Thursday, January 29, 2009

....without a clue

And so off to Guwahati – faraway city of Kamakhya and Cardiologists. Maya Tamang is a 20 year old laborer who’s heart bacteria have turned into a leaky plastic bag-esque blood pumper, which regurgitates half the load it should be forcing through her 5-foot frame.
Save the decaying valve, she’s like any of the button-pretty Nepali girls from around these parts.
Her husband’s brought around a thousand rupees for the trip. That and the BPL (below poverty line) card we’d gotten made should see us through. We hope.
The doctor I’m supposed to meet could not be contacted on phone. Network in Tenga is an utter and final bitch. An apocryphal practioner has already written Maya off. It’s something you just refuse to believe. Her love story’s something you choose to instead – married to a boy from the basti who used to walk her to school, at 17. Proud mother at 20. Wheezing, sweating, nearly-not-breathing, ticker-barely-ticking heap at 20 and 2 months.
Stubbornness is a gift. You have a lot of hope. You just have no clue. We leave at 0730……
At the back of your mind you wonder why you're so desperate to see this through. Considering you go about saying you hate the line of work.


Kuch nahi samjha o buddhu
Kuch nahi socha
Reng ke (rail se) jaane kahan pahucha
- Ringa Ringa, Slumdog Millionaire

It was one of the few times there was a real sign of things being right. For sieved through gathering fog, the dying light of dusk showed her then and there for all she was – the single most beautiful girl in the world.

He was almost grateful for the hint of mud on her sneakers. It made her believable. Otherwise, the way her gloved hands tucked in her pockets, how some of her wispy hair peeked out from under the cap, that her lips, bodily curtains to the most spectacular smile ever up on show half-smiled, and her lively gear-shifting eyes were for now placidly parked in neutral, it all came together and made everything as it had always been. Perfect.

But a vague decoct of the past four months held him back from just plain grabbing her and making her disappear in his arms the way he used to. To fill the void in his core wholly and exactly with her being. It was perhaps the only perfect fit he knew of. He couldn’t do it. And there was this cacophony in his head. So many voices in so many tenses speaking together so loudly in such resonance, that they all cancelled each other out and came to nothing. He could not speak.

“Hi”. She stuck out a right hand.
It half crushed him that this was for now the fitting form of greeting.

But as he took it and held it, even through the wool, every fiber of him knew. The mime had fallen for the maiden all over again.


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Leukemia 101

Even at that young an age, I could tell there was something different about Christopher – the way his friendly eyes bugled out a little and made him seem almost goldfishesque, how his hairline started near the middle of his skull, how his skin was the colour milk. He seemed so easily breakable. Every other week or so, he’d disappear from school, and when his mother would bring him back, he’d be looking either sicker or skinnier, usually both.

In my case, like with most things, school was yet another failure at adjustment. Education, a uniform, waking up in the morning, the presence of female creatures and how Day 1 started with Dad running away as I wailed to be set free, all added up to a place I hated.

Christopher was the first friend I made. There was no formal introduction. He was sitting next to the bookshelf alone, drawing. All I did was to go and sit down next to him. Thus was forged the arcane bond between 4 year olds, which operates above things like introductions. The company balmed some of my misery and I hope eased some of his lonliness. We’d spend hours gradually filling up drawing sheets with armies of faceless stick-men waging wars, all drawn in lead pencil. No red meaning no blood, no one died. When the bell rang, our soldiers all packed up and went home; to come back tomorrow to leap out of shoebox-shaped aeroplanes and fire rat-dropping shaped bullets at each other.

Eventually, as we got to know each other better our parents began letting us visit some afternoons. Christopher’s house was breathtakingly beautiful, going there was an excursion. Built by the East India Company when the whole island of Penang was leased to them in the 1800s, it was a sprawling stilt-striding tropical vision in wood. The company his father worked for had provided it. To add to the allure, Christopher had a Labrador they’d named Ruth. Supposedly a pet, surreptitiously an alarm to let his parents know that he had collapsed on the ground once again.

I was lucky enough to never see him blackout, or as I later learned from medical textbooks, to see him squirm with fevers, fail to urinate or develop fungal infections on the roof of his mouth.

Most of these visits kicked off with the two of us being made to finish our homework by the host’s parents. Once that was out of the way, we launched into another session of artwork in unsullied lead, ignoring the crayons and colouring pencils that would have been laid out for us. After a bloodless blitzkrieg, we’d be served up a snack. At my house, the menu was mostly chocolate milk and some crunchy peanut-butter sandwiches. Christopher’s mother liked to bake. She’d often make cupcakes, and serve them with Kool-Aid relatives sent back from England.

By now, the afternoon’s heat would have simmered down some, and we would be allowed to take things outside into the large garden. The Labrador had to tag along, and Chris’ mother usually sat in the porch watching us. Somedays, we played penalty-shootout football, Christopher a shape-shifting embodiment of one of the scores of English footballers whose names he rattled off and became. Me week-in-and-week-out being the only footballer I knew: Diego Maradonna. Other days we just cavaliered about hunting for caterpillars, centipedes and their ilk to bring back to class in glass jars as trophies. Ironically, Christopher’s favorite game was one he probably would never have been able to play – he was happiest watching the three-second flight of a rugby ball from my hands to his.

An hour of running about posing as footballers in Malaysia’s sauna-humidity left us both completely drenched in sweat. We’d then be made to bathe and get ready for the guest’s departure. Awaiting our parents, we’d plonk down in front of the television and be handed more glasses of milk over which to watch the evening cartoon shows (standard 1980s fare like Transformers, GI Joe and Merry Melodies).

Over time, my company had made Chris a pretty decent Amitabh Bacchan fan. When over at my place, he’d often pester my mother to put on a subtitled VHS of something like Zanjeer or Deewar, films showcasing Amitabh at his youngest, angriest and most invincible. He liked the fight scenes the best, pumping his fists and clapping fervidly as Bacchan single-handedly creamed a dozen ruffians to the backdrop of ill-timed BHISHUPs. His mother though, saw to it that these screenings were stopped. Apparently she heard him delivering a melodramatic challenge to a fight with some neighborhood kid. The challenge’s wordings involved among other things, doubts regarding this boy’s credentials as a breast-fed baby. Not something you’d pick up off Bugs Bunny.

Christopher and I hung around together most of the time in school. We shared lunch and pretended to be superheroes during recess, but did little else. His mother had told me not to make him run about too much. Though I knew there was something wrong with him, it was always something vague, ill-defined and therefore avoidable.

I once asked him about his hair, and why he was going so skinny.

He said what he’d been told. That “some people just have less hair and are skinnier”. In a way it was right.

That his problem was something concrete became clear when he got hit by this kid in our class called Damien. It probably wasn’t over much. Besides being physically big for his age, Damien was also a way bigger bastard than the average 4 year old. He often picked fights for the simple worldly joy he found in hitting people. He punched Chris in the nose by the monkeybars. Chris fell unconscious and his nose bled like a faucet. By the time a teacher got there, he was near lying in a puddle of his own blood.

It was a week till he came back to school again, a bruise the size of a man’s palm imprinted around his nose.

These were the 1980s, days before Pinkel’s ‘total therapy’ could boast of leukemia survival rates of near 80%.

We were all there a decade too early.

Chris’s stays at school became shorter, fewer and further between, as did my visits to his house. Till one day his mother told my parents that Chris needed all the rest he could get, and that any more trips would have to wait.

He then sort of faded away. One day there was a funeral. My parents thought it best not to take me along.

When you’re four, you really don’t know how to miss someone. You eventually learn.

A Grim Fairy Tale

Timed upon a once
A runaway prince named Boy
Tried his valiant best at
balming his battered insides
By raising the drawbridge to him and putting frost and fear and bitterness of old
On patrol at the gates of
His coldest, darkest, stoniest center
Where Boy stored safe his warmth’s molten core.
Dressed forever for a wake
Boy turn’d his time into the a staccato brawling
Between two causes to cringe.

Fate brought the girl named She to town on crutches
in the back of a wagon And
in the wake of a mistake
Crippled, bruised and blue from the lifelessness
That breeds in the cold void left behind
When scabs
camouflage egos under sheep-skins of courage and imaginary acts of compassion
and tell convincing enough lies
of the walk to something eventual
too much of an effort
to put in.

The chill fanned She’s make-believe frostbite
And the hail added brick and mortar to her
invisible igloo.
Though She hollered on about the brightness of her blueness
And showed off her snowball-juggling parlour tricks
Boy saw how She’s teeth chattered and lips cracked
How She’s tears had
Welded the sides of her eyes open
Keeping She from sleep
and so from dreams

It made Boy weep
To see She con a smile
His ears rang and ached
When She’s laughing resonated and bounced off snowflakes
For the eyes of Boy saw through the vapid watercolours
With which She had done up
The whiteness in her lies

No thought was put into it
No consequences were considered
And though the act flashed with glimmers of hoping selfishness
Nothing seemed to matter
But to give her a feel of the ground beneath her
Shattered feet
For of the many paths
One could lead to him

So he reached inside
Butterknifed through the icicle-cage
And fished out all his red sheen.
He lay it at her lifeless soles

She could have She should have
They could have They would have
They can have They will have?

For In the end
The cold should never be allowed to win

Casual Leave

December 2006

When one realizes that his life is worthless he either commits suicide or travels.
Edward Dahlberg (1900–1977)

It was how dangerously beautiful the razorblade was beginning to get that finally got you packing.

The ride to Kalimpong began with promise. A wide smooth road searing through the jungle, massive trees tiger-striped the tarmac in gold and shade. Apprehension dallied with the excitement of actually having at least begun to pull this off – a covert runaway to a hill town you’d only read about in books and heard of in other people’s conversation. By this time, three days later, Darjeeling’d be part of yours.

First the invitation to Kalimpong. A sleepy, forlorn yet uncomplaining and self-appeased hamlet; the recipient of a sudden literary fame begotten by its being the setting for a recently published novel. The road to Kalimpong and Gangtok dichotomized near the river Teesta, and there began a discouragingly steep bike hike up to pong. The ride is at times, soul crushingly slow, and the engine begins to weep in unnerving, metal wails. Mercifully, it never stops. Some seven or eight times, you’re almost run over by one jeep or another festooned by a screaming pink ‘Picnic Party’ banner, full of holiday makers ferried by largely identical looking inebriated lunatics behind the wheel. The tourists clap their hands, lost in Nepali singalongs, oblivious to the number of times they narrowly avoid turning our hero into roadkill. The drive, in between these brushes with certain death, is rather nice, what you need – engrossment in something cold and mechanical, to keep you from believing the job and the life you wake up everytime the night ends to lead can exist. January’s clemency peacock-prances as clear skies, sunlight so crisp you can hear it crack, and no signs of things even hinting at being any other way.

You stop and offer a haggard old man who looks like a lung cancer patient with tuberculosis given the greatest smile in the world as remuneration, a ride. He gleefully accepts, sits down and then says nothing. After around twenty minutes of balling the jack, the total absence of not just conversation, but sound, makes you wonder if he’s fallen off or something. You slow down and turn around just to check. He’s still on there, and the smile’s only gotten even more world beating. Skinny, eighty, stoned out of his skull, only looking like he was going to die, and blessed with a grinner like that – he’d obviously won first prize.

“Where would you like to get off?”

“Right here would be just fine.”

He dismounts, numbs the pain with yet another magnificent show of front teeth, folds his hands and says thank you, and then kills you completely by turning right around and walking back. His stop was probably a good 8 kilometers back. Nonetheless you muster up the courage to wave. He squashes that courage totally and finally by waving back. The small hill shanty towns zip by, all looking just the same –utterly beautiful- and inhabited by people who also look just the same –utterly beautiful. Eateries, made out by the packets of instant noodles hanging from the windows, dot the road. They sell little else save those same noodles, which despite being cooked in around 15 different ways still taste like nothing in the world but marinated rubber bands. The signboards on these shops bear the names of whoever runs them. A surprisingly large number of girls have been entrusted with business. Some of the names become painful aftermathly reminders of girls you once knew, but now don’t. Relationships you realized could have been, only after they were over. Just when you’re about to bleed, Kalimpong happens and saves the day.

‘Quaint’ is a word whose place in the world you had never been able to figure out. Quaint is in the water they drink and the air they breathe in Kalimpong – a velvet-and-styrofoam town of narrow, perpetually wet streets, lined by cramped together shops selling something pretty you can either wear or eat. Most of the people you see are, understandably, well-dressed and chewing on something. Your friend had told you to meet him in the hospital, the lane to which is as real a crotch-crusher as you’d ever hope of never seeing. Yet another old man bums a ride, only this one knows where he has to get off. It gets dark pretty early around this part of the country this time of the year. Since it’s already rather late, most of the well-dressed eaters have by now huddled outside their houses around fires of cardboard, empty peanut shells and hay. They eyeball you in rapt amazement as you drive by, making you feel almost naked. You start to wonder if this is subconsciously why you made really made the trip – to be stripped bare of all the things about yourself that kept making your four-year-old-self stare in rapt amazement at who you’d become. Things that’d become seminally painful; anything could sire an unsavory memory that shot a mother lode of pain down your spine into your gut, where it thrashed about and left only if and when it pleased. You’re knocked out of a daze by a scruffy rat-bastard of a mongrel which races out of one of the houses, chases after the motorcycle and near bites your foot. Swerving to avoid it, you bungle into a puddle, loose balance and drive into a gutter nidorous of urine and garnished with slime. As you drag yourself and the motorcycle out, swearing at the dog, the giggles of its proud owners emanating from around the fire declare that they’ll at least have something to talk about over dinner besides the cold.

Then finally the hospital. And Sam the Dentist.

If you took any of the rotund, five-year old Nepali schoolboys cutting school and running around this part of the country, impervious to things like the flu and any reason to stop smiling, and inflated them with air till they were just as round, only now five and a half feet tall, you’d get Sam the Dentist. His unbridled adoration for booze was matched only by two things - his complete inability to hold it down, and the unanimity with which he chose to rather nurse the subsequent hangover than acknowledge the existence of things like a job and work. He was, in many ways the apex government servant. The workday began at nine in the morning, and for all you know, might as well end at five past nine, depending upon what those five minutes hinted at. The man’s incorrigible hoplessness with women had become the stuff of legend, one that even he had come to believe.
Perhaps to fabricate himself a believable enough excuse to lean on, he’d taken to neutering himself by drinking unimaginable amounts of whiskey, and then launching into incoherent, leaky-eyed tirades against the entire other gender as a whole, which invariably ended with his morphing into a sobbing, spirit-seasoned lump on the floor. Clearly a true, textbook lover of women.

We’re perched on a ledge leading up to the military hospital, built on a hilltop far above the city. The whole town is spread out like a mirrorwork picnic-blanket below us, shimmering as the locals light and put out their stoves and lamps. Half the night is spent keeping a fire alive, listening to dogs swear at each other in across Kalimpong’s paralyzed nighttime existence and telling stories.

Soon I’m crying too.