Dear dengue mosquito
Trapped in my car,
You think you’re so saucy,
Such a fucking Sheba,
With all your groaning,
Your sighs and whispers,
Your legs and wings
Brushing the backs of my knees.

Yes, keep nibbling at my ankles
And tickling my neck, go on,
When I’ve said NO, like, thrice already.
All this flailing and screaming
Doesn’t imply pleasure, you know.
That’s right, you bastard.
My blood type does not
Determine my consent.

That shut you up, didn’t it? Hello?
Oh, please. I know you’re still here.
I can see you lurking
Behind the dashboard.
Kindly end your tiresome games,
Your silly hide and seek.
Your brooding and sulking
Doesn’t impress me.

Really, you drive me so crazy!
This is the last time, I swear,
That I make the mistake of
Leaving you such an easy opening.
And I WISH we’d agreed on a safe word
Back when this damn thing got started.
(I asked for “release”,
But you wanted “death”.)

Vinayak Varma, 2018

Some moandays and bluesdays,
So dang sprawled across the summer earth,
Your tongue in the air like a poikilotherm,
Most of your joint in ashes,
All the light of the world
Having stripped off your eyelids,
And your hunger a mere
Rasam-itch in your stomach
(Not yet that unpleasant gnawing
For an everything-dosa
Or a nothing-but-vada),
It just ups and happens:
A window begins to vibrate,
Then the whole house gets the shakes,
And it feels like you’re jittering
Between four opposing realities,
You legendary, timeless pendulum,
Rattling through their eggshell skins,
And yet you fear — you know
That when the disruption subsides
You’ll land back in the same soft
Life you’ve always inhabited,
That the adventure of an all-new,
All-shiny timeline will elude you;
And you despair, of course, you despair,
But feebly, politely, without the kind of noise
Needed to drown out your still-baying hunger,
Or the horsefly ranting in your ear —
After all, the sunlight still warms your legs,
And the wind so smells of storm;
So you let those storybook characters,
The bears and crones and superhumans,
Back in your brain again, only because
Some pleasures are multiversal,
Because there are always timelines
Within timelines within timelines,
And because no later is better or worse
Than the sweet pain of now and again.

Vinayak Varma, 2020

(I love drawing hands, especially wrinkled hands that have learned to hold time.)

I was a sickly child growing up, constantly afflicted with an irritable stomach that threw industrial-sized tantrums at the slightest provocation and unionised sinuses that went on strike every time a single grain of dust entered the air. My parents tried all sorts of treatments on me, from allopathic antibiotics and anti-allergens through ayurvedic ghees and cordials, to — being good parents, their desperation at my suffering must have surely led them thus far at some point, I’m convinced — even the dark arts of homoeopathy, numerology, Reiki and witchcraft. (Somewhere deep in the nether worlds, goes a recurring nightmare, there is a demonic soul-mortgaging contract bound in an ancient skin that bears my family’s name in mirror-writing, and the damned thing is filled with fork-tongued promises of impending good health.)

At no point during these medical struggles was the concept of tea as a tonic ever raised in our home, because, of course, the imbibing of tea and coffee has always been considered an adult province among the Malayali Hindu orthodoxy. My brother and I were often fed the egregious fiction that tea stunts mental and physical growth in children, that if we drank the stuff we would inexorably become deformed idiots. The truth was that the grown-ups were probably tired enough as it was, having to deal with our youthful energies, without us being supercharged with caffeine and bouncing off the walls like a couple of coked-up Koosh Kins on the warpath. (Tea is “too strong for children”, all the aunties and uncles would say, even as they poured you a mollifying tumbler of Thums-Up or Campa Cola. So much for the wisdom of one’s elders.)

I’m properly into my thirties now, and while my immunity continues to show no miraculous signs of repair, age and experience have brought with them the knowledge that I can exercise some measure of control over how my illnesses pan out. Having fought the same battles countless times already, I have an array of strategems and weapons ready to be deployed on my bacterial nemeses, and among these a good, strong cup of tea has time and again proven my best counter-measure. When I have a bad tummy, I get better by eating dry toast and washing it down with warm, mild black tea. When I have the flu or an inflamed sinus, drinking lots of hot, spicy tea helps unclog my breathing tubes. Whether I’m stressed or cold or hot or tired or travelling, I always drink tea. It’s the only medication that’s independent of occasion, weather, mood, and geography.

I wish I’d known about this palliative aspect of the beverage as a child, every time I was sick and helpless and stuck in bed waiting for help from the grown-ups. But I got around to it eventually, once I’d left home as a seventeen-year-old, thanks in part to roadside bicycle chaiwallahs who were the only source of sustenance in the cold wee hours after a night on the town, friends who made excellent masala tea on working evenings, and repeated references to tea and its wonders in my other go-to source of comfort: the writings of P.G. Wodehouse (“I turned on the pillow with a little moan, and at this juncture Jeeves entered with the vital oolong. I clutched at it like a drowning man at a straw hat. A deep sip or two, and I felt — I won’t say restored, because a birthday party like Pongo Twistleton’s isn’t a thing you get restored after with a mere mouthful of tea, but sufficiently the old Bertram to be able to bend the mind on this awful thing which had come upon me.” This is valuable advice from Bertie, particularly if your whole life seems like the destructive aftermath of Pongo Twistleton’s birthday). The first time I had the flu while living alone, after arriving in Bangalore for my higher studies, I brewed batch after batch of tea to right myself. And when the flu left me a couple of days later, it was probably for the first time in my life that I felt in control of my own health. This was a big deal for me.

Much has been claimed and disputed in equal measure, by the so-called experts, about the restorative abilities of tea. The pro-tea lobbies keep making the usual fuss about anti-oxidants and tannins and longevity and suchlike, countered by other amateur scientists who say that the only real benefit of tea is that the water it’s steeped in has been boiled free of germs. I don’t know sufficiently about chemistry or the human physiology to adopt or deride either viewpoint. To be honest, the positive impact of tea — that of the leaf and its chemical composition — on our health could well be a placebo effect, for all I care, and for the purposes of my argument I’m willing to fully embrace that possibility. In fact, let’s just go ahead and assume that tea is merely flavoured water — no more, no less. Such an assumption, however, still doesn’t detract from the fact that a cup of that empty flavour, such as it might be, has always made me feel like some faulty component of my body has just been serviced and upgraded. It’s a flavour that clearly has a bit of a kick to it. It improves my mood and fills me with a general feeling of benevolence. It’s a soothing balm for the mind and body. And when you have a nervous stomach that’s often aggravated by mental stress, a little mind balm goes a long way, placebo or not.

By that token, tea is a sort of rough sketch on a blank canvas that makes room for all kinds of creative experimentation, adaptable to every manner of palate and need. This is an idea that we Indians, in particular, have happily picked up and sprinted with. Our tea-drinking culture isn’t merely limited to the somewhat dispiriting English cliche of the limp teabag in a mug, but that of rampant rule-breaking and world-building. For us, variety in tea isn’t just about where the leaf originated but about a million different modes of preparation. It’s about chai and cha and lalchai and suleimanis and kahwahs, it involves not just tea leaves but the addition of ginger and cardamom and pepper and liquorice and almonds and cloves, it’s served not just with biscuits or toast or scones or cake but with pazhamporis and onion pakoras and samosas and daabelis and rusk and bun maska and Bombay toast and vada pav and dosas and murukkus and luchis and momos and… you get the drift. The list has no limits. We’ve understood and thoroughly applied the knowledge that you can customise your infusion precisely to what you want it to achieve and to what degree. You can even build an entire diet plan around it.

My own canvas of tea, over time, has taken a rather Cubist multidimensionality. My mid-morning green tea wakes me up and helps me think (and, if what they say is true, lose weight and age well), my postprandial ginger tea kick-starts the digestion, and my cinnamon tea in the evening rids me of headaches. I’ve got it down to a science now (even if such a science might be inconclusive). I still fall sick every so often, sure, but the feeling of it isn’t quite as horrible as I remember it. I have all my many sick-day teas to look forward to now, and they, in turn, work in concert to make the whole ordeal just a little bit happier. And that, for me, is a game-changer.

Vinayak Varma, 2016

(First published by Still Steeping, the Teabox blog.)

The evening flappers –
the crows and the hawks,
the crap-happy rodent pigeons,
the rubbernecker ducks,
and the lightning-rod bats —
they litter my terrace skies
like torn plastic liners
and brown-paper bags
relieved of the bin life.

If I could bird like them,
I would forget the earth altogether —
for why, then, must I,
grey-eyed and mysterious,
persist with the gravity of things?

An old poem from when I lived in a barsaati and spent my sunsets perched on the watertank — a dull, wingless thing watching those splendid things with wings doing unimaginable things in the sky. The accompanying illustration is from my book Jadav and the Tree-Place (Pratham Books, 2016).

Vinayak Varma, 2020

1. Coronayana

We assemble in the gulf
between the old broken landmass
and the unknown island,
in our prosthetic muzzles and snouts,
made restless and jumpy,
panicked by this hairy endeavour
into ordered procession,
bent in all directions
by grain, fruit, and instant noodles,
by boxes stamped with party logos
that refuse to lighten or float
like Rama’s magicked rocks.
“It’s all too heavy, man!”
We yearn to build bridges,
to stack, cement, to work,
to huddle and collaborate,
but this is an isolationist war,
and to stay alive, survive,
one must stand alone.
Viruses, unlike asura kings,
have no motives or lusts.
Their kingdoms cannot be
set alight by simple fires
or cowed into compliance
with righteous violence.
Their vaccines don’t grow wild
on dirigible mountains.
Perhaps we are better served
by less ambitious tales –
of ring-a-ring-a-roses
or lonely breadcrumb trails –
than empty boasts relayed
from long-winded thrones
made of loopy monkey tails.

*

2. On the Nose

Interstate milk truck,
sicksweet vacuum-tube of rot:
tin can for migrants.

*

3. Humble Request

Go, Corona, go!
Go where the vessels haven’t clanged!
Kindly spare the true patriots!
(Focus on the Tukde-Tukde Gang!)

Go, Corona, go!
Go where you know them by their dress!
Kindly spare us Sanathanis!
(But please infect the Sanskaar-less!)

Go, Corona, go!
Go where the lights are still switched on!
Kindly spare the Bhakt brigade!
(Feel free to kill some non-Mitron!)

Go, Corona, go!
Go after the Sickulars and Reds!
Kindly spare our Saffron friends!
(We’re running out of hospital beds!)

Vinayak Varma, 2020

Is no one else troubled by the lie
that lets these water parks function
while our reservoirs and dams run dry?
Nobody? Just me? Oh, come on!

And you’re all perfectly at home,
are you, with those ghastly little brats
there, drooling their entire microbiomes
into the goddamn hydrostat?

Not to mention that gassy grandma
who’s been yellowing the children’s pool
with a steady dribble of piss and drama.
(“I checked,” she claims. “I’ve broken no rule!”)

And those Speedo-goggled aunties
in their salwars and nighties,
hurtling down the water slides,
their faces deliquescing
like daydreams in the noontide,
like a salad undressing.

And check out the boxered brah-men
blessing the musical fountain
with their dripping holy threads,
their tripping, bobbly heads,
exorcising guilt and lust
with plangent pelvic thrusts.

Oh, that food stall’s meant to look like a bird.
(It looks more like a dinosaur’s turd.)
The poor ticket seller’s dressed like a bat.
(Seriously, boss, what’s up with that?)

I’ll come clean: I was only lured here
by the promise of free lunch and a beer.
So, no, I’m not getting in that queue.
Yes, I’m quite alright, thank you.

While you’re all swimming in e-coli,
I’ll be right here, chilling, getting high,
safely wrapped in raincoat and umbrella,
jotting down ideas for a horror novella.

(For G. & K.)

Vinayak Varma, 2020

At unbridled, untethered twenty,
I would measure my rides to that
(certainly not this) college town —
that lemon-and-eggshell homeostatic
asylum for creative misfits — using,
for signage, succour, pitstops and piss stops,
lakes, banyan trees and omelette vendors,
barbershops with chrome-and-rexine chairs,
crone men with beedis behind ears
hunched around the daily weather report
like crows worrying at a fallen squirrel,
jasmine, jackfruit, flames of the forest,
snake-infested ruins of temples
for misappropriated gods,
the old brick factory, its tall red chimney
blowing smoke at the police station athwart
like a lonely, ageing pothead
courting detention, courting love,
this Andhra mess with the curd
so thick you could sculpt it,
that vada joint with the paperplane dosas,
the reaching wind,
its fingers running cold and warm,

raking sharply across all of nature,
prehistory, my flatted hair,
reeking of permanence,
every bit of it a glorious lie.
Because six hard lanes
have since stamped out
every living feature,
every fold, hair and pimple,
on Bellary Road, and I can’t see
my place in it any longer.
The old map is ash and rubble.
The Parsee Tower of Silence jitters
with the rumble of jet engines, cash registers,
and the screams of ride-sharers
and gig-workers hailing swift passage
away, across, aloft, anywhere but here.
The vultures are dead, gone, eaten, beaten,
overtaken by their own morbid function.
Townships, Layouts and Communities
have uprooted or walled away the hallis
like unclaimed, unmarked graves.
The granite hills are bombed out shells.
No, I cannot reconcile these two highways,

the one I see and the one I remember,
just as I cannot fit my bloated thirty-seven
into this jigsaw hole that’s still shaped
like a crisp-edged twenty.
What, then, gives me the right to judge
the art, the passion, and potential
of these soft young hopefuls
who look and sound the way I still feel —
bright, brittle, afraid, and full of bluster?
When so much of the world they inherited
is so dulled and compromised,
why must they also tolerate
the criticism of strangers?
Or must I show them truth and horror
so they may harden their backs
against the highway’s next assault
on fragile, aimless memory?
Or perhaps the highway will, one day,
wind back around, disappear into itself,
and re-emerge as a smaller,
milder, less ambitious metaphor
for expectations, progress,
or the many crimes of Time.


For the students of Srishti, old and new.

Vinayak Varma, 2020

1. In which a complaint is firmly dealt with:

28 Oct. 19XX / XPM

Caller: Hello? Is this the Telecom Ministry?

D.I.B. Mr. XXXXXX: Wrong number. [Hangs up]

X:05PM

Caller: Hello? Is this the Telecom Ministry?

D.I.B.: I told you, you have the wrong number! [Hangs up]

X:10PM

Caller: Hello?

D.I.B.: Hello?

Caller: Who am I speaking with?

D.I.B.: This is DIB XXXXXX speaking. Who is this?

Caller: Ah. So this isn’t the Telecom Ministry then?

D.I.B.: No, it isn’t! [Hangs up]

X:15PM

Caller: Hello? Is this the Telecom Ministry?

D.I.B.: [On intercom to Sec.:] Mohan, pick up the parallel line. Yeh call trace karo. [On telephone:] Yes, that’s right, this is the Telecom Ministry. What can we do for you?

Caller: Yes, well, I am calling to make a complaint. All my calls to the Telecom Ministry keep getting forwarded to the office of the Director of the Intelligence Bureau. It’s most annoying.

D.I.B.: [On intercom] What? Traced? Good. Have this joker arrested, locked up and beaten mercilessly. [On telephone] Sorry, wrong number. [Hangs up]

2. In which a violent death is reported:

31 October 19XX, XXPM

D.I.B.: Hello?

D.G.P. Mr. XXXXX: Directorji, hello! This is XXXXX speaking! I assume you have got the news by now?

D.I.B.: Hello, XXXXX-ji! What news are you referring to?

D.G.P.: That Mrs. GXXXXX has been shot, of course. I called to ask if…

D.I.B.: My god! Mrs. XXXXXX has been shot?? XXXXX-ji, I have to hang up, I’m sorry. I must speak with the A.D.! [Hangs up]

D.I.B.: Hello, XXXXXX?

P.A. Mr. XXXXXX: Yes, sir?

D.I.B.: Connect me to Mr. XXXXXXXX immediately.

P.A.: Yes, sir. Please hold the line.

[Shehnai rec. plays for approx. 15 seconds]

A.D. Mr. XXXXXXXX: Hello?

D.I.B.: Hello, am I speaking with XXXXXXXX?

A.D.: No, sir. This is Cutts, sir.

D.I.B.: What? Who?

A.D.: Cutts, sir. The butcher, sir.

D.I.B.: What?? Who??

A.D.: Hahahahaha! I fooled you again, XXXXXX-ji! Hahahaha! A little Hergé humour there! How do you like that?

D.I.B.: You idiot! You [expletive deleted] idiot! Mrs. XXXXXX has been shot at! Haven’t you heard??

A.D.: Hahaha! Good one, XXXXXX-ji! Good one! But I’m not so easily fooled! Haha!

D.I.B.: This is no joke, XXXXXXXX! It’s a genuine emergency!

A.D.: Aahahahaha! That’s good! An emergency, indeed! That’s priceless! Hahaha!

D.I.B.: [Expletive deleted] your worthless [expletive deleted], XXXXXXXX! [Hangs up]

3. In which a large order is executed:

2 November 19XX, XXAM

D.I.B.: Hello?

Caller: Hello! Hello, sir! [Static] six kilos [static] sent!

D.I.B.: What? I can’t hear you! Six kilos of what? Sent where?

Caller: Yes! Six! The purest grade of [static]… It will be a [static] explosion of [static] sir! Aapke mehmaan sab [static].

D.I.B.: What? An explosion? Where? [On intercom to Sec.:] Mohan, pick up the parallel line. Yeh call mein trace lagao, jaldi!

Caller: Sir? [Static] Sorry, cannot hear [static] hope it will [static]. It has been [static] for hundred heads, as [static] ordered.

D.I.B.: What? Who is this?? I repeat: WHO am I speaking with?

Caller: This [static] from [static] Chandni [static], sir. Where we [static].

D.I.B.: [On intercom] Traced? No? Hurry, Mohan! [On telephone] Er… Hold on. [On intercom] Mohan, do we have a unit in Chandni Chowk? [Expletive deleted] it, I cannot understand if this is our person or theirs. [On telephone] Please explain yourself! Are you making a threat or identifying one? Hello?

Caller: [Static] your house. [Static] sent. I will call [static] bad line [static] okay. [Hangs up]

D.I.B.: Hello? Hello? [Expletive deleted] hung up. Trace mila, Mohan?

SEC.: Location is Ghantewala Sweets in Chandni Chowk. That was the proprietor, one Mr. Jain.

D.I.B.: Oh. Him. Ah… I was expecting his call. The four hundred besan laddoos for the party. I forgot.

SEC.: So there is no bomb threat?

D.I.B.: [Expletive deleted] up your [expletive deleted], Mohan. [Hangs up]

—-

Vinayak Varma

(First published in Cyclostyle, Issue 1, 2012.)

Because it’s so strange right now:

Because our conditions have conditions:

Because some of us need treatment:

And some of us need shelter:

Because we don’t get around much any more:

Because people are just sitting around all day:

Because the economy’s tanking:

Because the whole world’s headed to the pawn shop now:

Because there ain’t but one way out:

Because there’s so much left to lose:

Because what else are you gonna do with all that free time:

Because when things seem black, you can still take comfort in the blues:

Because there’s no point pointing at the moon:

Because when all this over, it still won’t be over over:

Because on the other side of endings are more endings:

Because, ultimately:

Hello there. This blog will periodically serve as a receptacle for old short stories that don’t seem to fit in anywhere or have passed their sell-by dates. This one, below, was originally going to be the first chapter in a book I was writing back in 2010 / ’11 (until I chucked the idea and moved on to other, less questionable things). It still sort of works as a minor stand-alone comedic piece, though. You be the judge —

A bleary prayer call scrambled in through the ventilator and kicked my half-sleep in the nuts. “Crap.” I remembered I had a visitor, and hit the intercom. “Please come in.”

The man who had barged in earlier was in his mid-60s. His face was shiny lobster red from speed-walking. “Monday I am busy, so we can talk today? Today is convenient.” Convenient for whom?

And here he was again, a nervous spectre of good health. The man wore a white tennis shirt, tiny white shorts and white canvas shoes. Sweat yellowed his shirt in patches, the two largest ones arcing from the tips of his half-sleeves to the lower creases of his moobs. Some of it poured down a leatherite folder that was clutched under his left armpit. A frizzy grey strand of misplaced combover dripped off one side of his head, forgotten in the stress of the moment.

“FINALLY!” he shouted. “FINALLY! I have been waiting outside for SO long! You know what is my AGE??”

“Sir, it’s a Sunday. It’s not even a working day for us!”

“But you are HERE, are you not?”

That much was true. I was in the neighbourhood, having dropped in to check on the fish. But it was only dawn and I was still in my track pants, dammit.

“Show some consideration!” he said. “You know what is MY age?!”

“Please! Please, sir, kindly be seated,” I said, waving to the window sill. “Look, you are agitating the pigeons!”

The man reddened some more, swaying dangerously like a sea anemone contemplating motility, and turned to follow my gaze. “I see no pigeons, Mr. Baman. There is nothing there. There are no pigeons.”

“Yes, but what if there were! Their automatic response to loud sounds is to shit all over the…”

“Eh?” His chaos struggled to find expression. “What?” His eyes bulged.

“Over the… Ah, what the hell. Please, sir. Kindly sit.”

He flicked his folder out from its moist confines and slapped it on my desk. A warm teaspoonworth of sweat flew up off the folder’s edge and made a precise target of my philtrum. I licked it away.

“Yecch.”

“What?”

“Please go on. You were saying?”

“Baman, I want to talk to you about the bomb that went off in the Coffee House.”

“Oh!”

“I want to know: what was the significance of the biscuit case in Mr. Garware’s satchel?”

“I’m sorry?”

“You are following the news reports?”

“Not really, no.”

“Look at the file, Baman. It contains clippings. Read them. I will wait while you read them.”

“One moment, sir. First things first. I didn’t quite catch your name.”

“Ah. I failed to introduce? I am Dr. Chandraprakash Batna. Retired from service.”

“Pleased to meet you. I’m Samir. I’m the first Vaman from the signboard. That’s Vaman with a ‘V’.”

“What signboard?”

“The one outside. The one that says ‘Vaman, Vaman & Bros.'”

“Oh? There are three? You are siblings?” Great. Now he wanted small talk. Hello, friendly Sunday!

“Four, actually. The second, third, and fourth Vamans are siblings, yes. But not me. I’m unrelated. We just happened to share a last name. Pure coincidence.”

“Aha. Very fine.”

“However, it does give our business a kind of direction, Mister… er…”

“Doctor. I am Dr. Batna.”

“Yes. Doctor. It’s our rallying cry, in a way. It unites us against the non-Vamans of the world!”

“Eh? Come again please?”

“I’m kidding, Dr. Batna. Levity, sir. Levity on a Sunday morning! Levity in lieu of waffles!”

“Eh? What?” His hard red lobster-shell-head began to crack, the meat underneath seething and straining with impatience. “Look here, Mr. Baman…”

“You may call me Samir.”

“Eh? Look, are you interested in solving my problem?”

“Let me hear it first, Dr. Batna. And out of interest, sir, what kind of doctor are you?”

He pointed at his sweaty folder. “I will tell you after you read the clippings I have brought.”

“Ah? Fine.” I wiped it down with a lens cloth and flipped it open. The folder contained several newspaper clippings, as promised.

“All of them?” I asked.

“Just understand all the facts, Mr. Shameem.”

“SAMIR, sir. It’s Samir.”

The first two clippings were nearly identical. They mentioned the bomb blast (“A low-intensity blast shook MG Road on Saturday afternoon, injuring one person and frightening officegoers”), made the customary protest against police inefficiency (“Two constables appeared on the scene a full fifteen minutes after the bomb went off, followed by their superiors nearly an hour later”) and produced statements from the CM’s office (“Mr. Ramanagarayya expressed his commiserations to the Coffee House staff, and announced Rs. 15,000 in compensation to any injured or mentally anguished parties”). I stifled a yawn.

The third clipping contained an additional piece of information. Apparently the only soon-to-be-richer injured party was one Ravi Garware, who also happened to be a member of a newly formed anti-graft political party. He was hit by a flying piece of crockery. At the time of the blast, he was carrying a jute satchel containing a cookie box. The report disclosed neither the contents of the cookie box, nor Garware’s exact condition or agenda.

“Okay. I think I’ve got the gist of it.  So?”

“You run a security agency, no?”

“Among other things, yes.”

“So you are an expert in these matters. What do you conclude? Nothing strange happening?”

“There’s plenty that’s strange, of course. A bomb went off in the heart of Bangalore, Dr. Batna, during peak hours!”

“Yes?”

“And no one was seriously hurt! Heavenly intervention? Perhaps!”

“Let us keep God out of this, Baman. Did you read, also, about one Mr. Rabi Garware?”

“Yes, the chap who caught a shard of ceramic in his elbow. The sole victim.”

“The word ‘victim’ was never mentioned, Baman.”

“Look, Dr. Batna. It’s perfectly clear from these stories that…”

“There is a conspiracy afoot, Baman.”

“Vaman.”

“What?”

“With a ‘V’, sir.”

“What?”

“Never mind. How do you reckon there’s a conspiracy, Dr. Vatna? Don’t you think you’re being a bit silly?”

“It is BATna!”

Batty. I bet his thumbola friends call him Batty. I bet he plays thumbola. “With a ‘B’, no doubt! And why do you suppose there is a conspiracy?”

“Baman, you are young, so you are slow to understand. Why did the report mention the fact that Garware was carrying a biscuit case in his bag? Yes?”

“It was a cookie box.”

“Same same.”

“Whatever. So he was carrying a cookie box. So?”

“Why was he? Why this box?”

“Perhaps the writer of the article thought it was an interesting detail.”

“It is not a convincing argument, Baman.”

“Vaman.”

“Why will he choose to leave in this random detail? Interesting or not, Baman, it is random, you will surely admit. And what is inside this cookie box? What is its contents, I am asking you!”

“Cookies, I presume.”

“What?”

“They’re a kind of hard cake, made of dough. They go pretty well with warm beverages like…”

“I KNOW what a cookie is, Mr. Shameem! It is like a biscuit! I am not a BUFFoon! Do you think I am a buffoon, Mr. Shameem?”

“Samir. It’s Samir. No, Dr. Batna, not at all. I don’t even know what ‘buffoon’ means, to be perfectly honest.”

“The cookie box had something inside it! Something of significance to the investigation of this blast!”

“Hmm. And what would you have me do about it?”

“Find out more! Are you not a concerned citizen? You too have a responsibility to find out the truth! Be patriotic!”

I pointed to the cell phone that lay on my desk. “I can place a call to one of my friends in the Crime Branch, if you like.”

“I have already talked to one of my brother’s son. He is Assistant Librarian of State Forensic Lab in Madivala. He knows all the important people in police. He will give me all the details.”

Then why did you come to ME, Chandraprakash (so cried my fatigued brain), if you’ve figured it all out? WHY? On a SUNDAY, when I could be out brunching on aappam-stew and spinach smoothies with my girlfriend by now?!

“Spinach smoothies are gross.”

“Eh?”

“And what did your nephew say?”

“He will find out and tell me in two days. Meanwhile, I will also be submitting an RTI query tomorrow. Better to be safe than sorry, Baman.”

“Ah! Then the mystery will soon be over! Of what further use am I to you, then?”

“I thought you may be knowing something more. Something else.”

“Why did you think that?”

“Because you are the expert, no? I was thinking from early morning about this problem and banging my head on the wall. But then fortune came on my side when you attended your job on Sunday.” Sigh. “I stay in the same locality of your office, you see. My house is next to the HOPCOMS depot.”

“Oh, is it?”

“Yes. I saw you parking your Maruti. I was walking for my exercise regiment.”

“Regimen.”

“Eh?”

I had had enough. “Look, Dr. Batna, is it possible that this mystery you propose to solve on behalf of the proper authorities stems from a sudden cookie craving?”

“What? I do not understand what you ask.”

“Have you had breakfast? When did you last eat?”

“I do not eat cookies, Baman.”

“It’s Vaman. But please call me Samir. Why not? Have you tried the cookies at Ramya bakery? The one on 16th Main?”

“I am diabetic, Shabeer. I cannot eat such things.”

“Which only further illustrates my point.”

His face turned red once more.”So you are pooh-poohing me? You are mocking me? You know how old I am? I am old enough to be your father, Shammi!”

This was true. He was right. I was being an asshole.

“Look, sir, I am not, er, pooh-poohing or, er…”

“Then you will take this case?”

“What case?”

“This cookie box. This Garware fellow. What all I have told you. Are you not listening to anything what I have been talking, Baman?”

Not very well, I’ll admit. Exhaustion and hunger had been crowding my ears. “Yes, of course. As I already told you, I can call one of my friends at the…”

“NO! There is no need. I understand, Baman. I understand!” He stood up, and his chair keeled over. “I am leaving. My misses will be searching for where I am.”

“I’m sorry I couldn’t help.”

He leaned on the desk with both hands and bent over me, his every consonant spraying bullets of spit onto my forehead. “You are not mature, Baman. After many years only you will come to understand!”

“Ahh. Er. I’m sorry. Look, I told you I’m sorry, okay? Dr. Batna?”

“What?”

Small talk to the rescue? “You never told me what sort of doctor you are, sir.”

“It is not of your concern, Baman. It is NOT of your MOST unhelpful concern! This is a WASTE of precious time!” Indeed!

He picked up his folder, tucked it back into its fleshy home and frothed out of the room without setting his chair upright.

I wiped Batna’s slime off my face and slumped in my chair. Then I picked up the cordless and dialled. “Hello? Is that Ramya Stores? Have you opened for the day? What’s that? In twenty minutes? Great. Can you connect me to the bakery? Thanks…. Hi, good morning. Do you have ginger cookies in stock today? What? Okay, I’ll wait…”

A buffoon is a sort of clown. An idiot clown. I’d lied about not knowing that.

“Yes? No? Damn. Mince pie?… No? Ah. Lemon tart? What…? Okay, super! Thanks! Please reserve a couple of pieces. I’ll be there in fifteen minutes… Okay, fine, twenty minutes. Name’s Bam… er, Vaman. That’s Vaman, with a ‘v’… Great. Thanks.”

A pigeon fluttered onto the window ledge. I threw an eraser at it and missed. The pigeon sat down, plumped itself and stared stoically into the distance.

“Shit happens, bird!” I yelled at it. “Deal with it! Sky rodent! Damn rat pigeon!”

The pigeon cooed at me.

I cooed back.

Vinayak Varma / 2020

P.S. I drew the b/w illustration of Koshy’s (up top) for a book called ‘Love Bangalore’, back in 2008. Hardys Bay Publishing owns its copyright, so please don’t steal it.

“Elgin Talkies” / Copyright © 2020 Vinayak Varma

She was last seen in the abandoned house on St. Mark’s Road,
Floating above the broken syringes and beer bottles,
Lotus-legged and arms outstretched,
Radiating a swirling white light,
Scaring the shit out of stoner trespassers and bandicoots.

They say it was this fear of her inside it,
And not the fists of the goons outside,
That knocked the old house down.
Some know enough to know better
Than to know what they know to be true.

The City has moulted
Since the old house was broken,
Since that nasty, smelly witch —
With her judging eyes and shimmery hair —
Was last seen floating in it.

We’ve traded that rotted, storied skin
For this glorious armour of steel and glass.
And good riddance, boss. God only knows
What terrible dark magic those sags and wrinkles held.
Good fucking riddance.

(First published in Black Horse Review, November 2019)

Were you the nit who decided
that north is up, south is down,
west is left, and east is right?
Are you the hack who rhymed
“West” with “the best”,
and not “pest” or “infest”?
Is yours the East
that’s a mythical beast,
or, at the very least,
a weird sensory feast?
And are those things lining your soles
a pair of tiny magnetic poles?

In Space, every which way
is this-way-that-way.
Ignore all imaginary arrows,
only go by what your eyes can see,
travel far enough in a straight line,
and all norths become souths,
and all easts turn west.
Directions are meaningless
for excellent reasons
when you’re a cosmic turtle:
world-burdens are lightest
when down is also up.

In my unoriented map of India,
Kanyakumari is its crown,
while Kashmir is its spiky,
furry, prehensile tail.
Dravidanadu is the head and chest,
and MP, its queasy belly.
Gujarat and Assam
are its outstretched hands
(or perhaps the hems of its frock),
Bengal is a saucy hip,
Kerala, a bloodied lip,
and the NCR is on its knees.

“Quit messing around,” you sass.
“You can’t turn this country on its ass!”
“Shall I put the Centre here,” I ask,
“in the middle, next to its…
uh… daily business?
This makes both strategic
and semantic sense, yes?”
“No, you urban naxal,
the Centre always sits on top.
Nations can’t be ruled
from below the belt!
Brains can’t be stored in one’s legs!”

Because you’re such a mussel
(shellfish, mass of nerves,
snack-in-a-vessel)
and not an octopus
(eight twisty limbs
and nine twisty brains),
my omnidirectional atlas remains closed
to you and your crusty kind.
You may return once you’ve grown
an extra heart or two,
and ink sacs with the power
to blot out every latitude.

Vinayak Varma, 2020

His Lordship blinks awake.
“Whuh? Where am I?”
First and final of his ilk,
Right and Honourable,
Peerless peer, master tactician,
“And blind as a bloody mole rat.”
At 3a.m., hungry like the wolf,
He trips and fumbles out of bed,
And launches himself into the void.
“A nice sandwich would hit the spot.
Perhaps a mug of cocoa too…
But where the hell are my glasses?”

Purple-robed, specs-less Cyril
Scurries through the labyrinthine corridors,
Hands outstretched,
A just-resurrected mummy.
“I’m a velveteen mutant ninja rat!
An International Thuggee of Mystery!”
The shadows bend and twist,
Strip away from the walls,
Swirl, wrap, and tighten around his head,
Layering it like a too-large turban.
“Who knows what evil lurks
In the hearts of men? Not me, Bob!”

That big silver blur – “Ah, there’s the fridge.”
Thence, he conscripts his troops:
Cheese and pickled gherkins,
A sliver of roast beef, some lettuce,
And a dash of Wooster.
He deploys them between
Three fat slices of yesterday’s loaf,
And halves the assemblage
With practised ease
(The way he partitioned
Circles and polygons
As a student of geometry;

Or cultures and peoples,
As an occludent of geography):
Sharp, quick, straight down the middle,
Never mind a few errant crumbs.
“Diagonal cuts are for pansies!”
He devours one half,
And throws the other to the dogs.
Nothing ever goes to waste,
Not in this household, no sir.
And this is a resonant philosophy,
For, in another era, in a different mansion,
Time eats its own tail –

A similarly Honourable Prime Minister,
On his third and final hour of sleep,
Sweats and tosses as he dreams
Of choking to death on breadcrumbs.
His struggles are watched by an old white man
In a turban made of shadow.
Lord Cyril (for this is his restless spectre)
Offers pithy advice in lieu of first aid:
“In hindsight, Mr. M, I’ve learnt
To value vision over eyesight.”
Even this nightmare can be escaped,
Of course, if one simply were to awaken.

Vinayak Varma, 2020