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Christopher Nolan’s Magnificent History Lesson About Survival

In the tenth standard, we had an entire chapter dedicated to the Second World War. Amongst the several terribly written paragraphs, there were only three lines about Dunkirk’s famous retreat. Our professor had read them out verbatim to us without elaborating on any of them, without sharing any explanation about why the incident was important and had told us to underline one of the three lines. The line as I remember clearly was – Winston Churchill called the Dunkirk retreat a ‘miracle of deliverance’.  He reminded us it would come as a ‘fill in the blank’ in the exam and that was that. All I knew about Dunkirk’s evacuation was that single fill in the blank.

 

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I walked out of Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’ yesterday feeling cheated out of a history lesson in my school days. The movie is an exhausting watch and I recommend you see it as it’s meant to be, not on a digital platform, not on your laptops, but in a cinema hall; preferable IMAX. It’s one of the most haunting, involving films I’ve seen in a while and judging by the number of people who had their hands over their mouths in graphic horror shortly before the unnecessary interval, I wasn’t the only person who felt like an eyewitness to the entire tale.

In many ways, most of great war films are remembered for the human story behind them. Saving Private Ryan, Paths of Glory (my personal favourite), The Bridge on the River Kwai, Even Band of Brothers (which follows Easy Company from England to Germany) concentrate on the personal story of the soldiers behind the larger incident. In Dukirk’s case, I felt strangely detached from the characters. Nolan doesn’t offer you the time to build a connect with any of his ensemble, swiftly intercutting between the air, sea and land in three non-linear timelines to maintain the feeling of constant danger and panic at a high point right from the very beginning. That I feel, is the heart of why the film works so well, what makes it a ‘Nolan’ film, because we’re effectively watching what’s supposed to be an hour in the sky, a week of land survival and roughly a night of sea battle cut with the same degree of importance. Failure during any of these time periods has only one eventuality – certain death.

The film begins with an empty street in Dunkirk, propaganda posters falling silently through the air while British soldiers carefully make their way through. Hans Zimmer’s eerie notes almost preempt the start of violence, a constant pattern through the film, with each segment like a mini-movie within itself. Four of the Brits are gunned down by Germans, leaving Fionn Whitefield the only survivor; as he bolts into French barricades before heading to the ships. Whitefield, Aneurin Barnard and Harry Styles lead the subplot on the ships, as they hopelessly try to survive till aid reaches. Nolan never cuts to the Germans, he never at any point intercuts to who is firing from the ground, or inside their cockpits, or for the matter within the confines of their U-boats. We never see a single German face, or hear the word ‘Nazi’. The only interaction a viewer has with the German army is direct onslaught.  This constant presence of a faceless enemy is disconcerting to watch, because there’s no predictability in their attack. As a viewer you experience it only at the moment the Brits do.

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Nolan’s mastery grasp over technique is indisputable. The film belongs to his crew just as much as it belongs to him. The flight shots, which are some of the most minimalistic and surreal shots I’ve seen in a war film work in complete antithesis to the chaotic mess soldiers on the ground are in.  Hoyte Van Hoytema’s raw camera comes closest to virtual reality; working in tandem with Zimmer’s unique, jarring soundtrack. It works up a crescendo in every sequence slowly, building up a gradual fear arcing to panic. Nolan’s erraticness of action, his decision to actually show how random war is and the absolute uncertainty of who/what will be hit next, who will have an upper hand, who will luck favour in the next five minutes is what keeps you on the edge of your seat

In a scene where a torpedo strikes one of the rescue ships, soldiers have just been fed warm tea and bread and are totally off guard.  The resultant feeling of suffocation, as water bursts into the chamber is so intense, so sudden that you barely get time to adjust to it, to tell yourself that it’s happening on screen. Unlike a lot of directors, Nolan allows these moments of strike to play in wides without cutting to the actual projectile detonating. He makes sure one gets to view the chain reaction of soldiers reacting to a threat, never letting you know where exactly the damage will happen. He emphasises how much luck dictates survival in a war.

 

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Tom Hardy’s entire portion in the air is almost like a reprise of his stellar work in Locke, as he powers through a third of a movie with just his eyes and his voice.  You’d think that as the biggest star in the film, he’d be given more coverage. That it would be logical to show his narrative as the most important. Nolan doesn’t do that. He treats him as an equal to the rest of his characters. His soldiers are kids. They aren’t older men playing younger parts, they’re actually young.

To me the film belongs to Mark Rylance, who plays a British civilian sailor representative of the hordes of non-navy personally called to bail out the troops from the beach. There’s a strange inevitability of having accepted impending doom in his demeanour to try and help his country. Yet, his character is as much of a fighter as any of the troops. His storyline is a constant reminder through the film that its theme isn’t about war, but about survival and to me, that’s what makes Dunkirk unique. None of the soldiers in the film are looking out for the romanticised glory so typical of war films. They want to go home. They can see England from where they are and they’re willing to do anything they can to cross and reach there.

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Above: Mark Rylance playing Mr. Dawson.

Nolan’s the first director whose work I fell in love with in college. He was a posterboy for films we wanted to direct in our first year. There were a countless others like me. We all wanted to make a film where the top continues spinning in the end. We all fell in love with the ambiguity of his endings, the idea that we don’t owe our watchers an explanation to a concrete resolution. We also grew out of it, eventually coming to terms that his films do have flaws, and that aping the style of someone whose intentions you don’t understand isn’t the wisest thing to do. Dunkirk takes me back to the days where I was blown away by the audacity of what he was doing on stage. It’s not the greatest war movie ever made, but it’s certainly a modern masterpiece. Watch it in the theatres please! You’re going to be making a very, very strong long time memory.

 

 

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Uncle bought a Mercedes Benz today.

Half an hour before father’s evening prayers, the house unwillingly tries to adjust its mood to something more sombre. The television shuts down without fail, always disconnected from the main switchboard, never by only the remote. Nanda bai is given her daily reminder to not grind masalas in the kitchen. A dull silence takes over in fifteen minutes, broken only by father’s monotonous singing of selected verses from the Bhagwat Gita while he bathes. Our bathroom door doesn’t close properly, which allows steam to waft through the corridors connecting my room and his. As he reaches the end of the shloka, which I’ve memorised verbatim over years of hearing it again and again, he barks out my name where after I’m expected to fetch turmeric and sandalwood from the kitchen. Father needs the paste to be of a certain consistency. I grind the sandalwood blocks in the kitchen just as I hear the bathroom door open, to make sure it’s fresh and moist enough for prayers. By this time, the entire corridor is flooded with steam and one can barely see the door to the small prayer room at the side.

Our prayer room is the only room in our seventy year old house which hasn’t been touched by renovation. My father and his father before him were very vocal about this. As your cross the boundary of the room, the marble turns to wood, the cream paint that adorns most of my house, save the cracks that land up uninvited till you throw them out during Diwali – slowly vanish to red brick. One’s eyes immediately flash eastwards, towards the main statue of Ganpati kept there in a silver devhara, our only real family heirloom. It’s solid silver, but father refuses to let me clean it with acid because of which it’s become a dull shade of grey. I’ve often asked father how much it’s worth with the antique value of three hundred years backing it, but he refuses to tell me, sometimes even demanding how a son/daughter of his could dare put a price on something so valuable to the family.

Something strange happened today. My father didn’t go straight for a bath and rush to pray after coming home. Instead, he sunk himself in one of the sofas and handed me his wallet. He told me to walk up to the corner and buy a full box of pure ghee pedhas, the ones with powdered sugar on top of them. Years of asking questions and never getting answers from father has conditioned me to simply following instructions. I walked towards the corner where six shops have been standing for a decade without a hint of change to what they sell. The way was littered with Gulmohor pods, just about to flower. I made a mental note to stock these up for school tomorrow. They’re filled with water and make for excellent ammunition to fire mid way through Geography class.

There’s a dwarf that sits on the large stone slab separating Chitale Sweets and Joshi Sweets. He polishes shoes for the entire neighbourhood. I used to be really scared of him when I was small. There hasn’t been a day where I haven’t seen him sitting in his canvas shelter, never bothered by the weather, always flashing a smile to all the regulars. He overhears every conversation that transpires in both the shops, often wincing when people order the wrong things from both the places. He waved cheerily as I entered the lane and asked me if I saw Thursday’s match. I told him I had and added that Ganguli was indeed the star of the game. Pleased at my critical insight, he swore at Sri Lanka, who we had fought, threw a mango toffee at me and picked up the brush and a tub of very brown polish.

The two sweet-shops are almost sacred in Pune’s rigid culinary space. Chitale Sweets is known just as much for its eccentric and rude salesmen as it is for it’s paper thin saffron Jilbis, which people from neighbouring towns have been heard to make entire day trips for. A visit inside is never complete till you’re shown the sweets the servers believe you’re worth. They never greet you, they never smile at you. Over the years, people have warmed up to this show of arrogance. They don’t mind the stabs of humiliation one goes through while one begs and reminds the man behind the counter that a kilogram stands for a thousand grams, not nine hundred and fifty. Only the choicest regulars, the inner circle of buyers who have grown old along with the store get access to the fresh lot of sweets. Still, no one can deny how exquisite the produce from the place is.

Which brings us to Joshi sweets, owned by one of Pune’s oldest families. Every generation that’s owned the outlet has fought bitterly in a very, very public spat worse than the previous one. Every decade a rumour resurfaces where close friends of the family swear by their blood that the shop will shut down any day. It never does. The sweets have not changed in their taste in over a hundred years, a fact verified time and again by their oldest customers. The Joshis are the antithesis of the Chitales. One is welcomed inside with one’s first name. One is asked what one wishes to buy and subsequently taken to every other counter other than the one one wishes to carry out business with. As one is just about to leave the store with the shopping bags heavier and one’s wallet lighter, one is reminded – have you forgotten your so and so? And one has to buy a final item. The portions are always large and the taste is rustic and raw with flavour. There is never any delicate garnish, no sprinkles of dainty gold foil, just eight glass counters and barrels of the choicest food.

I have to admit, I’m loyal to neither. Father never touches anything post the doormat at Joshis, so it’s going to be me facing the Chitales today.

Almost to reaffirm what people whisper saying, the shopkeeper served three people who walked into the store after me reminding me each time – Old people are more important. I sat on a stool, listening to the unbearably monotonous chorus of ‘Sri Ram, Jai Ram, Jai Jai Ram’, which plays there on loop every single minute of the day. Father had once told me that  old man Chitale had been told to chant Lord Ram’s name ten thousand times a day if he wanted a male heir to his empire of sweet shops. Ever since, he’s played the cassette on loop. It never stops. He even has it as his cell phone ring-tone, just in case. After quizzing me with several questions about school, how my preparations for the terminal examinations were going on and how my sister was doing in college, he measured half a kilogram of pedhas, made sure the sum total was four ninety five grams and pushed the packet in my hands.

I thought about school. Today was an eventful day at school. Yellow house defeated green for the first time in six years to win the annual sports day overall championship. There is no way this could have happened without a certain amount of red tape involved, we suspect Anshuman Thombre, who was seen sneaking out of the PT sir’s house last Sunday. Yellow have had a terrible history at excelling in anything, so it was quite the day for anyone unfortunate enough to have been drawn into the house. I cycled home like any self respecting student, extremely indignant that we’d have to deal with all of them gloating for the next year.

Father was already standing in the backyard by the time I reached home. Our old Esteem was dripping water by the time I walked into the driveway. Our watchman Baban, an old wrinkly fellow with an awful amount of hair sprouting out from his ears and who, to be fair would have been removed a long time back if it hadn’t been for the fact he had served us for a while looked at me approaching and declared that my uncle was going to visit. It always bothered me that he was privy to father’s intimate days months before I was. He would share with me the less harmful details of the future he had overheard, just to remind me how important he was.

Father checked the contents of my purchase to verify if I had brought what he asked. He asked me if I got a receipt, followed by the change. He asked if I had counted it. I replied affirmative to all three counts. He pushed an open palm at my watchman, who placed a packet of 555 cigarettes in his hand. Father opened the packet and lit one up. He would smoke either while he was driving, or when he was having a great conversation with someone, or when he was edgy. He didn’t qualify for the first two right now.  I had no idea why father was so nervous about his brother coming over. Kaka used to stay in America, and had just recently shifted back to Pune. He was always fun to hang around, had hilarious stories about what it was like to be an Indian in America. He still spoke perfect Marathi, which I find really funny, because I can’t. Mine seems strange and foreign. He would switch from an American accent in English to a perfect Kokanastha Brahman accent in Marathi right between sentences, which was very disconcerting the the ears.

The first thing he noticed was that the car had wipers on its headlights. That was a huge deal. What an important vehicle this must be, if its lights needed wipers, he thought. He remembered all the scrap books he had made with entire pages filled with cut-outs of the Mercedes-S class, the Mercedes-M class and so on. The star looked exactly like one of those. It was raven black and shiny to the point where one could use it as a mirror if one wanted. As his uncle parked the car, the smell of fresh leather and foam started taking over the wintery smell of Gulmohor and Chapha. He looked at his father, who nodded before his son could ask the question.

He screamed and jumped on his uncle as soon as he got out of the car. Why didn’t you tell me? When did you get it? Why did you get black? Didn’t they have blue? How many people know? Does it have a phone inside like they say it does – were some of the questions he fired without a seconds pause for an answer.

The uncle touched his father’s feet. They hugged. His father reminded the uncle to offer the pedhas as a prasad to Lord Shankar, without whose mercy the father was sure this extravagance would not have been possible. The boy opened the door and sat marvelling at all the knobs and buttons inside. There’s a real phone here, he exclaimed looking at the car’s satellite phone, a device useless in Indian territory. The boy pressed the first button on the dashboard and the car whirred into life, its mirrors slowly coming out. We need to do this by hand, he reminded his father. He pressed a second button and the windows disappeared into the car, all automated. How many hours of his life he had spent wrestling with the rear windows in their Esteem, he remembered. He pressed the horn and the car blared out a sound so unique he was sure all the neighbours along the street would come out to take a look. He was wrong, for his neighbours were already watching. Some from their balcony like Mr Yadav, with a cup of tea and khari ready at the side. Some had walked to the porch almost disappointed to find out that it didn’t belong to a celebrity, perhaps from the television shows. The uncle pulled the boy’s cheeks and reminded him that the car belonged to all of them. The boy demanded they go for a drive. The uncle asked the father if he’d like to drive all of them along. The father insisted his son and the uncle go on their own, he would watch them from the distance.

The boy was anxiously watching through the car windows. He really wanted his school friends to see him. Of course, he would tell them about the drive anyway, but the actual thrill of having their jaw drop without any sort of warning was what he was hoping for. Neither Utkarsh nor JP were playing in their porch. He cursed their timing at being unproductive.

The car cruised through the lanes of Pune, orange with fallen Gulmohor. People craned their necks to look inside the car. The boy made sure he didn’t make eye contact. Other kids on the road excitedly jumped and pointed to their fathers and mothers, who ruffled their hair and told them not to point. At the signal, a college graduate of Pune’s prestigious Fergusson college poked his girlfriend, who assured him that he too would drive such a car one day. The boy decided it was time he showed of his vast knowledge about automobiles, and quizzed his uncle with a volley of questions about the BHP of the car, the torque and so on. He had no idea what any of them meant of course. The uncle knew this but complied. The boy made notes in his head, he knew he’d have to add this when his friends would argue about how powerful the car really is tomorrow in school.

They passed by Law colllege and went past Kanchan Galli, where the foothills of Pune’s hill start from. As they crossed Maggi Point, a spot made famous by its serving of India’s favourite instant noodles, the uncle asked the boy if he’d like to drive. The boy naturally wanted to but was very forthcoming about his lack of maneuverability in controlling the vehicle. The uncle chuckled and asked him to sit on his lap. The boy complied. Now keep one hand here, and keep the other here, instructed the uncle in a voice that resembled his father’s except it didn’t have the pages of safety instructions his father would have mentioned before.

The boy turned the steering slowly, his uncle making sure he didn’t turn to much. The car turned obediently. The boy was thrilled. He couldn’t wait to grow up and stop pedalling for a change. He asked his uncle whether he could put his foot on the accelerator and change the gear, but his uncle said no. A few more years and I’ll teach you he added, as an afterthought.

The father was still waiting downstairs when the drive was over. He invited his brother for dinner but the uncle refused, lying about a prior commitment at the Gymkhana. The father didn’t try to force him into coming. The boy demanded to know when they’d go out together, the uncle laughed and said they’d plan a long trip to Rajgad or any of the many forts scattered around the Maharashtrian countryside. He reminded his nephew to hang from the bar every day and stretch his spine, the boy promised he would.

Father stared at me again, and he pushed the box of pedhas I had brought a little while back at me. I passed it to my uncle. He opened it, finished one in a single bite and gave me the box back. I thanked him for the drive and he pulled my hair. You don’t need to be formal with me, he said. I’m your uncle, not an outsider.

The house was silent and dark when we walked upstairs. The lights in the prayer room, which are usually gleaming bright by now, had been forgotten. Father threw the house keys on the sofa and asked me how my day was at school. He asked me how prepared I was for the terminal exams. I said I had finished reading all my books once. I would finish reading them again by the time the exams started. Father told me he was very proud he had me as his son. He started walking towards his bedroom. I asked him if I should prepare sandalwood for the pooja later. No need, he said.

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Artwork credit: Aditya Phadke
Instagram – Artyaditya

Story by Sumedh Natu

Twitter, Instagram – @sumedhnatu

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ARNAB GOSWAMI’S SILENCE

Hey guys,

A lot of people followed the blog a couple of years back and I haven’t been that regular writing anymore. I’ve been meaning to write to the few of you who’d wait for posts just explaining what I’m doing, but I haven’t and I apologise for that. I’ll be doing that very soon. I have however, taken my articles to video and I’ve been trying to create a Nerdwriter1, Every Frame A Painting, Crashcourse format here in India that’ll benefit our content. This is the pilot of that effort.

I hope you guys like it. Your feedback is ever welcome.

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The Birds of June

This June, a withered pigeon started its quest to build a nest in my house.
It was an exceptionally ugly pigeon, not the kind of a pigeon you’d want building a nest in your house.
Not that I care about how pigeons look, I don’t care much for pigeons at all,
Or birds, or animals,
Or living things for the matter,
My mother, who doesn’t like change looked at the pigeon’s efforts with disapproval
“Throw it out”, she told the maid, not making it clear whether she was talking about the nest or the pigeon.
And the maid would throw the half –made nest out, emotionless, eggs or not.
This happened once. Twice. And then…
The third time it happened, I asked casually –
“What problem do you have with the pigeon,

It’s not bothering you

It’s not stealing

Let the damn thing stay.”

Mother, who hates letting things be gave me the look,

The look that suggested that I was in no place to address her thus…
But for some reason she shrugged – and said –“Hmph”
And thus the pigeon stayed…
In all its grotesqueness,
Every morning it would come back and gather twig after twig.

Throwing them together in a terrible heap all awkward and sloppy.
It was infuriating
How perfect the pigeon was finding its creation.
Mother would stare from the kitchen while she made her tea first thing in the morning,

Saying, “What a dumb bird”
What a dumb bird!

It was true though.
As I observed the absolute mediocrity of the animal
How meaningless could your life be
If your goal for the day is to fetch twigs

 

Weeks passed. The nest had now taken shape.
Well…nest…if you could call it a nest.
I noticed, mother dear had begun to observe the animal.
Almost obsessively every morning
She would coop up next to the window
Staring while the pigeon would go on aimlessly
Sometimes I would catch her poke grains of rice at the pigeon
Almost demanding the bird to accept the offering,
After all – SHE was offering the food.
Who was the pigeon to refuse it!
“What a dumb bird”, she would say.
What a dumb bird, really

Soon enough, a suitable mate was wooed into the nest.
Who would sit in the nest with him
While the male pigeon flew around to get more food for the two of them
She would reject his offerings

And his advances

Guarding with her life the solitary egg
That was the purpose of their existence
Guarding it
To get something new into this world
While mother watched, now utterly fascinated.
She would watch every day, sometimes hours on an end
Marvelling the stupidity of the male bird
How he flew around day in and day out
“What a dumb bird!” she would say
Yet now going out of her way to throw grain hoping that they would eat it

I think it was June
When the egg hatched.
No wait…it was the end of may
Well whatever…the damn thing hatched.
And the foulest thing I’ve ever had the misfortune to see popped an eye out of the shell.

Mother was thrilled!

Delighted that this long wait had born fruit.
Look son, she said –look at how the egg has hatched
I saw a the chick, the scrawny shit that it was
Lying begging for food
The father having abandoned it now
Maybe he left,  maybe he was killed, maybe he died naturally

I’ll never know

The female pigeon would fiercely guard her kid
Mustering this absurd, untold bravery where she would hoot angrily
Whenever someone approached the nest
As the kid grew
Grew feathers
She started taking longer gaps foraging for food for the youngling

 

Two days before  my birthday
When the monsoon threatened to ravage the city
We were out at a friends when the downpour started
We had no choice but to stay the night
It poured and poured and poured
Water everywhere
We went home the next day
And saw the little chick

Lying there cold, pecked to death

Pecked till there were cold puncture wounds all over its body

Pecked to a bloody mess

Killed by the same stupid pigeon who gave him birth

And mother burst into tears
Long uncontrollable tears
For hours and hours…

Till she settled down, slowly

“What a dumb bird” she said, wiping her eyes…

 

 

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Rajaram Shah’s First Red Light

It was about eleven thirty in the night when Rajaram Shah, feeling quite unlike himself realised that only a paltry sum of fifty euros stood in front of his four inch inch penis and the six foot two inch ivory white prostitute standing in front of him.

Impossible, thought Rajaram. He had purchased dry fruits and spices that were more expensive in the past.

He stared at the perfect figure in front of him, ready to be rented out. His mouth watered. The feeling that he could afford her physical shell so easily added to it. This was a primal feeling of power. He felt his wallet bulge fatter than his penis ever had and a euphoric feeling of childlike elation stirred in him. He had never seen a woman look so desirable anywhere in his hometown. Women such as this were seen only in the inner folders of his pornography collection. His own wife back at home refused to undress in front of him, unless he agreed to look away and the lights were switched off. But then, he had been married for only half a year.

Rajaram had been sent to Antwerp to sell two solitaires that were proving themselves to be particularly hard to sell in his hometown of Surat. His family business of crafting personalised diamond sets had taken a rather unhappy u-turn after the economy had majestically crashed over the past three months. Even the most affluent of Surat’s elite who had no problem being fleeced by the Shah’s in broad daylight on a casual Wednesday afternoon were watching their expenses all of a sudden.

Rajaram’s father knew an old Jewish trader near the red light district who he knew would love to be ‘surprised’ by a visit from his Indian allies. Rajaram was packed off with a warning from his father not to eat any meat, drink any alcohol or engage in any activity that would dishonour the clan through the duration of his first foreign trip. He had sworn on different sets of Gods that he wouldn’t. His father knew he would.

The whiteness of her skin fascinated him. His own skin looked so murky in comparison. It reminded him of dirt. He wanted to know what she felt like. He wondered if blonde white girls were blonde even down there.

His deal had gone rather well. He hadn’t sold at the price his father wanted to, but none the less, he had sold at a handsome profit. Taking in account the small cuts he would need to give to bribe out customs officers back at home and the two middlemen that had helped balance out the translations, he would still come back home with enough cash to lavishly splurge through the next five months.

There were at least a hundred women to choose from, in the red light street. Each was standing in a glass cubicle, in very much the same way clothes are displayed on mannequins in stores, like meat hangs on hooks ready to be picked. The cubicles were numbered in a rural bazaar sort of a way. They were all scantily dressed, each with the same tacky neon green palely glowing lingerie.

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Rajaram had walked slowly in the rectangular block, mentally rating and forming an image of how each one would feel in bed. He walked past the first two – chestnut brown latinas with obviously coloured blonde hair. One of them raised her finger and waggled it invitingly at him. His penis was half hard already. But he must be patient. He must see all the goods before making a transaction. He must not make a hasty first timer decision, he thought.

Rajaram had turned right at the intersection. An old wrinkled man had been furiously arguing with an equally old looking transexual. He appeared to have touched her in a place she had warned him not to, and was demanding more money. A small glimmer of fear had stirred in him about what he was about to do.

Rajaram walked silently past women of every shape and size, women with large breasts and small ones, women talking on the phone about topics as insignificant as the increasing price of nail paint remover and women deformed and ugly, struggling at the prospect of getting a customer. They were from Hungary, Estonia, Germany and a hundred other places which had no importance in their lives

A dim red glow illuminated the street. Passers by were lightly painted by the colour at intervals as they walked. As each man paused and stared, Rajaram noticed the same hungry look of abject sexual desperation on each masculine face, dark and dangerous. Some made lewd signs at the women in the stalls. Some hooted and catcalled. A drunk man opened his zipper and pulled his cock out waving it in front of a Turkish woman’s face. He was promptly attacked by brothel security. The world will never be a place for women, Rajaram thought.

Rajaram stopped in front of the Red and Blue nightclub bang in the middle of the stretch. Three fifteen year old schoolgirls with their faces caked with makeup were pleading to the bouncers that they were eighteen, but had forgotten all their id’s at home owing to a very unfortunate coincidence. One of them casually pulled her dress lower, giving the bouncer a very ample view of her breasts.

Raja stared at a cubicle just behind a sex shop promising very attractive discounts on its newest range of vibrators. He went closer, drawn to the stunning vision of sexual perfection in it. She was mouth watering. She was tall, with legs large and muscular. Her bellybutton was pierced, her dark nipples standing erect behind the light fabric on her breasts. Her breasts in question were huge and firm. Rajaram felt an unquestionable urge to throw her on the floor and mount her immediately. The woman sensed his desire and spread her legs just enough for him to get a glipse of a bit of her vagina. Like a dog following meat, Rajaram came close to her cubicle.

The woman opened the door and with a causal air, asked the man in front of her, “What would you like?” Her east European accent was pronounced. Rajaram asked innocently, “What all can I do?”

For fifty euros you can touch me. You can fuck me in any position you like for twenty minutes and I also blow you.

The proposition sounded highly lucrative. Fifty euros to even see her in her nakedness was a bargain. Rajaram would have gladly paid a thousand for her to fondle him, let alone have sex.  But the Indianness in him kicked him. He refused to just agree, even though the amount was chicken feed for him.

Thirty Euros!”, he said, trying to sound like someone who does this everyday.

Fifty is base price, mister”, she replied. Her eyes sparkling blue. They were lenses, Rajaram realised.

“Thirty is all I have” said Rajaram attempting a sad and desperate face that fooled no one.

“Look mister. Forty is as low as I go. You take or you leave” said the woman with a tone of finality that told Rajaram bargaining was pointless beyond this stage.

Fine. I’ll give you forty” She ushered him in.

Money first” she demanded as he entered the brothel. Rajaram counted two notes of twenty and held them in front of her. She quickly stashed them away and guided him to her room, a corridor away. “My name is Christine“, she added giving him a formal peck on the cheek.

The room appeared to be where she stayed. There was an obnoxious red satin bed cover on the bed, which was the only bit of furniture besides a chest of drawers. Three photos were stuck on them. Two appeared to be of her parents and what seemed to be a childhood photo of hers. She was sitting on a swing in the photo, the innocence of childhood stamped vibrantly on her face. Rajaram wondered if she’d have ever thought this day would come back then.

“What are you waiting for? Take your clothes off!”, she demanded. She squeezed a generous helping of lube on her palms and rubbed it all inside her vagina with no hint of hesitation. “Don’t be shy now“, she added, a little more kindly, almost sensing his awkwardness.

Rajaram removed his shirt and jeans and threw them on the floor. He proceeded with his underwear. He faced her stark naked.

You have a big dick”, she said. He knew she was lying, but he felt the ego boost, none the less. Christina made him lie down and removed a condom packet. She ripped it open and slid it on his throbbing penis with a certain professionalism he knew he wouldn’t be able to pull off on himself anytime in the near future. She began to blow him slowly. Rajaram was turned on. He placed his palms greedily on her breasts and pressed.

“NO. Slowly. The silicon. It will break”

Christina slapped his hands away. Somewhere in a corner of Rajaram’s mind it registered. No wonder their breasts looked so firm and large. It was impossible that they were natural. Each and every one of them were loaded with silicon.

Rajaram got up and inserted himself from
the top. Her vagina felt odd, loose yet firm.

Come baby! Come in my pussy”, she droned, sounding very much like a well rehearsed script. She had repeated the same lines with the same tone to countless others. As he began thrusting harder, an animal like urge took over him. He felt nothing for the human being he was having sex with. He didn’t care if he was hurting her or not.

Go on top?” Rajaram panted, not knowing requests didn’t belong in the corners of the room that had only seen demands.
“No”, came her cold reply. “That is all you get for forty. Are you done yet? Have you come?”

It dawned on Rajaram that his usual battle of trying to last longer than the woman who was with him didn’t apply here. He was in the heat of the moment though and had no plans of dismounting anytime soon.

Fine. I’ll give you fifty!”, he mouthed

“Doesn’t work now”

“What do you mean, doesn’t work now?”

“Everyone says they pay later. After coming, they don’t”

” I’ve given you what you asked for till now. I’m telling you. I’ll give you fifty”

“Fine mister. But you don’t pay. I won’t let you leave.”

The promise of ten extra Euros saw a noticeable difference in her participation. She clawed at his back and butt with crude effort, and after twelve minutes worth of mechanised fucking, Rajaram Shah came, restoring his conscious thoughts as every drop of himself collected inside blocked by latex.

Christina was washing the lube off her vagina from a bidet in full sight by the time Rajaram finished wearing his trousers. He peeled a ten Euro note across and handed it to her. He noticed a copy of Dan Brown’s ‘Digital Fortress’ in the room, but decided against asking her for her opinion on whether the end was predictable.

Close the door on your way out mister’ she said, kissing him on the cheek, closing the contract formally, before standing outside, exactly like she had for him, just for another stranger this time.

Rajaram was thinking of a lot of things when he came out. He was thinking of whether there were cameras in the room. He was thinking of the book more than necessary. It made her seem human, almost. He walked into a dingy reeking bar in the same lane and was greeted by twelve African American women, each engrossed in convincing one or more of the men in the bar to take them to bed after buying them drinks and settling on a price for the night.

The world is a dark place, thought Rajaram as two men proceeded to put their tongues in each others mouths at a table nearby. They had a rainbow badge on their tshirts. He had no idea what it meant. He simply sat in his chair comprehending the morality of the past hour in his life and realised that there was no glory in his actions. There would be millions like him over the world, sitting the same way, arguing with themselves about the terrible shade of grey the world has painted mankind with. He swore he would never repeat it.

On his way home, he stopped at cubicle number three. He saw a girl, barely over sixteen shyly showing off her supple body. She was beautiful beyond words. She looked at each potential man crossing her with a gaze of partial fear and hope. Did she know how beautiful she looked, Rajaram wondered. What wouldn’t he do to take her to a place of comfort, of security. As remorse slowly filled him, Rajaram Shah walked home with her picture haunting his imagination with regret and a sadness that would last him for a very long time.

He would fuck her all three times he visited Antwerp the following year.

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Don’t Postpone Your Court Date

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Have you seen Ratatouille? There are two lines from that movie I’m going to quote here. Remember when the food critic, Anton Ego is asked about his loyalty for food? He snarls out, “I don’t like food, I LOVE it! If I don’t love it, I don’t swallow!!!”

That line encompasses everything I feel for cinema.

I love cinema. I love cinema to the point where my last wish in the slightly worrying situation I’m kidnapped by Incas and given one last wish would be to watch Reservior Dogs followed by Cinema Paradiso or Dil Chahta Hai rounded up by Six Shooter with a small break in between to cry about being sacrificed to the sun or the Wimbledon 2008 Final. I would do all this eating honey glazed pork ribs, because hey! which level headed rational thinking individual doesn’t like honey glazed pork ribs?!?!

I don’t write about either food or cinema because I don’t think I’m qualified to. I see these long personal opinions every Friday where an ABC tells the entirety of his social reach how Vishal Bhardwaj should have ended Haider 30 minutes before its current screen time. Hold on kid. He’s Vishal Bhardwaj, someone with an IQ bordering the boiling point of water on the Fahrenheit scale. You’re a kid with a DSLR and Torrents. Keep it in your mouth.

Here’s where I’m making an exception. I saw Court yesterday. Heard of it? It’s a film Chaitanya Tamhane made and released last year. Italians saw it last year. Germans saw it last year. People in Mozambique probably saw it last year. I saw it yesterday. This makes me pissed at myself. Partially because it’s my fault. If I made time to watch Main Tera Hero and dream of going for a date with Narghis, I had the time to watch Court at least 18 times by now. But I didn’t. I hadn’t bothered finding out which films are making headlines in some of the most prominent film circles in the world, especially considering the director probably eats Pani Puri in the same tapri I do, given the closeness of proximity of his location.

Besides that, I didn’t hear anything about the film. The Times of India didn’t comment on how its actors forgot to wear underwear, no one tweeted about it, there was nothing. Let’s face it. It’s a bit tough to be enthusiastic about something no one knows anything about. I digress. This is about the film. Court is the BEST. I repeat, THE BEST. No wait, I should say that slowly again, THE FUCKING BEST film I’ve seen in a theater over the last ten years. It is on par with Birdman and Boyhood and Gravity and Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption and any other foreign tagged film you can throw at my face and I will fiercely defend it as the best film a debutant director has made in decades. It deserves to have a VIP entrace in any list that features the words ‘Courtroom Drama’ and a throne of some kind in any list that features the words, ‘Directorial Debut’

For those of you who’d like to know a little about what it’s about, Court follows the Indian judicial system through the eyes of four sub-characters. The accused, two lawyers and the judge. Its screenplay is like a methodical timelapse of a jigsaw puzzle forming steadily in front of your eyes. The accused has been charged of encouraging a man to commit suicide by jumping into a sewer and suffocating himself to death. The accused has been arrested for allegedly singing a song that instructedthe poor to graphically kill themselves in the exact way mentioned above

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I need more structure to this. Let me try it this way.

Unlike other CR dramas that involve someone like Tom Cruise screaming his lungs out heroically followed by long soliloquies about handling truth, 1.5 kilo hands and dogs identifying witnesses in front of a live audience, court maintains the calm sanctity of real life. Firstly, it’s pace is maddeningly slow for a courtroom drama. The shots you see are wides, they stay on for a couple of seconds even after the editor inside your film watching eye expects a cut. That doesn’t happen. The slow pace works fantastically, because you want to know what’s going to happen. He makes you wait for content, which in many ways goes with the theme of the film in itself.

The film follows the lives of both the lawyers fighting the case even outside of the courtroom. It makes you understand their economic background. It makes you realise what shapes the thought process of the two lawyers, what their personal lives are like. It throws light on about 4 other social issues simply following them around. The lawyer who is fighting on behalf of the state comes home after an entire day’s work and proceeds to cook a new meal for her husband and kids, who are oblivious to her day. They don’t care about whether she’s eaten or not. They don’t consider that it’s probably best if they dine together, not at different times. She herself is happily doing this, she doesn’t see the gross inequality in her own house as a social injustice. It works because it’s so subtly shown. The entire film is layered so well. I don’t want to delve into the actual content, because that will spoil a first time experience if you haven’t watched it. It reminded me of an incident I had read of a couple of years back where Black Sabbath vocalist Ozzy Osbourne was tried because a kid allegedly shot himself after listening to one of his songs called ‘Suicide Solution’

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The last ten minutes of the film, after the case is over will spear you in the gut. It’s an ending that will sink in slowly, and once it does, you’ll have goosebumps, if you understand what he’s showing you. No amount of adjectives or hyperbole can explain the kind of impact that last shot had on me. It has rocked me to the core.

Please, please watch the film. It’s an absolutely historic film that will stay in the theaters for just about a couple of weeks more and trust me, it will be something vastly iconic to have missed in the cinemas. You know how you talk about seeing South Africa chase that gigantic 400 something score on live television for the rest of your life? It’s like that. It’s killing me to think that barely anyone will end up going for it. Because it doesn’t have the budgets to buy up every single billboard on Juhu beach. It deserves at least a thousand blog posts more and it deserves at least a month in cinema halls.

I’ve read Pu La Deshpande, and seen him narrate stories on TV, and he’s probably the only humorist I tell everyone who doesn’t speak Marathi is right up there next to PG Wodehouse for humour, and yes! It’s hard to believe till you’ve experienced it. My lot, my entire convent educated English adoring lot are in an unfortunate position where we don’t resonate with our own culture any more. Which is no one’s fault. But it’s the sad truth of my generation. We watch Game of Thrones for breakfast, read Stephen King for lunch and hear Coldplay for dinner. There’s nothing wrong in it. We’re sandwiched in between an abject disdain for our vernacular languages which is a really sad thing, because we don’t see (Marathi in my case) as a language cool enough for all everything we do. I can’t imagine having sex talking in Marathi, or even Hindi for the matter, which is a real truth test to find out how comfortable you are with a language. Which is probably why an average city boy will consider seeing a Fast and the Furious -12 (The finalest final one ever) over something like Court, just because of the level of proximity he has with the language.

We’re slowly proceeding to shun out masterpieces of our own culture. Venice Film Festival has to validate Court before it becomes acceptable to watch. Le Monde has to write a review before we begin considering watching it. It sucks.

After seeing Court, I can say without any effort that I have never been more proud of an Indian directorial debut.  I’ve had the absolute honour of watching it in the cinemas. Remember that speech Anton Ego gives in the end of Ratatouille through his review. I’m just going to sum it up using that. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.

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Ending the Reign of the Grammar Nazi

One of the biggest failures of our education system, and of our generation in general is our tendency to be hugely critical of mistakes. It starts from school where the kid who mis-pronounces a word while reading is mocked to little bits, often supported by the teacher who confirms that he is indeed an idiot. For those five seconds, he could discover a new radioactive element but will find himself alienated for the simple reason that he pronounced ‘tomato’ with an extra ‘ah’.

I restrict this particular piece towards usage of language, because it’s a problem that resurfaces on the internet repeatedly. It’s sad that despite our trend to seem as liberal and open minded as possible, we’re the first to criticize the users of incorrect grammar or bad spelling. The incorrect usage of language is often looked at as the sign of someone who has no clarity in what he or she wants to say.

To go wrong on a public platform is blasphemy, with people who you’ve never interacted with for months reaching out of their way to tell you that the ‘Athiest’ you’ve written is actually ‘Atheist’. I used to think languages were meant to communicate well in this age, not be a standard to prove how well educated one is nor weapons meant to be hurled at those unfortunate individuals who never learnt their model auxiliaries proficiently through school. Yes – You damn well understood the meaning of ‘Can I go to the playground?’

Make no mistake, I love language. I love language just as much as I like a rare steak, just as much as I love Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull. I am completely for its evolution as the need of society demands it.

It’s necessary to follow rules of grammar to lay forth the foundation of a language, to form a skeleton for words to bind together thoughts in a cohesive form. I respect that mesh. But to use grammar as a base to distinguish the few of us who have been privileged enough to acquaint ourselves in its accepted perfect usage and to shun the ones who fail trying is a gross mistake.

I understand that there are places where it is protocol to follow the correct usage of prepositions and verbs. Exams, for example. Job interviews, formal letters of application, where one wouldn’t want to bring forth a casual or slovenly appearance and would want to highlight the seriousness of ones outlook through every aspect of his diction. There is no need to have the same outlook towards casual conversation. That restricts creativity. That makes you conform when you don’t need to conform.

It’s for this very reason that I dislike the compliment ‘well written’. It’s freely thrown as a mark of appreciation all over the world. I see it more as an approval for syntax as opposed to the actual content that the writer has to offer. It compliments the performance more than the script. Of course, there are several writers whose artistry with language supersede their content. For  them; such an epithet is apt. I’m still a firm old believer in content thriving as a monarch in the world of creativity.

One day, I’m sure we’ll face someone who will break the mesh of our prim and proper rules of grammar and raise a middle finger to the apostrophe in the same way a Picasso raised his to proportion and a Goddard to the cut. It’s only then that we’ll realise that we halted our own creative expression just for the simple reason of not wanting an asterix on our timelines.

 

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The Howling of the Wind

Originally published on thereader.in

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The soldier was waiting on top of the mountain. The wind was howling like he had never heard it howl before.

Where are the others, he thought. Why haven’t they reached! Run ahead, they had told him. We will meet you at the temple. He had sprinted up till his legs were slow-burning embers. He was sure he had made the distance before the clock screamed three. There used to be a time when he could do it in two, but those were younger days, fitter days.

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The wind was loud today. It seemed distressed. There was a sinister, dark tone to its screaming. Their unit of 50 men had been slowly reduced to seven. War had been going on for countless years. He had been reduced to a skeletal ruin of bone and the odd muscle after six sun rounds of blood battle. His father had died when he was six. His uncle when he was nine. He did not know how old he was, but was quite certain how old he would be when he too, would wave his farewell to the world that had given him so little.

They had all grown up near the mountain, but never climbed it at night. He knew each inch of the rocky mud like a part of himself, but it looked so different in the darkness. It was beautiful in the rains, but would scorch one’s eyes out in the heat of the summer. He loved the sun; the sun was a warm orb. He found the moon scary. It would hang lifelessly, with a glow that looked almost stolen from somewhere. He walked to the peepul tree opposite the casav‘s pond. It was rumoured that the dead came back to reclaim their debts at night. His father used to tell him that man is scared of the night because he cannot see what lies before him. The soldier would always smile at this memory. He was scared of the night because he did not know who could see him.

 

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The howling stopped his chain of thought. The wind slapped his face coldly. He wondered how the wind it would be if it turned into a person. A man or a woman? He thought of a man with long hair and a cold voice. He thought of someone who would coldly cut through flesh without emotion, without a war cry. Maybe even someone who would enjoy it. He walked up to the edge of the fort. He sat on the rusty cannon that had been sabotaged by the Janaasa tribe. It was a fine weapon when it was working. One could hear its roar leagues away. It had once torn a hole through the gut of an elephant.

He thought of his brothers who should have been sitting next to him by now. He had trained with them, fought with them, lived with them. He often wondered whether he would have been this close with any of them if it hadn’t been for the war. Men often grow common roots out of circumstance.

He had seen the fisherman take a last sip of water before he drew the final breath from the hands of the florist. He had seen the butcher lay at rest the passion of the priest using his hands and mouth several times after the priest lost his wife.

The wind had changed its tone. It sounded like the last few cries of the first woman who he had taken by force. He had slit her throat after she started screaming beyond his patience. He had finished spraying her just as her body violently shook to death. But the wind seemed to enjoy it. The woman had not.

His brothers were stronger than he was. He was a stealth fighter. He was used to the dart, the arrow, the crossbow. He preferred the touch of poison, not steel. He would aim to finish the strongest enemies at a distance, making the fight would be easier for the rest. He was weak in his hands. Age was slowly winning against him though his eyes were just as sharp as they used to be. He could still strike out a crow with a blow dart just by hearing the sound of its scavenging.

He wondered if there would ever be a time when he would see a sunrise at the beginning of a day where spilling blood wouldn’t be a necessity. He often questioned if his children would be free to roam around the towns regardless of their loyalty. That was where he cut himself short. He would never have children. The odds of him surviving the war and raising a family were against him. He looked at women now as a bed to end a bad day.

 

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He suddenly noticed a small fire break out in the valley below. What were they playing at! Who was the idiot who considered giving away their location? Why didn’t the others stop him! The wind made the fire burn a darker shade. It was deep crimson. It was definitely not wood. In the darkness of the night, he could not make out what it was. Perhaps they were setting up camp for the night and had caught a hare to roast.

A second fire started blazing alongside the firstborn. He could not believe his eyes. Something absolutely serious had to have happened for a second fire to be lit. He set a bolt to his crossbow. His heart started beating faster. His hackles rose. A third, fourth, fifth and sixth glow joined the company. Six separate fires could be distinctly seen in the valley. The howling wind soothed them, made them glow redder.

He wanted to ask the wind what his brothers were doing. The wind howled back, in a language he could not comprehend. The sky was beginning to lighten. He strained to see what was happening. Any moment now, he would see the distinctive blue cloth of his company in the distance. The sun always rose fast at this time of the year.

The fires had not died, they seemed to burn brighter with the passing moment.

The mountain began to move.

He was obviously hallucinating. The mountain could not have sparked life. He looked eastwards and saw juvenile streaks of light falling from an unseen sun in the horizon.

It was then that he realized that his brothers were being burnt.

They were all being burnt at the stake, after being impaled through the cut. The blue cloth that adorned them was charring along with their blistering skin.

He could see the blacksmith impaled on a spike. His eyes had been pushed inside before they bled him to death. He could see the butcher, who had fought till the last minute, his left arm being cut clean by the longsword. He saw the general prominently branded, his face a burnt, corroded mess.

The soldier remembered their last meal together. Flashes of memories seemed to strangle his urge to cry out loud. He remembered the time they had found a giant trout which had almost bitten his finger off. He remembered how they had castrated the captain of the first battalion they had conquered. He remembered the faces of the men who had left him and gone, the turncoats, the traitors and the lost. They would flash and leave before flashing and leaving again.

Now, they were coming for him.

He wondered how it would be to die. How would that one moment be, where life exits the physical form. He wondered what he had done to see his closest companions die with such perverted brutality just before his own life was going to be taken away. He wondered if all the tales he had heard of heaven were a big lie.

He could see the saffron robes of the climbing enemy get darker and brighter by the minute. They were a hundred foot-lengths away. The wind howled in his ear.

He pointed the crossbow at himself. He knew not what to do. Should he spend his last few moments on a battle that was futile and defend his honour? Or should he end his life on his own terms?

Helplessly, he looked towards the wind and felt it a last time as it continued to slap the outline of his face. It was a slap of duty, not loyalty.

Perhaps the howling wind would tell him what to do, he thought…

 

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Artwork credit – Rohan Kapoor
Website Partners – Lipi Mehta and Rohan Kapoor

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“I’ll buy her”

There was a merchant who came home one night with a sad feeling in his heart. He did not understand why he felt that way. He had every small comfort one could want. His house was palatial, with an army of servants ready to cater to his every whim. He had recently found huge success in a trade which would assure him abundant gold for the next many years. He had no health problems, and no vices to routinely distract him.

“Perhaps you should find yourself a woman”, advised his Khizar.

Yes, maybe that was where his unhappiness came from. He had no one to share his bed with. He was told that having a woman in one’s life was a daring experience. One would begin to feel strong emotions of attachment, lust and a queer thing the others called love. No one could really explain him what this love was, but all agreed that the potency of this drug was very strong. The merchant could not wait to try out an intoxicant that did not have any physical form.

Being a rich and powerful man, the merchant organised an auction to find himself a woman he felt would suit him. The most influential middlemen brought along with them a variety of women, each was sure to catch his eye. They were dark and fair, intelligent and witty, slim and full, aromatic and pungent and skilled in an assortment of areas the common man would cringe for.

The merchant narrowed his gaze to three women whose physical shape he found very pleasing. He would decide his pick based on what his astrologer would predict about their future.

“How will we be together?” he asked about the first.

She will guarantee you a full and healthy life ahead. She will seal your fame in society and make sure you reach the heights of glory you were destined to reach. She will bear you three children who will honour your name and be the caring the wife and companion you seek. Besides, she is well gifted in the art of lovemaking, and will round up your every physical desire. You will complete her. But…

“But what?” demanded the Merchant.

She will never keep you happy.

“What about the second”, asked the disheartened merchant.

The second woman is the most beautiful woman in the world. You will be on the plate of envy of every man around for being her other half. Other women will throng to have you as a part of their bed. You will be known as the most recognisable couple for miles and miles around and have your names etched in stone as the most compatible couple around. But…

“But what?” asked the merchant again.

This will all be an illusion. You will never desire her as much as she desires you and more than anything else, she will never keep you happy.

“How about the third?”, the merchant resignedly asked.

The third woman is meant to be your better half. She will not improve your life in any way. She will not stimulate you in anyway. She will always be inscrutably mediocre. She will be cold in bed, and colder to be with after a tiring day. She will not cause any jealousy to any other woman, and will not arouse desire in other man. Her averageness will haunt you. Yet, she will steal your heart for the rest of your life. She will cast a spell on you and make you see the world in a new light. You will feel what love is around her and dote on her. But…

“But what?”, asked the merchant, a final time.

You will never keep her happy…finished the astrologer.

Deep in contemplation, the merchant walked to the auction floor. He walked up to the third woman and smiled…

“I’ll buy her”, he said.
He lived happily ever after.

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What are the odds!

Published in the Bombay Review.

http://thebombayreview.com/whataretheodds/ 

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Father’s won! Father’s won!

Sankar would always enter his house screaming. His screams would normally be requests for immediate nourishment, but today was different. He didn’t want the usual plate of last night’s stale idlis deep fried in groundnut oil. He would have only fresh tiffin made especially for him. One might enquire why he felt he deserved such presidential treatment for no reason in particular. Well, Sankar had had a near-perfect day and he was determined to keep it going northwards. He had solved all eighteen geometry problems, though sixteen of his answers would have made Pythagoras turn in his grave. The drawing teacher had patted his back looking at his perfectly proportional horse, despite it not having a tail or ears . He had even managed to bowl out Ram right after he hit his fourth consecutive six into the girls’ school.

Oh, and his father had won ten million rupees in the national lottery.

Every Sunday, all the families in the neighbourhood would buy the weekly ticket from Baba’s General Store. Baba was a small, fat man whose eyebrows threatened to take over his face. He would always ask Sankar how his elder sister was and what she was wearing at home. Sankar found it strange, but he would tell Baba the precise colour and shade of her cloth. Baba would then ask how short the dress was. Shankar would put his hand on his leg and point out how much of his sister’s leg was covered by the cloth. Baba was obviously concerned about the heat and the rising prices of twill.

Sankar would then buy milk, flour, gram and if there was enough money in the house, and if mother was in a mood- two sweets for himself as a small end of school treat. Baba would pack everything in cloth, and add the ticket of the week to each of his customers’ packages. They thought it was a free ticket, but Baba cleverly added three rupees to everyone’s total amount as and when they came.

The lottery was always important. Nobody ever won it. Nair uncle had won a consolatory cart three years ago, but the cart was green in colour. Sankar would never be seen alive in a green cart. He was partial to red. Besides him, there had never been any record of a winner in his community. Why then, did everyone follow the lottery? His father used to keep telling him something about beating the odds, something about seeing who the Gods would favour. It was bound to happen with someone, someday, his father would say.

Since his family did not have a radio set at home, Sankar would go to the post office on Monday after his school and harass the clerk outside for the winning numbers. The clerk would demand his oratory fee of half a packet of tobacco before lazily removing his wallet with a bearlike snore. He would then pull out his previous night’s ticket and read out the winning numbers, which he had scribbled in a childlike scrawl on the left hand corner of the ticket. Sankar would match the numbers and let out the only swear word he knew (Puchinta, which meant flaccid penis in his dialect) and had been beaten up for using, before running home.

Of course, today was a slightly different day. Today, the numbers had matched. Sankar knew that his father had won a lot of money and was careful to not tell the clerk when he touched realisation. Money was desire, he had often been told. What if the clerk asked for a full packet of tobacco? Such luxuries were out of the question!

On his way back, Sankar wondered what all one could achieve with ten million rupees in one’s pocket. He calculated that the Wesson Willow bat, which Khan had purchased from his last trip to Bombay was worth five hundred rupees. What a bat that was! You could hit a straight drive with a flick of the wrist, like someone had loaded the handle with gunpowder. It even came with a poster of your favourite player, but you had to select your choice while ordering.

He would buy at least two of those bats, and spend an extra amount on polish. He loved the smell of polished willow. It was a very woody smell.

Sankar approached his house, which was at the east end of the village. The neighbours were killing what seemed to be the last of their chickens, judging by the feeble squawking coming from the barnyard. Thank the heavens, he thought. No more of the awful smell of fat frying. He threw a stone on a stray dog that was threatening to sleep under the mango tree next to his door before marching in.

Father’s won! Father’s won!

“Won what?”

Sankar’s mother was cutting the three idlis left from last night’s dinner into thin artistic slices when she heard his yelling. She had had a tiring day. The oil monger had fought with her for twenty-two minutes about the bonus he was supposed to have received for putting them on the credit list the previous month. He was a crook of the highest order! Her monthly bleeding had started shortly after, so she was forced to wash all the utensils and pray to the Gods for touching them before purifying herself with prayer for the week-long duration. Her abdomen ached. Still, it wasn’t as bad as the times when her mother-in-law was alive. During her bleeding, she would be forced to cook outside her house then while the monster observed with a steely eye. Her husband was way more flexible. Still old fashioned, but flexible enough for the time.

When Suparna was handed the completed ticket by her son, she did not realise what he had handed her for a moment. She continued to obsess over the symmetry of the cut idlis, before she realised in graphic horror the significance of what her son had just announced. The last cut skimmed the edge of her thumb, but no importance was given to the thin stream of blood flowing from there.

“Are…are you sure?” She asked with a trembling voice.

His answer was overlooked. She sat down in her place. It was all too much to take in. The oil in the pan had started crackling up. Suparna didn’t care. Her head was spinning. She grabbed the ticket and checked if the diamond pattern that the winning ticket was supposed to contain was appropriately filled. It added up to 77. It was perfect. Suparna started crying. She pulled her son close and hugged him tight. Her son wrenched away. Tears made him nauseous. Besides, he would be joining his friends in their fourth attempt at stealing unripe mangoes from the neighbours’ garden.

Suparna got up and started walking in circles for no reason in particular. Ten million rupees. She had not seen even a fraction of such an amount her entire life. She picked up the lower end of her sari to wipe her face. It was a blue sari, which had faded marginally over the years. She could blindly tell where it was torn and where it was darned. No more would she have to wear the same old clothes. She would pass by her sister’s house wearing an exquisite silk sari with a golden border. She would match that with a small diamond brooch, exactly like the one her mother-in-law gave the elder extended-daughter.

Suparna smelt the oil burning and went near the stove. She picked up the finely cut pieces of idli that were about to be fried. The thought of never settling for a stale evening snack again sent a jet of joy through her head. It’s high time there was a maid servant in the house, she thought.
Tonight, they would celebrate. Suparna prepared a sweet payasam laced with jaggery (the sugar in the house had finished two days ago) and made a fresh curry of potatoes and brinjal. After all, they would have to get used to the finer things in life now. The idlis lay forgotten.

How it would be like to actually be the owners of such a huge amount, Suparna thought. Does so much money smell different? She had heard that the first bundles of cash from the mint smell sweeter than the chafa flower as it blooms during the full moon. She was sure she would be proven right.

Suparna suddenly realised that she had forgotten to share this happy news with the Gods of the house. How many times had she begged for her husband to get a raise! Today, her prayers had finally been answered. She must not ignore them lest they get angry. She prostrated herself in front of the small statue of Brahma, the God of eternal knowledge. Brahma was never supposed to be prayed to, because of a curse given by the other two all-powerful Gods, but her family was an old family. They chose to specially worship him hoping that he would be partial when the curse is taken off.

“Is that brinjal cooking?”

Her second child and oldest daughter had just entered the house. She had been busy at work cleaning clothes at the village well. She appeared at the door dripping with water, her hands marked with ash. Her hair, long and shiny as it was during other times was all tangled and messy.

Sunaina wondered why her mother was preparing brinjals on such a dreadfully ordinary day. Dishes like curried brinjals were reserved for birth-anniversaries and sacrifices, where one couldn’t feed the presiding Brahmins the simple curd rice usually reserved for the twilight hour. The smell of the dish was deeply ingrained in her head since she was a child. Her mother had prepared it for her brother’s thread ceremony. It had even been made the first time a prospective groom had been called home matchmaking for herself. Of course, that night had been a fiasco.

Sunaina was surprised to see the remains of happy tears on her mother’s face. She was quite used to seeing her mother routinely crying, almost immune to it, in fact. Most of the times, the reason for her outbursts would be petty. Sankar would say something callous. She would have a fight about living in the same house for two decades with her husband. When her mother informed her that their fortunes had changed, Sunaina too was besides herself. She was hugging her mother and tearing up out of a different set of emotions herself. She would finally be free of the moral obligation of getting married in the next few months. She would be free to read a book in public, rather than in the closeted darkness of her brother’s blanket. She often questioned why he was pushed into studying, when he didn’t care what he was doing with his life. She was self-taught on the other hand. She saw herself reading about red cows, how trees grow and how the Ganga flows across her land. She would decorate her books with brown paper and neatly write down everything the teacher demands, not in the scrawny shorthand her brother barely made an effort with. Gleefully, she jumped and pushed her mother away and added the finishing touches to the curry, careful to add the crushed coconut after the water was simmering at low fire.

 

I often wonder if any of the members of this family know what the odds of winning the lottery are! I’ve been informed that the chances are about one in fourteen million. I highly doubt that any of the family members would even understand what a staggeringly high amount fourteen million is! But being educated is my privilege. So is having an outsider’s perspective on the situation as well as having a decent exposure to society in general. Maybe I’m being harsh, as I still haven’t met the man of the family.

 

He, as I gather stepped in the house half an hour after dinner was ready. He had had a tiring day, and had been forced to file his reports twice as he overlooked a small decimal point in the third last row of the fourth file. To make matters worse for him, his application for leave the following weekend had been denied. How would he be able to stick to the promise he had made to Lord Balaji the previous fall? He had even grown his hair to make sure his offering of a full head of hair was satisfactory.

Sanam saw two pairs of slippers outside the front door. His son was loafing around somewhere, no doubt. What would it take him to sit at his books once a while, instead of playing truant with all his friends. That short wolf like boy who always lurked around his son reportedly stood second in the school after winning the local amateur wrestling tournament. His son was doing amiably well at wasting time and sleeping through the afternoons, desk or no desk around. Maybe it was time he gave him another cane hiding.

Sunaina on the other hand, seemed to be in the house. She was a good girl, she was. What was the use! She would never be his to hold his hand when he grows old. Sometimes, Sanam slept thinking he should have just joint the army and worked for the country. His father was too high headed to let him do what he really pleased. He had never enjoyed learning accounts. Seeing small piles of money he would never be allowed to touch.

Suparna was quietly sitting in a cane chair in the corner of the room. His daughter, Sunaina was sitting besides her. No doubt, a combined effort or an early attack into extorting money to feed some fantasy with no future. Even if medicants from the Himalayas came with a battalion of vegetable vendors and fruit sellers demanding money, he would not surrender a single paisa. Did they know how tough it was to earn the paycheque that he managed the house with every month?

“What is it? Why is everybody so quiet?” asked Sanam.

Sanam scouted his inner mind for the occasion when his entrance in the house had earned a smile from both the mother and the daughter. They were beaming. Was he supposed to have brought a gift home? He could not recall. His wife was clad in one of her newer saris and was adorned in dark kaajal around her eyes. His daughter too had laid out the entire table, which was giving off a heavenly smell.

“You have won the lottery, father”, said Sunaina as she walked up to him. She placed the ticket in his hand.

Sanam’s mouth went dry as he heard Sunaina’s voice. He blankly held the ticket in his hand and stared at it like it was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He couldn’t seem to read it; the shock of her sentence was so bad. A shooting pain moved from his heart to his left arm and before he knew it, he was clutching his chest, struggling to stand. He collapsed in front of the Brahma statue and fell flat on his back, his eyes rotating upwards as he tried to get a last glimpse of his wife before his heart gave way to the pain.

He was pronounced dead the moment the village physician came to inspect him.

The next day the surviving family was told that the father had a debt of half a million rupees on his head, which he was expected to clear in the next six months. They were also informed by the National Lottery Company that as the ticket had been purchased on the father’s name, they were under no obligation to give the money to his survivors, though the ticket was perfectly in order. They were offered the National Lottery’s deepest sympathies and were sent a garland of flowers from the Chairman of the Lottery, who personally offered his help should they need anything at all during these dark and trying times.

 

I often wonder if anyone in the family knew that the odds of someone dying of shock are even slimmer than winning the lottery. Especially if the news one hears is good news.

Maybe the Gods were being partial.

Or maybe, like the father would say, it’s just all about the odds…

 

 

 

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This story is a work of Fiction.

 

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