Monday, March 31, 2008

If You Didn't Know...

MindCurry has tagged me. As the good blogger, I tag along. Good timepass, tags are, and so I was wondering if tags had lost the fancy of the blogworld, having been out of circulation for long.

1. LAST MOVIE YOU SAW IN A THEATER: The Other Boleyn Girl. Am a sucker for historical movies and so this satisfied me. Yet this movie could have been better. Stars Natalie Portman, Eric Bana and Scarlett Johansson. Went in with a "Troy" hangover expecting Bana to repeat his Hector act which didn't happen. Portman continues to grow on me.

2. WHAT BOOK ARE YOU READING? Several. I am on an Amazon shopping spree now. Next two months are dedicated solely to reading. One of them is Catch-22.

3. FAVORITE BOARD GAME? Monopoly. But that was long back.

4. FAVORITE MAGAZINE? Late 80's - Misha, Early 90's - Reader's Digest, Late 90's - India Today, Early 2000 - , Lately - Time

5. FAVORITE SMELLS? Smell of the soil after rain. Nowadays the smell of the roses that my neighbour has planted.

6. FAVORITE SOUND? Streams with rocks littered in its bed. K.J.Jesudas's voice.

7. WORST FEELING IN THE WORLD? Recurring failures in fighting and then succumbing to my weaknesses.


9. FAVORITE FAST FOOD PLACE? So many. Earlier used to be thattukada's. Nowadays it is Panda Express.

10. FUTURE CHILD'S NAME? I might call it Nano and the one after that Pico. Any problems?

11. FINISH THIS STATEMENT. "IF I HAD A LOT OF MONEY I'D...? I have a lot of money now and I don't do anything with it! So this question is irrelevant.

12. DO YOU DRIVE FAST? No, I don't. I hate speed. I can't bear to think of killing another human being because of my carelessness. All said, I am a swapnajeevi and prone to absent-mindedness.

13. DO YOU SLEEP WITH A STUFFED ANIMAL? Yeah! My pillow...I cuddle up to it, when I feel I want a little love. I think I do it when I miss my mom and grandma.

14. STORMS-COOL OR SCARY? Cool. Rain makes me poetic.

15. WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST CAR? Saturn SL2. Everyone said the name was inauspicious. But I took good care of it and later dumped it on my sis. She hated it.

16. FAVORITE DRINK? Tea has always been a favorite. In between there was beer.

17. FINISH THIS STATEMENT, "IF I HAD THE TIME I WOULD ..... I had a lot of time in the world. I wasted all of it. I stare at its paucity today.

18. DO YOU EAT THE STEMS ON BROCCOLI? Yes. Beef and Broccoli...yummy!

19. IF YOU COULD DYE YOUR HAIR ANY COLOR, WHAT WOULD BE YOUR CHOICE? The day will come for all of us. And you and I will say Black.

20. NAME ALL THE DIFFERENT CITIES/TOWNS YOU HAVE LIVED IN. Trivandrum, Delhi, Los Angeles, San Diego. Trivandrum was growth and stagnation, Delhi was adventure and failure, Los Angeles was hard-work and self-discovery, San Diego was survival and loneliness.

21. FAVORITE SPORTS TO WATCH? I love to play sports. I hate watching them now...maybe its part of growing old.

22. ONE NICE THING ABOUT THE PERSON WHO SENT THIS TO YOU. The most pleasant surprise in blogging was to discover that he was one of my heroes from school. He wouldn't want me to reveal more. What makes him a hero today though, is his crusade to improve Kerala.

23. WHAT'S UNDER YOUR BED? Books, that fell off, in my sleep.

24. WOULD YOU LIKE TO BE BORN AS YOURSELF AGAIN? No. I am not a good human being. I wish I could be simple and pure at heart - like some of my good friends.

25. MORNING PERSON, OR NIGHT OWL? Night. Working life has robbed the mornings but gifted me with nights.

26. OVER EASY, OR SUNNY SIDE UP? Never was an egg fan until recently. I love the varieties of egg preparations in American breakfasts.

27. FAVORITE PLACE TO RELAX? The upper terrace at my house in tvm. I spend an hour there every night when I am home.

28. FAVORITE PIE? I hate pies.

29. FAVORITE ICE CREAM FLAVOR? Not an icecream fan anymore. But chocobars tempt me.

30. OF ALL THE PEOPLE YOU TAGGED THIS TO, WHO'S MOST LIKELY TO RESPOND FIRST? I tag BVN, Preetha, Jina, Dhanush, Syam and anyone else who wants to have a go at this. Whoever responds first gets a free ticket to Mohanlal's College Kumaran.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Erstwhile City Of God...

Once there was a sparsely populated town in Kerala. There descended upon it, capable men who built institutions. Around these institutions like the VSSC, CDS, University of Kerala, Agricultural University, Keltron, DD, AIR, RRL, CTCRI, Libraries, Govt. Bodies and think-tanks, colleges, schools, museums, stadiums, theatres, etc grew a modern city of salaried working class and their children. We lovingly call this city by various names - Trivandrum, Thiruvananthapuram and Ananthapuri. Like everything sustained by human effort, these institutions stagnated. One fine day came Globalization. The people were ready for it but not the un-extinct dinosaurs who ran these institutions. Money became the sole-motivating aim for the masses and they looked elsewhere for succour. These institutions cried foul at the hydra that was changing people's lifestyles. They stagnated further when public interest in them dipped. The replacements that globalization threw up for them weren't anything admirable either. A city is known for the institutions it is proud of. What happens to a city when the institutions it was once proud of stagnate? What happens to a city where the sole-touted institution is the Technopark which beats just to the tune of money?

Is it not time to redefine socialism? Socialism has become a dirty word. Why shouldn't socialism from now on just be about awareness of social, economic and environmental problems and implementing solutions to it? Why keep adhering to the age-old inequalities of income argument? For me, the biggest injustice perpetrated is the tendency to teach children to play it safe. The most painful aspect of a socialist system is the difficulty in getting a new initiative approved. Socialism always begins with a crusader's zeal to improve and change the existing setup. But it soon settles down into a system where the men who take charge of the social setup will not allow anyone to change this status-quo. The collaboration of interest groups works at all levels in Kerala - everybody be it the communist, the congressman, the trader, the worker, the church, the media, the intellectual - everyone who is a part of the current system and deriving benefits from it, is never motivated to change anything. This proves that interest groups don't need capitalism to flourish. An interest group works transparently in capitalism while it functions with brute power in socialism.

The only solution is to set individuals free. In Kerala, every organization has to function with interference from the top and bottom. Administrators fail to implement latest technologies, hire and fire competent/incompetent staff, streamlining the functioning of their fiefdoms, losing precious time running from pillar to post for clearing payments and bureaucratic approval. I know of an example of a person who succeeded when he was liberated. In 1998, staring at a system which he knew would deny him any chances of getting to the top of the university hierarchy despite his credentials, he interviewed for and was put in charge of a miserably performing academic institution affiliated to KU. Funded and answerable only to the UGC, functioning independent of the politicians who remote-control the university, he very quickly transformed it into the first-ranking institution of its nature in the country. He succeeded where many people capable of doing such stuff floundered elsewhere. I know that person well - he is my dad. I wouldn't say he was lead by high ideals - he was motivated by ambition and a fierce determination to stand above his peers.

From my last visit to Trivandrum, I am convinced that what Trivandrum needs more than all the requisites for economic growth and development is the revitalization of existing institutions. The reason I am proud of Kerala is that in all purposes it is a distinct entity yet seamlessly fitting within India. We have our own distinctive social system and problems, film industry, literature, subject experts in all areas, and many other parameters for being evaluated as a "country". Once, the colleges in Trivandrum like University College, Arts College, Ivanios, etc produced most of Kerala's intellectual, cultural and literary giants. Today these colleges are in a state of disuse with several vacant seats for the many courses they conduct. In their place has come up self-financing engineering colleges named after their "reputable" wealthy patrons producing graduates who have learnt in 4 years what it means to have a good time forgetting all the good things they learnt in school of social responsibility and the power of the inner self.

Some of the most talented Malayalis I have met here in the US and who will go on to lead a successful and meaningful life were people not motivated by money. They took degrees in pure sciences and arts, but developed great interest in their fields of study, that opportunities never ceased to shower on them. And our well-educated malayali frog-in-the-well parents think they know it all while prodding their unknowledgeable wards into engineering and medicine. The US is in such a strong position because of people of all talents and dispositions. A US citizen encourages activities in their communities by going out of the way to participate or encourage. The world over, intelligent societies and individuals are realizing that there is no natural or man-made wealth worthy left fighting for. I guess the blame rests on our heavily stratified society, that malayalis, whatever be the colour of their collar, can never afford to take a break from wasteful competition, and perpetrate the same mentalities on the next generation too.

There exists today no real setup for the fostering of talented people. I knew people in my father's generation from such varied fields as zoology to space science. Today all the "successful" people I know are MBA's, engineers or doctors. People drill into their children's heads that every other profession which earns lesser is the failure of the social animal. To meet and to be in the company of writers, policemen, researchers, etc if I have to climb one ladder down in the social ladder, I would gladly do it because these are the people I would enjoy talking to. Do we want Trivandrum to be a one-dimensional city like kochi? I wonder if there is anything left in that crumbling mega shopping paradise which is not subject to crass commercialization.

In a few months i will go back to being a citizen of trivandrum...i feel sad at the decline of the cultural, academic, athletic and research bodies - both govt and private owned. I have second thoughts now on the so-called urban development we are seeing in our country...ultimately everything needs support from the ordinary man and good people who can rise up to take visionary leadership. But the good people are all in useless engineering colleges out of touch with the subjects they study or the many other subjects in the world. There will be very few left to provide quality leadership in the next generation. I am woefully out of touch with last visit there, about three months back didn't evoke any nostalgia. It felt like I was looking at a city of tired and haggard people. A fresh start can come only from the schools. When I return, I hope to find and band with like-minded people who can carry a message to our young ones on the dangerous ability of conventional beliefs to throttle their potential.

P.S - For long, I have stayed away from writing on the world about me. I was preoccupied with my own struggles...that difficult phase is hopefully over. Around the net, I have read several brilliant people propose solutions to propel Trivandrum's development. I am of the firm belief that nothing will change in this firmly-entrenched system unless we can mentor today's school children to replace the adults of today. The radicals and progressive thinkers of my father's generation, all of them - people who stood up to Indira Gandhi's Emergency, run the show in Trivandrum today. In their race to the top, all of them conveniently dropped their ideals. But I can't help wondering if we are all going to go their same way. I have frequently heard people cite the example of the freedom struggle where men and women came up from nowhere to give leadership and shape a national movement at a time when all hope was lost. In these modern times of Free Speech, Expression and Opportunity should we just wait for that dark hour and then get into the act? Please don't hesitate to add your thoughts and disagreements to this post.

Monday, March 10, 2008

A Fulfilled Love...

The airport was my gateway, away from the people, away from the present, away from the impotency that gnawed at my existence. A funny thought occurred then. How would it feel to be trapped here? A Thrishanku Swargam repeating in modern times. Oh, wait a minute, didn't it happen recently...wasn't that what "The Terminal" was all about. So much for original thought, I mused.
"Valmiki, Spielberg and me...and why not?" I said to myself, the mock seriousness of it all, managing to please me.
And then, I saw her. She had a small child in her arms, another tugged at her shirt. She hadn't seen me. But she would. She was headed to the same gate. I didn't know what would be appropriate - to beckon her, hide from her or ignore her. But I continued to stare. And size her up. She hadn't changed a bit. It looked like her husband kept her happy and the kids kept her busy. I had thought of her often. But why had a bloated, unhappy figure of her's filled my imagination. Was it closure I wanted or vengeance? Or were those thoughts, ever about her? Wasn't it I, who needed to see her that way, to justify why life couldn't have taken any other route, save the one I am travelling on now.

She chose the row of seats, right across mine. With difficulty, she got the children to sit. The older of the two, unsaddled his miniature backpack and began to unload his toys.
"No monu! Just take one out. Amma won't clean up after you. And you won't get new toys if you leave any here!"
The boy seemed to comply, for the time being.
She turned her attention to the infant. It sat placidly ready to go off to sleep. She slipped a milk bottle in through the child's lips.
Her handbag still clung to her shoulders. She took it off and rifled through its contents to ensure their passports and tickets were safe. A quick glance at a mirror to ensure her rudimentary makeup was intact followed. She looked at me, staring unabashedly at her. A wave of self-consciousness hit her, men did this to her always, she would have reacted differently earlier. She brushed her hair backwards, pulled her shirt at its hem, and pinched her jeans down at the knees, cloaking her bared ankles. I took note of her inconvenience and looked away. It was her turn now to stare at me.

"Is this real? Is this youuuu!"
"Yes, me." I replied uncomfortably. I slowly moved over to take a seat besides her.
"My god, you have become so fat." There was no indication of our unsavoury past in her initial disposition to me. It was just like two friends meeting in a long time.
"You are still the same." I offered back.

"Which flight are you taking?"
"British," I answered, "but mine is only due in 4 hours."
"Mine is this one which boards next, BA4517" she said. Was I relieved to hear that? But she looked genuinely happy to see me.

"What are you doing now?" She was eager to know of my life after college.
"I am traveling, as you see."
"On work, I believe."
"No - for pleasure."
"For how long?"
"It's been going on for some time."
"You never worked?"
"I work a few months. Then travel till the money is gone."
"So what happens when no one will take you?"
"As you scorned me in the old days, then there is father's money - to mine."
"What of all those ambitions?"
"None - whatsoever. All gone."
Her face was expressionless. Behind that facade was she envious, was she disappointed, or was she sorry for me, I thought. Or, did she care anymore?

"Are you working?"
"No. My husband earns enough for both of us."
"And you are happy?"
"Yes, as happy as I could be."
"Are you happy?" she threw the question back at me.
"I don't know." I had uttered it with a finality, that ended the conversation. My life was my business. She would get no answer for it. But I have to answer for it to so many people. How different was she from all of them?
She went back to tending her children. I debated returning to my seat. I couldn't move. My mind rushed back to the time, when she was a dubious part of my existence, and never found an abiding place in it.

I couldn't remember when she first caught my roving eye. They blinked before resting on her. She wasn't the most attractive, or the friendly kind, yet something about her caught my fancy. I never spoke to her alone, I was part of a gang of boys who kept me busy with myriad schemes to wile away time, but my eyes talked to her, and hers to mine, furtively yet loaded with meanings and nuances. We were enemies in a sense, trying to guess each other's motives, trying to win over each other, but not yielding a bit of the safe ground we were on. That year went by, and the next, she grew prettier, her figure trimmed and curved in lines that now drove other eyes besides mine, some in silent, others in loud admiration. Our gazes seldom caught each others now, mine still darted with a playful abandon about her, that seared me and infuriated her. It was obvious that she couldn't wait any longer for me to make up my mind, there were others who waited to jump at the chance, the electric youthfulness that pulsed and glowed throughout her body had made her a new woman, one with desires and cravings that she no longer felt the need to bottle. And yet I twiddled. I had much to answer for in life, I had built up a reputation for wisdom, goodness and ambition...I was loved and venerated by one and all- I wouldn't ruin all that or my family's hopes for me on a girl in whom all I saw, was the answer to a wild craving for love and sex. Yet the heart cringed each time an advance was made at her, and at the blush or smile that fleeted across her face in unabashed pleasure of recognition. And yet she gave in to no man in college, which pleased me, but for how long, I wondered.

The remembrance of that misty dawn, now hangs on my clouded brain, like a shroud that parted our eyes, from even stealing glances at each other. It was a Saturday morning that I rose up early for cricket practice. I looked forward to the pleasure of a drive with the fresh morning breeze on my face, and the sweat running down the same face, as i swatted and drove the cricket ball. My bike, surged through the empty morning road, the temptation of a hot tea and a cigarette to ring in the day, was too hard to resist. I parked and ordered at the roadside tea-stall, the auspicious first customer of the day. But it was not to be. A familiar figure gingerly walking down the steps of the shop, and away towards the bus stand, caught my eyes. The Shop. That shop. An unspoken word in our city. A place where the decadent old and pulsating new money came together in a perfect harmony, a polluted channel for all the vulgar vices that the self-righteous society of my class strove to curtail. My heart skipped several beats on that lifeless road. And then it roared back to life. I ran. I only know, that I ran. I had no desire for the cafeine or the nicotine, for all the pent-up oxytocin of the years came gushing out in a violent river that desperately knew it would find no ocean to sink into.

Her hair was disheveled. And panic was writ large on her face. I had my answer. My heart sunk and with it my lungs which throbbed for breath.
"What were you doing there?"
"None of your business."
"You better answer me."
"I don't have to."
"I will ruin you." The manic rage in me, threatened to get physical.
"As you wish." Her cheekiness broke my manly muster. Tears flooded my cheek.
"You are a slut. That is what you are. A slut."

"Are you done? Now may I speak." Her calm voice was a repudiation of the menace that still raged menacingly within me.
"Yes," I choked up a feeble reply.
"I have seen what money can do in this city. Look at your exclusive groups of rich boys and rich girls with their shiny cars, laptops, expensive clothes and paid holidays. I also want all that and more. Do you know what it is to not get what you want?"
"But-but, why sell yourself?"
"well, that's the choice, I had to make."
"But you could have got a job soon. And you would have all the money you need."
"What job? Tell me one person in college who has a job in hand. And what do you know of my family?"
"You, you could have waited for me."
"Tell me honestly. What is it that you want? Your wants - are they any different from those men?"
I didn't have an answer to any of her questions. She had answers to mine. It was all over. The first love. The one lasting itch down there. The longest infatuation. Would I know that feeling again?

My thoughts came back to the present. Once, there was a high probability that this woman, sitting by me would have been my wife. And the children mine. I laughed at the adolescent thought. She looked up from the note she was scribbling on.
"You went back to the old days, ha?"
An embarrassed smile escaped me. She went back to her note.

Some months had passed. It was a New Year midnight. We guys were at the beach and had checked into a hotel for the night. A mad melee of tourists, locals and plainclothesmen had escaped to this place, that would put to shame the craziest lunatic asylum. I don't remember when I passed out or what happened afterwards. By next morning, everyone in class knew, save me. She was late. The teacher let her in, without questions. The girl at her bench, quickly moved to avoid letting her in, and so did the others who had a vacant space to fill.
"Here, take mine."I offered and slid to the other end.
"Wanna escort me, next new year?" a voice called out aloud, ignoring the presence of the teacher.
Manufactured sneers, all around.
Thud! The slap landed on my face, before I even saw it coming. The class was silenced.
"How could you do this to me? Did I deserve so cruel a vengeance?" her voice momentarily broke the silence.
My eyes blinked at her. Not a word could come out.
She rose, and walked out, head held high, showing no shame, knowing none else to blame.
The last sensation she left me with, was also like the first. But when my eyes stopped blinking, she was gone. And I didn't pursue her.
She never came back. I heard she took the final exams next year, with the junior batch.
She was an episode, I never forgot. She taught me, what it is to want, and not get. She also left me with a question to answer. A question I get often, but an answer, I hopelessly still search for.

My lips moved to silently mimic that question, "But why?"
She was tearing up the paper, away from my eyes, which caught that action almost on the tangent. I had trained my eyes to dog her and after years it still obeyed that old command.
"Listen. I am sorry about what happened." Her words spread through me, like a cool morning breeze of many years back.
"No, don't be. If ever I wanted to see you, I wanted it to be this way." For long, I had carried the spite, of a loss and insult, I had itched to see her as a bitch, snob and destitute. Instead I only saw a wife, mother and woman.
"I have to go now." She rose in unnatural hurry.
"I guess, we will not see each other again, ever." What a fine actor, I am, I thought. Just letting her off, that easily.
"I guess not."

When she walked out on me once more, I pieced together the torn pieces of paper, she left on the floor.
"To the only one, I truely loved before my kids came: I don't owe the world any explanations. But I owe you one. In slapping you, I slapped the world which dared question my actions."
Every act of hers, was the answer I should have given. Maybe that was her purpose in my life - to show me that answer. I was finally at peace.

P.S - It has been a long while. And it has been frustrating. And several false starts. To top it off, I was obsessed with writing a love story. I suspect I may have diverted from that goal. Maybe because I am a person who had, has and might never known/find true love for a woman (this sentence would need explanation to the future wifey:). I began the story in the third person. And to be frank, I was scared of personal identification and because the first person is the toughest act in fiction to carry through. But then, I thought who was I trying to fool here. For those, especially friends and family, who seek autobiographical elements in this, I say they are wasting time. The characters and incidents here if at all true, have been twisted and fictionalized - and yet, if someone sees a part of mine or their life played out here, I say it is just incidental (Okay, I need to learn from my protagonists and not be answerable to anyone:). I however will admit to one minor source of inspiration - some recent sex scandals in Kerala. As always when I take on fiction, criticism and feedback most welcome.