Saturday, November 19, 2005

The Swimsuit Syndrome

I had a very middle-class upbringing. As middle-class as it gets. Nothing wrong with that. The sole drawback is that you are not exposed (and exposed is the key-word here) to a lot of things when you are middle-class. Like glitzy pizza joints with over-indulgent waiters. Like boring discotheques with their psychedelic lighting to discourage people from reading inside. Like over-hyped designer-wear with so many holes one would think we are in the middle of the next great depression. And yes, like swimming pools. But more about that later.
In the neighbourhood where I grew up, there was this girl who lived near my house, P. P and I were not exactly Susie and Calvin in that a) she was elder to me by one year b) I had no qualms about spending most of my time at her place, playing whatever that a girl and a boy aged 4 and 5 played, and c) we were good friends, if not great. But we fought. Oh yes, just about all the time. And we made up, all the time. It's just that we didn't know it was called making up then. Among the many things I remember from that time, her grandma's dosas still stand out, the crispy aroma still fresh in the folds of my memory.
Anyway, like most of the children in the colony, we attended the same school. And our mothers -- apart from being good friends in the best traditions of middle-class neighbourhoods -- were members of the same ladies' club (the villain of this piece).
P and I grew up together. With the regularity of the monsoon rain in Chennai (unheard of in recent times until this year) we got promoted each year at school,and I continued to spend most of my time at her place, indulging in my favourite pastime of devouring her grandma's dosas. Cricket, hop-scotch (every Indian boy has played it at some point of time or the other in his life, only to deny it vehemently in later years in a wasted effort to defend his manhood), rubber-band wars, chameleon tracking, taking apart the name it. We had other friends of course, but somehow we came back to each other in times of great trouble. Like whenever P had to hide her report-card from her dad. Or like when the audio cassettes in my home were found unwound mysteriously, the magnetic tapes cut and strewn all over the living room, like a sheep's intestines at the butcher's -- I would be at P's house, establishing a water-tight alibi (I've always thought CDs were invented by someone who had a very curious kid).
So, all was fine, and we were well on our way to challenging Sawyer and Finn as the greatest buddies of all time, until fate reared, or as in our case -- exposed, its ugly head.
The women in my mom's laides' club were a dying species. They were an adventurous and enterprising sort, you see. You have to remember that I'm talking about a time, a dark period in the uncharted history of Indian middle-class women, before housewives discovered that intellectual salvation lay in predicting the daily twists of convoluted television soaps. So, the members of my mom's club, deprived of grey-matter-stimulating-execise decided to go on an outing. The proposed place -- a then newly opened amusement park in our city.
Yippee, I thought, when Mom told me this, for theme parks were still a novelty then, unlike now. And I looked forward to the trip, mentally crossing off the days on the calendar on my return from school everyday.
D-day arrived. Packed, and dressed nattily, all of us -- moms and kids -- took a bus to the park. It was a short journey, and alighting from the bus in front of the park, I looked around for my other buddies. I found all the boys huddled in a corner, much like the Indian Cricket team these days, engaged in animated discussion about world affairs. I barged in, only to be confronted with worried faces, looking at me as though Apocalypse had decided to pay a surprise visit.
Upon further enquiry, I learnt the bad news. The agenda for the day included a couple of hours at the swimming pool. And the pool meant we boys could wear nothing but trunks. In front of the girls! My little, 10-year old heart sunk in a deepening pool of despair -- I was in no mood to show off my under-developed anatomy to members from the fairer sex . You must understand that all of us boys were around a decade old, an age when our minds weren't pre-occupied with four and three-letter words.
I looked around to see where P was. And I found her amidst the girls, all of them huddled together, their faces worried, looking as though Apocalypse had decided to pay a surprise visit. I gathered they were not keen on strutting about in their swimsuits in front of us either!
On the other hand, our mothers were chatting busily, blissfully unaware of our predicament, looking forward to relaxing in the pool, away from the everyday rigours of family management.
The day went well, really. Ride after ride was taken in gloomy anticipation of a watery destiny, where we would all be stripped, literally, of our manliness even before it had a chance to bloom. And all the time the girls carefully kept away from our path and we, from theirs.
The fated hour came, and we boys headed for the locker, our rented swimming trunks bunched in our hands. We changed in a jiffy, but none of us were keen on coming out, until our moms started hollering out for us from the pool.
Swimming pools, by nature, are not replete with hiding places. And we 'men' needed to hide our lowly selves before the 'women' saw us. Think about it. There was the locker and then there was the pool. And of course there were a few bushes scattered around the pool, which meant a lot of boys were suddenly displaying a newfound interest in the local vegetation -- especially those whose trunks were on the shorter side. The rest of us resorted to testing the elastic limit of our shorts -- pulling it down below our knees, only to find the hem sliding down, which was even more dangerous -- finally ending up performing a perpetual pull-down-pull-up act.
And then the girls came out of their lockers. Dressed in their swimsuits. And I saw P, even though I really didn't want to. And she saw me. At about the same time. I must admit, she looked pretty, but right then the only thought in my mind spelt C-O-V-E-R. And we passed each other, not daring to look up, to diagonally opposite corners of the pool, so as to get as much distance between each other as possible.
It took some time before I recovered from the shock of being seen and having seen, before I realized that the best cover at the pool is the pool itself -- the water rides be cursed, I decided I wasn't going to leave the water and risk being exposed again (now you know why that word has had a profound impact in my life). I took to the water much like a hippopotamus -- ever saw the rest of the hippo's body at the zoo?
That fateful day was when P and I contracted the swimsuit syndrome. Whenever I met P after that, I would see an apparition of her in her swim-suit. And I'm sure she had the same vision of me. We could see it in each other's eyes. Which meant our conversations from then on were reduced to the following:
Me: "...hi..." So, you saw me, huh?
P: "...hi..." You saw me first!
Me:" some homework to finish...see you later" Can we not talk about this?
P: "...umm me too...bye" Yes, I agree totally.
Needless to say, P and I drifted apart -- the indelible memory of that tragic day was too much for our tender hearts. Our budding relationship was nipped by fate -- fate always has other plans. And it was some time before I could get myself to frequent any swimming pool.
You know, T.V. soaps aren't that bad, after all. Think about the bond between a little boy and a little girl which could have been saved the next time you curse soap operas on the box.
On the other hand, may all ladies' clubs be damned!

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Wall

She woke up feeling lost. Like a reluctant little girl led astray into the alluring woods, and then abandoned abruptly.
She got up. The harsh sun, already high, was exploring the house leisurely, entering and exiting through the open windows, discovering it anew, chasing away the remnants of sleep from its drowsy corners.

He was nowhere to be seen. The tell-tale signs of his presence were missing. His side of the bed was made-up, probably never slept in. She looked at the clock. It was time for his favourite show on radio. Yet it sat mute, like a sage in meditation, waiting for the lord, offering her no answers. Another premonition.

Her eyes scanned the place slowly, like a huntress who knew where her prey usually hid. But she was looking more out of hope than certainty.

His black shoes -- gone. So were his other footwear. The shoe rack now held only hers, looking incomplete, half-naked.
The first brick fell in place.

Sounds from yesterday drowned her mind in the chaos of their noise. Sounds from the fight. 'Did you...' 'What's this about...' 'Are you...' 'Now, don't start...' 'How could you...' 'I did not...' growing louder...'What does this mean...' 'Whatever...' 'But then you did...' 'That's what you think...' 'Didn't you promise...' 'No...' screaming now...'Why won't you see...' 'I cannot...' 'Did you ever...' 'I might have...' 'Does nothing matter...' 'No...' 'Do you love me?'... quiet, but just momentarily.
She shut her ears forcefully. But the voices continued to grow. Hers, questioning, disbelieving, pleading. His, refusing, rebutting, hurting. She hated him. No, she loved him. No, she hated him.
The bricks of her hate continued to fall in place. Slowly, steadily, the carefully inflicted pain of his unfeeling words cementing each in place with unerring geometry.
Desperate, she tried bringing the wall down. But every effort of hers to bull-doze it only resulted in it continuing to grow. Like a parasite that fed off her growing negativity. Her hope would smash one brick, but then the reality, and the truth, of her pain would replace it, unfazed. She could see herself on one side. Her voice calling out to him. But he stood afar, unlistening, moving away from her. And the wall -- it continued growing.

She checked his wardrobe. Empty. She half-expected to find his shirts there. Even as she was opening it, she had hoped that his clothes would be in there, and that she was only being paranoid. But no. It was empty, staring up at her blankly. Gloating at her angst, she felt. She slammed it shut.

More sounds from yesterday. Now the scenes bloomed as well, like in an old T.V. where the screen flickers to life a few seconds after the audio has come on. Sound is faster than light sometimes. She saw him sitting on the bed, flicking through a cheap fashion magazine, unreading, acting, paying rapt attention to her every word, refuting with sadistic rationale. She saw herself standing a couple of feet away from him, screaming like a mad-woman, demanding and imploring by turn, alternating between anguish and anger. Her emotions for him lost their identity, love and hate mixing in an incestuous union, her pain their unlawful child, leaving her confused and drained. She felt the first of her tears ease itself out of her eyes.

She looked about for his briefcases -- gone. She wondered if the house had been burgled. But then all her things were there, in their lawful places. She started to wonder if burglars were choosy, but then managed to stop herself from going crazy.
Her gaze continued to skim across the room. Searching in despair.
His CD collection -- gone. She whirled around. His books -- gone.
She saw him everywhere through his absence, through the sounds of his familiar movements about the house that she could no longer hear, through the smell that he left on her clothes, through the traces of his existence that he had so clinically wiped away. But for the one in her heart. She saw him everywhere, and yet, nowhere.
And the wall continued to ascend, each brick more certain, more precise, than the previous. She no longer could see him, but for his head above the wall, and that too only if she craned her neck. Her tears began to rain down on the wall, and she couldn't see him very well at all.

The wind whistled through the house, wailing. It felt hollow without him, she thought. Her life felt hollow, she realized. She wished they hadn't fought, wished she hadn't asked all those questions, wished he hadn't hurt her so that she could now convince herself that he still loved her. She caught herself, feeling ashamed of her own thoughts that had betrayed her, feeling disgusted of her weakness for him.
She didn't need him she told herself, her pain now dominating, the wall now rising upwards, the rain now pouring. She didn't need anyone, she consoled herself, but found herself opening the door to the bathroom, hoping that he would be hiding inside, waiting for her, and that all this was just a prank to make her come around, and that they would make up.

But no. He was gone.
And then her eyes fell on the dresser. His half was cleared. Like a verse with its rhyming lines missing, no longer making sense. Instead, there lay her gifts. All of them. Like exhibits in a court-room serving to prove a crime she didn't commit. From the first 'speaking' greeting-card to the portrait that she had painted of him to the calendar with photos from their vacation together to the violin that she had bought for him three days ago. Every one of them.

The pain that she had been holding back for so long hit home swiftly. Like a weakened dam, she broke down before its force. She fell to her knees, sobbing, her tears now a torrent, her hate now violent, her pain permanent.

He had left. Forever.
And this wall, tall and grim, would stand between them always.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

First time

Like a thief too noble, the night lay waiting, afraid to intrude between them. The air-conditioning in the room hummed in a low murmur, almost self-effacing. The lights from the street peeked in through the blinds now and then, their curiosity abounding, but polite enough to refrain from trespassing.
They sat on the couch, the moment heavy with anticipation, their bodies numb with the common knowledge of their love.
He felt the staid air quiver with the imperceptible thumpings of her tiny heart. He felt her unhurried pulse speak the poetry of her soul into the small of his palm, its meter perfect, its rhyme effortless. And he felt it match with his.
They were breathing in an even, easy rhythm, she exhaling when he drew in his breath, and he likewise, as though each was afraid to rob the other of breath. The night was a creature now, alive around them, moving around in circles, feeding off their breath, pushing them closer.
He felt her draw closer, her head seeking refuge in his arms, and he let her be, his left arm around her. A wandering draught, cold and cunning, crept in through the slit under the door, and sought them out. He felt her shudder, her delicate body trembling under her clothes. Feeling protective, he hugged her tighter. And as he did so, felt the pressure of her ring against his chest. The ring he had given her. Today. This evening. When he had asked her. When, for one moment, he felt the world had stood still, bereft of its usual purpose, uncertain of what would follow. When, for the longest of seconds, he felt a million eyes upon him, upon them, a million breaths together held bated, a million hopelesly romantic wills, along with his, bidding her to say 'yes'.
And then she had nodded. Ever so imperceptibly. No, the answer had reached her eloquent eyes first, before flushing her high cheeks with the red of 'yes', before it became a smile that surprised her happy face, before she nodded. Before she mouthed the word, 'Yes'. And the world breathed again, along with him, content that love was alive, and went about its business.
He caught himself smiling. That moment seemed distant now. Yet so near.
She looked up at him, sensing him smile. A question started in her uncertain eyes, before his reassuring eyes answered, and then no words were needed. She smiled in return. And then they laughed. Not that boisterous laughter, but the quiet one that is a secret known only to those in love.
He held her by her chin. Their eyes locked in a moment of perfect ocular acrobacy. Not searching, but seeing the rest of their life in the other's eyes.
And then he kissed her.
For the first time.
The night erupted in joy, and stole into the spaces between them, cloaking them in its magic, feeding them with the life it had taken to sustain itself for this very moment. A light wind blew the blinds apart, and the lights crowded into the room from the street, silent witnesses to the story that nobody can tire of.

Saturday, November 12, 2005


The ticket flaps about in the breeze. Restless. Its reality imminent and ominous. The clock strikes 7. It's evening and it's raining outside. Another hour before I leave.
I'd stowed the ticket away when I'd come home. Consciously erased its memory. Didn't want any part of it. Didn't want to look at the date, didn't want to look at the flight number. Didn't want to think of going back. But now it lay upon the coffee-table, its red cover flapping joyfully, laughing at me and my folly, like a bad dream coming back to haunt.

I place my cell-phone on it. Silencing it. If only temporarily. Ah, my cell phone! Friend, lifeline, confidant...funny how inanimate things are until you attach a tiny bit of emotion to them, and they suddenly spring to life, acquiring a whole new dimension. I will miss the short-message-service chats, the late-night phone calls, her ring-tone...I think I'll miss my cell phone. Just because of all the emotions connected to it. Emotion. Isn't that what we are all built of?
I feel thirsty, but I don't feel like drinking anything. I look up at the clock -- 30 minutes till the cab arrived. I look at my suitcases -- neatly stacked together near the door. I'd spent a couple of hours packing them earlier today. Filling them with the smells of home and the hurriedly made memories. The smells won't last long, but I hope the memories do. Life is about making memories, apart from other things of course. Memories...of hours spent at R's place catching up on the movies I'd missed out on and pondering over where life was taking us; of those long walks down the beach with Rex in tow, sniffing at the snails on the shore; of that night when I told Mom about her; of the silence that followed when I felt like the loneliest man on earth.
I look at Mom. She's reading a book -- like always. She always sat reading a book before someone left. I wish she would say something -- say that she loved me, that she wished I didn't have to leave, that dad would have been proud of me, that she approved of my choice. But no, she continues reading.
15 minutes left, and I get up from my couch. My couch. Another memory. It even remembers my shape. I head for the balcony. It's here that I'm at my most peaceful. Our flat is one of the luckier ones in that the balcony looks out onto the sea. I lean on the parapet and look out. The night feels sad, and the rain makes it look as if it's crying. Rex trots over to where I stand, nuzzling against my jeans-clad legs, leaving traces of his fur. I wish he wouldn't, because I'll not want to wash the jeans later. I guess I'm stupid. I shoo him away, and he looks at me dolefully. Quizzical. I shoo him more and he walks away indolently.
The sea is peaceful, the waves calm, a gentle breeze drifts by. Oh, how I'll miss this! Trapped inside my lab at night, hearing the processor of my desk-top whirr itself mad, there is only one sound I want to hear -- that of the sea. And when it snows and I lie snuggled deep in my blankets, all I want is to walk on the shore, my feet sinking into the sands, the heat stinging my soles.
The door-bell rings. The taxi is here. Mom calls out to me. I walk quickly to her, and hug her. I take the ticket -- its reality imminent and ominous. I pick up my suitcases and walk out the door.

Sunday, November 06, 2005


I liked it when I could look and not feel.
But you are everywhere now

The subdued drizzle
A night of rain.
The surrendering waves
A quiet shore.
The false freedom
A doomed dawn.

The spirit of a speeding stream,
The ghost of a fallen leaf,
The moods of a sunset stained sky,


The corners of my room
Flee from.
The watercolour canvasses
December and May.


The weak words
Forget to utter.
The pause between words
I lose myself.

You are
The deepest of my emotions,
The secret behind my thoughts,
The hand shaping my dreams...

You are
The pride driving my creations.

You are

I walked into office a few days ago and was doing my daily round of bloghopping when I noticed my counter screaming at me for attention -- a 100 more hits than usual! A little tracking and I found this and a mention at a friend's blog. Gee guys, you just made my day that day! Like they say, a little appreciation goes a long way. Thanks Ash and Ravi!