E is for Exam [#AtoZChallenge]

“Are you ready?”, the voice on the phone asked Subbu. Subbu didn’t feel remotely ready. But his response didn’t matter either way. It was 7.30 AM – time to leave for school. The dreaded exam week was to commence that day. He mumbled something incoherently and placed the receiver on the telephone. “Subbuuuuu, late aachu da. Breakfast saapdu!” [Subbuu, it’s late already. Finish your breakfast!]. He wasn’t hungry. In fact his stomach felt like they were full of polymers of isoprene. Why was he thinking about rubber now though? He should be mentally wading through the rivers of the world and jogging through the various farms of India. Geography had never been Subbu’s strong suit and yet, that was the  mountain he had to scale that day. He sat at the table obediently though and looked at his plate. Rice and Chapati.. Rice and wheat.. Bihar? Chattisgarh? No no.. The maximum production of rice was in West Bengal and wheat, in Uttar Pradesh. He tried to come up with mnemonics to avoid forgetting that as he poked at a chapati. His mum yelled at him again and he hastened to finish it. His mind was still buzzing with random keywords he had associated with lengthy paragraphs as he tied his shoe laces and noticed that he had worn mismatched socks. Well, it was too late to do anything about that now. He prayed that the class monitor would accept his offering of one Yummies packet and overlook this error during routine assembly checks. The school bus arrived and the driver honked rhythmically as usual. Subbu got on and waved absently to his mum. Was K2 the tallest mountain in the world or did that honor belong to Everest?  What was Kanchenjunga then? Wait, were K2 and Kanchenjunga synonymous? Aaah! He didn’t know anything! He moved to the back of the bus and squeezed in between two bulkier boys. Then he picked out a textbook with a slightly worn out cover and opened it to a page at random. Anything was worth revising. Itanagar was the capital of Arunchal Pradesh. “Itanagar – AP, Itanagar – AP , Itanagar – AP”, he chanted in a low voice. He remembered talking about capitals with his dad the previous evening. He had asked the old man what the capital of Telengana was, confident that he wouldn’t know what it was. Subbu’s dad had disappointed him by not only telling him the correct answer, but supplementing it with more historical information – “When we were studying, Andhra Pradesh was one state. Ippo daan kanna pinna nu state mela state pannindirrukange” [“It’s only now that they’re creating new states left, right and center”]. Subbu didn’t care for this new bit of information. Actually, he felt cheated that he was having to consume more nonsensical facts than his dad. He resumed memorizing the rest of the capitals of states and moved on to a chapter titled “Weather – seasons and their importance”. Subbu groaned. In Bangalore, it was summer but it had just rained heavily the previous evening. This completely contradicted what this – he flipped to the first page – this Veena Bhargava was telling him about Karnataka’s weather. She would have him believe that climate change was periodic and that there were months beyond which Summer would not last or months in which there would be no rain. He made a note to word a strong box-format letter to her after he got home. Maybe she would discard it though. He wasn’t sure if adults were in the habit of receiving letters from 14 year olds. He shook his head and continued reading about how Cherrapunji had the highest amount of rainfall in the country. What was the capital of Cherrapunji again? Wait. Cherrapunji wasn’t a state. He gave the page a distasteful stare and looked around at everyone else. Their peaceful expressions agitated him even further and he started flipping pages at random. He shook his head and decided he wouldn’t let this faze him any further. He leaned further into the book in an act of increased focus and started reading about soils and their significance in the plantation of different types of crops, about earthquakes and tsunamis and their places of likely occurrence. Mental images of everything he had read blazed through in his mind, and at that point, he seemed unstoppable, when the bus came to a slow halt. They had reached school. He hurriedly closed his book, suddenly feeling more unprepared than ever and got down from the bus following the long file of students ahead of him. He walked into the classroom and saw huddled groups of students everywhere, no doubt trying to cram in one last satellite’s name before the call for assembly. He wasn’t going to try anymore though. He quietly sat at a desk closest to the door and waited with his head on the desk, trying to recall any fact he could.

After what seemed like an eternity, he heard swift footsteps enter the door and instead of his P.E teacher’s voice, he heard his class teacher call out, “Children!”. Subbu looked up, confused. “I have an announcement. We’ve just had news that a low-intensity earthquake is about to strike parts of Bangalore. The Geography exam has been postponed to tomorrow. We will be arranging for the school buses to drop you back home. “.

“Dei…”, Subbu thought..”Bangalore was not listed in that chapter only no da!”.

D is for Doodh* [#AtoZChallenge]

Padma sat by the window reading “Harry Potter and The Order of The Phoenix” for what was probably the fifteenth time. She’d already binged through Goblet of Fire. When she reached the chapter “Silver and Opals”, she looked up for the first time in three hours and out the window. The road outside was empty save for a cat that was scratching the neighbor’s door on the other side. “What if that were Minerva McGonagall?”, Padma thought to herself and chuckled, amused. She decided to give herself a break, leaned against the wall adjoining the window and closed her eyes, her mind buzzing with thoughts of Voldemort taking over Harry’s dreams and wondering if she might fall victim to that too, if she fell asleep just then. She’d just closed her eyes when the doorbell rang. “Now? Really?”, she muttered and made her way unwillingly to the front door. She peered through the peephole cautiously, but there was no one in sight. She slowly opened the door and heard a shuffling noise at her feet. It was the cat she’d seen, trying to nudge past her legs and into the house. Before she could make sense of the situation, it had already made a dash for the living room and paused at the edge of a straw mat by the poojai room. Padma, still bewildered looked outside one last time before she closed the door and wondered who had rung the doorbell. Surely, it wasn’t the cat?! She shook her head. The doorbell mystery could wait. There was a stray cat in her living room. She frowned and stared at her intruder who had by then decided that the mat was an enemy and must be destroyed. Padma meanwhile, had gathered her wits and gently started tiptoeing towards the cat; although what she would do once she approached it, she hadn’t thought about just yet. The cat was still pawing away at the mat, its concentration unwavering. Padma was now within petting distance from it. Now came the almighty question. What was she going to do? What could she do? Shooing it would only drive it deeper inside her house. She couldn’t just pick it up and take it outside her house.. could she? No, that was out of the question. For starters, she had no idea How to lift a cat. What if it scratched her face? No. That was out of the question. As she pondered, she slowly sat down behind the cat. Now she was level with its tail and just looking at it with a vacant expression, head tilted to a side, unable to decide what to do next. Meanwhile, the cat, who had evidently felt an alien presence around it, stiffened and looked around and with a loud and startled miaow backed a couple of steps away from Padma, who was equally startled by the feline shriek. Both looked at each other, the cat with its paws slightly lifted, ready to flee and the human with her hands behind her on the floor, a confused expression across her face. The human acted first. She raised her hands , in an expression of resignment and surrender and mouthed, “Okay, calm down. I am not going to hurt you”, even as a voice in her head said “You are talking…to a cat.”. Another voice in her head said “Yeah, what if it doesn’t know English?”. Padma chuckled for the second time that day having amused herself again. She shook her head again. “This is not the time, Padma.”, she thought and began inching away from the cat. Slowly, she got up and walkedto the kitchen, all the while watching the cat through the corner of her eye. “I might as well get you some milk”, she called out, still aware that her visitor probably didn’t understand the noise that the owner of the house was making. She heated up a bowl of milk to a moderate temperature, took the bowl and placed it cautiously at the edge of the now-somewhat-worse-for-the-wear mat. The cat looked up at Padma with wide eyes and then at the bowl of milk still not moving from its position. She took the cue and backed away. This prompted it to approach the bowl and sniff its contents. Satisfied, it dipped its tongue into the milk and started lapping it up, its eyes initially on Padma and eventually on the contents of the bowl. It must have been really hungry, for it finished drinking within a matter of minutes and placed a foot on the bowl when it found that there was no more milk to drink. It looked up at a smiling Padma, who was glad that her offering had been so well accepted. “Do you want more?”, she enquired, not really expecting a response. Those expectant eyes were answer enough and she went back to the kitchen area to heat up some more milk. This time however, the cat followed her and began poking at the slippers she had left at the entrance of the kitchen. She refilled the bowl and placed it again, this time closer to the cat that did not inch away, but was looking intently as the bowl moved from human to floor. The pace at which the bowl was emptied this time was even quicker, but it evidently sated the cat’s hunger, for it did not look up again at Padma, but moved towards its favorite torn-up mat and lay down. She heated up a glass of milk, this time for herself, picked up the Harry Potter book from near the window and sat next to the cat. She took a sip of milk and opened the page to Silver and Opals and started reading out loud, a gentle palm on the cat’s head – “Where was Dumbledore, and what was he doing?…”. She paused. “What was Dumbledore doing, Minerva?”, she addressed the cat, took another sip of milk and smiled.

(* Doodh is the Hindi word for Milk. The idea here is to convey the ease with which bonds are formed between a human and animal with something as simple as a glass of doodh. There’s no deep meaning here. It’s just a day in the life of a person, that took a minor surprising turn, but ended up being a pleasant experience in the end.)

C is for Chamathu* [#AtoZChallenge]

“Trrrrring”, the alarm went off and he woke up groggily. “ Uthishtothishta Govinda Uthishta Garuda dwaja Uthishta Kamalakantha trilokyam mangalam kuru” , MS Subbulakshmi’s voice rang through the air even as his parents were yelling at each other over what he was sure would be trivialities like who’d let the milk boil a little too long or who forgot to put out food for the crow. He frowned. So much noise. And his day hadn’t even started yet. He got out of bed and let out a sharp yelp as his right foot touched the ground. He had stepped on a pin he’d told himself he wouldn’t step on when he saw it fall from the bed the previous night. He examined his foot and rubbed it where the pin had poked him. No blood. That was good. It was a Saturday, but he hadn’t the leisure of a typical weekend. There was to be a function at home and a lot of guests were expected. So he had to get ready quickly and appear presentable to greet (ugh) people. Normally he would have vehemently rejected this order from his parents and gone off to Venkatraman’s house to play cricket for the whole day, but this time there were bigger things at stake. No sooner had he gotten ready and dressed up when his mom called out, “Subbuuuuu!! Poi paal vaangindu vaa da” (Subbu, go and buy milk!). Subramani had just made up his mind to catch up on the latest cricket highlights on Star Sports before the day’s chaotic scene would set in. This milk-buying very much cut into that scenario. He chose a plastic bag from the bunch of plastic bags at the end of the kitchen and walked out, muttering all the way about God and his plans to thwart his plans in life. As he got to the end of the road, he looked out of the corner of his eye for the dog that was his sworn nemesis on this road. This dog (“Veerappan”, he had christened it), had only one mission in life. To bark at Subbu every time he crossed “his area” and on days that he felt not-so-lazy, chase him down the road to the corner where 3rd main ended and Murali Stores began. Today however, Veerappan seemed to be contently sleeping on the mat someone had laid out for him. “Lucky dog. No dog functions that he has to wake up early for”, Subbu thought and continued walking past. He greeted Murali uncle, bought the milk and made his way back. Out of habit, he looked for Veerappan again. This time, the dog was missing. Subbu’s heart skipped a beat. He looked around and sure enough, Veeru was standing right behind him, growling. Subbu , without a second thought ran with Veeru close behind his heels, or so he imagined. When he no longer felt chased, he looked back, only to see Veeru in the distance, sleeping, solemnly. “WHAT. Argh.”, Subbu walked the rest of the distance wondering what had just happened. By now, there were a few vehicles already outside the gate and he warily walked in, not wanting to chit-chat with anyone right then. “Subbuuuuuu”, a voice called out. He closed his eyes, rearranged his face into a pleasant smile and turned around to face a rotund, elderly woman, with a glint in her eye and a wide smile that was accentuated by badly applied lipstick. It was Shyamala aunty, his mom’s second cousin. “You’ve become so big!!!”, she exclaimed. “Yes, well the Earth did revolve around the Sun multiple times”, he wanted to say, but he settled for just continuing to awkwardly smile and wonder if 10 seconds was sufficient time to start backing away slowly like Michael Jackson or if he was supposed to actually say something to her. He decided on the former and backed away successfully into the house and into the kitchen where he disposed of the milk packets. His first mission now complete, he thought he’d close the door to his room and relax for a few minutes before the poojai started, when his dad called “Subbuuu, yaar vandhurkaa paaru” (Subbu, see who’s at the door). He groaned and ambled to the door. It was Murali mama  and Co. The fake smile again in place on his face, he greeted the family in and told them to sit on the chairs that had been neatly arranged in the hall for people who arrived to be seated on. He mentally bid the cricket highlights goodbye and waited obediently on the guests that continued to pour in. His face, ever the picture of cheeriness, Subbu flitted around the house, giving people glasses of water when they asked for it or even just looked like they wanted it, serving pongal for breakfast and later lunch. He even went along with the Poojari’s requests to go and buy bananas for the homam offering, braving Veerappan again. By the time it was 5 PM, Subbu was thoroughly exhausted. But the fake smile as he bid all his relatives goodbye did not fade.

As the last of the relatives trickled out, he went inside and sat on the sofa, furiously debating if the time was right to broach the topic he had been thinking about all day. Then he made up his mind and walked up to his dad who was in the kitchen making coffee for the 5th time that day. “Appa”, he asked gingerly, “You said if I was chamathu today, you’d buy me that Harry Potter book no?”. Appa peered at him through his glasses. “First you finish your exams next week. Then we will see.”

Subbu walked back to his room with his head hung low. He could have atleast utilized the day for studying.

(* Chamathu means well-behaved or good/disciplined in Tamil – an expected trait repeatedly thrust by parents on unsuspecting kids)

B is for Bangalore [#AtoZChallenge]

It was a bright summer (already?) day and I was in high spirits. And why not? I'd woken up early and on a Monday no less! Surely that was a sign of a good day? I left home to go to work at 8.45 AM as intended (but seldom carried out. Not today though. Another good sign). I got my vehicle out and was greeted by the familiar sound of the woman who comes everyday to take out the trash. This person who has no need to be on time has more sense of punctuality than the so-called skilled workers that we're dubbed to be. I greeted her in the usual fashion as I do on the days that I'm able to match her time. The ride to the Metro station was uneventful and that in itself was pleasant. I saw the usual sights - vegetable peddlers idly pedalling away on their cycles to get to their usual circuits, no doubt. Shopkeepers chatting with each other as they opened the shutters to their shops ; some early birds had begun their ritual of praying to their gods for a good day of business. Familiar, pleasant sights. I smiled to myself as I continued riding leisurely. I was on time, there was no need to rush.
I reached the Metro station on the dot and proceeded to go to my usual platform. The train was due at 9.03 AM. I had to wait for just a little over a minute and it arrived at the scheduled time. I got in and continued reading a book from where I'd left it last night. As I immersed myself in Nonoguchi's account of the murder that had taken place, I happened to overhear two particularly loud gentlemen. My attention shifted from the book to them and their conversation, quite inadvertently. They seemed well over 50 and with relaxed expressions on their faces. One of them remarked - "Houdu saar, ivag Bengaluru tumbaa change aag bittide" [Oh yes sir, Bangalore (I still prefer the anglicized version of the name) has changed a lot nowadays]. I felt a faint hint of a smile cross my lips as I recalled similar conversations between my dad and his friends. I continued listening, this time with conscious attention, not with the express intent of eavesdropping, but only with curiosity to hear what He felt had particularly changed and hoped he would expound on his statement. He did. He went on to talk about how his children would no longer partake in his interests of taking early Sunday breakfast trips to Brahmin's Bar (an old hotel establishment in Gandhi Bazaar known for its tasty Idly, vada and chutney offerings), but instead woke up late and preferred to order in pizzas from "Dominicos". I chuckled. But I also felt slightly offended by the generalization that he offered that the entire current generation were guilty of what his children had reportedly done the previous day. He went on to rant about how "Pensioner's paradise", as Bangalore was once referred to, was now ridden with modern day incomplete infrastructure and how the number of parks had drastically reduced. I, with no knowledge of the past he was talking about, could only  look on and wait for him to enlighten me (unknown to him) further. At this point however, the person he had been talking to, who had up until this point, been nodding along, finally spoke up. He mentioned the glory days too, but he also had good things to say about the importance of change and how things were not all that bleak - they were in fact travelling by a modern construction that Was the Metro. The voice on the overhead speaker had meanwhile been periodically calling out the stations the train was stopping at and it was time for me to alight at Nadaprabhu Kempegowda station (Majestic). The first gentleman I'd been listening to looked at me as he stood up from his seat, to get down and I smiled at him mentally thanking him for the conversation I had been a part of as well. He confusedly smiled back at me out of courtesy.
As I waited for the train from Majestic to Indiranagar, I found myself thinking about the conversation and about my city. I had lived here for almost my entire life and yet I had not formed that much of a bond with it as the older generation had. No doubt, they had had more time with the city than I did, but surely, close to three decades is a long enough time? I pondered a little longer. The fact that the pace at which things had changed was probably more rapid in my time than theirs was probably a factor that contributed to the limited nostalgia. That and the innumerable other distractions - the virtual world being one of them. Then I remembered the Defence Accounts quarters I'd played in as a child, with friends I was no longer in touch with. I remembered the long walks I'd eagerly been on there to get to the library that had been torn down to make way for a gym of sorts. I even remembered the scary cycle rides through the deluge of vehicles to get to "Sandarshini" hotel just because I favored the sambar there over other closer hotels. I remembered the weekly trips to the Sai Baba mandir and the echoing chants of prayers that subsequently took place. I remembered the number of times I'd shown my school diary to autodrivers after school because I had not yet committed my new residential address to memory. I'd tried to pay attention to the routes they took, admittedly unsuccessfully.
I realised I did have memories of my city after all. As the train arrived at Majestic and I got on, the glimpses of the shops and the familiar sights on the road on the way to the Metro station rose to the surface of my mind. Weren't they memories in the making as well?  🙂

A is for Adieu [#AtoZChallenge]

He stood at the back of the crowd, not wanting to be a part of it, not wanting to talk to anybody. Everyone had varied emotions on their faces – sadness, indifference, even joy? But they were probably happy about something else, surely. A funeral was not really place that induced happiness, even if it was for someone who was your mortal enemy. And Vincent liked to think he hadn’t made any enemies in his lifetime; well, none that would attend his funeral anyway. It was an odd feeling, to linger around, incorporeally, within spitting distance of his own physical body. It was also funny, in a sense. When he had been alive, he had often wondered what people really thought of him. A deep sense of insecurity and cynicism had always shrouded him in social settings and he’d always questioned if any of what was happening around him was real. If the way people spoke, the things they said, if any of it was genuine. He had heard a tale as a child, of a king, who would often disguise himself and wander around his kingdom as a commoner, just to find out what his people thought of him as a person. And Vincent had been very taken with the idea. But it wasn’t practical obviously. And now that he was dead, but lingering in spirit, he was doing the very thing he’d always wanted to do. Well, it wasn’t the same. There was nothing he could do with whatever he learnt, but it was…something. So he leaned against the wall behind him and listened. “He was such a friendly person, always ready to help”, a woman sniffed. Vincent inadvertently smiled. Of course he’d always helped Julia. His only regret was that he’d never asked her out like he’d wanted to. “Really?”, Archie exclaimed, “He was always busy whenever I asked for help!”. Hmph. Archie had been such an annoying person. Vincent had, for the longest time, out of the kindness of his heart, always picked up the phone whenever his classmate, Archie had called, even after graduation. But it seemed after a point, that Archie had always required help, maybe a little too much. And eventually, he, Vincent had stopped answering Archie’s calls. He could hardly be faulted for that. He got tired. “What about all the times I Did help you Arch?”, Vincent muttered to himself. In another corner of the room, John and James were laughing away. “I know right!”, John guffawed, “What was he thinking putting him on as striker?”. Vincent rolled his eyes. He wondered why they’d come. Maybe they’d just seen this as more as a way to catch up and less of a scene for paying respects. His eyes wandered around the room as he saw other familiar faces, and some unfamiliar ones. The air grew silent as the priest slowly stepped up to the pulpit and called for the eulogy. He watched his sister, Mary slowly walked up, ashen faced. She had undoubtedly been crying. Vincent watched as Mary spoke about her version of his life. How he had been the best brother ever. “Thanks for lying, Mary”, Vincent thought. They had been close as children, but had drifted apart as adults, only ever meeting for the holidays. But still, those days Had been fun. He continued to watch as Mary finished her speech and his best friend, Tom took her place. Tom’s tone was less bleak. Trust Tom to liven things up even at a funeral. He even told them about an embarassing incident that had taken place during college that they’d sworn they’d take to the grave. Well, a promise broken eh Tom?

The ceremony ended and people were beginning to say their goodbyes. First, to Vincent’s body in the casket and then to each other. As he saw them leaving, his thoughts went back to the final moments before life had left his body. He never saw the car coming till that last second when he did. His whole life had flashed before his eyes like in the movies. Or had that been the headlights of the car? Why hadn’t he felt any pain? Why wasn’t he given the chance to fight for his life? ….Would he have fought though? He didn’t know. Now it all seemed pointless anyway.

He sighed deeply. Is this how death was supposed to feel? … Hollow? Then again, why should death be any different than life? He smiled to himself at the grim thought and slowly walked out of the church with his hand raised high and waving adieu to an imaginary crowd behind him. Everyone else had already left.

Leafy

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Blue Leafy flew…guided by the breeze that propelled him over the heads of the people that constituted the busy road. He flew even higher and further for a few seconds as he reached the chimney of the restaurant at the end of the road, then he descended..softly landing at the base of what he saw was the arc of a three-dimensional rubber surface. “This is it”, he thought, “This is how it all ends.”.

He had heard tales of these circular rubber beings trampling over his brethren ending their lives. They who were powerful as long as they stayed affixed to their host fathers, the Trees, were immediately at the mercy of every external agent, once disconnected. And he had heard of their merciless endings — crushed, shredded, ripped up. Some got lucky, of course. They ended up in the warm confines of these mysterious, loved cages called “books” as…”bookermarks”, he decided they were called. But he was wise beyond his years and he knew that even these safe-keepers were themselves descendants of his original caretakers, the Trees.

As he lay there, breathing in heavily and feeling the heat Mr RubberArc near by was radiating silently, he thought of many things. He thought of how it had all come to this, as he knew was the norm. When the end was near, Leaves must think of how it all came to this. And so he thought….

He thought of how even as a baby leaf, he was always the rebel, growing at the edge of Uncle Branch. All the other leaves were free to nestle up closer to Father Bark, but he would stand out — blue instead of green like the rest, he’d decided…err..even though it had sort-of been decided for him. And he thought about how once the evil Mr. Monkien had jumped up and down on Uncle Branch and even threatened to harm him! But his life had not ended then as their friendly visitor Winden had blown Monkien away.

But one incident stood out. It was when a huge metal blob had come out of nowhere and slammed squarely onto the torso of Father. And Father had let out a huge big roar of pain. But he had stood there and taken the brunt of the damage and save for Uncles Chip and Twig (may they wither in peace), the rest of the family was safe. Leafy would later learn that the metal blob was called a “Kaar” and it was intoxicated with some sort of liquid called “Petrol”. Of course, all of these was alien to Leafy and he did not care about things that did not cause him harm. The only liquid (pfft, of course, he knew about liquids — Paati Maramamma next door had yelled out the concepts to him and his siblings, when they were little. Sadly she had mysteriously reduced to a stump one day and Leafy’s lessons had ended there.) he cared about was “Water”, a rejuvenating drink he drank everytime the skies above grew dark and Winden grew very,very loud.

As he remembered these things, he was jerked to reality by the growing vibration of RubberArc and he muttered a silent goodbye to everyone, a goodbye he knew Winden would pass along. RubberArc was moving forward and suddenly came to a halt in sync with the shriek Leafy heard. Someone was moving swiftly towards him and before he knew it, he was being lifted and examined by a pair of glass panes….”Papa! Look! A blue leaf!”, the voice exclaimed. That was the last thing he heard before he passed out.

When he awoke he felt a strange, calming warmth and a gentle rustle on the tip of his head. He also noticed that he was propped up at a strange angle before he registered the fact that he wasn’t dead after all.

He was one of the lucky ones.