28 November, 2008

The Spirit of Mumbai…A Bloody Cliche

Am a Mumbaikar through and through and was a Bombay-ite or Bambaiyya before the change in the city nomenclature. Am proud of my city and its diversity but somewhere the above line now sounds so clichéd that it has started rankling. The spirit as it goes started getting invoked from the time Mumbai had been subject to disasters of all kinds manmade and natural. The term first started getting used in the Bomb Blasts of 1993 and then the communal riots that followed. Then there were the floods and more bomb blasts, in local trains this time.

Every time a disaster strikes, it is now expected of the Mumbaikar to get up, brush up the dust of previous disasters and keep walking. Does he really have a choice? He does that too, more out of a dire need to stay alive, than anything else. He lends a helping hand to his brethren in the same city because he knows that the administration is ill equipped to handle any disaster that hits them. He is unprotected and is expected to fend for himself. The representatives he elects, line up their own coffers or prostrate before New Delhi. Then New Delhi takes away the taxes that he generates, to support the Northern states that don’t generate as much. His sweat and toil is siphoned off hence leaving nothing for his security or the infrastructure he requires. Today because of this missing infrastructure he is paying off with his blood too.

Politicians play games or mouth platitudes and the apathy reached a peak when the Chief Minister during the 26th July 2005 floods declared three days state holiday for the government machinery; the same machinery, that could have been used to deploy aid and bring down its severity. Lives were lost and property destroyed. 26th Nov 2008 saw a similar situation where baton holding police personnel moved to handle terrorists with Kalashnikovs. The bullet proof jackets and helmets used by the personnel were so inadequate that they could at the most stop pelted stones. In this the head of ATS, Hemant Karkare, loses his life. The guns with the police are of vintage World War II variety. Lee Enfield .303 bolt cocking rifles, which are no match for AK-47’s and 56’s imagine by the time a policeman fires his first bullet and wants to discharge the second one, elapsed time would be 20-30 sec’s in which he would have died at least 12 times over. Because of this inadequacy more than 130 people are dead and more than 300 injured badly.

The man on the street has to deal with all this. Infrastructure for his transportation is not maintained, housing and his basic needs are pathetically inadequate. His protection is non-existent whether it’s against crime on the street, natural calamity or urban terrorism. He gets short charged badly for his effort and the taxes he generates and pays. This Taj, The Oberoi and CST station episodes have converted Mumbai into Beirut. Yet he is expected to be brave and plod on. It is now too irritating to hear the invocation of the Spirit of Mumbai. Give me a break. Enough is enough. I shall help my fellow man on the street that is humanitarian in its basic definition, but I do not need a politician giving me lessons on how I should be brave and resilient and carry on. The next time he does it, I might just retaliate. I am sick, suffused with an impotent rage of being raped everytime a disaster happens, time and again being taken for granted. As a Mumbaikar and an Indian, I am well within my rights to demand a life of dignity, safety and wellbeing. This is the true spirit of Mumbai; let this spirit not be taken for stoic acceptance.

27 November, 2008

Being a Hostage

26th November 2008 sees a new form of attack on Mumbai. Terrorists spray bullets through Kalashnikov automatic rifles at passers by outside Leopold Café. Injuring and killing a few and move on to the Taj Mahal Hotel near Gateway of India and grab a large party of around 50 odd people as Hostage. In a parallel instance of time at another five star hotel in the same part of downtown Mumbai, The Trident an exact similar situation is executed. They are armed with grenades and AK-47 rifles. Prior to that at Mumbai CST the busiest railway station in all Asia terrorist spray bullets on a platform through similar weapons and escape after killing innocent bystanders. As we read this the situation has worsened in a night’s time more than 120 people have been killed and around 300 odd injured. But little can be done against a man who comes prepared to die and no security or intelligence in the world will be able to combat it ever completely. The Japanese used it in the II world war, the LTTE is the first terrorist army to perfect this technique and now we have the fidayeen. Lots will get written about the terrorist, the motive or the method. But my heart goes out to the hostages in such a situation. Imagine the plight of one.

One you get steam rolled into a situation not of your own making; the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In my exploratory tours in interior Maharashtra had run into Kamala. She was working as a maid and caretaker in the house of an acquaintance. I was watching a Hindi movie that had a kidnap scene. Her eyes goggled up in horror and she gasped. There were just the two of us and worriedly I shut the movie and calming her down asked what the matter was. She said that she had been the victim of a kidnapping. Hesitatingly she told her story and the nightmares that still plague her though it happened years ago. She had gone to the local bank to deposit money and the bank was raided by dacoits. Kamala was near the counter and one of the dacoits used her as a human shield to facilitate the get away. They blindfolded her & carried her off in their vehicle. Luckily for her they did not kill her but three hours later at a distant location they just dumped her out of the car and drove away. The three hours of horror in the car was still seen in her eyes. The captors used extremely abusive language and fondled her, one of them wanted to have her too. In the hurry to get away as far as possible they could not stop, and Kamala had to just endure a few desperate feels. She is not married as she says that the touch of a man repels her.

This conversation with her suddenly came back to me with clarity in this ongoing drama. I could empathize with the plight of the hostage victims.
  • The surprise of being hurled into a deadly situation. This lack of mental preparedness is what throws the victim out of gear. First stage the victim is in denial, It cant happen to me and the next moment extreme trauma as the reality of the situation hits.
  • The constant and immediate closeness to a vile outcome. The fear of death, torture, abuse can be devastating at close quarters.
  • Even in a hostage situation the tension of the captor can result in accidents to the hostages.
    If there is a battle now in a rescue attempt, the hostages can be caught in the crossfire.
  • The sight of death if another hostage is killed in front of you can unhinge the mind by the severe trauma witnessed.
  • There can even be some serious impacts in long hostage situations like the Stockholm Syndrome as was seen in the Patty Hearst case.
  • Things are never the same again for released hostages and most need extensive counseling else they may live life in denial, not having come to terms with the situation like Kamala. A freak scene triggered an unpleasant memory and her fear of men.

Someplace our world has gone topsy-turvy where people are forgetting the gospel of love preached and taught by our founders of humanity. The people who breed hate in others that these terrorists go on a rampage of destruction of man and property are the true villains here. The terrorists on the spot are but the tools of a syndrome. One can only pray for better sense to prevail in the world. I don’t have answers here, only a lot of questions.

22 November, 2008

Cheer & Cutting Chai

His smile was huge and warm beneath his moustache. Sparkling white teeth were flashed as he greeted everybody who passed by with a huge “Jai Shri Krishna”. Narayan Chauhan was his name. He was our friendly neighborhood chai wallah (Tea vendor). His outfit was a box of 3 feet by 3 feet on which blazed away a huge pot of tea. No purist though would ever call what he dished out as tea. His brew was strong, sometimes over sweet and spiced up with ginger crushed in a small pestle that he kept.

A large slate, with dirt & grime and tea marks of many years embedded in its frame, hung over the wall, which bordered one end of his shop. On it was scribbled a rough menu. Full- Rs.6/- , Cutting Chai – Rs.3 , Coffee- Rs.8 , Ukala – Rs.8 and many other concoctions like gulabi ( pink ) that have now become common street parlance in Mumbai. Standardization is not the name of the game here ever. When one went in the morning, the leaves would be relatively new & the tea tasted different from the one you ordered around 10-11am. By then leaves would be cooked beyond their normal life and ginger and spices would add to the flavor. “Ek peshal bina shakkar” Narayan shouted and an old taxi driver came over to claim his glass. "Kaisan ho Narayanwa.. Sub Kushal mangal?"(How are you Narayan and how is everything he asked). The trademark smile flashed and he said "Maalik ki krupa se sub kuch theek hi hai "(God looks after all of us and takes care of everything). This stock answer cheerfully conveyed an implicit faith in the maker.

I would stop at his stall two or three times in a day, for a break. It was the warmth & cheer that he brought to surrounding that kept me going, as I am sure was true of most of the others there. It was an eclectic customer base from all classes. Traders from nearby shops whom he kept supplied all day long with his brother carrying the tea in mini steel containers and glasses, taxi and rickshaw drivers, municipal workers and government employees from nearby offices formed his regular custom. They came along, he chatted and they went away with smiles. Those fortunate to get good tea too would return and later the memory of that tea would sustain their trade with Narayan.

As long as I stayed in Chembur his face had been a fixture. Once on a lighter day when the city was closed on account of some political burn-out, I had stopped by. He was there smiling boiling his brew for which there were few takers today. Shops had closed in fear, Municipal workers were on strike and the rickshaw taxis were not plying. He was in his shorts and beige shirt spotlessly clean and asked me “Kya saab aaj bhi kaam?” (Are you working even today? ) When I mentioned that yes, he told me that you newspaper guys are like me. We are needed by everyone, both of us collect and relay news only you get to publish it and laughed at his own joke. I was curious and asked him the secret of his cheerful self. I envied him, I asked him doesn’t he ever worry?

He looked at me solemnly stopping his laugh and told me his thought. He told me “I came to Mumbai city 36 years ago and all I did then was work at a tea stall as a helper washing glasses. My ambition was to have my own tea stall. God looks after everybody and he is great. He helped me achieve my ambition, so I help him achieve his, which is to make the world a happier place. But even he gets tired and I asked myself how do I help him while he rests and recharges his battery. Because when God rests, the suffering in the world increases. I am not a doctor, engineer or an actor that I can heal, mend or entertain people. I am not educated in the words of any book. Angootha chhaap hoon saab, pur apne Bhagwan pe bharosa hai. To mainey thaan li ki khush rahoonga aur doosre ko khush karunga. Khudaa ka hi kaam hai (Am illiterate but I trust my God, so I decided to remain happy and keep others happy. After all that’s Gods work too). When I started doing this I realized that no problem ever bothered me. What I could solve, I did and what I could not I left it to him, he said looking upwards. Takleef ko Takleef ka naam jub aadmi deta hai, tub usey dard hota hai. Main to haskar jo sahi hai who karta hoon, to jub mushkiley aati bhi hai, to who apney aap hi alag mod lekar mujhse door jaati hai. (When people label their troubles as troubles then they have problems, I laugh it off and do what is to be done and trouble takes a turn away from me).

It was such a simple and amazing philosophy. Reflecting on this I realized, it is so true when it is said that laugh and the world laughs with you. One should only observe Narayan in action to see this philosophy practiced to perfection.People flock to him to absorb the happiness he emits more than the chai that he constantly keeps brewing. With Narayan what you get served is one cutting chai and one full glass of cheer.

17 November, 2008

The Hangover...

The head throbbed in the morning and the tongue felt like sandpaper. Groggily reaching out for a bottle of water by the bed he just tumbled off losing balance with his legs awkwardly tangled in the bed sheet. Cursing he got up and went to the kitchen and gulped down four glasses of water. Images started to come back into focus as his body re-hydrated. He cursed the previous night’s session heartily. He could always hold his drink but the mornings after were invariably hell.

Red eyes stared at him from the chipped mirror above his wash basin as he splashed water on his face. Almost woozily he brushed his teeth and fixed a tea while still brushing and searched for something to eat. He was famished. A Parle-G biscuit pack, half opened and going soft was the only thing left in his tin. Without much enthusiasm he started on it , sipping his tea. He felt almost human now.

How did he land up at the session? Then it came to him. He had bumped into Ismail Parkar, a friend from high school accidentally, who looked completely demented. Ismail had been jilted wanted to die. That’s how he had agreed to give him company, rather Ismail be dead drunk then just dead was his kind thought as they entered Kashmira Restaurant & Bar. Ismail was always falling in and out of love, so what brought this sudden decision to die? It had him puzzled. It was out of character. Apparently it was an old flame who had reached out to him they had been serious for a while, till the family found out his faith. Ismail was an educated and presentable guy earning respectably too but could do little about the problem he encountered.The split had been acrimonious and had hit him hard.

They had finished three quarters of Old Monk rum between them as Ismail discussed his affair. He remembered that when Ismail started his shayari’s all will be well,on his way to have come to terms with his loss, he would be a new man again the next day. Ismail started off, after wolfing down some sukka mutton and taking a long pull on his drink , that she just cut off contact. And now refuses to speak to him. She has forgotten him again. And he said those were beautiful times but even his memory was fuzzy now, and launched into a Urdu couplet by Javed Akhtar

तुम्हे याद न रहा, और मैं भी भूल गया,
वोह लम्हा हसीं था, पुर फिजूल गया

Wow he is back.. now would come the shocker before we moved on and on cue he ordered our next quarter. His eyes were pained & he struggled with his equilibrium. Another sip and he lit a cigarette. It was lovely, the poetry, always sublime,quite unlike his situations. As he rendered an old Sahir Song … Ismail faltered, mumbled and the words slurred..but he repeated them with explanations when the Urdu couldnt be understood by yours truly

तारुफ़ ( jasbaaat, feelings ) जब रोग बन जाये, तो उसे भूलना अच्छा
तालुक ( नाता, relationship) जब बोझ बन जाये, तो उसे छोड़ना अच्छा
व्हो अफ़साना, जिसे अंजाम तक , न लाना हो मुमकिन
उसे एक ख़ूबसूरत मोड़ देकर, छोड़ना

Remembering the words , he wondered what’s it about love lost that it turns men to drink and out of the pathos spouts beautiful poetry. All this as he finished the tea and biscuits and went for his bath.

16 November, 2008

Spiritually Bankrupt

It was 12th November 2008. As I started for work a huge festive atmosphere greeted me. Posters everywhere and a huge pandal had sprung up overnight at the ground near my house. People bustled about in a frenzy. The men moved in starched white shirts wearing what is called as an Uparna , a cotton or silk shawl thrown about the neck & women wore silk saris. Both the genders were displaying a badge of a face with a bushy moustache, on chests of varying proportions and attractiveness. It was crazy. Nearly a hundred thousand people were here. Aniruddha Pournima screamed the posters from all directions. Typically like all public functions a few decide to take it up on themselves to direct traffic with self important expressions. They displayed quite surly temperaments when not obeyed by the regular commuters.

I had stopped by the side like all others watching the show waiting for the traffic to clear. As a volunteer came by, I asked him, what’s this happening and who is this Aniruddha to have a Pournima named after him? The subject of my enquiry looked at me from the posters with benign amusement. His eyes twinkled from above his unruly moustaches. The volunteer with self righteous indignation looked down at me; I was after all sitting on a scooter. He told with supreme succinctness, its Bapu’s birthday. My face still mirrored confusion and I committed the blasphemy, who is this Aniruddha & who now is Bapu? The only two in my knowledge, who answered to this sobriquet, was the father of our nation and the old uncle from a neighbouring building. I saw several emotions pass through his face in one instant. Evident amongst them were anger, irritation, surprise & pity at my ignorance and he told me that Aniruddha Joshi or Bapu is a spiritual guru. He advises people on how to live a complete life. He was still singing his praises, but the traffic line had cleared so I moved on.

I wasn’t interested in the individual just completely puzzled by the whole scene. You can even say aghast. This mass of humanity had actually gathered to watch a god man or a guru give his schpiel! People seemed from all walks of life; rich, poor or middle income. Each queuing up to meet a man and get her/his fills of spiritual solace.
It was the shock of seeing so many people all assembled to listen to a god man that has put me in this state. I am seriously worried. Are we so completely spiritually bankrupt?

In a normal life there are people we look up to. Our parents, our teachers of our formative years, our professional mentors or some role models we want to emulate amongst others. During these stages we inculcate or create our values, develop a sense of self and define our utility to the eco system we inhabit to live a life full of joy.

Yet something had disturbed me greatly in this spiritual guru business, I witnessed today. Some link was eluding me which caused me great unease about this teeming thong. Aniruddha Bapu had vanished; for me he was just a symbolism of a malaise I witnessed. Then I realized what exactly it was. Nobody had smiled or laughed. I didn’t see any sign of joy, happiness or serenity. I found instead a desperate fervor of “wanting to believe” in anything, something or someone. The requirement of an external emotional crutch.

Spirituality seems like any other business today with a huge upside potential and there are faces to this commerce as well. What Pele did to football, for this business it was Rajneesh. He had the audacity to call himself Bhagwan or God. Satya Sai Baba of the Afro hair-do, Swami Prabhupada the founder of ISKCON , Mahesh Yogi of the Beatles fame and the villainous face of Chandraswami all had reached out to me through periodicals and the print media.They were all contemporaries but Rajneesh was the star The current faces of this wave are Asaramji Bapu, Ravishankar of the multiple Sri’s, the yoga contortionist Ramdeo Baba, who jumps into our living rooms from more than 7 channels dedicated to TV Evangelists.

India the land renowned for its spiritual wisdom seemed bereft of purpose. Where had we lost our way that a hundred thousand people need to seek a Bapu or a Guru?

10 November, 2008

Un-Bond ed : Quantum of Solace

Am a die -hard Bond fan, and this sequel to "The Casino Royale" left me wanting. "Quantum of Solace" is a sequel actually the first one in the series ( The others have been independent books), and picks up where the other movie ends. Its action packed, physical and human. But I miss my Bond as have enjoyed him in the tradition of Ian Fleming and "Cubby" Albert.R.Broccoli's on-screen creation. Bond is an idea an experience and one cant do away with the minutae that make the whole experience special. Sean Connery and Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan ,Timothy Dalton and the one off George Lazenby's portrayal too didnt veer away from this tradition.

This movie does away with a few classics which made James Bond the ultimate viewing experience.
  • The titles are bland and the biggest sacrilege , the original Bond signature tune is missing in this movie
  • No " My name is Bond..James Bond " introduction
  • The Martini is..neither shaken nor stirred but a bartender gives a long eulogy on what has gone into the drink Bond is holding..spare me the recipe's
  • Bond here is in mourning..with his love Vesper Lynd dying in an earlier saga..but should he be so grim all the time?
  • Bond is in Chan territory. He is very physical in his fights and he gets dirty, almost mucky at times. The one I knew would not even disturb the crease on his tuxedo or suit in a rough and tumble. I rather fancy Jackie Chan in the kind of physical action thats shown here, the parkour or gravity defying climbs and runs.
  • No Gadgets and no Q..I miss them badly.
  • No fancy cars either..In the begining we see an Aston Martin being chased but thats it.
  • Unless u have seen the previous film, the new viewer would get lost till the interval where the trace of a plot or whats happening cant be fathomed.
  • The plot itself has no real impact on how it would affect the world which Bond is gonna save.
  • Quantum as an organisation being so menacing is not felt by the viewer and here the impact of a Bond is truly lost.
  • A truly menacing larger than life villainous figure whose power is felt by the audience is conspicuous by his absence.

Yet despite these obviously absent must have "Bond-isms" the movie is pacy and exhilerating, by being just a high octane drama. The Bond-Babes are more cerebral now and its a welcome change. But yet, I want my old Bond experience back.

08 November, 2008

History made, Hope signaled

5th November 2008 is a watershed day in American history. The American electorate in a resounding voice has spoken. In one lifetime it is extremely difficult to pin point historical moments and be fortunate in time to view it first hand. This is one such time an epoch making event has happened. The 44th President of the USA is a person of African -American Origins, and at 47 years is also one of the youngest to hold the highest office in that country.

Cynics may argue, what’s so historical about a country which is pompous in its preaching to the world the wonders of the democratic process, while others have already stolen their lead in electing women or people representing the minority community to represent them. Countries, like Israel, India,Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and even Pakistan have elected women to the highest office before the US. This was to be neither Hilary's time nor Sara Palin's to claim their places in American history.

Why is this moment Historical? The US in particular is going thru one of its worst economic crisis, they are fighting three active wars, and the problems need addressing now. Being the dominant economy of the world, its slump would create a world wide recession of proportions that would be many times worse than what was seen in 1929 for the US. In 1929 it did not impact the rest of the world as much because it was largely de-coupled from the US and Britannia still ruled the waves then. Apart from factors economic, there is also a world wide leadership crisis. There is a distinct paucity in dynamic leaders of nations. Those who give a nation the confidence to surge over problems and grow ahead.

George Bush in his two terms has achieved the deepest nadir of being the worst President to occupy office. When I see the rest of the representative world leaders they don’t inspire much confidence either , Take the French President Nicolas Sarkozy; we see and read more about Carla Bruni, The German chancellor Angela Merkel: She is no Helmut Kohl, The Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi is an entertainment billionaire who is known for his gaffes though not of Bushian proportions, the Indian PM is by far the best pick though he too is struggles with a coalition support that limit his actions severely. The morale in such situations sinks low and somewhere even if things earlier were not bad, energy that inspires it goes missing. And when things turn bad, like they have now, these guys are the worst to be at the helm of affairs, because by their own constraints of staying in power they can’t do much.

Now we have here riding into the white house a dark knight, the contrast is so amazingly refreshing it is the harbinger of hope. His is a majority that is absolute in popular as well as electoral college votes. With this mandate I saw proud Americans savoring their own slice of history, some had tears running down their cheeks. These are defining emotional moments, the man on the street is hopeful and they have put their man in charge to change things. Hope has come to America and subsequently it shall impact the world.

If action is more concrete than thought or hope, why then is hope so important?

Hope is energy personified. It’s a flame that once lit charges up people to move mountains. It is this perception which has so much power that it can change adverse reality. Positive thought, hard work, some sacrifice is the need of the hour today to take us out of this mess. This is the moment of truth which this election result signaled; the nationwide acceptance of the immigrant and his youth to lead them. A chance has been provided to effect the change, and this Change has begun...

04 November, 2008

Story : Zee, the last word

Chapter 1: Tommy
I was on my way to the house after a long day at work. The cook had asked me to get stock vegetables and fish on the way back as my path crossed the market .It is a little more than two kilometers between my workplace and the apartment. I would walk to and from work. I have a car but the walk home cleared my head of all thoughts official. I also get some of my best ideas during this walk. The mind has a capacity to wander with a speed that is unbelievable, linking thoughts events objects et al. The linkages fusing into one other so fluidly that it’s difficult to pin down the track unless one does a back-trail very slowly. Even then a few would slip away. It is no different today

I would be Forty the next year. I, Thomas Joseph Cherian; when had the years gone by I didn’t even realize. It has been a good life, seemingly stable but the effort made to maintain consistency is always trying enough. One keeps second guessing life, and planning every step, such that eventualities are surmounted with little fuss. It does not have the excitement of a Bond movie with evident action. But experience has taught me that life is a great player and always has the curved ball kept in reserve for you to be played later.

I was a wild one in the younger days and stories about me abound, but looking at me today one would hardly be convinced. Terror Tom seemed to be no more and Mr. Thomas Cherian had usurped him. No vestiges of the impulsive youth, or reminders existed here in the Mumbai businessman. Sometimes Tom visited me in the nights and then the sleep would be restless.

Rascal, Notorious, Charming Tommy was quite the talk of the neighborhood. Then we were a large active circle of friends, girls and boys. We would paint Cochin & Ernakulum red. When I graduated with honors in Engineering, and got the best job on the campus which paid the most amongst my batch, that too became another subject for the neighbors. It was an Engineering MNC and my role was in marketing. The scoundrel suddenly attained respectability with a vengeance. Funny are the ways of the world. I had not changed one bit but the way the world looked at me certainly did. I mused as I walked along.

I was a garrulous sort about all subjects save self. Everyone including the family found this enigmatic and I did not bother to correct that impression. Passion was in my soul and the fire was felt by all. The Pater, his highness Joseph Thelmasherry Cherian, tried many a time to get me married and good proposals too came my way but I had no interest there and then the family gave up. Dad even tried to find out through Father Chacko whether I had anybody in mind but even with him I would not talk. It was too personal an invasion for my liking. Time went by.

Two years into my job, I had enough of selling somebody else’s solutions. Against family wishes moved to Chembur, Mumbai and set up a business that prospered over four years of hard work and a little bit of luck. Now fifteen years later had moved to a bigger apartment. The earlier flat was retained and was leased out to Gopan Nair a neighbor from Ernakulum who is transferred here. Financially very comfortable I had everything material the world would have to offer. My mind had processed all these thoughts, while the nose indicated the fish market is closer now.

Shanti was the fisherwoman from whom I regularly bought our weekly quota on Sundays after Church. But today was a Saturday and that too evening. I was not very hopeful of fresh fish but even if I d lay my hands on the morning catch, it would be good enough for now. Avoiding the salt water and fish scale puddles I reached Shanti’s board plate stall. In her typical loud voice Shanti welcomed me on an off day and extolled the virtues of the two fat black pomfrets she had. They were fresh and she pressed the scales to bring out the white water. After playfully haggling, a game enjoyed by most purchasers with the fisherwomen, we settled on a price and she cleaned and bagged the fish for me. On turning to go back I bumped into a lady struggling with her own purse and purchases and got a jolt.

The last person in the world I would have expected to run into in the world and that too here in Chembur, Lizzie or Zee. Life had thrown the curved delivery when I was least expecting it. Somewhere a door that had closed long ago heard a knock on it again. Zee, it really was her as I double checked.

Chapter 2: Zee
I don’t know which one of us was more surprised. Both of us just kept looking at each other with wonder not knowing what to speak. She didn’t look any different from the last time we had said goodbye at the Cochin airport as she flew to the US via Bangalore. That was 16 years ago. Slim supple brown eyed Zee with the hair curling around the forehead had retained everything I knew about her. The difference was she was wearing a Sari, a garment I knew she could not handle then.

‘It doesn’t slip now”, she said following my eyes. My lips turned up at the corner and eyes crinkled at the memory of that incident. She had wanted to surprise me with her Sari clad look. But as she got out of the taxi, she stepped on her hem and the sari got undone. She had stumbled back into the cab and made an about turn. Both of us started laughing at once, With Zee I never had to even talk, we instinctively understood each other and this had not changed. She had filled out a bit but nothing that disturbed her slim structure terribly. She reached over as she used to and patted my slight paunch, “Hmmm” she smiled, “prosperity, Tommy chan. But you are looking just the same and what is that crawling under your nose?” She went into a peal of laughter at my peppery grey moustache, and before my indulgent expression changed, she said “ No.. No… I like it, makes u look more distinguished. “Baju hato akkhaa din idharich khadaa rahega kya?” was the harsh shout that disturbed our reverie. Let’s get out of here first, I told her and took one of her bags and her arm and we walked out of the fish market.

My mind was teeming with questions; we had more than 15 years of catching up to do. I asked her, “When did you move here from the States? Where are you staying and what do you do here?” I asked her as we walked along. Was she in a hurry to go home and did we have time for a coffee?” She kept smiling and said, “You have not changed one bit Tommy still very impatient. We can do both, I don’t stay far from here, Chetak apartments that building, why don’t u come on over and I shall make us coffee and try and answer some of your questions too”. We walked along and reached her place. Chetak Apartment turned out to be one of those middle income blocks that had blossomed in the suburbs. Her apartment was a one bedroom hall one on the second floor. She smiled at the kids playing in the compound as they shouted Hello Aunty. She seemed well liked but then Zee was pleasant, always affectionate.

There was an elevator and as we waited for it she just turned to take another look at me and smiled warmly. I smiled back, the ease and warmth was still strong. It was a small cage and as we entered the elevator the smell of Cuticura lavender talc wafted up to my nose, the Zee smell. Many a time when she was in my arms the first thing to hit me after her warm smile would be this smell. In the proximity of the elevator I noticed many a thing now, her dusky burnished skin below her neck as it stretched to her ears which had the golden fur that my hands and lips knew. I was being slowly pulled back in time and the sensation was not unpleasant. The cage jerked to a halt and naturally my hands rushed to open the door for her as she tried the same turning into me. Her curly hair got into my nose like it always did and I sneezed. You still are ticklish there Tommy Chan? She laughingly quipped. As we reached her door, I saw the nameplate, Elizabeth Koshy it said. It was her maiden name. At Cochin 16 years ago when I had seen her off to the states she was going to marry her fiancée Ajith Verghese. Now Elizabeth Koshy, my mind churned even more. Opening the door she turned and said “Tommy chan” come in we have a lot to talk. Numbly I just nodded and entered,

Elizabeth Koshy, or Lizzie or Zee came into my life when I joined the MNC as a Sales Engineer. I had not noticed her even though we worked in the same place. I was touring and the target orientation was tough initially. It was only when I was assigned to attend a training module in Chennai that we came in touch. She too was deputed for it. We were the only two from Cochin office in Chennai. It was a fifteen day module I was from Sales & she from Finance. When I saw her sitting alone in the training room I went over to introduce myself.

She smiled warmly and said I know you Tommy, though you may not know me. The “how” was writ large on my face as she said “You are Preeti’s coffee guy aren’t you?” Preeti was the girl I would see off and on from office. She was our receptionist and fairly free with her charms and Terror Tom was not one who could be accused of looking a gift horse in the mouth. That my going out with Preeti would be office folklore was not something I expected or even sensed. Surprises never cease, as I laughed and said you got me there, She continued in a naughty manner delicately balanced that it just stopped of achieving the canine adjective. I believe that Preeti doesn’t even have to have coffee at home now, with the amount she has had with you? I sputtered with laughter, as I took in her bright green top and white corduroy jeans in which she made such a charming picture.

This girl was not only pretty but quick on the uptake with a sensational timing to her rhetoric. Now my interest was definitely piqued. I eased into the empty chair on her left. Then she smiled and her brown eyes just lit up, a curl dropped on her forehead that she tucked behind her ears with a forefinger, and my heart skipped a beat. “There are others in the office too who also like coffee, have pity on them too” she cheekily said. I just got up went to the vending machine and poured two Styrofoam cups and kept one before her, saying “Today is your lucky day”. She laughingly said “Very smart cheapo, this wont do at all”.

“I know that lady, but can I buy a coffee for a lady whose name even I know not? She smiled and turned and pointed to the tag clipped to her top which said Lizzie. I told her Lizzie is quite a mouthful. You are the last word in office tales and being so clued on to the grapevine there, thou shall hereby be known to Thomas Joseph Cherian as ZEE. She immediately came back “Then thou art Tommy Chan to Zee”.

Chapter 3 : Tommy and Zee
Zee and I sensed a natural ease with each other and within minutes, we were like old friends. Laughing, joking and giggling about, that the rest of the participants could not guess that we had met just ten minutes ago. I liked her and the fact that she didn’t budge away even when we were asked to form groups made me realize that it was mutual. We were housed in the same hotel but on different floors. At six when the trainer called it a day and we wound up, I looked to her and asked now “What’s the POA?” “You are going to pay for the free coffee Tommy Chan with a meal and a movie. Do you understand Tamil?”’ Nope’’ she smiled and said neither do I “So let’s go, it will be so much more fun”. We went to the Regal Cinema in T-Nagar and booked the late night show for Dalapathy a Rajnikanth starrer. The show was to begin at 9pm and it was 6.30pm now. We went to the Hotel to freshen up before dinner. Took a shower, put on a clean pair of jeans and White T- Shirt and dabbed some after shave lotion. I was set. As I waited in the lobby she came in five minutes, she had only changed her top for a deep blue T-Shirt with her white cords from the morning. We looked like a colorful pair in the reverse. When she came closer, I got a whiff of the Cuticura talc, this was the first time. The fragrance was to remain in my memory a long time.

She made heads turn in the lobby, it was not that she was conventionally good looking but her walk had a bounce and she had a vitality that made people want to continue looking. When she walked over to me took my arm and asked, shall we? I was the proudest man there. The meal at Sarvanna Bhavan was vegetarian and boy did this babe tuck in? I have always had a problem with my dates when we would go out. I love food and when the lady with me just pecks at the dishes, it irks me no end. I asked her “How do you manage to retain your lovely shape while you put all of this away?” She said “Thank you Tommy Chan this is the first compliment u have paid me even though backhanded. I couldn’t stop laughing and told her Zee you are the loveliest thing in all of Chennai? She pouted naughtily and said “yeah Chennai it must be because in Cochin it’s someone else”. I was thoroughly enjoying myself with this girl and it’s been a long time since I had a date whose grey cells were of top class, the bonus, she was lovely too.

Despite the Terror Tom tag am a gentleman and have been told that I have a laconic sense of humor. This came to the fore as we laughed our way through the meal. We called for the bill and she offered to split but I refused saying that this one was on me. But from tomorrow we go Dutch or French I said with a saucy wink, as we eat Chinese and Italian. She punched my arm and said “Naughty one you are” but her grip remained firm as we walked to Regal. The crowd there was phenomenal and in order to not be separated, pulled her close, as we negotiated through the throng to our seats. She smiled as we settled in to a very loud mob yelling to start the movie. We grinned at each other knowing this would be fun. A fat lady was in the adjoining seat to me and was continuously jostling me, Zee kept giggling at my plight and whispered, you can lean on me, I won’t complain. I just smiled and kept my distance but the Cuticura was disturbing my senses. I asked her what would she like, something cold to drink or popcorn. She said maybe later but right now just this as she linked my palm with hers. I was in seventh heaven. The roaring Cinema had vanished for me and all my sensations were in my palm as it rested in hers. I squeezed a bit and she leaned and kept a curly mopped head on my shoulder. As I turned one curl tickled my nose and I sneezed. She squealed with laughter and stopped only when the aunty to the left of me leaned across to say Chumma di - silence. And we realized there was a tear jerker scene happening. I just leaned back and put an arm around her shoulders and she leaned closer.

My arms around her the world stopped for me and somewhere, I knew it was the same with her.
Things were moving too fast and we were caught in a whorl. This was different somehow from the other girls I have been out with. This had the promise of a long time.

We caught an Auto-Rickshaw back and our hands were linked till the vehicle turned into the hotel. As we separated and collected our keys we walked to catch the elevator. She turned back and kissed me on the cheek and said “Tommy Chan this was one of my best evenings out and I am booking the next fourteen too” I told her whoa tomorrow I have a three hour telecon scheduled with Preeti at Cochin and the day after was meeting Latha a friend of my cousin and then was it Sripriya or Srividya.. I forget.. She looked at me with a mock fierceness and said “all cancelled, you rascal, all mine, u understand. Three hour telecon with Preeti, all bosh, Tommy Chan if you can have a three minute conversation with Preeti that does not include her makeup I shall award you the Nobel. I could not hold myself as I burst out laughing; it’s amazing how women when they decide to get catty are often so spot-on. Preeti does have that irritating habit. Still laughing, I relented and went up to my room.

No sooner I freshened up I called her room from the intercom. She screamed you idiot, I was cursing myself whether my talking too much has put you off and hence maybe you aren’t going to call. Another five minutes and I would have called you myself. I told her Zee as much as I was itching to get to the telephone, when nature calls, it doesn’t whisper it yells. I could hear the peal of laughter from the line and we kept talking for something like an hour before I told her you know Zee, this is something special. I know Tommy Chan this has never happened with me either. But we should sleep now else we are not going to wake up in time.

I didn’t wake up and it was Zee’s desperate ringing of the room doorbell that got me out of bed. I sleep deep and mornings are an issue always. When she saw my crumpled state she just blew in like a hurricane and dispatched me into the bathroom and in ten minutes I was presentable for the day. She had called room service for breakfast and while I ate toast she just had a cup of tea with me for company. Hurry, Tommy Chan we would be censured otherwise. Luckily we entered just in time. Lazy bones who wakes you every day, I sheepishly answered mum. She persisted “And on tours?” Room service” said I. Okay she said I have one more task to perform then this fortnight.

The Training that second day cruised and when we were out she told me Tommy Chan shall we go to the beach? I love the sea. We hopped into an auto and got to Marina around half past six. It was sparsely peopled and we just walked in the water in our bare feet and rolled up trousers and then sat watching the sunset. It was a companionable silence. When the Sun was swallowed up in the waves I turned and asked her Zee, where were you all my life? She became solemn and said “don’t ask me now or you shall spoil it all”. Do you have anyone in your life, then? I persisted. She looked at me and just nodded. I am engaged and my fiancé is in the States, California. Our families solemnized the union and I like Ajith. He is my second cousin. I was saddened suddenly and didn’t know exactly why; it was natural that a lovely girl like her would have someone. I smiled back and so did she, a bit wanly though. Lets for now forget all that and feed me Tommy Chan, I am hungry. We resoled ourselves brushed the sand away and stood up.

Somewhere I felt a third person had crept up in between us and when I maintained a distance in the auto she just looked hurt and stared fixedly outside. Chow Mein was the stall near our hotel where we got down and a boy hurriedly put a plastic menu in our hands wiping three plastic stools smartly arranging it so that we could sit on two and one became the table. The proximity to food somewhere cheered me up a bit. I ordered for us, one noodle in eggs, rice in chicken and some Gobi Manchurian which was written as today’s specialty. We ate silently and while a noodle slipped from my fork back into the bowl I hurriedly looked around to see whether anyone saw my performance. She spluttered and said, eat Tommy Chan you are like a kid when food is in front of you, nobody noticed. The tense moment was gone and we resumed our easy chatter.

She didn’t mention Ajith and I didn’t ask. Over the next few days it was work and assignments from the workshop that kept us occupied and but we did manage to find time to eat and chat. Then it was Friday and we had a two day break. I asked her whether she was keen to take a trip to Mahabalipuram, an ancient temple about 70kms from Chennai the next day. She sounded keen and we booked thru the hotel a taxi for the day. The next two days were magical. I had read about the history of Mahabalipuram and narrated the incident of Lord Vishnu and his Vamana avatar to Zee. The just asura king Bali who’s only vice was pride was humbled by the lord when he as the tiny Brahman Vamana goes up to the King while he is distributing largesse during a yagna. There he is promised land in Bali’s kingdom which spans all worlds. Bali asks how much land and Vamana answers just as much as is covered by my three steps. The King looking at Vamana’s size agrees. Vamana puts one step on Akash (Heaven, the abode of the Gods) second on Patal (The abode of the asura’s). Bali realizes that this is the lord incarnate who has been foolishly promised by him in his sense of pride. When Vamana roars where do I put my third step, the King prostates before him and offers him his head. Vamana is pleased that Bali arrogant though he is has not backed away from his promise. He puts his foot on Bali’s head and drives him into the netherworld but gives him a boon. That you shall be named as Maha Bali and you shall be worshipped as a God. This temple on the sea is a tribute to the great King Bali. Legend has it that this temple has risen out of the sea in its perfection.

She had shifted closer during my narrative and was resting her head on my shoulder. Pulling up one of my arms and draping it about her, as she snuggled up to me in the taxi. Zee, I asked, am I boring you that you are sleeping? Smilingly she said no dear “What’s foot for Bali is an arm for Zee” naughtily twisting my tale. I tickled the vixen as she squealed. Her brown eyes sparkling with mischief she said, so serious you were as you recounted, it was as if I had lost Tommy Chan to Lord Vishnu. I want him for myself. She felt just right in my arms; I just drove the niggling thought of Ajith away.

We were of a different faith. As we explored the temples magnificence she just clung to me and whispered Thanks Tommy for your narrative and just being you. I said lets go the beach. The beach here is clean, softly sandy. We collected shells. I loved doing that on any beach. I found a pair of crimson streaked conches of such delicate perfection. I told her that wherever you are when you put a conch close to your ear, one hears the sea it came from. We shared a coconut from a vendor there and it was nearing evening so decided to start back. We were like teenage lovers who could not keep away from each other for long. Her arm was in mine or wrapped around my waist while mine would be either or on her shoulder or waist. In the cab she snuggled again and nuzzled my neck, when I looked into her brown eyes she just raised her face and kissed me quickly on the lips. The driver thought we were young honeymooners and indulgently would look thru the rear view but otherwise silently driving. The sweetness of the moment has remained ingrained in my memory ever since.

The rest of the time flew as if we or on a furlough from the rest of the world. I knew I had fallen very deeply in love with her and knew she felt something for me too. But the shadow of Ajith kept me from crossing a thresh hold in intimacy. It was time to return to Cochin soon and we changed our bookings to have the same flight back. We didn’t speak much on the flight, somewhere the world was sneaking up on us. As I dropped her to her hostel she kissed me deeply and left. The next month I did not see her as I was touring and the hostel did not permit late phone calls. When I came back on Friday, it was to find out that she had put in her notice papers and the next day she was to leave for Bangalore onwards to the USA. The office was buzzing with her impending marriage and she looked at me with forlorn eyes. When she gave me an invite, I looked up and congratulated her to maintain protocol, I even managed a smile. I could not sleep the night and she was leaving in the morning the next day. I went to her Hostel as I could not think of not seeing her one last time. She was in her room and was looking at the baggage when I walked in. I had no words; she just jumped up and came into my arms. I feebly said don’t go. She just mutely shook her head and asked me to come with her to the airport. Nodding, I just picked her bag and walked out to hail the taxi. In the cab I just held her hand but could not bear to look at her and was looking outside the window at the passing city. When the city hazily misted in front of me made me realize that my eyes had filled up. Zee just held on tight. As we unloaded the baggage and loaded it on to her trolley, she turned & gave me a hug. I just murmured into her ear, take care Zee you have been the best thing to happen to me. I put my hand in the pocket and gave her one of the conches from Mahabalipuram. She took it and said thanks I shall listen to our sea in this. I am sorry to have messed up your life so Tommy chan. You are special find someone good for yourself. I just looked at her one last time as she turned and determinedly pushed her trolley to walk out of my life. A part of me was gone I knew for certain every girl would fade up with this benchmark.

Chapter 4: The Last Word
I was determined to let this phase of my life be buried in deep, very private, no one should be able to gauge the intensity of that precious thing I had allowed to walk away. My family did not know this as Zee had never come home nor did I make any reference to her ever. I became immersed in my job and one day chucked it all. It became more meaningless to me with every passing day. Traveling around Cochin and Chennai became physically painful now as everywhere I saw just Zee and me. I had to shift my base to a town that had no vestige of any attachment or reference to her. This more than any other reason was why I chose Mumbai to start a business. I struggled to explain this to family that I was not keen on marriage just yet as the proposals kept pouring in. After a while all efforts to convince me too dried up and I came here. Zee was in my heart never to go. But I had buried her deep under piles and piles of mundane happenings and events daily till she became a distant memory.

All of this ran thru my mind again with remarkable speed and accuracy. Ten minutes ago Zee was lost into my subconscious but with one trigger all those times we had with each other were before me. Each moment etched out so clearly as if someone had just wiped away 15 years off life’s slate with a brusque sweep of the hand. Life had bowled that delivery it had saved up for me.

These were my thoughts as they flashed through my mind while she went to dump her purchases on the kitchen platform. Zee dropped her bags in the kitchen, took my bag of fish and put it in a wrap and into the freezer.

I was still staring out of the window lost in my recollection. The Cuticura again, as the fragrance of the talc tickled my nose, indicating that she had re entered the room. I turned to find her studying me intently. I knew I had changed and she smiled fondly as she said “Not very much, Tommy chan”. She still could read me. I had added a couple of inches to my waist, sported a moustache and there is some grey in the hair now but all of it was still there. She had put on very slightly, her slim figure was fuller but yet slim. The hair was still long, jet black and curled around her forehead. Having made a thorough study I settled in to the only sitting arrangement in the room a two-seater sofa, as she went back to the kitchen to make coffee. The apartment was pleasantly done in warm muted colors. It was sparingly decorated but her touch was unmistakable. The vase had fresh flowers lilies and gladioli, there were curtains in lace the apartment was spotlessly clean and even the bed that I could see through the open door had a bed spread. She was neat, and I liked that about her. Even the hotel room in Chennai where we stayed years ago, she may not have troubled the housekeeping staff much. The Elizabeth Koshy on the door disturbing me and yet again I felt her husband’s--yes Ajith’s, shadow creeping up on me, and I asked her? What’s with the Koshy, Zee, I thought it was Verghese. She turned back from the Kitchen platform and said Tommy Chan u just can’t wait can u? She brought two large steaming mugs and sat beside me. Settling herself in, she leaned back her head and looking up at the fan sighed deeply and turning towards me, with a wry smile asked “You sure you want to hear this? “

“Ajith after his post graduation became a professor in UCLA. We tried but there were no children for us. Today when I look back, Gods been watching over me too, said she. Ajith, she continued with a wooden voice went into a depression and someplace crossed the line with his graduate students. California is filled with beautiful students who don’t have any hang ups. It was as if he tried very hard to prove to himself that he can be a father. I worked and ignored it till it was thrown in my face one day and it broke my patience. An Indian Student had a thing going on with the reader’s daughter and he unfortunately died in an automobile crash. She spent the night with Ajith. Then promptly announced that she was pregnant. Ajith in a full show of responsibility wanted to marry her. I could stand anything Tommy Chan even our not having children but this hypocrite had the gall to talk with pride on his impending fatherhood with me. I lost my temper and served him a notice, waited for our divorce and returned to Mumbai. A city I knew nothing about. Chennai had too many memories for me as did Cochin. Bangalore was simply out of bounds”.

Zee had made instant, grimacing as I sipped the coffee, she grinned, Tommy Chan still don’t like it does he? I bashfully said no, the flavour of fresh beans is too deeply in me. I was immensely sad for Zee and looked at her. With flashing brown eyes, she voiced my thoughts back to me uncannily. “No Tommy Chan what I have here is more than what others get to have in their lives. I had a man who loved me but I married another to uphold a commitment. I gave everything to this commitment. This commitment demanded my self respect and that I was not prepared to surrender. That is mine. My love was always yours; But I doubt whether Ajith ever sensed this.”

“How long ago did this happen Zee?” I was very angry with Ajith for treating Zee so. It still hurt me to see her hurting. Enough about me Tommy, I have a job here now with the same Consultancy Accounting firm I worked with in California. I just took a transfer here, they offered Bangalore or Mumbai and you know what I chose? And now am I glad ?

How about you Tommy who is the lucky woman in your life? How many children do you have? Where do you stay? Tell me all. “Whoa Zee, How did you manage to ask these many questions in one breath?” I said laughing. I told her about my business as I had little else to talk about. My voice somewhere carried the pride of ownership and creation. She looked happy for me and when I had stopped she just raised an eyebrow. What? I asked, “The other questions have no answers Zee”. I was suddenly tired and leaned back. The day had been long and she said nothing, just kept looking at me. With Zee, silences were comfortable too and as she got up to keep the mugs in the kitchen, I dozed off.

I didn’t realize for how long had I slept but woke up to the smell of food and fish frying. As my eyes opened I felt disoriented in this room, where was I? And my eyes fell on the conch, it was the same one from our sea, but I kept it in my chest drawer at home. How did it get here? Did I dream about Zee and suddenly the subject walked out. She had changed into a T shirt and shorts and had taken a bath. She smiled and suddenly the world had a different glow. She said Tommy Chan, I bored you with my story so much that you slept on me. Now get up, get fresh and we can eat in a while. “Arrey I said suddenly embarrassed, I have to get home”. With hands on her hips she glared, who is waiting for you there? Tell me. She was suddenly bossy, and said Wash up, I have kept a T- Shirt and a stretchable running slacks. I truly needed a wash and I went into the bathroom and had a hot shower. The T was large and thin and the track was short in length but ok around the waist. I just hung my day clothes on a hanger and came out. She had laid out the table in the kitchen and I walked in and asked whether I could do anything. Eat and eat well Tommy chan. She was frying fish and I leaned to look over her shoulder and smelled her fresh smell and on an impulse put my arms around her waist.

She just turned and my mouth found hers. The Spatula dropped from her hand as she wrapped it around my neck. With my free hand I turned off the stove and kissed her back with a passion I knew was only hers. Sixteen years to the day I met Zee, the girl who captured my heart , my imagination, was mine and in my arms again. Our love making had a frenzy as if making up for all the time lost. Soon we lay sated in each others arms. I gathered her close and nuzzled her lips and promised to myself, this time I am not letting her go. She clung back as if she sensed it too. I kissed her again and this time our bout was slow, languorous, it had a certainty. Zee, I said moving against her, umm, talk said she, but don’t stop. Tomorrow we are getting married and you are going nowhere without me anywhere now. Tommy Chan she said on one condition that whatever you are doing so beautifully right now is continued for the rest of my life. And you shall eat and finish all the fish i fried for you in the kitchen. My life was suddenly complete with the only person who could have made it so. The days would be brighter, my laugh would have joy too, the house would be a home too and I looked forward to holding Zee forever now that the ghost of Ajith was banished to eternity. Life had given me a second shot at love and i was damned if i let it walk away again; I murmured into her ear, I accept your conditions. What do you say to it? My, Zee the perennial master of the last word just yelled “Harder”.