STRANGER IN THE NIGHT

Before I see her, I hear her. No, it is only her stick. Her, I never hear at all.

When her battered wooden cane clacks against the old wooden seats, we who are sitting at the front of the first compartment of one of the last locals to Borivali, look up. In the aisle stands an elderly lady, left hand clutching the hook of her stick, right hand cupped in supplication, her entire frame swaying with the motion of the train.

Thinning grey hair, straggly and uncombed, plastered against her skull into a tiny bun at the back. A fading tattoo at the centre of her sun-bronzed forehead; a caste-mark, perhaps. Her eyes are shut. Perhaps she cannot open them. Perhaps she chooses not to. I don’t know.

She wears a dark green blouse that yawns around her elbows. A green and red sari, not unclean. Bangles on her wrist, golden, perhaps gold. Not someone who was always poor. From wizened head to unshod feet, she is four feet something and sparsely built, just like my grandmum.

We are terrified she will fall over.

The middle-aged man with hennaed hair who has just boarded at Khar, already proffers a coin. My faintly moustachioed young neighbour, who has spent the last fifteen minutes telephonically advising his associate about relationships, compromising and how not to say ‘fuck’ in front of one’s mother, tucks his phone between shoulder and ear, digs out his wallet and extricates a ten-rupee note. And I, who think myself inured to beggars of all description – wheedling eunuchs, anaemic urchins and deadpan single mothers – fish in my change pocket and draw out all its coins.

She accepts our coins without remark and drops them into a pocket sewn inside her blouse. The note she raises to her forehead, murmurs a silent thanks, and tucks into the waist of her sari.

She shambles on to the next set of seats. I find my head turning to watch her. She lightly grazes the heads or shoulders of the seated men to steady herself; maybe also to garner sympathy. I stand and lean against the back of my seat for a better view. Few are those who don’t bring out their wallets.

As Santacruz approaches, the train decelerates. She turns around, steadies herself for a moment and inches towards the door. She is too short to grasp the hand-grips overhead. The train stops with a jerk. She teeters, but does not fall.

She lowers herself onto the platform. On an impulse, so do I.

The train thunders out of the station. She uses her cane as a pathfinder, casting about in front of herself as she walks, nay, totters along one side of the platform. I stroll unobtrusively along the other, looking at her sideways. She shuffles up to a foodstall. Identifies it with her hand. Shuffles onward. Bangs her stick against a bench. Reaches the next stall. Hand flails for the counter. This too is open. She chooses to totter on, not exhibiting the measured confidence of the blind.

I follow, hopefully inconspicuous. Should I walk alongside her, I will attract more than a few stares, even at this late hour. I’m already embarrassed by what I now realise is my stalking, but am unable to stop.

She reaches a third foodstall. Taps the glass. Gestures to the attendant to pack something. A few samosas and vadas. She produces notes out her sari.

The attendant catches me watching. Locks eyes for a moment. Then shrugs, and returns to wiping the counter.

Ten minutes have elapsed. A train has drawn in, paused, and departed. I realise that I don’t need to be shifty. She is not at all aware of my presence.

Turning around, she backs up against the stall and slowly slides to the ground. Withered, veiny hands rip open the parcel and count its contents. Satisfied, she stuffs it into a cloth bag on her shoulder. One hand pushes down against the concrete. With the other, she bears down on her stick. After a few seconds of crouched uncertainty, she straightens up. Circles around a shut newspaper stall. And slowly squats on her haunches.

She is facing the stall, instead of resting against it. I am puzzled. Until I observe a small stream of something emerge from between her feet, darkening the platform.

As another train draws in, she struggles up, and advances to the edge of the platform. A man walking by warns her to go no further. She stops, and lets her cane clatter against the doorframes of the slowing train. Thut…..thut….thut…thut..thut. When it halts, willing hands pull her in. I board it too.

What will claim her first – death, hunger or a terrible accident? Will she welcome death, or is she terrified of it? Where does she find the courage to fend for herself, and for how long has she been on her own? Does anyone ever speak to her? What does her voice sound like? Where was she born? What is her story?

She goes on to Jogeshwari, a few more rupees and God-knows-what. I alight at Andheri, for a thirty-rupee rickshaw ride, dinner, and bed.

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A GAAJAR KA HALWA RECIPE

Think of S. Think of S’s mother. Think of S’s mother’s gaajar ka halwa. Focus on the gaajar ka halwa. Realise that a year has gone by since you last had some. Miss it. Crave it. Realise that it is the only form in which you consume carrots. Remember that carrots are rich in Vitamin A. Wonder how you’ve survived a year without Vitamin A. Resolve to procure some gaajar ka halwa to fulfil your body’s Vitamin A requirements. Wonder why you think of such stupid reasons to have gaajar ka halwa. Wonder why you need any reason to have gaajar ka halwa. Resolve to have gaajar ka halwa. Now.

Be an idiot. Ignore the sweetshop on the next block. Choose to make it yourself. At home. Alone.

Look for recipes online. Dismiss the one that fast-tracks the process by employing a pressure cooker. Scoff at the suggestion to use condensed milk. Decide to start from scratch.

Buy half a kilo of carrots. Marvel at how cheap they are. Wonder why you haven’t cooked gaajar ka halwa before. Cradle five carrots, each as long as your forearm, in your forearms, and hum lullabies as you walk home.

Wash carrots. Drop one in sink. Wash carrots. Drop one in sink. Wash carrots one by one.

Peel carrots. Hey, this is easy! Wonder why mother rarely accedes to requests for gaajar ka halwa.

Chop carrots into pieces as long, as grater is wide. Commence grating first piece. Keep grating. Continue grating. Glance at clock. Note that ten minutes have passed. Notice that only half the carrot piece has been grated. Note that twenty-four pieces remain. Realise why mother rarely accedes to requests for gaajar ka halwa.

Accidentally grate fingers against grater. Drop carrot. Cry out in pain. Stick fingertips in mouth. Repeat until most of your dermis and all of your epidermis have been similarly processed.

Grate grate grate. Become aware of stinging pain that started off from fingertips, camped in joints, migrated up phalanges and finally settled in knuckles. Wipe palms on boxers and check if titanium knuckles have been invented. Ponder about what would happen if you bunged all carrots in mixer and gave it a spin. Realise you would end up with carrot juice. Resume grating.

Resume acquaintance with pain, which has now garbed itself in guise of ache and crept up to biceps which, after eight months of living incognito in gym, have chosen this moment to announce their existence. Attempt to dry palm on soaked vest and Google average waiting period of Zonal Hand Transplantation Program.

Turn grater around, scrape carrot towards you instead, and manage to stab yourself in stomach. Imagine tomorrow’s headlines:

Authorities broke into the house of a deranged young doctor after neighbours reported his screams of ‘S’s MOTHER IS MA ANNAPURNA’, ‘WORSHIP WOMEN WHO COOK’ and ‘CAPITALISM RULES!’ The police have registered a case of attempted suicide as the victim was found impaled on a carrot stick, which he had evidently tried to insert directly into his intestines via his belly button.

As paramedics provided first aid, the victim allegedly overheard a policewoman say that she might take the grated carrot home to make a salad. Psychiatrists opined that this may have caused the victim to jump out of the stretcher, tackle the policewoman and knock her out cold.

The authorities have additionally charged the victim with assaulting a public servant.

Finish grating carrots. Admire an hour’s worth of labour. Consider cryopreserving few strands to show off to great-grandchildren. Wonder whether some can be embedded in glass paperweight to place on mantelpiece. Begin transferring strands that had fallen on kitchen counter or floor into dustbin. Pause. Laugh dementedly. Add to heap.

Slap some ghee in saucepan. Melt it. Fling in copious amounts of raisins, and indiscriminately chopped cashews and almonds, to at least increase, if not double bulk of dish. Fry until raisins resemble cataractous lenses and other two look like they hiked mountain but forgot sunscreen.

Dunk in some more ghee, because this is dish for Gods. Add carrots, and mix until shoulder dislocates. Wonder what average global temperatures were before you started cooking. Wonder if sweat is chef’s secret ingredient. Wonder if carrots should be sizzling, roasting or frying. Look at saucepan, and recoil with horror at modest lump of carrot mush trying to hide in corner. Read Wikepedia article which informs you that carrots are 88% water. Fling phone away.

Add milk. Be grateful that you didn’t have to buy cow and milk it. Let it condense. Bury it all under heaps of sugar, because Indian dessert is essentially sweetened cholesterol.

Peel few pods of cardamom with your toes because fingers are on sick leave. Pound them in mortar with pestle between your teeth because you can’t make fist anymore. Add along with fried dry fruits. Mix well. Call your mum. Tell her you love her. Pass out.

*

Halwa is…perfect. Cool. Put in freezer. Have one teaspoon a day and give thanks that your fingers, after months of daily physiotherapy, are beginning to regain motor function.

Buy gun to shoot people who want to taste some of your preciousssss. Gollum gollum.

Think of S. Think of S’s mother. Think of how long it’s been since she’s had a chance to make you gaajar ka halwa

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ALL MY SEX EDUCATION

The End

*

Neil Gaiman’s parents had no rules for what he couldn’t read. Mine did – my mum made me swear I’d never read Sidney Sheldon (still haven’t, mother promise). No smut for her son, she decided. But no other books were banned. Thus it came to be that a still single-digit-year-old me bounded into a library and borrowed Kane and Abel, in which a teenager with a single nipple makes love to a fellow immigrant in a boat on a ship (don’t ask). Only after seventeen Russian soldiers have raped his sister in a Polish forest.
Why did I attain puberty before the rest of my generation? Jeffrey Archer.

*

I commuted to secondary school in a van driven by a wily fellow we shall call Raghavan (because that was his name). As a fifth-grader, I was the youngest in the Maruti Omni, while the oldest was a venerable tenth-grader named Siddharth (also his real name), who, Praise the Lord, had a girlfriend. And a big mouth that explained in some detail what he did with her wished to do to her (while Raghavan the Randy leered lasciviously in the rear-view mirror). These soliloquys, which we followed with slavering tongues, were sometimes interrupted by another boy my age who, one evening, glanced out his window into an adjacent apartment and observed a couple align themselves horizontally, for the purpose of sharing body heat in Bombay’s harsh and arctic winters.

*

On the coffee table lay a Reader’s Digest with a cover story titled ’17 Reasons To Have SEX When You’re Not Fighting Cancer/Dying In A Plane Crash/Climbing Everest’. By then, I knew, or thought I knew, and smartass that I was, sidled up to my mum with a coy smile and asked, ‘what does that word mean?’

My mum, well-versed with my smartassedness, countered with ‘what do you think it means?’

I was struck dumb. I knew. She knew I knew. But I couldn’t admit that I knew she knew I knew.

So fourteen years later, here we are. As per official records, I still don’t know.

*

Ask any 90’s kid about his then favourite Hollywood film and he may name anything from Tomorrow Never Dies to Toy Story, but the one true answer is American Pie.

My eyes (and other parts of me) will never forget the afternoon I (first) watched the scene in Ghost in which Demi Moore, her shirt unbuttoned, her hands glutinous with clay, messes with a pottery wheel and Patrick Swayze, shirtless and sculpted, spoons in and touches her fingers and hands and arms and my father walked in.

*

I tagged along with my mum to watch a movie called Bollywood Calling. At one point, it became apparent that two of the characters were going to get hot-and-heavy/down-and-dirty/pick-your-euphemism. My mum stood up and said:

‘I’m going to the loo.’

‘Okay.’

‘Come with me.’

What?!

‘Come with me to the loo.’

No!

‘You don’t have to come in. Just wait outside.’

Why?!

‘For my safety. I’m scared.’

We were in a multiplex. I was ten.

*

You could always rely on MSN Hotmail (now Outlook) to cram your inbox with emails inviting you to claim the Krakozhian lottery you’d won (and didn’t even remember signing up for; silly boy), by simply providing your credit card number, or petitions to contribute a not insignificant fraction of your life’s savings to the Cartographical Society of the Bermuda Triangle, or some such worthy cause.

Because I didn’t know better (and often still don’t), I clicked on one such link, which revealed a helpfully illustrative photograph of what a man and a woman can do if they bump into each other (literally) and happen to have no clothes on (for videos, visit downloadfreevirus.com).

*

As you can see, I have spent several years acquiring scientific information from all the right sources. Someday, if I have a daughter, I will teach her that sanitary napkins are a sort of adult diaper for lazy women, a yeast infection is when mould grows on bread, and water-based lubricants are always available at the nearest gas station.

You can never start too late, no? I’ll wait until she’s sampled a spoonful of syphilis, a cupful of chlamydia or a gallon or two of gonorrhoea. And presented me with seventeen or eighteen grandchildren. Preferably before she’s sixteen.

I’ve got nothing to worry about.

* * *

I BAN, I WILL, I MUST

Dear BJP governments,

Ban beef. The cow is my mother and I am a calf. Ban eggs, and proclaim to the malnourished children of Madhya Pradesh: ‘Let them eat (eggless) cake!’ Ban Maggi, because why should only the poor kids starve? Ban non-veg, because Maneka Gandhi likes animals. Ban alcohol, because couples can always celebrate a night out with a peg or two of jaljeera.

Ban couples, because all Indians are my brothers and sisters. Ban sex, because we were all born by binary fission. Ban consenting intercourse; we must Make In India, not Make Love In India. Ban the HIV control program, because AIDS is not in our culture but can be cured by pranayam.

Ban porn, because it is a poor substitute for the Kama Sutra which you so widely promote. Ban Fifty Shades of Grey, because in our country, men don’t dominate women at all. Ban sex toys. Who said the majority religion worships one of its Gods in the form of a giant p***s?

Ban words like p***s, b****t and v****a from television. Only perverts’ bodies have these organs. Ban the members of the Censor Board, because its chairperson is competent enough to preserve Indian values through nationalist songs like khadaa hai, khadaa hai, khadaa hai and le lo, le lo mera. Ban intellectual film-makers since nothing of substance has been produced since Gajendra Chauhan was awarded the FTII chairmanship in honour of his method-acting in Khuli Khidki (1989).

Ban stand-up comedy, or Subramaniam Swamy will feel insecure. Ban Gmail. We can always communicate with each other via mann ki baat. Ban privacy. Didn’t we vote for har har Modi, ghar ghar Modi? Ban freedom of the press. Why uncover scams when you can just Vyap’em up?

Ban all-night events in Bombay, because ghar wapsi is also important. I’m sorry, please also ban Bombay Jayashri, Bombay Dyeing and the Bombay blood group. Ban bikinis in Goa, because atithi devo bhava and what if our phoren didis get sunburnt? Ban your parent organisation; wearing shorts is not in our culture. Ban Baba Ramdev, because how will Indian women be able to resist throwing themselves at that half-undressed paragon of Indian masculinity?

Ban Aarey Milk Colony. Who needs clean air when we can all move into an air-conditioned Metro and never leave? Ban sustainable cities. Who wants town-planning if we can all have free WiFi? Ban NGO’s, because the only place for Greenpeace is in pulao.

Ban the Ganga, because she is a woman whose purity is questionable. Ban Uma Bharti. She represented Khajuraho for a decade and did nothing about the obscenity in its temples. Ban hamburgers, dachshunds and kindergarten, because Smriti Irani does not approve of German. Ban Smriti Irani, because she must be from Iran. Ban Paresh Rawal, for Oh My God!

Ban Jodhaa Akbar, because Love Jihad. Ban onion imports, because they’re Pakistani spies. Ban HAL Tejas, because who needs an indigenously developed aircraft when we can wing it by Pushpak Vimaan?

Ban Teesta Setalvad, because you don’t like her. Ban Arnab Goswami, because I don’t like him. Ban Ram Gopal Varma, because nobody likes him.

Ban terrorism, because clearly, banning solves everything.

And then, if you can, ban bans.

* * *

SIR-VILE

Some evenings, I pop over to the small hotel opposite college for a quick sabudaana vada or idli saambaar. There, I often run into the same man. Short, slight, fiftyish. Triangular face, toothbrush moustache, endearing smile. His clothes hang off him. He never looks rested. But he greets me pleasantly every time we meet. Just seeing him smile brightens my day. Were you to meet him, you’d like him too.

Other patrons often behave rudely with him. He is a waiter at the hotel.

This man is good at his work. He remembers my usual order. Brings me extra saambaar, unasked. Waits for me to finish my snack before placing a tumbler of filter coffee on my table. As I sip and slurp, other tables summon him with a snap of their fingers, send him scurrying for two measly cups of tea, and complain about the quality of service.

You and I, we may never have done this. But we have continued speaking in English to the McDonald’s cashier who was noticeably uncomfortable with the language. And fiddled with our phones while muttering our orders. Avoided eye-contact with the garbage-man. Or rolled our eyes at each other when the cabbie initiated a conversation.

Where do we find the temerity to talk down to people, especially those older than us? Does the aristocracy of wealth permit us to behave like feudal lords? And on what basis do we sustain that swagger, when very often, the money we’re squandering was earned by someone else?

It is no-one’s life ambition to be a doorman. Yet doormen exist. They hold open doors we can manage ourselves, force out a ‘good evening’ they’ve been instructed to offer, and present a salaam that puffs up many a fragile ego. Day after day, this is life for them. Perhaps we cannot see the point of their jobs. Does that give us the right to see through them?

What the service industry calls a salary, you and I would call a stipend. The cosmetics salesgirl can’t afford the mascara she’s peddling. The man at the box-office has never watched a film in 3-D. The courier-boy earns in a year what you spent on the new plasma flat-screen TV he just delivered. We barter money for a service, the exchange is balanced, the transaction complete. But over and above this, we also expect courtesy, helpfulness and respect in every interaction. As ye give, so shall ye receive, no? It is their job to serve you, not their honour. And it is your right to be served, not your birthright. Be nice.

I’m surrounded by paragons of politeness. My aunt chats for a bit with telemarketers before stating she isn’t interested; I bark out a curt no and hang up. My dad, who once spent a few months working door-to-door for a consumer survey, proffers more thank-you’s than anyone else I know; I am always furious with itinerant salespeople who ring my doorbell. I remember my mum persuading the elderly lady who cooked for two generations of my family to rise off her haunches and sit on the sofa; I have never invited the plumber to leave his slippers inside the house.

I have an easily memorisable phone number. My dad didn’t bribe or browbeat the network executive; he asked if there were any available, and said please. My friend stayed on for five extra days at the Andaman Islands, free of cost; he’d befriended his scuba diving instructors. On the last day for paying my college fees, I had a meltdown in the middle of a bank when I realised I didn’t have my paperwork in order; a compassionate bank clerk transferred funds from her own account and fed me laddoos before I left.

I’d like to work as a barista for a while. When not respiring coffee (sweet joy!), I want to observe humanity. Does the boy who pulls a chair out for his girlfriend, whistle to attract my attention? Does the woman who asks for extra chocolate sprinkles, snap when I ask if she can tender exact change? Does the couple canoodling in the corner smile at me when I flip the music to something more romantic?

George Saunders said, ‘What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.’ I think of the buck-toothed woman listlessly manning the baggage counter at the department store. And the chatty rickshawallah who grew up on the campus of Benaras Hindu University, and drove me through the flooded streets of Bombay. And Prem Singh, watchman, father of two, who many monsoons ago, contracted malaria, developed jaundice, and died.

I think of how many such people I meet every day, and how long my life may be. I cannot live with such regret. Can you?

* * *