Monday, February 23, 2009

Krishno - III

In October 1937, less than a year after Krishno first set foot in England, news arrived from India that Lt. Col. Trebblewood had met with an accident while hunting tiger. The machan he was on had been built with wood rotten from the inside. It gave way just as he was taking aim. The porters reported a flash of gold and black dragging the young man into the trees. The screaming and thrashing stopped faster than it began, swallowed into the deathly blackness of the forest. An armed search party found half a body the next day. The Lt. Col. was identified only by his boots.

Krishno poured all of himself into taking care of Lady Trebblewood. She was a vigorous woman, but a crucial strength wisped out of her when she realised she had outlived her only son. Suddenly, the cancer she'd staved off so well all these months grew new heads and ate at her ravenously.

Death was new to Krishno. He couldn't understand how she dealt so stoically with her imminent end. An accident was one thing. You couldn't see it coming, it swept you away before you had the chance to judge your life, what you touched and what you didn't, what you were leaving behind and where you were heading. But this moderately paced exit, it gave you time to reflect..and how could anyone be content with their lives? How would they suppress that..that greed to live? How did they make their peace with their lot?

Lady Trebblewood saw Krishno as her own son by then. She spoke to her lawyers to make sure he was taken care of after she was gone. Krishno spent countless hours by her bed, nursing her. She talked to him about how she wanted him to live on in England, do business here and across Europe. She had monies which were going to be his, his family in India would never be wanting. Krishno protested..and stopped when he saw how this deference slashed at her.

The funeral was a solemn affair. Krishno made all the arrangements himself. Black coattails stood listless under a stark grey sky, veils and hats remained soberly in place. A knot surged into Krishno's throat and exploded. His knees gave, and he sank to the ground, muddying his trousers. This new emptiness struck him like a cosh on the back of his head, and behind his eyes, and it sucked away emotion. No tears came, just sounds of hollowness and people moving slowly, reaching for his arm, guiding him back to London.

Krishno spent the next week wrapping up Lady Trebblewood's affairs. He sold the furniture on her insistence, and sent the money to his brother in Calcutta. He saved the bed she spent her last months on. He couldn't decide what to do with it, so he spent nights asleep under it. During the day, he looked for work. The landlord let him stay there while he looked.

It ought to have been easy, this business of finding work. The Lady's farthest-flung acquaintances had let Krishno know to look them up if he ever needed a job. It was an insidious irony - Krishno's notions of dignity and propriety, all antiquated, wholly rustic, stopped him from ever taking up these offers.

Other employment was hard to come by. It was fine to speak english, but how many would want this aftermath of colonial rule selling them soap, or doing their accounts?

Krishno's search ended when he returned to a pub that Lady Trebblewood and he frequented. He'd been embarassed at first, visiting there with her, but he soon grew thick with the blokes. They joked with the Lady, and any friend of hers.. One of the pubbers gave him a Captain's name. They needed a fourth officer on the Queen Mary when it docked in from Chittagong.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Krishno - II

*See Krishno - I

Asma was born to a wealthy family in Dhaka. Those were days of plenty. Her mother came with land, and her father with a temper. The in-laws mistook his temper for ambition and fussed little, marrying their daughter off.

Asma was besotted with cinema for as long as she could recall. She had an uncle on the seas, Shahadat, who went shore to shore collecting films for his niece. She'd write him about how her interest in the craft had shifted from curiosity to obsession, and he'd gladly ship back new movies and lamps for her projector. She had dog-eared American cinema, and had dissected all that Europe had to offer, from Hitchcock's works to Rene Clair's movies with music. She loved mainstream with a passion and had written several screenplays of her own, ones she hoped to someday direct.

It wasn't an understood thing, this passion for cinema, among girls, less among the aristocracy Asma belonged to. And who'd believe her if she said she was simply interested in the process, in the storytelling, not in fluttering her lids in front of the camera.. "She's just got stars in her eyes.."

When she turned eighteen, the wheel had come full circle for her mother who began preparations for a wedding. Any of the suitors, young lawyers who'd studied across the oceans, would be blessed to have her. Asma was a delicate thing, she'd say. A porcelain constitution, an unhurried disposition, just so used to the good life, you know..Your son looks like he'd take good care of

Asma was distraught. She had known the day would come, but there was something crushing about its momentum, the product of its consequences and the suddenness of its happening, that trapped her. She was scared for the first time in her life. All her conceptions of the world, of cinema and people, were suddenly reduced to a marriage she'd seen innumerable times, where young aunts and cousins were shipped off to foreign lands, only to be heard from in letters when they delivered babies.

The uncle returned to Dhaka for the wedding, wondering how Asma was coping with all of it. Shahadat had always been a romantic, hoped that Asma would do a dream turn someday and join India's burgeoning film industry. He entered her room and saw her in front of the mirror. She had never looked more beautiful. He recognised his sister's jewelry on Asma, still as golden as all those years ago when he had prayed for her happiness at the nikaah. Asma's reflection though was prayerless. It stared back at him, blankly, with a soullessness that frightened him.

Shahadat had seen this beauty before. It was fragile, fleeting, but it had fossilized in his brain. Thirty years ago, his mother's sister had visited them at home. Shahadat was a young lad, but not much younger than this aunt. She had dazzled him then, her skin whiter than he remembered, her eyes deep wells. She hugged her sister, Shahadat's mother, and gently shut a door behind them. The sisters talked for hours. The voices never rose enough to slip under the door. Later that evening, the doors opened, and the young lady stepped out. Her shoulders were stiff and jaw firm, her eyes newly cold, but her stride strong. She carried the weight of her beauty purposefully out the house without so much as a glance back. After the last handfuls of earth had been poured on her grave, the family issued an obituary, mourning the accident.

Shahadat saw this beauty and all its spite in Asma, as she looked at him unblinkingly. He knew then what needed to happen. He smuggled her out to the railway station that night and onward to the Chittagong port. The families searched her friends' houses through the night, while Asma and Shahadat set course for England at dawn.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Krishno - I

In 1936, Krishno was 16, and if only you could've seen him. He was athletic and looked dapper in a shirt and the trousers he'd had tailored that year. He spoke English like it was his to speak (thank you Radio BBC) - was often interpreter for when the English had bulletins for the village. He was a good son, and he helped run his family, making money off of the Britishers at the local cantonment. He'd run errands for them, some shadier than others, the rest sunnily English. At times, they'd send him to hunt down the district talukdar, or to tend to the Cantonment library. Other times, he'd take the white children over to the waterfall at the jungle's edge and play a game of footie with them. The younger officers - they took to him because he was also the Cantonment's supplier of all things smokeable.

Within a few months, Krishno learnt nuances about the British as a people that even the city-bred babus hadn't caught onto. He learnt their intonations, but stayed clear of the accent. He used colloquialisms sparingly so that they didn't think him just another johnny-come-lately (*the author has noted the irony here*).

Krishno absorbed subtleties of the tilts of head and the stiffened lip, of plain food and small talk, of the Country and the City, of lawns and schools, tennis and plimsolls, of the unmarried ladies back home and their mothers. The more he imbibed, the more curious he grew. The phirangs at the cantonment wouldn't mingle with just anybody, so over time, Krishno learnt how to hold up the right mirrors to his British acquaintances. This way, for the most part, they'd just be talking to themselves; they could revel in the impression they must've made on those around them. Krishno would be careful though not to show them so much of the mirror that they'd be embarrassed. Sometimes, they'd like the mirrors turned just so, to light up the spots where they stood. These were their moments of glory in the colonies, when even the most discerning native would doff his hat, had he one.

Lt. Col. Trebblewood had risen fast through the ranks. The senior Trebblewood had distinguished himself to the Queen by his services in Malta, setting up military schools that recruited several locals into the British National Army. At 22, Lt. Col. Trebblewood was still reaping the goodwill. He'd been posted that year to the 24 Parganas Cantonment on special assignment. Chief among his perquisites was the travel allowance provided to bring his mother, the widow Trebblewood, along. She was given her own lodgings at the Cantonment.

The Lt. Col.'s mother made her first sortie into the village the very day she arrived at the Cantonment. Parasol tucked under one arm, cheeks flushed from the effort under the unforgiving sun, she climbed the hillocks to the village. She had sneaked out of the cantonment, and so managed to be unaccompanied. Krishno was on his way back to the village himself, from Calcutta, where he'd been to visit his brother at school. He saw her ahead of him, still a distance from the village and caught up with her soon enough. He hadn't ever spoken to a British lady before and wasn't about to let the opportunity pass. Drawing up beside her, Krishno offered a drink of water and thought it quite a bargain in exchange for the conversation.

As they continued, village-bound, they got talking about public transport in the city, and how it left one soft in the middle. She was surprised to hear he'd lived his whole life in the village ("Well, how is it I can understand what you're saying?"). He showed her around the village, and eventually brought her home to dinner. She was taken by the food, simple fare, but wholesome in a most settling way. Later that evening, the lady Trebblewood asked to be walked back to the Cantonment. Krishno obliged. She insisted he visit often.

It was when she fell sick a few months later that Lt. Col. Trebblewood decided to have Krishno escort her back to England. By the time their liner docked, it was December, and Krishno saw both England and snow for the first time.

His first few months there were spent helping her settle back in. It came naturally to him, this care-giving. He looked after Lady Trebblewood delicately most days, but she was a hardy woman, and on the days she looked pink, they'd land up at watering holes where the older pubbers knew her. Krishno wasn't sure what to make of this at first. Surely Ladies didn't just walk into pubs, much less those ladies with titles, much much less those accompanied by brownies.

For Lady Trebblewood's friends, Krishno was an exotic treat. His skin, his hands, the calluses, the branched veins on his palms, his barefoot life - all of these were captivating. Ironic that in India, Krishno gained ground with the British when he took on the airs of the pawns at the cantonment, while here in London, each striking dissimilarity, each novel un-British experience from his old life lifted him from pedestal to higher pedestal in Lady Trebblewood's circles.

From among the friends that visited, two had daughters only slightly older than Krishno. When the girls heard from their mothers about this dapper brownie, they were beyond intrigued. London, in all its greyness, could soon become boring. The eligible men were serving abroad, and those that remained were strangely affected. These men were english, certainly, and bore every appurtenance, but perhaps that itself was the problem. Krishno on the other hand was a delectable misfit. Where he went, people stared. How held he his head that high, back that straight? Why was he lithe, why not underfed? How spoke he english? And the girls wondered how naughty it would be if they linked arms and walked down Knightsbridge? Their mothers were sure to hear of it. Oh, this'd show them!

Soon, quite blasphemously, Krishno began to receive invites to dinners and cottages by lakes. London's snow melted early that year.

**To be continued

Sunday, February 08, 2009

India Series update

The India posts end here. I've created a too-large canvas for the story, one unsupported by the blog format. Watch for a book. The plot involves espionage, heinous villainy and much in the way of romance, all in the garb of an updated Therouxian guide to the country's riches.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

India V

It was many years ago, I might have been about 10 at the time when I had walked into this run-down building at the end of the road from where I lived. I went there because I'd been told not to go near it.

It was mostly dark inside and the floors were greasily dirty, hadn't been mopped or swept in years. I could feel the grime even through the soles of my shoes. The stair corners had paan stains and the cement walls were bare.

I was in the elevator when the power went out, trapping me inside. The lift had stopped where the floor outside, beyond the lift gates, was at the level of my eye. I didn't call for help. I'd gotten myself into this, and I'd damned sure get out of it myself.

The yellow-red evening sun streamed through rusty grilled windows, lighting up the floors, drawing obtuse shadows that grew every minute, all angles and blocks. These slanted columns of sun were made distinct by the shafts of dust they illuminated. Glittering dust that seemed to flow this way and that within the light, that would suddenly disappear behind shadows, where the sun was quiet. As though the Sun and the dust were playing a game of seek & find, as though the dust moved because the Sun permitted it, as though the dust was simply preening before the Sun called it back to the heavens. Angel dust.

The dirt on the floor was now in front of my nose as I stood trapped in the cage. I knew grime, sweat, sand, insects, all played together here and I'd become an unwilling audience. It was strange though, watching the game from as close as this. Each player had grown larger than life at this distance. So much so that I felt I could throw a hat into the ring myself.

The sand wasn't the dull brown colour I'd expected. The grains were distinct at this close distance, each glistening like a crystal ball, lying quiet on the floor, as though they were done telling fortunes. A spider walked tent-legged over these grains, an elaborately improvised dance over crystal glinting in the setting sun.

The stains on the floor had disappeared now, in my two-dimensional world. I could see length and breadth, but couldn't conceive height. When a dried leaf fluttered to the floor from above, the ants and I were equally surprised. I let them examine the leaf for me, because I was still caged, my eyes now two limbless points, hungry to learn about this new world. Life in this microscale played out harmoniously, rhythmically, so different from our chaos-infested world of giants. Every particle, every creature had its own flow and its own rules. There was an invisible stream here that floated each entity, carried this world from age to age, independent of ours, oblivious of us, except when we interfered, when we played god and decided to stamp out life or simply to sweep the dirt.

Back here in Bombay, I looked hither, tither, idhar, udhar, at the life all around me as Ranjit led me to his house through the galis of Dharavi.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

India IV: Bombay

Ranjit lived not far, in a chawl that he paid 15 lakhs for. He lived there with his parents, who had grown old in the city. It was a one-bedroom affair, and had its own bathroom. And they'd hung a nameboard on the door. Patels. They owned the land now, a piece of the earth that wasn't the government's, nor the police's to raid. Even the local bhai wasn't going to stake a claim, so slickly had Ranjit greased every proferred palm.

The politics of land-owning, in the thick of the city, are complicated. There's no paperwork to speak of, no documents that will deter an encroacher. Ownership is never absolute, it only grows as generations hold on to the land. A newly settled couple can be ousted overnight from the basti, pans and almirahs flung out, onto the galli. But with a family that's lived there two generations, it's much harder. The mastans might scare the family, but there are neighbours to deal with. Neighbours who've shared salt with the family for decades. These neighbours are spokes in the wheel the mastans turn. The mastans can be young, their arms puffy, but their Bhai takes hafta from the bastiwalas. The bhai is sheriff and dictator, ernesto and castro all in one, but he isn't absolute, he's the thread that loops through the basti, in, out, in, out. In fact, Bhai is pixel art, each pixel a beating heart from the basti. There's a grand order in this universe that even the next Bhai will toe. Age, caste, money, all will be accorded gravity before the Bhais, present and future, order action.

And Ranjit, at 19, has played this game remarkably well to buy his chawl. The other bastiwalas rent, and do so indefinitely. Bhai splits these rent amounts into several piles. One for the Deputy Inspector in charge of the area, another for his minions, one for the MP who contested polls at the basti, another for the city to bring their sewage and garbage clearance machinery by once a month. It's a country within a city. The rent and the hafta support Bhai's fiefdom by funding defense budgets, diplomatic offices, infrastructure, and relief funds.

Ranjit is free from all of this. There are no sluices to drain his money every month. He's paid his dues, all black, but all cash.

Ranjit's father, toothless now, grandparent to Ranjit's many nieces and nephews, appreciates the land more than anyone. Three strides and you've covered the area of their home, but the old man finds an infinity hidden in there. He once explained it to Ranjit "Yes, I can see the walls of our house, here's one and there's the other, and they need a coat of lime. I can see why you think this is small. But look through the ceiling. Look up at the square of sky you've bought us. How many miles is it to that sky? I don't know. And how deep below the earth does our land run? I don't know. Look from that square in the sky through the floor, to the center of the earth. That is what we own. No more these debts, those vacant stares into bombay's traffic, that talk of home and the world. Son, you've freed us from the cycle..."

I understood then where he learnt to grin like that. Within his four walls, Ranjitrulez was king.