May 12, 2017

Big Words Get Big Jobs

 Desmond Macedo

I was once stuck in a lift when a girl inside remarked, ‘God, it’s so claustrophobic in here.’

I had heard this word inside lifts quite often and began to wonder if lifts were erected so that people could find occasion to use the word, or, whether people were using the word in wrong places so construction engineers came up with lifts where people could use it appropriately. 

But these days when I hear it inside a lift, stalled or moving, I notice how people’s ears swivel around to the direction where the word came from so it can slide into their ear passages easily, one syllable at a time, four syllables in all, one large and three small.

After the whole word has disappeared into their ears, getting itself to bounce on the tympanic membrane – claustrophobic won’t bounce on anything so banal as eardrum – I see them pull the string of syllables out, then let it in, spring-like, where it makes the sound of the pronunciation, like online dictionaries with the audio pronunciation button,  and ponder over it. One is trying to spell it in his mind. One is trying to count the number of alphabets in the word, having read that alphabets make up a word. Another is trying to memorise the line, ‘God, it’s so claustrophobic in here,’ saying to herself, ‘Use the line when inside in a lift.’ Another gets the syllables jumbled up inside his ear, so the word is assembled as ‘claus-pho-tro-bic’ and is now pulling the syllables out, one by one, four in all, in an attempt to rearrange them, and re-insert them into his ear passage, which, in all probability, would again be the incorrect arrangement, and he would be better of learning the word as ‘clausphotrobic,’ which, in time, would be the correct form among those who hear it inside a lift from him, or, at worst, there’d result in two kinds of people caught in a lift: those who learn claustrophobic, and those who  learn clausphotrobic.

I, too, made a note of possible claustrophobic places, like conference rooms, where I could use the word and show off my vocabulary – I had noticed, of late, this word was being amputated to vocab. I don’t approve of amputating large words, not at least the bulary from vocab, and never at all the bulary from a consta.

‘God, this place is so claustro.’ Why would people shorten large words when their purpose is to show off one's bulary ?’

Meanwhile, the girl who used the word inside the lift, tired of running behind artwork and business presentation slides, left Mumbai for London to do an MBA.

Just a couple-a-days later, while I am at my desk, a girl colleague walks into the office and holds forth as if she were making a business presentation, ‘Gosh, I had the morbid happenstance of getting stuck in a lift today. The claustrophobia is overwhelming.’

This time, several colleagues were vigorously making note of this circumstance lookalike, in a usage so earful, the word slid into their ear passages dragging the entire sentence along, but only partially, with part of it dangling outside their ears, as colleagues tried to read dangling words. Some snipped the section dangling outside their ears, twirled it around their forefingers, and spun it around like a key chain, with colleagues trying to read words spinning in the air.

I had another problem. Two people in an office looking for opportunities to use claustrophobic were threatening to render it a cliché very soon, after which, it would be boring to use it in a sentence, with or without happenstance, and pointless to use the lift.

But the girl who went to London to do an MBA completed it and got a job there in an advertising firm as a Strategy Planner.

‘Big words get big jobs,’ I say to myself out load, so I can hear it, swivel a earlobe in the direction of my mouth, pick up the sentence, and shove it through my acoustic meatus.

April 28, 2017

Long Sentences

Desmond Macedo

I got into the lift to go up to my office on the fourteenth floor. A few colleagues also entered along with me.

As the door shut, a colleague began: 'This year, Mumbai's heat is in sharp contrast to the previous years. If my memory serves me right, Mumbai temperatures were always in the region of 35, 36 degrees. And I can remember Mumbai temperatures every summer with a fair degree of accuracy; this year it is the highest,' he said as all the rest nodded a yes.

This weather editorial made me think: Clichés make long sentences.

And if the ride in a lift is going to be fourteen floors long, stops included, you will need to construct long sentences to last through the ride.

So, as it happens, long sentences tend to be useful in polite conversations.

I could manage the heat. If I try, I could even remember the coming few years’ summer temperatures of Mumbai with a fair degree of accuracy, since my memory for incidents that have not yet happened serves me right as well. It was polite conversation that I had difficulty with. It seemed to be all about filling the space between people with prattle and babble so you look well informed. As vacuous as it is ironical.

And polite conversation is tiresome. Fourteen floors of prattle and babble are more tiring than waiting to catch a local train whose arrival is uncertain. Whenever I get drawn into one I wish I was successful, so I wouldn’t have to make polite conversation with anyone.

Like polite conversation, there is polite listening. But if long sentences are useful in polite conversations, try listening to one.

‘Wassup?’ was introduced early this millennium or thereabouts, which was the most useful conversational piece invented. Simple, cheerful, very expressive, Wassup? was never intended to start conversations. So nobody answers that question.

In an office there is plenty of polite conversation. If you’re getting familiar with people around, or meeting someone for the first time, a typical office chat would run like:

Where are you from? (Hometown)
What have you done? (Education/Specialisation)
Which college?
Is this your first job? if you are young, otherwise, Where were you before this?
Since the millennium arrived, another one was added: Is this your first career choice?
So you've done like Mass Communication and stuff? depending on your profession.

Most of the time it is quite innocent. Sometimes, it can be inquisitive, which is irritating.

Some years ago I ran into a young advertising copywriter, who, after finishing the hometown / first-job series, continued: 'Where were you before this?'

‘Lintas,’ I said.

‘Before that?’

'Ogilvy & Mather.'

'Oh wow. And how long were you there?

‘Two years.’

‘Ahh ha. And where were you before that?'

I answered patiently: 'Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborne.' I had hoped that another high-sounding, this time four-Anglo-Saxon-titled advertising agency, would shut the young writer up.

It didn’t.

'You would’ve done another two years there, I’m sure, with a couple of awards under your belt by now, a Group Head prefixed to your name, and, without a doubt, reporting to the Creative Director, and nibbling at his heels’ he said, paused to grin, then continued, his tone rising at every stage of my job trail, ‘Though, I am curious to know where you got your grounding; where were you trained in the nitty gritties of the creative process, the tempering of the mettle and igniting of the spark, so to speak; where did you start?'

'Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young,” I replied, rather stylishly.

Silence at last.

The young, aspiring copywriter had never heard of this advertising agency. Nor could he look like he had never heard of it. So no further conversation took place.

March 13, 2017

A Rock Music Trail

Desmond Macedo

The living room had three old bamboo chairs and a frame on the wall with George Harrison within.

Range Hills, a government colony of defense employees in Poona in the 60s and 70s, was an unlikely place to find rock music but often, there was a box guitar, too, in that living room, named ‘40 Miles Of Bad Road,’ and yes, though beat-up, when it had six strings on it, as it often did not have, it sounded thrilling enough for me to cycle down from Loyola School campus, in nearby Pashan, via a slope from Modern High School and a short cut from Poona University Circle around a hillock, which would get me down quickly to pick it up if nobody else was playing it.

If Big Freak, a sibling of that household, was playing it then I would have the joy of listening to Wah Wah or Art of Dying. Anyone who could play George Harrison was a big freak back then, usually with long hair, kurta, smelly jeans and beedies. Even the other way around was almost true: if anyone wore long hair, kurta, smelly jeans and beedies, he could play George Harrison.

Some days earlier, I had heard Big Freak do If I Needed Someone. It was the opening guitar notes that got him. I liked them, too. One day a bunch of kurtas, smelly jeans and beedies came down from Hill Road, Bandra, and did It Don’t Come Easy, and I thought the opening guitar notes sounded a bit like those on If I Needed Someone, but I loved them as well.

Once, Big Freak spent a whole week on Hill Road, Bandra and came back with Happiness Is A Warm Gun.  For me this was an adult song, to be enjoyed like being allowed into a theatre where an adult movie was showing. And this was the adult scene:

The man in the crowd with multi-colored mirrors on his hobnail boots
Lying with his eyes while his hands are busy working overtime

These songs never played on Radio Ceylon, my usual source of music. Mostly, it played Englebert Humperdinck, Tom Jones, Cliff, Jim Reeves, Sinatra, Elvis, Everly Bothers, country music singers and other such pop artists. My Ol’ Man once remarked as Hey Jude’s chorus faded out on the radio: ‘Sounds like Crawford Market on Sundays.’ Quite clear what he thought of rock. And most of the time I had to keep tuning the damn radio to get a clear reception. In the home of a friend in nearby NCL Colony, there was a record player and Sgt Pepper’s album – his elder brother owned it, with instructions not to play it. He himself seldom played it, so I couldn’t tell how it came to be there. This was another government colony of middle and lower middle class employees in the 60s and 70s, and an unlikely place to hear Sgt Pepper’s. There was still one other place where another friend and I saw this album – Poona’s Chor Bazaar or Juna Bazaar – where it wasn’t out of place since anything out of place found itself here, but, as my friend told me as he nudged me away, ‘The record inside is some other album.’

In Range Hills, however, I looked keenly at Big Freak as he played George’s songs and when he was tired, I’d pick up the box and try the chords with the tunes and words.

Big Freak had a younger brother who played Hey Joe. He had heard it from someone on Hill Road, Bandra. This became another adult experience for me:

Hey Joe, where you walkin’ down / With that gun in your hand? 
I’m gonna shoot my woman / She’s messin’ around town with another man 

Another song the younger brother played that I liked instantly was Dark Side of the Moon. And the two lines that I learned were: And if the band starts playing a different kind of tune / I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon 

These two boys would make frequent trips to Bandra, Bombay, and return with a new song.

When I met the younger brother at Range Hills again, some time later, he was doing the bass of Hey Joe. This was the first time I had heard bass all by itself; may be the first time I noticed bass. ‘Seems harder to sing a song and play its bass notes than to sing with its chords’ he had said. ‘Chords are the harmony of a song, so it’s easy to sing with them,’ he tried to explain while I did not try to understand, because I did not know what harmony in music meant.

Another time he returned with Angie, a song I would sing, just months later, to a girl I would meet in Ambala.

Then came the Malavli Youth Festival, a 3-day fest of rock music by Indian rock bands planned on the lines of Woodstock, and organized by a Jesuit priest at this village Malavli, a few kilometers from Lonavla. I arrived for the last night. There was plenty of hash around. All you did was join a circle and you’d get free pulls. For days later, there were articles and editorials in the local dailies on the festival and how it was mainly an orgy of hash and sex. I thought it was an orgy of Jumping Jack Flash - every band that came on did that number, and it delighted me.

Time came for me to move out of Poona and go work, which took me to several parts of North India and Punjab. When I came home to Poona on leave, I would cycle back to that house in Range Hills. On one such visit, I heard Big Freak play My Sweet Lord. I returned quite a few days in a row and asked him to do it till I learnt it. I had to learn the tune, lyrics, chords and how to sing and play a song together - the tricky part - so it would take quite a few days before I could do one on my own.

Back in Ambala Cantt, I practiced My Sweet Lord. On a Sunday visit to the local church, I said hello to the parish priest there as I had noticed a guitar in his room through the mesh in his door. A couple of more Sundays and I was playing and singing My Sweet Lord for him. He loved the song, which by now he referred to a hymn, so I had to, also. Next, he invited me to prayer meetings that were attended by nuns from a nearby girls’ school. We were singing My Sweet Lord at these meetings. It seemed to take the folk in white cassocks nearest to their creator. After singing it, they would each retreat into a kind of "Union and Oneness with Him,” mumbling Jesus’ praises, praying that one day they would join Him in heaven singing these beautiful hymns. Another Sunday later, an unfamiliar face in a cassock said hello to me. ‘Beautiful hymn you sing,’ she said. I smiled back. I was thinking of some “F Sharp Diminished” chord that Big Freak showed me in the song but couldn’t remember its formation. And then I forgot when the B7th came in.

Between the 80s and 2000, I used to meet acquaintances who would periodically return to India from the west, visiting families. We would meet for drinks, music and general conversation. On these occasions there’d be some information passed on about The Beatles – they were an experimental band, etc, etc. ‘Avant-garde,’ said one. And of course, the usual “why they broke up,” which got boring.

I had begun my own naïve reasoning: They broke up because they couldn’t innovate any more. Big Freak once said, ‘You compose two songs, they will sound alike. They did over 150 songs, and most of them sound different from each other.’ Tapes had replaced vinyl, and I had most of their songs, already fed-up of listening to them over and over again, so, instead, I used to come up with these theories about them and their music, another being, people will listen to The Beatles the way they listen to Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Schubert, even two centuries later. I didn’t believe myself but nobody was listening to me and my theories so it was alright.

There were many songs I first heard guys play in that living room. Like See Me, Feel Me by The Who, Woodstock by Joni Mitchell, and No Sugar Tonight by I didn’t know who. I was also told that Joe Cocker’s With A Little Help From My Friend was better than the original. And there was this nice line I heard there: Too many hungry people losing weight.

Somewhere in the nineties, and in Bangalore, I walked into a music store and asked about the song Dark Side of the Moon. It wasn’t a song, it was an album. When the internet arrived in the 2000s, I learned it was among the best albums so I bought it.

By the time the millennium changed, Big Freak was already a respected guitar teacher in Pune.

By 2006, YouTube had arrived, and Too many hungry people losing weight, which my friends rocked up back then, was timid Paul McCartney, ex-Beatle pop.

Hey Joe went to the top of my favourite songs, with Noel Redding’s bass riff joining my fondest bass riffs, though, not before I learnt from the internet what a riff was, and after I learnt from the internet what a drum roll was, Mitch Mitchell’s drum rolls in the same song sounded like “mustard spluttering in hot oil” – the finest I’ve heard.

Likewise, Harrison’s lead riff for It Don’t Come Easy came to occupy another fondest space in me.

The songs I had first heard friends playing on acoustic guitar in that living room with three old bamboo chairs on the floor and George Harrison on the wall, I now heard recorded, many years later, for the first time.

40 Miles of Bad Road was a title better than the song.

The original Sgt Pepper’s vinyl album cardboard sleeve became a rarity.

Howard Goodall CBE, classical musician and award-winning British composer, in a documentary he titled, ‘The Beatles – A Musical Appreciation & Analysis,’ released on YouTube said their music was likely to live on for several generations. And somewhere in that script he mentioned, ‘They’ve innovated so much, there isn’t much left for any band to innovate.’

No Sugar Tonight by I didn’t know who, was by The Guess Who.

Someone commented on the Jumping Jack Flash  YouTube video: 'The best opening line in rock: I was born in a crossfire hurricane.' I picked it up in Malavali.

Western music was harmony, while Indian music was melody. Lennon’s Jealous Guy was built on melody, but don't ask me to explain.

 And then, a few years ago in Mumbai, I ran into the padre I knew in Ambala Cantt.

‘Holy Shit,’ I shrieked when I met him and he shrieked back, ‘Holy Water.’

After the shrieks had settled and the 'how have you beens?' done, he linked to the past and said, ‘I love the way My Sweet Lord changes key midway. So gradually, you don’t even notice it.’

‘So you’ve been watching YouTube, what?’ I said.

He smiled.

Then he turned to me, hands now locked firmly on his hips in mother-superior fashion, and interrogated: ‘You never told me, it’s a hymn in praise of Lord Krishna, did you?’

‘Yes, it ends on those chants, but father, what to do?’ I tried to explain, ‘variations from the original would’ve occurred because, for some people in India, rock music was passed on orally.’

We had a good laugh.


My Sweet Lord - Lyrics

My sweet Lord
Hmmm, my Lord
Hmmm, my Lord

I really want to see you
Really want to be with you
Really want to see you Lord
But it takes so long, my Lord

My sweet Lord
Hmmm, my Lord
Hmmm, my Lord

I really want to know you
Really want to go with you
Really want to show you Lord

That it won't take long, my Lord

February 28, 2017

Sohrab's Last Story

Anirban Sen




It was one sunny afternoon when Sohrab slit his wrist with the nib of his favourite pen that he discovered the colour of his blood was indigo blue, and not dark red like the colour of his handwriting.

The strangeness of this situation started to dawn on him, excruciatingly slowly, clearing itself through the thick fog of processing an impossible reality.

A sharp pain overtook his brain and swallowed him whole. His brain switched into military combat mode and immediately ordered a curfew on any kind of sense or feeling. Sohrab’s mind obeyed the command, and without hesitation, went numb.

He looked down at his notepad and noticed the blood-red colour of the letters of every word of the story he was writing. No two letters were alike and all differed in thickness and vitality. Some letters were thick dabs of paint that seemed deliberated upon and some letters were airier in their brushstrokes that made his prose nimble.

Each letter was a confident brushstroke that had been practiced to perfection over the years, and each stood out for itself in its own pride of existence and profound personal ambition. And yet as they journeyed through the page every letter stitched itself with the next one in a languid friendship to weave out a rich ornate design.

Two minutes into his numbness, he realized without thinking that, for once in his life, he wasn’t scanning through his writing and neither was he reading any words. Instead, he found himself staring at the most beautiful intricate design his handwriting had ever created. It looked like a work of outstanding artistry.

It occurred to him that the design had much more beauty and meaning than all the chapters and paragraphs in the story that he was writing. A few minutes later into his numbness, he understood that the design was a visual message sent to him across a vast distance. But that distance didn’t seem to measure itself in kilometers or miles.

He couldn’t decipher the message but he knew it was in his own handwriting, and therefore the message had to be from none other than himself.

And he remembered himself. He remembered his face in the mirror from a few minutes before, on that very afternoon just before he slashed his wrist.

He remembered being surprised how old he had grown. He realized now, all these years, even though he stood in front of the mirror every day, he had never really looked at himself. His faraway eyes were always lost in tunnels of thought, mining out words and stories, and his gaze always looked beyond his reflection and focused on an imaginary place where he actually lived. He would give his reflection just a cursory glance for a brief second as if to feel reassured that the man in the mirror was still himself. That’s how he marked his attendance of each day of his life.

He remembered the weather-beaten cheeks that were caving in gently and silently like giant tectonic plates. He remembered his wrinkles that dug themselves long canyons across his face from the sides of his eyes. They were like tributaries of a river but they travelled horizontally with the slow anguish of a poem written in a deep calligraphic handwriting. But the tributaries were dry and inkless, and he thought maybe it was because tears could only flow downwards.

And he remembered his eyes. The glint of his eyes was tender and kind, and yet it had a fiendishly sinister shine. That shine was the only clue that betrayed the existence of the deep and dark passages inside his brain that formed complex tunnels of thought, carefully excavated out of the fertile terrain of his mind. He explored these inky black labyrinths day and night with a flaming torch, and it was this light from the torch that made his eyes twinkle.

He searched tirelessly for strange and unusual adventures and plots of stories inside these tunnels that crisscrossed to form an endless maze. Some stories oozed out of him from the tip of his fingers through his handwriting that did eventually make him an accomplished author. Some stories were never documented and remained etched on the walls of the tunnels, delicious in their dark secrecy, far out of reach of time’s judgment.

The tunnels reminded Sohrab of his wrinkles.

His understood then, after a lifetime, that his face was a mirror. The wrinkles were a reflection of the labyrinths in his mind, perfect in in their imitation and profound in their wisdom, and they left behind trails that recorded in minute detail the journey of his life and kept it safe, deep inside their folds.

It was not his face anymore; the wrinkles had transformed his face into a notebook containing a thousand scribbled stories. Ten minutes into his numbness, it struck Sohrab that the wrinkles on his face were not a result of the decay of time. But they were someone’s handwriting.

Somebody had been writing on his face. He recalled his shriveled up face and recounted his wrinkles that mapped his face in deep gashes that looked like battle wounds. That afternoon, before deciding to take his life, he had really looked at himself for the first time after thirty years. He was unsure if he would recognize himself.

At first, his reflection was the face of a stranger he had never met. But he knew it was himself, not because he was looking into a mirror. He recognized himself because of the wrinkles that scarred his face. The lines narrated his life in meticulous detail and he recognized the story. It was his story.

The writing had no arrogant flair of a writer yet it was remarkably lucid in its language and heart wrenchingly poetic in its portrayal. The handwriting had no ink. But every chapter was visible, each page was numbered, and there was a sense of finality engraved in the tone that made Sohrab feel that the book was, at long last, ready to go into print.

There was also a sense of haunting embedded in the handwriting of his wrinkles. Cuneiform and hollow, the writing seemed to be an echo of ancient whispers; the memory of the wind that had painstakingly chiseled out the tales of his life in longhand.

In the tenderness of the handwriting, Sohrab detected love. Through the years the wrinkles had relentlessly carved out ravines and gorges across his face, but Sohrab realized he had never ever felt any jab of pain. The wrinkles were so gentle that even as they etched the stories, their touch was imperceptible and silent, and that rendered the handwriting invisible for years, even after they had started to show.

Our wrinkles are reminders of the approaching of our life’s final deadline. But that sunny afternoon Sohrab felt his wrinkles were not warnings but were handwritten letters of love. And they were written every day with a longing and a heart full of ache for countless years, and now they were finally ready to be posted.

Thirty minutes had passed and Sohrab’s numbness had begun to ebb. He began to feel immeasurably grateful for his life. The feeling came to him in waves from an endless ocean that was stretched itself to unfathomable distances.

He was still overwhelmed with the sense of gratitude when his numbness withered and died and he began to feel alive. His room came back into focus, the couch and the electric teapot, the smear of the coffee stain on the table, and he was suddenly acutely aware of that sharp pain in his wrist. His eyes travelled to the blood still gushing out of his fatal wound, and he smiled. It was the final stroke of his story in his own handwriting, and he felt a last sliver of pain from the wound that was ready to define him.

Forty-two minutes later, as the glint of his eyes began to fade with weariness, he heard the thud of the final full stop. Along with the sound he took his last breath, the last sigh of farewell as the ink ran out.

It was a moment after he was dead, when he deciphered his message to himself that was scrawled all over his notebook. All his life Sohrab had loved the stories he had created with the immensity of a parent. He remembered each of them from the time they were born, fresh in his own handwriting, borrowed from the underground labyrinths inside his head. Each of them was his labour of love, his signature that he would leave behind.

Then his face flashed for one last time. And he realized he had been wrong all his life.

As his face flashed for the last time, he noticed only his wrinkles. Some lines were deep and ambitious and some lines were just whispers but as they journeyed through his face, they crisscrossed each other and at times even stitched themselves with another line in a languid friendship to weave out a rich ornate design.

The design looked familiar. And then he knew. It was the exactly the same design on his notebook that he had first noticed before the dizziness took over.

It was then that he realized it was not him who had been writing his stories all his life. In fact, it was the opposite. All through his life it was his stories that were writing him.

His face was now serene and calm, and his indigo blue blood was wet and fresh, much like the ink of his handwriting right after he had completed a story. He looked like a work of outstanding artistry.

He looked ready to be published.

About the Author: Anirban Sen likes Jim Beam at the end of the day. Before that time comes, he does what he does well – advertising. He has a Cannes for Happydent. He enjoys traveling, scouring forests and trekking on mountains. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, while with Jim Beam, he writes stories. 

February 1, 2017

Blackie, the Dog with One Ear

Desmond Macedo

Fortunately, the wife didn’t see him urinate on the boxes containing our household belongings else he may never have become part of our lives.

‘How do you allow a dog that urinated on your belongings to be part of your home’ is one of those questions that human beings are likely to ask, and dogs will not understand. I being of a species somewhere in between a dog and a human being, somewhat knew it could be asked.

We had just moved into our new cottage in Lohagaon, near Pune airport, when he walked into the house, sniffed the boxes around, and did his job. I watched him, hoping wife would not turn around. She didn’t. And I firmed up my plan to adopt him.

Unlike most stray dogs, he didn’t wag his tail a lot. He did the opposite – he snarled at you if you went near him, exposing those two long, pointed teeth in front like Christopher Lee had. Even his growl sounded fierce or, perhaps, a black dog is more frightening than a dog of any other colour. Still, I decided to be very careful with him.

Good height, well built - though lean from irregular food that strays are like - with a long snout, he looked like a wolf, and just as stately. Being black, the locals called him Kalia. He had brown markings on his body and two above the eyebrows, the latter, someone told me, was a Rottweiler sign so he might be a cross between a Rottweiler and a stray. And that breed is dangerous.

I believed the Rottweiler tie-up or liked to believe it. If I was going to look after him, I didn’t want a dog always wagging its tail when it sees me, fawning like an obsequious sycophant, sycophant being someone who fawns, and is obsequious, so two of those three words were redundant but not redundant enough for me to under-stress their use as I found all three disgusting. I had just quit advertising or was on my way out, where, off and on, I had seen for twenty-odd years people fawning over each other, so I wasn’t going to be pleased with a dog also from advertising.

We settled into our new home while he would come around the gate, now and then, and peep in when we would feed him chicken pieces. In between now and then, he was running after females. Five years later, we were running with him to the vet and back in an auto, treating him for venereal granuloma, a skin disease that strays sometimes pick up from indiscriminate mating. Listening to the vet, I thought, ‘That’s an enviable disease to get.’

In one of those fights over females with other male strays, he got his left ear torn away and dangling from his head. In a few days, the wound was festering, flies hovering around it, and maggots having a jolly good time inside. He was running aimlessly, writhing in pain, and squirming achingly from the scratchiness that maggots cause crawling on naked flesh. When he shook his head, as he frequently did, wife could see maggots tossed in the air.

I was in Mumbai when she called me. I pleaded, ‘Get him to hospital.’ In my anxiety, I did not distinguish a hospital from a veterinary, though I knew quite a few human beings who should’ve been going to a veterinary instead of a hospital.

Wife got on the phone to Blue Cross that day. An official arrived with a tempo and dog chain, but without the nerve to approach Kalia. He figured the dog was ferocious. He spent an hour outside the house wondering how to get the chain on the dog, then left.

Next morning, wife had the number of another animal caretaker, a girl, who was attached to Blue Cross.

Meanwhile, Kalia, chased by the locals, because he didn’t have the usual reputation a dog should have - wag its tail when addressed by a human - ran up the staircase of a single-storey building. He stood in the centre of the terrace, with the locals at the head of the staircase carrying lathis, and tin and plywood sheets to barricade him from running away. Their plan was to put his lights out.

Kalia’s lights were not about to go out with two determined women stepping in between. The crowds parted, more from curiosity at how two unarmed women had the courage to walk up to a ferocious dog and calmly put a chain around its neck. The girl was carrying biscuits. Besides, the dog was slightly acquainted with wife.

The girl had a powder insecticide for the maggots, which she applied, dusting off the maggots. Then she covered and bound the wound with a cloth. Kalia was calm. Wife described to me how funny he looked with a bandage around his head.

By now, Kalia had become Blackie.

He spent six months at Blue Cross. Nearly died there because the wound wouldn’t heal. The girl liked him, though we never knew why; she cared for him personally. We heard her mother advised her against marriage: ‘How will you look after stray dogs as well as a husband and a home?’

And by the time he returned home in a tempo, we were ready to adopt him. Blue Cross did a fine job – they released him well fed, stout, and in a shining black coat. He bounced around, happy to meet us, or happy to be out of the vet. And he had one ear.

I began to feed him chicken ‘curry pieces,’ which I bought from Kirkee Cantonment bazaar once a week, where I also met an old friend for cigarettes, chai, and conversation. He had a dog himself, so he knew where to get good pieces.

Blackie loved playing with us, though he used to snip us playfully, and the pinch was painful. Dogs, stray dogs or domestic dogs have a territory of a maximum 250 meters. He could go up to 2 kms without any dog interfering with him. Perhaps dogs knew breeds.

At the vet recently, the doctor couldn’t administer the injection for venereal granuloma. His platelet count was very low. The vet put him on herbal extracts – papaya – to raise the count. Something else showed up in the blood tests – tick fever, which can be worrisome.

And this is where I need to change the tense of this story to present, as obituaries are usually written in past tense.

The papaya extract worked. The count rose. The vet was able to give him two injections stretched over ten days. He told me, the injections were actually the chemotherapy. Venereal Granuloma is a benign tumor, but it has to be treated. And the tick fever was contained.

Blackie is old now, and mellow. Off and on we try to figure his age from locals who remember him. He is somewhere between 13 and 15 years.

Before Blue Cross, with both ears 

One day a female came snuggling up to him. He jumped up from that whiff, forgetting he had just got over venereal granuloma. Normally, the males go around sniffing the females to find out if any is ready to mate. This one came up to him to announce it. Not one young male could interfere in their liaison. He spent the next three days a few inches away from her, but he couldn’t mate. Tickled me to think what the young ones might have thought: ‘You see old men run after young girls? Soon, the old bugger is off to bed by 9 pm, the girl comes home at 2 am. We’ll just have to wait until this bugger goes to bed.’


After Blue Cross, right ear gone. 

Our neighbor in Lohagaon recently sold his house and left. The new owners arrived a few days later and entered their gate. Blackie, lying on the road leading to their gate, got up and barked at them. He knew the previous owners; he didn’t know these. They called out to his name, then he went back to dozing in the sun.

But he must’ve thought, ‘It’s especially nice when you don’t know people, but they know you.’

‘Well, if you keep the company of wolves you learn how to howl, so if you keep the company of humans, you learn how to show off,’ I thought on his behalf again, because, now, he was of a species somewhere in between a human being and a dog.

Children on their way to school in the morning say, ‘Blackie, come here.’ He doesn’t move. Once again, louder, firmly, ‘Blackie, pay attention, come here.’ He gets up and walks away. An idiosyncrasy, perhaps - he doesn’t like children.

 We have some friends in Thane who come down for a break on long weekends. While getting ready to drive down, their 4-year old asks, ‘Mama, we going to Blackie’s house?’ ‘Yes.’ The little fella grins.

Nice name, so I’ve thought of naming our cottage, ‘Blackie’s House,’ done on a little board, prominently displayed.

For a dog that didn’t have a home, there will be one named after him.













January 25, 2017

The Village of One House

Uddalak Gupta

Last year, in the month of July, usually a time of reckoning that comes in the wake of appraisals at an advertising agency, I realised that my days at the office were drawing to a close. Signals had been sent and received; meanings deciphered and mulled over. Some conversations were had. It was one of those things that are not always in our control, but sometimes do happen. One does, what one does.

It took me a while to loosen the tent pegs, stuff the tarp in and kick clods of earth over that patch which had been mine for three, mostly happy, years. And by the time I officially left, October had come with its slanting, dappled rays and skinny trees. Tethered though we are by our sense of security to the big city, some of us are still drifters and journeymen, when it comes down to it. Or so we would like to think, though reality lies somewhere in between.

With time no longer measured by the siren of work, it didn't take me long to realise something - I was out of practice. I had become too used to knowing what the next day would be like. And certainty had brought with it, some rust in the joints. There was an office to go to, and I did. There was a home to come back to, and I did. There were savings to be made, and I did. The map had become too crowded with jottings for the future. I didn't need a map anymore, or even a plan to begin with; I needed air and empty space.

It isn't easy, though, when the mind is scattered - like mine was, as the year gradually wound to a close. The festivals of autumn had come and gone, the drumbeats and firecrackers had stilled. The sense of jubilation among people had given way to an anxious vigilance as the government decided, in its wisdom, to usher in new currency notes and do away with the old. Even so, I had already begun to travel by then, making short sorties into the crinkles of the folded earth. It felt good to feel the ground beneath my feet again.

Sleepy hamlets below the rolling clouds of Kangra valley, the mist-laden Singalila trail high above Darjeeling, apple orchards on the stepped hillsides of Himachal, the small town of my birth in the Jharkhand forests... I sped off in different directions without any pattern, sometimes with friends and at others, with family. In between, I reconnected with Kolkata over some trips to wind up my late mother's affairs but otherwise, was mostly home when my daughter would come back from school. The journeys, while never ambitious or grand in scale, suited me fine, jogging me along but never tipping me over.

And so it was that at the dog-end of December, with the shadows lengthening faster and the fog rolling into a watery sun, I went camping with my wife and daughter to the foothills of the Kumaon. We had the year to bed down, and we wanted to do so in a tent we would pitch under an open sky. In the low light of a solar lantern and the soft touch of sleeping bags, there lay the hope of communion.

We'd chosen Syat as our base, a rustic village rising a few thousand feet higher than the adjoining Terai grasslands and dense jungle of Jim Corbett National Park. It wouldn't be our first visit here, having stayed twice before at the picturesque Wildrift camp by the edge of a hilly forest. But this time, we planned to go further in and higher up, aided by their able staff. They were good, hardy men we had come to know over the years who'd made even our city child blend into the wild scenery. Our destination was a village in the forest, where stood just a single house. I was curious.

About six hours into our drive from Delhi, we reached the Wildrift camp, artfully concealed within the thick vegetation and tall stands of trees. After a leisurely lunch under a towering banyan, we hefted our rucksacks and set off in the afternoon with Puran, our guide, and two of his men. The path, such as it was, sloped up a forested ridge till it disappeared into the tree cover of the intersecting hills. We walked single-file in the pale winter sun, dry fallen leaves crunching under our feet, and it wasn't long before we had left the last house behind. Colourful spices were drying on its slanted roof next to a peering dish antenna, smoke billowed lazily out of a window and the dull violence of the outside world seemed far away.

In a while, we crossed a shrine to a local god, plastered in white. Faith runs deep in these parts, like the meltwater of the Ramganga and Baur that flows down from the heights in spring. The villagers here don't have much, apart from the slow grind of the day disappearing over their fields and their voices raised in song to the beat of a drum by the evening during a festival. Belief in something beyond the self is not hard to imagine.

As the trail grew steeper and the trees much thicker, Puran would suddenly freeze in his tracks, motioning us to silence, and point with his binoculars. There in the branches, if we were lucky, we would spot a glimpse of a flurry of wings - a Scarlet Minivet, Fantail, Blue Whistling Thrush or Himalayan Bulbul poised delicately for flight. They were beautiful, tiny creatures whose kingdom we were trespassing. In reproach, they stole away at the roll of a dislodged pebble into the skies above.

Soon after, we had traversed the Ninety Steps, a section of an ingenious system of stone chutes that brought water from high up to the fields far below. The path then veered right, skirting the edge of the hillside. For close on half a kilometre, we marched along the level but narrow margin of a chute, mindful of the yawning fall on one side. My daughter, all of eight, sped ahead like a mountain goat with Deepu, one of the men, though I had a hard time keeping up. The young know little fear; that usually is an inheritance of age and long habit.

When we left one hill for the other, the rough path through the forest started rising again, this time without any relent. Before, we had passed village women on the way, with customarily heavy loads of grass and firewood strapped to their backs, exchanging a casual greeting when we crossed. Now, there was no one except for us, and the eyes in the undergrowth that may have been discreetly watching.

On and on we went against gravity, climbing up on tired knees, as the sun dipped lower in mocking descent. And then, just as I - lagging in the rear - was beginning to regret having set off on this little adventure, we crested a rise near the hilltop and reached the skyline again. There it was, just like Puran had said: a simple, one-storied homestead in a clearing set against nowhere, standing in magnificent isolation. We had reached the village of one house. It was almost five in the evening and I felt knackered, but something about that proud dwelling spoke to me.

Puran dispatched Raju the cook to rustle up some hot mugs of tea in the smoky kitchen, while my wife and I struck up a conversation with the old lady who was the owner. She had come as a shy bride many years ago to this house. It had been passed down the generations to her now-late husband; his brothers had bought land in other places near Nainital. She'd become used to living here with just her son, daughter-in-law and the rare visitor for company, tending to the flock of lambs we saw nuzzling the grass and the cows mooing in the shed above. It was the life she knew, and she didn't complain.

Her son would hike every morning down the steep paths to sell milk to the villagers at Syat. By day, he'd be working the field, and watering the crop. And the nights were spent on a machan erected beside it, keeping a watch for any intruding animal. His wife came out briefly, freshly bathed and wearing a magenta salwar suit, her long open hair falling on one side. She carried a platter of flowers, offering them to the gods at an altar built in the open, before looking at us incuriously and getting down to washing the utensils. It was a hard and lonely life, but a quiet dignity clothed these anonymous people. I could sense it in the decorations they had fashioned with care that ran along the eaves of their home.

The fierce barking of a dog interrupted us without warning. Inside an open room, a black Bhotia lay leashed, suckling a lone pup and guarding it with all her will. When I remarked that I had never seen a litter of one before, the old woman laughed and said, neither had she. There must have been something about the place that bred solitude. I asked her where the father was, to which she simply stated, "Bagheera le gaya." Leopards still prowled in the Kumaon foothills, and here was grim evidence. Man and beast, live here in wary alliance to the rhythm of the passing days.

That night, we pitched our tent, a birthday gift from my wife, on an uneven patch of land that served as the family's wheat field in summer. It was pitch dark, the kind of inky blackness that alienates and yet, illuminates. Orion the Hunter, hand outstretched to belt and bow, had made his appearance. So had the silvery 'W' of Cassiopeia, the vain Greek queen, and Pleiades of the Seven Sisters. Puran knew his constellations; having guided us on land by day, he was now navigating us along the sky at night. As luck would have it, a shooting star suddenly arched across the heavens, before vanishing in a defiant blaze. It was the night of December 30, strung out in myth and cloaked in awed whispers. And in that faraway place below the glimmering pinpoints of light, lay the ending of something powerful that I could not quite explain...

Even on journeys where nothing really 'happens', there is something to take away. I'm in no hurry as yet to get back to the Big Top. Maybe, I never will; I really can't say. It is the life I've chosen at present, and I can't complain. This interlude won't last, of course; nothing ever does. But till then, I'll remember that mud and stone house, independent and solitary, on top of the wooded hill. I'll see the fire on the earthen oven, tugging at the darkness all around. I'll hear the stillness of a single pup mewling at its mother's teat, safe for now from the gaze of a leopard.

I'll be a village of one house because sometimes, that's all you need to be.

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About the Author: Uddalak Gupta likes to think he’s a rambler. Born in a small town, he grew up in Kolkata, trained as an architect but became an advertising writer. Based in a suburb of Delhi, he is currently taking a break. He hopes to write someday, and leave the big city.

January 18, 2017

The Blue Sofa

Anirban Sen

He kissed her softly at the doorstep; trailing his lips like a train over hers as her lips expanded into a smile ever so slightly, and he thought this was the saddest kiss in the world.

He could see her shadow on the floor dissolve into nothingness as the sun disappeared and he saw dark clouds looming in the sky through his window. In a few minutes, it was going to rain. The grey old city braced itself for the thunderstorm, ready, as it always had been for three hundred years.

As she walked out of the door she turned to give him a smile. He smiled back, scavenging on the last remnants of glorious evenings and conversations with her, and he knew she would never come back.

In twenty minutes the rain invaded the city. It entered the city surreptitiously, sending little innocuous droplets of spies at first for insidious information. They came like a fine mist, almost harmless and invisible yet teasing the leaves of the trees enough to make them blush and shine.

Rohan stood by the big window lost in thought. He wondered if she would make it to the airport in time in the rain with the heavy traffic at that hour. He wondered if any other man could give so much of himself as he had given to her in every word that he spoke, carved and sculpted out of his erratic mind with unsure letters every time he whispered to her. And he wondered if she had left behind anything.

Sometimes she cried, her tears slowly making their way down her face searching for meaning, meandering through an unknown world where they had suddenly come to life. She always smiled when she cried, bravely fighting the dark clouds of an indecisive relationship; a smile, which inevitably squeezed out a more decisive river, and that for some strange reason warmed his heart.

The first mist of the rain had gone now and the storm announced its arrival with spectacular fireworks that intermittently tore through the clouds with loud crackling voices, and the afternoon turned into night. The drops of rain were bigger now, unabashed and undisguised, splattering on the windowpanes in deep teenage acts of rebellion. The lightning bolts sounded like drums urging the army of raindrops on and slowly the sound of the rain drowned the noise of the city.

The sound of heavy rain is deafening and yet after some time the same deafening drone becomes the sound of deep quiet and calm. Rohan could feel the solitude of his apartment being amplified as he sat on his couch and poured a shot of Glenfiddich. In a couple of hours she would be on a plane to Barcelona where it would surely be sunny and warm, out of reach of the grey history of this old city on the other side of the world.

Sometimes she cried, not because she was unhappy but because she could not find happiness even after scouring every flea market and every alley and at every vicious turn of tenuously long arguments, and she came home dejected and disappointed. The sense of the inevitable future grew bigger and bigger in front of her like a shadow of a tree lengthening itself through the afternoon. A future that was beckoning to her to come and embrace it; a future where he would cast no shadow.

She started to feel the numb icy armour of his aloneness in his vague, steadfast resolve to never leave his hometown and move to a different country. His aloofness to hold her hand and search for any future for the both of them soon began to decay the glint in her eyes into a listless gaze. In that gaze, one night, he knew the end was near.

It was true Rohan didn’t know how to love. He showered affection in many different ways but he had the heart of a vagabond and his soul was adamantly lonely. He lived in a no man’s land, away from governments and policies, away from happiness and unhappiness, away from metaphors and rhyme in a small cabin that had a blue sofa. And there he sat with a remote in hand zapping at the window, changing sceneries. There wasn’t anyone ever who was allowed in that cabin which had one bed whose sheet was crumpled and unwashed and the window had no curtains. She knocked on the door many times but he never let her in, taking her to lovely restaurants instead. He allowed her to exist in the periphery of his abundant mind guarding the main door of his cabin fiercely, almost with fanatic irrationality.

The noise outside his window had swelled into a victorious rapture of endless raindrops. The roads slowly turned into fast flowing mountain streams surprised and excited that they had suddenly come into existence. The water gushed in every direction furious and fast, not searching for meaning, but with an eager urge to explore and discover life with the wild curiosity of a child.

Searching for meaning is useless, these sudden rivers seemed to imply; what only matters is how madly you explored every artery, every vein of your vast life.

Sometimes she cried, but soon she started to cloak her eyes with a red wine blur as she steeled herself, locking herself behind books. She knew that his hand-brushed grey solitude was more precious to him than her bursting green meadow and blue-sky wish to be with him in Barcelona. They were two beings caught in limbo, immobile and frozen for years unable to get out of the shadows into the sunshine.

It rained through the night till it was morning. By the time the sun came out Rohan had finished his bottle of Glenfiddich. The roads outside were now serpentine tributaries and people waded through them with trousers rolled to their knees. Cars were stuck in the middle of roads, trees had fallen and the scars of a battle were being tended to with urgency as the city announced with bugles and trumpets that Ghenghiz Khan had plundered and gone and yet did not win the skirmish in the end. And yet the people scowled.

Sometimes she cried but this time she just smiled when she walked out of the door. The smile had no teardrops. A smile with no teardrops is the saddest smile in the world.

Rohan got up from his couch and looked at the floor. And this was when he realized she had left something behind. As she was leaving, the clouds had dissolved her shadow; and caught up in the lifelessness of her smile, she had forgotten to fold the shadow into her handbag and take it with her. There it was on the floor, right beside the blue sofa that overlooked the curtainless window, on the dusty wooden planks of the cabin, alive and unwavering.

Slowly, he turned the blue sofa away from the window towards the shadow on the floor and sat down and gazed endearingly at it. It started from the main door where she stood for the last time, right at the point from where she was never allowed to enter the room, till the very edge of the weather-beaten blue sofa.

It was like a stain, a memory that would be impossible to erase. And inside this timelessness played the faint sound of a defeat of many untarnished years of sadness that was forever dressed to go to party wearing masks of many different smiles.

She had left her shadow behind. Neatly pressed and stretched out, ready to be packed.

The sun was blazing and it was getting too bright outside. And, for the first time in his entire life, he yearned for curtains.

About the author: Anirban Sen likes Jim Beam at the end of the day. Before that time comes, he does what he does well – advertising. He has a Cannes for Happydent. He enjoys traveling, scouring forests and trekking on mountains. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, while with a Jim Beam, he writes stories.