara

As the train shudders into the Ashtown station, there is a typical smell that greets her. A kind of wild flower. Once heard, these had been planted by one ancient Spanish missionary who had brought it from his motherland. She wonders how this place would have looked then… Was the soil still brown. Or had it already turned black?

Her place had a special feel about it during those five days of the month when the entire town gathers in the circular park to celebrate the ‘festival of joy’. What a misnomer, she smiles to herself. In the mornings, the sun shines too bright. The air of ashtown is perpetually heavy with blackness. The sun brings sweat. The blackness sticks. And the sun adds further tan to the already dark faces. The outcome- bright clothes with sooty faces. Hesitant smiles. Eavesdropping ears. And egg-white eyes, flitting, searching, cursing.

The skies are too blue. Flowers are in excess. The sultry heat smothers their delicate smell. What remains is only the stench. The park breeds evil, like distended belly of the street urchin breeds worms. Divinity is restricted to a semicircle of radius five meters. White chalk marks, designs, flowers, fruits, colorful festoons, glittering clothes, ornaments – all within the semi circle. Outside that is a Victorian world. Full of dogs dressed as clowns. Pasted smiles and colored noses. A whisper here, a hug there. A grand opera of disguised dogs.

She hates this season. These five days. For her, they bring the worst out of people.

She wishes if she could fold those five and five hands of the mute deity, like a pair of Chinese fans, and pull her by the now two hands and take her right hand and watch her smile as she ran with her into fields flooded with tall bushes of wild flowers and sit by a river and listen to her tales and breathe in soft, light, fragrant air.

Lantana keeps dogs at bay.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Fragrance of Night....

New books and their smell,
Old flowers and their scent....

            Among hindu bengalis there is a custom of using special flowers for specific occasions. The marigold is used during Saraswati puja, the hibiscus for Kali puja and the sweet 'shiuli' is used during Durga puja. Apart from pujas, the other significant occasions such as marriages, birthdays and others are also assigned specific fragrant flowers.

           Among these flowers, there is one in particular which creates a real disturbance in the senses of a seasoned bengali. It is the 'rajanigandha'. The name literally translates as 'fragrance of the night'. It is typically and abundantly used in marriages. From flower sticks to garlands, a bengali marriage house would bear it's scent in the air for days together.
           Having said this, it would not seem fitting to describe this beautiful, pristine white flower as 'disturbing'. But its potential to meddle with the senses in a decidedly uncomfortable manner comes with a second dimension, it's other function. The rajanigandha is again typically and amply used in hindu funerals.
           To have a flower play such ghastly and horribly opposite roles is sadly comic. Walking into a post-funeral yagna, one may encounter garlands, rajanigandha sticks, just as before but having totally different connotations.
            And it  is this very criteria that makes this flower and its scent a bitter-sweet assault on the senses of every traditionally bred bengali. It makes the flower dramatically alive. In anniversaries, when rajanigandha sticks are brought home by relatives and friends, it brings with it the warmth of love and a promise of nocturnal magic.
But later, much later, when the revelry is done, and friends have left, the rajanigandha sticks standing in a water filled vase on a lonely table in the dark living room diffuses its sad spell all over the house. And while lying in bed eyes fill with tears and hearts grow afraid in anticipation of the doom that the scent spells.

         It makes one nervous to think how a simple flower and its perfume can hold such promise of exuberance while hiding  a lethal gloom behind it....

Friday, December 16, 2011


     Opening and closing her eyes, staring in space. No, not dramatic enough. She looked at the small figurine resting on the narrow ledge of her window-sill. Mother had called it ugly, and she had not dared to seek anyone else's opinion. For all she knew, they may think she was naive.
     It was a small bust. Carved in dull black stone. It's nose was chipped off and the bulbous head had a funny texture. It's ears were elongated. She had dug up the treasure from their garden at the age of eight.
     Everything about it was dear. The sharp, broken edge at the base. And the way it felt on pressing the thumb to it too hard.
     But she knew she had to do something about it now. The fifteen year old treasure will now become her memoir. Her mark. A reminder. That she was here.
     Her father would soon turn sixty, and they would have to move. Leave Ash Town forever. The Black Castle having fed it's servants black smoke for sixty years and making sure that their breath smelt of coal for the rest of their lives, and their fingers made black marks on white linen, let them free for an illusive retirement. So, she had really little time. She would hide the treasure somewhere here. Then, she would return after ten years and seek it.
       She would knock on the door, which ten years ago was her home.
         ' Hello. May I come in? '
         ' Yes. But do I know you? '
         ' Oh you will. '
And then she would bring out the treasure from it's secret place amidst amazed eyes. The news would spread fast, like the evening smoke. And the whole Ash Town will ring with her name. Again.
     The thought brought a smile. And she looked at the bust. But it was so ugly! So ugly! She almost dashed it into a thousand pieces.

Her fingers must never touch black.