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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
I’ve grown to hate new year’s resolutions, because they’re invariably too ambitious, vague, and easy to shirk. It’s all too familiar and frustrating: the abandoned gym membership, the unused Rosetta Stone package, the new musical instrument that’s still in its case six months later, etc., etc. And I’m speaking as a victim here. I’ve been seduced, groomed, suckered and abused by the self-improvement industry nine ways to sunday. I wised up eventually, but only after I’d spent too much of my earnings on hobbies and skills that never truly materialised.
I now prefer to-do lists. (I’m not splitting hairs, no, and yes, there is a distinction.) I find to-do lists to be more practical than resolutions simply because they’re so mundane. Resolutions have a grand, life-altering quality to them, whereas to-do lists are purely administrative. Minimal ambition = minimal anxiety. This, to me, makes to-do lists more approachable.
I like lists containing easy, actionable items that build up imperceptibly, tricking me into hitting my grander goals. I set these to relaxed, unthreatening timelines. And since I’m only answerable to me, I always forgive myself if I don’t get all the way to the end of my list come December. (My new mantra is to embrace my failures and renounce all guilt. It’s been very freeing.)
Last year, I had set four big goals for myself: to read more, to write more, to get better at playing guitar, and to dedicate some time each day to just sit back and space out. I didn’t give myself a lot to do in the first two instances, except to remind myself periodically to carve out time for each. I’d decided in advance that my primary focus for 2019 would be music.
Here’s the music-learning list I made last January:
1. Try and practice for at least 20 minutes each day. (No pressure.)
2. Get comfortable with open chords by Feb. ’19
3. Learn one pattern each for the minor and major pentatonic scales by March ’19
4. Learn all notes of one key (A/E) by April ’19
5. Understand the basic theory of modes by April ’19
6. Play as often as possible. Keep the guitar next to the desk, within reach.
7. Visualise and get comfy with the fretboard layout by Dec. ’19
1. Practice and acquire better breath control by Feb. ’19
2. Learn the layout and notes on the A harp by March ’19
3. Perfect 3rd position playing by June ’19
4. Learn 10 new turnarounds by Dec. ’19
5. Attempt more jazz
I pinned this ^ directly above my work desk, so it would be hard to evade. Here’s how the list panned out:
I ended up discarding my harmonica goals altogether, a few months down the line, because I was getting a ton of practice at weekly jams with my various bands (all four have since fizzled out, alas). There’s really no substitute for playing with other musicians, for learning with a real-world context, and I was lucky to have access to this luxury all through 2019.
On the guitar list, I not only got through most of my tasks without trouble, but I also managed to supplement my practice schedule with a couple of months of one-on-one lessons with a friend who’s a professional guitarist, which strengthened my rudiments (especially strumming techniques) immeasurably. By the end of the year, I had a repertoire of ten or eleven songs that I could play decently; I’d figured out the blues scale well enough to play intermediate-level solos across the fretboard in any given key; I’d learned a few flat-picking patterns, better bends, pull-offs, hammer-ons and other techniques to spice up my strumming; and I’d finally understood how to practically apply the circle of fifths. Not too shabby, considering I’d started out being only able to improvise a little blues in E, and to play four or five basic open chords.
This year, now that my daily guitar practice happens more or less on autopilot, I’ve decided to focus my annual to-do list on reanimating my zombie reading and writing habits. Rather than go into the many reasons for setting such a goal, I’m simply going to trust your perspicacity and share my lists with you as is (this is also for my own benefit — putting them up so publicly will, I hope, embarrass me into action):
Reading in 2020
1. Identify ten or fifteen books to read during the first four months of the year [this part is done — ref. the new book pile in the photo above], and attempt to read them all. Get at least halfway through each book before giving up!
2. Set the customary GoodReads reading challenge of a 100 books. Try and achieve at least 70% of this goal. (No pressure.)
3. Listen to more audiobooks (rather than music or podcasts) during long walks. Schedule four such walks per week.
4. Read for at least four or five hours each week. This is NOT asking for too much. (There are 168 hours in a week!)
Writing in 2020
1. Try and write for at least five hours per week, divided up based on convenience and daily demands. (WRITE NEW MATERIAL, instead of endlessly plotting or rewriting existing chapters.) Five hours a week REALLY ISN’T asking for too much. (There are 168 hours in a week!) Stock-take by Feb. end, by which time at least three new chapters should be completed. (No pressure.)
2. Preface each writing session with a ten-minute meditation, in order to create a tiny buffer between this hour and all the other distractions of the day. Spend the first few minutes jotting down a brief outline of what to write in that session. Put down pen and zone out for a few minutes, to let that outline take vivid form in the imagination. Now WRITE.
3. Write without pausing, without stopping to research or rewrite stuff, tempting though that might be. And when the momentum starts to flag, take a breather, jot down ideas for how to proceed from this point, STOP WRITING, and move on with the day. (Resume tomorrow.)
4. Start pitching feature articles to periodicals again. (It’s never too late to revive lapsed skills.) Have something published by April / May.
5. Complete and refine all pending poetry ideas. Take it one at a time. Relax and enjoy the process. Write on weekends only, for two hours per week.
6. For the love of all things holy, please complete and send out pending assignments / manuscripts, you lazy bastard.
7. Hot tip: since oversharing book-related plans and narratives always seems to lead to insecurity and paralysis, don’t talk about the work, and just work.
Keen readers will note that I haven’t included health goals in any of these lists. It’s definitely a major concern for this year, as well as the decade ahead. I’ve been growing a sizeable midsection, my sinuses are chronically fucked, and my joints are always on the verge of seizing. I’m making a list to tackle these problems too, but (in the spirit of point 7 ^ in my writing list) its contents are none of your goddamn business 🙂
What are your goals for 2020? What are you reading these days? Do you believe in scheduling the good habits you want to assimilate? Do you prefer resolutions or lists? Does it matter? Will any of us survive long enough to see our plans implemented? Will we learn to love the bomb? (Can we please just let the drones fight it out?) Can AI create better politicians? Will Disney kidnap Martin Scorsese and force him to make a superhero film? Can we unleash graffiti artists on all the bleached corals? Is Elon Musk the first human clone? So many questions…
If you have any compelling methods or theories with regard to any of the above, please write in and tell me. (No pressure.)