Elder

Each month they get more frail,

the elders I know.

Shining for the hour of the visit

in pride and love, in gracious conversation,

to retire wearily

to the mattress pressed into a cradle

by overlong afternoon naps.

 

My father can’t see well

Mother’s haunted by overripe fruit in all she smells

My aunt, by her husband recently gone, the walls of home get her down.

An uncle is all bones, he’s lost his sporting form…

And another who simply wishes to die:

 

At lunch, his brown hands large as plates, like tree trunks lined and veined

cup the air laxly as it rains, sudden and heavy, outside.

 

A word stirs him. The name of the town he grew up in

hails a storm of stories from childhood and youth.

He tells of wise doctors who healed the poor,

trees laden with purple fruit,

men of true grain who built palaces

and sired strong sons and daughters

whose laughter echoes in the courtyards

of a verdant heart.

 

Purple and green, warm things,

lost to him whose days call up a death-like sleep;

and spirit, huddled in its skeletal crib,

docks at this last stop, lonely.

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Bluebells in Summer

A couple of years ago, I came upon a new outlet of Just Books. I paused on the pavement, holding the news of the arrival of a local library close. Through the glass front I watched the librarian quietly sift through the books that were in cartons and arrange them on the shelves, and recalled how, a summer thirty years ago, my friends and I started a library.

We loved to read as much as we loved playing outdoors, so we pooled our books, and led by the oldest – Anu, 14 years old and gregarious – lined our much-thumbed-through Amar Chitra Katha, Phantom and Tarzan comics, and Enid Blyton series along old racks in Meera’s garage. Meera lived in number 46, while the rest of us lived in houses across from hers on second cross lane, Vasant Nagar. Our city was called Bangalore, green and serene, less city and more town-like in those days.

Meera was a soft-spoken girl, so dear to her father’s heart that he parked his car on the street outside and gave us the use of his garage.

We named it Bluebells Library. How could we not, when books like The Faraway Tree and Adventures of Mister Pinkwhistle were as much part of our daily fare as sambaar-rice! The image of blue, bell-shaped flowers, blossoming along cool, wooded paths, danced in our oily crew-cut or pig-tailed heads in the tropical heat of Bangalore.

Word got around and our friends (and their friends) trooped into Bluebells Library. We took turns to be the librarian – suggesting books, issuing and making a note of them in a ruled register and collecting payments of 50 paise per book. The long summer days became purposeful. Shifting from being a reader to becoming a provider of story magic was terribly exciting. We did our duty as the local librarians officiously … perhaps too much so, for the day 10-year-old Balaji decided to take his favourite comics back home, a fight broke out.

What started with Anu ordering him to keep them right back became a scuffle in the hallowed space between the bookshelves. Balaji yanked Anu’s long braid and she grabbed a fistful of his summer mop. They pulled and yelled. Someone fetched Balaji’s sister, Ranju, who came charging in to drag him away from the fight. But then Balaji’s precious wristwatch fell to the floor and its glass broke. We stood by, stunned and sorry, as, sobbing, he retrieved all his books from the shelves and trudged back home.

While the rest of us had stood watching the fight, Meera had slipped indoors. Shaken, she refused to come out for the rest of the afternoon. We received orders to dismantle the shelves of Bluebells Library. The space that had crackled with books, chatter and the clink of 50p coins, became a drab green-walled garage again.

We talked about starting another library, but where? Meera’s father had been the only parent willing and able to spare the space. Our own grandfather was a doctor who ran his private practice out of the garage, his little growly Standard Ten car parked in the lane outside. We returned to playing Hide-n-Seek and Lock-n-Key for the rest of the summer.

As teenagers, the girls among us contented ourselves with a lending library a few lanes away in busy Vasant Nagar market. We’d sigh over the ‘T.D.H’ heroes of Mills & Boon romances, not quite able to imagine exactly how tall, dark and handsome the brooding heroes actually were. We ran through Jeffrey Archers and Sidney Sheldons. The librarian was an indifferent woman who didn’t meet our eyes and left us to forage through her common fare on our own.

A library is not business-as-usual. It is a space to indulge the community’s love for stories through sharing and (quiet) conversation. It’s about the availability of worlds to explore and lose yourself in. We all had access to school libraries of course, but these were part of school and rules like ‘if-you’re-caught-talking-you-don’t-get-a-book’ … so, not much fun.

We grew up. Meera continued to live in Number 46, renovating the house and raising her children there; Anu, Balaji and Sriram moved abroad to live and work; Adithi moved to north Bengaluru. She and I became authors. We wrote a collection of short stories called Growing Up in Pandupur, etching in incidents and spaces of our childhood in Vasant Nagar…

Balaji’s older sister Ranju featured as ‘Thangi’ in many of my stories. She was the perfect heroine – bold, spontaenous and often in trouble! Ranju would attempt to climb impossible trees and walls, grazing and bruising herself in unlikely places. She’d run pell mell, barefoot, down the street on errands for her grandmother. Our houses shared a compound wall, so she’d be sitting on it at 7 am, teeth not brushed, hair uncombed, impish grin in place. She’d call our names till Adithi and I got out of bed and wandered sleepily over to listen to her plans for a long day of adventure.

Stories about Thangi/ Ranju have found their way to school library bookshelves, and even to some local lending libraries. Just as well. Ranju, who lovingly ran a nursery school in a town in Kerala, lost her life to cancer last year. We found out through an announcement on her Facebook page. It jolted the rest of us into reaching out. Over phone, email and visits we communicated grief at her loss, rued our distance over the years and recalled the happy summers of our childhood. In every conversation, Bluebells Library featured. We laughed over the scuffle between Anu and Balaji and worried about how he was coping.

Ranju’s leaving cast a pall over my memories. Those summers don’t seem like they were only about climbing up the Faraway Tree or spying out invisible Mr. Pinkwhistle. I see now that in our gardens red hibiscus, not satiny-cool bluebells, grew.

That tiny outlet of Just Books in Lokhandwala shut down barely a year after it opened. When I sent them an email asking, naively, for it to come back, their Customer Care rep wrote – Mumbai has its challenges of extremely high real estate costs which sometimes a small library chain like ours cannot afford 🙂

I know. I just needed to ask one time …

Books haven’t left my life. I continue to buy for my own bookshelf and browse among my friends’ books. I’m certain my childhood friends have gone on to discover great stories in others’ collections and to dispense story-magic in their turn. Perhaps they take their children to the local library on Sunday afternoons.

In each book lover lingers a librarian and a member. The space for books shrinks but we continue to share and to savour.

What a reader felt

Like all writers, for a time I live in the world I’ve created, in close proximity with the characters who inhabit it. But once written and published, I long to know if the story resonates with readers.

A young school teacher in Hyderabad read A Blueprint for Love and reached out to me on email soon after. She said she’d experienced the emotional truth of the story… in her dreams. I am moved and grateful to her for writing in. Sharing her email here –

Dear Chatura,

Often, when i read a book, i try to, at the end of it, write my thoughts and impressions about it and note down quotes that moved me. i did the same with ‘A Blueprint for Love’ and felt like i could share it with you.

January 2017

A BLUEPRINT OF LOVE by CHATURA RAO (2016)

Vivek let me borrow this book. I saw it lying on his fridge, amidst the chaos and dust of a home in the middle of renovation, it stood out in the splash of blue that the cover page held. From the very first page, an email exchange, there was an easy connect to the writing; probably because I love writing letters and I know very few people who write emails to share lives and news. And as the story slowly unfolded it’s many layers of bondage, love, loss, stubborn emotions, an unwillingness to let go and an almost instinctive and in that, instant making and breaking of relationships…it was too close to reality. Each character seemed full of life…like they could actually exist, these are characters that could be walking by and with us, outside the pages of this story. No character felt incomplete or tangentially surprising in their thoughts and actions.

The trauma of being the target of an attack…an attack motivated and driven by a sense of belongingness to a certain community, a certain god and in being so, finding all else alienating and maybe even threatening… the very idea of it seems so far away from my reality. Of course I read about incidents as these happening in the papers, but I feel so isolated and in a way immune from it all for the lack of personal exposure and experience. I can’t remember ever being made to feel different owing to my religious or communal identity…but then again, I have never felt a sense of belongingness to either of these identities.

And yet, the story stayed with me long enough to creep it’s way into my dreams. I dreamt of a very well-lit bedroom with minimal furniture and a very simple print bed spread. I was sitting at the edge of it with a friend. The emotion being of anger, fear, anxiety and deep sadness. D had decided he was going to join the rebellion, train to use arms and ammunition and fight the ‘other’ in an attempt to find justice. I woke up with the memory of the intensity of the chaos of the emotions I felt at having a loved one walk into the path of violent rebellion. And suddenly, in that moment, all of it did not feel so far away from my existence and reality.

Real people and real lives stand proof to this story. And that is at once the merit and also the heart-wrecking reality of the book.

The quotes I liked –

“For Reva even now the house was like a cupboard that wouldn’t close. She tried to spring-clean her memories, with a light heart whenever possible, arranging the odds and ends, patting them down and shutting firmly, the old doors. She would wedge remembered conversations like folded pieces of paper between them. Yet, ragtag shadows and sounds spilt out. Impressions that were nearly three decades old still called to her…in her bed next to Tarun, sometimes travelling on a local train, or sitting on a beach in Mumbai, the city she now called home.”

“Your task is not to seek love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it”, Rumi.

“On a quieter lane of the main road, the three came to the gate of an old two bedroom cottage with flowering hedges and a mango tree in the front yard. The front door, set a couple of steps up, was open. A woman in her early sixties came out. She was lean, her skin was ruddy and lined like the complexion of most women of this region. Her hair was grey, short wisps escaped from the neat bun at her nape. From her earlobes hung traditional silver hoops. She wore a lightly printed cotton sari and a smile that reached her eyes.”

🙂

love, ankita

 

Feb’s grace

An armless aging man
boards the Ladies’ at Mahim.
At the familiar sight
of a beggar in the aisle
women stir, their eyes drawn
to the bluntness of his arms.

Someone must have draped his lungi,
buttoned the shirt well-worn,
placed the skull cap, shifted
the collection bag strap
for tolerable comfort…

His feet stop by each – she dips into her wallet,
reccine worn or shiny new,
gives what she can to lend a hand.

The beggar presses his right stump
to her head
imprinting the blessing of her choice:
good marks in the child’s exams,
a salary raise,
but most of all, most of all
may her man be gentle in his ways.

I alight at Wadala station,
the train will carry on –
peopled by the grace of strangers
that live in this city of sound.

Photo courtesy Vibha Ravi

Of Three Eggs and a Sports Bra

“Who are these girls?” asks Shenaiya, shifting her weight from one foot to the next. She’s at ease on the sands of Juhu beach where she runs every day. It’s 7:30am on a Sunday in December. You feel like you could breathe ribbons of soft pink cloud in, and breathe out the mauve sky.

Shenaiya is tall for a girl of 12. She’s wiry strong in her black tracks and fluorescent yellow T, hair scrubbed back into a ponytail. The spring in her stride when she walks is replicated in a manner that’s friendly and childlike. Openly curious, she throws an arm in the girls’ direction. “Why are they here?” Shen and a 15 year-old fellow athlete, Pratya, have just taken these two girls – Lakshmi and Rupali – through warm-up exercises on the behest of their coach.

The coach looks tired. He’s arrived from an overnight trip to a different city, where he went to bury his grandfather. His wife is sick at home, and once he’s attended to her, he must rush to South Mumbai to monitor his athletes who are competing at races there today. He’ll probably have to skip breakfast in order to advice Lakshmi and Rupali on how to run this marathon. The girls tell him that they run four rounds of a 300m track at their local park in Dadar every morning and he understands that preparing them to run 21 kms in a span of a month is a task for the foolhardy. He braces himself for it.

He writes down in their notebook, ‘Monday, Wednesday, Friday’. And below that, ‘3 kms. Write down the exact time taken.’

“Run 1.5 kms one way and 1.5 kms back on a stretch of road, three times this week,” he instructs. “Start small. Run slow. Don’t hurt yourself.”

He writes down a low cost diet plan for their mentor, Deepali, to see to. Three eggs for the mornings they run 3 kms, is the first item on this menu.

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The girls are to report to him for training the coming Saturday. He says they will have to build up to 15 kms in the next month in order to run 21 kms at the marathon, injury-free. His main concern is that they not get injured by their marathon stint. The girls are sent away to learn exercises from Shenaiya and Pratya, after which Shenaiya returns to ask who these girls are.

“They are from a group… that takes care of girls,” I explain vaguely, aware that Lakshmi, Rupali and Deepali share our circle, listening.

What words do I use to tell Shenaiya and Pratya, both much-loved children from privileged homes, that Rupali and Lakshmi, barely 6 years older than them, are homeless?

Rupali is from a town near Sholapur in Maharashtra. After her mother, a flower-seller, died, her alcoholic father and other family members abandoned her. Lakshmi is from Chhatisgarh. Her reticence finds its source in severe abuse. Her family is untraceable. They have not reported her missing although she boarded a train for Mumbai two years ago.

Both girls are running the 21 km half-marathon to raise money and awareness for Urja Trust, an NGO that takes care of them. Urja gives them shelter, food and the opportunity to pick up the pieces. They’ve arranged for jobs – Rupali works at Faaso’s and Lakshmi at Ammi’s Biryani outlets – and for night school. The girls are studying in the 9th and 10th standards.

“So…” Shenaiya says, innocuously, looking over to her friend with a grin, “Shall we go there and be taken care of, too?”

“I have my mother to do that,” her friend mumbles back. The girls step aside and make plans to see a late morning show of ‘Mockingjay-2’ where Katniss Everdeen will lead a class revolt against President Snow, for the poor of her country. Her bow and arrow and severe demeanor will bring tears to our girls’ eyes and a fight into their hearts.

For girls like Lakshmi and Rupali who don’t have Katniss Everdeen, nor a mother close by to take care of them, other men and women must step forward.

A week ago, they took the day off from work to make a trip to a small, spotlessly clean apartment in Four Bungalows, Andheri West. There, a 39-year-old scientist in pyjamas and a T, greeted them in cheerful Marathi. She’d volunteered to give them tips to run the marathon. Madhuri is a molecular biologist who lives in Germany. She’s run half-marathons in Germany and the U.S. Like many Non-Resident Indians, she’s visiting her home in Mumbai this December.

A few minutes into the conversation, Madhuri realises that Rupali is answering questions she’d addressed to Lakshmi. “Don’t you speak Marathi?” she asks Lakshmi. Lakshmi shakes her head.

Madhuri switches to Hindi as easily as she’d welcomed the awkward, taciturn girls into her home. Sanjivani, the social worker who’s accompanied them, explains their bare workout and Madhuri goes to fetch their shoes that had been left outside her door. Both pairs, she finds, are literally, down-at-heel.

She demonstrates warm-up and stretching, her toddler patting her stomach and pulling at her hair as soon as she’s crouched or lain low enough for him to reach.

“Run slowly,” she advises the girls. “There’s no hurry. Don’t hurt yourself.”

Madhuri’s mother bustles in with tea and biscuits and advises everyone to shut up for a while and drink the chai hot. “There is no substitute for food to the stomach to give you some energy to talk,” she says with a piercing look at her talkative daughter. Madhuri grins and gratefully picks up a cup of the steaming brew.

Then Madhuri asks the girls if they have sports bras. The girls look blankly back. “Twenty one kilometres is a long way to run,” she says. “Your breasts will hurt if you don’t wear a good bra.” She darts into her bedroom and emerges with two, handing one to each girl. “I’ve barely used these. I kept them aside this morning for you. If you’re training on alternate days, you could wash and dry them before the next session.”

Sanjivani and the girls look at her in wonderment. Her generosity lies, not in parting with her sports bras, but really in having thought about something so essential and yet easy to overlook.

Madhuri sends them away, her baby firmly on her hip, with a promise to replace the down-at-heel shoes, but also with a bit of advice that perhaps most of us could have used at Lakshmi and Rupali’s age – “When I was 20 years old, I thought everyone around me knew so much. But now I understand that however old we get, we’re all quite confused in life. So be easy with who you are.”

“And when you go for the marathon, don’t be shy or scared at all!”

Lakshmi and Rupali’s lives are documented as case studies in a file at the shelter home office. Phrases and adjectives enumerate abuse and abandonment. But strangers care, sometimes. Start small, they might say… Go slow and don’t hurt yourself. And they might offer you an avalanche of love in the act of handing you a sports bra or prescribing three eggs, for your journey to a distant finish line.

 

Story of Smells

Credit: Pure Chess PS4 teaser trailerOnce upon a time there was a planet that was ruled by three gods with a monkey for a secretary. The place was vast, with plenty of rolling hills and valleys, fields and rivers, trees and plants and animals. A lot like our earth. Our earth, in fact, but ten thousand years ago.

The three gods who ruled the land worked as farmers. You’re probably thinking, gods don’t work, they just solve people’s problems (if they feel like and if you’ve made a nice food offering). But that’s nowadays. Ten thousand years ago, after the gods of old had fought and wiped out evil, the ones left on earth became farmers.

They planted vast tracts of land with good sound crop like potatoes, rice, cabbage and beans. They grew tough and hardy plants and trees which would survive the violent prehistoric storms.

These farmer-gods had no use for fruit like leechi or flowers like sweet pea which are merely tasty or smell pretty. They planted only things that when you ate, built muscular and physical strength. This is because the gods were the mighty warrior gods of old. Their names were Zeus, Osiris and Kali, and in their young days they had fought many other mighty warriors from our earth and the skies, in order to gain control over this fertile and beautiful land.

Of the three ruling gods, Zeus was Greek. He always wore white and was the god of light and skies. Osiris was the god who had conquered death and carried a scary and impressive scepter, a carved staff which has magical powers. Kali was a fearsome female goddess with a chain of human skulls around her neck and a red tongue that lolled out all the time she was awake. Actually these three gods had ruled the earth so long together that they had become quite alike in the way they looked and behaved. They were all inflexible, didn’t have a sense of fun, and were wrinkled like old people, although still powerful and not balding a bit. Only Osiris had a trace of baldness which he secretly worried about.

I mentioned a monkey in the opening line of this story. The monkey that served them like a sort of secretary, had never seen a war. He was young (about a hundred years old but that’s young as compared to a god’s age) and an intellectual. You know what that is? An ‘intellectual’ likes to read about and understand things. A bit like you.

The monkey’s name was Manny. He was taller and less hairy than any monkey you must have seen. And he wore magnifying glasses fixed into spectacle frames, because he liked to see the words on a page in giant size. If he did not, then his masters who liked to give orders, would interrupt his thoughts all the time and Manny would never be able to get his reading done.

The only thing that he liked as much as he liked reading, was farming. Manny liked to grow things, although these days he was bored with planting potatoes and rice and wheat, having done the same planting every crop cycle for about eighty five years.

One afternoon when the gods were busy at their siesta and the monkeys who worked for them were also dozing in the trees and haystacks, Manny came upon a strange word: ‘redolence’. The sentence read this way – ‘The redolence of sandalwood made the king remember his beloved queen.’ This whole sentence was unusual; in fact this whole book was unusual, because the only books that were available explained the art of war and how to grow food, make useful pots and weave clothes and baskets. Yes, boring. The gods approved of these topics, because things like love and flowers, fine clothes, jewellery, and painting had given rise, they felt, to greed and jealousy. These had led to the wars on Earth.

This line about a king and his beloved was in a book called ‘Love Story’, which a frog had discovered at the bottom of a disused well. He had found it and humbly submitted it to Manny, not knowing how to read himself. Half the pages of the book were green with rot, but still Manny read what he could, so much did he love reading.

There were not many words that the monkey did not understand, he was in fact making a list of words and their meanings. He thought long and hard about ‘redolence’ and its possible meanings. He decided to ask Zeus.

Zeus was the mildest of the three gods who were his masters. Despite that, Zeus was not the kind of guy you’d go to for a simple chat or even to ask the meaning of something. He lived in the sky, floating along in a permanent cloud castle. He was writing a book of memoirs, that is an account of his life so far. It was already a huge book and was going to get even more staggering by the time Zeus finished. Manny, however, could not wait to get his hands on it. He wanted to know all the juicy bits about Zeus’ life that had been kept hidden so far. He was sure that Zeus would write it all down, seeing as he told nobody about it and everybody needs to tell their secrets to somebody.

“Zeus, Mighty God of the Heavens, forgive me for interrupting, but what is the meaning of redolence?” Manny asked, his voice shaking. Zeus had an awful temper. Zeus frowned and clouds gathered above the earth. His eyebrows bristled, and the clouds immediately became black and heavy. A cold wind rose. Manny trembled so much he thought his tail would fall off.

“It means ‘smell’,” Zeus replied in Greek. “Get my other toga ironed and get me a new nib for my pen.” Manny scurried off, glad that his tail (and the planet) would live to see another day.

Zeus read a page of what he had recently written in his book. He smiled. The sun zipped out from behind the clouds and the sky turned bright blue.

Manny went back to his favorite tree, an old oak, and pondered this. “The redolence of sandalwood made the king remember his beloved queen”. Can a particular smell make you remember somebody? The monkey tried to remember his mother. She had gone to the regions of the netherworld about ten years earlier. Died, I mean. Much as he tried, he could not really remember her sweet hairy face. She had been the nicest lady monkey, but he could not remember her clearly. His memory was stuck like a hung computer. It made him sad and frustrated. As night fell, in his desperation he hit upon an idea.

At new moon when the sky was dark, Osiris, the Egyptian god of the underworld, walked the face of the earth. Osiris’ soldiers stand guard at the river that you have to cross to enter the netherworld. So he’s in charge of who goes in and out. At new moon Osiris came above ground and hunted large animals if he had a mind for meat, or he caught up on the gossip of the world with Zeus and Kali, whoever was awake. Tonight neither was, so Osiris was sitting by himself in a grove of banyan trees.

“Great Osiris, O Great Osiris, psst!” Manny whispered from behind a tree. He had been spying on the lean, dark god for three hours now, and his cramped legs gave him the courage to speak.

“Who dares interrupt a God’s game?” Osiris hissed. The head of his sceptre turned into that of a huge serpent. The birds in the grove bundled up their sleeping babies and crept away to other groves. Osiris had been playing chess by himself, playing both sides in turn. He’d been playing the same game for two thousand nights now, and neither side had won, so he was understandably cranky.

“I will put iron weights on your ankles, you who disturb me and prolong my game!”

Manny plucked up every last bit of courage and stumbled forward. “Osiris sir, if I might, the black king goes there, and the white pawn here. Black side checkmates white and in the next move, finito, khattam, auf wiedersehen, game!”

“Eye of Ra! Why didn’t I think of it?” Osiris scratched his balding head. A school of spiders ran out of his hair and down his neck. “I can finally start a new game. What do you wish to ask of me, monkey?”

“The impossible sir, and yet I know only you can grant it.”

“Yes, I can indeed grant things that old Zeus and Kali cannot,” Osiris sniffed. The netherworld is a lonely place and the gods that guard it are not your friendly neighbourhood types.

“I want to see my mother,” Manny said boldly.

“She is on the other side of the dark river, so no. And don’t ask again. I have no time for idiotic requests,” Osiris said coldly.

“I want to smell her, then,” the monkey said quickly.

Osiris frowned irritably, and a tree in the grove that he sat in, wilted and slipped to the ground.

“I helped you finish the game,” Manny fearfully reminded him.

“That is true. I am not an ungrateful god, so I will summon your mother’s smell from the underworld. Just for a second. Enjoy. (aside) Monkeys. Quite crazy. Possibly dangerous. Must ask Zeus to write down the description so other gods can be more careful.”

Then he waved his skinny black arms slowly in the direction of the ground. His fingers wiggled and a fragrance wafted up into the air above the ground. Manny took a deep breath and WHAM! a picture of his loving mother slapped him between the eyes. Clear as day even on a dark moonless night. She did indeed have the best smile in the world. Besides she had been doing something interesting that Monkey had all but forgotten since she had passed over. It was the smell that made him remember.

Mother Monkey, Mira, had been cultivating something amazing before she died. Something small, black, round. Something that had a sharp smell that poked your nose like a stick, if you sniffed it too closely. It made you sneeze, it made your eyes water. It did not build muscular strength. It just made food really interesting. Pepper!

Manny thought long and hard in the days that followed. His mother had frozen and stored the seeds in the Arctic Circle. The seeds of all ‘useless’ plants had been stowed away there by Diana the moon god and Dionysus the wine god before they left Earth. Zeus and his ilk thought these plants too useless to even bother to destroy their seeds. Now Manny was determined to revive pepper. It would recall his mother’s face whenever he wanted to see it. And would make the potatoes taste decent. He could not do it without the support of atleast one god. But who?

“Lya lya lya lyah!” Manny heard a voice go. The squirrels and other small animals huddled closer to each other in their beds. It was Kali singing, very early in the morning. So early it was still dark. That was her favorite hour.

“Ma!” Manny pleaded after he had lain at her feet and groveled at her huge black toes during which time she polished her gleaming silver knives and continued to sing with her tongue out.

“I want to plant pepper. Please. It is for your greater glory.”

“My glory needs no greatifying,” Kali said, rolling her eyes at Manny’s stupidity.

“Your grammar sure needs help,” Manny said… to his own horror, aloud.

“WHAT DID YOU SAY?” Kali boomed. She brandished her favourite knife and furiously lolled her tongue.

“Pepper!” Manny yelled desperately as the sharp blade nudged his throat. “It will recall you to everybody who smells it, every time they use it in their cooking, each time it touches their tongue! Easy recall. You are Kali, mother of the world, and pepper is… is Kali Mirch, your own special Black Chilli. It’ll greatify your power. Betterfy you over Zeus and Osiris!”

“Hmm. Oo lya lyah,” the god was calmed by Manny’s idea. It addressed a certain need that Manny was not aware of. You see Kali is a warrior god who commands a fearsome army. Her troops had been hanging around in Africa for a thousand years now, living like nomads, and they were restless, spoiling for a fight. Pepper might be the answer, thought Kali. She too was sick of peace. The days and nights stretched endlessly before her. Peace. Ho hum humdrum. She would use pepper to bait Osiris and Zeus into a war situation.

Kali gave him her blessings and Manny began skillfully to plant pepper. Soon other monkeys were also cultivating small patches. One breezy day, Zeus in his cloud castle sniffed the air. Interesting smell, he thought. Sharp. And when he trained his thoughts to the smell, Zeus realised that treason was afoot. The food laws had been broken, and Kali was behind it.

He called an emergency meeting with Osiris that night. Manny was there to serve them food and beverages. He had made bean and potato sandwiches with a thick layer of mustard paste. They were served with hot coffee. The gods were hooked. They hadn’t had mustard and coffee in centuries and oh how these things teased their noses and played with their palates. These tastes made them recall other gods they had feasted with, laughed with, fought with, and loved.

‘Redolence’ had them so hard by the nose, they could not escape it. Still the gods could not ignore their own laws or even change them immediately, so they staged a few wars over spices and smells. A hundred years of mock fighting passed. Then, over gulps of ginger tea and mouthfuls of peppery pakodas, Zeus, Kali and Osiris drew up new food laws and a fresh peace accord. “To tastier times,” they toasted.

According to the new laws, Manny and the monkeys could plant whatever would grow on Earth. The food with the best smells you had to offer to the gods first to taste and enjoy. After that you’d be free to plant on, sniff on, feast on!

Those are the laws that Manny passed on to our generation. If you want to confirm them, go to a library and look up a big book called Manny-smriti. The story is all there, all true. Just made more interesting with a smattering of spice. Pepper, if you want to be specific, Manny’s favourite.

The Actor

The morning before the family wedding, I was at my post monitoring our outstation guests at the hotel. I knocked on various doors to ask after their comfort.

‘Did you get hot water to bathe, this morning?’

‘Amrita mami, will you need a car to ferry you to breakfast at the house? Your knee seems pretty painful…’

An unknocked-upon door in the hotel corridor opened at some point in my vigil, and a man wearing spectacles came out. He stared at me as I passed him. He seemed to recognize me.

Much later in the day Papa asked me to check on the occupant of room number 108. Turned out he was Omprakash jijaji, a cousin sister’s husband, who’d come alone for the wedding. The hotel receptionist said he’d gone out that morning and hadn’t come back as yet.

Omprakash jijaji loafed around the ghats and temples of the holy city for two more hours before he allowed himself to be spotted at the paan shop outside our house. His ‘errant behaviour’(disappearing all morning and indeed, paying for his own food at the hotel!) was, I was told, his way of formally protesting the lack of personal attention. Traditionally the sons-in-law of north Indian households are entertained with conversation, company, compliments and most important, constant feeding! But somehow, Omprakash did not receive enough of the above from his wife’s family and so had made himself noticeably scarce.

At any rate, once found, he was brought home and ensconced in the living room with a cup of tea and plates of wedding sweets and namkeens. Then he was pressed upon to accept an envelope containing cash reimbursement of his hotel food bills.

‘Why didn’t you join the rest of the family group?’ Mummy was asking him. ‘You must behave like the other sons-in-law of the family. Be comfortable. Fit right in! Look at Krishnakant over there…’

Krishnakant is a fifty-two-year-old man from Bhubaneshwar, middle-class and shy, with a great affection for local politics although he never would stand for election himself. He is indeed one of the best fits that the family has as sons-in-law go. He came a week in advance of the wedding and helped out more than anybody. Now he sat on the neighbouring couch, dark, moustached and looking expressionlessly, almost nobly, at the wall as Omprakash jijaji turned his curious, bespectacled eyes on him.

This was the sight that met me when I entered the living room that where the two sons-in-law were seated. ‘Will someone go sit with Omprakash?’ Papa had come tiredly into the bedroom where I was sitting to make the request. Omprakash jijaji, in the living room drinking his tea, was to be chatted with lest he feel slighted and take off again.

‘Namaste jijaji!’ I announced cheerfully at Omprakash. The hair flattened across his scalp, I noticed, was oiled and henna red. I didn’t greet Krishnakant jijaji, who had faded into the furniture as usual. Now as I plonked myself on the sofa next to the needing-to-be-pampered guest, I was treated to a happy look from the fat man. He’d just pocketed the envelope he’d been pressed to.

‘I know you,’ he said with a superior smile. ‘I recognized you in the hotel corridor. Though you didn’t recognize me, I recognized you.’

I apologized. I asked after the health and doings of his family. I asked what line of work he was in presently. He said that he ran a small investment broking service in Ranchi.

Then, with nothing left to ask or tell, I opened a magazine I happened to be carrying, and showed him an article about a member of the family who was featured there. Anurag often graces the pages of film glossies. This is something the immediate family, who live and work in Mumbai, are pretty used to. We barely bother to read about our famous brother anymore. But Omprakash jijaji took up the magazine with interest and began to hold forth on each of the films this director-son of the family has made.

‘Vulgar’.

‘Quite boring’.

‘Where does he get such strange ideas from? Perhaps walking down the street he might see someone smoking and that gives him an idea…’

I nodded through his monologue, his insistence on personally interpreting each film. All the while he was leafing through the magazine he’d placed on the table in front of him. While he spoke, guests arrived and left the living room. They each joined in the conversation or started new trains of thought. But these were left chugging in the corners as Omprakash jijaji discussed every film, in chronological order, his way. Krishnakant was silent. Whether he was listening I could not tell. My mind must have gotten onto one of the other trains just about then, because all I remember is the print on the cushion cover across from me. Then suddenly a voice broke in.

‘Yes, I would think that it must be hard to get actors to act.’

Omprakash and I turned to look at Krishnakant. ‘I have acted, myself, you know…’ Krishnakant jijaji from his corner was leaning forward a little. He was self-conscious and spoke almost in an undertone.

‘How’s that?’ Omprakash asked drily. ‘You’re not from Mumbai, are you?’

But Krishnakant has acted, a fact I had quite forgotten. Five years ago, the director son, assisting Mani Ratnam on the film Yuva, met up with Krishnakant jijaji in Kolkata. The scene that was being shot needed a politician’s henchman to offer some advice to his boss. Now Krishnakant, having come on the sets that day, was affectionately cajoled into playing that role.

‘Yes that’s true!’ I said, nodding to a skeptical Omprakash. ‘He has acted.’

‘My heart was beating so hard! I was so nervous at first…’ Krishnakant said.

‘Yes,’ Omprakash jijaji put in, now a little hesitant. ‘I’d have been nervous too. If I’d had the chance…’

‘When all the lights came on, I felt so hot I started to sweat. It’s uncomfortable being under the lights.’

‘But when the director said ‘action!’ I said my line: Dada!’ his voice went rough and deep. ‘Michael ko aaj ki tareekh mein chu nahin sakte. Bawaal ho jayega!’

Somehow the bustling household had stilled to listen. Loquacious Omprakash sat as if stunned. Krishnakant’s knuckles rapped on the table and jerked outward. ‘Akhbaar ke pehle panne ki khabar hai woh!’

Krishnakant’s acting lines were no pussycat’s purr, and he said them like a lion: ‘Brother, nobody can touch Michael in this day and age. Such an action would cause a calamity! The man is front-page news!’ Words of weight, and the actor, even five years down, had not forgotten a single inflection.

In the film, Krishnakant, a dark shadow, stands by a wall opposite the chair on which the star character actor, a towel about his head, sits inhaling steam. Krishnakant leans forward very slightly, respectfully, since he is about to offer his boss some advice. Then, he speaks.

‘I am ready,’ Krishnakant said to us in the living room that day, his voice lowered now, the words slow, ‘to act again, anytime. Now I know I can act.’

‘If only I could have such a chance,’ Omprakash muttered. He fell silent.

I was quiet, too, silenced by the story that had snuck up on me. Krishnakant’s life had been ordinary, punctuated by failure rather than success. He hadn’t prospered in his career as a small-time machine parts contractor in slow-moving, underdeveloped Orissa. Over the years we had learnt to “hmm” and “haan” convincingly at the family’s explanations for his work troubles. And he had become increasingly quiet in the company of his wife’s family, even us English-educated upstarts from Mumbai.

I had forgotten in all this, that Krishnakant had indeed acted in a multi-starrer. His face and voice were imprinted on magical celluloid. A million people must have heard his deep-throated advice to let Michael go, his proclamation of the ‘bawaal’ that would arise if Michael was attacked. In darkened cinema halls across the country, for some moments the audience had given his unremarkable visage their complete attention.

The after light of his moment in the sun was held now in his hooded eyes, in the dim corner of the living room where we sat. His story, that had leaped into a brief, keen brilliance five years ago, has for him stayed as starkly lit… Somewhat like an enchanting film playing in a dark cinema hall: just one show in an entire lifetime, but a show like no other.

(First appeared in Penguin First Proof long ago)