Saturday, December 08, 2007

On the Kodak paper

Beneath the red quilt, your memories seep inside me like brandy. The days are shorter now and, in the night, when I am sometimes awakened, I feel my heartbeat – the feebleness of it. I have no more stories to tell; all plots are revealed. Some lie low, like dormant volcanoes. I suspect they will never ever erupt.

How do I weep silently again, like I did that night, years ago, when I came home, staggering on my feet, and listened to a song from Raincoat? The intensity of youth is fading away.

Yesterday, I was searching for old papers and it led me to an old, worn-out envelope. I recognised the stamp on it, probably stuck on it with your saliva. I opened it up with trembling hands. On the Kodak paper, your lips, glistening with Vaseline, sent those familiar invitations to me. In the luminosity of the pinewood burning in the fireplace, your face looked like Chinar leaves in autumn. In your hands you held a copy of Love in the times of cholera: hands that I have held in mine for God knows how many times. My fingers feel like dead branches; the lines on my palm are nothing but marks of your coming in and going out of my life.

Cook up a surprise for me. When I am lying down in a feverish blur, arrive silently and touch my parched lips. I will erase all lines from my palm. I will embalm my hands.

Come back, Maya.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

For old time's sake

Theek hai - so be it
you said, promising to
buy me a pocket watch.
Opening its lid, I'll
watch seconds glide into
years; wait for Captain Time's
whistle, and then, I'll
caress your tresses

These days I play to
destiny's packed gallery,
watching it bend with laughter
at my antics. And in the solitude
of Begum Akhtar's voice
when your memory bedazzles my heart
like her nosepin, I cry silently

I remember you wore one too
years ago, when we met at
the house, close to the spot
where they had silenced Safdar Hashmi
I had thought that you'ld look like
your mother when you grow old

Please grow old with me
Don't travel alone in desolate
railway compartments, while
sun and shade roll dice after dice
I shall wait for Captain Time's whistle
and when I hear it, I'll sit beside you
and I'll caress your tresses

(In memory of Agha Shahid Ali)

Friday, October 26, 2007

One of those days

Sometimes, nothing matters in life. You wake up, stumble towards the balcony, pick up the bunch of newspapers, remove the rubber band which binds them together, read the headlines, look at the edit page, stare at Calvin and Hobbes, and throw the sheets away.

You don’t care about a smooth shave. It is a nippy end-October morning, and you wonder whether you should have a cold shower or switch on the geyser. Ultimately, you make do with a few mugfuls of cold water.

Books, which you collected for more than one decade, look like bricks. Sunflowers evoke no emotion. The crests and troughs of Abida Parveen’s voice irritate you. It is the same song on which you cried last night.

The statue of the unknown soldier, kept on your table, looks like an intruder. You don’t care whether your handkerchief is neat or not. You don’t bother to tie your shoelaces like butterfly wings, something your father taught you, twenty-five years back. You just do things.

In the evening you come back. You enter your room, closing the door behind you. You stare at the wall. It stares back at you. You pick up the mobile, searching for names you would like to talk to. There is no one. You switch it off.

A DVD of The Motorcycle Diaries is gathering dust. You close your eyes. You are not sleeping. You are not awake either. Someone calls your name outside. You don’t call back. You don’t get up.

Sometimes, nothing matters in life.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Hindi post

I have just written a piece in Hindi for a friend's blog. You can access it here.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Is the apple tree still there? (Part2)

Twenty-nine years ago there were very few houses there. And those had no boundary walls. The blossom-strewn patches of grass outside a house mingled freely with marigold flowerbeds outside another. In kitchen gardens, fenced with tree branches and thorny bushes, there grew tomatoes, chillies, brinjals, pumpkins, cucumbers, and on the small embankments, corncobs smiled gingerly from within their furry frocks.

The world was much simpler. An occasional thief would feel content by stealing an old, flickering bulb or a pair of worn-out slippers kept out on the verandah.

A few years before I was born, father had sold-off mother’s jewellery, emptied his provident fund, and got the house constructed at what was then a Srinagar suburb. My earliest memories of those days are to stare at green apples that hung like celestial bodies, amidst a cluster of leaves, on a tree in the front garden. The apples were of sour variety. My grandmother would pluck some of them, slice them with a small knife kept in her pheran pocket, and, after sprinkling salt over them, eat them with a girlish excitement.

During the day, when father and mother went off to work, it was my grandfather who took care of me. In the afternoon, we would sit under the shade of the tree; he would keep a pebble on my head, asking me to balance it. One of my favourite childhood stories was how the Earth was balanced on the horns of Lord Shiva’s carrier – the Nandi bull. And, grandpa told me, whenever Nandi shook his head, it would cause an earthquake on the Earth. When grandpa kept that pebble on my head, I imagined myself as Nandi, and shook my head vigorously.

“Totha, what if the Earth falls down from Nandi’s horns; then where will it go?”

“ In that case, it will crash into the Pataal lok – the nether world, where demons live.”

The Kashmiri Pandits believe in the power of Apezyeth – one moment in a 24-hour cycle, when whatever you say comes true. It was as if grandfather had said that bang on that moment. Ten years later, our world came crashing down.

It snowed heavily that January. Rahman, the milkman stopped coming. Men, wearing heavy LT jackets with stuffed pockets would cross our street. One by one, the neighbours locked their houses and went away. No one played cricket in the backyard.

That evening, the lights had gone off. Father heard someone laughing on the street below. Lifting a corner of the curtain, we looked down. A few boys were distributing houses among themselves. “You take Razdan’s house and I will take Kaul’s,” a boy called Imtiaz said. Then they all laughed. My father turned back. The next day we left.

Seventeen years, six months, and five days later, I am back. After Natipora’s cremation ground, where the ashes of my grandparents are scattered, I can’t recognise anything. The roads have become congested. The empty spaces I remember have all turned into concrete jungles. The streets are shabbier.

“This is where your house should be; the gurudwara is here,” Zubair points out. Yes, Zubair, it should be here. But where? I enter into the street.

A man, wearing a starched white shirt is standing at the gate. He is looking at us. “Whom are you looking for?” he finally asks. I remain silent. The pause is too deafening. Zubair explains. The man breaks into a smile, and extends his hand. As I shake it, he pulls me towards him, into a tight embrace.

‘My name is Gazanfar Ali; I am an advocate,” he says. “This is your land as much as it is mine. I am glad that you came.”

My house is right in front of his. We politely decline his offer of tea. I am madly clicking pictures. I want to show them to my ailing mother.

We enter the house. The blue gate is intact. So is the taur – the handle my father had specially got built. The new inhabitants have retained the name of the house. Aabshaar – the waterfall: the board outside the house still reads that. Zubair has to do a bit of explaining again. It is very uncomfortable. “Well… err… this is Rahul. Err… this house belonged… err…. They used to live here before.” The retired man understands. We are led inside.

I am sitting in my drawing room. All the show pieces in the glass almirah are gone. They have put crockery inside. There was a picture of my father receiving a state award for meritorious service from Sheikh Abdullah. It lay on the walnut-wood table. The photo is not there. The table must be in someone else’s house – displaying, perhaps, a replica of Taj Mahal. I am talking to the man. And I am clicking pictures.
“When we shifted, the house was in absolute mess. The walls were damp and the ceiling had come down at various places,” he says.

“We had been told that after we left, they had taken away sanitary fittings, leaving the water supply open,” I reply. There is silence. And then we both let out embarrassing smiles.

On my request, I am led upstairs, to what used to be my room. I had some books kept on a shelf: My experiments with truth, Freedom at midnight, Arabian nights, Tagore’s Geetanjali and the complete works of Swami Vivekananda. I look at the shelf. It has potatoes on it now. And some onions. One portion of the room has been converted into a sink; there is a tiled slab beside it. I look out from the window. There is no kitchen garden. A few yellow flowers have appeared on the pumpkin creeper of our times. It sways gently, as if welcoming me.

I finally say goodbye. On the verandah, the number of water works connection father had taken is still there: 44732. I am reminded of the apple tree. I turn towards it. A wall stares back at me.

“There used to be an apple tree here,” I ask.

“Oh, we got it cut; it was occupying too much of space.”

Ghulam Hasan Sofi’s voice rings in my ears:

B’e thavnus chaetit’h tabardaaran
Yaaro wan baalyaaro wan
Che’ kamyu karenay taveez pan?

(The woodcutter, he left me broken
Tell me my friend, tell me my beloved
Who has put you under a spell?)

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Is the apple tree still there? (Part 1)

Suhail tells me of a boy who went with him to a boarding school, in a remote district of Kashmir. The boy, it seems, felt home sick, time and again, and would run away from school whenever he got a chance. After a few days, he would resurface, with absolutely no emotion on his face.

“What happened, why are you back so early?” his friends would ask him.

“Nothing,” he would reply. And then after a pause, he continued. “It may seem as if I was beaten up with brooms and a cricket bat, but that is not the case. Or it may seem that father kicked me and then rubbed nettle grass over my legs, but even that is not the case.” Then he would be silent. He would not speak for days.

I have felt home sick for seventeen long years, but like that boy, I never got a chance to run away. In my case, it was not the school, but exile from which I longed to escape.

It is a hot day in Srinagar, when I drive down on the roads in a Maruti 800. Beginning from the aerial view of the valley from the aircraft, as it prepared to land at the Srinagar airport, it feels like déjà vu. Tin roofs, vast fields of paddy, and the T.V. tower atop Shankracharya hill, standing like an old man, adjusting his spectacles, but still struggling to recognize a great grandson who has been away for too long – it only seems as If I have been here before.

From the Rambagh bridge, the car moves towards Lal Chowk. I see the first signpost of my home: Chanapora. How many times have I waited at this spot, in sky-blue shirt and grey trousers – my school uniform – clutching a one-rupee coin in my fist, to catch a bus back home!

On the Jahangir chowk, I spot the exhibition ground. Flashes of an incident, narrated to me by my mother, occur to me. A week after she was wedded to my father, the entire family went to watch a circus in the ground. While looking at the distant face of a performer, who stood at a height, ready to set himself on fire and then jump into the water below, my mother sensed that something was amiss. She told this to her mother-in-law but she wouldn’t pay heed. In a few minutes all hell broke loose. The performer got nervous and just would not jump. The crowd got restless. There was a stampede. My mother led every family member to a nearby shop, whose rear wall was broken, and then, they got away to safely.

The Assembly building on the banks of Jhelum is like a pale moon. The black soot of a fire that broke decades ago is still there. Nothing has changed. On the other end is the Hanuman temple. During Operation Blue Star, some miscreants had held the God responsible for the military action, and thrown his idol in the muddy river water. But as children, we were only interested in sweetmeats of Tuesday and watching sadhus with matted hair, sitting cross-legged, taking deep puffs from a common chillum.

The Palladium cinema looks like a postcard from Gaza strip. The Sun Chasers shop is still there. And so is the Jan bakery, the makers of the best pineapple pastry in the world. Tibetans (or are they Ladakhis?) still sell thick woolen sweaters on the pavement outside the Tyndale Biscoe School. The Clocktower in the central market square boasts of a digital clock now. But it still doesn’t show accurate time.

The Boulevard road is the same. Paper machie boxes are still on display in shops at the Dal Gate, as they used to be when I was at home. Dr. Naseer still practices there. 26 years ago, he had told my father that he has a small puncture somewhere in his intestines. Almost three decades later in Delhi, the doctors confirm it, but are unable to detect its exact location. Dr. Ali Jan has passed away. The road on which his clinic existed has been named after him.

The Dal Lake has shrunk but the houseboats still have names like Buckingham Palace and Cleopatra. The car takes a fast turn near the Chashme Shahi, but I guess I have seen the shop where I had the first (or perhaps, second) ice-cream cone of my life. Last time, I had come here with Ravi, on his sparkling red motorcycle. Ten years later after we made that trip, he was dragged out of a bus and shot dead by militants.

Another ten years have passed since then. But not much has changed in Kashmir. The last thing that needs to be checked is our erstwhile house at Chanapora. Have the new occupants of the house changed its structure? Is the apple tree - the keeper of my childhood secrets - still there in our small lawn?

I swear, the thought feels like nettle grass.

(To be continued...)

Friday, August 10, 2007

Monday, June 25, 2007

The boy on the highway

I shot this picture in January 2006, on the Barmer-Jodhpur highway, in Rajasthan. This boy came to us out of curiosity, and performed Gymnastics to impress us. While sifting through old pictures, I saw this one, and immediately uploaded it on this blog. Now, the question is: are you impressed?

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The old man and the rum

Many years ago, an old man took the above path, one moonless night, in Lansdowne. He was going home, after visiting a friend’s place. It was quite late in the night, and the man had had a bit too much to drink. After all, his friend, who happened to be an ex-serviceman in the Army, had become a grandfather, recently, and it was, indeed, a special occasion for him. And in the hills, if you refuse a drink in a soldier’s house, you immediately run into the risk of being dubbed as a ‘traitor.’

Now this man kept on walking, while keeping a watch, from the corners of his eyes, at any leopard who could have been on prowl that night. But more than the animal, it was the fear of a ghost that created butterflies in his stomach. Not very far from where he walked, unsteadily due to the spirits, which he had consumed a little while ago, a young British Lieutenant had been pushed over from a cliff by his fellow officers after a drunken brawl. Though the incident was said to have happened almost fifty years ago, it was rumoured – and such rumours are taken quite seriously in the hills – that during nights, particularly on moonless nights, the officer could be seen walking with a short cane stick in his hand; the one which he took along on evening walks along the cemetery road.

It was at a bend on this road that the old man’s worst fear came true. Blocking the road in front of him, he saw this fair young man in tattered uniform, of the Royal Garhwal Rifles. He was laughing – laughing, the man recalled later, as ghosts were supposed to. The man had worked with the English, during the last days of the Raj, and he knew a little bit of their language. “Excuse me, Sir,” he addressed the officer, who, the old man noticed, was carrying a cane stick under his armpit. “I am a poor man, and I have just consumed alcohol that is worth a week of my pension. It would be unkind on your part to make my feeling of intoxication vanish in thin air. So, would you be kind enough to spare me?” The officer stopped laughing but still would not leave the road. The old man noticed that the officer’s gaze was fixed at his bulging pocket. Ah, then he remembered. He took out the bottle of military rum from his pocket and offered it to the officer. The officer disappeared after clicking his heels, and saluting the old man. From there, till the safety of quilt in his room, the old man just ran, without looking back, or offering a sideway glance.

Today, the old man is no more. He is probably sharing a drink with the officer, up there. It is midnight, as I come out of Colonel Rawat’s house, after proving my ‘patriotism’ by gulping down extra-large pegs of whiskey. As I shake hands, no body notices the bulge in my pocket. In case I meet the officer on his evening walk, I don’t want to be caught off-guard. Moreover, who would mind a salute from a British officer?

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Lansdowne, this time

Sometimes, you have to revisit a place in order to understand it; to find new meanings. It is somewhat like putting your hands in an old pair of worn-out trousers, and discovering crisp currency notes inside a pocket. That is what Lansdowne felt like to me this time.

Deep inside the pathway leading to Dhura, I found the ruins of what used to be the mansion of a lone English Forest Ranger. Only a few walls is what is left of it now, almost hidden by pine needles.

I imagine the officer, collecting hot water in his stone basin, to shave off his stubble with a razor. Then I visualise him penning down a letter, addressed to himself, just for the heck of having the pleasure of tearing open a letter with a silver cutter.

I imagine writing about Dhura in the introductory passage of my novel. I can see my friends trying to track me down around this path, as I sit, overlooking a valley, with a notebook open over my lap; my back resting against stones so round that it would seem that the Gods had played a game of Pithoo Garam (Seven Stones) there.

One day, I will shift here. And write.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Love is an old shirt

It's a Sunday today. I think, if I visit the coffee house in the evening, I may be able to spot you. "He wonders, why do I insist on going to the coffee house. How do I tell him why." This is what your sms read. "Who do you love more?"I committed this stupid mistake of asking you again. Now I realise how your love has made me capable of jealousy. You wrote back, the screen of my mobile phone getting lit like a thunder sky. "I have only loved once. I cannot fall in love again." Ah. I remember closing my eyes, and leaning backwards, in relief perhaps. But the fact is that you are not with me.

Sometimes, when there is no one around, I open my cupboard, and take out that old, worn-out shirt. You had washed it once, with your hands. More than the detergent, it smells of the moisturiser you'ld put on your hands.

I would like to think that you use the washing machine now.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Seven seas in Chandigarh

Memory is vision. Even when the summer heat in Delhi blinds me, I can clearly see a swirling ceiling fan and a wet floor. I can also hear songs from the ‘Bandit Queen.’ I go back to the summer of 1996, to Kamal’s room in Sector 15-B in Chandigarh. April and May meant long walks in the evening around the Sukhna Lake. They also meant milkshakes sweetened by Rooh Afza. Kamal’s landlord, an old Sikh widower, would be gone to his Kasauli retreat. In winters, we could see him, sitting in the compound of the ground floor, his feet resting on a cane stool, sipping his scotch silently in front of a fire. Come April and he would leave for Kasauli, only to come back in September. To sip more scotch, we thought.

We would lie on the clean bedsheets – Kamal and I – in his room and listen to Nusrat Sahab’s haunting voice. To turn the air cool, we sprinkled water on the floor. On the top floor lived a man who would be drunk throughout the day. He fought with his neighbours all the time. But we never troubled him and he never troubled us. He had two sweet little daughters, who we were his darlings. The man, we learnt later, was the son-in-law of a very famous Qawwal. He himself taught music at the local Girl’s college.

One day, Kamal was not there. I lay half awake, in perspiration, as the power supply had been cut off. Suddenly I heard two sweet voices, singing a song from one of the popular Bollywood flicks released during that time:

Maine kiye paar saat samandar…

I heard the entire song with closed eyes, completely mesmerised. When I looked out, I found the musician’s little daughters, wearing identical pink frocks, singing that song. Later, Kamal and I would make them sing the song a hundred times. It was during that time when the singer Vinod Sehgal came visiting his house and we came to know that in a few months’ time, Gulzar’s film Maachis was being released in which Sehgal had also sung a few numbers.

A few months later, our final exams came to an end and we had to bid goodbye to Chandigarh. A year or so later, a friend told us that the musician had passed away (he would not have been more than forty). In his place, his wife was offered the job.

Eleven years have passed and, in summers, when the electricity goes off, I sometimes hear that song:

Maine kiye paar saat samandar…

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Nights are tough

Eleven years have passed in this city. Next to where you are breaking your promise of serving breakfast only to me, I remember buying a book from my first salary: Safdar Hashmi - The fifth flame. Life had just begun to explore new theatres of existence. I was raw; I did not know how to cut a slice of pizza. I would lose my way almost every day, thinking South Extension was nearer to Saket than IIT Gate. There were no counters of boiled corn those days; people would eat peanuts while waiting for the bus, warming their hands on a small bonfire lit by a friendly watchman. Very few people had cars those days. The roads were emptier. There were no malls, no Cafe Coffee Days. The lawns of the National School of Drama offered solace to lovers. Holding hands in the darkness of a cinemahall would rid the heart of triglycerides. Mosquitoes would still die from Tortoise coils.
Eleven years later, I am making pilgrimmages to all those places we visited together. As I sit alone, I almost talk to the empty chair in front of me. This is the table where you created arcs with your nails. This is the granite floor where your one foot would hang over the other, like guilt. No one notices me today. I have merged with the indoor plants. My head serves as a portrait on the wall where the orange paint has peeled off. As I sip on black coffee, imagining it to be hemlock, I wonder what you are doing: rubbing coconut oil in his head?
I go back home, eat frugally, and lie down. I switch off the light.

Aapki yaad aati rahi raat bhar
chashme nam muskuraati rahi raat bhar

Raat bhar dard ki shamma jalti rahi
gham ki lau thartharati rahi raat bhar

Yaad ke chaand dil mein utarte rahe
chandni jagmagaati rahi raat bhar

Koi deewana galiyon mein phirta raha
koi aawaz aati rahi raat bhar

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Letting it go

A time comes when you have to just let it go. There is no planning; no schemes are made. If you try holding it, it will pass any way, like saliva through a chipped tooth.
It rained heavily the night I decided to let it go. It was not easy. Tobu's memories were as painful as hangnails. Memory is not like semen; one cannot drain it away. It felt like rubbing swollen gums till they bled. Tobu - for whom so many pet names had fallen short that she had to be named after a kids' cycle brand.
The first vision of love came to me through an old black and white Weston television set. A serial run on Doordarshan, in early 80s, it had a song which stayed with me ever since:
Mere humsafar mere saath tum, kabhi dhoop banke chala karo...
When I think of Tobu, those black and white images come back. And then, I rub my gums. I swallow the blood.

In the name of God

History sometimes likes to play Dumb Charade. And while doing so, it takes the aid of very unusual props to enable ordinary men to analyse it in hindsight. One hundred and fifty years ago, when Hindustan was ruled by men who came here as merchants, it was chapatis which served as the first signal of the storm which was to follow. Made of the coarsest flour, these chapatis made special appearances all over the North-Western provinces, distributed reportedly by Fakirs, who were said to be capable of swallowing red hot coals. The ‘dirty little cakes’, as the English officers called them, also made rounds of the barracks where the native sepoys lived. The first Black Sunday for the Company, when an ordinary sepoy would rise against hisown officers, was just a few weeks away. By the time Mangal Pandey was executed in Barrackpore on April 8, 1857, it was history that behaved like a housewife and murmured that it had much more up its sleeve.

Over 1,500 kilometres from Barrackpore, in Meerut, Dr Amit Pathak is performing an ultrasound on a young woman whose lungs have shrunk. A man possessed with history, medical reports share space on his table with a huge map of the city in 1904. “Very little geography has changed in Meerut for 150 years,” he says, rubbing off the grease from his patient’s abdomen. It was the grease on Enfield cartridges that finally claimed the first English victim of the 1857 revolt.
Just outside the present-day Race Course in Meerut, Colonel John Finnis, the Commandant of the 11th Native Infantry Regiment, was shot dead by rebel sepoys.

Fifteen days after Mangal Pandey’s execution, 90 native sepoys were ordered to use the cartridges, said to be laced with cow and pig fat. Eighty-five of them refused and were court-martialled on May 9, most of them sentenced to rigorous imprisonment of ten years. It was so hot on Sunday, May 10, that the evening church-parade was postponed by half-an-hour to 7 pm. Dr Pathak drives his car through the market area where unidentified Fakirs appeared that Sunday evening urging masses to fight for their deen (religion). “Religion may be a taboo for intellectuals today, but in the 1857 context, you cannot separate religion from the revolution,” says he. As the mob swelled outside the church that fateful evening, there was little that any of the English officers could do. At 8 pm, the 85 prisoners were set free and the sepoys set their barracks on fire. The mob dashed at every European in order to take revenge.

Behind a walled house, Dr Pathak points towards a dry well. It was here that Mrs Chambers, the pregnant wife of the Adjutant of the 11th Native Infantry, was chopped into pieces by a butcher who was later hanged to death. On the same night, around two thousand soldiers marched to Delhi and rode straight to Bahadur Shah Zafar’s palace, asking him to lead them. In today’s Meerut, a taxi driver is found guilty of killing 250 people after robbing them in the past four months. “Meerut could never belong to Delhi and it refused to associate itself with other small towns towards the other side. The city hangs in balance with a heavy baggage of the past,” says a local poet.

Around 400 kilometres away from Meerut lies Jhansi. The city’s old market still sells Eveready batteries which are not red, and Weston television sets. In the bylanes, numerous ads of quacks claiming sureshot cure for premature ejaculation survive along hoardings of beauty parlours and English coaching centers.
After the British forces surrounded the Jhansi fort, Rani Lakshmibai escaped with her adopted son, jumping from a high wall of the fort on the back of her horse Badal. But today, nobody is bothered about Jhansi’s brush with history. It is election time in Uttar Pradesh. Many supporters of a political party are lined up along the fort walls, emptying their bladders. A few workers who live inside the fort have pasted pictures of Aishwarya Rai. On the fort walls, Aslam has declared love for Mumtaz. And so has Ashok for Malti and Mukesh for Sunita. “You see, people have no respect for history,” rues Mohammed Asif as he lets out a huge glob of spit. Asif is a photographer-cum-tourist guide. “I am married with kids and there is no job. This morning I was coming to the fort and I saw this message behind a truck: Mehangai ki jai (Hail inflation) and it seemed so appropriate,” says Asif. What does he think of the 1857 revolution? “All gone waste, sir. The Angrez have left but has it made a difference to poor people like me? Not really.”

The journey of 220 kilometres from Jhansi to Kanpur takes seven hours in a state roadways bus. Kanpur is ‘chilled beer’ zone. After every ten metres or so, there is a liquor shop, with bright lights and mirror slabs, enticing the young and the old to take a bottle home or to the neighbourhood corner, wrapped in a newspaper carrying raunchy pictures of item girls. “All well at Cawnpore,” Major-General Hugh Massy Wheeler had written to the Governor-General during the third week in May 1857. But by the beginning of June, the English residents had received enough warnings to know that all was not well. Under the command of General Wheeler, the residents dug up an entrenchment. On June 6, it came under heavy attack from the rebel troops led by Nana Sahib. After being offered a safe passage to Allahabad, the residents decided to surrender. On June 27, they were taken to Satichaura Ghat, where around forty boats had been arranged for their departure. “The boats belonged to a boatman called Hardev Mallah, who also got a temple constructed here,” points out an old man. Bhagwan Das is 62 and runs a small shop near the Ghat. His son Chandan saved a child from drowning and was awarded a medal for this act of bravery by the President of India. “But no other facilities promised to us reached my family ever. It is tough living here,” says Das.

Nobody is sure who fired the first shot at the Ghat on June 27, 1857, but immediately afterwards, the residents were attacked by the rebels and many were killed. The 125 children and women who survived the attack were pulled towards the river bank. Later, upon hearing about the advance of the British Army, the survivors were killed brutally and their bodies dumped into a well. It is rumoured that the youngest daughter of General Wheeler survived and married a Muslim trooper. Many years later, she had confided to a Christian priest on her deathbed that she was Miss Wheeler. When the British troops reoccupied Kanpur and other regions they committed atrocities on a much larger scale. Many captured rebels were made to crouch down and lick clean a square foot of the blood-soaked floor before being led to the gallows. Elsewhere, villages after villages were taken over by the British army and all the men were hanged from the tree branches. A memorial stone erected on the site of massacre was pulled down a day after India gained its freedom. “The last stone of that memorial is right outside my shop,” says Bhagwan Das. The stone serves as a platform for washing utensils.

Inside the temple compound, there still exists an old tree from which the leader of the rebel forces in Kanpur, Brigadier Jwala Prasad was hanged after being arrested by the British forces. At the site of the entrenchment lies a church today, built by the British in the memory of their own who perished in the revolt. Many English victims lie buried here. “Why do you want to click pictures here?” asks the church priest. “1857 is a closed chapter. I don’t want my church to be attacked in the name of patriotism. I hope you get the drift,” he explains.

By the time the siege at the Lucknow Residency was over, the ageing king at Delhi had already been captured, his two sons and grandson shot near the Khooni Darwaza, which is more known now for the rape of a medical student in 2002. The king was exiled to Rangoon where he died unnoticed. The British forces massacred thousands of people in Delhi. Some of them were tied to the muzzle of cannons and blown off. Noted Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib could no longer get his ration of liquor from an English wine shop in Meerut. “Delhi is no longer a city; it looks like a cantonment,” he mentioned in a letter. “The rebellion was not successful because there was no sense of cohesive patriotism,” says Lucknow-based writer, Dr Yogesh Praveen. “No one knew what was happening elsewhere in the country except those who went for a chaar dhaam yatra. So it was essentially a fight for one’s own territory or rights. Expecting patriotism from those who participated in the uprising is like expecting your grandmother in bikini.”

So, is it that so many lives were lost in the name of God during 1857? “These days, more and more people are being killed in the name of democracy,” says Dr Pathak. Ten years after the uprising, the first railway whistle could be heard in Delhi on New Year’s eve in 1867. Two years after that, a boy was born in Porbandar, Gujarat, who, without firing a single shot, would finally force the British to leave India.

(This story first appeared in the Financial Express)

A summer dream

I imagine you sitting on a chair, doing nothing. You are just staring through the wire mesh of the door which opens to the balcony, overlooking the road below. The heavy curtains on the windows tremble a bit in the weak dust storm. A little while later, you lift your legs and sit cross-legged on the chair. Then you lift your knees and bring your head down. And then your lips quiver. You hum along with Razia Sultan:

Ab nikal jaayega dum
Is tabassum ki kasam
Aao lag jao gale
Kum ho seene ki jalan
Pyaas bhadki hai
Sare-e-shaam se jalta hai badan...

Monday, March 12, 2007

Rains wash away everything

Rains wash away everything
Rancour. Vomit. Tear stains.
But they bring back in torrents
Memories. In one such rain
When my world is deluged
I make a boat of your memories
And set to sail amidst Passat winds
Braving hailstorms of my existence
And alligators of my past

I try to reach you
But you have left the island
Leaving behind your scent
In the water where you
Dipped the thumb of your foot
Trying to etch my name

That is it. I take out
A dagger from my back
And make a hole in the boat
The water gushes in
Filling my nostrils
And your scent my senses

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Pursuit of happyness

Days have passed. Many days. Many insignificant days. I am hobbled, tethered with invisible ropes. The sight of ink fills me with dread. Nothing moves within me except a few strands of my soul, to music. My bile is feeble and my guts acidic. There is sand in my eyes. I have no patience with words. Or anything else.

Maya used to say that I paint with my eyes. I have stopped now. I wouldn’t have, had I not felt that the steps she took that evening were certain. It was almost as if spring had moved, away from my dreams with her, and, then abased itself at her feet. I aged so quickly in those few moments as if years had sprinted away from me. My world turned grey and bronchitic. Asphalt chipped off from roads leading to her. It melted and got sucked through my ear lobes.

It is not my destiny to pursue happiness. I had hoped, at least, to turn my bile into ink. Even that is no longer visible on paper. My papers are virgin. My words suffer from erectile dysfunction.

The fire within me has died. But my canvasses have burnt. Only embers remain. It has begun to rain now.