Saturday, August 24, 2013


                                                   main( )

                                                              {

                                                                 printf ("hello, world"); 

                                                               }


I used to think I'd perfected it, this business of meeting with the world everyday, but lately, my smoothness had started to slip.
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A world ago, when I was at university in montreal, I woke up one day realizing I was screwed - I wasn't going to be able to make rent for the next month. I was two days late paying tuition for that semester. Canara Bank had taken their time wiring me my loan, and the university had fined me a percentage point of my course fees. This threw my carefully budgeted finances out of time.


I had a few options in front of me - I could borrow money from one of the Dubai kids that studied with me. My roommate too was pretty well off and often offered me money. He thought nothing of spending $70 on a date, like he did the night before. On a girl I liked. $70. That’s two weeks’ dinner – 14 big macs and fries. I should have taken the bastard’s money.
I suppose I had some sense of pride.


Instead, I posted an ad on my university’s bulletin board. There were others too like mine, but I thought I came off decently in those 50 words.


“I think foreplay is huge fun. I can listen, or tell you stories and sing you songs. I will work incredibly hard to make sure your evening is a memorable one. My french is terrible, but I will love your accent. You can make fun of mine, at no extra charge.
 

Asking: $50/evening
 

Call 514-833-8285 so we can see if we click.”
 

I got 3 calls that very evening. One of the callers was a guy. I figured I had already put myself well out there, into escort land, so why start to draw lines now? He sounded like me. Genuine-ish. I decided we weren’t going to bring my sexuality into the picture just then. We met at his place two days later. I remember walking home around dawn, when the street lights, no longer needed, brought some warmth to the deadness of the city.

It wasn’t long before I gathered the courage to head to the intersection of du Parc and Laurier, Montreal’s best known business area for the fille de joies. This effectively stripped me of any euphemisms, like escort, listener, or the evening’s entertainment. I would wear a long kurta, and a wooden bracelet. I’d bring my guitar with me for effect. An adolescent misstep. The ladies on that street seemed amused. I was upset that they didn’t think me a threat. Yes, gigolos do not walk the street like hookers do, and yes, I was probably coming off rather cute for my impudence, my naïveté, but I was still there to make money. I consoled myself that it was because our markets overlapped but minimally - not enough for me to be considered competition.


It was still going to be a few weeks before I understood how god-awfully pretentious all of this was, so I began to sing for the women and the trannys. That first night, I did the only two french songs I knew. By the week after, we were doing Bengali songs, and an older lady brought a cajon to play along. By the end of each night, I was invariably the last one on the street. It was on a Tuesday during my third week there, that I was told to fuck off. It was fun they said, but I was neither cute enough for them to continue paying off the cops for me, nor serious enough about prostituting myself that they should respect me.


I wish they’d told me earlier about this business of having to pay the cops. I counted out fives, and twos and my last ten till I had $50. I stuffed the money into the palm of the one that told me to fuck off.


I was out of the street-walking business. My pride about matters financial was still intact.
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During my Ph.D at a state school in the southern united states, I’d been running simulations on a computer for three nights straight. I was part of the photonics department and I’d come there to research and develop cutting edge lasers for optical data transmission. Also perhaps for cancer-cell blasting.


I got up to get myself some gummy worms from the vending machine, and as I walked past the laser laboratory, I found one of the newer lasers we’d bought pointed right at the glass entrance door. I punched in the security entrance code and walked in. This particular laser operated in the blue range of the colour spectrum. Blue is such a brilliant colour, when it concentrates itself into a ray. ‘Brilliant’, I whispered in my head. I couldn't bring myself to say it aloud but it bounced around the walls of my skull. It vibrated against my inner ear and formed a residue on my tongue that I just had to spit out.


I spent the night arranging the lasers, red, blue, violet, carefully. I pointed them at mirrors, and the mirrors at themselves. When I’d finally flip the switch, the darkened room would be awash with crisscrossing beams of light. I suppose I also knew that it would be only a moment’s spectacle, because the lasers would fry each other, the way I’d aligned them.
I was ejected from the University a week later. I imagine some of my friends in India were pleased with the news. I had now become that much easier to outpace.
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This tussle between apathy and a need to fit in has helped center me. It’s held my life taut against the expectations, against my own failings.


 

I’ve tried to find patterns in my life to figure out what next will trigger a tumbling of my card house, but it’s been more random than my math can predict.
 

I’ve begun to feel a detachment from myself. This is where I’ve probably been headed all along. This prime spectator's view. No longer simply the actor, now I was becoming the ghost that straddled the end of the stage, loosening the rivets from my actor’s body and coalescing into the seats, front and center.
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I started a business of my own not long after. It doesn’t really matter, the chronology.
I sold large Indian double doors in Kampala, real estate in Toronto and sushi in Bangalore. The idea was to seal vacuums as soon as I spotted them.

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Once, on the mysore-ooty highway, in the dead of night, the headlights of our car caught a flash of ivory in the distance, off to the side of the road. I don’t think my friend who was driving had seen it. I had though. I left the conversation and turned to watch this movie play out in slo-mo. The pitch of voices and laughter and music and beer dropped low. I saw the elephant move toward the road. I didn’t want to miss a moment. So it was especially infuriating that I needed to blink right then. My eyelids never felt more unresponsive. They closed like the shutters of a Bengali sweet shop at noon, slowly, but with clarity of intent. Then, for what seemed an hour, the shopkeeper had his little siesta, and finally opened the eyelids again. By now, the elephant, moving drunkenly, had stepped onto the road.


Our car was Bharat IV certified. Very quiet, save the idiots inside the soundproof, a/c-ed cabin.


It wasn’t like I thought it would be. We simply glanced the tusker’s right front foot. Somewhere above the knee. The car slowly careened off to the side of the road. I was happy to see the speedometer at a 110, on this narrow road, where the signpost clearly said 70. If we were going through with this, it wouldn’t do to underachieve.


Anyway, we glanced his foot. I turned my neck to watch him through successive windows. He stood there staring into the night, his face like a taxi with doors open. Then his hindlegs buckled. I could’ve sworn he let out a trumpet before he hit the ground. But I left that part out of the police report. It would have sounded facetious. My friend, the driver also died. The other two were taken to a hospital. Naturally, I went too. It wouldn’t do to walk out erect from the crash after we’d just felled an elephant.
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Sometimes, when I’m done writing, or thinking, which is usually late evening, I pour myself a rum and diet coke. I often wish I was sophisticated; perhaps a drinker of scotch or some fine liqueur, but one’s unpalatable and the other’s spelt liqueur.


It’s usually the time that my neighbours come home too. All of them, the one across the street with the benz, the one to the right with the pool, and the one on the left without. They work for an IT company. They tell me they are important people at work. They take a bus home, and it drops them at the gate of our compound. They carry briefcases, and their shoes make a feminine clickety-clack sound on the pavement. I suppose they are important people.


They are men of sophistication. I can see them through their windows, and over my headphones, and if needed, on my laptop. They discuss the mundane with their wives, and tend to their children. They also tend to drink. When drunk, they meet at my house. Here, they discuss swapping wives, but only in jest. Their wives would beat the living crap out of them. My house is a safe place.
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I’ve learnt how to make small talk. When I meet people, I’ll quickly ask them about their happiness quotient on a scale of 10. The question will disarm. And because it is so personal, but short of prying, they will start up their mental abacus, moving beads in response to the flashes of memories of recent events. They will typically go back up to a week, take stock of everything good that’s happened (+1), check if anything terrible has happened (-1, or -2), and divide by some number that represents the general pall of gloom/ray of sunshine at work or home.


Once they’ve told me the number though, they’re more exposed than they thought they’d be. Now, I could use the opportunity to give them my own HQ, but I prefer to right things. So the conversation still remains about them. Initially abstract hypotheses about why that low score quickly funnel into detailed conversations about the bad performance review at work, or that half-wit of a husband.


I enjoy righting things.
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I had devised ways to charm. Such as listening intently. Speaking first when a silence got too awkward – This attempt at lightening mood is never polished, but still appreciated for effort.


Detachment before I seemed too interested. Callbacks to a previous minute detail you thought I missed when you’d mentioned it.


I also did self-deprecation. Jokes about my social awkwardness, weight, ethnicity. I did, however, make note of those in the crowd that laughed loudest.


Lately though, my smoothness had started to slip.

Lay Low



Years ago, as a journalist for that intrepid fortnightly, The Intrepid Fortnightly, I had occasion to interview the executive committee of The Great Indian Laughter League (GILL - a trying-too-hard acronym, but I hypothesized that it was probably crafted this way for numerological reasons).

Word on the street, i.e. Cubbon street - beside where the club met every Sunday, was that the club's numbers were dwindling. Surely this must've been of concern to their executive board.

I showed up towards the end of that week's session of GILL on a yellow-gray Sunday afternoon in Bangalore, expecting to have a few words with John Joseph, the club's president. The sound of a hundred different people laughing can be a little unnerving - the low rumblers, loud guffawers, the shy gigglers and the high cacklers together make for an unearthly cacophony, but if you listen closely to the cycles, punctuated by when they pause to fill their lungs with air, you can tell that the old birds are generally having a good time.

The median GILL member was about 80 years old, middle class and of uncertain gender (perhaps smarter to say that GILL didn’t discriminate based on sex). I rode with them to their premises in a small office building in Indiranagar. I'd had no idea that they were this official. Three of us walked through a dimly lit corridor. I could hear strains of Adnan Sami's "Mujhko bhi toh lift karadey", but the music was so low that it might've been my imagination.

John must've been 80, but was still a giant of a man, so he had to crouch as he entered the little conference room. There were a couple of chairs at either end of a stretched-circle table.

'Shalini, your good name, correct? Very common name' said John.

'That's right', I replied. 'On both counts' I said, but this time using my inner voice.

'You have come for interview purpose?'

'Yes, I wanted to learn about GILL. I've heard that you've lost 15 members over the last two months. Is the charm of laughter therapy decreasing among Bangaloreans?'

Muthu, who was the treasurer of GILL, had been quiet all this while. He had lively eyes, hidden under the bushiest, whitest eyebrows I've ever seen. His mouth was twitching. I wasn't sure if this was because he wanted to speak, or just general loss of muscle control. I decided to turn towards him, hoping to find a friend.

Turned out he did want to speak. 'See, people actually do not understand laughter therapy. What happens no, it actually does not do any good for your heart or anything. No heart benefit, no intelligence benefit, not even sex benefit. Still, we are okay. We like to laugh. When we laugh, stress is gone. For a short time only, but it is gone. Sadness is gone. Only happiness. Tough, very tough to be sad when you are laughing like that.'

'I see', I said. I hadn't been following the latest studies on laughter therapy, but I did imagine it was all a bit of fluff, like Muthu had explained. 

'Is that why you're losing members then? Are they realising that simply pretending to laugh will not solve their medical issues?'

Muthu looked over at John. John in turn was staring daggers at me. My impertinence hadn’t done me any favours.

'Muthu’, John growled, ‘I said that time only, we are not requiring this interview business, ma. Why you called her?'

Muthu blinked from under his eyebrows. He rubbed the back of his hand against his white stubble while squinting at me. He turned to John - 'She is Lila's granddaughter'.
'Oh', said John. In that moment, I felt his gruffness leave the room. His eyes suddenly became warm and he leaned forward in his chair. I could feel a gentleness diffuse through the room.

My grandmother's name was indeed Lila. She had lived a full life - colourful, adventurous, never still and never short on love. In fact, she loved as ferociously as she was loved. If you wanted sunshine today, you headed over to my grandma's. She was never more alive, more positive about life than when she moved into a senior's home three years ago, where she had made a number of friends. She died in her sleep a couple of years ago, peacefully, and as we were told, happily.

'No, actually, we are having a waiting list. Too many people are wanting membership. Every month we become more popular'. John's voice had grown unmistakably loving.

'I don't understand. Why are some of your members leaving then?'

'They are not leaving our club. They are leaving this life.'

I was surprised to hear this. It was true I hadn't bothered to check where the members were leaving to. All I was interested in was why the number of GILL members that showed up every Sunday at Cubbon park had started to drop off so steeply. I suppose I was also surprised because though I didn't believe laughter therapy did you any good, I didn't think it killed you off either, advanced years of these members notwithstanding.

'See. Firstly, please you turn off the recorder, ma', John said, and I complied.

'Laughing is good when we are together. But afterwards, when we have gone home, that time?'

I felt the weight and pause of this question. This wasn't rhetorical. I knew. I usually chose to ignore, but I knew. The curse of old age, its ills and banes, valleys and trenches, I knew. I'd visit the odd elderly relative perhaps once a month. I'd bring him some sweets, ask about his health. Then when he was midway through his answer, which was this immutable drone of soft complaints to god, I'd cut him off by telling him the latest on that ne'er-do-well nephew, or about the plans I had for my career and where I was going to travel. It was like walking the dog. Surely that was entertainment enough. 

And even as I'd leave, I'd feel relieved that he wasn't asking me to stay. I knew he would like it if I did, but then I also knew that he would feel awkward about it, and so he wouldn't. I relied on that awkwardness. 

Worse, I knew what his life would be like until I visited again. I knew the bleakness. I would see it in his smile the next time I visited. In its benevolence. That smile would say 'Thank you for visiting. Thank you, thank you, thank you.' And yet, it'd have a measure of restraint so as not to pressure me into staying longer than I wanted to. Or committing to visit the next time sooner than I realistically could.

'That time, how we can able to laugh? If we laugh, we will be sounding like fools ' said John.
'And not because there is nobody to laugh with us, but because there is just nobody', added Muthu.

He continued - 'Two years ago, we were in the same home as Lila. She was a very joyful person, no doubt. Every night at the mess, she would sit down to eat and ask us to pray with her. Same prayer every time "Hey Bugvaan, mujhe lay low". Everyday we would laugh and then eat. One day she told me "You know Muthu, I am not joking about death. I miss my husband. I miss my children. I cannot remember your name or anybody else’s name most of the time. Every day, I am having thirteen medicines and then dialysis. It is too expensive. And for what? I have seen everything I want to see. Now, I just want to go." '

I didn't know where to look. We had obviously failed her as a family, but she didn't let it show. Or perhaps she did, and we chose to ignore it.

'That is when we are formed our club', said John. 'We first started with only three members - Muthu, Lila and myself.'

Muthu joined in - 'We would meet every day to discuss options, like psychiatry, or telephoning your family to explain the problem, but Lila made us understand that she had lived a full life.’ 

‘Then one day, we read one article about euthanasia', said John.

He didn't have to say more. The Laughter League was a front, a call to bring in those that needed help. I looked at them, helplessly, and thankfully – the founders of the Great Indian Lay Low club.

The Revolution Begins



Cast:

1. The pantheon of Full gods
2. Devikas - Regular Full apsaras, that lined the courts of the Full gods
3. The pantheon of Lesser gods  - including Half-Shiva and Half-Brahma
4. Laukikas - Lesser apsaras, some of whom were ex-Devikas, that courted the Lesser gods

As one of the Lesser gods, Half-Shiva had many good things going for him - his godly body, a near-perfected vibhuti trick, the ability to teleport himself (short distances only) and that sly wink that he could do with his third eye, among others. The demi status suited him fine, because with lesser powers, came lesser responsibility. For the most part, this meant he had time on his hands to do as he pleased with his groupies. All that held him back was a frustration that stemmed from being but a lesser god.  It damaged his sense of self-worth, creating a ragingly low libido.

The Laukikas, that second-tier entourage of apsaras that had to make do servicing only the Lesser gods, were not doing well as an enterprise. A faction of them had just been made homeless at the dawn of Half-Brahma's personal kalyug. Half-Brahma's popularity among humankind had all but tanked over the last few centuries, so H-B decided to renew an oath of chastity. He hoped this would endear him to the overtly pious, as also to those that weren't getting any. Fifteen of the lesser apsaras were sent back to the Laukika quarters, wages paid in full.

The Full gods, together with the Devikas, had a good chuckle about the whole affair.
"Enough is enough!", said Urvashi, the leader of the Laukikas, to herself. This battle between the Full gods and Devikas on the one hand, and the Lesser gods and the Laukikas on the other, had gone on long enough in favour of the former. The contentedness of that lot  rankled her. The Full gods had busy, action-packed lives what with the millions of disease-ridding, milk-drinking, new-car-inaugurating wishes filling up their inboxes. The Devikas, in turn, received lavish gifts for simply stroking the egos of these gods. Basically, their damn cups runneth over.

Indra, a Full god, in an attempt to use dialogue, explained - "Our sense of self-worth is tied closely to what we do, and to the prayers of our devotees. We are paid every morning in pedas and bananas and silk clothes and ganga dips. As a result, there's not much frustration for us to take out on the members of our apsara harem." What he was getting at was that the Full-god lingams and the Devika yonis made love long time.

The Lesser gods, on the other hand, were neither prayed to, nor particularly busy. The lubricant of self-esteem was low. The nights were lonely, and they had been playing a supporting role to the Full gods for so long now that their lives felt like old socks, crispened by the many cycles of human birth and death, yet ignored by those very humans.

Urvashi and Tilottama, who had been ejected from the harems of several Full gods, met one evening to discuss the situation the Laukikas were in. They needed a PR boost if they wanted to get back in the game. Else, they stood to lose even their Lesser god clientele to the Devikas (i.e. the Lesser gods that could afford it) or worse, to more oaths of chastity.
They met with Half-Shiva in one of the back-alleys of Amravati.

Half-Shiva: "You want me to do WHAT?"

U and T:"It's easy, all you have to do is host an orgy with the Laukikas"

Half-Shiva was both excited and terrified by the prospect, for obvious reasons. 

U and T: "It's okay, the Laukikas are going to get busy with each other, you just need to arrange for the bhang. When it's over, all that people will remember was that Half-Shiva held an orgy, and that it was epic." U and T then high-fived each other for that last choice of word.

Half-Shiva stared long and hard at them. He did this partly because he wasn't sure how much they knew about his muted tandav in the bedroom, and partly because this was the only way to use these adjectives in the context of Half-Shiva. They patted him on the back. "It's okay, this sort of thing is common." Especially among the Lesser gods.

And so it came to pass, the orgy was held. Half-Shiva made sure the bhang was free-flowing, and the Laukikas turned up, resplendently gaudy. It rained for five days and five nights as the orgy plumbed new levels of debauchery. Debashree, one of the more mature Laukikas, had invited the divine paparazzi to photograph her in various bendy positions with Half-Shiva, Urvashi and Tilottama pouring bhang over the naked bodies. Several blurry videos were leaked, as were reports of how finally, on the fifth night, in a state of maddened frenzy, a new Ganga burst forth from Half-Shiva. 

All of this press did wonders for the Laukikas. Overnight, inquiries from the secretaries of various Full gods started pouring in - "Are you available in the next Yuga? Full Vishnu is currently committed to the Devikas, but definitely interested"; "How much for one millenium?"; "If we take twenty, any group discount?"

Half-Shiva himself was being considered for promotion into the Full god pantheon. Again, a prospect that both excited and terrified him.

He met with the other Lesser gods. "What do you think? Should I accept?"

Half-Brahma nodded, sagely. "It's time, H-S. This was meant to be. The revolution will begin from within their own ranks. Soon, they will be Full gods no more."

(To be continued. Unlikely though)