A Forgotten Evening (Part Two)

It was a balmy Friday night. Young people, tourists and locals alike milled about in the streets of Byblos. Local beer was being downed by the pot and people were heartily indulging in Lebanese fare. The speakers were blasting music loudly from the karaoke stage where people drunkenly headed to the podium and sang off-key love songs, their voices thick with passion. The thin, peeling walls of the studio apartment vibrated with the thundering sounds emanating from the bar next door. It was here that Krish aka KS stood, his clammy hands clutching the envelope tightly. The big brown envelope held 15,00,000 INR in cash. Krish was nervous about this sale from the first day that his brother told him about it. His brother had a small but successful curio shop in Chandni Chowk, New Delhi. Occasionally he and Krish did overseas transactions where they personally sourced heirlooms from estate sales or individual sellers, and negotiated acquisitions between the parties. It was one such transaction that had brought Krish here. The seller wished to stay anonymous and insisted on payment in cash, which worried Krish no end. His brother however laughed off Krish’s concerns, asking him to ease up. Krish wore the carpet thin from his pacing and smiled feebly at the old woman next door who was looking at him suspiciously.

“Um… Mr. KS?” a voice sounded from behind him. He turned around quickly. The speaker was a young woman, in her late twenties. She had shoulder length hair with purple streaks in it. She wore a lavender tank top and artfully ripped jeggings with silver jewelry. In that dreary dim-lit corridor, she looked like spring come alive. The corridor seemed impossibly warm and small for the two of them.

“Hi, call me Krish” he said, and extended his hand towards her. Shaking his hand with a firm grip of her own, she said “I am Maya, I work in the curio shop downtown. My uncle sent me here because he had some unavoidable errands to run at the last minute. I hope that will be okay?” Although he had been suspicious earlier, he looked at her and found himself relax. What harm could this young woman possibly do?

“Yeah, that’s okay” he said. Ten minutes of awkward small talk later, she said “Listen, I am hungry. I know a great place here that sells the best Fattayer pastries. Do you wanna come?” He gratefully nodded even though he didn’t know what Fattayer pastries were. He tucked the envelope into his backpack and left, happy to leave the seedy apartment complex at last.

“Where are we going?” he asked, jogging to keep up with her long strides. “Souk el Akel, best street food you will ever have in your life” she replied without turning around, to look at him.

She drove through the streets with an ease that seemed effortless, the night coming alive with her words and laughter. “Are you done checking me out?” she asked suddenly. “I was not… I mean, yes I was. I apologise” he stammered. She laughed. “That’s okay, I don’t mind. Plus, you’re kinda cute” she said, patting his knee. He coloured and said nothing.

They had reached Souk el Akel. The smell of the food alone nearly brought him to his knees, his stomach growling and reminding him that it had been a long while since his last meal. It was a chaotic and intoxicating mesh of colours, textures and smells all coming together to weave the most fantastic sensory experience. They walked some distance, and finally halted at a kiosk that looked quite unimpressive, except for the huge crowd that stood in line waiting for the famous meat and feta cheese pies. Making casual conversation while they waited, he learned that she was an only child of her parents; born and educated in London till age 14, when she was orphaned. She hated moving and her new life in Byblos till one day she discovered her uncle’s antiques shop. She fell in love with the exotic items in the shop and became a shop assistant after school. The passion which she spoke with, and her tender affection for her uncle was apparent in every sentence. As they lazily munched on their Fattayer pastries, he told her how his dream of medical school was thwarted because of his father’s premature passing. After a few years of handling deliveries and client interactions, his brother promoted him to the position of Acquisitions Manager. They traversed through the cobbled pathways of the souk. He thrust his jacket at her when she rubbed her arms, and hugged herself for warmth.

“Do you want to go have something to drink?” she yelled, to make herself audible in the loud streets. He yelled back in the affirmative. She took his hand and expertly guided him through the narrow alleys packed with street food lovers. “Where are we going?” he asked her, when they reached the car. “Have you ever been to a bar here before?” she asked him. “No, didn’t have the time to. Just landed last night.” he said. “Then, I think you will like Frolic.” She said, slamming her foot on the accelerator.

Pulsating coloured lights cast lengthy shadows on the wall. Krish gazed around in wonder at the wooden walls and stone-inlaid flooring of Frolic, the massive mounds of colourful cocktails being passed around, people playing carrom in the same space as couples dancing around. Outside, there was a huge canopy filled with writhing silhouettes.  

“Tamma Tamma? This is my favourite song! Come!” Maya said, all but dragging Krish to the dance floor. Even as he danced along with the rest of them, he couldn’t help but be mesmerized by the ophidian movement of Maya’s body to the music. They danced to a few more songs and then she snuck them out towards a quieter part of the city, a six – pack in hand.

They sat in the town square near some rose bushes and drank deeply. “What is the one thing you wish you could do right now?” Maya asked him. “I want to sing. When I was standing there being tortured by that karaoke happening next door, I just wanted to go there and show them how it is done.”

“Oh yeah? Go for it then, show me” She challenged him. He stood up and started singing Un Poco Loco. She laughed and started dancing along as he sang “The way you keep me guessing, I’m nodding and I’m yessing, I’ll count it as a blessing, That I’m only Un poco loco…” He ended it, looking her squarely in the eye adding “For you.”

She clapped and whooped, adding “That was so good, man. Like, really, really good”. “I know” he said, making his magnificent Cara Delavigne – esque eyebrows dance along in a funny fashion. “Teach me how to do it!” she said, trying unsuccessfully to do it.

“Come here, learn from the master” he drunkenly beckoned her forward. No matter how hard she tried, she would laugh and raise both brows. “Not like that. Perhaps we could try this, instead” he said, placing his thumb on her brow and holding it still while the other brow lifted. “I didn’t know you had all these freckles” he said, tracing the light smattering of freckles across her face with his thumb fondly. The cheap sodium powered orange lights cast a golden glow on her countenance. The streaks in her hair stood out even more, their noses brushed up against each other and bumped foreheads slightly. They both laughed. Just as they were about to kiss, everything went black.


Colin Singleton and musings on mattering

It is a curious thing how the character we dislike usually represents an aspect of ourselves that we have not looked into or not yet integrated into ourselves. Take for example Colin Singleton, the main protagonist of An Abundance of Katherines. It is the story of a boy named Colin who gets dumped nineteen times by various Katherines. John Green, that wizard with words takes this relatively unremarkable plot and weaves his magic around it, as only he can. Colin, former child prodigy faces tremendous pressure to stay matchless in every pursuit that his parents have him undertake. We have all been there, right? The entire character of Colin Singleton can be pretty much summed up in one excerpt of the book which starts off with a bit of a walk back into the lanes of his childhood, where his genius first begins to show. As he reads a book called The Missing Piece, he does not realise that he too is like the circle with the missing slice. This very habit of knowing but not being able to see is what causes the love of his life, Katherine XIX to part ways with him. This book follows him and his friend Hassan on a sojourn for that missing piece that will make Colin’s broken heart whole again. In other words, heartbreak followed by a road trip and then he hooks up with a girl (whose name is not Katherine, so there is that I suppose). What’s so special about this premise anyway right? It sounds so been there, done that. Indeed, John succeeds so beautifully in creating a character who constantly undermines himself and thinks he has nothing to offer to the world (and the Katherines dwelling in it) except his genius. The only problem, he is a former genius. Even as he goes on this journey to move on or perhaps due to his friend’s coercion, he doesn’t realise that he still sees himself as a former something or someone. Like, the former boyfriend of Katherine XIX, or former child prodigy. It is almost tragicomic, this narration and quite honestly, the first John Green book I was easily able to put down.

Owing to its slow pace and the perceptible dry-ness of the plot, it felt like biting into an old, cold multi-grain sandwich. With the crusts not cut off. Out of sheer determination and a completely undeserved sense of optimism towards the book, I decided to trudge on and see where and how the “hero’s” healing arc would manifest within the writing. Predictably it takes a hot girl, an outlier (is it just me or are there way too many of those nowadays in YA literature?) to bring Colin to his senses, change his perception and in a way, complete his Dumper – Dumpee Theorem as well.

For she may not have his prodigious skill of knowing things which most people would find utterly random (like Nikola Tesla’s romantic fascination with a white pigeon), but her gift is in seeing people. She therefore adds to his theorem, and his life the missing variables required to deem it whole again. An amusing section of the book that I liked was the numerous footnotes, which tell their own story and provide a glimpse not only into the inner workings of Colin’s mind, but also of John Green, the one who gave form and voice to Colin Singleton.

Colin reminded me of an aspect of myself that I would like to happily put behind me, one that makes me blush with mortification now. The part of me that thought I could understand love and be successful in a romantic relationship by conducting a research on successful couples and their secrets. I kid you not, I did carry out surreptitious research (using dubious techniques)  and even had a first draft of my “research paper” containing 3700+ words.

It was desperate and slightly funny in a sad, oddball kind of way. Now that I think about it, I didn’t even know the first thing about love. I was going at it from an almost entirely detached angle, discounting emotional variables and how they can constantly be in flux, and therefore not predictable. I did not of course share my insights with my peers (and rightly so) because I did not want to be mocked by them. However, had they been privy to my research, I would have gotten a wealth of data from them as they frequently experienced romantic relationships of varying lengths and intensities, while I… only had my books and a theoretical glimpse, apart from the people I spoke to who were not from my generation. I often looked at my crush and wondered if there was a socially appropriate way that I could ask him what sort of biochemical reactions (if any) he had in my presence, or (like a normal person) I could simply have said “Hey, I like you. Do you like me back?” But of course, that requires guts and I…generally became a strangely unrecognisable version of myself around my crush. The version of me that shook my wrist in his face, and asked him if I had nice wrists. *cringe* You see, I was not entirely comfortable in my skin yet to be able to be myself and know that I’d be liked anyway. I remember a lengthy conversation with him when we spoke about the hormones and chemical reactions responsible for falling in love, the signs of it, while subsequently my mind raced ahead to determine if he had shown any of these signs that he was talking about, either in my presence or that of any other female. He pontificated, as only a *science student* could, and years later… I wonder now if he knew the intent of that conversation.

So finally, once my own perspective on myself and certain other things changed, did things start turning around. Much like they did, for Colin in the book. After which, may be it was just me or perhaps the writing did pick up pace and start moving rapidly, that simmering bond between the two teenage protagonists coming to a boil, culminating in a night of confessions and passions in not-Katherine’s favourite hidey hole, an incredibly dark cave. As a metaphor, it makes perfect sense for how they find each other. Their series of outings and “adventures” can be likened to bumping knees turning into grazing noses as the two kiss.

I am not here to talk about this kiss, but rather for the theme this book addresses in an over arching sort of way. The importance of mattering, of our being here, of wanting to amount to something. Making an impact on the world, or at least our own society/community. These are thoughts that I have been frequently plagued by, of late. The book does not provide the answer to this all important question of course. This fear of fading into oblivion is… I think, something that all of us can relate to whether we think about it constantly and consciously, or fleetingly in moments of despair. But I think we will have had it pretty good if we choose to whom and how we will have mattered.

Free Writing – piece 1

Yesterday, the sixteenth of July 2017 I attended a writing workshop conducted by Rohini Malur and Queer Arts Movement India (QAMI). I had a great time, meeting new people and an adorable dog that wandered in. So, the workshop began with a free writing exercise, sort of stretching out the mental muscles in order to keep them limber and flexible before embarking on the journey, for the day. The only rule we had was that we had to write without pause. The topic was Movie Character. The timer was set for five minutes, and here is what I wrote:

“She is this amazing, free spirited woman. She gets up to all sorts​ of shenanigans with the boy next door, who wants to be a writer when he grows up. I like her because she is relatable in that we both want to live our own lives, unshackled by societal expectations. She leaves home at a very young age, to pursue her dreams. And boy, does she have a LOT of them. It is not that she is just confused about what she wants to do professionally, but she wants to do many things. She has one vision of herself, standing before a cheering crowd and receiving all the fame, and adoration as she belts out tune after tune. She has this lovely, scattered energy about her, which is what the aspiring writer falls in love with. Unwittingly, each day the friends grow closer, as they both are in the same city. They are new there, and don’t have anyone but each other to lean on. So the duo help one another with their professional aspirations, she becomes his muse after a fashion. Eventually, the inevitable does happen. The two friends fall in love. But while he is okay with taking their relationship to the next level and obey the diktats of society in doing so, she is not.”

The timer ran out here, and I had to stop at this point else I would have been able to flesh out a great deal about the external conflict, and the internal conflicts that threatened the friendship, the relationship as well as the growth that both characters have to undergo before they can come back into each other’s lives once again. Indeed, the brightest dawn follows the darkest night. But setting all that aside, let’s continue with what happened at the workshop. We had to guess which character each person had written about. Nobody got mine. You know why? She is the every day woman.  She is striving to live her life, pursue her dreams while subsequently wanting to break free. She is extraordinarily ordinary. She is you, she is me.

There in lies the beauty of it.

A small price for love

(The word of the day, incorporated in the following story: Apple polishing)

“Jonathan, you obstreperous child! Come back here. I will tell your mother what you have done! My joints aren’t quite what they used to be, boy! Manipulating your old aunt into making those Snickerdoodles, gambling and stealing money for a corsage, just you wait till I catch you” the old woman gave chase to the young boy, breathing heavily.

The boy and the family dog, Coco ran around enthusiastically. Being a worldly and self-aware young man, Jon was quite aware of his failings. His weakness was the ladies, and his auntie’s Snickerdoodles. The two had inexplicably combined when on a hot Wednesday in May, Miss Lucy walked in to Grade 6 and introduced Katie, the new girl who had been smart enough to skip fifth grade and be promoted straight to the sixth grade. Jon felt a not entirely unpleasant swooping feeling in his gut, when Katie looked at him and gave him a smile.

“This must be love” the young man decided and began to develop a strategy of courting her so he could ask her to be his partner for the Estival Formal, two weeks from the day. He looked around and noted with dismay that those insidious devils, formerly best mates of his – Tom, Nate and Henry were making similar plans too, looking at the love light that appeared to have kindled in their eyes, also. They seemed to have adopted a strategy of apple polishing to gain her attention, and let her sit next to them. She was looking doubtfully at the cheerful, earnest faces. Jon schooled his face into an expression of nonchalance, but his heart threatened to explode all over the place when she laid down her beautiful pink and white backpack with flowers on them, on the seat next to his.

As she settled in to her seat, he mouthed ” How about that?” to his now rivals for the hand of Miss Katie. They shook hands, and by God! He was smitten! Cupid had aimed his arrow deftly at young Jon, who fell hard.

Jon walked up to her with a playful swagger and said, “I bet you have never tasted anything as good as that of my Auntie Liz’s Snickerdoodles.”

She smiled and said “Mummy makes very good Snickerdoodles too. Challenge accepted. Same time, next week?”

He solemnly accepted, adding “If I win, you will accompany me to the Estival Ball.” She looked a bit surprised, let out a delightful peal of laughter that had him and the boys around them, hanging on to her every word feeling mildly disoriented as she seemed to float away from him, back to class with her newly acquired gaggle of female friends.

The next couple of days went by in a haze as he convinced his Auntie Liz that he missed his parents very much, but especially Mummy and her Snickerdoodles. He brooded in a manly fashion, and sighed when his Auntie suggested that she make her famous Snickerdoodles for him, and it would be the same since it was a family recipe that had been passed down to both sisters by great Nana herself.

“That might alleviate the suffering, some” he said with the air of one giving up something great. She looked at him with pity and affectionately ruffled his hair, drew him up a list to go get the ingredients to make the Snickerdoodles.

Next Wednesday came and he had been baked quite an alarmingly large batch, so he managed to give some to Katie, wrapped in a neat ribbon he found in Aunt Liz’s desk. He also distributed the rest to his classmates and Miss Lucy. The class opined that his batch was indeed the finest. That’s how Jon found himself on a date with the most beautiful young woman in all the universes ever. Katie Corden. He slipped on the corsage he had purchased with the money he had stealthily purloined from the farm’s cash register he manned during the weekends. Katie beamed widely, took his arm and walked inside the school hall that had been decorated to appear like a shindig of the Roaring Twenties. He doffed his imaginary hat to his brothers – in – arms, and walked past them with a supercilious smirk plastered firmly upon his face. The night passed in blissful oblivion, even as the moon shone down brightly upon those two hearts beginning to beat in unison while Cole Porter played on, in the background.

One jealous young ex – suitor, hurt and rebuffed worked out that with the allowance Jon got, and the number of chores he had pawned off on others, he could not have afforded the corsage. He cycled to Merry Farms, and told on his formerly bosom pal. And that is the story of how Jon found himself in the present predicament. He worked out a compromise where he promised to do chores for the next two weeks and skip the school field trip to the zoo, that he had been looking forward to from weeks. He vowed to himself to find out who had sabotaged him, and get even at the person, even while he nursed elaborate fantasies of him and Katie dancing in the moonlight, as they once did before. Hands fitting perfectly, laughing, dancing a little too close for him to be able to smell her warm, intoxicating cherry flavoured scent.

“Two weeks of chores isn’t a bad price to pay for love” he surmised, as he picked up the shovel and went to work in the farm, while the hot sun beat down on his bony back.