Thursday, April 28, 2005

The Witch on the Hill

We lived in candy-colored dorms that were grandly named the Rex Nettleford Hall. This was the newest dorm on the University of West Indies, Mona campus and we, the visitors from Florida State University, had the privilege (with some UWI students) of being its first residents.
There is just something indescribable about waking up, looking out the window and realizing that you are in Jamaica, even if you had only three hours’ sleep because you went to a rum-soaked party last night as soon as you flew in from Miami. I saw marijuana growing on campus that night, I kid you not.
So it went, from one Caribbean-themed day to another; it is ridiculously easy to get used to that tropical-breeze accent and the way they say “Mon!” with everything. It just makes you feel like you’ve been there forever. One day, Melissa, Kevin, Dev and I were hanging out in a gazebo out on a hill overlooking campus. We could see our dorms down below, like little candy-box houses covered with luscious pink bougainvillea. The hills ring the campus like a sheltering presence and are always within your sight.
We sat there goofing around and soon saw a group of kids walking home from school. The older two went by the regal names of Catherine and Elizabeth and the youngest, a gap-toothed six-year-old, was called Andre. We talked with them and played a bit, and they posed for pictures with us.
Melissa has a pierced tongue. It was visible in flashes when she talked, and as soon as Catherine saw it she made her stick it out and inspected it. At this point I saw Andre’s eyes growing bigger and rounder than they already were. While his sisters continued to marvel at that oddity of a tongue, he kept his distance. Then Melissa turned to him and asked him if he was curious about it. “I’m actually a witch,” she confided slyly, winking for good measure.
Andre stared in horror. He looked at his sisters like a hunted deer, waiting for some sort of response assuring him of the falseness of this claim: none was forthcoming. Add to that Melissa herself: tall, with long black hair, wearing black clothes, and, horrors! clicking her pierced tongue at him! It was too much for Andre. With a shrill screech, he grabbed his bag and streaked down the hill, shrieking all the way. I can still hear it. “Eeeeeeeeeeee,” it went.
Catherine and Elizabeth gave that slightly diabolical laugh that only older sisters can give. The rest of us laughed but were also a little shame-faced to see that small figure sprinting down the hill like the hounds of hell were after him.
Well, a witch was; at least that’s what he thought.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Murky waters???

Today I was given a message from a rather unlikely source. For those of you who are familiar with a wondrous invention called Microsoft Word, you also know that it offers you your choice of animated assistants to help you when you need it. Or even when you don’t. My chosen assistant, from a gallery of five other such creatures, is an orange cat called Links.
Links pops out and tries to help me at many junctures. Sometimes he curls up and goes to sleep. Or waves his tail, or paws at a green and rather mal-formed butterfly that is also part of the show. Most of the time he just sits there on his cute little keester. Anyway, today he pops out as usual, but this time with a thought bubble around his head. It reads, “You should never dive into murky waters.” He has also helpfully included a clickable box that says “OK”. This is presumably the only way to make it go away.
For some reason, I didn’t click OK. What kind of a world is it, I ask, when you have to take advice from an animated cat? And you have to say OK, whether you think it is OK or not?
Oh allright. I admit I didn’t have much sleep last night. Hence all this existential angst comes pouring out, directed at a computer generated feline, making no attempt at making any sense whatever.

Tomorrow will be better...mewrrr.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Jes' take it off!

The five of us were on vacation. Spring Break, to be precise, which we were spending driving around Florida without a terribly clear plan, but with an objective to eventually arrive at the Keys and get in some snorkeling.
So we had stopped for lunch at the inevitable burger joint. What else, since we were all students? Anyway, one of the main protagonists of this story is a character named Prashant whom I met at Florida State University, where we both studied. I had once heard a radio host talking about a life-size version of Bugs Bunny that was a part of some local promotion or event or something: she described him as tall, good with kids, vegetarian, with big brown eyes, and ears and teeth that were also on the larger side. This would be a pretty fair description of Prashant too. But I digress.
The point to remember is that he is a vegetarian. So when the waitress came around, he ordered a vegetarian burger, which was called a Boca Burger (maybe in an attempt to make it sound more exciting, I don’t know). The waitress, let’s call her Martha, took down the orders and heaved off.
She soon arrived bearing a burger for Prashant, while we others still waited for our orders. She set it down on the table. However, something made me suspicious of that burger. “Wait,” I said before he dug into it, and sampled it myself. Sure enough, it was meat. This burger was about as vegetarian as politicians are truthful. In a word, not. So Martha was summoned again and apprised of the mix-up. “Huh?” she said. Then she understood. She snatched it up and shuffled off.
Presently, she returned. Meanwhile, we four other equally hungry would-be lunchers still waited. Martha bore an elaborate burger this time, which she set down with a proud, toothy grin. We looked at her offering. It had a large, juicy strip of bacon right across the middle, a little grease running down the sides.
Prashant buried his face in his hands.
This time Martha was waiting. “The bacon,” I said, pointing. “It’s a problem.” “Huh?” hazarded Martha. “What’s the problem?” “My friend is a vegetarian.” I said stoutly. “Well” Martha said. She had a wonderful, melodious voice that I’m sure was a big hit when she sang in church on Sundays. “He can just take the bacon off, can’t he? The burger don’t have meat in it. Just the bacon on top.”
Prashant sat there chewing on the tablecloth; it probably tasted a good deal better than any burger that Martha was going to serve up next. My fellow lunchers followed the drama, hawk eyed but silent.
I looked Martha squarely in the eye. I hoped she wasn’t running out of patience, because she was about 70 lbs heavier and about a foot wider than I will ever be in this lifetime. “The Boca burger comes with the bacon,” she announced. “Jes’ take it off.”
Finally she hmp’hed and ambled back into the kitchen.
She returned with the manager, who carried in the right order this time. He looked around at us then glared at Martha. “What about lunch for the lady and the other gentlemen?” he enquired in a typical managerial silky-but-nasty tone. Martha shrugged. “They was fussin’ about the bacon,” she explained. A dull red flush rose on the manager’s face.
At this point, Prashant lunged at his burger and tore into it.
Suffice it to say, a peaceful and pleasant meal was subsequently and somewhat surprisingly, had by all. Except for the animals served up as lunch in the other dishes, no blood was spilt. But every time I hear the term “vegetarian burger”, I remember Martha and wonder how she is doing. Perhaps she won the fistfight that no doubt ensued later with her manager and continues to wreak mayhem with vegetarians, somewhere in one of southern Florida’s million burger joints.

See you tomorrow! (If I survive)

So my roommate and I joined a gym on Sunday. We showed up, bright-eyed and bushy tailed, and were promptly pounced on, weighed, measured, and baldly told just what percentage of fat our bodies contained. All this at the reception desk, upon registration.
Thereafter, we sailed into the actual sanctum sanctorum, a little bruised by our initiation downstairs, but still buoyant. And that was where we met the Instructor. There is no other way to refer to him except in capitals. With the proper respect. This man holds infinite power in his hands, and I don’t just mean muscles. He hands me a pair of dumbbells. I nearly drop them. In an attempt at self-defense, I mewl that they are too heavy; he sternly tells me that they are the lightest ones in the entire building.
It continues in the same vein for about two hours. In real time, it couldn’t have been more than 25 minutes. At one point, I sneakily sit down on a stepper, since I can’t spot the Instructor anywhere. Out of nowhere, he cruises up and coldly tells me to quit resting and get off the stepper. I gulp and lift my aching self, lamely pretending to do more stretches.
I soon make a startling discovery: there are actually two of them! Good grief! Both of them resemble each other: lean and muscled, with merciless eyes. Maybe they are brothers?
But occasionally, they do smile. I am grateful that they choose to smile, and not laugh out loud. At several points in the workout, I want to inform the Instructor (I’m not sure which one) that I am very close to death and would he please take care of the funeral arrangements, my only request being for yellow tulips at my memorial service.
But what do you know? My roommate and I have lived to tell the tale. Despite sounding and feeling like creaky ghost-ships the morning after, we are glowing with the thrill of accomplishment and rosy dreams of svelte, fit bodies. We laugh at each other’s groans at every movement, and then double up because laughing hurts our stomach muscles.
But what the hell? We shall overcome. I will report back on our transformation into two shapely swans who can do 15, nay, 30 minutes of treadmill pounding with graceful ease. This may take a while. :-)

Monday, April 25, 2005

Little Joe Camel

The railway station at Benaras is not ordinarily a place where I would spend any length of time, leave alone an entire day. However, my mother and I were awaiting the arrival of my sister and thus this seemed to be the logical location to meet her. The train, in a fit of whimsy, had decided not to let it be known when exactly it would arrive. The announcements droned on that it would be here within the next half-hour, positively. This was kept up for five hours.
Meanwhile, my parent and I stood around or sat around, trying not to melt completely in the thick, humid heat, and instead try to preserve some resemblance to our former selves so my sister would have the least difficulty in recognizing us. This was our most onerous task, apart from trying to keep up a pleasant outlook during this endless wait.
The platform itself presented a fascinating glimpse of life that can be seen only on the platforms of Indian railway stations. Let it be said that one must succumb to clichés and describe the scene in terms like “bustling”, “buzzing” and “alive.”
There was this stall selling knick-knacks, books and cigarettes close to where we stood. I noticed a small boy, not more than eight, come up to make his purchases. He was alone and evidently had been for most of his life. He was in tattered, over-large clothes and looked like he was from Northeastern India or Nepal. He saw me looking at him and gave me a gap toothed smile.
He then bought what he had come to buy: a pack of cigarettes. While I was trying to frame a suitable reprimand to the stall owner for selling nicotine to a child (even if he was buying for someone else), the little boy fished out a matchbox from a capacious pocket.
He cupped his hands around the cigarette that had arrived in his mouth with the smooth motion of the habitual smoker. He lit up. Maybe he felt my eyes on him. He turned around, and with the cigarette still between his lips, gave me a fat and undeniably conspiratorial wink. Then he turned around again and was gone.
I felt like I had just watched one of those movies that you end up wishing you hadn’t. The cigarette seller yawned and scratched his ear. My little friend and his cigarette had disappeared; there was a faint cloud of horrid smoke where he had stood.
I could think of nothing to say.

Rush hour devotion

Today on the way to work I saw a sight many Indians have seen many times over; it is a matter of course in this country. In a narrow, congested and unmetalled road, there is a small shrine at the bottom of a tree. There is a raised platform around the base of the tree, a tiny enclosure surrounded by a tiny gate and a deity (as yet unidentified. By me, that is) inside.
So I pass by this shrine everyday. What about today? There was a ceremony of some sort afoot. This too, like the mysterious deity that sits inside, is an enigma to me. There is a large object, apparently made completely out of flowers, being hoisted up towards an uncertain destination. It must be an offering. Or a new gate for this shrine?
The music accompanying this fascinating (if incomprehensible) ritual is as incongruous as can be. It is being played at a decibel level that the government would have banned, if the government had cared about that sort of thing. Throngs of kids and adults surround the shrine. We, who are among the throng trying to get to work, must wait it out behind the traffic jam caused by this ritual.
All over the road lie bits of plastic, paper, and assorted fragments of trash. Dogs lie undisturbed on the edges of this mélange, having already done their business for the day. A few yards ahead, there is a communal tap with a cluster of buckets, both plastic and metal, waiting to be filled before the supply runs dry. A roadside fast food joint advertises its spicy wares. Waste and victuals co-exist here like peaceful neighbors.
Meanwhile, the devotions continue. The faithful must not be disturbed or be expected to deviate from this momentous ritual. Probably they are a step closer to divine salvation?
Oh, never mind the garbage!

Thursday, April 14, 2005

How do I...

How do I remember thee…
Although there are any number of ways to remember a person, here are a few of mine. This listing is in no particular order and is certainly not comprehensive. Like the many over-pass projects currently underway in my adopted home city of Bangalore, this is a work in progress and I suspect, shall forever remain so.
Rupa, for taking me on the most terrifying road trip. Ever.
Raj, for never running out of cookies and other confectionaries
Liliana, for having a smile that defines the word “incandescent”
Diane for being the third sexiest grandmother on Earth (first two spots go to my own Grandmom and then my Mom)
Fred, for being the funkiest Shiekh on Halloween
Mike for expressing a desire to name a shade of brown after my exact skin tone
Prashant, for eating M&M’s by the fistfuls
Thamaya for being entertaining when inebriated
Jyothy, for always, but always, being up for ice-cream
Ajay, for playing the Indian national anthem on the guitar. In E minor.
Jack, for writing “you are missed” at the end of every email

Diane Standeart, for being in the circus
Antoinette, for wearing a hibiscus behind her ear
Tomas, for thinking that Brandy has a big head. And for saving my life.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Mango Zen

It was one of those Sunday afternoons when the time goes by so languidly you can hardly feel it. You don’t do anything, and then you look at the time and it is evening. Of course, in an ideal world, all Sundays would be like this.
The view from my window was the luxuriant green of a tropical mango tree in full bloom, against the backdrop of a sky a color somewhere between smoke and pewter. It was going to rain, but meanwhile, everything seemed to be waiting. I waited, with the mango tree and the sky, for the rain to begin.
Maybe it was the breeze that made me stop lounging and step out into the balcony. Here, the mango tree can be viewed in its full abundance. Do you ever stop to admire a tree, just because it is such a beautiful sight? I do, regularly, and there was something about seeing those vivid, green mangos up close in all their living splendor that just made it seem very intimate. I reached across and picked a couple.
This instantly transported me into one of those pure moments where you are acutely aware of the rightness of being where you are, doing what you are doing. I suppose you could call it Zen. There is nothing else; for me, there was nothing else except standing near a mango tree, waiting with it for the rain to start. I closed my eyes and smelled the fruit in my hand. Please, nobody ever come up with a way to bottle this scent. Ever.

A cup of Saturday

August in Florida was a time of long, languid days. Of course, there was very little that was languid in my life; I was a graduate student, and therefore, lived life on the run. The week passed in a blur of the usual academic labors, deadlines and such like. But when Saturday rolled around, it was like life said “Ah!” and stretched out its sandaled feet on a deck chair.
On Saturday mornings, you opened your eyes, looked around, and then shut them again. The delicious knowledge that this was Saturday sank in. Then you stretched, luxuriously. And proceeded to slip back into that particular type of slumber that is somewhere between sleep and wakefulness…a quiet, rosy, sun-dappled state that would eventually pass like the sand in an hourglass. Then, you awoke.
And what did you do then? You headed like a well- trained hound, straight to the coffee. Most Saturdays I would be the first of the three inmates in our apartment to awaken. Thus, it would fall on me to do the honorable duty of brewing the coffee. And this was a ritual in itself- the heaped spoons of the coffee gifted to us by a friend from Belize, the rumblings of the coffeemaker, the aroma, and finally the precious brew in all its rich, steaming glory. I liked mine only in my chipped college mug, with lashings of hazelnut flavored cream.
I would often carry my mug and sit on the staircase right outside our door. Now this staircase offered a view that could gladden the heart of even the most jaded and cynical: a stretch of turquoise-blue swimming pool, wooden decks, hanging willows, fragrant summer flowers and of course, Florida sunshine in a sky like hard-baked blue ceramic. All you had to do was take one sip of coffee with this picture before you. It was amazing, how you would be instantly convinced that all was right with the world, and whatever horrors your professors threw at you the next week, you would overcome.
The roommates would usually be stirring by now, and I would head indoors for another round. We would lounge on our couch and discuss everything from pedicures to politics, aided and abetted by mugs of that fiendishly invigorating brew. It never occurred to us to stress over, or even be mindful of the several pending assignments we would invariably have lurking in our book-bags. Saturday morning was a time reserved for ourselves and our couch and our coffee, and we seamlessly adhered to this protocol each and every weekend.
Later in the evenings, I would often meet up with other friends. One favorite watering hole was a café by the lake, where the best place to sit was out on the deck in view of the water. I considered it almost a crime to be indoors on a summer evening, and thus endeavored to savor as many varieties of coffee as I could on that deck by the lake. I was joined by many like-minded souls on this noble endeavor, and I wish I could tell you some of the secrets we shared over our cappuccinos, Costa Rican blends, or flavored lattes. Thus satiated and convinced that the universe was in harmony, I would head back with the satisfaction that Saturday had been reaped of all its luxuriating possibilities. Just that one day was reason enough to go through the whole week of hard labor…and it was enjoyed best steaming hot, flavorful and in the company of friends.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

The Ride Home

The crowded bus lurches down the Bangalore street with its cargo of weary workers, full of going-home urgency. Outside, the air is heavy with impending tropical rain. The jacaranda trees lining the road are sprayed with flowers the delicate color of twilight. Inside, the fragrance of jasmine on the women’s hair blends with the smoke from stubs of incense burning by the driver’s seat, creating a strangely prayerful scent in the hot, metallic interiors.
The bus is divided into two segments, the one in front reserved for the ladies. This is indicated by a drawing of a woman near a window; she is so beautiful that I’m sure she would have caused a minor riot among the men folk (relegated to the back) had she come to life and chosen to board the bus herself.
There is an old lady who squats near the entrance of the bus, holding a bag close to herself and constantly asking questions in rapid Kannada of the women she is closest to. Occasionally she talks to the bus conductor, who stands on the step of the bus in an attitude of unnecessary machismo. What if he should fall off? But apparently he is so accustomed to this semi-Tarzan routine that he is as nonchalant as they come. The bus driver engages him in conversation too, shouting over the rattling diesel noises of the engine.
Some of the women who are standing hand over their bags to the ones who are sitting. This is done with a wordless gesture, a simple handing-over unmarked by pleasantries. (It is evidently the norm in most buses I’ve traveled on in this city.) Sometimes the giver and the taker exchange a smile, but mostly not. Everyone looks strangely pallid in the dim, unflattering lighting inside the bus, and besides, we’ve all had a full working day; outside, the honkers carry on honking, making a few of us wince.
Another bus, similarly loaded, comes up alongside ours and stops at the traffic light. We then notice a group of young girls sitting at a window seat, close to our driver. One of them seems to be gesturing towards a girl who is sitting in the seat ahead of where I am standing. The other bus pulls ahead and the gesturing girl is lost to sight. The traffic is thick and intense, and our bus driver is expertly maneuvering between three wheelers, bicycles, pedestrians, and a gaggle of cars.
Then the other bus pulls alongside again, and this time the girl who gestured yells across at our bus that one of our passengers has forgotten her umbrella on the second bus. Everyone turns to look at the girl she is pointing at. Umbrella girl rises uncertainly, a bit self conscious. The passengers on the window side of our bus reach across their hands in an attempt to get the umbrella being offered through the window of the other bus, but don’t succeed as it surges ahead.
We think the umbrella may not be retrieved at all; the other bus is considerably further ahead. Meanwhile, our driver has been apprised of the situation by our conductor, who has stopped swinging from the step and is now looking to throw himself into the adventure of returning the elusive umbrella to its owner. She looks a bit forlorn at the thought of having to forgo a perfectly good umbrella. Maybe it is new.
For the third and final time, the two buses pull up close alongside. Our driver reaches across, and with the finesse of a polo player making a fine hook shot, grabs the umbrella and passes it over to the conductor in one smooth motion. While he gets back to negotiating the traffic again, the hugely grinning conductor restores it to its owner. All our co-passengers have been following the drama and, at this denouement, look around and smile. There is an air of sudden camaraderie; intimacy, even. Maybe the lighting in the bus is not so unflattering, after all?
The old lady near the step cackles her approval and compliments the two men, who are now beaming with newfound (or perhaps long-lost) chivalry. The other ladies look at the smiling girl with her umbrella and smile back. Outside, it has started to rain in a fine, misty drizzle that looks like a spray of needles in the streetlights. The rain will turn the streets into slush and cause puddles that will make the ladies lift their sarees and step gingerly around the pooled, muddy water. But suddenly, no one looks like they seem to mind. Or at least, they seem to mind a little less.

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