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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Practice

He strode down the street, magic following in his wake. It is a strange thing, this magic. Abstract yet very visible in its effects. It is also not in his control. The first time he had nearly jumped out of his skin; producing a fireball out of nowhere. That ball of flames had hovered in front of him and none of his hand movements could do anything to it. Then seemingly of its own accord, it moved straight, and crashed into a wall, dissolving into nothingness. Later he thought about it. He hadn’t touched it, felt it or gone anywhere near it. He soon gave it up as a dream.

The second time it was water. He managed to raise a ball of water from the commode. Repelled and curious at the same time, he froze. The ball of water hovered there, as if waiting for a command. He dared not speak. Tentatively he held out a finger upwards. The ball still stayed there irresolute. He half thought of leaving it there and making a run for it. What would anyone else make of it? And just like that the ball crashed into the commode splashing everywhere.

Concentration, that’s what it is , he thought to himself. Maybe focus was what kept up those elemental balls (why only those shapes though?) up in the air. Convinced that it was not a dream anymore he started looking for signs of magic more consciously. He concentrated on mundane objects for log times, unblinking till the tears came unbidden. He wiggled his stubby fingers in various motions. He mumbled nonsense words and one fine morning, a fine ball of dust rose to meet his face. He was terrified. He ran, not once pausing to look back. Only after he turned two corners did he pause for breath. But it is magic! he thought to himself. Surely it could turn corners. Apparently the dust ball could not turn corners. In a daze he spent the rest of the day wandering aimlessly.

He knew air was next. Air or what was the fifth element? An air ball wouldn’t scare him, but the fifth element bothered him. He had given up trying to control whatever this magic was, yet he wished he knew what he was doing. Somehow when the air ball came, he knew it would. He was wandering, and between his hands air began to whirl about. He felt a tightening of his gut and moved his hands. The air ball moved with it. Not believing, he gave his hands a shake. The ball wobbled. In a moment of excitement, he raised his right hand and forcefully pointed the palm outwards. The air ball whooshed out, eager to do its bidding. He expected it to crash into a wall and … the ball went straight for the wall, but instead of exploding, it split into two in with the impact. Every surface it hit, it split again. Within minutes there were a dozen small air balls the size of marbles, whirring around. He watched them with a dazed fascination. He came to consciousness suddenly and the air balls dropped to nothingness with a dozen tiny swooshes.

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Walking a city

What do you call those things on a puff? Those light flaky things that you bite into with the softest of crunches. Little crispy flakes that stay on your tongue, and melt into moistness. I’d call them eggwash, but puff droppings sounds more apt. This evening I left a trail of puff droppings across neighbourhoods, in buses and for a brief moment, on a cow. Not that I cared, mind you.

A city must be explored and experienced only by foot. Not by autos, or worse cars, but by buses and trains and all kinds of walks. Slow leisurely ones, fast snappy walks, walks dictated by traffic signals, weary walks at the end of a long day, distracted walks at other times. Whenever I explore a city, I walk. This puts a limitation on the amount of sightseeing I can do, but then travel is one of those pleasures that does unfold slowly. The destination is the journey, travel unravels it. The enjoyment of travel is in merely roaming about taking in the sights of a place, taking it all in until the sights click, whir and fall neatly into a collage of experiences. In the end it is these images that talk of the city, the not so oft seen images of people and places. Roads beckon and buses and trains reach out to far corners, pulling the traveler deeper into an inexplicable maze. Except that this maze never ends; there is no escape. Nor do I seek one.

Walking around Bangalore these past few months; I have finally reached the stage where I must write it all out, for I fear memory will not prove enough to hold everything with accuracy. I have taken crowded buses across the city, walked under the metro lines, walked along bus routes, stood at bus depots observing all the buses come and go. I have walked for miles only to come back to the same place, I have walked mindlessly, getting lost. At times I have walked with the evening sun casting its mellow rays through trees, with the slightest of Bangalore breezes coolly wafting. At other times, I have walked with the moon just within sight, like a low-hanging fruit. And still at other times, I have walked with the certain knowledge, reaching just the road I expected, the locality I wanted to. It is a very different pleasure, this finding of the apt place knowingly, yet unknowingly.

Coming back to those mystery puffs, they were a well deserved treat. Today evening I literally walked into the sunset. Westward bound from my office onto small streets lined with trees and houses. Some houses old, square with trees in the courtyard, old wooden swings lightly creaking in the wind. Some modern ones, with strange angles and frosted glass windows; some monstrosities, pink and orange with several floors, taking up every inch of their allocated plot. This theme seemed to continue almost endlessly only broken occasionally by large roads, where traffic vroomed angrily. Up, up above, the concrete line of the metro kept snaking its way across. I passed small parks, full of screaming children inside. I passed larger parks with weary drivers waiting outside. The new Bangalore must keep up appearances now and this it does by having almost every other road dug up. Underpasses, flyovers and other very modern contraptions clutter the city. Roads rise up and curve gracefully, other roads pass under the leftover space, still others move sedately underneath the chaos. City buses thundered across mindless to my quest, unknown bus numbers honking gloriously, trying to beat rush hour traffic.

Meanwhile I had left behind the stately houses and moved on to smaller plots, narrower streets. The trees miraculously still stood around. But the show stealers were still the houses. From another era. I would bet anything they had red oxide floors and wide, huge bathrooms with lizards scurrying about in them. The whole street seemed to be stolen from some elaborate movie set. The sun shone exactly through the trees onto the front yards, it shone through the gaps in the grilles on the houses, forming patterns on the street. Large groups of old people busied about the streets, kids ran helter-skelter and the only automobiles in view were parked ones. Some more leisurely ambling and I found myself outside “Brahmin Bakery”. It was a typical Indian shop, small and crammed with baked goodies. And it was crowded, probably the best measure of its popularity. Inside, small boys busied about arranging tins of sweet breads, cakes, rusks and pastries. An ancient oven heated ‘today’s special’; “capsicum puff”. Which is how I found myself with two of those capsicum beauties. I also packed a pastry and went off, eating all the while. I walked a lot more but I don’t remember much. I was busy stuffing myself, licking my fingers, licking my lips, brushing off pastry icing and puff dust. I walked right into the midst of a traffic jam caused by a peeing cow, and walked across a park full of old ladies laughing strenuously. Just as darkness was beginning to fall, I finished my treats and my bus came up there billowing smoke, the conductor exhorting people to move quickly. On some days, everything falls into place. On some other days things go notoriously wrong, but the pleasure of travel still lingers in the air. Calling out softly.

 

PS: This is a true account of a walk, from Jayanagar to Basavanagudi to Gandhi bazaar. The unmentioned parts of the walk are so because I was busy stuffing my face.

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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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On Asimov

Years ago, when I was a young lad with the first stirrings of facial hair, I had made it my life’s mission to woo and win the heart of one Priya Padmanabhan. Priya, it was rumored, liked books. This boded exceedingly well for me and when I had mustered sufficient courage to start a conversation, I veered the topic to books. At first she was ecstatic that I was a ‘reader’. I say at first because in a short while, upon listening to my tastes (which I always thought eclectic) her beautiful nose gave an imperceptible twitch and inched a little higher. “Pah, twiddle, piffle and prat you read. I couldn’t be paid to read this kind of droll trash”. I was sweating by then, and my heart was already broken. “At least you don’t read Asimov” she said, patted my head in a way remonstrative of showing affection to a lost canine and moved off, her nose still twitching.

This encounter left a deep impression on my heart and in my mind and hence as I read all that I could lay my grubby hands upon, it was never an Asimov. I was intrigued and tempted many a time and would furtively gaze at stacks of ‘Foundation series’ but Priya’s perfect nose would vividly flash by my eyes and I would go back to glancing at other age-inappropriate novels.

Flash forward five years. I was to be stuck on a long journey and in my haste, I picked up a couple of novels from my grandfather’s shelf not noticing what I was carrying. Imagine my consternation when I found myself with two books of the foundation series. With a resigned air I started reading; after all if I read trash anyway this wouldn’t make a difference. And that was perhaps the start of my love affair with the Asimov world; I was hooked within a few chapters of the book. The next few days passed by in a blur of reading all the Asimov’s I could find, and did I find them! The aforementioned grandfather’s book shelf carried neatly arranged volumes of Asimov’s work, his short stories, his essays and I devoured them all missing buses and trains, walking into ditches and abruptly finding myself 20 miles away from where I wanted to go.

I read the Foundation series somewhat in a crooked order and then realized there was a correct order to the books so I re read them. The brilliance lies in the fact that the three main books were written in a series, then a couple were sequels and two more were prequels. A nifty seven pack of novels with a flawless timeline. The Foundation series picked up where the Empire series left off, and there is a beautiful rounding off to the series, with a connection to robots thrown in. This as I was to discover as central to Asimov’s work. Whatever he wrote neatly tied up to his other series. There are books which stand alone, unencumbered by his fictional set-ups, yet there is a clear sign of possible seamless integration.

A theme central to his work is the oneness of life. Not a oneness merely encompassing all humans, but a oneness that transcends all barriers of Linnaean classification, one that includes rocks, trees and rainfall. There are then his books on the human body, very detailed yet lucid enough for intrepid biologists. There are short stories on love, loss and sex.  In any case anyone accuses him of sexism (which in fact has happened), there are busty female robots too and one very determined female robot, Dors Venabili. There is a very beautiful and openly sexy Blissenobiarella, an astoundingly intelligent Marlene, a villainous Harla Branno, a prostitute cum spy Manella Dubanqua, the prim and proper Susan Calvin, a courageous Bayta Darrell and a romantic yet very witty Arkady Darrell. No discussion on Asimov can be complete without mentioning his three laws of robotics and those heroes among robots, R Daneel Olivaw and R Giskard Reventlov. Then there is Hari Seldon (widely believed to be his alter-ego), the science of psychohistory and a million other concepts that speak volumes of his general scientific understanding.

Last week I bumped into Priya at a railway station. I was reading and didn’t watch my step, literally colliding against her perfect nose; and after a second of awkwardness we spoke. All was going well, she even flashed those pearly whites at me when she noticed the Asimov dangling by the edge of my fingertips. She scowled magnificently and walked away in a huff. It took me all these years of avoiding Asimov and a few months of embracing them to realize what a bumbling idiot of gigantic proportions she was. Very pretty nose though.

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Firangipani

In 1988 when we were the only inhabitants of our large apartment complex, a pig strayed into the play area one evening. This wasn’t as remarkable as what occurred next, an old lady in a colourful skirt-blouse apparel came running, panting with a rolling pin in hand and asked my mother pointedly ”Where’s that lil rascal? You seen ‘im? I got im proper now, he cant exape. Clive D’Silva, husband of that Gonzales baykoo, gave me galees. Twentyvees times and now he’s made my poor pig run off”. My mother then new to Mumbai, put it down to the city’s exceptional character and let the matter be except for reciting it at family gatherings.

Growing up in cosmopolitan Bombay it hardly seemed out of the ordinary to have a Meryl or Douglas as best friends, learn math from Anu Fernandez and get our cable connection from the very honorable abovementioned Clive D’silva. There was a thriving Christian community all around me, yet I only saw them as individuals, like coloured stones in a mosaic and not as part of a community. The inkling that they might be different from other Christians came to me much later, and therein I found a fascinating community, not a few feet away from home.

Half a kilometer from very snazzy high rises that house us, lies an ancient village and the fact that it has survived as a village to this day gives testament to the grit and fortitude of the people who occupy it. The East Indians are one of the earlier Christian communities of India, and native to the Mumbai area. Different from Goans, theirs is a chequered history that begins before the Portuguese arrived in this part of the world. They are scattered across the city in several parishes and to the outsiders appear only as old ladies dressed in gay skirts, going to church. Or as the local pao-walla. Once a year students of all creeds crowd at the fair outside the Mother Mary church in Bandra, the legendary goddess who is said to influence marksheets, regardless of performances.

Having known them at closer quarters I can attest to some more facts, their mouthwatering marzipans, their succulent plum cakes and the special Christmas rum cakes, their ‘bottle masala’ that only fussy old ladies know the recipe of. But the piece de resistance has to be their pao. Their pao making is elevated to an art, and the airy beauties make breaking bread somewhat of a fulfilling gastronomical experience. Then again maybe it’s their special singsong Marathi-konkani language whose mellifluousness permeates within the food. Hungry Mumbai that gobbles up pao by the kilotonnes scarcely pauses to reflect on this small humble slice of heaven.

Last week as a made my regular trip to Anthony bakery to get bread, “I’ll give you fresh sona pao, if you care to wait young man”, he said. So I took a walk into the small bylane and in an instant was transported into another world. Large coconut trees rose gracefully, amidst thick clumps of green shrubbery. An old house stood still, oblivious to the ravages of time and modernization that occurred not a step away. “Marjoram” it said in a faded red stencil, 1912. Further ahead lay “Marys abode, 1936”. Similarly sprawling pieces of history rose up on both sides of the lane which had become cobblestoned. Suddenly a bench materialized, with it two old ladies in their typical skirt-blouse dress gossiping about errant offspring. An old koli woman cried out “bombil” and soon there was a curious crowd about her. “Bombil already? Good good, get the masala ready Fiona” someone cried. Firangipani came next, this house seemed to be restored, painted white looking classically Goan, with a small altar of a benevolent Jesus raised on the outer wall, candles burning beneath it copiously. The lane continued occasionally littered with a car or two, with closely spaced houses, more palm trees and several wooden crosses on the roadside. An anachronistic aberration appeared to my left, in the form of a pani puri cart, only this one said “Mini-Vini Idlis”. Intrigued I inquired and was met by Mini Kurien, who married Jose Furtado from this very parish, at the local Holy Cross church (now housing a large convent school that invites Salman Khan to its annual day celebrations each year). Love converted Mini Kurien from Malyalee Syrian Christian to East Indian, and this was her evening pastime. Besides, idlis go very well with xacuti she said casually.

Lending a touch of surrealism was the fact that all this was happening in the midst of a bustling metropolis, but then the East Indians have always been here, we are the intruders in their world.

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Note: This as an entry for the short story writing competition at The Banyan Trees.

Monsoon

In the monsoons, coastal Maharashtra revels in lush greenery. Flora abounds with an obscene fluorescence. Every local hill boasts a multitude of waterfalls cascading in all their effervescent glory. Even the concrete jungle of the Mumbai Metropolis, unable to deter the onslaught of greenery lies decked with festoons of moss, garishly leaved branches and a confetti of a permanent light drizzle. Within homes tea was consumed in clattering china cups, steam wafting upwards before becoming one with the light morning mist. Dark mornings loomed with the promise of collapsing infrastructure and powerless nights, sweaty in their embrace with the promise of love, lust.

Aparna imagined all of this, envisioned as a rich tapestry of colours. A screen overhead displayed a map with a diagrammatic aeroplane flying in a wide arc over Iran. 47 dashes to Mumbai, Aparna counted on the map stirring awake. A few hours later just before the flight’s rocky monsoonal descent into Mumbai Aparna craned her neck to get that first elusive view of Mumbai from the air. She spied sheets of gossamer threads moving in symmetric waves and spotted far below a sequence of yellow lights. Landmark after landmark she postulated incorrectly and the aeroplane made a final lunge piercing through a pregnant cloud, looming overhead flimsy slums and landed with a mighty heave as a collective sigh left the passengers.

Sadly, Aparna was disappointed with her imagination, or rather with the fecundity of it. Life was undoubtedly the picture perfect monsoon she imagined, it also co existed with pools of fetid slush, never ending humidity (and besides, sweat ceased to be sexy immediately after lust was satiated) and damp corners and clothes that were somehow never completely dry. Distance romanticizes, she concluded. Even the people around her seemed somehow more intense in their flaws, and muted in their munificence’s. Moss however pretty did beget slime, cracked walls and made humans slip. And fall.

Early Winter

December was undoubtedly the best time to visit Tamil Nadu. It was merely hot, unencumbered by its nastier superlatives, dawn and dusk were actually pleasant and then there was the music. Setting out from Chennai the very atmosphere exuded mellowness. The normally fierce sun shone benign, the sea waves lapped softly, the delicate sea breeze was only broken by the clang of a distant temple bell. Aparna’s parents set out to appease multiple Gods, three planets and in the process enrich a few corpulent priests.

They travelled in a rented Ambassador, the symbol of a solid, accident proof India along a circuitous route all over Thanjavur district (the old district as Aparna’s father continually reminded her). Every town seemed to look the same; a tangle of wires dangling overhead, buildings looming over a narrow central street, a mammoth tample ‘gopuram’ suddenly rising into view. And despite this unerring familiarity every temple was different. Well of course they were different; what Aparna felt, or what she thought she felt was the soul of each temple. Despite the neck craning and subtle pushing to get a good view of divinity and the hurried giving away of a 100 rupee note for a few more seconds of gazing into a dark statue, despite the rotten bananas and comforting smell of camphor.

They camped overnight at an ancient relatives place in a village near Kariakal. In the evening as they ate by falling light, someone sang an apt Kalyani from within the dark confines of the house and the sun left with a final bright orange ray with birds flying over. Sadly for our city bred, foreign returned Aparna this postcardness was not to continue for more. The next morning saw her aghast at the thought of deposing her bodily wastes in a field with an old dalda can filled with dubious brackish water. When she finally did finish her task and rose, she realized with a creeping horror someone had been spying upon her. Disgusted and frustrated she made her way home as a pig broke into a run and happily gorged on the recently departed contents of her bowels.

Late Winter

January however is undoubtedly not the best time to visit any part of Northern USA. Airports, with their propensity to insulate one from the outside world, don’t help matters much. After perfunctory procedures Aparna squinted at the bright sunlight and a minute later frowned deeply, many lines etching her dark face. This sudden induction into coldness always left her flustered no matter how used to she was to it. She reveled in the crispness of the cold air and confidently crunched snow with her boots always sure of her step.

She felt comfortable with every increasing mile and eventually risked it to get off the freeway and step onto a country road. The small road had not been salted and earlier vehicles had left deep ruts in the packed snow. Slowly she inched across passing by a frozen expanse that passed off as a lake in the summer. The bright white ground contrasted with the blue sky, with the occasional scrawny branch bringing in browns. The ruts slowly disappeared with the advent of a light snowfall and within minutes Aparna was relying on blind instinct as she fought to stay on the road. At length she stopped knowing that she was lost. To her credit she only panicked after she discovered her cell phone wasn’t reachable in this wilderness. She desperately tried to reposition herself using her practiced geography but gave up, parked her car and began trudging back when it hit her. With a slow dread that turned her bowels to water she realized she had driven off right onto the frozen lake. She half ran, then went back, retrieved her cabin luggage alone and made the most arduous walk of her life, over ice and snow towards the nearest tree. Her fingers had almost frozen over her phone keypad, poised to hit 911.

Later she warmed her hands considering herself terribly lucky to have escaped. While her computer whirred to life, she thought of wording the incident and posting it on facebook, then decided against it. She settled down, logged onto gmail as her contacts flashed by, some green (available), some red (busy) and some orange (away). The screen showed a cluster of unread mails, and someone pinged her. Aparna finally felt at home.

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