Uncommon man

I had heard many people talk of him but only fleetingly. I did not really care to listen to too much because they would be talking amongst themselves and I would just pass through.

However, I moved to Pune in 2009 and I went to meet my aunt. This was the first time I was ever going to see her. She is my mom’s cousin and truth be told, I learnt of her existence only a few days before I went to Pune. So, not that close an aunt, as you can imagine.

I went to her place on a Saturday morning and sat down with a cup of coffee. (Filter coffee after a bloody long time. Bliss, already) I started talking to my aunt (who I grew very fond of and who often let me treat her home, and her amazing library, as my own, and who I visited many many times during my stay in Pune) and she was asking me the usual questions of where I studied etc. Out of the blue, she said, ‘your grandfather was a very fine man.’ I was quite taken aback.

A little bit of family history here. My aunt is actually my mom’s mom’s cousin’s daughter. So, my mom’s second cousin from her mom’s side. And here she was talking about my grandfather, who I did not know how many times she had even met. My aunt’s dad (or my grand uncle) moved to Pune well before my aunt was even born and my aunt has been to Madras but only on vacations.

She went on and told me that every time she went to Madras, she used to go to my mum’s place and sit and talk to my grandfather. She said, ‘you know, he was such a cultured man. He used to make us sit around and he spoke to us in such a way that we felt as if we were equals.’

And then I met my grand-uncle (aunt’s dad) and he too said some glowing things about thatha. After that, I started asking my mother for more stories about my thatha and grew ever more fascinated by the man.

I went on a trip to Kerala with my parents and my mama (amma’s brother). My mum grew up in Kerala and we went to Quilon, where she lived for a few years. We met one of her old old friends (one she hadn’t seen for about 40 years!). Quite a reunion that. He had some wonderful things to say about my grandfather as well.

And then my mom told me that in those days, the import of rice into Kerala was not allowed. And in those days, it was almost impossible to get white rice. It was predominantly the par-boiled rice. So my thatha did something quite brilliant. He had an old FIAT. He hollowed the back seat and put rice into it and drove across the border. With my mum and uncle as kids sitting on the seat, no one even bothered to look.

He used to love driving and every trip was fun. Apparently, he was the epitome of the saying that it is the journey that is the point of the journey and not the destination. He used to stop all along the way whenever he saw fresh fruits along the side of the road or when he saw some cashew nuts or dried fruits. Every year, he used to drive to Tirunalvelli (where my uncle was studying in a boarding school), pick up my uncle and then drive on for a holiday somewhere, finishing the trip in Madras before going back to Kerala.

I also learnt some remarkable things about him. I learnt that from 1958 to 1982, he kept a record of the expenses of every single month, right up to the annas and paisas. I learnt that he wrote a diary every single day. I remember seeing him write. He had this wonderful scrawny little font and he wrote every single day, unerringly.

This was a story that will forever stay with me. My mother was born in the end of July. Since everyone thought it was the end of July, her date of birth was entered officially as 31st July. Then, many years later (I think when she was in class ten), an uncle of hers (who was an astrologer) got a doubt. Apparently, another niece of his was born on the 1st of August and she was of another Nakshatram(star). ‘There cannot be a gap of two nakshatrams in one day’, he said. And he was sure that his other niece was born on the first of August.

They checked it in my thatha’s diary and sure enough, the entry for the 30th of July read thus,

‘Am in Bangalore. Have come here for a conference. Got the news. A healthy baby girl was delivered today…’

A remarkable man, my grandfather was; one of those very few people who can truly be called that. He died in 1996. I was barely 9. I wish I had known him better. It’s his birthday today. He would’ve been 89.

Happy birthday thatha.

The Island

I’m leaving on a jet plane. Perhaps not. I’m flying though. I don’t exactly know where I am but from what I can make out, it’s somewhere in Gujarat perhaps. I can’t see the coast but I can see water bodies. Large bodies of water that invade the land. They come tantalizingly close to the land and then recede. There are no waves though. The water is calm.

In the midst of one giant water body, there is a mass of land. An island. There is no connectivity to it. I look around. A few meters into the closest land mass, there is a human settlement; farmers, perhaps. But on this island, nothing. Just the island. Detached.

The island looks deserted. I see no vegetation. Perhaps there are shrubs and there is undergrowth on the sandy tracts but there is no significant vegetation. I am sure. Or so I perceive from high up.

So I see this island and am unable to take my eyes off it. I don’t know why, but somehow, it is gripping. Why would no one venture onto it? Has someone tried? Has anyone ever tried? Did they give up? Is there no point to it?

Perhaps life is like that island. An isolated landmass which in itself is, well, alone. Yet, it is part of something bigger; a country, or the world or the universe perhaps. At the crux of it, though, it is alone. It stands alone; it lives alone; it dies alone.

What larger purpose does it serve? Why is it there? The point is that it is there, whether it likes it or not. What does it mean? What does it signify? I don’t know. What is it that attracted me to it? Perhaps just that. That I don’t know.  And that perhaps I never will. Perhaps it symbolizes something. Perhaps not.

I seek it out for answers. I see it no more. The plane has moved.

The 10K

So I ran the 10k. Well, not quite. I ran, then walked a bit, and then ran again. Please ignore the previous sentence. Let me start again. I RAN THE 10K! I really did.

I’d really been training hard for this run. I ran and ran and ran. During the race of course. Prior to it, I ran on and off. I ran about 6K in about 35 minutes a few days before the event and I wasn’t even tired! Ha! I was wondering if I made a mistake by not registering for the 21K. Now, in retrospect, as Dell Boy Trotter would’ve said, ‘what a plonker!’ (Just in case you don’t know who Dell Boy Trotter is, Google ‘Only fools and horses’)

So I went to sleep at around 10 30 the night before. So I watched the United game (thank God they scraped a win!) and switched off the light at 10 35. Arun, of course decides to call. He was travelling and didn’t catch the game. I had to, of course, describe it.
‘We played OK, da. Just about won. OK. Bye!’
‘How did the forward line do?’
‘Just about OK da. Pretty disjoint performance. OK. Bye.’
‘..and the midfield? Roo played midfield, no? How was he?’
‘He played pretty OK da. Got frustrated quite a bit but not bad. OK. Bye.’
‘…and Lindergaard? He started, no? How was he?’
‘Had nothing much to do da. OK. Bye.’
‘…and… aan! The defence? Good, eh?’

And at that point I realized that I was going to have to describe a lot more. Well, the natural United-nut in me was aroused as well and, well, when United must be discussed, United must be discussed. And so United was discussed. For about 15 minutes. And then…
‘Seri seri. Mokka podathey. I’m on the bus and am going to sleep. OK. Bye.’
And then he hung up. ‘Whatay!’ I said to myself.
So, it was 10 50 now. Light off. Sleep time.
Climb into bed. Blanket but over eyes. ‘Sleep, pliss to be coming’, I thought to myself. And then I said to myself, ‘Dai! Too much time spending on twitter! Yuvar even thinking in twitter terms.’
Meanwhile, in the background: ‘EA Sports. It’s in the game.’ FIFA! My brother. Room sharing with sibling. Bah! The perils of staying at home. So anyway, time for ‘mind over matter’, I thought and went back to blanket on head position. I went toward sleep, and as luck would have it, sleep decided to not come to the party. This sleep chap is really something else. He taunts and teases you ever so often and when you edge closer to him, he runs away. The most curious thing is that he harasses and hounds you when you want him furthest away from you – when you’re in class. So, there I was, trying to sleep. There sleep was. Well, actually, there he wasn’t. Bah!

It’s 4 30 now. The alarm has rung. I must’ve fallen asleep at some point in time. Good. Groggy-eyed and out of bed. Brush teeth. Still too God-damn sleepy. I did consider going back to sleep but I just decided to let instinct guide me. And guide me, it did. To the kitchen. Two minutes later, I was sitting at the computer with a tumbler of filter coffee (double strong, no sugar) and staring at the computer screen. The feeling when that first sip hits your mouth. Aah! As would be tagged on twitter, #smallJoys.

Cut to the chase. 6 30. Off I go. The marathon begins. And so I run. The first refreshment station. Aah! Gatorade. Immediately the mind goes, ‘machan! OC le kedaikudhu. Kudichidu.’ <Translation: brother in law, you are getting it for free. Drink off.’ But I am, if anything, made of stronger stuff. (You will soon see, however, that I am not ‘if anything’ at all. If anything, I am ‘if anything else’. I ended up drinking Gatorade thrice during the run.)>

So in between Gatorades and water, I managed to do around 6K and suddenly I was pooped! I had barely made it past the past kilometre but after I saw the sign saying ‘6K’, I just stopped. I decided to walk until the next refuelling stop where I would resume. And so I walked. And walked. And walked. All those people who I sneered at as I passed them seemed to be going past me. Rats! Lesson learnt. Don’t sneer at people running. You never know when they will sneer back.

And so I decided that enough was enough and started running and voila! Another refreshment centre. Most. Not. Stop. Ooh! Gatorade. And I stopped. And then started.

8K done now. Again, the urge to slow down. So I did. Walked for a few meters. Now, this was the curious bit. I had my iPod on and was listening to a super mix of Raaja and ARR. Suddenly, I found myself walking and right next to me was this little girl, no more than 4 foot tall. I found that she was walking along. I looked at her a couple of times. Boy! Here I was, puffing and panting my way past 8K and here she was, this little girl, nonchalantly walking along.

So, of course I had to talk to her but my legendary shyness would not let me. As a result, I did not know how to start the conversation. Steve Martin saying ‘it ees louly weather’ in Pink Panther came into mind. Tee hee hee. So I summoned up all the courage in the world and said, ‘Hello!’

One nonchalant gaze and she said, ‘Oh! Hello!’

Aah! I’m not all that bad, I thought.

‘So how old are you?’

‘Eleven.’

Holy cow! The race has almost as many kilometers as old as she is!

‘…and how many years have you been running?’

‘Three. But this is my first marathon’, she said, almost shamefully.

‘My father is the owner of Hyderabad runners and I usually run with him. This is my first race though. You know how far it is?’, she asked.

She was a bit exhausted but still wanted to finish it. Now I was pumped up too! I mean, if an 11 year old girl can finish it, so can I!

So I said to her, ‘Heh! Don’t worry. I’m almost 12 years elder to you and this is my first race too.’

It was supposed to be encouraging. It really was. She looked at me almost asking, ‘So?!’ The words of course, were unspoken but I know a ‘so?!’ look when I see one. I seem to get quite a few of them.

So anyway, I said to her, ‘Right! Let’s sprint to the finish!’

She looked at me and said, ‘No.’

Thank God! In my manic moment of stupidity, I suggested a sprint. I mean! What was I thinking?!

<Note to self: Idiot!>

So then I said, ‘Let’s go then! Run run run!’

And so we ran.

‘How much further?’ she asked.

‘Just around the bend. Come on!’

‘Now?’

‘Come on! No stopping now. Run!’

And so she did. There were people all around as we got nearer to the finish line. All of them looking at this little girl running to the finish. All of them clapping.

…and then we crossed the finish line. And took the medal.

She disappeared. Then I saw her after a few minutes.

‘Oi! Well played!’, I said and held put my hand for a high-five.

She high-fived me back, smiled and went off.

Well done Spruha. Well played indeed.

 

Footnote: Ofiicial finishing time: 70 minutes. Really. I have a certificate to prove it too. Ha!

The Prestige

“Every great magic trick consists of 3 parts or acts…”

She never could understand him. A real prima donna, he was. All the care in the world one minute, and none at all, the next. An enigma.

Yet, she was his. And she feared for him. Every time he went up there, every time he defied death, her heart was in her mouth. But every time, he did defy death and her heart was still with her. The magician’s muse, she was.

He told her of his most ambitious plan as of date. She did not want him to go through with it. ‘It’s too dangerous’, she pleaded. But then again, he was he. And all that mattered to him was he.

She had fallen for him. She did not know why. Was it the brashness of youth? No. It was well thought out. Perhaps it was the charisma. Perhaps the enigma. Perhaps it was something else. It did not really matter what it was for she really had fallen.

Things were going smoothly and then these events unfolded. She asked him not to do it. It was far too dangerous. But he would not listen. He could not see it from her eyes. All he could see was the glory at the end of it. If he came to the end of it, that is. It was the pledge.

***

They had fights. She was frustrated. She was bad to him; more out of exasperation than anything else. She did not like being left in the lurch. His past actions had sown the seeds of doubt in her mind but she wanted to think it was a one-off. Unfortunately, those seeds resurfaced. His present actions were as brash and irresponsible as his ones in the past, perhaps more. It was killing her.

She tried to reason with him. She really did but how do you reason with one who was beyond reason? You don’t. You can’t.

So he went through with it anyway. It was his turn.

***

She watched with horror as he tempted fate, as he put his life on the line. Little did he know, or rather, he chose to ignore how it put her life on the line as well, more so, perhaps, than his own. She watched with bated breath as he wowed the crowd with his showmanship. Then it happened. All that could go wrong, did.

The magician left the world, she did too. He, physically and in ignorance; she, in spirit and in disbelief. He was broken, literally. She was shattered, every which way. The days were dark, the nights, darker still. There was no silver lining. There was no lining at all. All she could see were varying shades of grey – varying from dark to the darkest.

She decided, however, to live on. She would not give up. She knew that she couldn’t. Life, after all, was worth more than that…

***

Years later, she saw the man next to her. She saw her children playing at her feet. She thought of this most wonderful man that had given her this most perfect life.  Then she thought of him. She thought of all that she tried. She looked back at all that he put her through and of all that she put herself through. She thought of all that went before her. She thought of how close to the end, she had been. She shuddered. And then, she opened her eyes and looked at her beautiful family again. She smiled at her angelic daughters. They smiled back. It was a moment made in heaven, enacted on Earth.

She looked to the sky and thanked the heavens for the decision she had made to carry on. She knew she was blessed with what she had and she had no regrets in life. The magician had the pledge and the turn. This, however, was the prestige. Her prestige.

***

“Every great magic trick consists of 3 parts or acts. The first part is called ‘the pledge’. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t. The second act is called ‘The Turn’. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it because of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act; the hardest part. The part we call, ‘The Prestige’.”

 – The Prestige (2006), Christopher Nolan

***

The greatest trick of them all, perhaps, is happiness.

 

Footnote: This is for a very special person who was going through torment recently. She went to hell and I am glad to say that she has well and truly come back stronger than ever. Her happiness was taken away but she had to bring it…back. This is her prestige

I saw it twice.

What I write many never see the light of day. The nature of my workplace is such.  But that does not mean that the events I describe did not take place.

xxx

Three days ago.

I was sleeping on the floor. In my line of work, it was nothing out of the ordinary. Sometimes, mission-critical assignments kept me in the lab far beyond my prescribed working hours. And on such instances, it iscommon practice that I take an inflatable pillow with me, go to the far end of the gymnasium and lie down to catch a bit of shut-eye. This was one such instance.

I woke up after a deep sleep. I cannot really say that it was a long one but it was certainly a deep one. My body was still exhausted but there was work to be done. I woke up, groggy-eyed, and looked around. The usually plain landscape of the gymnasium had now been transformed completely. It was a dry and arid decor, but strangely, it did not resemble a desert. Well, perhaps a rocky desert.

There were cameras all around. Not your average polaroid cameras or the small ones  that tourists carried around but the ones that you see in Hollywood. Video cameras and by the look of them, very sophisticated ones. I could not believe that Hollywood had finally penetrated this place. I mean, I did not imagine that in a million years permission would be granted to film a movie here. The people from the film must know people in high places, I thought to myself.

Curiously, the lights of the gym were switched off and new nights were temporarily put up. The lights had a strange white hue and were placed at a great height. The effect was positively eerie.

Then there was the most curious thing of all. I had only seen one in those science magazines and in those cheap movies that made one laugh rather than make one awe at the glory of such a creation that was the pinnacle of engineering. It stood there, right before my eyes. Absolutely perfect in its construction and in pristine white. An American flag adorned it.

Suddenly, the whole place was buzzing. Men were frantically adjusting the lights, making sure to get the effect right. A man, who I presume was the director of the movie, was calling the shots, moving people and things around and asking for adjustments to be made. Finally, he seemed satisfied.

‘Action!’

Three men emerged. Clad in these suits that I had seen only once – adorning a certain Russian in 1961. But here were the three men. They emerged from the craft in a perfectly choreographed motion. They climbed down the ladder from the craft onto the uneven surface. They seemed to be bouncing rather than walking.  One came out, followed by another. The third, I think, stayed in the craft but emerged later. I am not sure.

The first one came out and planted a flag on the ground, went bouncing along and uttered something to the camera. I was too far away to find out what it was. Either way, I was looking forward to seeing this movie when it was eventually released. I did not, as it turned out, have to wait long.

I saw the movie. I saw it as I had seen it. Only, this time, along with me, millions of others watched it happening “live”. A momentous occasion, they called it, a triumph for the human race. The final frontier had been conquered, they said. The same craft. The same men. The same flag. This time, however, I did listen to what the man said to the camera.

‘One small step for man. One giant leap for mankind.’

I work in Area 51. Today is the 20th of July, 1969.