Tuesday, January 31, 2017


She picked up a burnt stub from the ash-tray and ran her finger around its end tracing the lines of his mouth on the smooth amber that concealed the filter. 

"How does such a delicate strip of paper manage to nestle so much toxicity and yet remain unaffected?" She thought to herself even as she placed the butt in her mouth pretending to take a drag
"Do I look like you?" She asked shyly propping herself against the pillow, pretending to take another drag

Amused by her antics, he smiled faintly and lit a fresh stick, placing it between his nicotine stained lips.   

"Why do you want to look like me?" He asked exhaling the smoke

"I just want to." She replied, breaking into a slight smile.
In that moment, propped up against the pillow, with the burnt cigarette between her fingers and the slight smile on her mouth, she really did look like him.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Flying Full Fare or Buying from a Seconds Sale?

Travelling in Air India is like shopping at a seconds sale.

You walk into the shop knowing you're going to buy a compromised product, but you are happy nonetheless because the white shirt that you had wanted so badly, will, perhaps, be within your budget now. Even though it may have some insignificant flaws. It's collar may be dirty, or some of its buttons may have come loose, it may also have a minor nip here or a tiny cu there -- but you can wash the collar, fix the nip, and fasten the buttons, can't you?

So excited you are that you are also prepared for a second class treatment by the salesmen and women. On their part, they will not only be short staffed, but the ones around may be cleaning their nose with bare hands and wiping their hands on their shirts. If you are lucky you can hear one of them sing a Kishore Kumar song for you otherwise you'd have to make do with the bickering about their bosses. The others, if there are more than two, will either be busy taking selfies or checking their facebook accounts. Upon asking them for your size in the shirt -- yeah the same white one -- they'd scornfully tell you that their brand doesn't make shirts your size.

But you will ignore all that. You will also ignore that the clothes are thrown around in heaps, like they are ready to be sent to a dhobi, or a dry-cleaner; while in a smaller shop, you'd make a fuss about the way they fold clothes, or stack them, here you will turn a blind eye to the heap. You will quietly, and patiently, look for your shirt in the heap, for a piece that is least dirty, has maximum buttons intact and somehow fits your 'too large for the brand' frame. The one you find would already be taken, so you will fight with the fellow shoppers -- also out to get the only piece that fits them. But you will loose.

So you will begin the search again. And eventually, after almost an hour, get one with a few unnoticeable marks along the sleeve, a minuscule nip in the cuff, and the collar button missing. 'No one will notice these, after all it's a luxury brand' is what you'd tell yourself and lap it up.
When you will get to the billing queue, you'd find out that the card machine is not working and you cannot pay through paytm or any such fancy payment app. The queue is long and you cannot leave the shirt back: who knows if you'd ever find it again? So you'd do a mental math, search all your pockets, and proudly take out one pink note (yeah! we all have that tucked away somewhere discreetly).

You will finally reach the billing counter smug at your victory. By now you have already thought of the occasion on which you will debut the shirt and googled how to remove the stains. You have planned what button to put on the collar and how to wear it in a manner that the label is visible. But when you hand over the shirt and the pink note to the cashier, you will be told that the piece is not on sale and you have to pay full price for it. Angry & frustrated, you will throw the coveted shirt at the cashier's face -- with scenes from the last one hour flashing through your mind -- and will walk out of the shop seething with rage.

While in case of this shirt, you can walk out in a fit of rage, on board Air India, you cannot do anything like that. You sit there looking at all the tamasha that unfolds, knowing very well that you have paid full price for a service that is not even worth seconds' sale. And you are amazed at your own stupidity.

P.S. Any similarity to people dead or alive, or organizations -- dead or alive -- is totally deliberate.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Uncle Amit

"Such stories make me sick!" A friend had said when I had shared this piece with him before submitting it for a fast fiction competition a few years ago. Incidentally the story happened to be my only entry that did not make it to the finals. Perhaps it made the publishers sick too. 
We all find such stories sickening. The writer feels sick writing them, the readers feel sick reading them, and the publishers often feel so sick that they do not publish them at all. Unfortunately, unlike the stories, the truth cannot be wished away. The truth remains the truth irrespective of our feeling sick about it. 
It's time we stop feeling sick and start accepting it as a fact. Accepting your sickness, after all, is the first step towards treating it.

Today when I look at it, the story looks very weak and it's literary value negative. Perhaps because it was very hard for me to write: everytime I sat down to finish it, I could feel the bile rising in my gut, I wanted to get over and done with it at the earliest.
Even if you feel uncomfortable, do finish reading it. And understand that such things happen in everywhere. The only way to stop it is to be aware, vigilant and sensitive. 
Meanwhile I will re-write this as soon as I can, as lucidly as I can, even if it makes me throw up in disgust.

He was sitting and chatting with her mother when she returned from school. He looked at her and smiled. She forced a smiled back and rushed into her room. Her heart pounded against her chest and her throat parched, she quickly shut the door and reached out to her desk for the water bottle. The bottle was empty and had his fingerprints on it. His bag lay on the floor, next to her bed. She was wondering if she should go out to get some water or stay locked inside, when her mother knocked at the door. “Amit uncle has been waiting for you, come and have your lunch”, she said. Ria reluctantly came out in the loosest possible clothes; she wanted to hide every part of her body from him. Even as she sat quietly at the table trying to swallow her food, she could feel his eyes scanning her body.

At twelve when her friends were still in their slips, Ria had already blossomed into a young woman – a development she was fully aware of. She was also aware of why Uncle Amit was here today.

A few months ago, when he had visited them after a gap of many years, Uncle Amit, as always, was made to share Ria’s room. That night she had woken up with a start. She had felt something on her back. At first she thought it was an insect or a lizard perhaps, and was about to scream when she saw her uncle put his finger on her lips, signalling her to stay quiet. He kissed her on the left cheek even as his hand continued to explore her grown-up body. She had been too shocked to react. The following morning he had left in a rush.

Today he seemed relaxed and spent the rest of the afternoon laughing and talking to her parents. Ria, on the other hand was nervous, the scenes from that night played over and over again in her mind: his fingers on her back, his hands on her thighs, his feet on her legs. She felt bile rising up her gut. As the night drew closer, Ria knew she had to act; she could not let the events of that night be repeated. “Amit will share your room for the next three days, Ria” she heard her father tell her at dinner table.

She was in her room, pretending to study, when he knocked. Her parents had already gone to bed and Uncle Amit had been watching TV in the hall. Frightened, she quietly slipped into her bed and turned the lights out. She could hear him knock at the door and call her name out for sometime, after which there was silence. She spent most part of the night hiding under her covers sweating profusely, expecting him to break open the door anytime.

“Your uncle had to suddenly leave” Ria’s mother told her when she woke up in the morning. Ria could finally feel her breath returning to her bosom.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Picnic Aboard the Steel Express

Like most people of my generation train travel occupies a special place in my heart, especially the food. From the homemade poori-aloo-pickle packed neatly in steel tiffin boxes, to pantry made not-so-hot meals served in foil casings, to the piping hot samosas and cutlets that arrived fresh at every station – it was the food that made the sleeper class, cross-country train rides of the my childhood special.

My reason for travelling from Tata to Calcutta in a non-ac coach this morning is the same: food.

I was introduced to this route, and its food, on a similar morning fifteen years ago as a new bride. Tired and famished from the wedding mayhem, I had gorged on the food all throughout the 4-hr journey, while my new husband had indulgently looked at me. Fifteen years later, the husband may longer be indulgent, but I am still famished.

The most interesting thing about this train is that in a short span of 4-hrs, it crosses two states and some important stations. Each one of them – the state and the stations – has its own specialty. Take Ghatshila for example, known for its rasmalai and milk cake from a shack close to the station. Legend has it that the train used to make a brief stop in front of the shop only so that the passengers could run and get their sweets. Then there is Kharagpur. Famous for nurturing intellectuals at IIT, and nourishing the travelers like us with the most delectable luchis and aloo sabzi. The tiny luchis, served in portions of four, are fluffy and soft, and the potatoes spicy. The highlight of the dish however is the single piece of dum-aloo perched on top of the stack of luchis. (No, you cannot bribe the seller to give you more than one of those.)

Apart from Rasmalai and Luchi-aloo, there is also Vegetable and Potato Chop, Jhaal Muri and Ghugni, Samosa and Coconut Water, and the Railway special breakfast of Bread, Butter, Omelette and Bread, Butter, Chicken Cutlet on offer.  In short, being on this train is like being in a picnic on wheels.  

I am lost in thoughts of food, wondering how long would I have to wait before the first installment of food arrives, when I hear a familiar call. It is the nasal sound of the chop-seller, who carries hundreds of perfectly fried veg-chops in his wicker basket wrapped in a red cloth. The crispy vegetable chops, which are a personal favourite, are served piping hot on a dried leaf accompanied with cucumber and onion salad, green chili, and a drizzle of black salt. No sooner than I dig into the first one (I have three), do I see the hitherto elusive pantry guy. Dressed in grey uniform with a strip of paper and a pen in hand, he is taking orders for breakfast. Almost simultaneously, the jhalmuri & the ghugni sellers also get on to the coach. As more and more vendors start streaming into the coach, I know my long awaited picnic has finally begun.

Of Walking, Running, Writing, and Publishing and What Ambition Has To Do With It.

Ambition is a strange thing. On the face of it, it pushes you to achieve goals that you may find way beyond your reach. It makes you snug after every small and big accomplishment -- you know that warm fuzzy feeling of self-pride and satisfaction? In the long run however, it makes you more and more discontented with every passing day -- you are forever running to acquire more, to scale greater heights, never satisfied with what you have achieved.

In this race, which you are often running with only yourself, you are so busy looking ahead that you have no time to look around or enjoy what you have worked hard to attain, until the day you realise the futility of running.

If you are lucky you understand it sooner than later, and manage to find some time to smell the roses that you have worked hard to grow. If not, you realise it after the roses have withered and all you are left with are stubs of a once healthy plant.

My writing sometimes seems to me like that bed of roses to me. The one, which I sometimes stand and stare at with joy and, and run away from at other times.

In the years that I wrote for myself, and for the art and the craft of writing, it gave me immense satisfaction. I felt truly gratified after finishing a blog post which would have taken nights to finish (I never write my blogs in the day) or a poem that was scribbled in an auto travelling to work or at the bus stop waiting for the girls. But from the day the ambition of being published got on to my head, I started to run. I began running to achieve more and more, running to defeat my own shortcomings as a writer, running to see my name in print week after week. And let me tell you, I immensely enjoyed the races too; I got the same warm and fuzzy feeling, the same sense of smugness every time I saw my name in newsprint. It was something I had always dreamt of.

What it robbed me of, however, is the spontaneity and joy. The excitement of doing something only for my craft, for learning more, for the few people who genuinely care for my growth as a writer. And the thrill of writing just about anywhere -- in the car, on the top berth of the train, at work, in between meetings -- just about anything.

When I read my old posts, I am sometimes surprised by the quality of writing and the clarity of thought. I cannot say if my current work is worse than before, but it surely isn't better.
So this year, I have decided to tame my ambition. To try to smell the roses more often. To try and look around as I walk -- not run -- towards my success. For if I am destined to succeed, I'd succeed anyway, and if not, I'd have at least enjoyed the race.