Straight Lines

‘Look at my face! Do you see it??’

‘Yes, of course, one can see ghastly things from a distance too. But, I don’t think you should beat yourself up about it.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes, I have seen your parents, and I think we can safely blame the genes.’

‘What, pimples are hereditary?’

‘Pimples? I was talking about your horrid face. And it’s now so close to my face that I am scared that gravitational force will soon take over. Move away!’

‘No, I mean, do you not see the pimple?’

‘Well, I see you. Does that count as seeing a pimple?’

‘Come along, now! The one on my nose. How big is it?’

‘That’s a pimple? I thought it was your nose.’

‘Shh, here she comes now! Quick, give me something to cover my nose!’

‘Here, take this book and bury your nose in it. Wow, I never knew we could apply that phrase literally too!’

She came, gave me a thin smile, and turned her attention upon the just-bloomed bookworm.

‘Wow, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky! One of my favourites. I never leave the house without it. What do you think of the book? Top notch, eh?’

To which, my pimple-afflicted friend drew his head back as his hands fell to his sides, groaned in a muffled sort of way like a hippopotamus under water, and sneezed. The entire sequence was completed before the book hit the floor. He looked like an oriental dragon with phlegming nostrils. She, on the other hand, looked worse than an unused car which had become the communal loo for birds. A sharp look, and a tight slap later, I endeavoured to explain things to him, as he had no clue how, and why he sneezed in a manner that would have put thunderbolts to shame.

‘I just took that book out of my locker. It’s been there, untouched and dusty, for 4 years now!’

‘Oh!’

‘Though, I think it has done you good.’

‘Oh?’

‘Yes, the pimple’s burst.’

‘Oh.’

‘Now you look like Rudolph, the reindeer, who has just heard about global warming.’

I was waiting for another ‘Oh’, just as you are. But, it seems there’s a limit to how many different ways you can pronounce it.

‘Who is she, anyway?’, I asked.

‘I don’t know her name. I saw her smiling at me during lunch yesterday, and I thought I would make a move.’

‘She doesn’t even look good.’

‘Hey, are you one of those shallow people too, who base everything on external beauty? Can’t you, for a moment, comprehend that a man and a woman can like each other just because they have common interests, and can understand and respect each other’s views??’

‘Ah, so, what are her hobbies?’

‘Well, she apparently likes Ukrainian authors, and I like the way my lips pucker up when I say Ukraine.’

‘Ukrainian? Fyodor Dostoyevsky was Russian.’

‘It doesn’t matter. I have my heart set upon winning the lissom maiden’s hand.’

‘Are we in a time machine of some kind? Because I think we are back in 1833, when that phrase was last used.’

 

Arguments were as lost on him as aerobics lessons are on a polar bear. The couple were as opposite in views as Laurel and Hardy were in weight. She was a hardcore environmentalist; he used the printer to print up hundreds of copies of an essay simply titled, ”23 Million trees bear the brunt of injudicious printing every year. What can you do about it?”. She loved animals more than humans; he won the yearly “Who can pin this firecracker to the dog’s tail?” contest for 9 years in a row, and had written a three-part treatise on various strategies he employed. She loved books; he used books as substitutes for Frisbees. She was always prim and proper; with his taste in clothes, his eligibility for the quarterly “Best dressed ragamuffin parade” would have been in question. She had a dainty way about whatever she did; stone crushers in a quarry would have been out-decibelled by the noise his jaws produced while he ate. All these cogent arguments of mine went on deaf ears. He was still convinced that she was, as he put it, “his jiggly, wiggly, squiggly damsel”.

In the course of the next few weeks, many time-tested strategies were put to test. They ranged from banal ones like sending her flowers, and chocolates anonymously, to extremely complicated ones like the time when he tried choreographing a few fish to spell out her name within a heart. Miraculously, they got the heart correct, but inside it was the word “Seaweed”. Fed up with all these antics, I proffered some advice on how to woo the fair lass.

 

‘Where everything else fails,’ I said, ‘chivalry works. Follow her wherever she goes, and at any point of time, if you think she’s in trouble, step in.’

Two weeks later, he was following her bicycle from a distance when, through his binoculars, he noticed a quick movement in her pillion basket. He zoomed in (binocularly, and distance-wise), and to his consternation, he saw the smooth, patterned skin and the black fangs of a snake.

Like the late Michael Jackson, he too thought, ‘This is it!’, and rushed forward to rescue her from the vile reptile. Running like the wind, he rushed ahead of her, slowed her down, pulled her off the bicycle, picked up a stout stick, and whacked the snake a couple of times. She screamed her head off. He dropped the stick, and hugged her, repeating that everything would be all right. She tried to push him away, but he held her tighter, explaining that she was in shock, and she should calm down.

‘What in God’s name did you just do?’, she asked, pushing him away after her third attempt.

‘Oh, it’s nothing, you don’t have to thank me’, he said, with the air of a person who regularly had breakfast with rattlesnakes.

‘Thank you? THANK YOU?? You just killed Richard, you idiot!’

‘Richard? I think you are still in shock. Here, have some chocolate.’

‘That was my pet snake, King Richard the fifth. I was taking him for his daily slither.’

‘You mean, you knew the snake was there?’

‘Don’t call it “the snake”, you ignorant ape!’, she shouted, before picking King Richard the fifth up, and cycling away furiously.

 

‘It’s ok, there are other proverbial fish in the sea’, I said, a couple of days after this incident, ‘just forget about her, and go on with your life.’

He mumbled something about not liking fish, before walking away.

‘Hi, do you have a minute?’, asked a voice from behind me. It was her, the past-object of his affections.

‘Yes, sure, tell me.’

‘Can you tell me which snake farm you bought Richard from, and gave him to me? Even after two whacks on his head, he’s alive and robust. I want to get him a friend to keep him company.’

‘Look how cute she is!’

I did. I was pleasantly shocked. Pleasant because I was relieved that she indeed belonged to the fairer sex, shocked because she was as cute as a pig on a roller coaster. My sincere apologies to anyone who fancies pigs on roller coasters, Oink-ing at different pitches is just not my thing.

‘Eh?’ With such lucid emotions running a 100m race in my mind, that was the only noise I could think of emitting.

‘What do you mean, “eh”?

No one in his right mind would answer that. A change of topic was well warranted.

‘There, look at that!’

‘What? Where?’

‘Right there!’

‘Where?’

To spare you the details of this A&Q that went on for quite some time, I succeeded in staving off the matter about “cute” girls for quite some time.

Quite some time was apparently 8 minutes.

‘Dude!’

‘What?’

‘Look over there!’

‘Where?’

‘Right there!’

‘Where?’

I can sense the good old déjà vu creep into your bean. But then, you belong to the Backstreet Boys generation. If you could listen to their lyric-repetitive songs over and over again, you wouldn’t mind a little déjà vu. Or if you want a more compelling reason for me not caring –

I don’t care,

Who you are,

Where you’re from,

What you do..

Pulling you back right into the story, there was that girl again. The “cute” one. She was peeling oranges and spitting the seeds on the path. Pigs on a roller coaster are better behaved.

You may say, ‘Oh, but come on, maybe she’s beautiful on the inside?’ The answer to that was essayed about two minutes later, when she burped.

The next few days were agonizing to the point that I had to depend on Arnab Goswami to drown out the love-stricken friend’s voice as he coochie-cooed to her over the phone.

‘Aw, come on, they were in love!’ you might say.

A small transcript of their chat over the phone might suffice to answer you. Just to be fair, I imagined all her answers:

Him: So, what are you up to?

Her: Cutting onions.

Him: Oh, how? Into thin slices, or small-small bits?

Her: Thin slivers.

Him: Wow, I love onions that way!

Her: Tell me, will you eat onions if I cut them in small-small bits too? :) (Though I have no sure way of confirming the smiley, had this been a chat, I am sure there would have been a dozen of them)

Him: Of course, baby, I would eat the onion whole!

Her: Peeled or unpeeled?

Him: What do you like better?

Her: Hmmm, choose a finger.

Him: Hmmm, the thumb.

Her: No, choose another.

Him: Index?

Her: Ok. :) (It isn’t hard for you to imagine a smiley, is it?)

Now, there are two main reasons why I hate the above conversation. One, he loved onions as much as the British love coffee. Two, even though I am a big fan of choosing fingers, I didn’t know what the index finger was for! One just has to know, else it will be like the time when my distant uncle had me choosing between two fingers and then walked off a cliff! When I put it to the love-struck lad, he showed me the neighbouring finger. It was not his thumb, to make things crystal.

Their love deepened. I moved on from Arnab Goswami to multiple recordings of Dhoni’s press conferences after impressive losses. When bouquets of flowers and multi-coloured chirping birds in cages started arriving, I reached a new low by shifting my focus to a management lecture on youtube about Kolaveri. Then the photo frames with their smiling faces in front of monuments, waterfalls, malls, random road, etc. started adorning the walls of our house, the walls whose previous tenants had been Michael Schumacher, Katrina Kaif, Angelina Jolie, David Gilmour, Albus Dumbledore, and Sauron. That’s when I began praying for a miracle to happen, but God apparently works in mysterious ways. Two days and I still wasn’t granted my wish to go blind.

Weeks slipped into months. They found each other cute in ways never thought before. He found her nose cute. She found his handwriting sweet. Her way of chewing food was, and I quote, “lovey-dovey”. She referred to him by different classes of rodents which were by no fault of their own, cute, when he ferreted around looking for his car keys, or he forgot the turn to his office, or the floor number on which our house was situated. He abused adjectives left, right and centre by singing praises of her digits. The little hair ringlets at the back of his neck were now given names.

‘Dude, do you know what I am going to do?’, he asked me one fine morning, just as I was contemplating whether one could slip into a coma voluntarily.

‘There is something else you can do?’ I was hoping he would hear the italics.

‘Yeah, I am going to dedicate a song to her on radio!’

The italics, it seems, were conveniently ignored. This was a double whammy to me, as I’d shifted to listening to the radio in the past few days. Watching the TV was unbearable, considering that he now hung a huge poster above the TV that said, “Love you, Forever” with a baby’s mouth erupting with blood-red hearts.

And then he went about his big plan of dedicating a song. He made it seem as if the whole world was waiting with bated breath to watch what transpired – there was a brief hiatus in dictator-dying, stocks flattened out, Sachin stayed at his 99th international century, no new Rajnikanth jokes were born, and so on and so forth.

The D-day arrived. The whole apartment was painted pink with hearts here, there and everywhere. Confetti dropped at random intervals, giving the whole thing a jazzy look. Speakers were set up to give the surround effect and the whole neighbourhood was intrigued. He wore white and white, looking like a butler who was out of a job. She arrived, dressed in black and a collective gasp went around the society. She wasn’t stunning, and yet, they were stunned. She was led blindfolded into our apartment and made to sit on a heart shaped couch.

A long speech erupted out of his mouth, much like the baby on the wall erupting hearts. The clock struck 5. It was H-hour. He took her palms in his.

His smile faltered a bit. His face screwed up into an amoeba. He dropped her hands like a bungee cord giving up on its owner and put his clenched fist into his wide-open mouth.

He couldn’t remember the frequency of the radio station.

And this manner of forgetfulness, apparently, was unforgivable, however cute a rodent he might be.

The next day, Albus Dumbledore was smiling at me from behind his half-moon glasses. Smiley?

‘Hello, this is the police control room. Sup?’

Now, to a fine, well-read individual like you, who still sees the many uses of vowels, that sentence ought to strike a jarring note. Well, let’s face it, whether they catch thieves and offenders or not, the police have definitely caught up with the tongue of today’s youth. Whatever be the state of the other person’s life, the answer is always a neutral, sad “Nothing Much”. Let us delve a bit and see a situation that calls for the use of “Sup?” nowadays. The following situation is best empathised with when enacted –

(A silent, well-lit hospital corridor. Not a soul in sight except the pen-tapping nurse. Door to the right opens.)

Pregnant woman: “AAAAARRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHNNN…”

Husband: Nurse, quick, call a doctor. My wife is in labour.

(Nurse’s pointed heels echo away into the distance. The screaming reaches cosmic levels. Spotlight on husband. Husband walks to the front to deliver his 7 minute soliloquy.)

Author: For the benefit of the readers, the soliloquy has been away-ed with. To give you a brief idea, it was boring and as unnecessary as the book Chetan Bhagat is now writing.

Husband: I need some water after that long speech.

(Two pairs of shoes run down the corridor.)

(After a pregnant 3 minute pause and a few enquiries, it was found that the pair of shoes belonged to a couple from the audience who had apparently had enough. We still await the arrival of the doctor and the nurse; any inconvenience caused, as they say in the Indian railways, is deeply regretted.)

(Two pairs of shoes run down the corridor. Hurray, the nurse and the doctor!)

Pregnant woman: “AAAAARRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHNNN…”

(We wait for the screaming to have the desired effect in the audience. A few more people walk out. The doctor eyeballs the woman up and down as she falls down clutching her pregnant tummy.)

(Pause for the gravity of the situation to sink in.)

Doctor to the couple: Sup??

Husband: Oh, nothing much. Life’s as usual. By the way, have you heard to the Kolaveri song?

Now that we have established that “Sup?” is a very valid question to ask at all times, let us move forth with our tale.

An ugly scream rent the sweat-soaked, smoke filled police control room. No, it wasn’t the pregnant woman. She always goes – AAAAAAAARRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHNNNNNN…” The screaming stopped as suddenly as it started and then, there was static. Silence.

Not even an owl hooted,

Even if it did,

It was muted.

Before you start doubting the author’s mental capabilities after that ill-formed Haiku, the police moved with so much speed that you wouldn’t require a Large Hadron Collider in CERN to prove that there are things that can move faster than light. With great efficiency, they traced the call to an old apartment inhabited by a seedy man who they long suspected of murder.

Sirens wailed as the cops rushed out in their vintage (that’s just a classier way of saying dilapidated) cars and swept through roads. Sleeping dogs were howling once again, as the moon hid behind clouds. Dead leaves formed their own whirlpools in the flying dust, as trees rustled with great fury because of the cold, swirling gale from the Northwest. An unfastened iron gate swung hither and thither, making hollow, creaking sounds. In the distance, an old man sat hunched at a fire, warming his wizened limbs. It was a scene haunted enough to make any grown up cringe.

Not the cops. They had headlights on high beam and Himesh Reshammiya making use of his nose in unimaginable ways.

The cars screeched to a stop and the cops rushed up the building. They took their positions, arms at the ready. Every man was sweating like a pig, mostly because they were as fat as pigs and hadn’t climbed stairs for years.

The leader moved forward, along with the negotiator. The listener followed close behind; his job was to listen to any metallic sounds and give an accurate description of what it is and how it can be best negated. Yes, just like in the movies.

Knock knock.

‘Who’s there?’, came a voice from the ranks of the policemen. It was also followed by muffled laughter.

Knock knock. No jokes this time.

Knock knock knock. Something stirred from within the house.

In two ticks, footsteps rushed to the door. The policemen stiffened. The door opened and the suspect walked out into the narrow corridor with a bloodstained knife in his hand.

‘Sup?’, he asked, to no one in particular.

In their hurry to answer, the policemen jumped out of their hiding places in unison, thus bumping into one another and having the greatest fall down a flight of steps since Humpty Dumpty.

By the time they untangled themselves, there was no point in saying “Nothing much!”. The suspect was long gone.

Today, a part of me flickered and died out. When the news came through that Ayush had succumbed to a condition so rare that most people live their whole life without even coming within a mile’s distance from it, I went as blank as the dark sky. The only stars that appeared were aberrations due to tears welling up. Words were as forgotten as Ayush wouldn’t be. The only words I could read and comprehend were those of the innumerable chats we had over the internet. And through the haze cut this random chat we had over a year ago:

And it all came back. Words flowed, instead of tears. I had to write.

Of these five magnificent years that I have known and indeed, loved him. Ayush, or Aish as he was popularly (and notoriously) known, was a person whom, whether you knew him or not, you had to have a story with. Within a year at IITM, he made sure that anybody worth his salt knew him. A batsman par excellence, seniors lined up at the nets to bowl him out. They did. A couple of times. But not before their thighs were red and sore due to continual contact with the ball. While his bat did most of the jabbering, his oratory was something else. By the end of first year, he was giving inspirational speeches to all and sundry. His astute approach toward cricket and indeed, everything else in life was shown by how he drilled down to the minutiae of each player’s actions and how he could improve them. The “Vision” speeches, we called them. Instead of poking fun at the speech, I realize that had we taken an ounce of what he said to our heart, it would have made a difference to our lives.

Enter his room and the first thing that hit you was the stink from last semester’s unwashed clothes. After you get over the odor, you will find yourself reading a couple of inspirational quotes and a few sheets containing the number ‘9’ stuck to the walls. His desk would be littered with a multitude of books ranging from basic fluid mechanics to Nancy Friday. A time table would be stuck right above the desk, and a few more quotes and 9s lavishly thrown around. I don’t think any of us would forget that one semester, where he proved that God was living amidst us. In an academically challenging semester containing 26 credits and some of the toughest courses the mechanical department had to take, he hopped, skipped and jumped above all others to put the ball into the hoop. But that wasn’t all. In the same semester, he was also the institute cricket captain and took up one of the toughest jobs at Shaastra and Saarang. Notwithstanding that, he was a part of the hostel dramatics team which required long hours of practice well into the night. And all this while the institute polls hinged upon the movement of this puppeteer’s hands. He scored a thundering 9.4. Phoenixes, had they made an appearance, would have paled before his rise to the fore.

Ayush would have been pretty disappointed had I just extolled his virtues and subdued his vices. Vice, in fact. The only vice he had was a profound love for life and to live it in every damn way possible. And he made sure we were a part of all his antics too. Many a night, he used to come back to the hostel in an apparently drunk state, while all he would have had, if he did, was half a pint of beer. Then began this whole charade of pulling everyone out of their sleep and rooms and asking them to direct the way to his room. All the while whispering sweet nothings into our ear and asking us whether we loved him and if we did, why didn’t we show it by kissing him then and there? When we reached his door, he refused to go in and sat us down and expounded upon various theories he had in mind. Soon, the conversation moved to the comfort of one of our rooms and just as we had our back turned to close the door, a deep snore would escape his lips. It saddens me to no end that the face that would appear at my window, wake me up and ask, “Abey, SAC chalega? Chips lete hain chalo” would never be facing my ire again. That he would never again irritate me by sitting at my computer and watching ‘Hustle’ while I pleaded with him to leave so that I could sleep in peace. That we would never shower in adjacent bathrooms singing songs to the general discontentment of the whole wing. That he would never come and speak to me about how I had to thin down, all the while showing his treaded waist. That we would never share the stage together and laugh at the dramatics video later. The list is as endless as the smile on his face was.

A career oriented chap, he always was years ahead of what he wanted to be. I see half his mails to be about reviewing his resume and making it look better. I remember how we used to sit and bloat a few stories up to answer inane questions like “Give us an example of your leadership skills.” Pshaw! 5 minutes of talking to him and the interviewer would have gained a few pointers about leadership. Of those times when we used to sit and worry whether to include a particular coord-ship at Shaastra or not. Of how he would answer questions like “We see a huge spike in your CG and then a gradual, slow decrease, why, Mr. Joshi?” I write this not two meters from the ledge where we both sat a few months back and discussed IIM interviews and questions. To say that he was on his way to glory, if he had already not achieved it, is as obvious as the bright, red sun.

Aashu, Basu, Dhansu and Chutki. They were the kids he was supposed to have. Mishra and I teased him to no end with this. We will miss his elaborately verbose assignments in sick green ink. That he was attached to his family is as big an understatement as proclaiming the Big Bang as a mere show of crackers. In our first year, we had a competition to try and understand what he was speaking to his mother in a dialect that involved the usage of ka-da-ma between every word. Impulsive to the hilt, on hearing that it was my mother’s birthday, he asked me to call her up at 1 in the night while he sang the song “Ma” from Taare Zameen Par, with Arun on the guitar. That we won’t be jamming through the night with him any more pains me. That we won’t be an audience to his vast play-list of  songs from B-Grade Bollywood flicks.  An elder brother that he was, I would miss his pennies’ worth about women and how to go about enslaving them by pure charm.

All evening, I have had people telling me “RIP Ayush.” To associate Ayush with peace is as blasphemous as calling him violent. A prankster at heart, peace was one of the last things he would want in a room with him. I don’t want him to Rest in Peace. I want him to wake me up from my sleep and ask me if I wanted to go have tea with him at the Dhaba. I want him to call me up at 2 in the night and ask me if I could think of any changes to his resume. I want him to sit with me all night and argue whether Muslims should be sent out of the country or not. I want him to come tell me that I have been negligent of my duty as a player and that I should be kicked out of the team for that. I want him to ask me to vote for a friend of his. I want him to father those four children and call them Aashu, Basu, Dhansu and Chutki. I want him to disrupt everyone’s peace all the while with that innocent smile lighting up his face. I want him…

That fate should strike such a mighty blow and he succumb to it stuns me. At the core, he was a fighter. He never believed in a word called defeat and his entire demeanor after losing a match was that of a gladiator raving to go back into the Colosseum. That such a person should fall is a matter of concern to us lesser mortals. I am afraid. Very afraid.

I apologize to his parents and kin for not being there at his bedside when he breathed his last. It’s just that, after seeing him in full splendor, it would be a heart-wrenching and devastating blow to see him fade away.

The last thing he ever asked of me was to do an assignment for him. I only wish he’d sent it.

‘Welcome to The Imperial Grand, sir. May I take your coat, Ma’am? I have reserved your usual table by the window, sir.’

‘Thanks, Jim. My son will be joining us, so could you show him to the table?’

The maître d’ nodded his most sincere assent and politely shuffled off with the coats in his hand.

The restaurant was like any other posh restaurant, where you could order a cheese sandwich worth 20 bucks for 210 INR (excluding taxes) and go home happy that you have maintained your social status by spending a lot over half a peanut. The atmosphere was filled with the fake laughter of women, the perfunctory ‘How do you do?’s of men, little children in tight suits, bow ties, shiny shoes and carefully parted hair with a look that resembled an alien wondering where the extra hand was growing from, waiters floating around with slick smiles fantasizing about the tip they might earn from that table, the muffled screeches of knives, forks and spoons against the china, the occasional wink from a wine glass. The smug whispers around the room were louder than the cheers at any rock concert. This melee of silence was broken by an ungainly sound like that of a machine gun – rat-a-tat-a-rat-a-tat-a-rat-a-tat-a-tick.

A thousand eyes rose up to follow the maître d’ leading a boy to the table near the window. The greetings within the family were punctuated by the same machine gun sound and this time, the eyes that rose were angrier, but polite.

‘Bunty, what are you (rat-a-tat-a-rat-a-tat-a-rat-a-tat-a-tick) going to do about (tick-tick-tick-rat-a-tat-a-rat-a-tat-a-rat-a-tat-a-tick) your future (tick-rat-a-tat-a-tick)?

‘What, pa?’

‘No, what are you (rat-a-tat-a-rat-a-tat-a-rat-a-tat-a-tick-rat-a-tat-a-rat-a-tat-a-rat-a-tat-a-tick) going to (rat-a-tat-a-rat-a-tat-a-rat-a)… Will you stop the goddam thing?’

‘Am sorry, what pa? Can you be a bit clearer?’

‘About your future, what… Will you put that damned cell phone inside?!’

‘Raj, don’t shout at him. Not in front of all these people at least. Mrs. Khanna just gave me a weird nod.’

‘I don’t care about your Mrs. Khanna. It’s because of you he’s turned out this way.’

‘Raj, not again. He’s just 23, he’s just a kid. Give him some time…’

‘At the age of 23, I used to work 18 hours a day. I was the sole breadwinner after my father… Bunty, you take that damned thing out of your pocket again and no pocket money for you this month!’

‘Why do you scold him? It was you who bought him that expensive a cell phone because he passed in all his subjects this time.’

‘Well, at least he did it in his third attempt…’

‘Raj, what do you think he should do, now that he has passed out? The Guptas have made their son the MD of their company and the Mohans have sent their son for his MBA to Finland…’

‘I think he should stand on his own feet.’

‘Ah, typical bollywood dialogue. Can’t you be original, for once? And practical??’

‘The way I see it, he hasn’t figured out what (tat-a-tick-rat-a-tat-a-rat-a-tat-a-tick) he wants to (tick-tick-rat-tick-tick) do…’

In one quick motion, Raj snatched the gadget from his son’s hand and walked out in a huff, upending the tumultuous peace of the room. Mrs. Khanna almost glared.

‘I just don’t understand who he keeps messaging, all the time!’ said Raj to himself, before opening the inbox on his way to the restroom. Never taking his eyes off the cell phone, he pushed open the door and went inside. It is often said that a blind man who is drunk to his gills can pin the tail on a donkey better than a sober, 6/6-visioned man with a cell phone in his hand. An unearthly mix of powder, mascara and what-not tickled his olfactory system in a rather irritating way. Women screaming about a man in the ladies’ restroom poured into the hotel lobby.

‘…since this was your first ever offence, I will let you off with a small warning, Mr. Ahuja,’ said the judge, in severe tones, ’but anything like this, ever again, and I will make sure that you spend a lot of time cooling your heels and counting the bars. Do you understand?’

Mr. Ahuja almost nodded his assent, when his cell phone beeped. In the silent courtroom, presided by a judge known for her merciless nature when it comes to issues related to women in general, this sounded like a bell tolling the departure of a train bound for hell.

‘Three weeks in the prison, Mr. Ahuja’ said the judge, ‘and social work for three more weeks after that!’

Thud! The sound of the gavel had a baseball-bat-hitting-your-face ring to it as he whipped out his mobile to see the name of the person he was going to kill after his brief stint in the limbo. The message, from his one and only son, the fruit of his loins, the heir to his empire, read:

“Ws juSt cHecKing 2 C if ur moBile ws in SiLenT. HaHaHa, reAd & FwD 2 ur FrnDs… LoL!”

It was the world’s worst break-up. After being a couple for almost seven years, they didn’t know what to do without the other. It was difficult to forget all those good times, and they both did lots of things to try and forget – the guy, for instance, drank cold milk with glucose all night and played World of Warcraft and the girl, she competed with herself in a mind numbing contest of ‘Who can cut an Onion into the smallest of pieces?’ The thrill of the game is not in the cutting itself, it’s the measuring. It would suffice to say that she kept herself occupied.

Traffic on Wednesday mornings was the worst. Indeed, one mother dropping off her son in school had recounted the tale ‘Rabbit and the tortoise’ so many times during the journey that the kid now saw hundreds of rabbits and tortoises rushing toward him. A John Nash in making, one would say. The frequent traffic signals made the journey even more uncomfortable. It was at one of these traffic signals that the unexpected happened. The estranged lovers, each holding a bag, found themselves on opposite sides of the zebra crossing waiting for the red light.

‘Oh, it’s her. Damn, I didn’t want this happening!’ thought he, to himself.

‘Oh, it’s him. Damn!’

No point mentioning that she was thinking to herself too.

‘Poor thing, she looks so emaciated. Has she not been eating?’

‘Whatever happened to his beautiful wavy hair? Is he not taking care of himself?’

‘Has she been crying? Red eyes. Has she been crying?!’ he thought, clearly ignorant of a certain game with Onions.

‘Oh, his eyes are so droopy and red. Has he not been sleeping?’

‘She’s wearing my favorite T-shirt! She looks so good, help me God!’

‘Ah, the watch I gave him for our 5th anniversary…’

‘I can almost smell her lavender perfume here…’

‘God, he looks so handsome. Why did we even break up!?’

‘The tender touch of her long fingers…’

‘How I loved the feel of his stubble on my face…’

‘Ah, she’s wearing the brooch I got her from the Andaman Islands’

‘He still uses that pen I got him from Amsterdam?’

‘God, the way she cooks chicken. I have never tasted chicken like that elsewhere!’

‘How I miss the foot massage he gives!’

‘We must definitely try and work things out’ thought the both of them, almost simultaneously.

She lifted her face up a bit and smiled a little. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other and smiled back. She saw him take his hand out of the pocket and thinking he was about to wave, she waved. Not noticing that, his hand went straight to his nose.

‘That irritating habit of his! How many times do I tell him not to pick his nose in public!?’

‘Er, why is she glaring at me like that!? She glares for every damn thing I do!’

‘Stupid obscene habit!’ she thought, as a strand of hair fell across her face.

‘There she goes again, chewing vigorously on her hair. How hard is it to not do that?’ and turned his face away.

‘Oh, now he’s ogling at other girls. The dirty pervert!’, as he turned his face back.

‘Ah, how can I forget the impatient foot tapping? As if she were a tap dancer…’

‘That fidgety creep! Why can’t he keep his hands to himself? He just has to scratch and touch everything. Can’t he stand quiet for a moment?’

‘Oh, now she’s mad with me. She’s gnashing her jaws and biting her teeth. Can’t she stay still without judging others for a moment?’

‘How did I ever end up with such an irritating bloke?’

‘How did I ever end up with such a high-handed wench?’

The traffic light turned red and the pedestrians poured onto the zebra crossing. They went past each other without as much as a nod.

The village was just as Pillai remembered it. Rust had taken newer meanings and blanch was the new paint. ‘All that will change in a few days’ he said to himself.

‘­Aunt, you have to become the village Head’ he said, as soon as he stepped into the house and washed his limbs. All help gasped. Leaves and wind did their thing and rustled and whooshed past. The patriarch’s Paan filled mouth was as ajar as Open Sesame. Vessels obediently followed gravity. The windows, who in their 350 year history had never heard anything so preposterous, made their presence felt. A bird hooted, apparently for no reason at all, but it added to the effect. Thunder and lightning were aching to join the melee, but the puffy white clouds didn’t quite agree.

Silence.

‘What, son? What did you just say?’ asked the aunt in a querulous voice.

‘You have to become the village head’ answered Pillai, dutifully.

Déjà vu. ‘Oh, come on!’ said thunder and lightning, as the puffy white clouds drove them off.

That statement was so horrific that the aforementioned patriarch, who in his 85 years of life had adhered to the well known and widely followed policy of ‘The world is your spittoon’, spat the red juice right into his spittoon.

The bird outside hooted in a different manner, which in avian parlance was a whistle of surprise. It recorded the time and date of the event. The last time that happened, according to the diary passed down through generations, was 247 years ago when the chewer that time thought that the spittoon was his mother-in-law’s mouth.

‘Me? Head? Are you out of your mind?’

‘No ma, I am not. In the city, women do all sorts of things. Why, some of them even drive! ‘

I suppose that next you will be asking me to wear men’s clothing?’ riposted the aunt, to which the help laughed.

‘Yes. If it’s fine…’

‘Do you think it’s the heat?’ asked help number one, directing her question to help number two.

‘Heat? I’ve seen what heat does to people. This is way above heat. I think he should be circumcised’ proffered help number two.

‘Don’t you mean exorcized?’ asked help number fifteen.

‘Yes, that too, if it helps.’

Pillai shook his head and came to the matter at hand.

‘So, what do you think, Aunt?’

After two days of continuous coaxing, she filed her nomination. Raghu, the window repairer got an unusual number of calls the day she filed her nomination. Gravity had a full and tiring day, with an unprecedented number of vessels falling. The white puffy clouds stood their sky.

She won by one vote. The 2 opposing parties, and the 19 independents demanded a re-count. It was then announced that she actually had won by 200 votes. Post poll alliances were formed, broken, formed and broken again. Oaths were administered at the Devi temple.

The village transformed in her able hands. Little girls were inspired and women formed Ladies’ Clubs. Rust was nowhere to be seen and the village looked like a festival area. In the midst of all this, the men became jealous. After many covert meetings, they came to no definite consensus and split into three factions. Peace pipes were passed, puffed on and forgotten. Finally, one day…

‘The Head’s a witch! Monsoons were supposed to be here 3 weeks ago, and not a single black cloud in the sky!’

‘Yeah! Burn her!’ shouted a crowd, predominantly of men, ‘unless she can prove otherwise!’

As is wont with men, she was given no chance to prove herself as she was dragged out of the house and tied to a stake. A roaring fire raged beneath her petite feet.

‘May the heavens come crashing down upon you!’ cursed she, as her Saree caught fire.

The puffy white clouds relented. Rain came pouring down, shooing cats, dogs and men into shelter. The fire had abated, and so did the rain in a few minutes.

‘She can command the heavens! Do we need more proof that she’s a witch? Set her on fire!!’

The poor woman burned and the village slowly transformed to its erstwhile dilapidated state under the able hands of a man.

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