(Pandemic Poems for the Devout, the Insensate, and the Faint of Heart)
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!)
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.
D.I.B.: I told you, you have the wrong number! [Hangs up]
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]
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.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
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]
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.
“Please go on. You were saying?”
“Baman, I want to talk to you about the bomb that went off in the Coffee House.”
“I want to know: what was the significance of the biscuit case in Mr. Garware’s satchel?”
“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’.”
“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!”
“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.”
“With a ‘V’, sir.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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?”
“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?”
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.