spoon

Kaivalya

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Stories have always ruled my world. Right from my childhood. Whether it's fiction or a real incident, as long as someone narrates it in an interesting way, I am game. Nothing fascinates me more than a good story.

When I grew up and started reading novels, I entered into a whole new world – a world where I made a lot of new friends, a world in which I want to spend the rest of my life.

Talking of reading novels, thriller/mystery has always been my favourite genre. Although I enjoy other genres too, a good thriller on any given day works better. Nothing beats that. Romance is the only genre I don't prefer. And horror/paranormal is the only genre I wished to have read, but never could (for reasons unknown).

After watching the movie, The Shining, I cursed myself for not having read the novel first. However, that got me thinking. When it comes to Indian authors, there are of course superb storytellers like R. K. Narayan, Amitav Ghosh, Vikas Swarup, but there has never been an author who could make up for a thriller similar to Forsyth or Ludlum or King. Sure there are plenty of award winning writers like Adiga and Rushdie, but in my humble opinion, they are not as entertaining as Archer, Sheldon, Brown and the lot. (Ashwin Sanghi and Amish are exceptions, maybe. I haven’t read them yet. So can’t speak for them.) Genre authors are scarce in India. But this all changed when I picked up a brilliant novel called Kaivalya, by Sumana Khan.

Until Kaivalya happened, as I said earlier, I had never read a paranormal thriller. Set in the midst of lush forests of Sakleshpura, Karnataka, it starts off with a bang. Before you know it you are sucked mercilessly into deep forests and the mystery that unfolds there.

Kencha, a tribal, is found dead in the forest under strange circumstances. His body is branded with a mysterious message written in Halegannada, an ancient and defunct version of modern day Kannada. As Dhruv Kaveriappa, the Chief Conservator of Forests, starts investigating, it gets more and more complicated with each step he and his team take in the forest. Animals die for no reason. An ominous shadow hovers around the people. A vacationing tourist finds an ancient gold and diamond studded pendent in the forest. If you find all these things horrific, then wait till the woman wears the pendent …

Parallel to what is happening in and around the forest, a handsome man in his mid-twenties, Neel, starts experiencing strange things in his lavish penthouse in Bangalore.

The branded message on the tribal man written in Halegannada speaks of Vijayanagar Empire of the 1500s.

What is Kaivalya? Or perhaps who? What is Kaivalya’s story? What is the relation between Kaivalya’s story and the dreadful things that are happening now? How is the Vijayanagar era linked to the present day, i.e. 2005? (Yes, the story is set in 2005. There is a reason for it and you’ll know when you read it) If these things don’t stir your curiosity, then what will?

The two stories (one that is happening in Sakleshpura and the other in Bangalore) that seem unrelated to each other merge towards the end and bring the story to a shattering climax. The truth is far more terrifying than you could have imagined.

I have watched a lot of horror movies that provide a lot of good thrills. But can a book provide the same amount of goose bumps, I wondered. That was before I picked up Kaivalya. Sure it has a lot of scenes that will make you jump. And this is where Sumana Khan scores. Scaring the readers is not easy. For instance, a movie has a lot of things to offer – performance of the actors, a forbidding background music, camera angles, etc. But when it comes to a book of a similar genre, it’s a different ballgame altogether. You only have the power of your words to paint that scary picture.

As I read on, I could hear the screams of the victims, I could smell the foul smell that occupies the house and forest, an indication that something terrible is about to happen, or perhaps, that has already happened. I could even feel that menacing shadow hovering above me when I’d slept for a while after reading about 80 pages. That’s the effect the book will have on you.

Then again, it’s not a typical whodunit story. The twists come subtly, when you’ll be least expecting. The characters come alive beautifully. All are ordinary people going about their lives in an easy manner. But when the same ordinary people are thrown into an abyss of horror and mystery, when pitted against an impossible enemy, they don’t have any other option except to fight the battle in an extraordinary way.

Characterization is one of the most important aspects of storytelling. And Sumana Khan handles it expertly. There are plenty of characters and each one of them has an important role to play. None of them is sidelined. Be it Drhuv, the hero; his love interest, Tara, DSP Joshi, Dr. Bala and Dr. Nithya, Shivranjani and her husband Ravikanth, Inspector Rao, Neel and his friend VJ, Inspector Shakti, Arundhati and finally, a bewitching, cold-blooded villain, Matchu – one of the best negative characters I’ve ever come across. Brutal, handsome, a genius in his game. He’s certainly one of the highlights of the novel. Whether you are a man or a woman, you just can’t stop yourself from falling prey to his charms.

Each and every character will be etched in your memory. Although some of the characters are away from the main action scene, yet fighting their own battle, they are all interlinked and brought together in the end to fight the bigger enemy. As a reader and as a person with a lofty ambition of writing a novel someday, this, to me, was an important lesson in storytelling.

Right from the first page to the last, the pace never falters. It moves at a rattling speed. And when the climax hits you, you’ll be dumbfounded. The last paragraph or for that matter, the last line is like a kick in the gut. It takes sometime to come out of Kaivalya’s effect. This is how a good story should be. It shouldn’t leave you even after the last page is turned.

There are one or two weak points in the story though, but they are trivial and sure to go unnoticed. Not related to the main plot. For example, a character called Shivanna, (a close associate of the protagonist Dhruv), who is depicted like an important character in the beginning of the story, suddenly disappears. He never comes back into the story. Whatever happened to him is never revealed.

Anyway, in the midst of stupid novels with stupid names (Oh, Shit! Not Again, to name one) that are coming into the Indian market, Kaivalya is a welcome change. For one, no other Indian author (at least not to my knowledge) has tried this genre.

All in all, this is a brave book written for brave readers. Definitely not for the faint-hearted. If you enjoy horror / mystery / paranormal thrillers, then don't miss this.

******************

You can order the book here.


The Girl in Orange Dress

16

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The following post is written for the topic, Take Flight with Colour; a contest on
Indiblogger, in association with HP Laserjet.

Contest Rule: Think of anything that is Black and White. A picture, a movie, etc. Now would you like that to be in color? Tell us why.

*********

A few years ago … well, I’m not going to tell you when exactly, for time is irrelevant here. The only things that matter are that specific moment when the picture was captured and the events that led up to that moment

If computers had not been invented, if technology had not been advanced, if there were no ATMs, then probably I’d never have met her. It was at the ATM that I saw her for the first time. As always I was with my three best friends. And she was alone, waiting for the person inside the ATM booth to come out. Standing with her arms folded and lips pursed, she looked out of place. After all she was standing in the midst of four hooligan boys.

It was a cold July. The rain had just stopped and a jet of cold breeze pricked us out of our senses. “I hate this season,” grunted one of my friends. I didn’t respond, as I was busy watching her. She brushed her curls to the back of her ears and stood silently. There was a delicious sense of repose on her face. The person inside the ATM booth was really taking a lot of time, the wind was chilly; but nothing irritated her. It was as if she was in a meditative state. If this wasn’t enough, she looked divine in her orange salwar suit.

It wasn’t love at first sight. I never believed in it. But still, for some reason I didn’t want to lose her. Some people say that it’s a small world we are living in and wherever we go, we keep bumping into each other. That’s utter nonsense. It’s a big world out there, all right. And when it comes to a beautiful girl, it’s a bigger world. You see a girl like that and you don’t talk to her immediately, she’s gone. You are never going to find her again. Co-incidences never occur. Not unless you are a hero in a movie. I knew I wasn’t. So I had to talk to her somehow.

Now what are you going to say to a girl you have just seen? If you don’t have any romantic thoughts about her, it’s easy. But what if you are mercilessly attracted to her? What’s your opening line going to be? I didn’t know. I decided to think. It was a mistake. If only I knew then that one should never think before approaching a girl!

You see, approaching a girl is like writing. You should never think. The first line, the first paragraph, or even the first chapter, should be written without thinking. Write what your hands write, is the rule. Thinking comes at a later stage, when you re-write those parts. Got to go with the flow. Got to be spontaneous. Go stand in front of her and whatever that comes out of your mouth is just fine. Even blurting out ‘Eureka, eureka!’ is fine. Maybe you can edit the lines later. But first say something, anything. If you talk to her, say something, there is always a 50-50 chance that she is going to respond positively. But if you don’t say anything, don’t make a move, then there is no hope at all. Unfortunately, I didn’t have this gyan then. I hadn’t started writing then. I kept mum and started thinking, or perhaps, started dreaming.

The man, who was busy printing money inside the ATM booth, finally emerged from there, grinning, as if he had got more money than he had asked for. The girl in orange dress went inside. I continued to float in my dream world as my friends continued with their nonsense talks. By the time she came out, I was having al fresco dinner with her in a fancy restaurant. She was in a magnificent red dress. With so many types of dresses that girls wear these days (leggings, handings, headings, etc.), I didn’t know what exactly she was wearing. Nonetheless she looked lovely. Her wavy light-brown hair was let loose; a winsome smile lingered on her face as she listened to my narrative. I don’t remember what I was saying, but whatever it was, she was completely immersed in it. I think my storytelling skills were just developing. Anyway, when I was having such a heavenly time, the waiter arrived and said in a gruff voice, “Don’t you have to draw money?” It was only then did I realize that it wasn’t the waiter, but my friend, Chandi. I was back at the ATM. The girl was gone. The dream was over. I was a loser.

“Where did she go?” I almost screamed.

“Who? The orange girl?” asked Gilly.

“Yes.”

“She’s gone, I think.”

“I know that, you moron. Where did she go?”

“She just drew money, right?” Praveena began, “If my analysis is right, she must have gone to buy a pair of sandals.”

“What?” They were really getting on my nerves.

“Yes.” Sherlock Praveena Holmes continued, “Didn’t you observe? She was in an orange dress, but her sandals were brown in colour. From the looks of her, she was going somewhere. A party, perhaps. So her dress and sandals should be matching-matching, no? She really wants to buy a pair of sandals that goes well with her dress, trust me. Girls and sandals go hand in hand, don’t you know?”

“Girls and sandals go hand in hand? Irony, that,” said Chandi as they all started to laugh. I’d have joined them too had it been a different girl.

“One thing is sure. She is definitely not from our college,” said Gilly.

I nodded. So did the other two. Our nods were with respect to a theory we firmly believed in: Girls in your college are never beautiful. And girls in your class are definitely, definitely not beautiful. There might be room for some argument when it comes to the former though. There are always exceptions. But it isn’t the case with the latter part of the theory. Definitely not. So when a boy goes out with a girl from his college (with exceptions), or worse, from his class (without exceptions), you can be sure that he has run out of patience. The lazy bugger is just not ready to look outside. Open your eyes, get out, explore the world, said the crazy four. That’s we.

Coming back, I was deeply disappointed to have lost the girl in orange dress. I hung my head and walked back, without drawing money. I thought I was never going to see her again. Luckily, I was wrong then.

I sat pillion as Praveena kick-started his bike. “By the way, she is not that beautiful,” he made a frivolous comment on the girl with whom I had had a dinner date, with whom I was planning to go to New Zealand, Switzerland, England, etc. I mean only countries, whose names end in ‘land’. You get the picture, right? But that filthy twit had the audacity to say that she wasn’t beautiful. Saying the girl in orange dress was not beautiful was like saying Cameron Diaz was beautiful. And those of you who say that Ms. Diaz is beautiful can go to hell. So, I had to teach him a lesson and make sure it didn’t happen again.

I got off the bike, kicked him in the gut, he screamed, the other two laughed, I sat pillion again, he muttered something as he shifted gear and we rode on.

I didn’t see her again for another two weeks.

***

It was August. It was cold. She was still missing. University Cultural fest had begun. We were on a roll.

We regularly took part in cultural programmes. Not because we wanted to win prizes and make our college proud, but because it was an opportunity to bunk classes – officially. We missed a lot of classes and still got the attendance. That means we had the cake and ate it too.

The fest was hosted by NMAM Institute of Technology, Nitte, Karnataka. The place was marvelous; the architecture of the college, exquisite. Rainy season in a coastal region, that brooding silence all over, wonderful friends for company, coffee and pretty girls everywhere – we were in a paradise. Only those who have spent some time in a coastal region in the rainy season will know what I am talking about.

It was slightly drizzling on the early morning of the first day. My friends and I had got up early and were headed towards the coffee shop. Unlike our college, where we only had a pathetic canteen that served awful coffee, here there was a separate coffee shop, along with a bakery and a canteen at different locations in the campus. As far as we were concerned, the basic necessities of life were not food, water and shelter; but food, coffee and food.

I didn’t mind the rain, I didn’t mind the cold; I only minded my camera, given to me by my uncle after many days of begging. A Nikon D40. On that memorable morning, I didn’t know that my camera would soon play an important role. I shifted my sling bag, which held my camera and walked on, rubbing my hands together. It was horribly cold.

We were about a hundred yards from the coffee shop when I noticed her. The girl in orange dress. Only this time she was in blue jeans, shoes and white woolen jacket. She was drinking coffee, holding the cup in both hands. Her friend said something in her ears. She almost spilled her coffee as she laughed. I was in a trance.

I had already stopped walking. My friends stopped walking too. They knew instantly. Chandi had already spotted her. Gilly was already yelling, “Girl from the ATM.” Praveena grinned and jogged my arm.

Without thinking further, without any preamble, I started walking towards her. My heartbeat was normal. Going and talking to her seemed like the most natural thing to do. I walked on with certitude. My friends followed me, slowly. After all, they needed some fodder for the day.

She and her friend were still giggling. I stood a few paces away from her. She didn’t notice me. It wasn’t surprising actually, for there were a lot of students around. I was just one among them.

I took a few steps and stood right in front of her. They stopped chatting and giggling as they looked at me. Before I could give them an impression of a psychopath by staring at them continuously, I said, “Hi.”

It was the safest way to start a conversation. They furrowed their brows.

“I wanted to talk to you for a few minutes,” I said, not knowing what I was going to say.

Her friend took a step back. I held her gaze and said, “No, no. Please stay. It’s OK. She doesn’t know me.”

The girl in blue jeans was looking at me curiously, with the same calm expression on her face I had noticed at the ATM.

I hopelessly searched for a hint of smile. Nope. No luck there. She took the last swig of her coffee, threw the paper cup in the nearby wastebasket, folded her arms and flashed her eyebrows, as if asking me to go on. Must admit, her confidence made me a bit nervous.

I started with a big smile, “You are from Davanagere too, aren’t you?”

She nodded. That’s it. Just a nod. No words.

I was still smiling. I actually believed that it was my James Bond smile, but seems like it wasn’t the case. It’s a big baby monkey’s smile, she would later tell me. OK, let’s not get there.

“From GMIT, I guess.”

“How do you know?” her friend asked.

“I’m from BIET and obviously you are not from my college. The only other engineering college left in our city is yours.”

“Right.”

The girl in jeans kept mum. I tried again, “OK, tell me something. You were at the PJ Extension ATM two weeks ago, weren’t you? In an orange dress?”

Her friend smiled. I could also feel my friends’ gaze on my back.

“Well, I could’ve been there. In fact I was there two days ago too. And the day before that. And the day before that.”

“Why, you think it’s a video game or something? With so many buttons and a touch screen, did you get confused? It’s ATM, my dear. Why can’t you draw enough money at once that would suffice for the whole week?”

“Huh?”

“All right, smarty,” I grinned from ear to ear as I continued, “Listen. Beating about the bush is not in my nature. So I am going to tell you directly. I saw you a fortnight ago and was kind of hoping that I could meet you once again. But then, I didn’t believe in co-incidences. Until now. When I saw you here today, I couldn’t stop myself from coming and talking to you.”

Though I was still a stranger to her, I could sense that she and her friend were quite comfortable in my presence.

She looked at her friend once and almost smiled. “So?”

“So I was wondering, would you like to have some Vodka with me sometime?”

“What?” Well, this time she did laugh.

I was still smiling sheepishly. I shrugged.

“Vodka?” she said and stood with her arms akimbo.

I copied her stance and answered, “You know, all great people say, ‘aim high, think big, dream big’. That way, if you aim for a Ferrari, even if you don’t get a Ferrari, you’ll at least get a Jaguar. But if you start off with Maruti 800, there is absolutely no hope. So I figured if I asked you to have Vodka with me, chances are that you’d at least have coffee with me.”

She threw her head back and laughed wholeheartedly. For a moment I was confused as to who was more beautiful. Her person or her laughter? I usually don’t like to have confusions, for I’d like to keep things simple. But now, I was enjoying those simple confusions. Life had never been simpler.

“What are you?” she asked.

Notice the question. It’s not ‘Who’ but ‘What’. Maybe she was still thinking that I was some silly clown, who was trying to flirt with her. I didn’t mind and answered her ‘what’ question as honestly as possible.

“Well, Senorita, to define is to limit.”

“Ah, Oscar Wilde.” She seemed impressed.

A few things were perfectly clear now. She was a reader. She was exceptionally beautiful. Totally my type.

“Yup. Oscar Wilde, it is. So tell me. Vodka?”

“No. No Vodka.”

“Great. Coffee then?”

Her thin eyebrows playfully danced over her sparkling eyes as she smoothed away a few wisps of hair. “What if I said ‘No’?”

“In that case, I shall have to ask you if you’d like to have a cigarette, or ganja, or gutka, or good old local tambaaku, or –,”

“Coffee is fine,” she said at last.

“Fantastic. Let’s meet here in the evening. Say, at five o’clock? After the programmes?”

“OK.”

“All right then. Have a lovely day ahead. See you in the evening,” I said as I turned to go.

“Oye, wait up, man,” it was her friend. She was kind of cute too. “You didn’t even tell us your name?”

“Yes, right,” ATM girl added, “You didn’t even ask me my name.”

“What’s the hurry? We’ll talk in the evening. In detail. And on the morrow. The day after that and the day after that.”

“If you didn’t tell me your name, I might feel compelled to treat you as a stranger.”

“Haven’t you heard? There are no strangers in this world; only friends who haven’t met,” I said with a wink and walked away.

***

I don’t remember what we performed that day, but I do remember one thing. That entire day and the days that followed, I only thought and dreamt about her.

Although she had said that she would meet me, I was still skeptical. I went to the coffee shop at 4.45 p.m. and waited. Needless to say, my friends waited along with me. She arrived at about 5.20. My hooligan friends introduced themselves and narrated the ATM incident, with some extra masala. She didn’t complain. Rather she thoroughly enjoyed the story. Then, they took her friend aside and started flirting with her. I was left alone with her. Thankfully.

That evening we talked. We talked for over an hour, until her bus arrived and picked her up. They had been given the accommodation in a nearby girls’ hostel.

It is, without a doubt, one of the best times I’ve ever had. At the end of the first day, I was almost in love.

***

The next two days followed smoothly. Coffee, laughter, fun and frolic; coffee, laughter, fun and frolic; followed by coffee, laughter, fun and frolic. Those are three of the most memorable days of my life. And with each passing minute, I was hopelessly, deeply, madly falling in love with her.

On the fourth day, i.e. the last day, she had worn the same orange dress. I don’t know whether she wanted to tease me or play a naughty game with me. But the moment I saw her was the moment I decided to tell her about my feelings.

All these days I had never given my camera to any of my friends. They didn’t complain as long as I took pictures of pretty girls they pointed their fingers at. It seemed like there was some tough competition between the memory of my camera and the girls in the campus.

Now the time had come to pass on the baton. I gave them the camera and asked them to take a few pictures of me and her – without her knowledge. I would show her later, of course. It’s just that I wanted the photograph to be as natural as possible. After warning them not to change any settings and just click the shutter button, I met with her at the coffee shop.

The campus was throttled with cold wet chill. I bought two cups of coffee and we started walking towards the basketball court. It was much calmer there. My friends greeted her, cracked a few stupid jokes and excused themselves, leaving us alone.

After talking for a few minutes, we went and sat on a nearby stone bench. The weather was cold and cloudy. The mood was warm. Coffee was hot. Even with so many students around, a blanket of idyllic quietness floated in the campus. We sat there in silence, enjoying the simple pleasures of life. None of us spoke for a long time.

There was a mild clap of thunder in the distance, an indication that it was about to rain. Then, as the first few drops of rain touched my skin, I turned to her, looked her in the eyes and proposed to her. She was startled beyond means. For a moment she thought I was joking, but soon realized that I was serious.

“Maybe you are thinking that this is all too early,” I began. “I understand that. Maybe it is early. Maybe I’m quite impetuous by nature. When I got up this morning, I didn’t have any plans to say all these. But the moment I saw you today, I realized that I had to say. Look, if not today, I’d have said it eventually. Maybe tomorrow, maybe next week …”

And thus went my monologue for about five minutes. And then she spoke for about a few minutes. And then we both talked and discussed – for a long time. At one point of time during our conversation, her body was angled towards me; with her left hand tucked behind her right and her chin resting on her right palm as a beatific smile played on her lips. I, on the other hand, was enthusiastically telling her something with subtle hand gestures. If, at that moment, anyone had seen us from a short distance, he/she would have seen a beautiful girl in an orange dress, completely engrossed in an interesting conversation with a boy in lemon-yellow t-shirt and blue jeans, sitting next to her; with a cheerful setting in the background – green trees and plants dipped in mist and rain, a wet basketball court, a few boys and girls in colourful clothes, chatting and laughing. It would have made a grand, ethereal picture. As luck would have it, someone did see us at that particular moment. Gilly. And that, my friends, was the moment captured in my camera. Only I didn’t know then.

I came back to my friends when she was gone. I didn’t tell them that I had proposed to her. Gilly handed over the camera to me. And when I saw the picture, I almost yelled at the top of my voice, “What the hell is this?”

The photograph was in black-and-white. I looked at them, seething.

“Don’t look at me like that,” said Gilly. “I didn’t change the settings. I just clicked. Ask Chandi. He’s the one who wanted to take pictures of those girls in black t-shirts. He’s the one who handled the camera before me.”

“What?” Chandi jumped in. “No. I swear on Pamela Anderson’s eyes, I didn’t change the settings.”

“Pam Anderson has eyes?” It was Praveena. “No one told me. I always thought…"

I ignored them and browsed through the photos. Except for the first few photos taken that morning, all the remaining ones were in black-and-white. Including the picture of me and her. To make things worse, they had taken only one picture of us. The rest of them were all girls.

Although I like black-and-white photographs, which exemplify nostalgia; I still wanted that particular picture in colour. The setting, the moment, the atmosphere, everything was impeccable. A colourful moment was discoloured by a stupid negligence. Maybe I could have taken another picture, but that magic could not have been recreated. The moment had passed.

Well, that’s all. I am not going to tell you what happened next. I am not going to tell you whether she accepted my proposal, whether she decided to remain as just friends, whether I accepted that, whether we kept in touch after that, whether we are still in touch, whether we are a couple now, or whether we even met after that day. All these are irrelevant. I’m not even going to show you that photograph. This too is irrelevant. There are two reasons for this. One, that picture is too sacred, too precious. Not to be shared easily. Two, a picture speaks a thousand words. And I prefer the thousand words.

But then again, what is relevant, what is important is the moment I spent with her that day. Even today when I hold that photograph in my hands and see, all those things flash in front of my eyes as if they happened an hour ago. The first time I saw her at the ATM, then in Nitte during the cultural fest, our first conversation and many such conversations in the following days. And finally, the last day, when I proposed to her; that particular moment on the stone bench when she sat next to me, listening and talking and laughing …

As Baba Will Smith said in Hitch, “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but the moments that take our breath away.”

It was one such magical moment indeed. A moment captured in black-and-white. Every time I remember those days, those blissful moments, I can only imagine her in that orange dress. But unfortunately, the girl in orange dress was now in black-and-white.

I wish that picture was in colour. I wish I could change things. I wish I could go back in time. I wish …

***************

Copyright © Karthik 2011

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As The Crow Flies
Swami and Friends
The Devil's Alternative
The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Godfather
The Seven Minutes
The Prize
Atlas Shrugged
The Fountainhead
If Tomorrow Comes
Digital Fortress
The Chancellor Manuscript
The Bourne Supremacy
The Bourne Identity
The Fist of God
The Fourth Protocol
The Odessa File
The Day of the Jackal


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