spoon

The Black Sheep

19

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1

Good storytellers are good liars, you know. And good liars can become good storytellers. I’m a terrific liar; hence I’m a terrific storyteller. I didn’t know it until a girl told me many months ago. One of the reasons she became one of my ex-girlfriends is that, according to her, I talk a lot. There is a specific word for such people: extroverts. So, yes. I’m that: an extrovert. Anyway, she told me to put my thoughts into writing, instead of blabbering away, irritating everyone around me. I gave it some thought and found the idea fascinating. Then, someone told me that one should read a lot before attempting to write. Well, I didn’t find it fascinating though. I mean, come on, you have something to say, and you say it. That’s all. Why do you have to read something written by someone else to write your stuff? Stupid, isn’t? But when I said this to her she slapped her forehead and said, ‘Are you joking? If you are not a good reader, you can never be a good writer.’ That got me thinking. So I asked, ‘What books should I read, then? You know, to become a good writer and all?’ She suggested some books written by these hot-shot IIT, IIM guys. I thought, ‘Right, right. Books written by intelligent people must be good enough for me to get some dough.’ Know what I mean? I started reading.
It should amuse to know that I am a fast reader. Although I had never read a single book until then, I read about seven books in ten days. Some achievement, no? I don’t usually boast, but, well, umm, oh, what the hell! Anyway, after ten days of reading, I started writing. I finished my first story in five days. Here’s the gist: Horny boy meets hot girl. He follows her everywhere. After a few days she gives in. They go to movies, restaurants and other fancy places. One day, horny boy takes the hot girl to his place and bangs her. And then they screw around in the most uncomfortable places: the backseat of a car, in the toilet, in the kitchen, to name a few. Finally, they finish college and go separate ways. Horny boy meets another hot girl; old hot girl meets another horny boy. That’s it. There was a hidden message in the story: Life goes on. Nice, isn’t? I know it is.
I had really worked hard on this, you know. I had taken a lot of pain explaining certain things in detail: sex acts, the girl’s body, horny boy’s thoughts, the way they deal with college life and all. But when I showed it to my girl, she threw the sheets of paper away and broke up with me, calling me a pervert. I was devastated, all right. But experience had taught me to move on. That’s the moral of my story, if you know what I mean. Irony, see?
Few weeks later, I met another girl: unlike the one I mentioned earlier, this one was quite cool. She liked my story immensely. And also made a few suggestions: instead of just the backseat of the car and certain places in the house, make them do on the beach, in a hot-air balloon; climb up a mountain and do it under the stars, etc. I was in love with her. We had a good chemistry, really. And biology, too. Unfortunately, things ended between us. Her ex-boyfriend came to her and begged her to get back with him. She agreed. My friends told me that she used me to make him jealous. I was devastated - again. Another friend told me that I didn’t lose anything after all, and winked. I didn’t understand what he meant then. I still don’t, actually. But my other three friends laughed, and I joined them.
There is a reason I am telling all these things to you. Here’s the trick: always create some gravity before arriving at the main point. That’s one of the rules of storytelling. Anyway, before breaking up with me, my latest ex-girlfriend suggested: instead of writing stories, why not write about your own, real experience? Noting down important things that you see and hear? Get my point?
Anyone who wants to become a writer should be a good observer. And I am, obviously, as you already know, a good observer. So here I am writing down my personal experience. Interesting thing is that when personal experiences are put together with a few snippets of imagination thrown in, it becomes a story. I’m not putting anything extra, except for real things though. So it’s a real story. Oxymoron, you say? Maybe. Read on.
Before moving on, let me introduce myself: My name is, well, umm, let’s say, Kari Kuri; The Black Sheep. I live in Bangalore: the holy land of beer and software. I’m a first year student in some college doing some course. I wear transparent glasses with no power. Why? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll know later; maybe I’ll tell you then. Here we go.

2

It was a Saturday. College got over by ten in the morning. Having nothing much to do, I took a bus and went to Brigade Road. Air was cool; and the girls pretty. A perfect weather on a perfect day. But then I don’t like perfection, you see. So it was quite an ordinary day for me. There is something evil about perfection: it’s ugly, it’s mediocre, it’s brutal. Just imagine. If everything in this world was perfect, there would be nothing to complain. If there was nothing to complain, many people would be jobless; they would be dead from the inside. Thank heavens, not everything is perfect. It was the same with the weather that day: it was bloody perfect. Hence I was restive and cranky. I walked down the road, trying to find something interesting to write about. Well, I did. That’s why you are reading this.
Since it was the weekend, the crowd was amazing. I bumped into people from time to time. I didn’t mind that. Girls and women were dressed beautifully and looked beautiful; boys looked like boys and men looked like men. The smell of their perfume, the look in their eyes, their accent (some of them fake), everything was marvelous. I smiled as I walked on.
A minute later when I was walking in front of a Reebok showroom, I saw a man, not older than thirty, groping a girl’s butt. The girl screamed like crazy. I was surprised that such a high-pitched scream should come out of such a tiny girl. The girl was dressed in blue jeans and white top. She was not tiny when I saw her from a close range. She was great. Anyway, people gathered around the girl quickly. Surprisingly, the man who had groped her was also in the crowd. He stood right in front of the girl. He had his arm around another man’s shoulder (probably a friend or a cousin). He was not exactly smiling, but there was a peculiar look on his face: the kind you see on babas and swamis that come on television. I looked him up and down. He was well-built. I was quite sure he went to gym. Funny thing is that I once fancied going to gym and building my body like that. I did go for a week, too. But then it struck me: Why? Why should I build my body? Whom would I want to impress? Is it the person in the mirror or some girl whose pants I want to get into? Either ways, it was quite a waste of energy. It’s what inside of you that matters, right? Conscience, intelligence, courage. Know what I mean?
The girl was crying now. An elderly lady put her arms around her and asked what it was. The girl told her, in between sobs. ‘Rotten pigs!’ the elderly lady cried. I turned to look at the man who had caused this disturbance. He remained inscrutable. A moment later he turned and looked me in the eye: as if he’d heard my thoughts. I quickly turned away. One of the men in the crowd asked, ‘Did anyone see who did this?’ No one responded. I took a step forward and said, ‘Such bastards should be castrated!’ A few heads turned towards me; some nodded, some turned away. I didn’t mind.
The elderly lady led the girl away from the crowd. The crowd broke, and the man and his friend joined the stream of people, melting away from the scene of crime. I shook my head, put my hands in my jacket pockets and walked out of Brigade Road.

3

It was noon. As I had already got bored with Brigade Road, I decided to leave the place and go somewhere else. And Garuda Mall happened to be ‘somewhere else.’ I bought a Hot Chocolate Fudge from an ice-cream shop, tentatively named American Ice-Cream Parlour, and started walking towards my destination. As I walked on I ruminated on the ice-cream shop. Why the name American Ice-Cream Parlour? Why not Indian? Why not Bangalore? Why not Brigade? Do people get attracted to everything that’s related to America? Maybe faarin names make a difference. It’s hypocrisy, don’t you think? In the midst of these faarin influenced, superfluous shops that resonate false prestige, Indian Coffee Bar on M.G. Road stood apart. I liked that place. But it’s not there anymore. Some big-shot crack-head compelled them to close it down.
All these thoughts caused a stir in my heart, and I threw my ice-cream away. I stood by the side of the road and waited for the traffic signal to change. As I waited there with patience it struck me: Why should I bother about the name of the shop? The ice-cream was good enough. And the man who made it was Indian. So who cares what the name of the shop is? I turned round and walked back to the shop, and bought another ice-cream.
Precisely ten minutes later I was in front of the Garuda Mall, one of the biggest malls in Bangalore. I was about to enter when I heard a ‘thud.’ I turned round. People had already started running hither and thither. Curious, I broke into a trot and joined the crowd. About fifty feet from the mall a biker had hit a parked lorry: Accident!
I fought through the crowd and got to the beginning of the line, or perhaps, the beginning of the circle. The biker lay on the ground about ten feet from me. Although he wore a helmet, I could see blood tripping down his neck. Maybe it’s from his neck or shoulder or something else, I was not sure. He was writhing, perhaps in agony. His hands and legs bled profusely. His shirt and pants were torn. I could see a horizontal cut on his midriff. I then, instinctively, looked up to see the people around me. There must be about hundred people there: from young kids to young boys and girls my age to older men and women, everyone was present. Some of them were talking among themselves, a few boys and girls were taking pictures of the accident from their cell-phones (I bet I recognized at least three i-phones). Maybe some of them were making videos, as the biker was still alive.
A few seconds later, the man removed his helmet with great difficulty. Pushing the helmet away, he stretched his hands towards the crowd. I don’t know why he did that. A few more cell-phones came out of pockets. Now I was sure that they were making videos. Why people would want such videos on their cell-phones, I wonder. Pictures and videos of nude girls are OK, but pictures of a bleeding guy? That’s gross.
Some of them were now talking among themselves: ‘Such a crazy guy! Everyone is in a hurry these days,’ said a man. ‘Such a poor guy,’ said a woman, ‘Look at him. He’s not even thirty.’ ‘Why can’t they ride slowly?’ said another.
As I was busy observing, my phone rang: ‘Kisi ki muskurahaton ke ho nisar… I picked it up before it went to the second line: ‘Hello,’ I said into the phone. It was my friend. ‘I’ll call you back later. I’m busy right now,’ I said and disconnected the phone, finishing the first stanza of the song, singing in a low voice: Jeena isi ka naam hai... As I had got my phone out of my pocket, I thought of checking my balance: Rs. 34/- it said. ‘Hmm,’ I muttered under my breath, ‘Got to recharge quickly.’ I then wondered if I should have called the ambulance or the police or whatever. There are plenty of people, I thought, one or the other will have called already. Having decided on that, I kept the phone back in my pocket.
You must already know this. But to those of you, who don’t know, let me tell you, I’m a very creative person. And creative people get bored with things very soon. I was about to leave the crowd when an ambulance, followed by four policemen, arrived at the spot. The crowd dispersed as four men clad in white clothes approached the biker. As they lifted him onto the stretcher I noticed he had stopped moving. His eyes remained peeled. He was dead.
Crazy thing is that there was a hospital just round the corner. Yet it took them such a long time (about ten minutes) to come. I turned back to go to the mall. As I started walking I saw a beautiful car parked on the side of the road. It was an Audi TT, a beautiful silver-colour coupe. I walked up to it and ran my hands over it, as I had caressed the cheek of my ex-girlfriend. Oh, the things that followed… My stream of thoughts was broken when I felt a push. I cocked my head to see who it was. A 20-something boy stood over my shoulder, with a black remote control in his hand. I instantly knew he was the owner of the car. He was about to open his mouth to say something when a policeman came shouting at us, or probably just him.
‘Why have you parked your car here? Get it out.’
It’s strange and ugly how people come to conclusions. The policeman was sure that that boy, and not me, owned the car. Agreed that clothes give away your identity – sometimes – but aren’t you supposed to make sure you got it right? Isn’t it rude?
‘There was an accident, sir,’ the boy grinned, ‘Thought I’d take a look.’
‘Did you?’
‘Yes, sir. I mean I didn’t see him hitting the lorry, but joined the crowd to see.’
I pitched in: ‘So much blood, sir. Really, sir. The blood flowed and almost touched my feet, sir. He was very much alive until a few seconds before the ambulance arrived, sir...’
Both the boy and the policeman ignored me.
The policeman warned him once again, and left. The boy got behind the wheel. Before he could disappear I asked him: ‘How much is this car worth?’
‘Sixty lakhs,’ he said, beaming, and drove away.
I stood there looking after the car until it took a turn and vanished. I turned round and started walking.
As I walked on I thought about the dead man’s bike. It was an old, Yamaha RX-Z 135; a 2-stroke beauty. They don’t manufacture it now. Wonder what it is worth in the second hand market now! And then a brilliant thought occurred to me: shall I go to the police station a few days later and see if I can get my hands on that bike, and have it altered? I mean the owner is dead now, anyway. I might as well have a chance. I thought I’d look into the matter later and moved on.

4

‘That’s not the point,’ said Jyothi.
‘Then what is?’ asked Shashi Kumar.
‘Why are you guys so prejudiced? Why do you stereotype us?’
‘I didn’t.’
‘You just did. What do you mean by “Girls are unreasonable”?’
Shashi Kumar sniggered. ‘If you say that that statement is stereotyping, then you do believe that girls are unreasonable?’
‘Oh, crap! What kind of logic is that?’
Shashi answered with a shrug, ‘At least you believe that it’s logic.’
Jyothi turned to Pallavi: ‘Aren’t you going to say something?’
‘I’m with you,’ said Pallavi, taking a sip of her frappe.
Jyothi continued. ‘You are such a chauvinistic pig. Why do you have such a low opinion of us? You do realize that your girlfriend is sitting right next me, don’t you?’
Shashi leaned forward. ‘Hey, why are you taking it so seriously? I didn’t mean all girls were like that. It’s just a way of saying. When a girl is pissed off with a guy, she says all men are bastards. But she doesn’t mean it, does she? She is only referring to one particular guy, or perhaps a few guys she has met.’
‘That’s not what you meant when you said it. Even last time when we had gone out on a trip you passed similar comments: “Girls are unreasonable, girls are not good drivers, girls are sentimental, girls love only stupid love stories, girls can’t understand solid thrillers, girls can be easily fooled; girls can only get ranks in exams, but can’t put their bookish knowledge to practical use… should I go on? I know there are differences in our thinking pattern. But what you are saying is downright offensive.’
Shashi shook his head. ‘I didn’t say half the things you said.’
‘You did.’
‘That must be in good humour.’
‘Oh, come on. Such things shouldn’t be said even in jest.’
‘Don’t you all make fun of us, too? You draw a picture of a brain, with a headline that says, “Boys’ brain.” In the left side you write “food,” and on the right, “sex.” That’s a joke, but none of us take it seriously –,’
Pallavi gave a chortle and said, interrupting Shashi, ‘Maybe because you admit it.’
Nobody was in a mood to humour Pallavi. Shashi continued: ‘But if a guy shares a funny picture on facebook, say, about the difference between a boy withdrawing money from the ATM and a girl doing the same, you rebel against it? What’s happened to your sense of humour? What the world is coming to! Girls are losing their sense of humour these days. I make one harmless joke on the opposite sex, and you become a feminist!’
Jyothi cried, ‘You are damn right, I am a feminist.’
Shashi looked to his right: ‘Aren’t you going to defend me, Prabhu? Your girl is all set to kill me today.’
‘Actually,’ said Prabhu, smoothing his hair. ‘I’m on her side. It’s a sensitive subject. I’d better stay out of it.’
‘Fantastic!’ Shashi then turned towards me: ‘What about you?’
Experience had taught me never to argue with girls. ‘I’m new here,’ said I, trying to be prudent. ‘It would be inappropriate on my part to say anything.’
Shashi removed the straw from the plastic container, tossed it aside on the table, took a swig of his cold coffee, and spoke: ‘All right, Jyothi. Let’s finish this. You want to make a villain out of me, and I’ll be one. You accused me of saying that girls were bad drivers. Well, I never said it, but I’ll say it now. Girls are never, and can never be good drivers. You don’t have road manners. When a few girls walk down the road or ride their bikes, they, not bothering about common sense or rules, go horizontally, covering half the road as if they own it. That’s one thing. Let me continue. You can only get ranks in exams that compel the journalists to write: Girls outsmart boys in board exams. But when the time comes to apply that bookish knowledge to practical purposes, you fail miserably –,’
Jyothi slapped her hand on the table and asked Pallavi, ‘May I punch this arrogant bastard?’
‘Be my guest,’ said Pallavi.
Jyothi leaned forward, brushed her curls to the back of her ears, and continued: ‘Careful there. What kind of trash talk is that? You do realize this is 2012, don’t you? Girls are matching up with boys in every way. We are better than you in many things. Ever heard of Krushnaa Patil? She is the youngest Indian to scale the Mount Everest. Need more examples? Look at news channels; look at CNBC, for example. Have you seen those stock market analysts? You can’t ignore them now, can you?’
‘See that?’ Shashi said, quickly, ‘You are belittling yourselves; you are insulting yourselves by comparing yourselves with boys. “Girls are matching up with boys in every way,” “We are better than you in many ways.” When you say, “We can do anything that boys do,” you are actually saying, “boys are above us, and we trying to match up with them.” Why do you have to compare? Just do what you got to do. There is a difference between saying, “I can do whatever he does,” and “I can do whatever I want to do.”
And I know about Krushnaa Patil. I admire her very much. She is certainly an inspiration to many of us. It takes some hard work to climb a simple mountain like Kumara Parvata in Karnataka. Scaling Mount Everest is huge. “19-year-old Krushnaa Patil reached the summit” is quite an inspiring statement. But look how you put it: “In spite of being a girl, Krushnaa Patil scaled the Mount Everest.” Don’t you see the difference? It is a stupendous feat, all right. When you put it that way, what you actually mean is, “Women can’t usually achieve something like that, but someone rare has done it for a change.”’ Aren’t you contradicting yourself by these statements? Aren’t you offending yourself?
‘Oh, by the way, I have seen those stock market analysts. All are good looking. Show me one girl who is not attractive. Appearance plays an important role there. A girl with average intelligence with amazing looks has a high-profile job. It’s not the case with boys, you see. We have to be smart enough to get what we want.’
For the first time I got interested in the conversation. I finished my coffee and became more attentive. Funny thing is that both of them made sense to me. When Jyothi spoke, I was on her side; and when Shashi spoke, I agreed with him, too. Wonder how two people can be right at the same time, although their voices and opinions on the same subject vary? I was in a tough spot.
Two hours earlier when I decided not to go to Garuda Mall, I couldn’t decide where to go or what to do. So I sat outside the mall for a few minutes, recalling the day. It was an interesting day, after all: a girl getting groped, and an accident! Half a day and so much dough to talk about, or perhaps, so much to write about!
It was one-thirty in the afternoon. I was hungry. I checked my wallet. I had two-hundred bucks in it. It was enough. Now the big question: what to eat? When you have money, and when you are in Bangalore, you have plenty of options. But having too many options is a problem, trust me. I say you should always be careful when presented with too many options. It might just kill you. Remember what happened to Emile Hirsch in Into the Wild? He simply had too many options: many different types of plants and herbs and grass and whatever. He made a wrong choice and looked up a book and ate a poisonous plant and died. If he had only one plant around him, he would’ve eaten it without a choice, without looking it up a book. Right? And then, if it had been a harmless plant, he’d have lived; if it had been a poisonous plant, he’d have died. The point is chances of survival would have been 50:50. But here, he had plenty of options, and hence he had to make a very difficult choice, and die ultimately. Get my drift? Oh, wait a second. I think…I think I gave away the ending of the movie. Don’t mind, please. It’s a boring movie, anyway. But did I make any sense? Yes? No? I was famished. And now, as I write this, thinking of my hunger has made me hungry. And you know people say and do crazy things when they are hungry.
I decided to flip a coin: heads, masala dosa; tails, full meals. I flipped a coin. It was heads. I headed to a café, to have a cheese burger and a hot chocolate.
It was ten past two when I took my seat in the café. I was about to order when someone called my name. I swept the place with my eyes and found Shashi Kumar, my childhood friend. I went over and gave him a high-five; it had been a long time. He was with his three friends. He asked me to sit with him. I did. He introduced me to his friends.
‘Everyone, this is KK. We went to school together. And KK, this is Pallavi, that’s Jyothi, and this is Prabhu.’
I instantly knew Jyothi and Prabhu were together. And I knew that Pallavi was Shashi’s girlfriend.
Jyothi looked spunky: short hair (bob cut, boy cut, or something like that), a tiny leather band on her wrist, a few fashionable bangles, an expensive wristwatch, jeans and top. On the other hand, Pallavi looked feminine: a simple green salwar, hair tied back, and a wristwatch on her right hand. Prabhu was in black leather jacket; Shashi Kumar was in his typical outfit: Jeans and shirt, with sleeves rolled up.
‘Hello, everyone,’ I said.
Although it was a Saturday, the café was not crowded. It would be, I’m sure, in the evening. The ambience of the place was good: a nice piece of music played in the background, a few pretty girls around, delicious smell of coffee and chocolate and cheese and what not; all in all, I was very comfortable.
I concentrated on the music for a few seconds. Boy, it was amazing! It then struck me: they never play regional music in such cafés. A few days earlier one of my friends from Delhi had pointed out the same thing: Wonder why they don’t play regional music in these sophisticated cafés. I’ve been around, you know. And it’s quite a big franchise. Although they usually prefer English music, they play regional music quite frequently: Hindi in Delhi, Tamil in Tamil Nadu, Bengali in West Bengal … But it’s only in Karnataka, especially in Bangalore, that they don’t play Kannada songs. I’m sorry to tell you this; but I think some people here have a lot of false prestige.
Thinking of it made me a bit angry, but the very next moment I was all right. I’m not a big fan of music, really. I don’t know what the fuss is all about. When I say this to my friends they react like lab monkeys. No, seriously, what is it about? I don’t enjoy music as the social norm propagates. That’s all. Talking of music, I even admit I don’t like Nightingales. I used to, but I don’t anymore. Those birds are overrated. What’s so wonderful about Nightingale, huh? Even after a hundred years it’ll still make the same sound, I’m sure. Big deal! But I liked sparrows. Unfortunately, they are not around these days. A newspaper article said they all disappeared because of cell-phones. I decided to stop using my cell-phone then. It didn’t last long. Can’t live without phones, you see. I decided to sacrifice sparrows for phones. It’s awful, I know. I’m awful and disgusting. I can’t help it. Nightingales and Sparrows are out of picture now. So it’s the Mockingbird that I like now. They are not as ubiquitous as crows, but whenever I spot them I like them. I don’t like anyone mocking me, but when that bird does, it kind of feels nice; it gives me a feeling that it listens to me. People don’t listen these days, you know. They only want to talk. All the time…
‘You seem lost,’ said Pallavi.
‘No, no, I’m all right,’ I said.
Pallavi was really beautiful; Jyothi was, too. But they were both out of my reach for two reasons: Shashi was my friend; Prabhu was muscular.
The waiter arrived and placed our orders. I was in heaven when I took a sip of my hot chocolate.
‘So, what’s up, KK?’ asked Shashi.
I never understood the deal with ‘up.’ Why does everyone use that word so often? “What’s up,” “Dress up,” “Mess up,” and the like?
‘I’m good. What’s up with you?’ I asked, trying to fit into the group. ‘How did your essay competition go last week?’
‘Fucked up, man,’ said he.
There you go. Another one: fucked up. I never understood the deal with the word “fuck” either. I mean, come on. It’s such an honest word. No ambiguities at all. It’s one of the purest words in the English language. In my opinion, words and phrases like sex, love making, etc. are all euphemisms for “fuck.” I think people should be brave enough to use it. But that’s it. That should be the extent of it. The word should be used only in its literal sense. What I don’t understand is why people use it in every sentence. They are only spoiling the beauty of the word, thereby spoiling the beauty of the language.
‘Why did you fuck up?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know. I wrote well, but didn’t win.’
Pallavi extended her hand and said, ‘Never mind. There is always a next time. Shashi took it and held it for a while.
‘Exactly,’ I said. ‘But what was the topic?’
‘Role of Modern Women in Contemporary India.’
‘Oh, that’s a tough one,’ I said.
‘Yes, it was.’
No one spoke, for everyone knew how much essays and debates meant to Shashi.
‘Do you know who won the competition?’ He asked several seconds later.
‘Some girl, I guess,’ I said, casually.
‘It’s Aashish.’
‘What? Aashish? Are you joking?’
‘Not at all.’
‘You mean the Aashish who slapped his “girlfriend”?’
‘Yes, the same asshole. Such an irony, no?’
‘I bet,’ said I.
‘That girl must have felt awful. To be slapped in front of so many people and all,’ said Prabhu.
It was the first time I had heard Prabhu’s voice. God, it was deep.
‘No shit,’ said Shashi.
All right, another word: shit. But let me not get into detail this time.
Shashi continued: ‘But the girl was pretty dumb, too.’
‘You mean pretty and dumb?’ I asked.
Shashi and Prabhu chuckled. But I didn’t mean it as a joke. It was an honest question.
‘Yes, kind of,’ Shashi said. ‘It wasn’t the first time, I tell you. It had happened before. I mean how dumb can girls be, huh? Her friends tried to speak some sense into her, yet the girl didn’t get away from him. Unreasonable bimbo! Latest news is that she still hangs around with him. Girls are stupid sometimes.’
I was about to say something when Jyothi said, ‘How can you say such an insensible thing?’
Shashi raised his eyebrows. ‘Sorry?’
‘It’s a poor girl you are talking about.’
‘You heard the story, didn’t you?’
‘Yes, I did. I also heard you say, “Girls are stupid,” “girls are dumb.” What’s that all about?’
‘Whoa, wait a second, lady. I was only talking about that girl.’
‘That’s not the point.’
‘Then what is?’
‘Why are you guys so prejudiced? Why do you stereotype us…?’
And that’s how it all began.
……
……
‘…A girl with average intelligence with amazing looks has a high-profile job. It’s not the case with boys, you see. We have to be smart enough to get what we want.’
And now, Jyothi was quick to answer: ‘Maybe I’ll slightly agree with you on this one. But that’s a very small percentage. There are thousands of women who work behind the screens and bring a change to the world. I also agree that when it comes to famous names, we hear men’s names more often than women’s. The reason is simple: women, like our mothers, sacrifice for the sake of their families. Another reason: we are not given enough encouragement. Take Indian Army for example. We can fight for our country, too. Why don’t they trust us? Why do they think we are weak? Sure there are a few women in the Army; but when it comes to bigger tasks, they don’t trust them; they are not sent to fight. They can only become trainers in the academy, or worse, stick to some desk job. In other areas, the so-called Indian culture comes into play. Girls shouldn’t be doing such jobs blah-blah-blah.’
Now I was confused. Where the hell was this conversation going? I was getting bored already.
Shashi threw up his hands in the air. ‘Where are you going with this?’
Exactly my question.
‘Indian Army, Jyothi? You do know how our soldiers will be treated when they get caught, don’t you? Can’t you realize what happens when women soldiers are caught? No government official wants that on his head. It reflects badly on our country, too. That’s the main reason women soldiers are not sent to combat.’
‘That’s exactly what I said. They think we can’t protect ourselves. We always need someone to take care of us, eh?’
‘God, let’s not discuss this further.’
Jyothi continued, ignoring him. ‘Wait a second. “A girl with average intelligence with amazing looks has a high-profile job”? You crossed the line there.’
‘Really?’ said Shashi, placing his elbows on the table. ‘You want more examples? What about those fairness cream ads? Your feministic mind doesn’t get offended? They project as if only fair-skinned women succeed in life. A girl is going nowhere in her life, because of her dark skin; she has an enlightenment all of a sudden and uses a fairness cream, and voila! She is a successful cricket commentator! And the recent ones? Underarm fairness spray? Fairness cream or whatever for a girl’s private parts?! Really? Don’t you get offended by all these? Those models are doing great financially, mind you. If you are so concerned about your feministic ideals, then why don’t you do something about it? I will support you. But instead what are you doing? Sitting here in a cozy café with your rich boyfriend, bumming around, and arguing with me? We hangout together. The four of us, I mean. If that is not the case, you’ll spend your time with Prabhu. Why don’t you spend some time for this cause? How? I don’t know; maybe by writing some articles for newspapers or starting a blog or something. You can’t become a lady Rajinikanth and punish everyone. All you can do is create awareness. Do that.’
God, I was exhausted. I wanted to get out of there. Now I realized how Shashi won all those debate competitions. Sometimes it made me think if he said all those things only to irritate Jyothi and win the argument. Or did he really believe in what he said: including a few offensive things. On the contrary, Jyothi struggled to argue with him. I had always believed that a boy could never win an argument with a girl, but Shashi proved me wrong that day. But whatever it was, I couldn’t care less; for I was beat.
‘I will certainly stand up for the cause. Meanwhile I’m fighting it in my own way,’ said Jyothi.
Prabhu placed his palms on the table and cried, ‘Oh, stop it, both of you.’
Both of them ignored him.
‘Really? How?’ Shashi asked Jyothi.
Prabhu shook his head; Pallavi looked at me and bit her lip.
‘Last Sunday,’ began Jyothi, ‘I’d been to a nearby market in my jeans shorts and tank top. A few perverts kept staring at me. One of them crossed his limits and didn’t take his eyes off my chest. I stopped in my tracks and gave him a piece of my mind. He was embarrassed. A few people laughed, a few came to my support, and bashed him.’
‘If you go in your shorts and tank top, people are definitely going to stare at you. If you are not comfortable with others’ staring, then don’t wear such clothes.’
‘You are telling me what to wear and what not to wear? I shouldn’t wear clothes that I like, because some perverts stare at my tits and ass? It’s they who should be taught a lesson in manners.’
Did she say tits and ass? Have you heard of inception? My eyes suddenly dropped. She wore a violet top. There was something written on it. I focused. “Ogle at your own risk,” it said. So I took the risk and ogled. Staring is bad manners, sure. You become a pervert if you did that. But there is a subtle difference between a gentleman and a pervert: the keyword is “how.” Know what I mean? How you do it makes all the difference. If you do it in a way that she doesn’t notice, you are a gentleman; you make it obvious, and you are a pervert. Crazy how people invent words and judge other people!
‘It’s not only you,’ Shashi spoke at length. ‘Tomorrow if I go out in shorts and vest, the same men will stare at me. And women, too. Of course they do it more if it’s a girl. But this is how they behave. There is something different all of a sudden, and they get curious. Sure, if you wear such clothes and go to a place where everyone is wearing similar outfits, a party perhaps, then nobody is going to react. I’m not talking about psychos here, mind you. For psychos, it doesn’t really matter whether you are wearing shorts or saris. They will salivate, no matter what. I’m talking about ordinary men. It’s bad manners, I agree. But they are not going to change. How many people are you going to blame?’
‘Forget about our dress for the time being. Forget about psychos, too. Let’s talk about your “ordinary men.” Those miserable pieces of shit stare and whistle and try to grope at every opportunity. When I walk down the road I can always feel hundred pairs of eyes all over my body. Some losers even follow us, all the while passing comments. So you think this is all OK? You are saying we don’t have a right to have a cup of coffee in a coffee shop all by ourselves without being stared at?’
‘I didn’t say that.’
‘Then what did you say?’
‘I agree with you on men’s passing comments, whistling, trying to grope and all. They are disgusting. They should be beaten to death. But tell me about regular boys who check you out. Tell me. You don’t want boys to check you out? You go to gym, you maintain your figure, you wear a sexy dress, but don’t want anyone to look at you? You work hard to get those looks. Don’t you feel bad when nobody takes notice of you? You really mean your ego doesn’t get a boost when people admire you nonverbally?’
‘If it’s someone I know, then it’s all right. When strangers admire me,’ she made a quote sign with her hands, ‘nonverbally, even then it’s OK. But there is a way. I don’t mind if someone comes to me and flirts with me and compliments me. But don’t just stand there and stare and salivate!’
‘Well, if you want to wear such clothes, then you should be ready to face such things. Other things, I can’t really talk about. I agree I can’t empathize with you. You know your troubles better than I do.’
‘If you can’t empathize, you should just shut your bloody mouth and let us deal with it in our own way. Instead, why do you speak such nonsense?’
There was an interminable silence at the table. The discussion had gone awry. It had started off with something, took a new turn somewhere in the middle, and reached the climax with something else. I wanted to pull my hair. I could not. So, for want of pulling my hair I took refuge in playing with the tissues. I made two boats out of them, and used straws for oars.
‘OK, let me ask you something,’ Jyothi broke the silence. ‘If you marry Pallavi here –,’
‘What?!’ Pallavi almost screamed. She was the only one at the table who had remained calm till now. Not anymore. ‘What the hell are you talking about?’
‘Hypothetically, Pallavi,’ said Jyothi.
‘Hypothetical, psychothetical, my foot! Don’t bring me into this, for heavens’ sake. I’m not even twenty. You are already talking about my “hypothetical marriage?” What’s wrong with you? And please, stop it, both of you. I’m tired of this.’
No one spoke for a few seconds. And then, all of us broke into a prodigious peal of laughter. Pallavi joined in quietly.
‘All right. Just the last one,’ said Jyothi. ‘So, Shashi? You mean you won’t allow your prospective girlfriend/wife to wear such clothes?’
‘Oh, god, Jyothi!’ cried Pallavi.
‘Damn it. You still don’t get my point, do you?’ said Shashi. ‘Never mind. Let me not argue anymore, and answer your question: It’s all right with me. She can wear whatever she wants. But what about you? Prabhu is OK with your wearing such outfits?’
‘I’m sure he allows me to wear whatever I want; do whatever I want to do,’ said Jyothi, smiling, thereby giving us a hint that she had returned to her normal self.
‘Right, right,’ said Prabhu. ‘I don’t have any problems with that. She can wear whatever she wants. But I don’t think I’ll allow her to be friends with those sick, useless friends of hers. That’s my only concern.’
‘Oh, I have already promised you that I wont mingle with them anymore, haven’t I?’ said Jyothi.
Prabhu smiled. The young couple leaned across the table and held each other’s hands. I was thankful that it was all over. But something kept bothering me. I sat in silence for a minute and thought hard. Then it struck me. One word kept repeating in my head; one word that negated everything that they had said so far; one word that made me realize I had wasted my time; one word: allow.
I took off my glasses, wiped them with my t-shirt, wore them back, and looked at Jyothi and Shashi. I wasn’t sure if I could allow myself to agree with either of them anymore.

5

I am not a tall guy. I stand at five foot two. I don’t have a complex about it. But I really feel sorry for myself whenever I travel in Bangalore city buses: whenever a tall guy stands in front of me, hanging by the ceiling bar, my nose gets smothered in his armpit. Know what I mean? But today was different. The bus was not as crowded as it should be during this time everyday. All seats were occupied, but there was enough room to stand without rubbing my body against others’ and smelling their odour. It was a privilege.
It was seven o’clock in the evening. It had been an hour and a half since I said goodbye to Shashi Kumar and his friends. Hot chocolate and cheese burger were great; Shashi and Jyothi’s discussion was not. But I felt all right when Shashi paid for my high-calorie lunch. I might have put on some weight after having it, but my wallet had not lost its weight. There was something to smile after all.
When we left the café it was nearly five-thirty. Shashi asked me to attend his debate competition the following month. I said no without any hesitation. He said it would be fun and we would go to a restaurant for lunch later. I said OK without any hesitation. And then we shook hands and took each other’s leave. But before leaving I checked out the girls. Jyothi had a nice rack; Pallavi didn’t.
Having roamed around and having nothing else to do, I decided to call it a day. I went to a nearby bus stop and took a bus to majestic. It was a short journey. Ten minutes later I was at majestic. I waited for another bus at a platform. Five minutes later I was on my way home.
I kept my eyes on all the passengers and the door. Grabbing a seat in a city bus is a skillful job, you know. One has to be watchful all the time. None of the passengers showed any symptoms of getting off. Most of them were old men. There is something curious about old men: it’s hard to believe that they were once young – like me. Did they play hard when they were young? Did they have crushes and girlfriends? Did some of them want to become pilots and politicians and sportsmen and film stars and whatever, but ended up becoming…well, I don’t know…old? Did they want to travel around the world, but ended up living their whole lives in Bangalore, traveling up and down the city in city buses? I wonder how their childhood days were. I mean I am talking about forties and fifties, right? Are they in touch with their friends, with whom they played and had fun? If some of them had girlfriends, I wonder what they are doing now and with whom. Or did they get married to the same girls? Maybe they did; most of them. Their options must have been limited back then. Know what I mean?
An old man at a window seat grabbed my attention. No reason. Just like that. He continued to look out the window. Surprise was written all over his face. Maybe he was reminiscing. His face lit up when we passed in front of the Vidhana Soudha. He must be pushing seventy. That means when Vidhana Soudha was constructed in the fifties, he must be a child. He must have taken a lot of trips there with his friends. Or was he one of the engineers (retired) that constructed the Legislative building? Or a politician? No, no; not a politician. Maybe he was…
The bus stopped. Three men got off. I tried to grab a seat, but to no avail. I cursed and stood near the door. Two paces in front of me stood a woman in blue sari, who looked not more than thirty-five. I hadn’t noticed her before. She must have got onto the bus at the last stop. She was talking to a man, who sat comfortably. The man shook his head. I wish I could listen to their conversation. Was he a friend of hers, I wondered. Or was he her husband? No, not husband. In that case he’d have given his seat for her. Or was she a prostitute in search of a customer? I took a step towards my right, and stood, hanging by the ceiling. She was quite plump, but not fat. Although I was nearby, I couldn’t listen to them, because of the sound of the bus and the traffic outside.
The man kept shaking his head. Was he refusing her offer? Was she demanding more? All of a sudden she screamed at the top of her voice. The bus stopped. Men and women got up from their seats, and came rushing towards the woman in blue sari. If I wanted I could have got a seat instantly. But I didn’t want it then. I wanted to know what the deal was. I stepped forward and went as near as possible.
‘What happened?’ somebody asked her.
Tears rolled down her cheek as she answered: ‘This fellow groped my waist.’
I was taken aback by her accusation. I had been watching them for the past few minutes; and I was sure she was lying. But why? I was curious. I had to find out.
But before I could even try as to why she lied, some men grabbed the “molester” by his collar and pulled him up.
‘She is lying, because I wouldn’t give my seat to her,’ cried the man.
All right, that was the reason she lied. But why him? Why not others? I looked around one more time. Most of them were old men; everyone above fifty. Men that stood were younger. The front seats were all occupied by women. The man whom the woman in blue sari accused was probably the only young man (in his early thirties) who sat comfortably. He wasn’t in ladies’ seat though. But I later realized that he should have volunteered and given up his seat, and avoided the trouble.
The woman sobbed. A man slapped the accused. ‘Beat him, beat him,’ cried a few. ‘Such a scoundrel,’ cried a woman. I pitched in: ‘Such bastards should be castrated!’ Some of them heard, looked at me, and started manhandling him again. And then I saw another woman, probably in her mid-forties, fighting through the angry men, trying to say something. I got more curious with each passing second. Someone noticed her and stopped beating him.
‘He didn’t do anything,’ she said. ‘That woman is lying. I was standing in the front and saw the whole thing. He didn’t do a thing. Think before you act, for heavens’ sake. Now get back to your seats. All of you.’
Some of them got back to their seats. The conductor yelled, “Raaiah.” The bus rolled forward. The elderly woman turned to the woman in blue sari. ‘What kind of person are you? How can you accuse someone like that?’
‘He wouldn’t give me his seat,’ she said, tears still rolling down her cheek.
‘So you say that he groped you…?’
A few men who had hung around started murmuring among themselves. The accused man now stood near the door, ready to jump off the bus at the next stop. The bus stopped a minute later. He wiped the blood off his nose, and got out. It was not his stop, I was sure. Although the men who had beaten him now knew that he was innocent, they never apologized. The two women were still talking among themselves. A few more joined. The woman in blue sari stood silently, with her head bowed.
It was around five past eight when my stop arrived. I got off the bus and went straight home. I quickly had my dinner, and went to bed. I usually go to bed at eleven, but today was different. There was too much going on in my head. It was one helluva day. I was exhausted beyond means: the girl in brigade road, the accident, a discussion in the café that almost killed me, and the latest! – The woman in blue sari. All this was too much to take. Somehow I felt that I, in the midst of so many hypocrites, had forgotten who I truly was. I got off the bed, and went and stood in front of the mirror.
I took a deep breath and stood there for a few seconds, looking at myself, wondering what I was. And then I was back to normal. And then I knew. I was/am the Black Sheep.

********************The Beginning********************
Copyright © Karthik 2012

Piggy

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The following post is a part of a contest at BlogAdda.com in association with imlee.com


*********


To quote a few sentences from the opening paragraph of Charles Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities: it was the best of times, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the spring of hope; and to add a few sentences of my own: it was the age of innocence, it was the age of romance (it still is, of course), it was the age of girls in skirts and boys in shorts, it was the time when we believed in magic, it was the time of bicycles and uniforms, it was the world of hand-written letters and fountain pens, it was the time with nothing to fear, and nothing to complain, it was the season of little pleasures and big laughs, and…it was the time when my baby brother arrived into my life with a hoopla.
His first smile, his first laughter, his first steps, his first words, his mischief, his dance, his song, his questions (cute in the beginning, irritating after some time), his first birthday, his happy prance – all these could easily be termed as happy memories; and a whole chapter can be dedicated to each of these topics. But the memories of a particular day overshadow all the above, a day that redefined my whole philosophy of love, and family, or perhaps, family love: his first day at school.
 It was seven-thirty on a Monday morning. Since it was the first day after vacations, the first day of my High School, I was naturally excited; what’s with the promotion from shorts to pants and all! I was washing my bicycle when my brother came and stood in front of me in his trademark attire – vest tucked in his underwear. To add to his style quotient, his hair was all disheveled. But then again, it was the time when disheveled hair was not considered a fashion statement, but carelessness. To hell with being careless, my brother must have thought; who the hell woke me up?
‘Ready to go to school?’ I asked.
He scratched his head, rubbed his face, and nodded in response.
‘Why are you washing your bicycle?’ he asked as he sat on his haunches.
Experience had taught him that I never washed my bicycle unless it was for an important occasion.
‘Just like that,’ I replied, without lifting my head.
‘So where am I supposed to sit? In the front or at the back?’ he asked, as if it was a car.
‘Anywhere you want.’
He stood up, tucked his left arm under his right, tapped his chin with his forefinger, and said, ‘Hmmm. Let me see.’
He was in the process of making an important decision of his life. After contemplating its pros and cons he finally made it: ‘I shall sit in the front. But make sure you put a towel on the bar for me to sit astride.’
‘All right, Your Highness. Now allow me to wash my bicycle. You go and get ready.’
I think some boys, like me and my little brother, learn early in life that one shouldn’t worry about taking care of a problem or performing an important task until it becomes so imperative that your whole life falls apart if you don't do anything about it immediately. My humble brother demonstrated this peculiar and interesting nature of us boys by running inside the house to use the bathroom; but before that he made sure he informed me about it: ‘I should go to the bathroom. Very urgent.’
And thus began a routine that would never change.

***

It took my mother one hour to get him ready, half an hour to make him drink his milk, but when a plateful of maggi was placed in front of him, he finished it in under five minutes flat. Boy, was I proud of him!
At his behest, I put a towel on the bar of my bicycle, and waited outside the gate. It was ten past nine already. ‘Mummy!’ I almost shouted.
A second later my brother came running outside, followed by my mother, with his lunch bag in her hand. He came around the bicycle, and put his hands up for me to pick him up. I pulled him up and sat him on his throne. Giving me his lunch bag, my mother said, ‘Go slow.’
Not once had my mother said that until now. There really are some disadvantages to being the first child. The second one always gets the extra attention. The worst thing is that your younger siblings understand that.
‘Yes, yes, I will,’ I said.
‘No, no, don’t go slow. Go fast. Vroom, vroom,’ said my little brother.
‘Put your hands on the handle and sit tight. I know how to ride a bicycle,’ said I, and off I went, pedaling.

***

Kindergarten was situated inside our campus itself. With a little campus of its own, it, however, looked like a different school altogether. Although my brother had been there before (for admission), he acted as if it was his first time. See-saws and swings caught his attention immediately. He jumped off the bicycle and ran inside. I parked my bicycle and followed him inside. Some kids had come with their parents. And it wasn’t an unusual sight to see some of them crying. But here my brother was, unhinged and fearless, happily getting acquainted with the playground. I held his arm and dragged him towards his classroom.
‘Why, why, why?’ he cried.
‘You have to go in there,’ I said.
It was then he started to pull away. ‘No, no, no.’
‘Oh, just get in there.’
His class teacher met us near the door.
‘Kishan,’ I said, putting my arm around my brother.
‘Of course. How are you today?’ she said
He lifted his head up and looked at me with a frown.
‘Get in. I shall meet you in the afternoon, OK?’
He went inside quietly.

***


Along with two of my friends I went to meet my brother during the lunch break. Having already made some new friends, he was busy with the swings.
‘Made some new friends, already?’ I asked.
‘Yes. He is Abdul, and he is Deepak.’
‘And he is Piggy!’ said one of the boys, giggling.
‘Fantastic. A nick name on the first day itself? That’s something,’ I said, turning to my friends.
Kishan picked up a stone from the ground, turned round, and threw it at his friends. ‘Don’t call me that,’ he yelled.
‘Piggy, Piggy, Piggy,’ the boys said in chorus.
Kishan came up to me. ‘Tell them not to call me that.’
I, suddenly putting on a serious face, said with austerity: ‘Hey, don’t call him that. If I ever hear you calling him names, I will break your legs.’
The boys looked at each other. ‘OK,’ said one of them eventually.
My brother, grinning from ear-to-ear, went to the swing, sat on it, and ordered his new friends to give him a push from behind. They promptly did so.
Over the next few years he was called many things: Dums, Dumma, Black Tomato, and many more. But “Piggy” stuck. He has no qualms about it now though.

***

By the time School got over in the evening, I had become famous; especially among girls: Karthik has got a cute brother. Needless to say, I reveled in all the attention I got. In the following days, or perhaps, in the following few years, I used my “cute brother” to make friends with “cute girls.” But that’s a different story altogether. Let’s not get there. Seriously, let’s not get there.
‘A birthday girl gave us chocolates today,’ my brother announced when I went to pick him up.
‘Really?’ I asked, pulling him up and sitting him on the bar of my bicycle. ‘How many did she give?’
‘Two each.’
‘Give me one,’ I asked, shamelessly.
‘I had saved one for you, I promise. But you came late. So I ate it,’ he said, taking out a chocolate wrapper from his shirt pocket.
School gets over at four in the evening. It was five past four when I went to pick him up. And that was “late” for the little bugger.
I pedaled along as I listened to his stories: our miss is quite nice; we drew pictures; I drew a house; I don’t know why they make girls sit next to us; I really don’t like it; they are all smelly, smelly; powder smell, hair oil smell; Abdul and Deepak are my best friends; our miss told us a story; but Mummy had already told that to me; you know, that Parrot and thief’s story; you are too slow; go fast; I want to drink water…
We reached home at about four-thirty. Kishan, or shall I say Piggy, threw his bag on the sofa, removed his shirt and shorts, and at last, shoes and socks, and went to the kitchen. It wasn’t water he wanted to drink; it was sugared water he had kept in the ice-tray in the fridge that he wanted to check. I helped him take it out. He tasted it and made a face. ‘Yuck, it’s not good.’
A few minutes later he came to me when I was changing my clothes. ‘If someone calls me Piggy again, will you break their legs for sure?’ he asked.
‘Of course, I will,’ I promised.
Piggy then climbed onto the bed, wrapped his hands around my neck and kissed me on the cheek. After that, without a word, he jumped off the bed, and ran outside to carry on with his business; whatever that was.
If I had a sister under such circumstances, she, probably, would have said that she loved me. But I had a baby brother for a sibling; and as most boys are, at least in our case, expressing love through words was never a cool idea, is never a cool idea. Perhaps, a kiss on the cheek speaks a thousand words. Now that he has grown up, kiss has been replaced by Kit-Kat.
That entire day, or maybe that particular moment when he treated me like a Superman is one of the best moments of my life. And as my all time favourite quote goes: Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take; but the moments that take our breath away! I'm indeed blessed with many such moments.
Memories - good, beautiful memories - are all that make us feel alive!

Copyright © Karthik 2012

  

My Words In Print

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One of my short stories got published recently; as a part of anthology, Urban Shots: Crossroads, published by GreyOak, in association with Westland Publishers.

In the hope that this is the beginning of a beautiful journey towards realizing my dream, I'm posting (or perhaps boasting) two pictures. The picture below was taken in Crossword Bookstore, Garuda Mall, Bangalore.

And here is a review of the book, with my story receiving a special mention.

Manasvi

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Wishing you all a Happy Valentine’s Day, I’m republishing an old story. Have a great time ahead!

1

I was happy in my own world: living my own life, playing with my best group of friends; cricket, football, riding bicycles, climbing trees, wrestling in the mud, swimming in the lake. It was the time (probably it still is) when we hadn’t heard about a dirty word called,’cleanliness’. Apart from our school uniforms (which looked OK only in the morning) we wore brown clothes all the time, or perhaps they looked brown, no matter what their original colours were.

We were playing hide and seek when she moved into our neighbourhood, along with her humpy-dumpty-looking parents. It was then the confusion started. It was then that so many questions cropped up in my head. Dressed in white frock and white shoes, she looked so clean and out of place. How anyone can be so clean, I wondered. When the workers started unloading the furniture from the truck, Mr. Humpty-Dumpty picked her up and walked towards their house. I frowned. When my mother came outside and stood beside me, I asked, “Is that an angel?” It was a serious question. My mother laughed, “Why don’t you ask her whether she is one?” I never did.

How could a 6-year-old boy ask that? Let me rephrase that question. How could a boy of any age ask that? He couldn’t. He wouldn’t. He shouldn’t. Some questions are never meant to be asked or answered. Else, the magic will be lost. And she was magical.

***

She was not seen for the next two days; although we played cricket right in front of her house to get a glimpse of her. Mrs. Humpty-Dumpty called us in. We threw our bats and ball, and ran inside. We sat on the sofa with a ‘thump’ as angel’s mother brought us orange juice. Our eyes swept the house as we drank, producing all sorts of creative sounds. One of my friends even rinsed his mouth with a gurgling sound.

“Manasvi has gone out with her father,” Mrs. Humpty-Dumpty said.

We were four boys in all and everyone chanted the name one after the other, as if the name was a difficult poem. Years later I would realize that she was indeed a poem. Difficult, yes. But also lovely. Manasvi, Manasvi, Manasvi, Manasvi … The name had a beautiful ring to it. Sitting in her house that day, drinking juice, I didn’t know that I would be chanting her name for the rest of my life.

***

The next day when I saw her in my class, my happiness knew no bounds. I kept grinning and the girl who was sitting beside me kept staring at me. “I know that girl. She is my neighbour,” I said, as if she was a celebrity. The girl didn’t respond. And I didn’t care.

After our class prayer, our class-teacher called the new girl and introduced her to the whole class. Manasvi stood there and surveyed the class. For some reason I’ve never found Barbie Dolls cute, but if the makers of those dolls had seen Manasvi that day they would have agreed with me, too, for all the dolls looked pale in comparison to her. Her uniform – blue and white chequered shirt, blue skirt, black shoes and white socks – was spotless. Her hair was neatly combed and two pony tails were tied with blue ribbons; not a strand of hair was out of place. Mrs. Humpty-Dumpty had taken good care of her.

Her sparkling eyes surveyed the whole class as I tried to look bigger by sitting straight. A moment later our class-teacher sent her back to her place. I scowled. Years later when I asked her whether she noticed me in the class that day, she said, flatly, “I don’t even remember my first day.” Splendid.

I could never talk to her in my primary school days. Though she lived nearby (she still does), went to the same school in the same school bus, studied in the same section, I could never make friends with her. All those monkey tactics I tried to impress her and get her attention never worked: deliberately playing in front of her house, falling down and bruising my legs, smiling when it hurt like hell. Nothing worked. Now when I recently asked her about it, she said, sadly, “I was jealous of all the boys. I wanted to play cricket and football too, but my mother never allowed me. So, no. I was busy imagining as to how I would’ve played when I stood behind the gate like a prisoner.” I silently thanked Mrs. Humpty-Dumpty, for I preferred a girl who was girlie; not a tomboy.

2

I was in 10th standard when I talked to her for the first time. I had practiced it for five days and when the D-day arrived, I delivered the line with utmost honesty and confidence: “How is your preparation for the exams?” And she sweetly replied, “Good.” And that was the most beautiful word I’d ever heard until then. Well, it was a start.

Manasvi had become quite popular already; dancing, singing, et al. And the competition to get her attention was fierce. As the exams were coming up, I couldn’t think much about it. But there was improvement finally. It was the day of our first exam. We were going through our books during the final moments. She passed in front of me, looking down at her book. “Hey Manasvi,” I called out. She looked up and raised her eyebrows, her lips still moving.

“Studied well?” I asked.

“Yes. You?”

Ah. She asked me something. Finally. Looking back, I don’t know whether my answer would have meant anything, but I am an eternal optimist, you see. So I really thought she was interested to know.

“Yes. Kind of.”

“Kind of? It’s our board exam, for heavens’ sake,” she laughed.

Let me not describe how she looked when she laughed and how I felt about it, for I’m afraid I’m going to bore you to death. On second thoughts, I don’t care. So listen. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen her laugh. But it certainly was the first time in front of me, in response to my answer. We had our English exam that day, and W.B. Yeats, P. B. Shelley and many others’ poems were being learned by heart, ferociously, without understanding what they actually meant. Our English teacher had repeatedly said, ‘Understand the poems properly. Only then you’ll be able to enjoy them.’ None of the students seemed to have grasped it. I was the only exception – to a certain extent. When others were reading and reciting poems, I was literally seeing one in front of me. I do not know whether I understood it (I still don’t know whether I do), but I thoroughly enjoyed its beauty.

I was lost. She said when I didn’t reply, “All right. You seem to be tensed. Good luck, Sawant.”

“Huh? Oh, yes, thank you. You too.”

Do I really have such a good name or is it just that it sounded good because she said it, I asked myself. And I still don’t know the answer. Though I strongly feel it’s the latter. Well, I think it is the latter. Wait a second. I think? No, it is the latter.

***

When the results came, I had scored more than she. I didn’t know it until she said it.

“Congratulations.”

“What for?”

“You’ve scored well. You’ve scored more than I. Damn it. How did it happen?” she said in mock anger.

“Maybe because you wished me before exams.” I swear I wasn’t flirting.

She laughed, wholeheartedly. “That’s very sweet of you.”

***

School days were over. But that didn’t bother me much, for I was looking forward to my new life ahead. I was sad about only one thing: Manasvi would not be there. Luckily, I was wrong. She had taken admission in the same Pre University College as I. Boy, was I happy that day!

I had taken Biology and I was interested in only Anatomy. But my specimen had chosen Statistics. Whatever for, I didn’t know.

Two years passed in a jiffy; tensions, headaches, worries – about board exams, CETs, etc. I sometimes wonder; from the day we are born, we are made to think in only one direction. Work hard to get good grades; work hard to get good grades in 10th standard, work hard to get good percentage in plus two, which will land you in a good college; work hard to get good percentage in college, work hard to get a good job, work hard to get a promotion, work hard to get a salary hike, work hard to get a good wife, work hard to make children, work hard to make your children work hard, work hard to get them into good colleges, work hard to die peacefully. So basically you only live to die. Is that it? Monday blues on Mondays and TGIFs on Fridays. Aren’t we supposed to do something that doesn’t require hard work but lots of love and smart work? Aren’t we supposed to do something where Monday blues and TGIFs do not exist? But every day of the week is pure fun?

My mind was wavering, trying to find answers to all these questions. I was also aware that nobody was going to ask me these questions. Everyone would ask only one question: how much did you score?

In the midst of all these ‘mental’ problems if there was one thing that kept my sanity, it was certainly Manasvi’s presence. Unfortunately I could never talk to her much in those two years and I thought she’d go away after plus two, to some ‘top’ college. I was about to be proved wrong.

3

I had turned eighteen, and along with the driver’s license, I had also secured a license to practice Ornithology. I brazenly did it. I believe practicing ornithology and flirting is every boy’s birth right. No one can take it away from him. All these things came to an end on the third day of my college life, for Manasvi arrived on the third day.

I was astonished. “How come you are here? I thought you were going to Mysore.”

“No, I chose to stay. I had come to your house last evening. Didn’t your mother tell you?”

“No. I was off station. Returned this morning. She must have forgotten.”

“OK. Seems like we are going to be together for the next four years,” she laughed. Years had passed but her laughter had never changed. Perfection can’t be improved, you see.

We were together for the past twelve years, I wanted to say. But didn’t.

“Yes, right.”

Though we had known each other and stayed in the same neighbourhood for twelve years, we had never really become friends, or perhaps I had never tried. This changed soon. We became good friends in college. And it wasn’t a good thing. Being ‘just friends’ with the girl you love is very dangerous, because there are good chances of remaining ‘just friends’ forever. ‘Make your intentions known’ is the mantra, and I never chanted it.

The only good thing was I got to spend time with her: College, library, movies, parties, visiting each other’s house during festivals and exams. But I was still ‘just a friend’. I didn’t complain, thinking that I had three more years to let her know about my feelings for her. I was wrong. Time was running out.

***

We were in our second year when she announced that she had a crush on Abhilash, the so-called ‘hunk’. They became friends very soon. As the days progressed she started spending less time with me. I was her friend and I was supposed to ‘understand’ it.

‘Hunk’ had one more name: Ghost Rider. There is a curious story behind the name. He had a Royal Enfield Bullet Electra 350cc bike. It suited well for his personality. When every boy in college either had a Pulsar or Yamaha or TVS, our hunk stood apart with his monster bike. When he was in first year he had a girlfriend named Namitha, who seemed to be a permanent pillion rider. Nobody ever saw him alone on his bike. Now, Namitha darling was a dark girl and weighed around 80 kilograms (conditions apply). She had an amazing dressing sense. We sometimes wondered whether her father owned a textile factory. Not because her clothes were distinct, but because we never believed that jeans pants came in such distinct sizes. They had to be specially made. Another thing was that four days in a week she wore tribal dress; the ones with tiny, round shaped mirrors all over. As an icing on a cake, her hair was always let loose. And like a double icing on a cake, she had loads of ‘additude’ (not attitude). Some called her African jungle baby, some of us simply called her, The Ghost. So she was the ghost, who rode pillion on ‘hunk’s bike. Hence the hunk became Ghost Rider.

And now, my love rode pillion on his bike. Though the name Ghost Rider stuck, everyone changed his tone: ‘He finally has a nice-looking girlfriend.’ Needless to say, my stomach churned.

There were only a few minor differences between me and Ghost Rider. He was well over six feet tall; I was (and am) five-seven. He had a well-built body, whereas I only had a body (like everybody does). He had a monster bike, and I had an old Hero Honda Splendour. He participated in glamorous activities like dancing and music (he played guitar for a band), and I took part in dramas and skits. He played Basket-Ball and I played chess. He anchored and gave opening/closing speeches on important college functions, and I wrote speeches, which somebody else delivered and got the fame. The bugger even studied well.

When an incredibly beautiful girl like Manasvi falls for such a guy, it’s not a surprise. Now what was I supposed to do? I didn’t know. So I didn’t do anything.

***

“So tell me, Sawant. Do you have a girlfriend?” Ghost Rider asked.

“No.”

We were sitting in an ice-cream parlour. It was owned by a local boxer and Ghost Rider was a good friend of his. Both went to the same gym. Since it was a boxer’s ice-cream parlour, all the ice-creams had distinct names.

Ghost Rider was about to say something when the waiter arrived.

“What will you have?” asked my arch rival.

He was already eating Rocky Marciano and I don’t know what Manasvi was eating. Perhaps she was having Laila Ali. I didn’t want to be left alone, so I ordered Raging Bull. Five minutes later when my ice-cream arrived I found that it wasn’t as good as its name. Just like Ghost Rider.

I took another spoonful when Ghost Rider asked, “Don’t you really have a girlfriend?”

I eyed him once. He was definitely well-toned. He was definitely more handsome than I. There was no way I could have challenged him and made Manasvi promote me from ‘just a friend’ to ‘someone special’. But as my Guruji Mark Twain once said, ‘It’s not the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog.’ I fought on.

“As a matter of fact I do,” I said, taking another spoonful of Raging Bull.

Manasvi stopped eating and looked up.

“But there is a small problem,” I continued, “I’m not her boyfriend.”

Angel raised her eyebrows and tilted her head sideways, as if asking, ‘What are you talking about?’

“What’s the problem?” It was he.

“She is with someone else.”

“You never told me,” Manasvi cried.

“I wanted to tell you, Mans. But the time wasn’t right.” Irony, that.

“You are such a moron. Who is she? From our college? Do I know her?” It was a typical girlie question. She wanted to know everything at the same time, irrespective of the priorities.

Before I could think of something, she said, giggling, “I think I know. It’s Ashwini, right? I knew you had a thing for her.”

“So what is it? It’s just a crush or you have feelings for her?” Ghost Rider asked.

“More on that later. Now let me ask you the same question. Is it just a crush or do you really love Manasvi?” I said, smiling at both of them. It was a very direct question and it startled them to the core.

When none of them replied, I said again, “Tell me. Where is it going?”

“I’m not sure,” he faltered. I looked at Manasvi. She didn’t respond.

“So you are just friends?” I probed further.

“No,” he was quick.

“Then? You are not just friends; you are not sure whether you love her. So what’s the name of this relationship?”

“She is my girlfriend.” There was some mild anger in his voice.

“That’s the problem these days,” I said. “Everybody says the same thing. ‘She is my girlfriend. He is my boyfriend.’ But what nobody says nowadays is, ‘I love her or I love him’. Saying that you are in love with a girl is termed old-fashioned,” I paused for a few seconds, letting the words sink, and then continued. “All right. She is your girlfriend. Or perhaps your Champion’s Trophy. Right?”

Manasvi didn’t speak a word. Perhaps she wanted to know what her ‘boyfriend’ would say.

“Look, here’s the thing,” Ghost Rider began. “It’s like this. Before you buy a bike, you have to take a lot of test drives. Once you are convinced that a certain bike is comfortable, you go for it.”

I didn’t dare look at Manasvi. Rather I asked, simply, “So, how many test drives have you had so far?”

It was then it hit him hard like a thunderbolt. I had done the necessary damage. Damn it, I am not guilty of it. Everything is fair in love and war. It may sound a bit clichéd, but it is relevant.

“Oh, no, Manasvi. I didn’t really mean it that way. I was just trying to give an example …”

No use, my boy. No use.

“Answer his question, Abhi. How many test drives have you had so far? And how many do you intend to have in the future?”

Gosh, was I enjoying this! If I was, I didn’t evince it.

“Why don’t girls understand me?” he cried.

Oscar Wilde came in handy then. I said, “Women are meant to be loved, not to be understood, you know.” That was some salt on his wound.

I could see Manasvi from the corner of my eye. She was staring at me.

Oscar Wilde had fallen on his deaf ears. He said to Manasvi, ignoring me, “Come on. Don’t say that. I can die for you, you know.”

I suddenly looked at the wall behind me and checked the calendar. It was unquestionable. The year was 2010, all right. For a moment, after hearing Ghost Rider’s dialogue, I was a bit confused. I thought it was 1960.

“Oh, really? You can die for me, yet you don’t know where this relationship is going, huh?”

He opened his mouth to say something, but words wouldn’t come out.

Moments later she got up and left. I followed suit. Ghost Rider was left alone among boxers.

***

Ghost Rider was really a nice person. I liked him a lot. But the boy didn’t know what he really wanted and how to say things. If he were not Manasvi’s ‘boyfriend’ we would have been good friends.

Over the next few days he kept trying to reach Manasvi, but to no avail. She didn’t return my calls either. Why would she? After all, I was the culprit.

They were back together a week later. They had somehow reconciled. And I was back to square one. I was still ‘just a friend’.

She invited me and a few other friends (including Ghost Rider) to her house. It was her birthday. Over the past few years I had just wished her, verbally. This time I wanted to give something adorable, something worth remembering. But what? I had no idea.

Mrs. Humpty-Dumpty welcomed me, lovingly. I had grown fond of her over the years and she always treated me like her own son. So, naturally, I was the star guest. Two hours earlier I had decorated the house for the party. It wasn’t too grand, but had an aura of elegance. Manasvi didn’t speak much, as she was still angry with me over the ice-cream parlour incident. At least I thought like that.

After the cake-cutting ceremony, snacks were served. Everyone had bought cool presents: Teddy bears, big, musical greeting cards; a pair of high-heeled sandals (girls, I tell you!), etc. A huge, life-sized teddy bear was of course given by Ghost Rider.

When my turn came, I carefully took out a thin 5” X 5” square gift-wrapped pouch, with a silver-coloured ribbon on it. Manasvi said a mild ‘thank you’ and opened the wrapper. It was a DVD.

“What’s in it?” she asked.

I shrugged my shoulders.

Everyone was eager to know. Manasvi ran the disc in her DVD player. A movie started to play on the screen.

I have always believed that going to a gift shop and buying gifts is easy. It’s too formal, it’s too frivolous. Also, birthdays are not remembered these days. Mark Zuckerberg reminds people of their ‘friends’’ birthdays. Telling the birthday boy/girl, ‘I remembered your birthday and bought you a present’ is not important. But showing how much his/her birthday means to you is. This could be your birthday, but it’s my special day too. Time is the greatest gift one can ever give to a friend.

What I had done was simple. I had compiled all her photos; right from her childhood days, right from the day she moved into our neighbourhood. Photos of her birthday parties when she was a child and all the little boys and girls of our neighbourhood were her guests; photos of school days, photos of her on stage, reciting a poem or singing or dancing along with other participants; photos of her in the hospital when she was sick with typhoid (I had taken it without anyone’s knowledge), photos of send-off parties in school and PUC; photos of little trips we had been to, along with other classmates, and many more. Almost every type of emotion was captured. In fact many photos were being seen for the first time. Even Mrs. Humpty-Dumpty was surprised. “When was this?” she kept asking me from time to time. Bottom line: Her whole life ran like a movie, with suitable captions and quotes and mellifluous music in the background.

I was increasingly becoming emotional with every photograph. I got up to go, but Mrs. Humpty-Dumpty wouldn’t let me. The movie got over. Everyone looked at me. Two girls that had come were impressed. But the birthday girl stayed silent. Not a word.

“But how come you are not there in a single photograph? Those Deepavali photos. You were here that day. Why haven’t you included a photo with you in it? Not even one?” asked Mrs. Humpty-Dumpty.

“At least you could have put your name in the end. Something like, ‘Video created by Sawant’,” said a girl.

I cleared my throat and replied, candidly, quoting Oscar Wilde, “To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.”

After that I couldn’t stay there. I wished her once again and left. Had I stayed there a moment longer, they would’ve noticed tears welling up in my eyes.

4

Manasvi didn’t talk to me for over a week and I didn’t try. I left her alone. Then one day she called me and asked me to meet her in the reading room of our college.

“Thanks,” she said.

“For what?”

“For the memories.”

“Oh.”

I said a moment later, “That hospital photo is damn good, isn’t it?”

“Yes, right. Get ready to die.”

We laughed, deliciously, holding each other’s hands.

I began when the laughter had subsided, “Look, Mans. I never got a chance to apologize. I’m really sorry about the other day. I should have kept my mouth shut.”

“It doesn’t matter. I’m not with him anymore.”

I was shocked and happy at the same time.

“What? What happened?”

“Nothing big. We didn’t have a fight. It’s just that I realized he was not my type and I was not his type. Also, thanks to you. I wouldn’t have realized this if not for you. Whatever you said made sense to me later. Abhilash is a good guy, but not good enough for me.”

They had never had a fight after the ice-cream parlour incident. As the days progressed they had drifted away, respectfully, in a decent manner. No goodbyes, no ‘let’s break up’, no nothing. Just a simple understanding.

“I’m so sorry,” I mumbled.

“Don’t be,” she snapped.

***

Days and weeks passed and we started spending a lot of time with each other. It was just like before. One day when we were sitting in the reading room, writing our lab records, she suddenly asked, “What about Ashwini?”

“Ash who?” I asked, without looking up.

“Don’t act now. You were about to say something about your secret one-sided love story in the ice-cream parlour the other day when the conversation took a different turn. Now tell me about it in detail.”

I stopped writing. “Forget it.”

“I won’t, my dear.”

“It’s not Ashwini, all right.”

“Then who?”

I had always fantasized about my proposal; a nice evening in a restaurant, with a magnificent gift in hand, and so many other filmi things. But when I actually did propose to her, it was in the most awful, unromantic place on earth (college reading room), at the most awful time (two-thirty in the afternoon, when the sun was having its vengeance on innocent college boys and girls), wearing the most atrocious dress possible (jeans, t-shirt, sandals).

“You,” I said, flatly, looking straight into her eyes.

She stared at me, probably looking for some sign of naughtiness.

None of us spoke for two minutes. Then she said, “You are serious, aren’t you?”

“Of course, I am. Since eternity. I just wanted to play with you when you moved into our neighbourhood; I wanted to make friends with you in high school. We did become good friends later on and we still are. Whatever happens, I hope this will never change. But the fact remains. I’ve always loved you. If there is any girl with whom I want to spend the rest of my life, it’s you.”

She didn’t respond. I continued, “Throughout the centuries people have been telling that a boy should find a girl to die for. Somehow it doesn’t apply in my case; it doesn’t make any sense to me; because you are the girl I want to live for.” I paused for a minute. Her expression remained inscrutable. “Look, I know this is coming as a shock to you. I wanted to tell you two years ago, but I ran out of time. You were with Abhilash already. Never found the right time. I still do not know whether this is the right time.”

Silence sang in the air again. “I know I am not a romantic person. I won’t say that I’m going to die if you don’t accept me. I won’t become a lovelorn tragic hero. I love myself too much for that. But remember this: You were, you are and you will always be the one. Whatever I do with my life, you’ll always be my muse, my love, my reason to live and achieve.”

Several minutes passed and she still hadn’t said anything. She never took her eyes off mine. And then, without saying anything, she collected her books and walked away.

***

The next two weeks were unbearable. She neither called me nor replied to my calls and messages. I was confused. I had even lost hope of being ‘just a friend’. I thought I had lost her forever. But if such a thing had happened, I wouldn’t have had any purpose to write this.

She visited my house one evening. After having a pep talk with my mother she entered my room. I was writing my assignment then. She came and stood next to my table. I got up. Our eyes met. A moment later she slapped me hard across my face. What just happened? I was about to find out.

“Who said you were not romantic, you moron,” she said as a tear rolled down her cheek.

“Wh … wha ... –,” she slapped me again.

“That video you made me says everything. I should’ve understood it then. In fact a thought crossed my mind, but how should I’ve known for sure? You’ve no idea how many times I’ve watched it in the last ten days. Why didn’t you tell me before?” she burst into tears as she hugged me.

I held her in my arms, not wanting to let her go. She didn’t mind. A few minutes later I asked, smelling her hair, “Hey, Mans, your hair smells great.”

“Wish I could say the same about your hair, your shirt, your room. Such a dirty scumbag you are.”

A new problem had begun. Cleanliness. It was only my mother till now. Now there were two women. God, where are women manufactured? Sterilized room of a perfume factory?

***

It was Valentine’s Day. We were sitting in a cozy restaurant, enjoying every second. Today was a special occasion and she looked ravishing in her red dress. I could never take my eyes off her. “Thank you,” she said, brushing her curls to the back of her ears. I don’t know why but I’ve always loved to see a girl do it. And when the girl is Manasvi, it’s still better.

“So what’s that you are hiding in that bag?” she asked.

I took out a neatly bound book, which had Manasvi written on it, and pushed it towards her, on the table.

Manasvi? What is it?”

“Remember that video I made for you?”

“What kind of question is that? Of course I remember.”

“Well, this is the book version of it. I’ve penned down everything. From the day you moved into our neighbourhood; from the time I asked my mother whether you were an angel to the recent times. A sort of memoir, an epistle, a symphony to my Valentine.”

She didn’t say anything for a few minutes as she leafed through the pages. The book was handwritten.

“You are a nerd. Do you know that?” she said at last.

“I knew you’d say something like this. That’s why I’ve also bought a big box of chocolates, a fancy greeting card and a teddy. Here, take them. Enjoy,” I said, handing over the bag.

She pushed the bag aside, without taking a look inside, and continued to go through the book, all the while smiling. I knew she was overwhelmed with joy, but would never admit it. When she couldn’t go further she kept the book back inside the bag and asked me, “Tell me something. What’s the most you can do for me? It’s Valentine’s Day and I have a right to know.” She was anything but foolishly romantic. My lady love was just teasing me.

“The most I can do for you, Mans, is to be with you always,” I said, looking at her delightful face.

She smiled and looked away, not knowing how to react.

My Guruji Mark Twain once said, ‘Never say the obvious thing, but leave the obvious thing to commonplace and inexperience people to say.’

Sorry, Guruji. It doesn’t work always. I’ve learned from experience that when you are with a girl, don’t act smart. Just say the very obvious thing.

********************The End********************

Copyright © Karthik 2011

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Karthik's Book Montage

The Negotiator
Malgudi Days
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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