Sunday, December 09, 2012

A throne's tale - I

"Listen to me. I didn't slip up yesterday. I called them off. They were going to club you to death. I called them off."

"The sun is blinding. Just turn me around, let's talk. We can figure this out. C'mon let's talk. Like we're kids again. We can figure this out."

"You can have it. All of it. The money, the game, everything. Take the whole goddamn city. They deserve you. You were always baba's favourite."

"No, come on! This is not how I want to go. I know I didn't miscalculate. There's good in you, ma would simply say it, but I believed it."

"How you've fallen. I loved you. I still do. I thought you were better than this."


There must've been love. How could there not? He was the most adorable little thing. How could you not want to pick him up in your arms? Cheeks that chubby ki you just wanted to squeeze 'em, but yes, I couldn't see him cry, so no, not that hard.

I was always very protective of him. I wasn't four when he was born, but I feel like I knew exactly what my role was going to be. I was going to be playmate, teacher, tormentor. He was going to be my scapegoat, my ball of wet clay.

See, we were going to inherit the city. Or one of us was, anyway.

My father was in jail. Had been since before I was born. My brother was born of a conjugal visit. I learnt that baba ran his matka empire just as well from his cell as he did from his rooftop office in Malad before the pandus took him away.

The routine in jail was the same. Every night, at 11pm, he would draw three cards from a freshly opened deck. All the while surrounded by prominent politicians, sundry filmstars, and always the jailer. Do a straight add of each card, and that's the number that in seconds would be transmitted to every corner of the city. Phones would fall off their cradles getting the numbers across to the bettors, pagers would beep, and the bets would start to pour in.

Never did he draw the second hand a moment before midnight. By then, crores of rupees would have crossed the tables of the dalal network he'd set up throughout the city.

And then my father's bookies in every alley would begin their payouts. Promptly and accurately. The intoxication here was the crazy odds that he offered. Guess three digits out of a possible 8, and take home two and a half times your bet. No bet too small or too big.

Today, they say he had an elaborate mechanism to figure out which numbers to draw on his second hand to reduce the payouts. Statistics collated instantly from the corners of the city and transmitted through the bars of his cell, whispering digits into his eardrums. Hah. A likely story. There existed no such technology. There still doesn't. And even if he pulled off this voodoo to figure out those numbers somewhichhow, tell me about the second draw. He was still watched by those veinshot eyes. His each move, the single flick of each. How was he to draw these magic numbers? I mean, forget the how, just imagine the balls it would take. But then again, if I had this figured out, I'd probably have kept the crown of matka pasha. Baba made more money each night than the chief minister made in a month (relief funds included).

My brother and I were born to the same mother. She did not favour me over him, nor ulta. He would reach for my hand when we needed to cross the road, and I would fold his tiny fingers into my palm. I spent my pocket money on those candy cigarettes for him, bought him his first guitar, fought off kids that bullied him at school.

It wasn't always as sunny between the two of us - I would lose my temper on occasion, when the duffer wouldn't get geometry, or physics. But what was there not to get? I'd smack him then. He wouldn't protest. He could see how much I wanted him to be a better version of me. A handsomer boy, a more talented poet, sportsman, musician. Over the years, he did grow up to be that accomplished. I learnt later that what drove him was spite.

He must have been 13 the day he understood the stakes of the matka kingdom. I was 17, and leaving home for the first time to go abroad - Switzerland. I was about to leave for the airport, when news arrived that our father was not going to be carrying out the matka that night in prison. No further word as to why not. A large crowd had assembled outside the gates of our house. They demanded to know what was going on. They were there because they'd become addicted to matka.

Have you ever read a crowd? They say before Hendrix got on the stage at Woodstock, the otherwise raucous crowd suddenly went quiet. If you looked into a single, mellow bandana-ed soul, you'd gather nothing. No one individual could tell you what was about to happen. If you could read the pulse of the collective though, you'd know they knew. Their unified consciousness knew that a storm was about to tear through them. Hendrix was going to make it rain.

It's a good thing though that I had no such crowd-reading abilities. Not because it wasn't a handy skill, but rather, because the instant dread of that reading would likely have rooted me to the floor. Today, I imagine that if I had only looked closer into the membrane of the crowd, I'd have been able to see through the pores and the confusion, that spectrum of emotion would have crystallized into my gut, and told me what to do next. Amidst the curiosity-filled eyes, there were others that twitched nervously. Amidst the mutterings of prayers for matka pasha, there were quiet tongues within hardened jaws. Some of them were coming off large wins and the drug was in their system. Others must have owed large monies and it was only matka that would save their skin. That, or dakaiti.

We should have fled. Instead, as the head of the house, I stood there dumbfounded as time screeched into quiet. My mother was at my side. I could tell she was agitated, but I was mesmerized by the crowd. She was screaming my brother's name when the first stone crashed into the bay window on the second floor. I saw the darwan drop his stick as he ran past the house, away from the entrance. I suppose it was just as well. The iron gates would have crushed him when they fell.

The TV in the next room should have been drowned out by the crowd, but like it would happen again ten years later, the news seemed to lift itself to that annoying notch, the pitch of the mosquito, where despite the cacophony, the caster's voice cut through the curtains of noise - the Matka Pasha had hung himself in his cell, and the city was going into curfew immediately to quell any unrest.

It would be atleast 20 minutes until the police got here. By then we could have been burnt alive by the crowd, such was the sudden unreason in their eyes. My mother clutched at me, and we looked around for my brother but he was nowhere to be found. I ran out onto the balcony to see if he was there. The crowd was now charging down the garden path, men, women, the well-heeled and the troddowns.

I froze for the second time in the space of a few minutes - my brother, in his shorts, was walking out the front door and towards the rampage. He had a matka in his hands.

The sight of this sliver of a boy was like the firing of a water cannon. It brought the crowd to a dead halt. Perhaps his defenseless form triggered some spark of humanity, and they lowered the stones they'd picked up on the road outside.

I've seen standoffs in movies. They'd always felt comical. Sure, the gunslingers were sweating, knotted brows and all, but the sheer idiocy of the situation, where there was this formality to the duel despite how in a flash it would turn so primitively savage, always made me chuckle. I felt none of that idiocy in the air today. I needed to pull my brother back into the house, behind the oak doors. This lull was only a moment of reasonableness. Any second now, that blind fury would resettle behind the eyes of the mob, and they would trample him to death.

That's when he lifted that matka above his head and brought it crashing down to the ground. The hardened mud pot fractured into tiny pieces around his feet.

He sat down on the ground and pulled out a deck of cards. He had his toy megaphone with him. He called for five people from the crowd to step forward, and asked them to put down a thousand rupees each. He then shuffled the cards, and read the crowd the new rules of Matka. The Matka Pasha might have passed away, but "Flash Matka" was born that afternoon.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Construct this man carefully

We're going to have some fun today.

Trap a man in an unholy pit. In the deepest, darkest recess you can conceive. Let the pit be the very belly of the earth. Cavernous, with no start and no end. Make certain that when the pit is sealed, there is no way out, and no way in. Nor light enter, nor breath escape.

Construct this pit carefully. Here is what you need to do:

Turn up the temperature, until it hits a dry boil. Three days in, when most creatures in that hole have died, fashion a tiny, shallow puddle of water in the very innards of this pit. Allow a drip to fall on to that puddle, a drop every hour. Let the sound of this drip echo through the cavern. Remember, one drop every hour. When it is the sound of water, trust me, it will hit every animate eardrum. Every creature alive will daredevil maps of the cavern in their heads. They will bore toeholds and finger-ledges using muscle, and skin, to reach the water. Five days in, turn the drip into a slip of a stream. Steady and gurgling. The man might have given up trying to find perches to climb to, but this should start him up again.

Make it so that there is no way to reach that puddle.

Now, construct this man carefully:

Fill the man with fire. For this to work, the fire needs be red. Not the golden glow of hope. Also not the amber shade of courage - much too meek - courage allows a man to wait it out on the top floor of a burning building, in the hope that a fireman or some watergod will come. It will not make him the demon he needs to be to escape this hell.

So, no. Make that fire red. It should burn him if he can't put it out. It should torch his blood and glass his eyes from the inside if he does not scramble fast enough.

One does not start this kind of fire with kindling and air. At best, that sort of fire burns blue at the edges with a cabin-warm shimmer at the centre. No, instead, start with fury. Add hate or add love - I'll leave that to you and the sort of morning you've had today. Don't just season though. Flood his core with it. It will be adding spirit to the fury. Let the mixture explode in his heart. Again and again. Valves should burst and veins should throb. If his body cannot carve a toehold in the rock to reach the next ledge, he should strip his foot of skin, flesh, muscle and ligament to expose bone, and again begin the battle against rock.

Make his bones brittle.

I hope you enjoy the fight.

Finish it with mercy. That's what we do.

I expect that after a while, he will lie there,  broken. Send in the black dust I'd left by the stove. You could unseal the pit, by a hair's width and slip in the dust. His breathing will be heavy (for he will be broken only in body), sucking in large amounts of air, and expelling it before it can reach his lungs, but the dust only needs to enter his windpipe. The moment it does, it will seep through his pores and reach his bloodstream. This dust will put out the fire and end his fight.


See, my project should've ended there. You were there. You heard the instructions. Light fire, watch him fight, put him out with the dust.

But it didn't work out that way.

I descended into the pit and watched him as he inhaled the dust. He broke out into a violent cough instantly, stretching his arms to the rocks to pull himself up... but it wouldn't help. It was too late for him. He stopped after a minute. His body turned still. I thought he'd turned to stone. His skin, black, now turned leaden. I expected he would keel over. Instead, his stiffened legs folded..elegantly..and he sat back down, tucking the bloody, bony foot under him. His eyes, just now bloody, suddenly shot open. I looked directly into them. They were two balls of ash floating in a white-hot liquid. For a moment, I thought he could see me.

At that instant, I became conscious of how cold it had suddenly become in the cave. I looked back at the man. He was glowing red hot. As though he'd drawn into himself all the heat of the cave. What new divinity was this? I heard a rumbling underneath me, and suddenly a slab of rock split open where I stood. From it gushed upwards a flaming jet of gold. I looked around, and out burst another fissure, and another. Sprays of lava shot up, some reaching miles high, upto the very seal of the pit.

As I turned my eyes upwards, I saw that the man was now ablaze. A red plume of fire. There was no distress, no agony. Just a calmness. His burning body shuddered for a moment before shooting into the void above, splitting open my pit-seal. The molten rock under me turned into a massive geyser as it followed him out. For days it flowed out the sides of the pit, and I watched in amazement as it razed fields and animals. What a sight, what an incredible notion that I could do this - create a mountain out of a cave and fire a man into the stars.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Mad Men

Mad men
On a hot, dusty evening, a man fell to the ground beside a heap of rotting garbage. He skinned his knees and the side of his face as he hit the asphalt. His tattered pajamas did little to hide his modesty.

He lay there, sucking in short, sharp breaths. He was supposed to feel an emotion, but which one? Perhaps anger… or was it shock?  He tried to play dead, hoping the boys would move on to some other prey. Like bears. But he couldn’t stop his gasps of breath. The more he tried to stifle them, the more his body jerked. He was conscious of how his body had started to writhe again, uncontrollably.  

Today he was a stupid man, stripped of intelligence, stripped of sense. He was so stupid, he couldn’t even play dead. So when the pelting started again, could he blame them? He curled his beard in front of his face and put one hand over his eyes, the other over his genitals as the men laughed.

Mad men
As far as he could see, the world was a remarkable place. So many shades of sunshine. If he closed his good eye, he could only see the white hot light glinting off another bauble at the trinket store. And when he tried on another pair of sunglasses, the world was suddenly bathed in blue. The shopkeeper didn’t mind. It cost him nothing to keep the khyapa amused. 

And when khyapa smiled, it was so weightless that for those few moments, every customer at that roadside shop would feel themselves unplugged from the world and its cares.

Smiling comes easy when you’re in step with your world. When people do as you do, you smile. When the light looks just right, when the shade is cool enough or when food is found, you smile. When sleep comes easy, and you wake up because you’ve slept enough, you smile. When the body does what the mind tells it to, you smile because you’re harmonizing. 

And then when you can play with the world, that smile becomes a laugh. When a child comes and sits beside you, you can laugh and help her laugh too. When another day goes by, when you didn’t have to lie, about where you’ve been or what you did, you can laugh. If they’ll give you a roof for the night, where you can make your bed in plain sight, you can laugh, even if it’s in your head. When the rules line up neatly with what you were anyways planning to do, just laugh.

Mad men
So today was a good day. After an arresting conversation with a friendly constable (both of them parted, step-in-spring intact), he figured that the imbalance he struggled with, wasn’t so bad. Sure, he didn’t see why people needed to walk around as though wearing straitjackets, nor really why their up was down, and their down up, but as long as everyone got along, did it really matter?

When the shopkeeper had had enough of him, he’d give khyapa a fiver to send him on his way. The money meant little, and khyapa would later give it to a beggar, but he understood this signal - It meant ‘enough now, leave’. See? He knew what was what. 

Now, as the sun blustered in the evening sky, khyapa had grown thirsty and hungry. The buildings all seemed to slant in the wrong direction, so no cool shade was on offer as he looked for food. He knew better than to knock on doors, and some sense of esteem prevented him from sitting on the road to beg. 

That’s when he stumbled upon an open garbage pile. A maid from a nearby colony was dumping the kitchen waste. There was bound to be food there – homemade, at that. The promise of solid pickings started him on a clumsy dash towards the garbage, drool dripping instantly from the side of his mouth.

He perched himself on a brick and lunged from his squat towards half a boiled potato, nestled among some broken egg shells and cauliflower stems. How people could waste perfectly good food like this he didn’t know, not that he minded. 
A laugh rang out somewhere in the distance as he was about to bite into the potato. The next moment, he felt a sharp pain at the back of his head, and immediately after, a sting in the recess of his knee. The stones were sharp, almost as sharp as the taunts that accompanied them. A man broke away from the group, ran up to him and kneed him in the back. On that hot, dusty evening, a hungry man fell to the ground beside a heap of garbage. Mad men we are.