Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Does the rest of the world think of desi junta as idiots? Maybe they do, and maybe they don't, but check out the lone desi-sounding name in the comments to this blog post.
So many of the comments desi junta make in public forums are of roughly the same grammatical and intellectual calibre. Why oh why?

Monday, November 21, 2005

Some young cousins of mine were in town last week, and I was sent on a mission of buying a 'good board game' for them. Thus it was that I entered the toy section of Crossword after several years.
To backtrack just a little, I did enter a toy store in Bangalore a couple of months back - the famouse Landmark, in the Forum multiplex, and was *very* impressed by the range of toys there. Reminded me forcefully of how long ago my 'childhood days' were, and how much things have changed since then. Even saw Sandman Graphic Novels there - humongously priced, but still, available. Perhaps they'll have a clearance sale at lower prices someday ;).
But that day I didn't notice the board games section. In all probability it was better than Crossword. For now I only had Crossword, though.
Let me get the facts out of the way - I ended up buying a game called Reversi, AKA Othello, which you could play online here if you like.
But before I bought it, I read through the blurbs of the games on sale. People who follow such things, or who spent time in the US in the 80s, will find the games familiar : The Game of Life, Mastermind, Battleship, Monopoly, Avalanche, Cluedo, Trivial Pursuit, Funny Pony, Any number of cartoon-character-themed-throw-dice-and-advance games, Guess Who?, Connect 4, Twister, Scotland Yard, Snakes and Ladders, Ludo.
Now here's the funny thing. Except for the last two of that list (which are traditional games here), all of the rest of these games are basically Milton-Bradley and Mattel products, produced under license here in India. None of these are new games produced here, none of them are brainchilds (brainchildren?) of Indians. Yes, there are a few desi games there too : Picnic comes to mind. It's the worst sort of throw-dice-and-advance game. Just by looking at the packaging and concept, a 5-year-old kid could separate the desi games and the phoren games.
There's a further rider to this. Note the name 'Funny Pony' which I slipped in there. Frankly, I hadn't heard of this one before, so I took it out and looked at it carefully. Here's a desi website selling the same thing. The packaging rang a bell, and I came back home and Googled. Here's the relevant result. I got this list of the 'Top 100' games for kids in the 80s in the US from BoingBoing, and on the page above, at number 84, is a game called 'Buckaroo!'. See the resemblance to 'Funny Pony'? Except the packaging of 'Funny Pony' removes all wild west references and turns a plastic mule into a plastic pony. So basically, they're repackaging 2nd-rate games from the 80s and selling them here now. If you go through the complete list of 100 and then stroll over to Crossword, you'll find many more of the games available there.

Why must the stores be full of old 80s board games from the US? Why are we so despicably bad at creating and marketing our own childrens' games? I wouldn't mind the newest games from there being available here - that would mean an open market. But these games - so many of them are outdated and second-rate, it's ridiculous. Even the computer games section in Crossword is more up-to-date, atleast in the mainstream actioners - they have Quake 4, for example.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Wow, it’s been nearly 6 months since I last blogged. Huge numbers of things have happened since then, and I’d like to talk about them now.
For the past 8-odd years, I’ve been working for a private software company in Pune. The ones who know my company’s name already are the only ones who need to ;). Well, it’s been a long time there and I finally decided I need to do something with my life. I couldn’t imagine myself as just a software engineer at 40.
So I quit. I’ve set up as a software consultant now, and I already have a couple of projects to work on, so I’m comfortably set up. But I didn’t quit primarily to do that. I quit because I want to write.
Readers of this blog will have noticed that I was writing like mad around the beginning of this year. Work pressures, however, put paid to that particular activity and I’ve had to slacken my pace since then. This consultancy thing is one of the things I’m doing to pick it up again. Like that story about the rocks in the jar, I want to turn my writing into one of the bigger rocks around which everything else fits.
Here’s hoping the writer’s block goes away now that I’m out the office.
And so, back to our regularly scheduled programming...

Recently caught the promos of the new Dev Anand movie on TV, and it reminded me of a birthday my father had, several years ago, that involved Dev Anand. Well, almost. [close up of my face, fade out...]

Dad had inaugurated a training session for new folks at his company a few days back. In introducing himself, he mentioned that he liked old Hindi movies in general and Dev Anand in particular. Since a major portion of the people in the company happened to be there, this bit of trivia became a well known fact there.

Three days later was Dad’s birthday. I was thinking of what present to get him, and finally, all out of ideas, decided on sending him a bouquet at his office address.

At the florists, I selected the bouquet. He handed me a blank card to fill up, to accompany the bouquet. It would be fun to fill up a prank message on the card, so I wrote, "Happy Birthday to my biggest fan, from Dev Anand." I of course was not aware of the training session speech.

So anyway, the delivery boy went up to the office and asked for my Dad. The receptionist glanced at the card that was with the bouquet and did a double take. She directed the boy to keep the bouquet there; a guard would take it to Dad’s office. The bouquet sat at the reception desk for maybe half an hour while the guard came back from his lunch break. I have no idea how many people saw it there. Even one person, of the right kind, is enough to spread this kind of information :).

When the guard delivered the bouquet to Dad’s office, he looked at the card, recognized my handwriting immediately, and asked the guard to put it in on a side table.

A few minutes later, a colleague came in, ostensibly to ask Dad about some trivial thing. Every few seconds, he’d glance at the large bouquet in the corner. Finally, he gave in and asked Dad, "Is it your birthday today?"

"So... did Dev Anand really send you that bouquet?"

Dad here played his cards right, and offhandedly replied, "I guess so – that’s what the card says."

"Er... may I see it?" The guy went over and looked at the card. A flush came over his face. He hurriedly went out; on his way he bumped into another person who was coming in.

Dad estimates he had more than thirty people drop in that day. Most of them were reporting trivial things, or else asking for Dad’s opinion on some report or the other. All of them "happened to notice" the bouquet and casually asked about it.

That isn’t the end of the story. Last month Dad happened to be at a conference where he met an ex-colleague, who now works in another company. Said ex-colleague was accompanied by his boss. By way of introducing Dad, the e-c said, "... and, sir, he’s a personal friend of Dev Anand!"

The Legend continues...

Friday, June 03, 2005

Yet another story of mine, published on Adbhut. Ah, Dinker, I don't know what I'd do without you :)

On a more serious note, this particular story is an entirely new direction for me. It's a subject I've never attempted before, and as far as I know it hasn't been taken up by anyone else in English, either. Would appreciate comments.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Isaac Asimov's bibliography usually talks of how he sold his first story to an SF magazine in his teenage years. Charles Dickens started off writing for magazines, as did Ray Bradbury. Almost every well known writer tends to get a few stories published, takes heart from the response he gets, and goes on to writer bigger, better stuff.

End of Fairytale. Go to a magazine stall in India and browse through the magazines. I challenge you to find a publication that contains more than a token two-page short story by an up-and-coming writer. Look through the so-called Literary sections of the newspapers. Try to find a place where a person who fancies himself a writer can get his stuff published. Nothing. Zero. Zip. I happened to ask this question to a reporter of the IE a few days back: "I write. Does IE publish any fiction?" She looked thoughtful for a bit. Then, wanting to be kind, said, "You can try sending it to <el-cheapo-supplement-that-I-hadn't-even-heard-of/>, it comes out once a month and sometimes prints stories if they're smaller than 1000 words." Thank you.

Hang on - you need to go back and insert a word in the preceding paragraph: "English". The "English" magazines and newspapers don't print fiction. Because if you happen to read the Sakal, or Gujarat Samachar, or even Aaj Ka Anand, you will by now be composing a scathing reply to me about being myopic and all that. My mom's read several proper novels, serialized into chapters in the Gujarat Samachar. Most prominent Marathi writers have at some time been featured in the Marathi magazines.

So why this imbalance when it comes to English media? I remember when I was a kid, there were English magazines which printed some good stuff - Mirror, Illustrated Weekly. Now, there's only the Reader's Digest ( I think - it's been a while since I got it.)

Dinker and I had a phone conversation on this topic the other day. For the few visitors to this blog who don't know yet, Dinker runs a web magazine specialized in Indian Fantastic Fiction, called Adbhut. And we got so riled up about this problem that we thought of starting up a magazine on our
own - say something to collect the best submissions on Adbhut every six months and print it in mag form. There is enough good material floating around the Blogosphere, to begin with, to fill up a decent-sized mag - and I'm sure most bloggers would be interested in getting published.

Someone has to do it, anyway...why not us?

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Time for a change, people! I'd gotten sick of my old blog template, and was meaning to change it anyway. The lure of having people comment on my stories finally got me to editing the settings, and thence to updating the template...
Now that I've taken such pains (I had to press FIVE WHOLE buttons, and even a cut-n-paste!), I'm waiting for the deluge of appreciative comments about my stories. Or not.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Obvious Method #34 for showing off [A.K.A The Book Survey Meme]

Finally, I put together the answers for the survey which Ramanand filled up and then passed on to me. The gestation period was long and terrible. Almost all the answers here have changed several times during this course, and I'll try to put in the older answers as well (up to reasonable limits of course).

1. You’re stuck inside Fahrenheit 451! which book do you want to be?

It's been a while since I read F-451. But from what I remember of that plot, I'm supposed to choose a book that I feel is worth preserving, worth being handed down to future generations, worth being saved from the 'Firemen'. This was, frankly, the easiest question in this set to answer.

I want to save the 'Purush Stotram' and the 'Kenopanishad'. This is not a 'Miss World' type answer - I've actually read Chinmayanandji's commentaries of these books, and probably would want to 'be' the commentaries as well. Both are thankfully short hymns/books, and these two books, put together, have been the ones that influenced and supported me in troubled times. I've tried to take the funda from them as a starting point and logically explain my world-view in a little blog, in case anyone's interested.

Not the answer anyone was expecting, I know. :)

2. Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

Boy, have I ever!

Hi-fi Answer:
Once you think about it, every crush I've had was on a fictional character, especially when I was enamoured of a real person. The perception I had of the real-life crush's character was created within my own mind. It was this fictional perception I had the crush on. It probably had nothing to do with her real nature.

Miss World Answer:
Mina Harker, from Dracula. [Personally, I detest that female. She's supposed to be goody-two-shoes, inspirational, feminine-yet-strong, etc. But her so-called inspirational speeches turn my stomach. Read the original Dracula to see what I mean.]

The Answer(s) the world has been waiting to hear:

(i) I second JR's answer : Betty, from Archie Comics. They must not be drawing Veronica correctly - she's gotta be much more attractive than she looks if Archie's so taken with her, instead of Betty.

(ii) The first answer that jumped into my mind : Kamla, from Ruskin Bond's A Love of Long Ago. This is one of my favourite stories of his. A relevant excerpt:

She was always on the move – flitting about on the veranda, running errands of no consequence, dancing on the steps, singing on the rooftop as she hung out the family washing. Only once was she still. That was when we met on the steps in the dark and I stole a kiss, a sweet phantom kiss. She was very still then, very close, a butterfly drawing out nectar, and then she broke away from me and ran away laughing.

(iii) Phoebe Pyncheon, from The House of Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Wonderful, cheerful, pretty, the life of the dreary Pyncheon House. Who could not fall in love with her?

Somebody, at all events, was passing from the farthest interior of the omnibus towards its entrance. A gentleman alighted; but it was only to offer his hand to a young girl whose slender figure, nowise needing such assistance, now lightly descended the steps, and made an airy little jump from the final one to the sidewalk. She rewarded her cavalier with a smile, the cheery glow of which was seen reflected on his own face as he reentered the vehicle. The girl then turned towards the House of the Seven Gables, to the door of which, meanwhile,--not the shop-door, but the antique portal,--the omnibus-man had carried a light trunk and a bandbox.

...The young girl, so fresh, so unconventional, and yet so orderly and obedient to common rules, as you at once recognized her to be, was widely in contrast, at that moment, with everything about her. The sordid and ugly luxuriance of gigantic weeds that grew in the angle of the house, and the heavy projection that overshadowed her, and the time-worn framework of the door,--none of these things belonged to her sphere. But, even as a ray of sunshine, fall into what dismal place it may, instantaneously creates for itself a propriety in being there, so did it seem altogether fit that the girl should be standing at the threshold.

(iv) Anna Quentin, from Under the Net by Iris Murdoch. I was so inspired by a chapter in this book that I wrote a copycat story in the Pawar Guest House series. Excerpt from the original chapter:

There was no doubt that it was Anna. As I looked at her, her face seemed suddenly seemed radiant, like a saint’s face in a picture, and all the surrounding faces were darkened. I could not imagine why I had not seen her at once. For a moment I stared, paralyzed; then I began to try to fight my way out. But it was absolutely impossible. ...There was nothing for it but to wait for the end of the fireworks. I pressed my hand against my heart, which was trying to start out of me with its beating, and I riveted my eyes upon Anna.

... Anna was finding it quite hard to pick her way down. She paused halfway and, with an unutterably graceful and characteristic gesture which I remembered well, gathered her skirt from behind and continued her descent.

(v) Sanjana Kapoor's character, from Hero Hiralal. I forgot her characters name from the movie, but I was so taken by that movie that I went around in a daze for a week. This is back when I was in school.

(vi) Winnie Cooper, from The Wonder Years. I know, I know. But I too was a kid when I started watching WY.

The last four entries here show up a suspicious characteristic : I tend to fall in love with females who are describing adoringly by the medium/narrator. But then, how else to make them desirable to the reader?

3. The last book you bought is:

This answer has changed like crazy over the past two weeks since I was passed the baton. Some of my past answers, in reverse chronological order:

As of Today afternoon :
- The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury
- All the King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren
- A Deadly Shade of Gold, by John MacDonald
- Arrowsmith, by Sinclair Lewis
- A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole

As of Tuesday Afternoon :
- After the Fall, by Arthur Miller
A casual glance through the pages yields a wonderful quote. The narrator says: "I do not know how to blame with confidence."

As of Saturday Afternoon :
- A Man Lay Dead, by Ngaio Marsh [Strictly speaking, purchased for a cousin]
- Faster, by James Gleick
- Stories, by Doris Lessing
- One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

As of last Saturday :
- In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote
- An Instance of the Fingerpost, by Iain Pears
- The Postman, by David Brin
- Under the Net, by Iris Murdoch

Let me clarify that this crazy influx is because of an excellent book exhibition going on in Pune (At Mahatma Phule Museum, for those interested) which is going to end on Sunday. I don't usually buy at this speed. (Yeah, right!)

4. The last book you read:

Again, this field has been changing rapidly in the last two weeks.

As of yesterday morning :
- A Man Lay Dead, by Ngaio Marsh. Not recommended as an introduction to this writer. It was her first book, and the Agatha Christie influence is apparent. The murder even takes place at a weekend party, during a game called 'Murders'!

As of Monday :
- Swami and friends by R.K.Narayan. There's nothing I can add here for this one :)

As of Friday :
- The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West : I was not overly impressed.

As of last Wednesday :
- In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote : Ok-ok. But one can make out that Capote would be brilliant as a fiction writer.

5. What are you currently reading?

- Stories, by Doris Lessing. This is a collection of her (non-Africa-related) stories. The three that I've read so far were good. Recommended reading for anyone who liked The Golden Notebook. For some odd reason, this collection is out of print.

- The Act of Creation, by Arthur Koestler. Amazing study of how creativity works. Take a look at the interesting division of creativity he describes on the first page - It's on the Amazon site. Just a few chapters into this and already I've bored three people with the ideas I got from it. :)

6. Five books you would take to a deserted island:

- Gravity's Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon. Dense, dense, wonderfully dense book. The prose is poetry, the language is amazing. And, I haven't finished it yet - Couldn't handle it at the time. This is the only book that has defeated me by its dense prose - will have another go once I'm there.

- The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson. I know there isn't any such book yet, but I'm sure there will be by the time I start preparing for this island.

- The Bhagavad Gita, I guess. The message it has requires a lifetime to understand and incorporate. Thousands of satisfied readers over the ages can't be wrong ;).

- The CMM Implementation manuals. Because I'll need lots of useless paper for starting up bonfires, for -er- personal hygiene, and other such purposes. This requires paper that I have absolutely no guilt about trashing. So I guess this doesn't actually count here.

- One or two of the following, depending on the mood : One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, On the Road, 1984, Pale Fire.

- The Stories of Ray Bradbury. Something that takes away loneliness, that leaves you admiring it's language and fluidity, that can be read and reread any number of times.

As an aside : I once was actually stuck on a desert island with 4 books. Metaphorically of course. In my first year of college, I had exactly four non-CS books on my shelf, which I read and reread until I almost had them by heart. These were Ringworld, by Larry Niven, 'Salem's Lot by Stephen King, The House of Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

7. Who are you going to pass this stick to and why?

There are very few acquaintances left on the blogosphere who haven't already answered this questionnaire. This is as much a result of the meme being popular as of my acquaintances being sparse. Still, doing the best I can.

- Srihari: I have no doubt this is going to have him thinking in a totally alien direction. Go for it, Hari! :)

- Aditya Singh: Ditto. Ady Singh, time to flex new muscles!

- Dinker: Although he hasn't a blog per se, he puts up plenty of writing on his own website. Chal beta Dinker, shuru ho jaa.

- And that is it. I am ashamed to say, this section is the least populated of all the questions here. I have more fictional *crushes* than I have real *acquaintances*!

[Update #1] Dinker is currently relocating to India - so it'll be a long time before we see his entry.

[Update #2] I've found another guinea pi... er.. FRIEND, I meant FRIEND, who has a blog and is interested in filling out this survey. Please welcome : Rohinton Daruwala, my old friend and new blogger, who trawls the net extensively for interesting online fantasy fiction and who will list the good stuff on his blog.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

On Dinker's suggestion, wrote an essay about Science Fiction in India. It appears in this month's issue of Suggestions/comments invited.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

I was watching Hum Aapke Hain Koun last night – for maybe the fifth time. Its wonderful for a certain kind of depression, when you get all caught up in the complicated business of life, when everything you do or not do has half a dozen reason attached to it, HAHK is a big relief. Saw it when I was in college, liked it then, too. HAHK talks about a big business-type family – it has references to people setting up huge factories and starting industries. But none of the characters, when they come home, seem the least bit worried about their work. The focus of the movie is on the personal relationships of all these people, and somehow other responsibilities, or past lives, or occasional visitors, don’t seem to interfere at all.

Me, somehow I’m always struggling to balance ten dozen things going on my mind all the time, and usually not succeeding. When you read in the newspapers about these young prodigies who made it big, or who achieved whatever feat, the article always makes it seem as if they had decent blocks of uninterrupted time to do their stuff in. Dunno how they found that time. Right now as I write this : Mom’s feeling under the weather; I need to prepare for another quiz; the multithreading algorithm of the project I’m on needs revising, the ache to find a good circle of friends gnaws at me, as always; there are three books at home which I’m halfway through; any number of incomplete writing projects, and two blogs, beckon; my marriage is on my entire family’s mind; the decision on whether I want to work in a products company needs to be made; how am I going to lose weight??? ; How do I pay back the loans on my head?; God knows what else. You realize of course that this is a gross simplification; each of these thoughts is a multithreaded one in itself, each thread capable of swallowing up days of work. How to separate time for any one of these from all the others? I have no idea, and I suppose no one else does, either; everyone just muddles through, managing as best as he can.

Except Salman Khan in HAHK, of course.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Last evening I was standing by the main gate of my home when I noticed a small green mango, about an inch across, fallen from the big tree in my front lawn.

It was the first of the season. I should've expected it, since the tiny creamish flowers have been dripping droplets of sap onto my bike for the past month. But it was still a kind of shock.

The ending of winter is the real end of the past year; the new mangoes are the first bounty of the new one. Soon they'll be grown enough for Mom to make spicy green pickle from the fallen ones. In two months - after the mango 'eyes' are visible - we'll get our gardener to help with picking the fresh-smelling fruit. We'll want to do this early in the morning, of course, because after 9 or so, it will be too hot to be climbing trees and catching thrown green keri. Then they'll be arranged in rows under my bed, covered with jute gunny bags , with a few onions strategically placed to help them ripen. It is a three-month long new year party, culminating in all of us sick of the taste of Aamras, yet eager for more because, hey, the mangoes are only here for a few months.

The last time the mango tree flowered was two years ago. Life was very different for me then. If I'd known of the many things that would happen before the next time - a terrifying ride through the underbelly of the Indian Justice System among them - I would have been more grateful for the sheer joy of living through days when mango-picking was the main event.
I've mentioned in a previous post the winding-up music I heard, sometime in December. At the time, I thought it was about my long leave from work. But I still hear it. It grows louder every time I pay attention. Something, somehow, is going to happen. My life is due for some kind of change - I feel it in my bones and grow restless for the change, like grass grown yellow and rustling restlessly in May, waiting for the grey clouds from the southwest.

My home is only about 10 years old. I've lived in it for only about 7 years, after I came back from college. Yet the place seems to be old now; a comfortably weathered, rambling sort of place, like your grandfathers home that you go visiting in your summer vacation. The swing on the terrace has gotten rusty and squeaks sometimes; the clotheslines have been chewed through by squirrels and re-knotted. We've buried a pet cat in the back yard; I remember my sister cried that day.

I can imagine it - if my life had been somewhat different, if, as it happens for some, I had met the girl of my dreams in college and gotten married, there would be phantom memories of a little kid toddling around the cracked tiles on the sitout, a little chipped place on the staircase where he threw his toy, a mental image of us flying a kite on the grounds behind the house. The alternate history never happened, of course, and now...

Now in my minds eye I see an image of the house abandoned; all of us moved on to other things - me in some strange part of the world; Dad taken up some interesting position in another country; my brother and sister, too, making their marks in yet another place. The house would then be sold, perhaps, or maybe locked up for one of us to come back; dry mango leaves piling up, hiding the dry withered grass of the front lawn. I would have a photo of it in my bedroom and maybe shudder as I imagine seeing my dog in the front window, the way he barked joyfully when I arrived home.

Or maybe we all will stay here for some time more; the music I hear is merely an elegy for the sad times gone by, a prelude for the glorious new year to come.

I picked up that little green mango, by the way. Smelled it. It smelled... new.

Friday, March 18, 2005

This story (Item number 1 in my list posted Feb 11th) has been lying around my computer for nearly four months. Finally, shubh muhurat aa gaya. :) Part of the reson for the delay was that this was written for a competition, but then it went way above the word limit.

Pawar Guest House: Chapter 8

She said :

Starting a new job is like adjusting to a foreign country. The guest house already had its own hierarchy, its quirks, its in-jokes, and the people working there had the measure of each other to some extent. It took me quite a while to understand all of it. And the job itself kept me busy all day – besides mopping the floor, dusting, and washing the laundry, I was mess cooks helper too. A full days work for a 16-year-old girl like me. Joshi saheb promised that I would be full-time cooking help once he got another maid for cleaning up, but of course that never happened, and I would go to my little shack behind the guest house bone tired every night.

There was a whole row of these shacks along the back of the guest house building. The first one belonged to the cook, Hari – he was the only one who had a shack to himself. Everyone called him Hari kaka. The two peons shared the next shack, and me and Jeejabai, the old washerwoman, slept in the third one. There were two other men in the fourth shack, I never knew much about them because they worked at Joshi Sahebs office on the ground floor. The two other maids, Kamala and Sita, were in the next shack. Kamala was the other kitchen help. The shack after theirs – the last one – always remained closed from the inside. I’d never seen anyone go in, but there was usually a light burning inside in the night when I finished work and prepared to sleep. I asked Jeejabai about it one night. She replied petulantly – because she’d already changed and was ready to fall asleep - “It’s Laxman Rao, the housing society’s night-watchman. He sleeps all through the day and starts his rounds of the streets in the night after we’re asleep.”

As it happened, Kamala fell ill the next day, and I had to do part of her work. Around sunset, Hari kaka called me and handed me a covered plate of food. “Laxman Bhau should be awake by now, give him this food. Just knock at his door and call out that you’ve brought food, otherwise he won’t open up. Remember to go back to his room after half an hour to take the bring back the plate.”

The light was already on in his room, the radiance seeping out through the cracks in the thin wooden walls. It occurred to me that this was the only room with a fluorescent light in it. We were supposed to pay for our bulbs and electricity ourselves, so that meant Laxman Rao made more money than we did.

I knocked at the door, and called out, “I’ve brought dinner!” For a moment, there was no response. I was about to call again when a gruff voice spoke from within, “Wait a minute.” I heard the latch being opened, and the door opened about a foot. A hand reached out, and the voice said, “Give me the plate.” I put the plate in his hand. The hand withdrew and the door slammed shut. It was all done in a few seconds, and I never saw he looked like. The same thing happened when I returned to take the plate.

Jeejabai told me the reason that night for this strange procedure. “Laxman Rao was a schoolteacher in his village. He was caught in a fire in his home, some years back. His face was scarred so badly no one wanted to even look at him. He came here because he’s Hari kaka’s distant cousin. Hari kaka got him his job of night watchman, and the shack here on rent. I’ve seen him when he goes out at night to do his rounds – wears a monkey cap and a scarf summer and winter, so that no one can see his face. He finds the job very convenient, I’ve heard – hardly meets anyone at night, and he does some sort of paper-work early in the morning before going to sleep for the day. He asks me to post some letters for him every now and then. Must be to his village – I cant read, anyway.”

Now in those days I was an eager teenager, just arrived from my village, thirsting to get ahead in the world, learn new things. I was looking around for some night school or vocational courses that I could join. It occurred to me that perhaps Laxman Rao was doing some sort of studying too. He might be able to find me a school. Joshi Saheb wasn’t here the past few weeks, so I had no one else to ask, anyway. Hari kaka had already said he didn’t know of these “bookish” things.

I volunteered again the next evening to take Laxman Rao his food. Kamala didn’t mind anyone doing her work for her, of course. But it didn’t help. I called out to him after he’d taken the plate – he didn’t respond at all. The incident piqued my curiosity. Was he so convinced of his ugliness, so sure he would scare me away?

Well, he was supposed to be the night watchman. That meant he would come out in the night and do his rounds. All I had to do was to stay awake until then.

It was a little after ten o’clock, and Jeejabai was fast asleep. I had nodded off a couple of times, but snapped awake when I heard the sound of his door opening. I hurriedly wrapped a shawl around myself, and went out.

Laxman Rao was a short, heavyset figure. He’d heard me coming out, and began to hurry away to avoid me. But I called after him, “Saheb! Saheb!” The sound startled him and he slowed down a little, and looked back. In the faint glow from the halogen street lights, I could just make out his maroon monkey cap, which hid his entire face except for a narrow opening across his eyes. I caught up with him, panting.

“What is it?” he asked brusquely.

“I need some help.”

“You’re the new kitchen maid, aren’t you?”

“Yes. I studied till 10th standard in my village school, then I had to come here to the city. But I want to study more.”

“So study. What can I do?” But he’d noticed that I didn’t seem afraid of him, so he was talking less brusquely now.

“Jeejabai told me you too do some studying and paperwork every day. I thought you could tell me where I can go to study. I want to join a night school.”

He paused for a moment, studying me. His eyes were deepset, contemplative; one was misshapen because of a scar touching the outer edge and wrinkling the skin. I could see parts of other scars above his eyebrows and just under his eyes.

“There’s a school two streets away. They teach up to the Higher Secondary level and also some vocational courses. I’ve seen students going and coming in the night. I’ll check the times for you, there’s a signboard outside.” His voice sounded rusty, as if he hardly ever spoke. This was probably the longest speech he’d made in a while.

I smiled at him. “Thank you.” He nodded and walked off.

The next evening when I took Laxman Rao his dinner, he took the plate, then held out a slip of paper. “Here. This is the address, and the timings. Go talk to them.” I was a bit disappointed that he hadn’t called me in. “I will. Thank you.”

Hari kaka was unwilling to let me off an hour-and-a-half early; but I promised to finish chopping the vegetables and kneading the dough before I left. The timings of the school matched with my schedule well; I went there at about half past seven, and finished by ten. I’d joined the school about a month into the studies, so I had to sit by myself for an hour after I got back, studying to catch up, eating the leftovers from dinner. It would leave me even more tired than before, but then I couldn’t be a kitchen helper all my life.

The time I got back from school was about the same time Laxman Rao started on his rounds, so I was seeing him more frequently now. I usually just waved to him, said Namaste, and he would respond. He even raised his hand in greeting when he saw me approaching, once or twice.

Jeejabai grew crabby when she found out I was going to be keeping the light on to study till eleven every night. “When do I get to sleep? Cant you find some other place to take your books? As it is, you’re helping me less these days.” This was after I’d been going to the school for a couple of weeks. I couldn’t think of any place to go to. I asked Joshi saheb. He wasn’t too co-operative; as it is, he hadn’t been too enthused by the news that I’d joined this school. I thought of asking Laxman Rao again; he seemed to be the only one who’d liked the idea of me studying.

I kept an eye out for him as I returned from the school. He had just started his rounds, and had reached a few houses away from the guest house. “Namaste!” I said as I reached him. He nodded back.

“Are your studies going well?” He asked.

“Yes, Kaka. I have almost caught up with the course, and the teacher says I am one of the smarter girls in the class.” I paused, then took the plunge. “I – er - wanted your suggestions with something.”

He looked at me curiously.

“Jeejabai is complaining about my studying till late. She says she cant sleep because of the light. If she tells Joshi Saheb, I wont be able to study at all. Could you – er – talk to Hari kaka or someone to let me study in the night?”

“ Yes, of course, you need to study more. But...” The prospect of talking to those people seemed to unnerve him more than anything else. Then his face brightened. “You can study in my room, after I leave. That is...” His hand stole up to his cheek and traced out a scar under the woolen mask. “If you don’t feel awkward about it.”

“Are you sure? I mean, thank you, but wont it be a problem for you? I’ll be in your way.”

“No, no, that is all right. I have an extra key to my lock. Um, I will give it to you tomorrow.”

Jeejabai mentioned casually the next morning that Laxman Rao seemed to be celebrating Diwali early – he was doing some cleaning out of his room, sweeping up a dust storm and he even seemed to have hung out washed sheets to dry.

When I came back from the classes that night, Laxman Rao was standing outside his shack, waiting for me. He fumbled in his pocket when he saw me coming, then pulled out a key on a brass key ring. “Here,” he said, handing it to me. “Study as long as you want, and make sure you lock the door when you leave. Don’t disturb anything.”

But it was obvious that he’d “disturbed” almost everything in the tiny room in preparation for my arrival. A little table was set up next to the bed, ready for me. There was a bigger desk and chair at one corner, which was clumsily covered with an old saree rather than cleaned up. Clumped dust at the corners testified to the long gap between sweepings. He had forgotten to dust the rows of books on the shelves behind the tables.

I smiled to myself as I pulled out my books and prepared to work. It was good to find a friend in this town, good to know there was someone willing to take pains for my sake. And for all his strangeness, he seemed to be really a decent sort of man. Perhaps I could find time to talk more to him. I decided to try reaching home a few minutes early.

The rest of the staff eyed me with curiosity and a measure of repulsion the next morning. “Why do you want anything to do with that crazy man?” Jeejabai asked me. “Because you can’t sleep when I study,” I told her rather nastily. Kamala was even more frank in her disapproval of him. “Just to see the scars on his neck gives me the creeps. Why doesn’t he go away someplace else?”

That night I reached his shack just in time to meet him. “Thank you again for your help,” I said, “It is much better than studying with Jeejabai complaining.”

He smiled under his mask. “You’re welcome. I used to be a teacher once, so I always like seeing people interested in studying.”

“Oh! Then maybe you could help me when I get stuck?”

He was silent for a moment. Perhaps he was alarmed at how fast this friendship was progressing, or –

“I don’t know if I’ll have the time for that.” He turned away. But as I began to walk away he spoke again. “Thank you for cleaning up my bookshelf.”

I remembered his words as I sat in his room, a couple of days later, looking up at the books. I knew hardly any of the writers or titles, except – there were complete poetry sets of Byron, Shelley, whom I’d read a poem or two of, a guy named Neruda whose name sounded familiar, and several others I didn’t know. All the other books were – I stood up and examined a few – were also poetry collections, by Indian authors I didn’t know. Almost half a bookshelf was taken up with books by some guy named ‘Veebhats’; this name also sounded a bit familiar.

I remembered where I’d heard the name, the next morning. There had been an article in the newspaper about this anonymous poet. Contrary to his odd pen name, he was popular for writing touching paeans to loneliness and the crushing burden of living. Loneliness...that would explain why Laxman Rao was so fond of this poet.

“May I borrow and read a book from your collection?” I asked him that night. “Our teacher says we should be doing more general reading, not just the text books.”

In the past few days we had been making some small talk every night; he was always interested in what happened at my school and in what I wanted to do in life. Initially he had been reticent about himself; he still was reluctant to talk about his old life and the accident that had disfigured him. But he told me several stories about his current job and the guest house; I particularly remember his tales about stone gargoyles on the gutter spouts. He agreed readily enough to lend me a book, but when we entered his room to choose, he seemed to be a quandary about which book I should take. Finally I settled on a slim book by ‘Veebhats’. Again he was reluctant to give me that one, but could offer no alternative, so that was the one I took.

This was the first time I was in his room with him, and both of us felt our acquaintance had crossed some invisible boundary; this space was not his alone now, it was a place where he could expect a visitor – me – who was willing to talk with him, in fact who wanted to talk with him.

The poems were difficult. It took me a fair amount of time to read the book. I wasn’t even sure I’d understood the point of the book. But I thought I understood a little better the way Laxman Rao felt. Feeling alone was... a bit like being trapped. Though I hadn’t had anyone to talk with after I came to the town, I’d always thought of it as a temporary phase, a short period which would end any moment. But loneliness was knowing you could never be able to communicate, knowing that there was some fundamental difference between you and everyone else. When I was finally able to articulate the feeling to myself, it robbed me of sleep. I recognized it; I’d seen it in Laxman Rao’s eyes all along but never understood it.

I almost ran from the class the next evening, so as to have more time with him.

“I finished reading this book.” I said as I handed it to him. “And it made me think of something. Can I ask you a question?”

He nodded slowly.

“When you look at me, do you think I’m pretty?”

The question threw him. He stuttered, “Of...of course, you are pretty...but...I mean, not really – I mean, you’re a nice girl, but I don’t think of you that way at all – I didn’t mean to – I mean, you’re taking me wrongly...””

“I didn’t ask you whether I was. I asked you if, when you look at me, as you are looking right now – does the thought of my prettiness or ugliness come to your mind?”

“Huh?” he stared at me.

“When you saw me coming back from class, and realized that we would have a few minutes to talk today, what was your first thought?”

“Um...I think I thought about the homework you had trouble with last night – whether you were able to finish it on time.”

“That’s what I meant. And I’m sure that after, perhaps, the first two or three times you met me, you never even thought about what I look like. I’m a familiar face for you now, you see.”

“Yes, but...”

“Sorry if I sound silly...but I felt sad about all those poems about being different and suchlike, in that book. No one’s really that different once you get to know them well. I mean, no one cares if you look strange, once they know you well enough.”

He was lost in thought. Once or twice he started to say something, then looked at me and subsided. Finally he nodded gruffly, looked at his watch and said, “I need to go.”

I wondered if I’d been too blunt. But the next morning as I came back from my bath, Laxman Rao was out in the back yard, hanging up wet clothes, still wearing his monkey cap. He’d always done this task before sunrise – when there was no one in the yard. The other staff was torn between curiosity and fright, watching him around the corner of the building, not daring to go out into the open. Jeejabai was supposed to wash the laundry at the tap in the yard, but she was reluctant to go. “Why don’t you start the job, I’ll be there in a few minutes,” she said to me.

I made sure I showed not the slightest fear or unnaturalness as I marched down, buckets of washing in hand, to the tap. “Namaste ji!” I called out to Laxman Rao, as he finished hanging up his clothes at the other side of the yard. He half turned, raised a hand in salutation, turned back to his work as if we met each other here everyday and it was nothing special.

I bent down to work. Out of the corner of my eye I watched as Jeejabai crept up to the tap, nervously watching Laxman Rao. He took no notice of her, kept at his work. She gingerly squatted down next to me and began the washing. As the minutes crept by and Laxman Rao did nothing terrifying, she began to relax. Still, she seemed more at ease once he finished his work and went into his shack.

He was out in the yard in the early evening, too, taking his clothes off the line. Then when Kamala knocked at his door at night to deliver his dinner, he shouted from within for her to leave the plate on the table. She looked in, he was sitting at the table in the far corner, writing. He casually motioned towards the little table next to the bed. Kamala put the plate there and fled.

It is much harder to think a man a monster when he himself doesn’t believe it. It was only a matter of a few weeks before everyone at the guest house counted Laxman Rao as one of their own. As for Laxman Rao himself, he was finally getting the share of human contact he had been denied for so long, and he thrived on it. His natural gregariousness came to the fore and the haunted look in his eyes began to fade. He had dinner with us in the mess hall, and us girls were calling him Kaka. He began to persuade Kamala gently into joining the school, along with me. When Jeejabai came back from a few days’ visit to her native village, she got a packet of Prasad from the temple for Laxman Rao, too.

One morning, Laxman Rao waited till I was alone in the yard. He came up to me diffidently, and said, “I wanted to talk to you about something...”

“Yes, Kaka?”

“Do you...think I could do a normal day job, at a shop or something?”

“Why not? But Kaka, you’re much older than me, I am sure you will be able to decide these things better.”

He smiled, and patted my head. “Of course, of course. And you’re going to say that my rejoining the world was all because of my old man’s wisdom, too, eh?”

“But of course,” I said cheekily.

But more than the small job he found in a grocers store nearby, Laxman Rao counted the tuition classes his greatest step forward. Starting those classes for kids meant that people around accepted him for his ability to teach, and not for his appearance. He told me later that having again a crowd of young eager faces looking up at him made him feel as if the accident had never happened. Maybe soon, he said, I could join him as his assistant.

One evening, several months after the classes had started, I went to his room to call him to dinner. The door was closed. As I raised my hand to knock on it, I heard a muffled sob from within. “Kaka, Kaka! Are you all right?” I called.

There was a sniff, and the sound of someone walking across the room. The bolt was drawn back, and Laxman Rao opened the door. His eyes were red and watery. I felt a surge of concern.

“What happened? Did someone say something to you?” I asked.

He shook his head, but stood aside to let me in. I sat on the little table next to the bed. He was still standing at the door, looking out. “Remember that night when we first talked about your school?” he asked.

“I felt so happy to find that you weren’t afraid of me, on the first day. The next day, I found you were interested in studying, and I felt even better to find we had a common interest.

“You know what? Jeejabai loves talking about her village; it isn’t very far from mine. And Hari and I both like Konkani food. Kamala’s Ishtaa-Dev is Vitthala, just like me. All of us have something or the other in common, I am...what do they say, mixing well with everyone.

“I am pretty much a part of you all now. I have similar hopes, fears, dreams.”

And with this he sat down on the bed, close to me, and stared at me until I blinked. “Do you understand? like you all now. No different. Just an ordinary man.” His eyes said, I am not special any more.

Abruptly he sat back, and pulled out an envelope from his kurta pocket. “Here,” he said, “Read this.”

It was a letter from a publishing house. Dear ‘Veebhatsa’, it read – I looked up at him at that – It has been our great privilege in publishing your poetic works over the years. The ethos embodied in them has struck a chord in millions of readers. You had mentioned in your last letter that you would be unable to submit the manuscript of your newest book, Prabhat Kirana, by our previously agreed publishing deadline. We of course, respect your artistic integrity and realize that poetry cannot be hurried. However, if possible, I would like to schedule a meeting with you to discuss any problems you might be facing. We have never met face to face; if you so wish, we can talk over the phone. I would be honoured if I can help you facilitate your work in any way possible. Please let me know how you would like to talk.

It was signed Pradeep Karnik, Editor, Poetry Department.

“They’re worried their profits this year are going to drop,” Laxman Rao said, and there was a hint of hysteria in his voice. “Because I’m overdue with my poems.

“But do you want to know the truth?

“I don’t have any poems ready. I burnt them all. They seemed too silly, so artificial. All that talk of distances and loneliness and nights – I couldn’t go on with it.

He stood up. “I’m not a real poet, you know. I’m not one of those people who see the world better than others and describe it nicely. All I am – all I was – was a lonely man, unable to express his feelings to anyone. These poems I wrote are childish, compared to others. But my need to cross the gap between my world and your world was so great it came out in those childish poems, too. And perhaps many people felt as I do.

“Now, of course, there is no gap.” He smiled. The hysteria was on his face again. His eyes lost focus and he spoke now to the world at large. “I’m just like you all! I’m an ordinary man now! There’s nothing special in me any more, the world already knows the things I have to say now!”

Abruptly he noticed me, took a step back. “But I cant be...” he whispered to himself, “...just like them! I used to be a hero, a mascot! I was a stranger, an oddity, something different, something to be respected! And now I live with...them!”

“Is having friends that bad? That wasn’t respect you had, that was fear! Did you enjoy being feared?” I appealed to him, in spite of myself. I was an ordinary person, he’d said. Ordinary. Was he right?

“Huh?” He took another step back. His eyes darted from me to the writing table behind me, then back. He wiped the sudden beads of sweat from his forehead. I had to pull him out of this.

“Come on, worry about this later. Dinner is ready, and we’re all waiting for you.” I said gaily, and walked out of the room. I took a few steps out, until he could just barely see me, then turned and looked for him.

He was still standing in the same spot, looking at the table. “Come on!” I said. He half turned, looked at me, then back at the table.

I walked further away, then turned and went on back to the rest of my friends. As I rounded the corner, I gave him a final glance. He was still standing there, looking first in my direction, then back at the table, unable to decide.

Monday, February 28, 2005

Once more, no updates in long. Oh well. Anyway : my newest story is up at Adbhut. This was a really hurried effort - had a dream one night, sat down two days later and chhaapofied the whole thing in 2 hours flat. But then it's a pretty small one.

And it is not one of the 11 projects listed in my previous mail. Will post the completed ones from those, here tonight.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Wow, I havent updated this blog in God knows how long! Strange, considering I actually am doing a lot of writing. A strange impulse is on me. Suddenly I feel attracted to all those plots I've left incomplete, all those stories that I left off because I got distracted by life. It isn't a sense of duty - as it often is - but a real sense of interest in knowing how those stories turn out. I mean, often I myself dont know how the story will feel once it's complete. So, busily trying to write all those.

For a change, instead of gloating over the books I've bought, I'm trying to list out the 'in-production' stories and essays in my head. I dunno how many of this stuff will make it out into the world, but if my present mood continues, most of it should show up here or in other magazines. Steven Spielberg, if any of these outlines interest you, I'll turn it into a screenplay instead. Just let me know.

1. Pawar Guest House, Chapter 8. I actually have this in complete state. At one time I'd have just dumped it out onto the blog....but somehow I want to polish it further, make it as professional as possible before spilling it.

2. "I Believe you've met my friends..." This one is totally, absolutely, complete. Unfortunately it's my entry into a contest. So, I can't publish it until they reject it. Which they will, I guess. I dunno.

3. A left handed tribute to a friend of mine, Gauri. This is actually a part of that 'dark Indian Gothic' thing I was writing, to which 'House on the Corner' also belongs. Again, almost done, I'm just polishing it.

4. Another tribute to another - um, acquaintance - of mine, Anjali. This one has most of the raw material ready, but requires heavy HTML formatting. Someday, when I'm really nostalgic for my college days ...

5. Yet another tribute to an imaginary friend of mine, Maytrayee. This one is halfway through. Boy, is this one going to be fun! [rubs hands gleefully]

6. Half-written essay on science fiction for Dinker's site.

7. Half-written novel, maybe 80+ pages, the core of that 'dark Indian Gothic' thing I referred to.

8. A complete 1800 word essay, meant for Outsourcee, which is currently saved for publishing in some printed periodical.

9. Of course, my scattered notes on Hinduism and India, which keep getting updated every once in a while.

10. Half written 'travel' piece, describing Ponk, my third-favourite Gujarati delicacy.

11. Halfway written travelogue on my trip to Himachal Pradesh, which is looking like a novella already - it's dozens of pages long.

12. Um, can't think of anything else...but 12 sounded like a nice big number of stories to be working on, so, um... oh yeah, this post itself - it's in production right now, isnt it?

Okay, time to cross off number 12 from the above list. It's done.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

My good friend Ramanand has been featured - as a blogger this time instead of as a quizzer - in this article in the Indian Express. As usual, he has the perfect points to make on the topic. Good for you, buddy!
Now I must get around to linking my friends' blogs from this one :).