The Hill

He looked like he planned to spend the entire day sitting out on the branch kicking his legs and day dreaming about Dragon Ball Z or whatever anime he had last watched. But unlike the other days, today he hopped off the tree.

He stomped a few leaves, savoring the sound of them crunching. He looked hard at his sandals and seemed reluctant to put them back on. He crushed more leaves as he made his way down the mud road. A thin layer of dirt stuck to his bare feet. Behind him trailed a long line of foot prints that zigged and zagged and overlapped.

He turned to the swaying bamboo; a yellow cluster of them blocked the view behind him. He looked around like he was lost in a memory or maybe he was just thinking hard. He moved to the left, the side with the trees that blocked off the sharp drop on that side of the hill. Leaves gave way underneath him as he hopped of the crumbling red wall that blocked the bit of land before the drop.

They were brown and dry and hid the ground. It seemed like you would find nothing but leaves if you tried to dig your way to the other side of the planet. The smell of dry leaves and bark coated the area while an unceasing breeze flowed through the trees.

No else seemed to be on the hill. The world below look like an alien place. The wind carried the distant noises of the city. The grey towers and roads dotted the landscape between the green cover to the blue horizon. No one could see him, but he saw all in his elevated realm.

He drew a deep breath and put his hand on a tree. This was an act of rebellion; no one is supposed to go there they always said. It didn’t make sense. They only risk you face is the risk of remembering that the rest of the hectic noisy world still existed.

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Amelie

Ah, there she goes again. Curious little creature. And its’s… 8:30 now. I have a feeling she’ll be gone for a long time.

She’s got something about her. Maybe that’s why I can’t paint the woman. There’s this whiff of destiny- look at that gait- a bit of fear too. Perhaps it’s time I offer a bit of help. How long has it been? Half a century? Maybe more. Back when things were still different. I think I spent months working on my painting. I wonder what a young and virgin eyed version of myself would say if someone told me I was going to paint the same thing every year. Maybe I would be happy, happy about knowing.

Who was that other girl? I think I remember her. The one with silky,yellow curls who pranced around in her apartment when I was young. I can’t remember her name. Years. Years I spent looking out through my window. they say the world changed. All I see is another woman at the window, in shadows where my dreams paint in the blanks. I wonder if I really want to know who she is. But Amelie seems so permanent.

Like the woman in the painting, captured on canvas now and forever. That is of course, only if I manage to paint her. To copy the window, that seems to have her preserved forever. But first my bones of glass will have to carry me far. to understand her I must tell her all I know. Tell her not to make my mistakes. To look through no windows.

Sights Around Mangalore

My neck is usually strained and screaming with pain by the time I reach Mangalore. I can only tolerate bumpy, stuffy bus rides for so long; I always keep my bus window wide open to get as much fresh air as I can.

After the semi-conscious excuse for sleep that only a sleeper bus can offer,along with the unending chatter of passenger who act like they’ve found their soulmates sitting next to them, I’ve half a mind to hop out of the window. You can always see men with legs and mouths tightly shut preparing to sprint at the next stop. Everyone gropes around still dazed while they try to find their things, stretch in cramped quarters and ask the conductor how far away their stops are at least 6 times. They always manage to forget and receive a earful from the conductor.

It is tradition to complain about the driving, roads, sleep and ghat section once we’re off. Soon everyone sporting righteous outrage at the crass, loud nature of some co-passenger. Awkward silence and righteous indignity set in as the relatives who are supposed to pick us up, like always, are late but insist they’ve been waiting for us at another stop for hours.

The streets are quite, deserted, cool. The air is thick, pleasant and smells lazy. Stray dogs eye us as they enjoy their rule over the quit tarmac, the buzzing orange streetlights  their collaborates. We pile into a car, while everyone asks each other how they’ve been. they point out how so and so has gotten taller, thinner. They whisper how so and so has gotten fatter. they all decide they must eat. We leave the car before it has moved an inch and head over to the nearest restaurant. The one’s where regular customers eat are always located in a hotel. There we eat Mangalore buns that are surprisingly filling. When your eating buns and waiting for hot tea/ hoicks in town that’s still asleep and grey, you know your in Mangalore and no where else.

People discuss how the roads where back when they were kids, how certain granduncles were caught by leopards while they stopped off to pee etc. I stick my head out of the window and look at all the trees that seem to rush past me. The cool, green, residential areas that are far away from the main road are always deserted when morning buses drop off passengers. People point to the new apartments and reminisce about the old, luxurious, spacey tiled houses that always seem to invite rain are all but gone. they point to the few survivors and tell each other stories of how they used to play by the compound walls.

The few quite minutes you have after you get home and the age determined ques to the bathroom is set up is a voyeurs wet dream. You can drag a chair out to the large open baloneys that Mangalore houses always have and watch sleepy life sneak out of the apartments and houses. Inevitably I’m told to get potato chips, milk, tukudies,flavored banana chips etc. The shopkeepers, the customers and pedestrians wear dreamy looks. You’d think they lived in a world where clocks didn’t exist.

Someone always insists on going to some temple, visiting some obscure uncle/aunt before they die, so we’re always out of the house. This will always be one of the greater mysteries of life to me. Manglore is the one place where wasting time at home is pleasant. If you disagree the sun and humidity will send you rushing back for cover indoors.My family however insists on packing themselves into a sweaty car and braving the heat. The humidity and sun torture you. I’m always drenched in sweat in Manglore.

The veg restaurants we visit, once someone man’s up and tell’s everyone else that we should probably take a break, always serve amazing sandwiches. I don’t know why but sandwiches always taste better in Mangalore. The petty shops around ever corner are the best places to eat however. They always have some specialty whose name I am too tired to remember. I can remember taste but not where they come from.

My most recent discovery is this guy who has an dd love affair with the coconut. He has multiple shops carved into old house near the port of Mangalore, where the air always smells of fish. He serves you coconut based ice cream, mixed with other melted flavors of ice cream. The ice cream is served in a coconut and is meant to be scooped out with a piece of coconut husk he gives you. You can recognize his shops by the red, 90’s refrigerators they always have.

We leave Mangalore the same way we came. In a sweaty, sleeper but filled with loud gossip, loud passenger, loud conductors, loud streets. One day I want to stay awake through the trip and locate where it is you top smelling the salty air of Mangalore.

Sounds

After  walking the long winding maze of streets that were filled with loud cars and people, the chirping crickets sounded like aliens.

You could still hear the bikes rushing past, the shopkeepers and customers talking, and the food shops frying the nights special, as you enter the street. The street seemed like a lifeless world without the buzz of electric lights or voices that carried out from within the homes around its flanks. If electricity was still supplied, this street along with three others would surround and guard the park and fill it with voices, as though the patch of greenery was a great marvel meant to be protected, preserved.

You could hear footsteps and people brushing aside the low hanging branches as they made their way away from the park. There was only one person walking in the opposite direction at any given time, so even if the night left you blind you’d hear footsteps and know where not to go. A man left the park and walked into the street, his dog’s chain clinking as they darted to and fro, lead forward by excited sniffing.I heard his feet scrapping along the road and crushing leaves long after he disappeared from underneath the dim moonlight.

I heard a group of kids in the park huddled around a single bench. They argue with each other for more space in hushed voices. Another dogs, which has no chain, is busy turning over rocks, kicking up leaves and wining excitedly. One kid, who sounds young, keeps repeating in Kannada that his uncle has a phone and he wants a rematch. An old couple sit on the elevated foot path murmuring to themselves.

On the left I see a woman open her squeaky window, she lights a match and goes back in.A group of Rajasthani women clothes as loud as their voices have what I mistake to be a yelling match with other Rajasthani women in cramped apartments. As their laughter carried across the streets and echoed off the houses, I realized they were just having a conversation. An old couple who looked a lot like the two who were sitting murmured as they pointed at the women.

I reached the end of the street and heard someone bounding up their stairs. the power came back on as I walked back. TV’s came back on, the now nosy street and park gained a renewed vigor. Lights and people buzzed about me. It was still quite in comparison to the main street, but not as silent as it was before.

I could now see people in their homes. They like the noise, seemed to heave come from no-where. An Enfield purred and another in response. I walked off the street and all the street’s nosises were drowned out.

Hansel and Gretel

While  Mom-Dad where at hill station, Hardipur and Geetu, had gone wandering around the neighbourhood.

Annu antie would have watched then like a hawk [or an obese parrot], nothing like gossiping about chootu children. Can understand parents full genealogy.But poor Mom-Dad didn’t account for latest serial played on full blast on brand new Ultra, Ultra HD Plasma curve, super sonic TV bought by NRI son.

Hardipur and Geetu, who preferred Hansel and Gretel, had never gone around their neighborhood, slum area is too close by. They were picked up by AC school bus and went to international school named after a random phirangi [probably Richard or Jacob or someone, as long as he has white skin and blue hair why does it matter?], and went to kids section of overpriced club #24 after they reached home and finished googling homework.

Hardipur and Geetu went up and down, left and right, here and there, like they smelt 3 tons of chocolate. They can to a strange lane where everything smelt strange, dogs weren’t on chains and people wore lungis-sarees, full traditional get-up even though it wasn’t ethnic day.

Hansel-Gretel or whatever you call them, ran up-down making their white, white uniforms brown and bought some pani-puri. It was better than canteen version. They went to small park smaller than their front yard, where other kids played. Other kids looked at them, they looked at other kids. Hardipur wanted to discuss Pokemon gen 40 and new super-duper, ultra evolution, but they didn’t understand him. Hansel-Gretel/Hardipur-Geetu played on their phones. Everything was very nice they noticed, it was nice to be out they said and sat awkwardly on the benches.

It was soon night and they were scared.Google maps doesn’t work when your phone has expired. Hansel-Gretel were very sad, scared even when a nice dark old lady came along and offered to take them home. She took them to her home first, asked them a few questions, but they just smiled awkwardly in response. She looked like a witch working on magic brew when she made them dinner. She ate little, and kept smiling as they ate.They decided she must be a cook .

She wasn’t smiling when sirens screamed and neighbors came out to watch as police took her away. Parents said hi to Hansel-Gretel/Hardipur-Geetu, police looked everywhere and some random case was booked. Hansel-Gretel/Hardipur-Geetu noticed the house was dust covered and looked a little like chocolate as they taken back home in their tinted window, AC car. They looked at each other and felt a little guilty, but Mom-Dad said she is not a nice lady. She had forced them to cancel vacation.

Probably kidnapping she was trying. Don’t go to the slums again they said. They could hardly stop huffing and puffing when they realized that Hansel-Gretel/ Hardipur-Geetu must have eaten meat. Later they discussed what caste the old lady must have been and what purification ceremony they would have to perform. Hansel-Gretel shrugged were happy to have Wi-Fi access again and everyone called it a happy ending.

An Old Phtograph

I don’t really have many pictures of myself when I was young, I was far to self-conscious and would scatter the second I heard some eager creature with a camera. So when I realize that my makeshift mouse-pad was an old picture of me on my 8th birthday I was quite startled.

I’d say something cliché like “memories came rushing back”, but really, that isn’t the truth. The picture felt like a rough jab because it reminded me that the memory -or even memories were always around. I remember what T-shirts people wore, how they smelt and where my dog had bitten three of my friends. It’s like writing a word on paper, closing your eyes and recalling every curve,swish and dot. On the left, my other wise pretty cousin is on the sofa with us, mouth wide open ready to chomp on a slice of chocolate cake she holds. I am in between. I look anorexic you’d think my cousin was inspired to enjoy her meal because of my plight yet I smile away trying to adjust my red birthday cap. My father sits on the right with his hand awkwardly feeling the wall behind the sofa. He looks like a cat about to be run over.

Most of those parties always went the same way. My dad would yell and throw a fit about me not helping him decorate, I’d ask him why people need birthdays in the first place (while I wondered why I had to decorate if the whole thing was about me). My father wears a simple white shirt and looks 40. He’s looked like he’s 40 ever since he finished high school. Now he’s 55 and still looks 40.

My cousin and I, both skinny and young, both in bright yellow hand me downs and with birthday caps that just won’t stay on our heads look like natural allies. She was almost done with high-school  by then, but had not yet learnt how to avoid getting yelled at by the many aunts who inhabited the mansion. Back then I never understood why she was so eager to drag me away from cartoon network, and talk to me about the most random things. I never got why people kept telling her to go ask her mother to pay her bills. We’d sit by the little outlook on the hill and count the number of black cars and buses that needed a wash. She’d talk about how she’d have to dig up graves to find teeth so she could study dentistry.

I forgot about her entirely when my mother and I left that old house and that part of the family. In my defense I was a kid, I never got her rants about her nokia and pink cycle. I saw her again 3 years ago when both of us went back to the old house. We shrugged and said “meh” to everyone else there. We saw each other. We shrugged and said “meh”. She had a kid apparently.

It’s an odd photo. Very obviously candid. None of us seem affected by the din that must have been taking place in the center of the room. There only three of us three, on a sofa colored like pencil lead, against a bland green wall. For some reason that image always seems to simple,recent and familiar to forget.

Poor Rapunzel

Poor Rapunzel locked away in her room, her corner, her gender. Poor, poor Rapunzel. Didn’t she understand it was for her own good? Why are women so blond yaar? We just have their best interests in mind but they never see.

Look at her now. Choking down tears. What’s the point in suppressing tears? She looks so ugly like that. Don’t even get me started on how annoying the muffled sobs of girls are. Why is she ashamed? If she was a boy we wouldn’t have let her cry. If she was a boy all these problems wouldn’t be there. Now who will marry her? She looked like a cow, but now she’s a buffalo.

What is this short hair hungama? Doesn’t she care about her looks? It is not Indian culture. We’ve lost our standing now. All the neighbors have seen. They’ll say look at that girl; they’ll never come to her wedding. She’s marked. She’s almost worthless on the marriage market now. We let her color her hair. We sent her to medical. But still she cut those beautiful locks.

She’s lucky. She doesn’t understand. If this was Pakistan, no? How much more a villager would have done if she’d gone all over the city after with a boy who, god forbid, might be Muslim. So lucky she is. Anywhere else this would call for an honor killing. She’s lucky a beating is all we gave to remind her of her place, to punish her for cutting her hair. Now we’ll have to find a better astrologer. The family will have to sell a few kidneys, but hopefully we’ll find one of these Americanized boys for her. Some of them like short hair.

But we? We are martyrs. So much we have to suffer. This would never happen in my Grandfather’s day. This would never happen in your Great Grandfather’s day. What to do? Kids these days. We should have been smart and kept her at home. One day a prince will take her and make her his long haired prize, just you wait.

Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping beauties parents, who lived like rich kings and queens with greasy palms, went to high-funda doctors and posh, posh hospitals where people were only allowed to speak if they had fake accents.

There, they ordered food delivery [hospital food is so cheap!] and spent more than nurses in government hospitals make more in their entire lives. The hospital photographer with his fancy DSLR jumped around the smiling relatives in silk sarees, next to the posh king size beds and screaming, bleeding mother. No one heard the father ask for an extra stitch. All relatives said baby looks “nice, nice”. Mean relative later said “looks just like the father”. The silk fairies were busy posing for the hopping photographer, but fairy god mother [some dam mid-wife] placed a terrible curse on the baby. The entire room gasped as the curse was laid. “It’s a girl” the mid-wife said.

Poor beauty, everyone always thought she was asleep. While she grew up uncle, auntie, tha-tha, everyone said “Where is your son?”, “Who will pass on the family name?”.  Beauty said “I will, I will”. They didn’t hear and recommended herbs, Ayurveda doctors everything and anything. Beauty’s Mummy-Daddy tried everything, did everything and every position – front to back, top to down and back to back etc. But still no boy baby.

Beauty went to school where all girls were sleeping. Teacher said “Good job Rohan”, “Good job Mohan”. Rohan and Mohan were very naughty and girls very quiet, but teacher didn’t look at the girls. To teacher all girls were sleeping or should be sleeping.

Mummy-Daddy became Mom-Dad and also very sad. They had said “Medical,Medical” but since beauty liked history she actually started sleeping. Neighbor aunty said she likes sleeping so much, she sleeps at every David’s and Rahul’s house she goes to.

Beauty doesn’t last forever so Beauty was sent to the house of a nice boy with fair skin, from nice family from nice village. Nice boy had MBA, didn’t ask too much dowry and had nice caste background. Beauty went into manufacturing, cooking and housekeeping fields, and thought she was happy. But unfortunately her children were doomed to grow up and forget that she wasn’t sleeping.

Poor Beauty! Nice boy with fair skin also liked sleeping in other people’s houses. He had always wanted to be Bad boy but his mamma wouldn’t let him. One day Beauty decided since everyone thought she was sleeping she’ll actually go to sleep. Many expensive sleeping pills she had with elegant wine. Everyone came in silk sarees and said “Look at that Beauty! If only she wasn’t sleeping.”

 

The Slow Wagon To No-Where

My father has this amazing ability to change opinions depending on how far away he is.

When he’s in Mangalore, everyone agrees that a car ride with him is torture. His trusty steed is a dented, old Wagon R, is painted  brown by the omnipresent coating of dust [legend has it that it was once as black as the hair dye my grandfather always gets all over his neck]. The Wagon R has a disturbing tendency to fall apart in the oddest ways, ooze strange fluids that seem to have been food during a bygone age,have strange insects crawl out etc. The furious family head shaking at my father driving [which gets my grandfathers hair dye all over the rest of the family] dies down the closer to Bangalore my father gets. By the time my father has driven into city limits everyone seems to have forgotten about their disgust at his driving, and insist that I have nothing better to do than accompany my father to where ever it is he needs to go.

My family has this weird thing about road. To most people road’s don’t matter all that much unless they’re being launched into orbit by some inconsiderate pothole or being offered an unwelcome shower by a motorist who hasn’t noticed that the pothole you are walking next to is filled with water. To my family it’s the pinnacle of civilization. Show them a documentary on the Romans? “Wow look at those roads!”. Images of Afghanistan? “My god look at those roads! How can they be so good when Taliban and American terrorists are bombing everything?”. My mother has recently become interest in Urdu poetry. Every time the discussion turns to Pakistani poetry and some patriot uncle decides that Pakistan is nothing but my sand, my mother will argue “That’s not true! Don’t underestimate them, have you even seen their roads?”

Perhaps this love of perfectly paved tar can be traced to Mangalore. Mangalore and the villages in the area ,like Bantwal, have for a very long time, had atrocious roads. How atrocious? So atrocious that every single car ride must warrant comment on the roads. There has never, and I mean NEVER, been a car ride without complaints about the road. So my father who has been bouncing up and down the poorly laid mixtures of tar,dirt and speed bumps for most of the day-long car ride from Mangalore to Bangalore  achieves a state of maddened euphoria when he sees patches of good road. Suddenly the accelerator is his worst enemy that needs to be crushed under his foot, the break needs to be kicked violently or it’ll disappear and ever traffic jam a excuse to stop and snooze while maintaining a 7 meter distance from the vehicle in front. Unlike my family, normal motorists have a consistent view about my father’s driving.

Every time we start off from home, a hour later than planned, my father and I spend a minimum of 15 minutes sorting the many many plastic bags, ferrying all the things he’s brought into the house, throwing away all the random derbies and aged fruit his journey has accumulated. My father also has this habit of buying fruit juice every 20 minutes of the car ends up having a lot of thing spilt all over it. Occasionally he’ll hang it on the door locks. If your aren’t careful the paper cups with the juice can get caught between car and door. A wet explosion of water melon is sometime I’m all to familiar with. Once my father didn’t notice I was half red and drenched till we got back home.

Honestly I’m surprised by how easily I’ve reached 600 words. I guess that’s because we travel everywhere by car. It’s always the first option which is weird since none of us can stand each other. My father and I have debates about religion, or at least we used to when I was foolish enough to think I could change his opinion. He has some pretty bizarre ideas, like moon rays affecting everything he does, random anecdotes about wells filled with money being proof of god etc. At one point of time he hoped I’d become an astrologer.

My father also comes up the weirdest of conspiracy theories. Rahul Gandhi is a cocaine addict, the CIA funds global warming etc. Occasionally random friends of his who are almost always filthy rich hotel owner from Goa who dress like hobo’s and share his taste in cheap hotels that where built back when Joseph Stalin was yet to hit puberty. I could go on the utter bizzarness of the conversations but if you really want to keep your mouth shut you can which is a plus. Or maybe he’s learnt that it’s no use trying, I’m not very sure.

He always sends passenger to fetch morning, afternoon and evening papers. They can be any south Indian language, but if they are Kannada he has to get a copy from very specific publishers, who’s names I can never remember. I don’t know anyone else who read’s afternoon or evening papers. I guess this is because he spends most on his day inside the car like some 21st desert nomad on his camel.He doesn’t have a modern phone either [he has three Chinese made one which have survived a ridiculous amount of punishment and are of the following colors: Pink, Bright yellow and violet.

Occasionally if we’re on some scenic route, he’ll start driving slower than butter melts in refrigerators and become the most mundane travel guide ever. Stories of how some random grand uncles, nephew’s wife’s friends  substitute teacher fell down while running barefoot will turn up. At time the choice of sites leaves me baffled. “Look a golf course”,”Look a field of paddy”,”Look a river” . I’m not quite sure how I’m expected to respond to that. Or why we took a 30 minute diversion to go see it. If my mother is also with us, she’ll rip the back of the drivers seat to shreds[ I always ride shotgun, it’s not that I care but it’s been my default position for some reason.]

For a stinky, sweaty, battered, old car that always leads to some fight or outrage, it has a lot of memories that tag with each trip.