Category Archives: story

The center of the world

I am standing at the center of the world. Part land, part air. Part earth and part sea. I am standing at the top our beloved lighthouse. I stand facing the sun, her heat sending birds screeching downwards into the cool water, and making strange mirages on the horizon. Below me is our beloved city, Mayyazhi. Ahead of me is our allMother the sea. In the far, far distance, if you squint hard enough, even though your eyesight isn’t as good as mine, you can see our glorious boats making their way to the little pearls. They are ten ten thousand islands, all bless our King! Gold Island and Silver Island, Agatti and Bammatti, Raarti, Chengathi, Kalpathi and Visatti, one island with a single coconut tree – the watching sentinel and one more with the blue mangoes. Then there’s temple island and God island (where nobody goes) and Death island (yes! Ifyou go there, you will die. Surely) and Moth island, Flame island and Fantastic Island – and hundreds of thousands of others! Beyond those is the open ocean – but I’m not done yet! The Open Ocean and father ahead – more islands. They have strange names Ulookuroo and Vaadhoo, Fulikadoo and Malookuroo all ooo’s and loo’s. Our great king has sent out our best warriors and engineers there, to show them the greatness of Mayyazhi. And beyond that, there are more islands! Can you believe it? With stranger names and stranger people no doubt, no doubt. Those people have orange heads and green eyes and they eat little children and old men like you. Fukafuka and Fakaravaka, Funafuti and Farafangana, Tranana and Wanana, Wasaya and Wayasewa. And beyond that – are our own Eastern mountains, because the world is round.

Behind me is all our Kingdom too. Green, green land. Forests and fields, paddy and coconut. The inland sea, and inmost islands, Tiger islands and the Heron marsh, and ten thousand canals: the teacher’s canals, the engineer’s canals and the boat canals. Canals so large two elephants could walk side by side in them and still have the King’s boat race them. And canals so tiny, I could jump over them, pissing all the way. Then there is the KingMothers village – Kollengode and beyond that Arikkode, and Chemanthi and Nellicheri. Those villages are all stone (because only the King may use metal) and they speak funnyfunny. But our KingFather, the old king, he married the queen of Kollengode, even though they speak funnyfunny and are so fair skinned that they burn in our summer. Our river Paramba also comes from there, from somewhere beyond our lands, beyond Kollengode, beyond the new lands, beyond even the forest people’s homes, beyond the large blackfruit groves and from within the dark forests of the Eastern mountains.

Then there are the eleven roads that lead to us, the North road and South road and the five East roads. But I’m still learning! I am going to see a map next week. I must recite everything perfectly before I can do that and I could tell you all in one go, but you keep interrupting me because you’re so stupid. Once I learn our land, I will learn the old stories. I’ll learn of allFather and allMother. And the queen of Qatlat, the rakshasi who was vanquished by the Godeess of Mayyazhi. And Mayyazhi is the center of our kingdom, with the King and her Queen, the city of brick and metal (the only one! all bless our King) and the city of a hundred canals. The only city on the treacherous coast, the only city where the King may live, the only city with the old tombs and the only city with a temple to allFather. Home of the Goddess, city of Black fruit and white pearls, city of stories, city of the most delicious, juiciest halva,  city of the most intelligent women, and  city of the darkest, strongest men.

I am standing at the top of our beloved lighthouse. It was built with yakshi magic and stands strong even in the stormiest of weathers. It lies on a spit of land jutting out to sea, our allFather meeting the allMother (Don’t tell anyone I told you that). The sea is our mother because she gives us fish when we are hungry, and pearls so we may look nice. But she is also our wife because when the women go out to fish, she keeps them safe.

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Change

It wasn’t merely the oldest street in the city. It was older than the city too. It was called bazaar street then, when the city was a village on the river ford. It existed simply as ‘the street’ even before that. It had birthed the city and it sat in the city’s edge, unconcerned with the chaos, like an old mother relegated to whispering shadows.

It always wore a festive look. Opiate Flowers continuously fell out of trees. They had fallen on the mud, long ago, fallen fresh as tigers trampled them, licked the soft petals and lay drowsily, and now they fell on the road beneath, through a haze of dust and heat, sunshine and noise. Vegetables were piled in heaps; huge green pumpkins meticulously stacked in pyramids, muddy yams rolling by their base, baskets of ripe yellow bananas, careless mounds of green leaves all looking the same, long gourds hanging from tree branches and banana leaves underneath everything. Scores of little shops stood by the street, under the watchful eyes of the drowsy trees. The little shops sold everything. And the large homes sat behind the little shops, all their people drunk on the flowers falling on their courtyard. Outside the street, a country revolted, men killed and women burned. Changes slowly trickled down time and space to reach the street. The fruit sellers came first; with their exotic cold apples from the Himalayas and dates from across the ocean, large cantaloupes form the north and walnuts and almonds from Afghanistan. A large woman sat one day with fish from the western sea and the fish never stank, since they were perfumed by the falling flowers. Traders from the hot plains brought tamarind and cashew and from the far north, they got delicate saffron flowers. The traders also set up a tandoor and passed around crisp rounds of bread dusted with sesame and browned onions. Then the South Indian women came to live in the big house at the end of the street and brought with them the alien stench of jasmine. Jasmine and almost-jasmine, roses and tiny green leaves in their hair. They drew the men wild, teased the women and even woke the comatose fishes. Their coming ripened bananas and brightened stone-pitted applies. Dates oozed juices and the bees came to live on the trees, dropping honey on the mud and the whole street was mired in a smelly, sticky mess of solid air and languid dust. Then the opium flowers conspired to sit on the women’s heads, and drove out the jasmines and the almost-jasmines and the roses and the little green leaves and the street became liveable again. It was to such a street that winter arrived.

It arrived at night when the men slept and the women lay tossing and turning. The opiate leaves fell as usual but landed on a hard white surface.  In the morning the mists hid the white ground from everyone, until a child unexpectedly screamed, running on the street and shattered the veil. Frost and hard dew, clouds and knife-cold air. The ghosts of the tigers fled, and the ghost of old men that sat near the banyan tree fled. The cats turned to stone, the bees fell solidly, like so many fruits and the dogs ate the dead bees and died. The fish stank and bananas decayed, spreading death up and down the street. Only the opiate flowers still continued falling. In the winter when this land turned cold, and the trees were bare, there were no vegetables and no fruits, no gay festoons over the houses and shops, and the street still came alive. It lived in the vapours from the kitchens and on hot coffee from the little shops, bloomed by the old tandoor of the traders and moved about on gossip that circulated urgently and died by the smell of decaying fish.

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West

The drive to the Western Fire Temple is a long road.  Especially if one is driving from the plains. Leaving at sunrise, it is possible to keep driving into lengthening shadows for the better part of the day, before the trees start closing in. The road goes on straight, west among rice fields and mango trees, flaming gulmohars and solid neems. Eventually, the road loses its ambition and bends a little. Then a little more, a slip here, a curve there and finally, abandoning all sense of direction, it entangles itself in complex knots. It is at this point that you really begin to notice the trees, the sinister ones, if you have been looking. Huge banana trees stand at regular intervals. Larger than normal, with a skirt of old tattered leaves covering their trunk. Tall coconut trees rise in between.  Fat tees with large, flat, poisonous white leaves rise above the mists and large jackfruits threaten to fall onto unsuspecting cars, squishing little children.  Sometime later there will be a marked sense of ascending, and the mists rise with you, passing through you and playing with you. Tendrils of wild mist will snake across your windshield. Thick trunks of mist will appear at will, on the road.  Through the mists, headless horses will rise as mountains. The lady of green mists may bring rains upon you. Soft rain that dries up before it can reach the ground, or piercing rain that sends cars screeching into hungry ravines lurking around corners.

Wild coffee shrubs roll down hillsides, pepper plants nimbly climb up coconut trees suffocating them, their dark fruit falling like raindrops all over the forest. If you get out of your car to pee on the roadside, you will be scared. It is not silent, or eerie. On the contrary it buzzes with indistinct life. You may hear growls and soft thuds. You may hear the high pitched screeches of birds. If you hear his growl, get back in and start driving again. You still have a long way to go. Sometime in the afternoon, for even though the sun disappears and twilight hangs about uninvited, it is still noon, you will see an old temple. It used to tower over the forest once, when the kings walked. Now it lies in resignation, one with the forest. It would appear like women in colourful sarees are peeking out of the tall windows of the temple wall, singing desperate songs of longing. Keep driving, for those women are bewitching but vile and lure the careless traveller into their mystic mazes.

If you do not fall prey to these yet, then you have journeyed further than I. Somewhere across an invisible boundary, the forest turns benign. The mists leave.  Bright moonshine reflects off lively rivers. The smell of impending dawn lingers in the air. Pay your dues to the Rakshas at the gate, and you shall pass in.

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DDLJ ?

“Tasmania.”

“Huh?”

“Your roti, it looks like Tasmania.”

“All right, we agreed no more making fun of my rotis.”

“No, no it just reminded me of…”

“What the hell is this Tasmania anyway?”

“It’s an triangular shaped island, off the coast of Australia. No offense da, it just struck me that’s all.”

“It’s ok.”

She continued rolling out her rotis in silence. She rolled furiously, as she wiped the sweat off her brow with her hand some of the atta stuck to her forehead but she didn’t seem to notice.

“I can’t marry you.” she finally blurted out.

“You are taking this way too seriously, I wasn’t making fun of your rotis or criticizing you, please understand and stop behaving childishly.”

“No. I don’t understand. I don’t know your physics, I’m not as well read as you, nor do I listen to your pretentious music or understand any of the billion things you do! We are a misfit and my knowledge is woefully inadequate to stay married to you. I have no fucking clue what a Tasmania is, nor do I care. I can’t differentiate a quark from a spark and a meson from moses. Just leave me alone.”

He was shocked by her vehemence. All cooking came to a standstill. They stood there for a few seconds, inhaling puffs of flour and smelling of hot rotis. Involuntarily she moved to him and burst out into sobs, hugging him.

“I love you, you know?” he said

“Say more.”

“I love your laugh, your smile, your frown and your complete inability to drive in a straight line. I love your body, your throaty cries and your hair. I’d love you if you were a pus filled pimple, and I’d love you if that pus morphed into a golliwog. Plus youre wayyy out of my league and I supplicate myself in gratitude to you for your merest glance.”

In spite of herself, she laughed. Not one of her arousing throaty laughs but a laugh just a shade above a giggle.

“So Tasmania can go to hell, will you marry me?”

“Along with quarks, mesons, Tolkien and karaharapriya.”

“Done, but only because you are so atrociously hot. Will you marry me?”

“You are very insistent” She smiled, blew a nosy strand of hair away from her face and resumed rolling out rotis.

“You are also a great cook. The greatest. O provider of gastronomic orgasms. I will remain thy faithful pimple. Please marry me”

“Not very original are we? Put salt in that sabzi. Saat roti khaayega na tu?

——&——

“If I do end up marrying you, I will observe Karwa Chauth; even unmarried women do it these days. Kareena did it. Really you must start tweeting. Kareena does it too.”

“Sure.” he said distractedly.

“And I will fast all day thinking of my husband and in the evening when I break my fast so will you, having fasted all day. You will then curse Shahrukkhan and I will laugh muhahahaha.”

“Why is that? What does he have to do with karwa chauth?”

She looked incredulous. She was stuffed with food, washing dishes with one hand and trying to balance a heavy pan in the other but she managed the incredulousness with absurd ease.

“Haven’t you seen DDLJ? It’s like an urban legend! He fasted for Kajol! That’s why all men fast nowadays!”

This was followed by a brilliant eye-roll all the while managing the dishes, but the pan slipped from her grasp and clattered noisily into the full sink precariously settling over an upturned tumbler. Her expressions were still perfect to a tee, never mind her hands.

“No. We can watch it together and you can show me all about this fasting festival you have in mind. Is this like Alaipayuthey?”

“Only a gazillion times more romantic. This weekend. Pakka!”

——&——

He was at her doorstep, saying his goodbyes in his usual punctilious way

“Take care.”

“You too.”

She closed the door and waited a few seconds. Then she hit the door with her closed fists and slowly slid to the floor sobbing.

“I can’t marry him.” she said to herself softly.

How could she live with someone who hadn’t seen DDLJ?

 

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Northern dreams

P.P.S. Sambamoorthy (Moorthy to his friends) boarded the flight with a mix of part trepidation and part excitement. The Gujrati was offering him large sums of money to take a look at something, and his Moorthy fell to his insistent charms and regular offerings of cash. It was supposed to be an easy assignment, a quick way to make some money on the side. Nothing illegal he was assured, and definitely nothing dangerous. Prodded by who he called ‘his better half’ – Janaki, he had reluctantly agreed and now as he was boarding the flight this Ketan Vora was babbling of spirits and Reindeer and whatnot.

It was a clear summer’s day eight months ago when Ketan Vora had arrived at his doorstep. Janaki and Moorthy had received him in their Spartan living room, Janaki having shooed off their daughter Lata with an exceptionally difficult problem involving among other things, integrating the cube of sine x (which janaki had calculated, as a mere chit of a girl long ago on a hot summer’s day ) . Ketan Vora was a rich businessman and he specifically oozed money and confidence at this visit hoping to appeal to the monetary selves of the Moorthy’s. He was a gifted speaker, he spoke sometimes glibly, sometimes smartly and had a way of easy assurance about him that had won the Moorthy’s over. He praised the coffee and stayed for dinner drinking copious amounts of rasam and by the night an understanding had been reached.

Twice in the ensuing months Moorthy had placed orders for rare books, unavailable in book starved Bombay and Ketan had arranged for their prompt delivery. These arrived in neat cardboard boxes from New York city and Moorthy got to work. Since that day, Moorthy had spent a lot of his free time researching and learning. He was undoubtedly the best in the field, but his knowledge however was purely theoretical and he wished to be up to date with the matter. Poring through books was never a problem for the pedantic Moorthy, it was getting into the nitty gtittiy practicalities that bothered him. Imagining hypothetical situations he would encounter in the field, drawing out possible responses and building from there on, Moorthy could not do. But Ketan Vora had assured him that he was one of the very few in the world who had specialized in this esoteric branch and Moorthy was filled with a sense of pride that somehow impetused him into preparing better for the event.

The Moorthy’s were invited for a New Year’s bash by Ketan Vora at his plush South Bombay apartment. Janaki retrieved her gold necklaces form the bank locker, Moorthy dressed in his only faded suit and Lata pasted copious amounts of powder on her acne ridden face. The family made a perfect picture of gauche nervousness as they made their way up to the 40th floor in a rickety elevator that had clearly seen better, well oiled days. Contrary to Janaki’s expectations of a corpulent, insular Falguniben Vora they were greeted by an urbane woman in a Prada dress. Moorthy rightly guessed her to be the brains behind the operation. Falguniben maintained a cold silence of her husband’s ventures and was very stressfully making last minute arrangements with the china on the dinner table. Moorthy was introduced to all in the party as the ‘hero’ of the new venture and even Janaki had the grace to blush as she privately imagined how her own cache of diamonds would look like if Moorthy was successful.

Eight days after that party Moorthy and Ketan boarded the flight to Paris. They would then stay at one of Ketan’s obscure relatives’ home in Paris and ride a train across the newly unified Germany to Copenhagen, fly again across the frozen wastes of the Baltic to make their way to their fate, fame, fortune and Helsinki.

Four days ago, Moorthy had watched open mouthed as Ketan whipped out a cellular phone the shape and weight of a brick and proceeded to hand it over to Moorthy to make calls across Europe. This was his moment. Moorthy’s hands shook as he mumbled some French to book the train tickets. He was faintly surprised when the operator replied to his query and Moorthy gained the confidence. Further calls in German, Swedish, Estonian and Finnish proved to be cakewalk. Ketan was smiling inwardly. The South Indian was proving to be a good investment.

As Ketan spent the next few days wrapped in business meetings across open conferences and hushed dinners, Moorthy explored Helsinki like a small child, with infectious enthusiasm and for the thousandth time Moorthy wondered if he was merely an interpreter, but interpreters were available dime a dozen. What made him special?

To be continued..

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Revelation

Vadivu sniffed the air, something was not right. And whatever was not right, was attracting her irresistibly. Something rose deep within her, almost like the rush she felt at nights with her husband. But this was different. She sniffed deeply again, inhaling fully and the scent left her before she could completely explore it. Dropping the basket she was carting she stepped back a few paces and looked around. Just another normal day. And no one had time to notice a low-caste woman who carried excreta away. In a back alley of all places. Untying her saree’s loose end to fan herself in the hopes of trapping the scent within its folds she inhaled again in quick short bursts this time. And it hit her. The most blissful divine scent. Definitely masculine, full bodied, rich dark and enticing beyond rapture.

Dhanammal wished the tonga would move faster. It was hot and she dare not uncover her face lest any man set sight upon her. Her mother-in-law sat next to her and her husband Thannilaipadi Narayanaswami, in front of them. She was new to Madras and the sights and sounds awed her and scared her at the same time. Narayanaswami worked for the East India Company. It was a prestigious position and he often reminded Dhanammal of his importance by unleashing English words at home. Sometimes in passion, sometimes in fury, sometimes in boredom. Many of his words were poorly pronounced, some bizarre to the point of offense but the illiterate Dhanammal had no way of knowing his folly.

The tonga stalled. Apparently there was some commotion in the road ahead. Narayanaswami got down to investigate. As they sweated it out in the blazing midday sun, Dhanammal smelt it. Her first reaction was to turn up her nose at what she perceived as an alien stench. Then a curious secondary sniff and the slow realization that she was smelling something new, something different. She turned to see if her mother noticed anything, but Periya Meenakshiamma was asleep, her drool coating the edge of her widow’s saree, her tonsured scalp sweating freely. Slowly she raised her head out of her veil. She turned around to the source and saw an Englishman’s mansion. And amidst the noise and stench of the city, amidst the perspiration of a hundred men, the distinct flavor wafted to her. “Like Radha to Krishna” she thought. Several well dressed men and women were seated around tables. Just as the tonga lurched, she saw a dirty ragged half caste woman sniff the air vigorously. Dhanammal felt sick to her stomach and retreated in the veil again, content to sniff the diluted scent that spinned her head.

The incident was a few months ago. Deepawali had come and gone and the winter chill was upon them. “Ice falls in England. Ice katti. brrr” Narayanaswami shivered one particularly cold day, refusing his cup of buttermilk that Dhanammal had churned for him. The couple had settled down in Madras in a tiny house near kotai. Dhanammal had busied herself in domestication while Periya Meenakshiammal acted supervisor tut-tutting her disapproval more often than not. Come margazhi and Dhanammal requested her husband to take her to see the magnificent Kapaleeswarar temple at Mylapore. Now and then Dhanammal would recall the day she smelt ‘that’ but she never whiffed it on any of the innumerable trips she made to Mylapore. At the temple market she kept herself unnaturally aware of her surroundings and yet she never whiffed that scent. It must have been magic, or the heat she thought to herself. Yes the heat.

Narayanaswami was deferential to his bosses at work and played the role of a subservient dull clerk to boot. He befriended no one from his office preferring to rush home and immerse himself in brahminical rituals of yore. Occasionally Dhanammal would sing to him what she had learnt in her childhood. A mixed bag of bhajans, prayers and the occasional keerthanai. She would often try to impress him with a Dikshitar krithi (to whom Narayanaswami was partial as he claimed descent from the composer) but failed miserably. Life went moved on in the slow sedate way that urbanity sometimes brings.

To be continued…

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Revolution



Chaos theory will have us believe that small disturbances in a system will ripple through, magnifying themselves leading to one huge cataclysm. The bigger the system and the longer it takes for the smaller errors to accumulate. And after the big bang, the newer systems are generated with small errors of their own, which in time lead to further chaos. India was an idea crafted by politicians, visionaries. An impractical reality that somehow defied all laws of coherence and managed to stick as a coherent entity. Too many differences in the entities that constituted it. Most countries had a strong basis in language, religion, history or culture. Some were racially defined, some were remnants of large civilizations. India was all this and more. And none of this. Peoples of different colors and histories, strange languages and stranger antecedents. At time the only string holding the country together was its land mass and the sheer number of people.

Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century Indians sought to gain common ground. Politics provided a great platform, the violence and dazzle luring all equally from Itanagar to Calicut. The onslaught of the middle class with similar values. The common feeling of battling poor infrastructure, violence and general chaos to reach the elusive higher plane. At the turn of the century it lay poised like a badly balanced airplane to take off into the future. And like a horrible aircraft , ill fated to reach the skies, it blew. And splintered into pieces. Like the body parts of the mythical Shakti, into several pieces, as it was since antiquity. India as a nation ceased to exist in 2035. Experts will point out several factors and reveal the imminence of that action. Some say it was to happen, some felt it to be an unnatural paradigm. Foreign hands, Gods, Religions, Colour and every possible prejudice were blamed in this fission. But reality lay splattered, a loose coalition of city-states and smaller principalities across the sub-continent.

And now each of these entities would be free of violence they thought. Bound by religion, culture or language exclusively. Some countries exclusively urban, some completely rural. Some spread out over large swathes of land, some confined to off shore islands and scanty mountaintops.

Circa 2009

Facebook and Orkut were merely tools. Sure they provided valuable connections now and then but that was about it. Six degrees of separation worked for once, in his favour. Combing the mists of the ancient past, searching through medieval rabble and trying to locate the future in the present chaos of modern India, his was a difficult task indeed. Especially the part of India he was supposed to work on.

Searching wasn’t easy. For one his search began around 1279 AD. And history wasn’t an easy pursuit. Like a temptress his destination moved across regions and countries. It changed languages and religions. And the messy proposition of caste. Which had oscillated no lesser than five times in 1500 years.

The task was fairly straightforward, to separate India into little nations. They were a large organization and had working teams, named in a cruel mockery of the Indian army. The Rajputanas would take care of Rajasthan, the Sikh regiment would create Khalistan. The Marathas would bring back their medieval glories and the Telengana dream of statehood went a step further to nationhood. Their team was nicknamed ‘Sangam’ signifying the lost Tamil age.

To bring back the glories of the Tamil nation, they needed a king. And not just anyone would do. So a meticulous search began. Looking through temple records, land deeds, properties and inheritances. Modern government databases, census data. Methodically sifted. Each demographic scanned and formulated. Large swathes of data residing as a muddle of names and places. It seemed hopeless at first but slowly a pattern began to emerge. And history, initially obfuscating, then slowly revealing patterns only to disappoint. Then letting out a little clue and piece by piece the jigsaw fell into place.

They had started with the Pandyans first, the last surviving Tamil kingdom. The lineage seemed straightforward enough till the fifteenth century where it ran into several errant progeny marrying in and out of religions. Invaders complicated the picture and the present day descendants would most likely be Indonesian. Or not. The Chera descendants were lost, over records and state boundaries. Eventually with time and meticulous research they had got to the inevitable.

Find the descendant of the Cholas. She survives.

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