Saturday, December 25, 2010

Daffodils & Dandelions

Tara stood outside the glossy glass door for a moment, not sure if she was to follow Latika Didi or not. This was the first time the whole family had taken her to a fancy restaurant. 

She watched Latika sashay ahead, then followed Latika Didi’s Mummy ji and Daddy ji. Som bhaiyya was the last one to enter and he held the door for Tara. This was her sign to propel the pram with the twins and join them inside.

Tara had worn a blue Salwar-Kameez. She thought she looked nice yet she felt so out of place here. It surely didn’t have anything to do with her clothes.

Three days back she was asked to go and get vegetables from the nearby market. It wasn’t her job. She wasn’t here as a domestic help. Her job was to take care of the twins. That was the deal between her mother and Mummy Ji.  “Self-respect, my foot!” is what her mother would have said too. So she went to buy the vegetables.

Many men eyed her that day in the market. She could feel a million eyes devouring her. She knew what they wanted and why. The openly flouted cross border flesh-trade between India and Nepal had left little for the imagination.

Tara went inside the restaurant and took the corner seat. There was space for the pram and she wouldn’t be in the way of anybody. 

No one asked her what she wanted to eat. Mummy ji enquired, “Did you eat before we left home”? She didn’t know she had to. She said, “No”. A glance was exchanged between Mummy ji and Latika Didi. “Just order extra na, she will have from that”, Didi sanctioned.

Tara smiled at Didi and Latika smiled back.

Latika was a happy go lucky, rich kid. The only condition she had put forth for further studies was that the university had to be either in the US or UK. Finally Leeds is where destiny lead her to. There she met Som Shreshtha and then began a love story that had over a while progressed into a fulltime family drama. She landed up at her parents’ house in Delhi one month after she delivered twin baby girls along with their twin British Passports. If she had to work at it, she wasn’t going to be alone. Som visited once in every four months. It burnt crisp holes on his pocket but who cared.

Mummy Ji and Papa Ji knew this would happen. Latika was the tender Daffodil they had raised who found it difficult to function without help. They had bumped into Tara’s mother who worked with a Travel Agency in Tawang, on their trip to the north-east. "Must see Arunachal Pradesh before excessive tourism spoils it or the Chinese want it for themselves", was the general buzz in the tourism circuit. A beautiful Indian state. And what a happy co-incidence it was for them to know that the local guide with the Agency was in desperate need of money. She agreed to send her daughter, who was getting to be quite a handful, to them in case they needed a nanny.

Tara looked at the decor. Everything was made of solid wood. Big chunks of rosewood. No cushions or velvety covers. If one was going to pay handsomely for a meal then at least they should be able to dig into comfortable sofas. Wood and glass were for cheap joints. That’s what it meant from where she came from. “Why were red lamps hanging on every table?”, oh they were the only Chinese element apart from the food that would be served here. She hadn’t realised in her nervousness that they were at a Chinese Diner.

Free flowing Jasmine tea arrived at the table.  Small little tumblers were passed around. None reached her. Who said invisibility cloaks don’t exist? Tara felt like she was wearing one right now.

She believed it was her fault that she was here. If only she had listened to her mother and completed school. But no, she was too tired of reading up about things that were never going to affect her life. What was the point in knowing how many states America has or who invented the television. She was happier selling Tibetan artefacts to tourists. She liked moving from one tourist location to another in her state and dreamt of one day making it to 'Mainland India'. That's what they called the rest of the country.

Still lost, she sat at the dinner table looking at the snugly sleeping twins.

Mummy Ji was hungry so she started polishing off all the sauces and accompaniments that were laid out on the table. Latika interrupted her flow with a glare. Papa Ji asked the waiter to refill the vinegared salads by the double.

“I like the Indian Chinese food better than authentic Chinese”, exclaimed Latika.

“What do you mean?”, Mummy Ji refilled her plated with salads and roared.

“It is much spicier here”, clarified Som Bhaiyya.

Tara liked spicy food too. She was happy they were going to eat that. At home, since their father had a stroke, they cooked with minimal oil and spices. The fact that their mother had to move to another end of the state in tourist season didn’t make things any easy.  Tara had to take care of her father and three siblings while she was away. When Mummy Ji sweet talks, she can drip barrels of honey. No wonder mother agreed to send Tara for a year. On one condition though – she was to be just the nanny, not a maid.

Piping hot soups arrived. Bowls full of steaming lemon grass flavoured broths were carefully passed around the table. None reached Tara.

Every act of ignorance made her question her existence.

Her only solace was the amount of money all her bitter experiences were going to send home. It was quite a packet and that was worth everything she was going through right now. They needed the money.

“I can’t have this”, Latika declared that the flavour of the soup was overwhelming and made her nauseous. She kept it aside. Tara prayed no one pass that onto her. Thankfully no one did.

“If it weren’t for the Chinese, we would have missed out on a world of culinary marvel”, mediated Papa Ji.

“If it wasn’t for the Chinese, we wouldn’t have had the war in 1962”, thought Tara as it was very close to her heart. Her motherland lad borne the brunt of it and was still reeling under its aftershocks, almost 50 years since. But she kept quiet. “Don’t speak much and don’t try to show off what you know”, were her mother’s strict instructions.

“Order something else for me na”, Latika’s manicured hands fluttered in Som’s direction.

“Who was our waiter?”, confused Som tried to place him.

“They all look the same. I can never tell,” Mummy Ji backed her son-in-law.

“Of course not, they don’t look the same!”, Tara almost growled in her mind, “ One is a Khasi from Meghalaya and another a Kooki from Manipur. They are not same.”
She could tell by the looks and the mannerisms which of the neighbouring states they belonged to..

“Let it be. Let’s just order food now”, said Som and signalled in the air.

A large amount of food was ordered.

Latika looked over the sleeping angels in the pram across Tara and threw an open invitation, “Papa once I join Som back in the UK, you and Mummy must come and stay with us,”

“Of course Beta,” agreed Papa Ji, oblivious to the turmoil this treaty had caused in Mummy Ji’s mind.

“Will you be able to get a Nepali girl to move with me there, just like Tara,” Latika came to the point hoping Tara would take the bait.

“I am not a Nepali!” Tara wanted to scream but didn’t. Instead, she spoke softly, “ Didi I am not a Nepali. Did you know China is very close to where I come from. Just a trek away. Nepal is very far. You have to cross the states of Assam, West Bengal and Sikkim to reach there.” Her self-respect had taken a blow but then again, who cared.

No one acknowledged her. The food had arrived.

Papa Ji nodded a postscript supporting Tara as he dug in, “The girl is right you know”. This open ended conversation and praise for Tara had caused many a heartburns, much more than the spicy food.  

Latika wanted to join Som at the earliest, but not without a help.

Som  was worried about the drain on his finances an additional person was going to cause.

Mummy Ji didn’t want to go and babysit the twins in UK.

Tara realised people had not bothered to know about a part of their country they felt they didn’t have much to do with, just like she did with her studies.

This gap had to be bridged. Someone had to speak up. Better her than anybody else. Disobeying her mother for the good of her motherland was a blame she was willing to take.

(A tribute to all the brave soldiers and civilian casualties of the War of 1962, who rest in the Dandelion speckled Mishmi Hills as the gentle Lohit river flows by, in Arunachal Pradesh, India.)

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Cached Copy

He was wearing a creased white suit, a straw hat and a black n white chequered bow tie. Funny way to be dressed so early in the day.

He picked up the newspaper and started browsing through. The language seemed alien. He always ordered an English Daily whenever he traveled, but this was strange. He couldn’t understand anything. Something else didn’t seem right too. Focussing on things. It was an effort to let both his eyes focus on one thing. His head felt so light.

Why was he not able to concentrate?

He felt something wriggle inside the cuff of his shirt. He loosened it and a tiny frog jumped out.
‘Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa’, he shrieked. How did it get in there? How long was it inside? Did he carry it back from his little adventurous excursion from the previous night? Too many questions puzzled his scarce airy head at the same time
Was he dreaming?

He rubbed his eyes, held his forehead and sat still. His cheeks felt warm. Could he be coming down with fever? The hangover couldn’t have been much. He just had a few cocktails.

His mind wandered to the lovely drinks he had last night. Mai Tai and Blue Hawaii. Very potent if he might add. There was no point travelling all this distance to grab a single malt. He wanted to try what the locals had. Oh yes, now he remembered. He was at the Luau last night, a Hawaiian feast.  What a lovely ending to an eventful day. Not many people get to do that on Company expense.

The memories of last night made him smile. Flowing silks, floral fragrance in the air, cool crisp sea breeze devoid of any trace of humidity, strangers greeting each other like long lost friends. It was quite dreamy, the evening.

Why was he not able to smile like he always did? His smile seemed stretched. These were not his lips. He had a thickset pair, not frayed thin stripes. Why couldn’t he smile? And why was he wearing a straw hat at six in the morning? What was wrong with him? There is a thin line between a dream and waking up. He tried very hard to define that line but it appeared hazy and kept getting foggier.

He opened the full length glass windows of his suite and walked into the balcony. They were sliding glass doors in fact. Huge patio furniture in a tiny gallery was so unnerving. Claustrophobic. Reminded him of his house. It was an apology of a balcony. The wind was strong; he would have fallen if he didn’t hold onto the railing. He sat on one of the chairs, waiting for the sunrise. A faint fear gripped him as he put forward both his hands to stretch. They belonged to a girl. Soft, slender and brilliantly manicured.

‘Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa’ he shrieked and shaked his hands violently, as if wanting them to fall off so that his own hands could sprout back in place. But no. He still had beautiful feminine hands. Elegant, ring less, paint less fingers.

This had to be a dream’ he knew. It couldn’t be true. He couldn’t have turned into a woman. He was pretty sure now. He had to get up and all this would be soon over. He laughed at his inane anxiety.

If he was still asleep then what was he doing in the balcony? This was dangerous, the sleepwalking thing. He must see a doctor about it. He decided on calling upon his family physician the moment he got back home. Thank God for this realisation. Now he must get back to bed and try and wake himself up properly. This half asleep, half awake feeling was quite uncomfortable. He turned around to open the glass windows.

They were jammed. Locked from the inside. When you slide them shut, they bolted on their own. There was no latch, no handle or groove on the outside, to open them. ‘This is absurd’ he thought ‘no one makes windows like that’. He started frantically looking around for the fastener on the glass. There was none.

When the mind wants to play games with you, it goes all the way. Doesn’t spare even one single illustrious detail. He sat back on the oversized chair in his white suit.

The sun had risen. He was on the 33rd floor. He had no clue how to contact anybody except wait for someone to walk into his neighbouring balconies. He loved heights of any kind and challenges, but this was too much for his blase appetite.

The sun started rising higher.
It was getting hotter and the aluminium furniture was uneasy to sit upon.

His agitation grew with every passing minute and the muddled up head didn’t make it any easier. The sun shone brightly now. It got more and more difficult to peer inside the room. He could see a reflection of himself in the glass now. He looked highly emaciated. A stick thin figure stared back at him instead of his own reflection. 

‘Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa’ he shrieked and went closer to the image. This couldn't be him. Why was his head shaped like a pyramid? His face was toad like and rest of the body was human. His eyes were as big as his nose and fell on each side of the two ridges that his face was divided into. No wonder he couldn’t focus on reading this morning. He ran his feminine hands over his amphibious neck. Ewww slimy!

He pressed his body against the window, cupped the bony fingers around his face and decided to keep looking inside the room, hoping for a miracle or a housekeeper to enter, despite the big bold ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign. 

Now he knew for sure, it was a dream and he was stuck outside his room. He closed his eyes and prayed hard for it to be all over, at the earliest. He wanted to open his eyes and find himself snuggled in the cool white sheets. ‘Zapakkk’ he opened his eyes expecting the miracle to have occurred.

He was still standing in the sun, wearing his straw hat.

He wanted to cry. Why was God punishing him? What had he done? All he did was have a good time, meet a few strangers, made a few friends and gone off to sleep singing a native song. He didn’t think he did anything to deserve such mind games. 

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa’ he screamed.
Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa’ he screamed again.
He started crying. Uncontrollably. He cried his heart out.

He sat on the big patio chair. The scorching metal was no less than a branding iron, marking his livestock existence. A mustang stuck in a never-ending rat race. 

He picked up the big chair, ready to break the glass door and get back in. As he was about to hit, he saw a tiny button on the wall. It was hidden behind the chair all this while. ‘Press to open window’ it read. He pressed it and got inside, rushing to look at himself in the big mirror. He wanted to give himself one big shake and make sure that all this wasn’t really happening.

As he moved from the living room into the bedroom he saw the half empty glasses, dishevelled sofa, sand on the carpet and a few petals from his welcome garland, lying strewn. He didn’t remember any of this. Who was in here with him? Whom did he get back to the hotel last night? 

He waited to hear any sound. There was none.

‘Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa’ he shrieked as he ran to open the electronic safe. It was open. His wallet, traveller’s cheques, wads of foreign currency and the wedding ring were intact. He had forgotten to close the safe. He breathed a sigh of relief and looked at the bed. It was untouched.

The mirror facing the bed had a different story to tell.

He was in his floral party clothes, sitting upright on the bed. His grey balding hatless head wobbled for no reason. Glistening beads of perspiration on them caught the light from the night lamp now and then.

As a matter of fact, he had been at the Luau waiting for something exciting to happen last night. Nothing much had happened but for an exchange of some pleasantries with the dancers. He ordered a few too many. The hotel staff had to help him back to his room, along with his drinks. He put up a brave fight with them and passed out before they could dump him on the bed.

It was four am right now and he had just woken up. The delusional nightmare was over.

But somewhere deep down, his subconscious had unleashed all his secret yearnings and doings. They have a knack of running riot and surface at the oddest of hours, these cached copies of desires.