Saturday, April 25, 2009

Mumbai freeze-frame: Cummerbund Nighthawk

1. Cummerbund Nighthawk

‘Crash Money’ was an old-fashioned term, used by decrepit speculators hinting at the possibility of a hand-out from the God of all things commercial, and college students juggling wait-as-you-learn courses with a tempting social life. But as the days turned into years for the now middle-aged Mr. Shyam Dutt, the sense gleamed from the sum of both words put together brought to him the smells of a recently used ashtray and the after taste of the vodka and Mixed Fruit Concentrate that he used as a substitute for breakfast, before leaving home for work each morning.

As he waited at the bus shelter at the corner of his street today, he tried to verbally translate what he was seeing on the day’s image crossword slide show on his PDA - the best he could do was, ‘An egregious mixing of codes in a tempestuous spawning of millions of bacteria spiraling towards an artificial sky’.

His bus was on time. He climbed on, held his breath for the thirty-minute ride, and finally got off pushing and shoving his way through the confines of the obsequious people-carrier to the relative expanse outside. Head bowed, he walked distractedly till he reached the entrance to the foyer of the hundred-storied dull grey unmarked building and glanced at the sky just before reaching the threshold of the automatic doors. His ruminations ended the second the armed security guard standing beside the metal detector looked warily at him. Mr. Shyam Dutt registered the slow sign of a reluctant recognition on the guard’s dour face as he looked past him towards the receptionist who was wearing the low-cut yellow blouse today, sitting at her omniscient desk at the centre of the large lobby. He passed her an unrequited smile, walked towards the elevator corridor, and pressed the button marked with the upward pointing arrow beside the closed doors.

He blew repeatedly into the cuff of his sleeve during the thirty-second lonely ride and just as it ended, he shrugged in futility looking at his reflection in the mirrored walls. When the doors eventually opened to let him out, he was welcomed into April Fools Day, 2046 by a loud neon-lit banner hanging over the numerous empty desks; the streamers and burst balloons strewn all over the floor alerting him to the raucous party he hadn’t been invited to, the previous night.

At home later, he sat at his desk checking his pass book repeatedly for any signs of indiscipline over the past month. He then stuffed five of his neatly pressed shirts from the cupboard into the washer/dryer, struggled for five minutes with his ancient espresso machine, and ultimately settled down in his chair in front of the only window in the single-cell apartment. Brooding over the sun settling in a slow downward arc over the sea at the corner of his available line of sight, he saw it as a large orange ball barely visible through the thick gloom that extended till the ends of the earth.

When the rumblings from the washing machine had completely died down, he carefully spilt the last remnants of his weekly vodka quota on the carpet, leading a trail from the doorway till his bed in the little alcove on the north-east side of the room and lit a dozen incense sticks after turning off the fire alarm. As the light from the window died down, he turned on the table lamp placed on the armoire by the side of the bed and opened the drawer underneath .

He held his breath with his lips at the cusp of the mouth of the plastic pill box he had taken from the drawer and glanced at the large clock staring down from the wall facing him. He looked again at the open pill box that seemed now to mock him whilst in suspended animation in front of his face, and back again at the clock.

‘Damn’, he said then - the only word he had used aloud all day.

The inquest took five days. No one had come to claim the body from the morgue in spite of the notices put up in all the local papers, and the attendant had relegated it to the end of the list.

And two weeks after his apartment was broken into by members of the maintenance department acting on the incessantly ringing smoke alarm from the fire escape on the thirty-fifth floor, Mr. Shyam Dutt’s remains were hygienically cremated and his ashes placed in a composite graphite urn labeled and marked with his name and serial number, and placed in a basement repository amidst a thousand other urns that all looked exactly the same.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Mumbai freeze-frame: Judgment's Recoil

12. Judgment’s Recoil

It was the repetitive announcement on the P.A. system of an anonymous airport that woke him up today. The stubborn refusal of the nightmare to leave his consciousness even after he had completely woken up, worked slowly to drive him to what he could very well tell was approaching madness but he was unwilling to admit defeat just yet. And you really couldn’t blame him.

Finally his life had come full circle; the court case on the inheritance was settled and he had walked out through those ancient teak wood double doors of the Bandra Civil Court on that momentous day last month with most of the insurance money and all the assorted Provident Fund remittances, grievance pay and assorted interest accumulations. His dear dead Papa had judiciously paid a very high premium over the better part of fifteen years to the redoubtable L.I.C. as well. And so Rakesh’s net worth suddenly went from twenty-four rupees, twenty paise at the neighbourhood ATM that he visited each morning only to leave in despair, to more money than he should have ever had a right to. You really couldn’t blame him that he chose to deny that this was precisely the time the nightmares had begun.

This time Rakesh had dreamt of a plane ride on a rickety turbo prop… He had the first seat – number A-1, right up there with no one ahead of him and all the space in the world to stretch his legs and the airhostess came up to him, bent down low and asked him in the hottest voice Rakesh had ever heard, whether he would like some tea. And then she was blown away into the sky, instantaneously, through the emergency exit door on the left of his seat that had appeared all of a sudden out of nowhere. The newspaper report images, in a spiral transition like in the old movies of the fifties, had screamed out the facts – a picture of her in uniform, of her pilot-boyfriend crying, and her parents at their little circular dinner table drowning their sorrows in port wine. And then the P.A. announcements began in the anonymous terminal that he had reached without ever knowing how.

Sitting down to a sandwich and coffee at Just Around The Corner wherein he still had not been able to overcome his self-conscious pangs of incertitude, the denial was now dying a reluctant death. Rita was sitting across him at the table trying her best to look as if she was totally disinterested in the goings-on at the far table - a desi girl with dreadlocks and her white boyfriend were desperately testing the acceptable boundaries of a very public display of affection.

She looked at Rakesh eventually and said, ‘I had a nightmare last night, you know… it was very bad. There I was doing my thing, you know, serving customers like I do everyday of my working life and this drunk son of a bitch kept asking me for more whisky. I came over to his seat finally when I had had enough, you know, and asked him politely if he would like some tea and then the floor gave way suddenly, you know, and I was blown away through the emergency exit right behind me… I woke up then screaming, you know… It was really scary.’

Monday, April 20, 2009

Mumbai freeze-frame: The Interview

10. The Interview
Rohit was feeling very stiff in his brand new Peter England shirt and semi-formal Dockers trousers, and his feet still hadn’t gotten used to the instep of his radiant Hush Puppies, as he stood there in the lounge waiting his turn, along with twenty other similarly nervous looking young men and women. His number was among the last on the list.
‘Idiot’, he cursed himself – how often had they warned him that a 10 o’clock interview time meant that he had better haul ass at 8.30, just to avoid this damn crowd. He had missed his mother sorely this morning - her egging him on, right from sun up, the many times he had appeared for other job interviews in the past. But today, in this strange city, he had to motivate himself all on his own – no mummy, no daddy, just Aunty Shanti all alone in her two-story crumbling old brick house in Byculla. Well, at least he had made it here, through the inner city jungle, without getting lost, he thought. An empty chair appeared eventually, but as Rohit ambled toward it, he saw a fast-moving façade, apparently float toward and occupy the chair without giving him even an illusion of contest. This added to his already heightened insecurity. He couldn’t understand what these people were saying – it was a strange language, this Marathi, a bit like Gujarati but not quite, and certainly not possessed of the familiar phonetics of Hindi. There were no magazines to read, no newspapers to hide behind, not even a window to look out of for some sense of visual relief - just this awful sounding cackle from this boring-looking bunch of clowns, and not one good looking chica in sight.
When it was finally his turn, a beautiful young girl ushered him towards the forbidding single door beyond which, Rohit didn’t doubt, lay the encounter that would determine the course of the rest of his life. The director was a let down; a hunched and dark mousy-looking middle-aged man, bent over a huge bundle of paper and using his forefinger to read through the lines on one of them that had come unattached.

‘Age?’ he asked.
‘Twenty-two.’ said Rohit.
‘Uhhh… Cultural Secretary of Student’s Union in college. Uhhh… conducted marketing surveys of household appliances for a multi-national firm back home…Uhhh…’
‘That’s it?’ asked the man.
‘Uhhh…’ said Rohit.
‘Well… I have to say that you would do better by looking at a placement in an entry level position. Don’t you know that this interview is for a Sales position with at least three years of prior experience?’ said the man and looked at Rohit curiously.
‘I understand sir. I am sorry to have wasted your time.’ said Rohit, wanting to get out now as fast as possible. He was arrested in mid-stream by a drawling, ‘Just a minute… What exactly are you looking for in a job?’ from the man.
‘Uhhh… A good learning environment, prospect of growth and…’ Rohit blurted out, forgetting, at the last minute, the much rehearsed lines.
‘Yes. Yes. Of course. Well, we do have positions available for Sales Trainees. But you have to start tomorrow itself.’ said the man, with an air of dismissal.
Two months later, back home on a weekend break, and now a contributing member of the household to the tune of seven-thousand five hundred rupees a month, or the equivalent of forty-five percent of the average household monthly budget, Rohit sat reading the Sunday Times that had arrived post-lunch, languidly settled in his easy chair in the verandah. A page five column struck a chord:

“It was reported today that the Managing Director of Msrs. Pine Consulting p.l.c., offices located at 15, Calvin Mills, Lower Parel was arrested for the illegal selling by misinformation of what was known as the Customer Brilliance Awards, to small businesses in the U.K.. Initial investigations suggest that Mr. George Mathew’s (the accused) modus operandi included the use of VOIP, or international phone calls over the internet, to speak to Small Business Owners in a number of categories ranging from restaurants to hair salons, and then convince them that their customers nominated them to the fictitious awards on the basis of surveys conducted in their respective boroughs or counties. The telephone numbers of prospective victims were garnered from a variety of easily accessible databases on the internet. Mr. Mathew, who holds dual citizenship of the U.K. and India, would then proceed to include costs in the shipping and transport of the awards which consisted of an award poster and customer survey forms, informing the victims that even though the Awards bureau was based in the U.K., the raw materials were outsourced from a firm in India and that they would have to pay for the costs of shipping. The money was then collected by the use of credit card transactional web sites made available to commercial enterprises by Barclay’s Bank, London. According to information available, Mr. Mathew is said to have amassed almost a crore of rupees, net profit, in six months from the scam, operating out of his office in Mumbai. Furthermore, he had trained twenty young graduates in his method of aggressive cold calling. The arrest was made on a request by a City of London police official acting on a complaint from a disgruntled restaurant owner in the borough of Lewisham. This is only the second instance that the I.T. Financial Crimes Act (2020) has been invoked in India, in relation to trans-national economic fraud.”

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Mumbai freeze-frame: The Date

15. The Date

Late evening in the mall. The crowds throng the light fantastic. Away in the milling distance, an ewe boy looking helpless – he is there to greet a queen. He walks hither and thither, as a lamb led to the slaughter.

She arrives.

The abrupt loss of breath. The painful rumbling in the bowels. The dawn of dread. She is better equipped – a mocking, self-effacing vision in violet. She takes charge. Tickets, popcorn, hand in the other’s dripping palm. They walk in together. Words, meaningless, exchanged – ‘I liked him from the last one… She’s looking fat.’

The scrutiny dims with the light. It is a romance and not a bad one - A city held aloft to the pyre of civilization – a couple in skin incandescent. Cars, bars, streets, passion. Families, love, paradise momentarily lost but forever regained. It ends happy, happy.

They leave sated – fulfilled, but as yet not given to abandon. The food court – couples eating, children playing, counters filling. ‘A sub?’, ‘Maybe a couple.’ It is a small table, top crisscrossed with reflective sheen at intervals. They eat silently, thoughtfully, considering. It ends well - at the same time for both. They see the sign they have been expecting.

The aimless wandering through the floors on floors on floors – shirts, books, flowers, chocolate. They can ill afford to indulge, but the lounging is free and that is enough, for now. Later outside, they stop, look around, kiss surprised. The sun has already set, but not on them – no, no, no, no, no - not on them.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Mumbai freeze-frame: ... And a Musical is born

14. … And a Musical is born.

‘So, how does it look?’

‘Thrice over our max-cost range, one foreign location for eighteen days, two months post… and he’s got Daddy, as you know.’

‘What do you think?’

‘I don’t know. Depends on what you think.’

‘It’s impressive that he’s got Daddy in his pocket. How do you suppose he pulled that off?’

‘He started off as A.D. in ‘Dhruv’, remember? There was some talk about him becoming Personal Assistant to Daddy for the shoot – the A.D. thing was just for show. Rumours are he did everything for him on set – chicks, booze and some pills the man was doing at the time.’

‘Shit… So we can’t get him off the project is what you’re saying?’

‘Who? Director Keshav? No.’

‘Then why do we have a six-picture deal with that other moron if we can’t even use him on a project like this?’

‘So, you’re going to say yes is what you’re saying.’

‘I’m considering it.’

‘Don’t fool yourself. Daddy’s too big right now to miss this chance – this isn’t the nineties, you know.’

‘You don’t have to tell me, okay? I know.’

‘Should I send off the proposal then?’

‘Wait… wait… give me a chance to think at least for God’s sake…’

‘There are three studios waiting for us to say no, and not even till tomorrow morning. The only reason it’s still with us is because of me. You know Daddy’s impatience. This will walk. It will walk. It’s not even a possibility. It’s a certainty.’

‘Who else is there?’

‘Shalini for the female lead. We have options on the whole supporting cast from the last thing that was done under this banner.’

‘Not bad….’

‘That was my doing.’

‘Ya, ya, okay… We pay you enough around here, so you speak only when spoken to, okay?’

‘You have to say something fast.’


‘It’s already 1 o’clock. Keshav’s waiting for my call.’

‘Can’t we call Daddy ourselves? I can’t understand why we have to shell out an extra 2 crore for this idiot director when we already have a person here ready to do it for nothing.’

‘Daddy doesn’t pick up the phone anymore, you know that. Everything has to go through bhabhi, and these days she doesn’t give a fuck about anyone. Why should she? They’re sitting on enough for three lifetimes.’

‘I don’t even like the way he looks, you know – Daddy… He looks like something from a septic tank. The way he talks, the way he walks, his clothes, his eyes… He’s fucking ugly, you know.’

‘It’s 1.10.’

‘Ya… ya… okay… okay… Send it off with the normal twenty-five percent cut in the proposed budget – he can cut it from the local sets… And ya – tell him South Africa for the foreign location… I’m not going anywhere near Europe these days.’

‘He wanted some small town in Canada.’

‘Tell him he can go fuck himself.’

‘Will do, Madam.’

Mumbai freeze-frame: Blue-collar dreaming

9. Blue-collar dreaming

The girls were running away with it - the big vibrating dildo that could contort its shape into a moving shifting fluidity that looked mildly threatening, just by the press of a button at its base. When Siddharth climbed into the driver’s seat five minutes later, the girls were already there next to him - three sets of arms, thighs and hands, and three heads of luxuriant lustrous hair all merged into one giggling, seductive mass - the dildo appearing now and then to public view from somewhere in its folds.

When the first traffic cop emerged at the Nepean Sea Road crossing, Siddharth stopped a little short of the signal, manhandled one of the girls into the back seat, pushed another’s head down into his lap, grabbed the dildo from the third girl’s hand and stuffed it in the dash, and then started off again. The policeman didn’t notice anything untoward as the Volvo sedan passed him serenely by.

At the club doors later, Siddharth made a big impression with the manageress, with his three luscious companions holding onto his shoulders like he was the desi version of Daniel Craig. They were ushered in with the cover tokens, stopping at the first available empty space on the large garage-themed floor, dimly lit with the huge four-sided bar counter at the centre. Two of the girls proceeded on and wantonly gave whoever cared to look a slut-on-slut rendition of that free-form dance movement of butts, breasts and knees, not really worried about keeping time to the music. Siddharth’s left-over companion turned herself into a smoldering receptacle of lips and tongue for a minute and a half that saw him gulping desperately for air when it finished.

He moved on then through the periphery of the dancing crowd to the second bar, thankfully placed at the right –hand corner of one of the four walls and got himself his first whisky and soda. He gravitated eventually towards a jubilant crowd out yonder and dissolved into the bonhomie. When he had made it to his sixth shot of tequila later that night, almost passed out on the sofa in front of the bar, he looked down into the top of a fourth dissociated girl’s head and saw her desperately try to engage his penile attention in full view of the five hundred other patrons who really couldn’t have cared less.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Voting-Day is here

All in all, it has suddenly crept up on us. The Great Indian Election 2009 is finally underway, heralded in by a blanket ban by the Election Commission on real time reporting by any and all television news channels from all constituencies. The ban is further extended to all exit poll analyses after the fact, ostensibly to prevent any influence on the fragile voter’s mind. I have nothing to say in terms of self-regulation by the television channels – they represent everything that the fabled Fourth Estate should not have degenerated into, but they still provide a vast majority in this country with at least some perspective on what is happening.
During the campaigning, there have been such distractions as;
- crass cash disbursements to the adoring public in full view of television cameras
- murders of sitting M.L.As
- a desperate attempt to instill a sense of individual contest between contestants in what is a sixty-year old parliamentary democracy
- personal accusations and counter-accusations by all the prominent personalities
- the tried and tested (and remarkably successful) attempt to play one religion against the other
- and the stark fact that caste-based political wooing isn’t going anywhere.

The election manifestos put forward by the main parties in the fray are as incongruous.
They tell us that;
- poverty is good,
- that progress (social and economic) is for a privileged few and that it will hopefully ‘trickle-down’ to the very many, so long as you keep voting us into power for the next fifty years
- that whatever is happening in the rest of the world has nothing to do with us – ‘we are Indians after all, you see’
- and that foreign attack on our way of life is ‘imminent’ – or at least until we come into power.

It is by no stretch of my imagination that I see a masterful comedy being played out on a grand ‘uninformed’ stage:

If I want to vote sustainable and painstakingly slow progress, then I have to align myself with a political dynasty that I, as a reasonable man, cannot conscionably have any feeling for, whatsoever.
If I want to vote an impression of vitality, at least, and visible momentum, then I have to contend with divisive politics that spits in the face of everyone who had anything to do with liberating this country.
If I have a sentimental attachment for the upliftment of all those who have been completely marginalized and left out of any sphere of influence in determining their own futures, then I have to balk at the unbelievable amount of personal wealth paraded around by the very same representatives of these people.

And the Communists, at the end of the day, are still communists.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Mumbai freeze-frame: Homicide

8. Homicide

He tossed and turned, burying his face deep in the pillow only to come up for air when he absolutely couldn’t breathe anymore. He checked for messages again on his phone, got off the bed and looked in the mirror for a sign - some sign, any sign. He tried turning on the study table light and then switched it off again when his head began to throb. A long wash then in the basin, throwing the water all over his face and rubbing the soap deep into his cheeks. When he walked back into the room, he checked his phone again and was now positively, irrevocably sure why she hadn’t called. He walked out of the house, hailed a rickshaw, climbed off after thirty minutes, nodded to the watchman standing at the the entrance to the lifts and the staircase, ran up the five floors and rang the bell. When she opened the door a minute later, sleepy-eyed and clad only in her thin translucent nightie, he looked past her and could barely make out the sleeping naked form of the man in her bed, through the open door in the bedroom beyond.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

On Heath Ledger (1979 to 2008) in 'Candy' (2006).

On Ledger (1979 to 2008) in ‘Candy’ (2006).

The absolute tragedy that is self immolation is manifest in the void that the act leaves behind. It is as if the imagination has exposed itself to be a large gaping hole that the consciousness knows will get filled in eventually, but is momentarily resistant to the idea that it will ever happen. This is true of Heath Ledger and his art that is given adequate rein in this searching movie, helped by an impeccable performance by Abbie Cornish of Somersault (2004) fame. The tale seems all too familiar - drug-addicts hurtling towards self-destruction and gaining a reprieve at the last minute, only to lose the most important thing in their lives. But this movie, with the chemistry between the two main characters and the uncompromising look at the struggles of other loved ones in it, such as the character Candy’s parents, is special because we shall never again see Ledger inhabit the various chivalrous, relentless, tender, manic roles he seems to have so decidedly made his own in his short career. The fact sticks like a needle in the vein making it haplessly painful because he was such an immense talent.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Mumbai freeze-frame: Perfidy

13. Perfidy.

He was late coming back home. These days one could never be sure when the dreaded pink-slip would arrive on a silver platter just when you had asked the office boy for that sixth cup of chai. It made little sense to mark time sitting at your desk, but at least it made you visible, he reasoned.

It was close to one o’clock when he reached his street, and he was walking towards his cigarette-wallah just past the gate to his apartment building when he noticed her, or rather, saw her bare back. It was beautiful - straight planes converging towards a natural depression at the base of the spine, just before the bulbous vivacity began beneath. He couldn’t stare for too long, obviously. There were the curious eyes of the cigarette-wallah to contend with, so too the watchman who had already registered his home-coming. He pulled out a tenner on his way back to the gate, and stretched it out in her direction as dismissively as possible without losing a step. She grabbed at it and that was all.

He was longer at the office the next day. As he walked his usual route back home, he saw her again, this time hidden from view of everyone else because of the bushy tree that stood on that part of the pavement about twenty feet before the gate to his building. He stopped and drank her in – lying sideways, still bare-backed, and as yesterday, a shredded excuse for a sari covering her sex and most of the front. She hadn’t even bothered covering up her emaciated left breast as she lay there in the dirt breathing hard in her sleep with the two street-dogs lying a few feet away. When the lights of a passing car shone on them from the road, he bent down and pretended to tie his shoe-laces.

The next day was Saturday and the Mrs., had a trip planned to Pune. She was surprised that he had agreed to let her go so easily without the usual complaints about how he would cook, clean and manage with her gone for two whole days. But then she remembered his unusual ardour in the bedroom last night, and thought jovially that it must have taken a toll. After she had left, he walked straight into the bathroom, and washed it out as he had never done before. He then turned on the geyser and went into the bedroom to change the sheets and lock up everything that could be easily filched in the Godrej. He then filled up three large buckets of water with steaming hot water and laid out the scissors, nail-cutter and soap carefully on the basin. He then went into the living room and stood pensively at his window, overlooking the building society park and beyond that, the gate.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Mumbai freeze-frame: Druggies, on the other hand

4. Druggies, on the other hand

The scene was spitting wild. The security was another thing. You couldn’t believe they actually asked you to show them the contents of your wallet before entering. We did the smart thing - went down to the car after the first set and hit the chew, no problem. Even there the valets were all crowded around, bearing down from every window. It definitely wasn’t the right energy. It didn’t help that the blotter trips we hadn’t manage to score, even at the last minute, were still on our minds.

Samrat was cool… very. I remember the last time he played at the UG, it was maddening. Today, he started off soft, and like, delicate, you know. And then it started. Chicks moving everywhere, guys going crazy in front of the booth and near the bar. There were glasses broken from time to time, but it was like in slow motion coz you couldn’t hear it from the sound. There was this chick in front of me who kept swinging her arms like a groovy gorilla, so much so that I had to keep coordinating my own movements with hers. It wasn’t a bad thing though – the music was very trippy.

The first sign of the cops was at the table – this pig went up to Sammy and had the balls to grab the microphone and say, ‘That’s it, folks. This is a raid, sorry.’ And switched off the sound system mid tempo. Man, we were so pissed. And then, after that, there were like twenty or thirty other pigs in mufti crowded around and everyone was like, ‘What the fu…?’

People were getting lined up all across the aisles – girls and guys separate. There was a commotion in the back of the line, near the bar. We tried to turn around and see, but there was too much crowd. All we managed to catch was this bartender who was standing on the counter and juggling his beer glasses all over the place. There was this pig right in front of him too, screaming his head off, laughing. As the line took us near the lounge section, we saw this other pig - arms and legs spread out all over the couch talking to an old guy who was standing in front of him bent down really low. A waiter was serving the pig coke or something. It was unbelievably hot and the people in the queue ahead and behind started yelling after about twenty minutes – a guy pushed his way up to the front of the line and said something to the pig standing at the door. He got smacked right in the face and was pulled towards the loo by another pig who was hanging around near there. As we reached the front, we saw all these guys with dyed hair who were crying, begging them not to tell their parents about this – ‘Please Sir, please sir…’ Another group was being threatened by a big pig with a camera guy near him. ‘Shut up or we’ll take a photo and publish it in the newspaper,’ he was saying. Straight away five or six guys started posing in front of the camera guy going, ‘Group photo, group photo...’ That was pretty funny. When we got outside, three pigs were checking wallets and pockets again. On the right, a group of female pigs were doing the same to the girls. We didn’t have anything on us when it was our turn, so the pig doing us goes, ‘Address and phone number’, and double-checked what we told him with the driver’s license.

There was a big crowd when we finally got downstairs. Everyone was being herded into the back of these cattle-car-type police vans. We tried to do a last second dodge by bending down low and walking fast away from the janta, but we were spotted immediately by this massive pig who was obviously watching very carefully for just such a situation. When it was our turn to climb the stairs into the van, I thought about letting a punch loose on the pig standing by the door, but then I saw the big lathi and gave up thinking.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Mumbai freeze-frame: Escape

7. Escape

It was unlikely that anyone noticed the diminutive young woman crawl out of the ladies carriage onto the bare tracks, to see her hold her head high towards the sun immediately afterward, breathing in the polluted air as deeply and as vagrantly as an unrestrained swallow of cold water.

Her name was Ramia. She was twenty four years old. That work morning felt to her like a donkey had crawled up her back and squatted, comfortable and settling in. The lecture she was subjected to by the venerable Mrs. Tripathi left her with such a bitter after taste, that it was all she could do to run up to the terrace of her office building and light a cigarette, fingers unsteady. She hadn’t earned her superior’s ire – of that there was no doubt. Someone somewhere had fucked up – what did it matter, who or why? Her position demanded that she, Ramia, face the flak. She had faced it, with just enough self-control, so why was she thinking, again, that she was selling out? And not just selling out, but shaming Him by her inadequacies.

‘Aaah.. Him, he – Feroze… where are you, babe?’, she thought out loud. ‘What are you doing right now? Why are you not here to tell me that everything’s okay and not going to get worse?… And then tell me that there really isn’t a reason for me to keep taking this bull shit, with or without self-control. Feroze, is it really true that we can go away like you said to deepest darkest Africa, or the jungles of Brazil or the desolate foothills of the Himalayas, with absolutely no one around… and prance around like two monkeys high, very high, only on life?’

Putting out her cigarette with a sigh, Ramia made her way down to her cubicle, logged in, sent her emails out, read the ones that she needed, saved them in their appropriate folders, cleaned up her inbox and left the building, walking, this time, to the train station. The train had inevitably drawn up in no man’s land ahead of Mahim. She knew there was something happening with the Tulsi Pipe Road’s slum resident’s organization protesting about their lack of water or electricity or something else.

It took fifteen minutes of looking around the lonely mid-day local compartment before she finally decided that she really wasn’t going to take any of this anymore. And she got off on the bare ground, having carefully negotiated the rather high climb down and walked across the five sets of parallel tracks to the gap in the concrete wall leading on to the road, thrilled that it was something that she had never, ever done before.

Two days later she was arranging her books, fifty-two of them, in alphabetical order according to author, top to bottom, in three large piles on the far corner of the cement floor, not yet accustomed to the banal joy this simple act was bringing her. Two crazy days that had led them to this small room in this small hut set amongst the jacaranda and mango trees in the little clearing in the Vagator forest that the landlord had kindly consented to let them have on off-season prices even though the tourists had already begun gathering. She had made him the fabled mutton kurma, a relic from the kitchens of Mrs. Saud, mother to Ramia, on the first evening, and it had sealed the deal. But enough of that already, Ramia told herself. This is Goa… I am here… And so is He, she thought and giggled, waiting for her Feroze to come back to her from the store with the eggs and fish for dinner.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Mumbai freeze-frame: Wimbaldone

3. Wimbaldone

It was a large apartment, and that’s putting it mildly. The private elevator from the basement car park brought one up to the twenty-third floor penthouse to be immediately greeted by a large oval mirror framed in intricately designed wrought-iron. As you walked in, there appeared large open passages to either side. You are subliminally led on to the left, perhaps due to the angular placement of the large potted plant under the showpiece antique half-table placed under the mirror. You are then welcomed into a large living room with assorted pieces of art occupying even the most hidden spaces. Busts of vaguely recognisable historical figures, rolled up charts of what seemed like technical blue-prints, sketches of nudes on paper etc., were scattered behind the side-arm bolsters of the white buff-leather couch, under the rosewood side tables, behind the gleaming steel rack that housed the entertainment literature, below the monumental plasma screen on the wall facing the grand piano placed at the far end of the room, and next to the french windows leading on to the large unfettered balcony.

That day there were three people at tea in the balcony. It was that pleasant time of the evening when the normally rabid wind was temporarily lulled into a false sense of security by the sea.

‘I really don’t know what was wrong with him.’ said the host.

‘Yes,’ said the woman taking a sip of her zinfandel. ‘He was out of control.’

‘It can’t help that he lives where he does,’ said the guest, studying the framing that held the striped red and white café-umbrella above them, in place.

‘But still,’ said the host, ‘Someone has to take a stand with him at sometime or the other.’

‘I knew of this child once who had to be sent away, to an institution somewhere in Northern Europe, because she was always shouting out obscenities, even in front of other people.’ said the woman.

‘It leads on to other things later.’ said the guest, cryptically.

‘He has that mean and hungry look of a pariah.’ said the host.

‘Well, he certainly looks under-nourished.’ said the woman.

‘The last time I saw him, at Sheila’s wedding, he looked much bigger.’ agreed the guest.

‘Well. What is anyone going to do about it?’ said the host.

‘I’d rather not think about it. His mother is under the impression that the whole world is her mall. She was in Rome last week. I think she’s in Jerusalem now.’ said the woman.

‘A case of the broken home, I suppose.’ said the guest.

‘Certainly not.’ said the host, offended.

A studious silence later, they got up all at once as if by a common signal, and made their way to the master bedroom to which there was a little bridge connecting the two wings from the balcony, that saved them the effort of walking inside.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Mumbai freeze-frame: At the neighbourhood massage parlour

6. At the Neighborhood Massage Parlour

He walked in like he was in a major hurry or something. His regular guy was shut that day apparently and he was hurting – ‘I need a head massage badly, please. Last night’s shift was too long and too much’ - was what else he said, I think. He sat straight down in front of Abdul. Abdul turned and looked at me and I turned and looked at Preeti. Her attention had already switched to her 2 P.M. regular who had come in just then. He ignored all of us and walked straight into the back room. She followed him in there closing the door and just like that, there were only the three of us left in the parlour.

Abdul poured a ton of oil on the guy’s head, and I shifted slowly on the bench so that he could get a better look at my legs. The young square face began to look a little confused then, poor thing, and the eyes were trained on me in the mirror. I gave him the servile puppy dog gaze - eyes opened wide, lips pouted - straight into his eyes. I may not be irresistible but it generally suffices. When I use it on the streets, they mostly look away instantly and the occasional daring soul darts a challenging glare right back. This one though, was confused, like I said, and stared, just bloody stared. Abdul was really working him over by then and whenever his head was moved away from my line of vision, he glanced quickly back a moment later, perhaps to confirm that I was really there. Another five minutes of this and I could see that Abdul was getting impatient. Eventually he bent down low and said something indistinct into the man’s ear. Like a shot, head dripping of oil, the man got up, pulled out a note from his pocket, threw it on the table and ran out of the door. I kid you not – he just ran. It surely was the highlight of my day.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Mumbai freeze-frame: Ambulance

11. Ambulance

It was one of those mornings. The bad hangover, the extended shits, the maid coming late, the car keys missing just when your fingers are on the front door-handle. I eventually made it into the car, turned on the air-conditioner and luxuriated in the intractable sweat from the short walk to the car park, evaporating slowly from my pores. Only when I turned onto the Western Express Highway did I remember the pen drive, with my favorite Sigur Ros tracks, left back at the apartment. Again, the traffic was nothing new – a chaotic maze of cars, buses, lorries, auto-rickshaws, motorcycles and scooters, stretched into infinity on the six lanes, over and under the flyovers, or at least as far as the eye could see. I found a decent CD of something House to put on. At the Andheri overpass, I managed to get behind an ambulance that was desperately weaving its way through whatever space the driver could find with the siren blaring. It was a logical thing for me to do, hoping that the folks in front of it would feel some compassion for a possibly gravely ill victim inside, and give way, thereby allowing me to tag along behind. But then again, everyone around had obviously seen too many ambulance drivers drop nurses off home at the end of the night-shift by making use of the same shrill plea. And like I said, it was one of those mornings where patience ran thin in the collective air. Only after five minutes of tailing the Ambulance did it strike me that there was actually something going on inside. At the beginning I thought that it might just be an exhibitive orgy through the large clear-glass windows with doctors and nurses playacting a sex romp in an airy mock operating theatre – you know how the mind works when you’re late for work and can do nothing about it. There was a man with a stethoscope round his neck who moved back and forth from either side of the back of the ambulance hurriedly, checking for this, looking concerned about that. There was another man, a relative I thought, sitting behind what I judged to be the patient’s head and was stroking it with a hidden hand. There was a nurse who was at the feet of the unseen patient checking the pulse – I assumed so because she was looking at her watch constantly. I didn’t even know that I had turned down the volume on my stereo. A call then, from work – Where the fuck are you?, Do you know where the file for the Walking Tree account is?, How come you didn’t leave home earlier, asshole? I couldn’t hear too clearly on the Bluetooth earpiece so I told the boss to go fuck himself, under my breath, and said I would get there eventually and sort things out, with it. The scene had changed in the ambulance by the time I had disconnected. The doctor by now was standing by the side of the patient and not moving back to his seat at intervals, as before. The nurse was on the phone looking frantic and straight towards me through the back window, and the relative was working over time with his hands. I then saw the knee – bare, yellowed and enervated in movement as it came slowly into view and then dropped back down out of sight. Another five minutes as we finally came into view of the Santa Cruz overpass, still inching along. I did have many half-opportunities to overtake the ambulance during this time, but to my horror I found that I couldn’t – the scene in front of me was just too raw, and I couldn’t leave without seeing how it ended. I saw a ventilator in the hands of the relative, and as the doctor began his manual resuscitation, the nurse sat with her back turned to me and I couldn’t see what she was doing any longer. There was frantic pumping from both the men for a very long ten minutes, and then a shudder ran through me as the relative dropped the ventilator, and broke down wailing with his head out of the window for whoever cared to notice. The doctor fell back into his seat on the other side tiredly, and the nurse was on her feet, suddenly with a pad and a pen in her hand. The driver of the ambulance then swerved left to the side of the road just before we reached the airport exit and stopped. My last look at the ambulance was blocked by a van that swerved dangerously from two places behind me to take the momentarily empty space in front.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Mumbai freeze-frame: The Householder

5. The Householder

The one-room tenement was filled to capacity only at night. The youngest child, the boy, got to sleep with his parents and the two elder girls made good under the makeshift kitchen counter. And that was only when he wasn’t spewing fire after getting back home. Otherwise, everyone made a beeline for the door as soon as the first tirade started – everyone that is, except the woman. The violent episodes were getting more frequent lately and the pain from the beltings on her back and thighs almost prevented her from getting up in the mornings. He had a job the last two months with the Municipal Corporation as a garbage attendant – it paid enough to sustain his daily sachets, and if he was feeling rich, his quarts. She was working three flats these days, and the occasional extra if someone was moving in or out of the co-operative society building behind the slum - she had cajoled the watchman to keep an eye out for her.

She had first heard of it from a chance conversation between the eighth floor resident and his twelfth floor friend when he had come downstairs to get something. She was finishing up the washing when the man said something about the tablet for drunks they had just started selling that paralyzed you if you even had a whiff of alcohol. They were still talking when she left five minutes later. She went home, made lunch, checked on the boy who was playing next door and hurried over to the clinic. She waited for two hours after registering at the counter and then met the doctor who had handled her last delivery. He wasn’t convinced. It was too new, he said, and culpably dangerous. He changed his mind and wrote out the prescription after she got down on her hands and knees in front of him after locking the door. Home again later, she put a lot of energy into the daal for the evening meal and after separating a portion for the children, she mixed the ground white powder thoroughly into the remaining viscous paste. She added an extra dose of salt to mask the bitterness that she imagined he would taste straight away. When he arrived home, at around twelve that night, they were all asleep. She got up, scooped out some pickle, and fed the daal to him with the chappatis herself – he was too far gone that night to do anything at all by himself. When she felt his body stiffen on the mattress later, she closed her eyes and hugged the boy tightly to her breast.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Thoughts on Slumdog Millionaire's resonance

The one image from Slumdog Millionaire that painfully refuses to leave my memory is the long shot of the character, ‘Jamal’ as a boy, jumping into an excrement filled hole in the ground after deciding that he wasn’t going to miss his chance to greet the great Amitabh Bacchan and get his autograph. The crowd gathered around also move apart granting him access to the star who has just stepped off his helicopter – an irony seeing as how Jamal would probably never have gotten close to Bacchan unless he was actually covered in excrement. He is almost sub-human, covered in feces, a disgusting fetid blob on the landscape, from the terribly ignored strata of Mumbai society, from the slum…

Indian society has a lot to answer for – to have given rise to such a vast underclass of people living not far removed from a culture of luxury sedans, afternoon spas, fine dining and absolute apathy. The slum environs in the movie is as true a depiction as we will ever see, and more familiar to the population of India than the saturated colour schemes of our own cinematic depictions of the living conditions of the underclass in our cities. It wasn’t meant to be like this. Our freedom fighters did have dreams in 1947, they did have ideals and goals – India was going to be the guiding light, our ancient history and progressive intellectualism combining to morph into a shining beacon to a world of inequality.

To all those of you who are insulted by the ‘pornography of poverty’ in the movie, who say that using ‘Slum’ or ‘Dog’ in the title is disrespectful to the people who live in Dharavi, there is only one thing to say – you are the same people who periodically protest at the lack of regulation in allowing wretched migrants from the poverty-stricken villages to enter Mumbai. You are the same people who protest when there are riots and bombs interfering in your daily lackadaisical routines. You are those who have no concept of what it is to live without knowing for sure if you are going to get the three meals a day that prevents the hunger from assaulting you when you lay your head down at night.

We are culprits of the crime of inhumanity. We have to acknowledge what we have spawned, whether indirectly or in collusion with - a social system that allows you to hire or fire your maid or your servant on a whim, to throw rag-clad people off the first-class compartments of our suburban trains, to use physical or verbal violence on people whom we know are completely dependent on the hand-outs we deign to impart.