21 March 2010

Scenes from a wedding

‘Mon weds Kohima’ glittered on a red velvet board outside the venue, as the sun set on their single lives. Mon wore a shining suit and tie, smoking secretly in the balcony in his changing room. He didn’t wish to get married, but this was the best catch. He was 26, educated and overpaid due to the trap called potential, his stock at its peak – it was time to sell. He wanted to roll the weed in his pocket and join his friends, who were pulling outside with religious fervor. He had also wanted to marry one of the girls pulling outside… they were new age liberated women, with opinions and second names they wouldn’t surrender to his masculine whims… “Girlfriend material… good to fuck, but cannot live with them” his best friend Dim had told him a month back when he was having second thoughts. Mon wanted a pure girl, untouched by the evil world outside, of which he was a part. He dreamed of undressing Kohima, watching her blush with the shyness of untouched purity, which tugged at his pants already. He lit another cigarette and slipped into a dream… piping hot food awaiting him every evening, freedom from household chores, obedient sex whenever he pleased… he liked dominating, and wondered if Kohima would complain to her parents if he tied her up.

Around the same time Kohima sat with Ahmed and drank vodka. Rum was her thing, but vodka didn’t smell. She guzzled her third drink and licked her bee-stung lips. Alcohol made her horny, and Ahmed sensed this and walked around her and held her throat from behind and kissed her… a farewell kiss, she thought as she felt his arms slip under her dress… he clumsily lifted her to the dressing table while she struggled to suppress her moan… things clattered, bottles fell and broke, the room was filled with the smell of perfume… in her drunken disbelief she felt him inside her, reminding her of everything she had tried washing down with the vodka… for the next few moments she lived in another world, where they were birds, free from the infinites strings of real life. The serendipity of her unwed life she now bid farewell to, as he stroked her violently. One Last Time, she thought.

Ahmed was from another religion, and didn’t have a regular job. His most regular income came from copying assignments for rich college kids… sometimes his phone would ring and he would rush off to fix someone’s broken bike or car… he ran errands for households, paid their bills and dropped their kids to school, fixed the leaking pipe and listened to wives pouring out their woes (he was their free shrink)… by night he arranged all things illegal except children and violence… he was the man who could fix things for you that you couldn’t fix yourself – because money breeds ignorance. Why do something when you can buy it off the shelf? Ahmed owned the shelf. He could get things for you that you couldn’t get yourself –because with fame and wealth comes a disease called self-respect. Like the whorehouses which you crave to visit but cannot be spotted visiting. Ahmed never said no (except for children and violence) – why say no when you can put a price on something?

But Ahmed had younger siblings whose future sat on his shoulders… running away was not an option. Their communities didn’t get along, and convincing them was impractical. Not all stories have happy endings. Some die under the weight of the one constant in our evolving race – convenience. Ahmed and Kohima decided to not fight society and its infinite strings that pull them in directions they didn’t choose.

So they made love as a farewell to their unfulfilled unspeakable love – the hazy potential of which made it more alluring. They held each other tight for a few minutes when senses of time and space were warped and flushed down the pot. The dramatic weight of the moment was knocked out by a knock on the door. Luckily, it was Simal – Kohima’s best friend and co-conspirer, who warned them of the hordes of relatives arriving to fetch her. Ahmed kissed her quickly and made a quick escape. Kohima’s eyes were (also) wet as she quickly arranged her dress and sat on the dressing table, pretending to be busy looking pretty.

Mon’s father Billu was a nervous wreck, running the most challenging management assignment since he graduated from business school three decades back. He wished education were of greater help than earning a sweet salary as he attended to the countless relatives and in-laws. His education and dedication had lifted the family to prosperity, which was under public scrutiny tonight..

Billu’s mother Mary was 75, grey-haired and wrinkled like she just walked out of a washing machine, living with the mad confidence of someone who knew 76 is unlikely to happen… she disliked her son’s wife Billi because of Billu’s limited love that they had to share. Despite the tablets, age had its benefits – respect and reverence, and the illusion of wisdom that everyone found in her words. When she fell down in the loo and broke her hip, she stayed in bed for 3 months, during which time Billi took care of her like her son couldn’t. She took leave from work and, amongst other things, helped her shit into a pan and wiped her ass clean. Still, the hatred ran deeper than the hole that Billi cleaned.

This was Mary’s last chance to get drunk on power, and she drank hard, compensating for a youth spent dancing for the pleasures of people much older and now long dead. She could barely walk, ate finely mashed food that required almost no digestion, fought a dozen ailments that cling to old age like flies on fresh shit. To her credit, during the pre-education days, she had toiled hard to raise a family with the little nothings her husband managed to earn. Her husband could’ve been mute and people might not have noticed, but he was tired after a lifetime of obeying his wife. If only feminists knew all this they’d be incredibly proud.

Mary’s husband managed to retain a name of his own – Johnny, and had his own share of old-age friends. He ate even more finely mashed food, without salt or sugar or anything that tickled the tongue or altered his blood, and pissed into a tube that ran from his penis to a bottle that proudly showed off the color of his piss. Johnny was deeply embarrassed to walk around carrying his pee, so he hid the bottle beneath the seat and crossed his legs so people couldn’t see. Through all the painful weekly trips to the hospital, a Mary who turned more Antoinette by the day, the nightly spasms in his chest, and grandchildren who mercilessly made fun of his pee… he pulled on, driven only by the urge to live on for life’s sake. There was no purpose, no hope for a better future, and certainly no happiness in life… but any pain can be weathered by the strongest force in mankind - fear of death. He could hear whispers of his eight sons forming early alliances in the fight for his wealth, and when he closed his eyes his sons morphed into vultures and hovered over him.

Sitting at the wedding, staring at the countless grandchildren that he indirectly helped spawn, he remembered his eldest grandson asking him quizzically how he had the strength to have eight of his own. He remembered his youth when there was no television or internet or movies… there was one clear vent for boredom. His grandson didn’t know that Johnny had really fathered 12 kids – 3 of whom died in child birth and one died of diarrhea at the age of 3. Yes, the next time your shit turns loose, remember that people die of it. Before you accuse Johnny of obsolete nostalgia, you may want to know that children still die of diarrhea in certain dark patches on our map – 3 per minute, if you wish precision.

Around the same time, Johnny’s fat grandchildren walked around like advertisements of the prosperity that now besotted their large family. Some of the kids were so obese that their chins ate up the neck and merged with their shoulders. They sat at the dining hall and ate like pigs (no offence to our porcine friends). Skinny men served food cooked in the huge cauldron they called kitchen. The cooks were muscular and dark and wore thin vests soaked in their sweat, which dripped into the food, adding much needed salt. The old guy stirring the soup scratched his itching armpits, freeing curly strands of white hair, which flew without a care, landing where it pleased.

While the curly hair was garnishing the soup of the day (and more elegantly – the coconut rice)… Kohima was bathed in gold that her father bought with a loan. If the chains were not made of some shiny metal she could’ve been a prisoner. She felt no different for the shine, and walked out carrying 2 kgs of metal and the self-esteem of elders. Her mother wore half a kg of shine herself, while Supong wore rings on all 10 fingers. People who shook his hand felt more cold metal than warm hand. The next-generation photographer – Humbal, who left his corporate job and now clicked colourful pictures, whose inexperience came at a discount (distrustful, they also hired the traditional guy), clicked the girl’s every move and every breath. He also spun stories around them – which gave an aura of romance to the marriage of convenience. Humbal preserved as much shine into one frame as is optically possible, and later enhanced it using photoshop, knowing it would massage the fragile egos that paid him. He knew what normal photographers didn’t – people liked bokeh and black & white. So as he clicked, you could listen to an inner voice (of Nagesh Kukunoor in Bollywood Calling?) that screamed “I wan’t more bokeh! Put more bokeh!! NOW!”

While Humbal spun a sympathy story on the poor bride’s 2 kg burden while she waited for the groom, unseen old skinny women and men carried sacks of rice and vegetables into the kitchen. Two men sat at the back slitting the throats of ducks as they quackquacked, while two others worked on the chicken. In a nearby construction site, women carried bricks and cement, while their husbands smoked beedis and built a wall. 6 year old Amu, whose father was busy chewing weed to forget the pain of building a wall – the pain of building so many walls yet never having one for his own family - had her yettobenamed 1 year old brother strapped onto her back as she foraged the waste that the wedding produced. The food that couldn’t fit into old Johnny’s fat grandchildren’s fat-chins-that-threatened-to-swallow-necks made its way to the dark pile of waste piled up outside the kitchen. Amu squatted and gathered food into a plastic cover she had picked off the road, to take back to her parents and their wall-building-cement-carrying friends. She had to fight off dogs carefully, for she couldn’t afford to get bitten. The dogs could sense her fear and inched closer. She threw picked up 3 stones and threw one at the dog, screaming in her 6 year old voice. When she turned back, the food mine had been taken over by rats – which are braver than house-rats, like Amu is braver than the fat kids who helped create the food mine. She kicked the pile violently, and one rat flew and fell on another pile of human gluttony. She watched two of them run into the kitchen, and felt envy fill her heart. She got up to leave when an older kid from the neighborhood snatched her plastic bag and ran away. She sulked in dejection, and looked around for another plastic bag and another pile. She was still happy that there was so much food to scavenge; so long as buildings were built next to wedding halls, it was a almost a dream… life’s other problems are so much simpler with a full stomach, she thought, and looked forward to each wedding with more eagerness than the Mons and Kohimas of that night.

Not far from Amu, Ahmed squatted against the wall, making oral love to the bottle of rum, as he broke into fits of crying. His customers heard no for the first time that night.

Back inside the wedding hall, flashlights went off a thousand times, wedding albums were created with people smiling fake-smiles, stories were spun and history written. Mon wed Kohima, on a red carpet that hid untold secrets, secret fears and frightening truths.Mon suppressed his eagerness to cut to the chase that night… Kohima shed tears that people mistook for joy and the pain of separation from family… Ahmed lay on the road outside, staring at the sky and choking on his own puke (he didn’t die, so no rockstar ending!)… Johnny watched his pee drip into the bottle, holding onto life nervously… Mary picked on irregularities in the ceremony and expressed her disapproval, despite which she was the most content person in the entire crowd… Amu returned home with so much food that the builders had a small party that night under the same stars they shared with Ahmed.

The next day, the wedding album came out on a CD titled “Happily Ever After – Mon & Kohima”

3 March 2010

the story of pleiku

Pleiku was born at 11 pm on a night with no moon and no power. People said it was a bad omen. Starting with the immeasurable pain he caused his mother while coming out, anything that went wrong was blamed on this. Alternatively, they could’ve blamed the cat sitting on the bed or the blue shirt that his father was wearing, but they didn’t. For the first few years everyone found Pleiku cute. But all babies are cute, no? Slowly Darwin drew out of Pleiku differences that make us different. He grew up into a slow, shy kid, not notably good at anything. He watched movies where the main guy appears useless yet has a talent hidden. Pleiku searched everyday in the mirror and found nothing. Through adolescence he got picked on by boys who couldn’t pick on anybody else. He personified purposeless existence; floating through life like nothing separated yesterday from today. The only thing he looked forward to was the next morning’s newspaper, which he loved reading over an hour long dump. Teachers with frustrating lives took it out on kids who misbehaved (as kids must). But Pleiku had no friends and didn’t say much, so it was morally challenging for the teachers to beat him. Still his teachers yelled at him for his stupidity. Back home, his parents fought silently, and the times they went too far apart Pleiku was the invisible cord that pulled them together. Wedded in a loveless relationship, their purpose in life was to educate Pleiku, keep him away from vices, and marry him to an obedient girl of their choice, who will then take care of them in old age and make babies (nothing satisfied them like seeing the baby’s penis) who can then be educated, kept off vices and married off.

Higher education took him to a college far away from home and parents, who he unfailingly called everyday. He never understood why his mother asked him what he ate in that shithole of a mess in college. Far from home, where nobody knew of his silent past, Pleiku reinvented himself. He loved the fact that he could be anybody he wanted to be; people simply assumed that he’d been like that all his life. He got ragged, made friends, drank and smoked... by now he’d learnt to score enough to get by, and thus drifted thru 4 years without a scratch. Some nights when he drank rum by the lake bordering his college, he wondered why he couldn’t live here forever. Why graduate and become like his parents?

Pleiku made so many friends that he forgot his forgettable time in school. Looking back, it seemed like somebody else lived in this body of his. His mum still called to enquire what he ate, which he found increasingly silly and irritable. He barely spoke to his father, who paid his fees unfailingly, who made sure he had smart clothes to wear, who trusted him implicitly - out of love, not confidence.

Towards the end, Pleiku found a girl who thought just like him. Next to his reinvention it was the best thing in his life. It was so unbelievable that it kept him in disbelief for a good year. By the time he believed (which promptly made it less sweet) he was sitting in a cubicle with bright white lighting for maximum efficiency, punching mindlessly into a computer like everyone else in the room. He had moved to another city, and his girl had moved on. His friends were all scattered like dots on the map, getting hitched with someone or the other. His life went back to school, where it felt like the day never ended, each sunrise merging seamlessly into the next.

Pleiku’s parents looked for a suitable girl for their kid, who they felt was calm and soft-spoken. Pleiku was sniffing 30 and had no fight left in him to find a girl for himself. He liked plump women, and picked one from the first list of 13 pictures that were given to him. Her name was Dalat. Much later Pleiku wondered how his life would’ve been if he had been as decisive all his life. He only saw Dalat once before she became his wife, when she prostrated in front of him and sought his blessings while he approved the match. Even though Pleiku had agreed to everything the rival parents had said, he still had to watch them fight in his wedding over things he didn’t care about. After such prolonged starvation, he was merely hungry to dip his beak. The girl loved the spotlight and all the pampering. Never had so many people worked so hard to make her look pretty. What she didn’t know was how her whitewashed face contrasted against her brown arms, despite which she had now achieved the pinnacle of her pretty existence… and how things would go downhill from here.

They spent the first 2 weeks welded in bed. For the sake of their families and facebook (and thanks to the digital revolution) they took 800 pictures, going out once a day so they didn’t appear too obsessed. When they got back they painfully realised that life existed outside of bed… that there were dishes to be done, clothes to be washed and chores to be completed… Pleiku hated it even more that he was now responsible for another person. Dalat went to the temple every morning and prayed that a little penis was growing somewhere inside her… when the doctor spotted the penis on the hideous scan, Pleiku’s parents opened the sweet box and fed Dalat until she threw up. They took such good care of Dalat that even in her dreamy eyes she knew it wouldn’t last after the baby came out.

As Dalat grew bigger with Hue, Pleiku cursed the baby for killing his sex life. With Dalat due in one month, Pleiku lost his head and picked up a whore on a business trip to the far-east. He liked how he could have the girl without being responsible for feeding her tomorrow. He resumed his love for alcohol and smoke which he’d shelved thanks to sober colleagues and the excitement of baby-making. On weekends he started snorting with his old pals from school, bonded by the common purpose of escaping the purposeless present.

After the initial excitement of the new baby, Pleiku couldn’t wait to see his little Hue grow up and learn to pee and crap by himself. Every Monday Pleiku cursed reality for being such a bitch. During this time he sought frequent trips to the far-east while Dalat was tormented by her in-laws. Dalat knew that the only way out was to have another penis inside her, but Pleiku – no longer hungry – steadfastly refused to be responsible for another mouth.

Dalat could smell other women on Pleiku, but by now she didn’t care enough to reform Pleiku. She quietly waited for his end, which came on a Sunday morning. They found him by the lake in his college, smelling of rum, nose white without cotton, with a filmy streak of red and bile dripping down.

Dalat took the money and Hue, and left for some place far away. Before leaving she spat blood-red betel juice on the pictures of the Gods worshipped by her in-laws. Pleiku’s nameless faceless friends had absconded, fearing questions about the white in Pleiku’s nose. His parents stood crying alone at the mortuary, watching their flesh and blood burn in the oven, wondering what they did wrong.