Saturday, 27 December 2008

Short Story: Best Wishes For A Happy Married Life

Rajesh had managed to get hold of the key to Duke’s flat. I don’t know how he did it, but that evening there were four of us waiting in that cramped sitting room for Duke to arrive with his new bride. Duke had been gone for almost a month and the room smelt very stale. I wished we could open the set of small windows above my head, but we would have lost the element of surprise if we had done that.

‘I hope the train isn’t late,’ I said, hoping for an assurance from Rajesh or Sameer that the train would be on time. Instead Sameer snarled at me. ‘You were the one who wanted to meet Duke and his wife as soon as they arrived.’

‘True, but I didn’t really expect you guys to get carried away. All I said was that it would be interesting to meet Duke when he comes back with his wife.’

‘We should have met them at the railways station. Now for all we know, Duke and his missus are having dinner at a restaurant before coming home,’ Trilok said.

‘What exactly did Duke tell you over the phone when you called him up?’ Sameer asked Rajesh.

‘That he’ll be coming back today.’

‘That’s it? Nothing about his wife? Or the wedding?’ Sameer persisted.

‘He just said he would come back today. I asked him if the wedding went off well. To that he replied something like .. he would come back and tell us everything. It was very noisy in the background and I didn’t ask anything else.’

‘You should have asked him if his first night was a success.’ Trilok suggested with a snigger.

‘I’m sure Duke pretended to have one of his migraines and went off to sleep,’ Sameer said, to the accompaniment of smirks, sniggers and laughter.

Everyone was silent for a while. There was no sign of Duke or his newly-wed wife. ‘We could just leave and come back later,’ I suggested once again.

‘You go home if you like,’ Rajesh told me, knowing fully well that I would not leave. If I left, I’d have to go back to the flat at Vile Parle which I shared with Sameer. There was nothing much to do in that flat other than to watch TV. Trilok looked at his watch and I followed suit. It was around seven thirty.

‘Getting late for you, is it?’ Rajesh asked Trilok who ignored him.

‘Do you have permission from your wife to stay out late?’ Rajesh persisted. Trilok was the first among us to get married. Now Duke had followed suit and most probably it was Rajesh’s turn next.

I don’t really remember why we started calling Duke by that nickname. I have a feeling it was because Duke once exclaimed “I wish I were the Duke of Kent” while watching Wimbledon on TV. I don’t know for sure since I wasn’t around when the Duke said that.

‘Come off it. I don’t need anyone’s permission to stay out late.’

‘Is that right? Let’s say Duke doesn’t turn up till nine thirty. Will you still hang around here?’

Trilok gave Rajesh a lopsided grin. ‘Just you wait. One day you will also get married.’

‘Just because you made that mistake, why on earth should I do the same?’ Rajesh retorted.

‘I hope your theories are correct. If not, we’ll all have wasted our time,’ Trilok told Rajesh.

‘Did anyone insist that you join us here today? Please do carry on. Go back home to your wife.’

Trilok was silent at that. ‘I’m sure you are right. Duke does show all signs of being a ……..’ Trilok’s voice trailed off.

Sameer agreed. ‘I’ve never met a more effeminate male in my life.’

‘When was the last time Duke’s special friend visited him? Just a day before he went off to get married?’ Sameer asked Rajesh.

‘Just a day before he left,’ Rajesh reiterated.

‘Did they make a lot of noise?’ Trilok asked.

‘The usual level of noise.’

‘You ought to have eavesdropped.’

‘Did they make any grunting sounds?’ Sameer asked, only to be almost slapped across his face by a grinning Rajesh whose palm swished past Sameer’s face.

‘You naughty bastard. How many times do you want me to repeat this stuff?’

‘I feel sorry for Duke’s wife,’ Trilok said. ‘An innocent girl is going to suffer for the rest of her life. The poor thing.’

‘We are going to take care of Duke’s wife, aren’t we? Why do you call her a poor thing? She will be taken care of by her husband and all his friends.’

‘I pray to God that she is a beautiful girl.’

‘Do you think Duke would have accepted a dowry?’ Sameer asked Rajesh.

‘I’m sure his parents have taken a dowry. After all, Duke is an engineer and he works for an MNC.’

‘Have you found a new flat-mate?’ Trilok asked Rajesh.

‘Not yet,’ Rajesh responded. ‘I hope I find someone soon. I don’t want to pay the entire rent on my own for much longer.’

‘That was a fine thing Duke did to you. To leave that flat with just a fortnight’s notice.’

‘I don’t blame him. I don’t think he knew about his wedding much before that.’

‘Why on earth did he agree to get married? He ought to have more sense.’

‘He just succumbed under pressure. He is almost thirty two. And his parents have been trying to get him married for the last eight years!’

‘Any idea how much rent Duke is paying for this place?’

‘At least 30K a month. After all, this is Bandra West.’

‘If ever I have a daughter, I will never force her into an arranged marriage,’ Trilok declared. ‘Let her make her own decisions. If things go wrong, she won’t be able to blame me.’

At that moment, the key turned in the door. We hurriedly took up our positions. Rajesh had a rose garland in his hands. I picked up the plate filled with fruits. One of the bananas had a joss stick struck in it. Sameer took out his lighter and lit the incense. Trilok got his camera ready. I wondered what I should say. Congratulations? Welcome to Bombay? Welcome to Mumbai? We wish you both a very happy married life?

Duke opened the door and looked at us all in shock. He took a moment to recover, holding open the door for a few seconds as he did. He then entered the room dragging his suitcase after him. We waited expectantly for his wife to follow him. Instead, the door slowly swung shut.

‘You guys! How did you manage to get in?’ Duke demanded of us.

‘We wanted to give you and your wife a proper welcome,’ Trilok said with hesitation. At any moment, we expected Duke’s wife to open the door and enter the room.

‘How was your journey?’ Rajesh asked Duke politely. There was still no sign of Duke’s wife. Was she weeping outside the door?

‘Uneventful.’

Duke dumped his suitcase on the floor and slumped on the sofa next to me. By now I was convinced that Duke had left his wife behind in Patna.

‘Where’s your wife?’ Sameer finally asked him. ‘Hasn’t she come with you?’

Duke looked at us all for a moment and said, ‘oh! I called off the wedding at the last minute. I decided that I couldn’t get married to a girl I didn’t like all that much just to please my parents. I really didn’t like the girl even though I had agreed to marry her.’

‘In that case why did you agree to the wedding?’ Trilok asked Duke.

Duke gave him a baleful look and turned away. He didn’t reply.

‘So your parents will continue to look for your dream girl?’

‘Of course, they will. That’s their job, isn’t it?’ Duke said petulantly. ‘What else are parents for if they can’t find you the girl of your dreams?’

Saturday, 20 December 2008

A Christmas Party**

Alwyn picked up the phone, dialled Lorraine's mobile number and then hung up before she answered his call. 'Shit,' he said aloud and redialled the number. No point in waiting for Lorraine to call him back and ask him why he had called. He put the phone on speaker and curled up in a foetal position on the sofa.

'Hi! What's up?' He hated that tone which told him that she was very busy, which she most probably was, reserving the right to tell him she might have to hang up and call him back later.

'I'm off to have a drink with a friend. Just wanted to let you know. Don't wait up for me.'

'Okay. Sure.' She was ready to hang up. He wanted to hit her on the head with the phone, or better still shove his elbow into her face.

'Just thought I should let you know, that's all,' he repeated. The miserable bitch could have had the decency to ask him to help himself to the petty cash that she always kept in the top drawer in their bedroom. No, it was not their bedroom anymore. It was ages since they shared a bed together, with Lorraine preferring to sleep on the couch in her study after working till midnight.

He walked out into the night, wishing he were in bohemian Bandra rather than posh Cuffe Parade. He wished there was a friend who would want to have a drink with him. Not that he had much money. Lorraine had been paying all the bills for the past year and a half. He ought to be grateful he knew, but he hated her all the more for it. As he walked past the Taj President and entered Wodehouse Road, he wished he had taken some money from that drawer. Lorraine kept at least a couple of thousand rupees there at any given time. If only he hadn't shouted at Lorraine last week when she asked him what he wanted money for, he could have legitimately helped himself to some money and then casually informed her. To hell with Lorraine! There was a limit to what a man could put up with. Just after Holy Name Cathedral, he took a right turn which took him past Simon & George Drycleaners and into Colaba causeway. Now Colaba might not be as nice as his beloved Bandra, but it did have a few good watering holes he liked.

He had around a hundred rupees on him, enough for a beer at Gokul's followed by some Rice and Vindaloo from New Martin Restaurant. He wished he had enough for Leopold's, which served booze as well as good food, but no, his hundred rupees would not go so far. Hell! He did not even have enough money to get drunk properly, not unless he were to buy a pint of Old Monk's and follow it up with some RC. However he hated mixing drinks. To him, it represented the nadir of poverty, having to mix drinks to get drunk because one could not afford to buy four or five pegs of good whiskey or rum. It didn't really matter, he could pretend to be drunk and speak his mind to Lorraine.

After dinner, he went for a walk around the oval maidan and considered walking towards the marine drive. He decided not to. The walk around the oval had sobered him and there was no point in walking around any further and getting even more sober. He looked at his watch. It was only a quarter past ten. If he went home now, Lorraine might not even be home. He would look very silly if he got home before Lorraine did, after having asked her not to wait up for him. He wished Lorraine would do something obvious – like have an affair with her boss so that he could leave her. But no, she would always maintain her holier-than-thou attitude which infuriated him more than anything. And anyway Peerbhoy was the sort of guy who never thought of anything other than money.

Luckily for Alwyn, Lorraine was home, having dinner, when he got back. He growled a greeting and walked past her to the bedroom.

'I need to travel – to Delhi,' Lorraine told him as he was about to shut the door behind him. 'Peerbhoy wants me to go with him for the road-show. I'll be leaving tomorrow evening and will come back on the twenty-ninth.'

'So you'll be spending Christmas in Delhi?'

'I'm afraid so. Not that anything much will happen on the twenty-fifth, but we will be doing our homework for the rest of the road-show.'

'Thanks for letting me now,' Alwyn said, hoping to sound slightly drunk as well as sarcastic.

'You'll be alone for Christmas,' Lorraine said with a sad smile.

'How do you know that?'

'I don't know. I just said that.' Lorraine had a calm and matter-of-fact voice, tinged with sadness. If she felt even a teeny-weeny bit sad, she shouldn't go to Delhi. She ought to be on her knees, begging him for forgiveness, for all her arrogance in the past, for behaving the way she had.

'I was planning to go to Carlo's tomorrow evening,' Alwyn told Lorraine. 'And the day after I'm going to Goa with this friend of mine. We're driving down. Will be home for Christmas eve.' Alwyn was surprised with himself for having said all that. It had been a long time since he even thought of Carlo's place or planned a trip to Goa, for that matter.

'I see,' Lorraine said in a wooden voice. 'I'll leave for office very early and will ..'

Alwyn walked out of the room and slammed the door shut after him. 'And will go to the airport directly after work..' he could have finished that sentence for her.

The next day evening, Alwyn shaved, dressed and caught a train to Bandra from Churchgate. Before leaving, he opened the drawer and found almost five thousand rupees in the drawer. Had Lorraine kept more money than usual there so that he could help himself to it? No, no way. And even if she had, she was not going to get any thanks for it. Alwyn helped himself to a thousand rupees. Two years ago, before he signed that ridiculous audit report which had brought his downfall, he would not have thought twice about spending a thousand rupees over a single meal. Even a year ago, Lorraine would not have been so arrogant towards him. A husband without money is like a bottled drink that has lost its fizz, he told himself. He ought to lock up Lorraine and prevent her from going to work for a few weeks. That would teach her. Would Peerbhoy fire her if he did that? Most probably not. That old bastard needed her much more than anyone else in his office. In fact, if Peerbhoy fired Lorraine, she would find a new job in a week, while Peerbhoy himself would be in deep shit without Lorraine.

As he got off the train at Bandra and took an auto towards Carlo's place, he wondered why he didn't go to Bandra more often. Was it because he didn't want to be reminded of all the good times he had? Lorraine had been part of those good times. The auto took him past Carter Road and soon he was at Carlo's. The place hadn't changed. It would never change, despite all the changes that were taking place in Bandra. He was a stag tonight and paid the fifty rupee entry fee which only stags paid. Carlo's smelt of food and booze and was filled with cigarette smoke, as usual. In one corner under a large Christmas tree, a middle-aged man stood and sang a Portuguese song, accompanied by a guitarist and a drummer. Three couples were dancing on the small dance floor and all the tables were full. Tacky Christmas decorations were all over the place. A waiter came up to him with a jovial air and jaunty step which couldn't be copied by the highest paid waiter in the world and asked, 'only one?'

'Yes.

Alwyn found himself seated at a table for six occupied by a couple and a group of three people. They were quite friendly, all of them shuffling a little bit to see if some more space could be made for him. He ordered an Old Monk with coke. Alwyn and the couple sat on one side of the table, which had a blue checked top. A woman sitting opposite Alwyn moved her legs a little bit so that Alwyn would have more leg room. She was very plain-looking, almost ugly, but her demeanour was so pleasant, she looked radiant.

They were playing a song he was unfamiliar with. He tried not to stare too much at the dancing couples. They were ordinary people, the sort of people he and Lorraine had been when they lived in Bandra. He had met Lorraine while doing his articleship. They had found themselves with the same group of friends, all of them articled clerks working for the same parsimonious chartered accountant, all of them paid a pittance, but surviving in the hope of becoming qualified chartered accountants themselves and starting their own practices. They didn't start dating till Alwyn passed all his exams and started getting paid decently.

That song got over and the singer started a song which had been one of their favourites when they used to come here. It was an old Goan song, translated into English from Portuguese, a few Portuguese phrases retained in it for atmosphere and a couple of Konkani words thrown in here and there to add spice to the lyrics.

The li'l girl came down to Panjim bay;
The beach boys ran up and barred her way;

That's a fine shiny dress that you be wearing;
Do our eyes deceive, or is that silk threading?

Care to take a turn on the pier with us?
Você vai dançar connosco? Maachche?
Or would you rather go for a dip with us?
Vamos para uma sessão de natação? Maachche?

This dress ain't in any way for the likes of you;
There's no way on earth I'd jive with you;

As the li'l girl waited in the evening sun;
Thuka khobor aha? Ela parecia tão bonito!
The young prince rode up in his Suzuki Shogun;

As the prince and the young girl zoomed off to the east;
The beach boys burped and screamed out a fenny toast;


The singer sat down to take a break. A waiter placed a drink in front of him. Was it just coke or did it have some rum in it?

'Another drink for you?'

Alwyn ordered another Old Monk.

'Nothing to eat?'

'Not for the moment. Maybe later.'

'No no. Not good for tummy. Don't want people falling sick here. You eat something.'

What the heck? He might as well eat dinner and then get drunk.

'I'll have a plate of sorpotel and some pav.' Sliced bread might be mankind’s greatest invention, but nothing could beat the Goan pav.

'Great. A drink for the singer?' How did the waiter know that Lorraine's money was burning a hole in his pocket?

'Why not? An Old Monk for that splendid man!'

Alwyn found himself harking back to the good old days. Lorraine used to be reliant on him for everything. He was the smarter one, the man who had all answers to his girl's questions, even if they related to her work.

Lorraine had worn a white silk gown for their wedding which had taken place at Bicholim. Some twenty odd friends from Bombay had driven down to Goa. They had drunk so much fenny, it was not funny.

They used to dance every time they came here. Neither of them was a good dancer, but there was something about the place which made everyone break into a dance or start humming a song.

He ordered a third drink and then a fourth. It didn't matter. He had enough money in his wallet and then some more. It was not as if he was going to drive down to Goa tomorrow.

What was he to do with his life? One stupid mistake, a few arrogant words, a refusal to retract and he was ruined for life. He could not go on living like this. Lorraine was too nasty towards him. Everything she did was designed to humiliate him, to make him feel worthless. He wanted to take her to court, make her waste a lot of time and money and finally divorce her. But no, he was the weaker party. Lorraine had a lot more money than he had – most of his savings having been used to pay people off and cover up his mistake. It was a miracle that he did not end up in jail!

When he started his fifth drink, they started to play a Christmas carol.

Mary's boy child, Jesus Christ, was born on Christmas Day
Hark, now hear the angels sing, a King was born today
For man will live, for ever more, because of Christmas Day


He tried to tap his feet to keep tune with the song, but gave up after less than a minute. He was too sleepy, but did not have the energy to leave. He must have dozed off for a few seconds because when he woke up their old favourite was being sung once more.

That's a fine shiny dress that you be wearing;
Do our eyes deceive, or is that silk threading?

Care to take a turn on the pier with us?
Você vai dançar connosco? Maachche?
Or would you rather go for a dip with us?
Vamos para uma sessão de natação? Maachche?

This dress ain't in any way for the likes of you;
There's no way on earth I'd jive with you;


'Actually I really like jiving with you.' Alwyn laughed aloud. That was what Lorraine used to whisper to him as they danced to this song. Once Lorraine had worn a blue silk dress and she had looked so pretty and everyone had stared at her and all the men had been so jealous of him as he danced with her. Someone jabbed him from behind. 'Would you please dance with me?' No, it was for real. Alwyn turned around gingerly. Lorraine was standing behind him.

'What are you doing here? Didn't you fly to Delhi?'

'I cancelled. I told Peerbhoy that I couldn't go,'

'Really?' Alwyn could not think of anything else to say.

'Yes. Really. I just told him and walked out. I didn't wait to find out whether he agreed or not.'

'He might fire you!' They both laughed as he said that.

'I waited at home for you to come back. And then I decided to come here and join you.'

He looked at his watch. It was a quarter past eleven. The couple who sat next to him at his table had left but otherwise the restaurant was still packed. Four of five couples were dancing.

'Are you going to drive to Goa tomorrow?'

'Yes of course.'

'Can I go with you?' Lorraine sat down in the empty chair next to him

'Ah! No! I'm not too sure. Not much space in the car.'

'Please, please, take me with you, Alwyn.'

'In that case, we may have to hire a car.'

Lorraine laughed. 'I thought as much. I've been very nasty to you.'

'In what way honey? You kept the house going. If it weren't up to you…..'

'Listen, I don't want to work for Peerbhoy anymore.'

'And why not?'

'Didn't you once say we should start a firm of our own? Messrs Sequeira and Sequeira' He had, but that had been a long time ago.

'I'm no longer a CA. Lost my licence, don't you remember?'

'I am a CA. You can work for me. Help me run Messrs Sequeira and Associates. We'll do everything together. I know a few people and I'm sure you can pull in a few clients as well. How does that sound?' Lorraine's eyes were glowing with happiness. Alwyn wanted to pick up his drink and pour it down her head. And then smash the glass into her face. She would never understand.

'I'd be one of your associates?'

'Just on paper honey. Everyone would know that you are the main Sequeira, not me.'

'Let's make plans after Christmas, shall we? I'm too drunk to think logically right now.'

Lorraine laughed. 'That's alright honey. As long as we are together.'

Despite being drunk, Alwyn had a feeling that he would have to go along with Lorraine's plan, though he didn't like it one bit.


**Special thanks to my friend Jason Keith Fernandes who vetted this story and helped me find the right Konkani words for the song which appears in this tale.

Book Review: Maria Misra’s Business, Race, and Politics in British India


I came across this wonderful book while trying to learn a little bit more managing agency houses which dominated Indian industry prior to independence and for a brief while after that. I heard the term ‘managing agency’ for the first time over 12 years ago while attending corporate law lectures as a law student in Bangalore. ‘Managing agency contracts,’ our highly respected professor told us with uncharacteristic brevity, ‘are banned. BANNED. Companies are not allowed to enter into such contracts any more.’ His eyes conveyed a sense of horror as if managing agency contracts were something very disgusting and dirty, akin to may be the slave trade, as if he could never explain to us youngsters, how horrible a managing agency arrangement was. We students left it at that, not particularly wanting to inquire into something not very relevant for us and add to our workload. The second time I came across the term managing agency house was when reading Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, the best book about India I have read so far. One of the characters in the book, snooty anglophile Arun Mehra, works for a managing agency house. Seth takes some trouble to explain to the reader how a managing agency house functioned and how elitist and exclusive it was, even after India’s independence. However, even Seth does not manage to explain how managing agency houses dominated Indian industry during the British era. Maria Misra manages to do what neither my professor nor Vikram Seth could do (to be honest, they didn’t try to do so), that is, to convey to her readers an image of British India dominated by managing agency houses.

To explain in simplistic terms, a managing agency was a partnership which carried on the business of managing other business enterprises. A typical managing agency would enter into contracts with various companies for managing them. Under Indian company law, as it existed then, shareholders of a company could not challenge or override such contracts, even if they were contrary to shareholder interests. British India was dominated by 60 or so managing agency houses which controlled and managed most Indian businesses. The usual modus operandi for managing agency houses was to start an enterprise with their capital, execute a managing agency contract with it for a term of twenty or thirty years and then issue shares in the company to investors, who would be stuck with the managing agent.

These agencies were run by British businessmen, both English and Scottish, who believed in the racial superiority of the British over Indians, who epitomised the values around which the Empire was built and the ‘white man’s burden’ was discharged. Much more conservative than even the British Indian government, they were at the zenith of their dominance before the beginning of the First World War. Misra explains in detail how these managing agency houses refused to change with the times and eventually lost out to multinational and Indian owned firms.

Misra’s book is crowded with statistics. Misra tells us that senior assistants at these managing agency houses made INR. 3,500 per month, a huge amount of money for those days. Partners would typically retire with a fortune of around £60,000, whilst senior assistants could squirrel away an average of £30,000. Managing agencies paid their employees more than what the Indian Civil Service paid.

The managing agents believed that the ideal businessman was a generalist, who would not be too ‘technical’ and who could take a holistic view of the business and its prospects. Technical people were distrusted. As technology advanced, managing agents began to lose out on account of their technical incompetence. Misra gives us the example of Gillander, a leading managing agency, ordering railway engine paint which wouldn’t dry in the Indian climate for Duco Paints (an ICI subsidiary). Prudential, an MNC fired its managing agent since it did not understand the insurance business.

Managing agencies had so much contempt for Indians and their lack of ‘character’ that they refused to Indianise even after the Indian Civil Service started to do so. Few Indians were said to have the ‘character’ required to be a manager, with the exception of the Parsis. Indians were said to make good accountants and their rote learning skills gave them an unfair advantage in academic exams, though it was not of much use in real business. Frank Russell, a Calcutta businessman, took the view that Hindus had more brains that Muslims, but did not compare in character or physical courage. N. Macleod, a business witness to the 1913 Public Services Commission said that ‘instead of choosing men who are merely a bundle of bones and book-learning, the selectors should give preference to those men whose physical stature and appearance who be in keeping with the dignified and important position they are likely to be called on to fill in India. There is after all in the administration of Eastern countries, a great deal to be said for the man who looks the part.

When an Indian businessman by the name Birla invited Basil Eddis of Gillander to join the Board of one of his cotton mills, the offer was coolly declined. When another India business house by the name Tata invited Gillander to collaborate with it in the production of steel, the offer was turned down. Misra’s book is filled with interesting anecdotes such as these. The most interesting aspect of the entire managing agency business was that managing agency contracts were void under English law whilst they were enforceable in India – until 1970.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Short Story: ENTRAPMENT

Preetha was followed by three young men as she walked home. From behind, they made loud comments on her looks. Occasionally they would walk up to her and brush against her or blow into her hair, before retreating a few yards. Hoping to evade her tormentors, Preetha left the foot-path and blindly stepped into the busy main road. She was hit by a large white van and died on the spot.

“Kerala roads most unsafe for women” a newspaper headline screamed. “Eve-teasing rife in Kerala” another headline shouted. “Kerala has the worst record for eve-teasing in India”, a third one declared. The Home Minister grimly went through the news reports as he ate breakfast. His wife was yet to wake up. He rarely saw his seventeen year old son who spent most of his waking hours with his friends. That afternoon, the Home Minister presided over a meeting of various police officers. ‘Something needs to be done’, he told them. ‘Otherwise the bloody newspapers will say I am useless.’

‘I plan to increase the number of foot patrols,’ the Inspector General of Police, or IG as he was known, told the Home Minister.

‘As if that will satisfy those press vultures!’

A bright young officer who had recently joined the Indian Police Service wanted a new approach. ‘Sir, I think we should change the terminology we use. Eve-teasing sounds too frivolous. Sexual harassment is the phrase universally used to describe this type of behaviour.’

‘What’s in a name?’ a senior police officer said in a flippant manner.

‘Or in a phrase,’ another added jovially.

A grizzled veteran spoke up. ‘Sir, why don’t we send out a few policewomen as decoys, catch some of these eve-teasers and make an example out of them?’

‘That’s a brilliant idea,’ the IG said adopting his subordinate’s idea as his own. ‘We send out a lone policewoman in civil dress. An unmarked police car tails her and records everything. A few policemen follow at a safe distance. Once we’ve recorded enough evidence, we catch the culprits red-handed.’

‘And after we catch them, we take them to the police station and thrash the shit out of them. And lock them up for a few days.’ The Home Minister liked the idea.

‘Oh No! We must do things by the book or we’ll end up with negative publicity. It’ll be up to the courts to award appropriate punishment. We’ll have enough evidence anyway.’

‘I don’t trust the courts to deliver justice. In any event, nothing will prevent me from announcing the names of the culprits we catch at a news conference.’

‘I’m sure that will be alright,’ the IG agreed.

The finer points of the scheme were soon ironed out. A few days later, a young policeman woman wearing a silk saree and carrying a leather handbag ambled along a busy thoroughfare in Thiruvananthapuram. The Home Minister anxiously waited in his office for the results of this audacious experiment. If successful, it would be rolled out in other cities in Kerala.

Finally his phone rang.

‘What happened?’ he demanded.

‘Sir, we have caught four college students in the act.’ For some reason, the police officer at the other end did not sound very enthusiastic.

‘Splendid! I hope you have them in your safe custody. Fax me their names, the names of their parents, details of the colleges where they are studying and I’ll organise the press conference.’

‘Sir, this time I feel we should let these boys off with just a warning.’

‘Like hell we’ll do that.’

‘Well Sir, one of the boys claims he is your son. And we think that he may be speaking the truth.’

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Blessings Forever

Tenny bowed in front of his grandparents. His grandmother had tears in her eyes as she blessed him. His grandfather, on the other hand, had an amused look on his face. As Tenny’s grandmother started to mutter a prayer, the photographer yelled, ‘stop it right there.’ ‘Grandfather,’ he commanded Tenny’s grandfather, ‘you move a little bit forward. And grandmother,’ he pointed towards Tenny’s grandmother, ‘you turn slightly to the left.’

‘No. No. Don’t move too much,’ the video cameraman objected in an equally loud voice, lifting his head from the eye-piece of the video camera in his hand as his assistant flashed a warm beam of light on a perspiring Tenny and his grandparents. ‘Don’t move them too much, he told the photographer curtly. He was much younger than the photographer, but the video cameraman always outranked the photographer at any Kerala wedding.

‘No, I won’t. Just a little bit,’ the photographer compromised. Tenny’s grandparents moved forwards and sideways according to the directions they received, the crowd of people swarming around them also moving to give them the space they needed.

‘Go on now. Give him the blessing,’ the photographer gave the go-ahead. Tenny’s grandmother dutifully recited her prayer once again, but the spirit had gone out of her. Now it was just a show for the benefit of the cameras. Tenny continued to sweat profusely despite the ceiling fan whirling overhead furiously. There must have been around fifty relatives in that small drawing room, packed around Tenny and his grandparents.

‘Done! Done! Who’s next?’

Tenny’s maternal grandmother tentatively came forward. ‘Ammachi, go forward,’ Tenny’s younger sister prompted her, but the cameras made the old lady twice as shy as her widowhood demanded.

‘Tenny’s suit – its cut is so old fashioned,’ a cousin from Kolkata muttered. ‘Did he get it made in the UK?’

‘No, of course not. It’s the bride’s people who pay for the suit.’

‘True, but he could still have bought it in England.’

‘I think the bride’s father arranged to have it stitched by a tailor in Kottayam.’

‘No wonder …’

‘Who’s next?’ the photographer demanded.

‘It has to be Daddy and Mummy,’ Tenny’s elder brother suggested cautiously. He wasn’t old enough to be sure if the groom’s parents outranked the groom’s father’s elder brother and his wife.

‘Shouldn’t it be Perappan and Peramma?’ someone queried.

‘No, no, after the grandparents, the parents, then all paternal uncles and aunts in the order of seniority and then all maternal uncles and aunts,’ the photographer informed them, his authority derived from his long years of experience in recording weddings. Eight pairs of maternal uncles and aunts quietly prepared to wait their turn.

‘Yes, yes, Tenny’s father and mother should bless Tenny before I do,’ Tenny’s Perappan declared with a tinge of embarrassment.

Tenny’s mother walked up to Tenny, followed by his father.

‘A little bit to this side,’ the video cameraman ordered. ‘The father should stand to the mother’s left.’

‘Let’s not waste too much time over positions. We need to be in church by eleven. So, why don’t you take the photographs as best as you …’

‘Don’t you want the photographs to turn out well? Twenty years from now, do you want someone to look at your son’s wedding photos and wonder why you are in the wrong position?’ Tenny’s father did not have an answer to the photographer’s questions.

‘These blessings are eternal. To be recorded forever, and it’s my job to make sure they are done right. Our job,’ the photographer hastily corrected before the video cameraman or his assistant could say anything.

‘We are paying six thousand for the photographs and ten thousand for the video,’ Tenny’s brother informed an uncle in hushed tones, without hiding his pride at spending so much money on photos and video.

Tenny’s Perappan and Peramma took up their positions soon after.

‘Thank God Tenny managed to land a job in England. If he hadn’t…

‘It was I who advised him to study nursing. Everyone said I was mad. No one likes the idea of male nurses, but these days they are the ones who manage to get jobs in England and America.’

‘Tenny is not in England. He is in Scotland. In a nursing home faraway from civilisation. Our nurses get jobs in places where white people don’t like to work.’

‘I’m sure it’s good enough for Tenny,’ another uncle, this one Tenny’s father’s sister’s husband, sniggered.

‘Your turn will come up soon,’ someone informed the sniggering uncle who looked around for his wife. ‘Where’s Leilamma?’ he asked someone standing nearby.

‘No idea.’

‘Is Leilamma around?’

‘She’s here.’ Leilamma could be espied on the other side of the room, tucked in between three other relatives.

‘It’s ten twenty already. We will have to start for the church by ten forty.’ Tenny’s mother announced.

‘We need to take a few shots of the groom leaving the house and getting into the car. Ten minutes for that,’ the photographer said.

‘We can be a few minutes late. It doesn’t matter if we don’t get to the church by eleven.’

‘Oh no!’ the video cameraman objected. ‘We must get to the church before the bride does. I need to shoot the bride getting out of her car.’

‘Won’t that be recorded by the bride’s video?’

‘Don’t you want your own video show the bride getting out of her car at the church?’

‘At this rate, we will not be able to get everyone to bless Tenny.’

‘Can’t you take photos of Tenny getting out of the house while the rest of us bless him?’ an aunt asked only to be drowned out by hoots of laughter. Her two sons, Tenny’s cousins, cringed in embarrassment.

‘Never mind. As many blessings as possible till ten thirty. Then we leave.’

No one objected. Tenny continued to receive blessings at a pace dictated by the photographer and video cameraman.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Short Story: Important Questions

By seven in the evening, Kamala Teacher was exhausted. But there was no possibility of a respite for another two hours. As the students streamed out of the drawing room, Kamala Teacher rushed into the kitchen where a glass of buttermilk was waiting for her. Her youngest daughter was busy making dinner.

‘We’ve run out of curd,’ Kamala Teacher’s daughter informed her.

‘Dinner without curd.’ Kamala Teacher was prone to be brief when she was exhausted. Also, she was a maths teacher and teachers of mathematics have a natural inclination to avoid verbosity and unnecessary extravagance.

‘We don’t have even a drop left – not even for the milk.’

‘Why didn’t you set aside a few drops before having it all for lunch?’

‘I forgot.’

‘You silly girl! Go and borrow two spoonfuls from Murali’s mother.’ Kamala Teacher had a knack of keeping track of her accounts with each of her neighbours. Murali’s mother had borrowed two onions from Kamala Teacher a month ago and so far she was yet to borrow anything back from Murali’s mother. Two spoonfuls of curd would be set off against one of the onions, which meant she was still entitled to borrow something more from Murali’s mother.

Soon the last batch of the evening trickled in. Exhausted boys and sleepy girls some of whom had attended tuition classes elsewhere for other subjects came into the drawing room and squatted on the floor in a semicircle. The few pieces of furniture that were in the room had been permanently pushed to a corner. The last time the furniture had been put in their proper places was three years ago – for Kamala Teacher’s second daughter’s wedding.

Kamala Teacher’s husband was an insurance agent. Which was just a nice way of saying that he did not have regular employment. It had not always been like that. Kamala Teacher’s husband used to be a state government employee. It had been a comfortable job at the district collectorate, one which allowed him to look forward to a life-long pension after retirement at the age of fifty-eight. While her husband was in government service, Kamala Teacher had only contempt for teachers who offered private tuition. ‘I could never bring myself to work after school hours. And even if I did that, I would never do the things which some of my colleagues do,’ Kamala Teacher had declared vehemently many, many years ago when she got back to work after her first maternity leave. The allusion was mainly to Latha Teacher, the science teacher, who offered private tuition on a very large scale.

But times change and so do needs and values. Kamala Teacher’s husband decided to quit his very secure government job and start a business. It was a wholly unjustified risk in Kamala Teacher’s point of view, especially because they had, at that time, two daughters to take care of. Not only did Kamala Teacher’s husband quit his job, but he also insisted that they have a third child in the vain hope that it would turn out to be a boy. Both gambles failed to pay off. Kamala Teacher delivered a third girl child. A year later, the cement dealership which Kamala Teacher’s husband started ran up so much loss that they were forced to sell their house (which had less than one-third of its mortgage left to be paid off) and move to a rented house. Since Kamala Teacher’s husband did not have the stomach to try a new venture, he became an insurance agent. And Kamala Teacher started to offer private tuitions to her students.

At first Kamala Teacher was too embarrassed to market her services aggressively. ‘A few students asked me if I can offer private tuition classes and I have agreed. If any of you want to join, please meet me after class.’ Kamala Teacher made the announcement in all her classes and left it at that. Despite her reticence, many students from the sixth, seventh and eight standards immediately signed up. Kamala Teacher’s drawing room could accommodate twenty students at a time and she soon found herself teaching two batches of students on weekdays, three batches on Saturdays and two on Sundays. Each student paid twenty five rupees a month. Initially Kamala Teacher found it unbelievably tiring, but soon got used to it. She had little choice since her husband was having spectacularly little success in selling insurance.

However, Kamala Teacher was in for a shock. After a few months when the second term exams got over, almost four fifths of her students who had enrolled for her private classes, dropped out. Kamala Teacher was despondent, but she had an inkling as to the reason for her sudden unpopularity. Nevertheless, she took aside one of her loyal students and asked him why many of his classmates had deserted her so suddenly.

‘You see teacher, many of them who joined your classes, well, they hoped that you would give them a list of important questions to study before the second term exams we had last month.’ Kamala Teacher sighed. So it had come to that! She had nursed a forlorn hope that unlike Latha Teacher, she would have students attend her classes solely on the basis of the quality of her teaching! If only she were teaching tenth or twelfth standard students rather than middle school students. Tenth and twelfth standard students had board exams where the questions were set by anonymous teachers. Tuition teachers for tenth and twelfth standard students did not have to or rather could not be expected to provide them with a list of important questions! A good teacher (and Kamala Teacher had no doubts that she was good) would have students flock to her for the sheer quality of her teaching.

It took Kamala Teacher two months to reach a decision, but finally she made up her mind (assisted mainly by the fact that her second daughter fell ill and ran up obscenely high medical bills) a couple of weeks before the final term exams fell due. But no, she would not give a list such as the one provided by Latha Teacher. Her list would be longer with some important questions and many unimportant ones, all jumbled up. No, her pupils could not expect to learn just the important questions by rote and get near full marks in the maths paper. But they would do reasonably well in the maths exam if they only learnt the questions in the list she disclosed in her private tuition classes. Soon word spread that Kamala Teacher’s tuition classes were not such a bad investment. A couple of weeks before each end-of-term exam, Kamala Teacher would read out a list of around thirty questions, of which six would find a place in the question paper which usually had ten or sometimes eleven questions. The number of students who attended Kamala Teacher’s classes went up. However, her classes where nowhere as popular as Latha Teacher’s classes. Which was not surprising since Latha Teacher’s list of important questions had just twenty questions and eighty percent of the question paper was drawn from that list! It was routine for six or seven students from Latha Teacher’s classes to get over ninety percent marks in their science exam.

Kamala Teacher’s second daughter was in her eighth standard when Kamala Teacher started offering private tuition. This put Kamala Teacher’s daughter in a tight spot since many of her classmates assumed that Kamala Teacher was passing on the entire question paper to her daughter. They reasoned that if Kamala Teacher could give her tuition students a list of important questions, her daughter was bound to get the entire question paper. Kamala Teacher was much more affected by the insinuations than her daughter was. The fact that Kamala Teacher’s second daughter was really good at maths and got top scores did not help matters. When Kamala Teacher’s eldest daughter (as bright as her younger sister) passed through Kamala Teacher’s classes, nobody had even dared to cast aspersions on Kamala Teacher or her daughter. There was nothing to be done, except to grin and put up with it.

After Kamala Teacher’s eldest daughter went to college, Kamala Teacher’s list of important questions was shortened to twenty, but even then not more than six of those questions could be found in the question paper. Enrolment went up accordingly, though it never became as high as that for Latha Teacher’s classes. Four years later, when Kamala Teacher’s eldest daughter was ready to be married off (her second daughter had started college by then), seven questions from the list started to find a place in the question paper. After that Kamala Teacher refused to improve the quality of her list. Even when Kamala Teacher and her husband started to make plans to get their second daughter married, Kamala Teacher stood firm. At times, Kamala Teacher was sorely tempted to follow Latha Teacher’s footsteps and plant eight or nine questions from the question paper in her list. Surely there was no harm being done to anyone. The students who did not attend her classes were no worse off (other than on a comparative basis) and Kamala Teacher did have a duty to do all she could for her daughters. But Kamala Teacher held fast. There was a limit to the compromises she could make.

Soon it was time for Kamala Teacher’s third daughter, six years younger than her direct sibling, to be her student. Fortunately for Kamala Teacher, the girl was not academically inclined and her grades were such that no one ever had reason to believe that she had secret knowledge of the maths question paper.

Time flew by and soon retirement loomed in the horizon. Kamala Teacher once again keenly wished she were teaching tenth or twelfth standard students rather than students who took exams prepared by her and whose papers she valued. A tuition teacher who taught high school or higher secondary school students taking board exams could continue to teach even after retirement, whilst Kamala Teacher and Latha Teacher (who was two years younger than Kamala Teacher) would not be able to attract many students after their retirement. Kamala Teacher’s third daughter was twenty years old and they just did not have even half the money they needed to marry her off. They still lived in a rented house and Kamala Teacher’s husband could count on his fingers the number of insurance policies he sold each year.

Kamala Teacher considered her options as she started her final year before retirement. There weren’t many. She would have to continue with her tuition classes. Since she would be unable to provide her students with important questions just before their exams or show some leniency while valuing the papers of her tuition students, she was unlikely to get too many students from her own school. She would have to start teaching all subjects and not just mathematics. And she would have to look out for students from other schools to keep up numbers. There would be students who couldn’t stand their teachers and wanted someone else to teach them, students whose teachers did not give private tuition and hopefully some students who really liked her and wanted to learn from her, despite the changes in her circumstances.

‘What are you complaining about?’ the Tamil Sir asked her. ‘A maths teacher can teach all subjects, but we language teachers can only teach our own subjects.’ Which was true. She could teach physics, chemistry and biology in addition to maths. And also history and geography and Tamil. Heck, anyone could teach history. The King planted some trees. He fought a long war. He conquered his enemies. He abolished taxes. It was not so difficult. It was all there in the book. But there was no way a Tamil or English teacher could teach Mathematics. Thank God she was a maths teacher, the queen of all sciences, the king of all subjects!

It was at that time that Jayanth’s father enrolled his son for Kamala Teacher’s tuition classes. Jayanth’s father was the richest businessman in town and Jayanth, a puny boy in the eight standard with mischievous eyes partly covered with his very long hair, was his only son. Until a year ago Jayanth had been a normal boy with slightly above average grades. His mother spent an hour or two every evening helping him with his homework and if anyone had suggested that Jayanth be sent for private tuition, his parents would have laughed. That is until Jayanth’s mother caught her husband, pants down, with their domestic help. A quick divorce had ensued. Jayanth’s father hired the best lawyer in the district and made sure he got custody of Jayanth. His ex-wife could see her son only once a month. After his parents separated, Jayanth stopped studying. Threats, bribes and promises failed to work. In desperation Jayanth’s father had enrolled him in Kamala Teacher’s tuition classes. ‘Do something, anything,’ his father begged Kamala Teacher. ‘But please, please make sure that he passes his final exams and goes to the next class.’

Which was not going to be easy, Kamala Teacher realised as Jayanth sat in her tuition class and stared at his toes instead of paying attention to what she was saying. He had got miserable marks in his first term exam. Whilst other students excitedly wrote down the important questions Kamala Teacher dictated, Jayanth had drawn sketches of other children sitting around him. Kamala Teacher caned him a few times, with zero effect. Jayanth had given her a defiant stare and walked back to his spot on the floor of the drawing room. Unlike other teachers, especially Latha Teacher, Kamala Teacher was not a believer in corporal punishment. She used the cane and the ruler sparingly and had never slapped a student across the face in her entire career. When the second term exam approached, Kamala Teacher abandoned all hopes of getting Jayanth to do her bidding through the use of force and gave him a handwritten copy of the important questions she had dictated in her tuition class. Jayanth got twenty marks out of one hundred in that exam. Jayanth’s father came to her wringing his hands in despair. ‘What’s do we do now? he asked Kamala Teacher, easily transferring his burden to her.

If there was one thing that Kamala Teacher had never done, it was to pass a student who definitely deserved to fail, even if that student took her private tuition classes. No, she did not mind giving a couple of grace marks to one of her tuition students who scored thirty two or thirty three marks out of one hundred. But she had little hope that Jayanth would score thirty two or thirty three marks out of hundred and make it possible for her to push him past the thirty-five mark cut-off. And she was darned if she was to break that rule now. She knew that Latha Teacher and a few teachers did pass students who would not pass if their papers were valued by someone else. Did Jayanth’s father expect her to do that? What a stupid thing to do, sleeping with his domestic help! If only he hadn’t been so stupid, he wouldn’t be running from one teacher to another for help.

‘How’s he doing in other subjects?’

‘Not too bad. The science teacher tells me that he will definitely pass in science. , English, Tamil, and social studies are not too difficult. He has a strong foundation, you know. It is only maths that I am worried about.’

‘I’ll do my best. But I can’t make any promises,’ she told Jayanth’s father.

‘I am not sure how you feel about this, but if you can make my son pass his maths exam, I’ll pay you twenty thousand rupees,’ he told Kamala Teacher with a straight face.

Kamala Teacher was tempted to scream at him. How dare he try to bribe her? Was she yet another minister or bureaucrat to be bought for a price? But Kamala Teacher thought of her third daughter who would pass out of college in a couple of years’ time and would have to be married off. Twenty thousand rupees was not a small amount. Not something to be sneezed away. And it was not as if her actions had so far been pure and innocent. Granted she was not as bad as Latha Teacher or some of the other teachers. But she could not call herself a saint, could she? No, she was not going to slip any further. Jayanth would get a list of important questions like anybody else and he would have to learn them if he wanted to pass.

A few weeks after the third term began, Kamala Teacher realised that Jayanth showed little change. The problem was not that he was not intelligent or smart, but that he had no particular desire to pass. He did not pay any attention in class or later in the evening during his private tuition. When forced to work on a problem, he would give it a few moments’ attention and try to solve it half-heartedly. Rare was the occasion when he managed to solve a problem. Kamala Teacher was tempted to write off the twenty thousand rupee reward. Surely, if she got her daughter married using money earned through fraudulent means, God’s would punish her? Worse still God’s wrath might fall on her daughter. Of course not! She was not being evil. Jayanth deserved to pass more than most other students in his class.

As soon as Kamala Teacher prepared the question paper and sent it to the administrative office, she decided to give Jayanth the list of important questions. ‘There are twenty problems in this list. Make sure you learn a problem a day and you will be alright,’ she told him after giving him a handwritten list. Jayanth took the list and put it in his bag. A week later, Kamala Teacher called him aside after tuition class and asked him, ‘have you been solving the problems in that list?

‘No teacher, I have not,’ Jayanth replied, giving her a rare smile.

Kamala Teacher gave Jayanth a very stern look and said, ‘if you don’t start working on those problems, I shall beat the living daylights out of you.’

Jayanth stared back at her and then calmly walked away.

When Jayanth’s father came to see her a few days later, she told him, ‘I will need to give Jayanth separate tuition classes on Sundays. There’s no other way!’

‘Why not Kamala Teacher? I’ll send him to you on Sundays,’ Jayanth’s father said. There were just four Sundays left before the exams began. As a general rule, Kamala Teacher did not work on Sunday mornings, but she did not seem to have any choice.

When Jayanth turned up at her house on Sunday at eleven in the morning, Kamala Teacher had a different list of important questions for him. The questions were the same as the ones in the previous list, but they were in a different order. Jayanth looked surprised when she asked him to ignore the list she had given him earlier and to work with the new list. ‘You will have to do at least five problems each Sunday if we are to finish this list before the exams,’ she grimly told him. ‘Let’s start with the first one.’ Do you know the answer to this one?’

‘No, I don’t.’

‘Never mind.’ Kamala Teacher explained to Jayanth how a duet of complex algebraic equations could be solved, playing one against the other. ‘Did you understand what I just told you?’

‘I don’t think so.’

Kamala Teacher picked up a ruler and hit Jayanth hard on his upper right arm. ‘I’m going to explain this once more. If you can’t solve the problem after that, I will use a cane.’

After Kamala Teacher finished her explanation, she asked Jayanth, ‘do you think you can now solve this problem on your own?

‘No!’

‘Stand up. Come here.’ Jayanth dutifully obeyed. Kamala Teacher opened a drawer, took out a pencil thin cane, grit her teeth and hit Jayanth on his calf muscle twice. When she hit him for the second time, Jayanth winced and tears came to his eyes.

‘Now listen to me once more.’

Kamala Teacher went over the solution to that problem yet again and said, ‘Now I want you to do this problem. You will not leave this house till you’ve solved five problems today. Knock on the door when you have solved this one.’ She went inside to supervise her daughter who was preparing lunch. Her husband and daughter stared at her. They had never heard the cane being used so liberally by Kamala Teacher, but Kamala Teacher ignored them. Thirty minutes later she went to the drawing room to see how much progress Jayanth had made. He had done half the problem and then lost his way. He sat there on the floor, his notebook in front of him and the occasional tear falling from his eyes.

Kamala Teacher sat down next to Jayanth and said, ‘we all have personal difficulties. But that does not mean we can neglect our duties. You are a student. You must work hard and pass the exams. You used to be a good student and there is no reason why you cannot pass this exam.’

Kamala Teacher had expected that a mellowed Jayanth would now do her bidding. Instead in a fit of rage, he threw the notebook across the floor. Kamala Teacher stood up, took out the cane once again and said ‘come here Jayanth.’ This time she was particularly brutal. After four painful cuts which caused her own arm to ache, she told Jayanth, ‘I’m going to explain this to you once more.’ After she finished explaining, she said, ‘now solve the problem and knock on the door when you are done.’

‘Don’t you have classes from two?’ Jayanth asked her with a smile. It was already one.

Kamala Teacher was exhausted. ‘Yes I do. Tell you what. Please solve this problem and you can go home!’

‘Promise?’

‘Yes, I promise. Have you understood what I told you so far?’

‘Yes, I think so.’

Ten minutes after Kamala Teacher went into the house, Jayanth knocked on the door. He had solved the problem. ‘Can I leave now?’ he asked.

‘Yes you can. But please remember that you must learn nine problems next Sunday if we are to finish all twenty problems before the exams. So, it will help if you can learn a bit on your own before next Sunday.’

Jayanth shrugged non-committedly and went off home on his bicycle. The next Sunday, they managed to cover two problems before Kamala Teacher got tired and sent Jayanth home.

‘At this rate you will never learn all twenty problems,’ Kamala Teacher told Jayanth, her voice cracking with fatigue and stress.

‘I don’t care.’

The third Sunday Jayanth was much more obstinate and they covered just one problem, despite the fact that Kamala Teacher used the cane liberally. Finally, on the fourth and last Sunday, Jayanth showed some interest in learning and they managed to cover three problems without Kamala Teacher having to use the cane at all. Jayanth’s eyes continued to flash defiance, his body language that of a martyr.

‘Who are you trying to punish?’ Kamala Teacher asked him as she saw him off.

Jayanth was silent.

‘Your father?’

‘Yes.’

‘You fool. You are punishing yourself. If you have learnt just seven out of twenty problems, you may not pass.’

‘I don’t care.’

Kamala Teacher did not speak to Jayanth after that even though she saw him in her class for the next two days. The exams began on a Wednesday and the Mathematics exam was scheduled to be held on Friday. Kamala Teacher was one of the invigilators at the exam hall. On Wednesday and Thursday, Jayanth left the exam hall at least an hour before time ran out. However for the maths exam, he sat back and wrote and wrote till the bell rang. At times he would look at Kamala Teacher with surprise and then bend down to his task.

Kamala Teacher felt guilty for an instant. No, she told herself, there was no reason for her to feel so. She had not shown him any favour other than what all her tuition students received. The modified list she had given him was exactly the same as what she dictated to her other tuition students a few weeks later, with one minor difference. The first seven questions in the list she had given Jayanth had found a place in the question paper, while the list she had dictated to her other students had important and unimportant questions all jumbled up. But that was just a coincidence, wasn’t it? She had all along intended to make Jayanth cover the entire list, hadn’t she?

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Short Story: Outsourcing

The call centre was located in the most desolate town in northern England. At one time it had been a thriving industrial town, but now all it had was the call centre which employed over two thousand people.

The receptionist gave Ujjwal a cold stare as she printed their visitors’ passes. ‘She usually smiles at me,’ Ujjwal muttered to Venky and Pritam as they walked towards the conference room. It was not just the receptionist. The three men drew angry looks from everyone they passed.

John was already inside the conference room.

‘Hello Ujjwal!’ He mispronounced the name exactly as he had done on the last two occasions.

‘Good to see you again John. Can I introduce my colleagues Pritam and Venky?’

They declined the offer of coffee and tea.

‘We’ll stick with the same story.’ John told Ujjwal blandly.

‘Hmm, I somehow get the feeling that the people here suspect something.’ Ujjwal told John, scanning his face for a lie as he did so.

‘We haven’t told anyone anything and my instructions are to stick with the same story,’ John reiterated, as poker-faced as ever.

Ujjwal didn’t care. Word always got around sooner or later. And it was John’s problem, not his.

‘Shall I call in Peter and James?’

‘Why not? All five hundred seats are under them, right?’

‘Right’

John went over to the telephone and dialed. While he was on the phone, Venky checked his phone once again for messages.

‘Ujjwal, can I make a quick phone call?’

‘They’ll be here any moment.’

‘I’ll be quick. This is important.’ Without waiting for Ujjwal’s consent, Venky ran out of the room, dialing as he went out. His wife did not answer the phone. Either they were still in the hospital or she was still mad at him. He was about to leave a message when he heard footsteps approaching. He rushed inside but the footsteps just went past. It was another five minutes before Peter and James entered the conference room.

The introductions were brief. These men are here to assess our software and propose something better than what we have. Don’t you think its time we replaced the shit systems we are using?

Peter and James laughed easily. Of course, they need to be replaced. They then went about their tasks professionally and systematically. The visitors were introduced to various team leads. This is how we capture data, these are our servers, he does this and she does that. They took copious notes.

Venky’s mobile made a beep. ‘Doctor says no worry. Antibiotics given. No school for a week,’ the sms said. Venky considered calling back, but Ujjwal read his thoughts and frowned at him.

Soon it was time for lunch. They trooped off to the staff canteen which was crowded. On the way, Venky tried calling home, but got no answer.

‘Did John say he would join us?’

‘He said he would try, but we shouldn’t wait for him.’

Venky was a vegetarian. Would he like a cheese sandwich? But Venky couldn’t stomach the taste of cheese. He picked up a hummus sandwich instead.

As they walked in a single file past a group of men sharing a good joke, one of them put his foot out and caught Pritam, who went down with a thud. The culprit got up and helped Pritam to his feet.

‘Sorry mate,’ he solicitously told Pritam as he gathered his box-wrapped tuna sandwich and bottled orange juice from the floor. ‘Too bloody absent-minded. Too many things to think off. Mortgage, school-fees, brushing up my CV …….’

‘Bloody thieves,’ someone muttered. There was a muted giggle from behind. Neither James nor Peter said a word.

They went to their seats and quietly ate their lunch. Venky’s mobile beeped again. ‘Please call me now,’ the message said.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Short Story: An Office Incident

Armaan walked up to Kritika as she waited for the lift and tapped her lightly on her posterior with the flat of his palm. Kritika ignored him, though a small hiss did escape her, raised her right shoulder a little in a defensive manner and summoned the lift yet again. Armaan did not bother to hide his lascivious intentions or his smirk when he repeated his action, his body language conveying a sense of anticipation rather than any fear of retaliation. Kritika lifted both her shoulders by an inch and stared straight into the closed lift doors.

Unfortunately for Armaan, the Human Resources Director, a smart and snappy lady who had just moved back to India from Philadelphia, was just a few yards behind him and saw everything. Shocked beyond words, it took her a few moments to express her indignation, by which time Armaan had repeated the outrageous act. Since it was obvious that Kritika was going to be a passive victim, the HR Director took it on herself to protect Kritika.

‘How dare you?’ she shouted, as both Kritika and Armaan spun around in stunned silence. They stood there in silence, which infuriated the HR Director since there was no reason for Kritika to remain silent now that someone had spoken up for her. ‘How dare you?’ the HR Director repeated yet again as the lift arrived and opened soundlessly. This time Kritika’s face actually paled as though she had done something wrong while Armaan’s face had the look of a naughty boy caught with his fingers in the jam jar. This made the HR Director angrier still. In fact, she was a lot more bugged with Kritika’s passivity than with Armaan’s behaviour. She knew that women put up with a lot of shit without complaint in India, but it was nevertheless shocking to see it played out in front of her eyes.

‘Can I have your name please?’ the HR Director demanded of Armaan and immediately felt like a fool. Both Kritika and Armaan dangled around their necks their corporate identity cards which not only gave away their names, but also their employee numbers. The HR Director noted down Armaan’s name and employee number and then decided to take down Kritika’s details as well. If Kritika should decide to disappear in order to avoid the enquiry that would follow, as she might well do, being the timid creature that she appeared to be, she would find that the HR Director had other plans.

The HR Director made Armaan sit in a room all by himself (to stew) whilst she had a word with Kritika.

‘Do you know how important it is to report incidents like this? Why on earth do you take this shit lying down?’ the HR Director asked. Kritika was silent.

‘I just don’t believe it,’ she declared, more to herself than to Kritika.

‘Has this happened before?’ she demanded of Kritika.

‘No,’ Kritika said, speaking for the first time.

‘You are senior to him. Nine years senior!’ Kritika was a team leader despite her youthful looks while Armaan was a puppy, not more than a year old in the company.

‘Even if you don’t make a formal complaint, I intend to take action against that bbbass…...that guy,’ the HR Director grimly added. Kritika did not look particularly happy at that and so the HR Director added softly, ‘don’t worry. He’ll never enter this office again. Today is his last day here.’ It was so tragic; a team leader was scared of reporting a one year old programmer who had the audacity to sexually harass her at her workplace.

Armaan’s project leader had not sounded too pleased when the HR Director demanded that Armaan be fired, but the HR Director had reminded him that they were a subsidiary of HeptaCorp Inc. which prided itself on the highest standards in matters such as these.

‘Can’t we please drop the matter?’ Kritika asked the HR Director all of a sudden. By that time, the branch manager had joined them.

‘Why are you so scared?’ the HR Director asked Kritika, her voice dropping to a whisper.

‘If my husband hears of this, I won’t be allowed to work again,’ she said, close to tears. To the HR Director’s surprise, the branch manager seemed to be in empathy with Kritika. He looked at the HR Director with sad eyes, as though it was the most obvious thing to happen. As the HR Director racked her brains for a diplomatic response, instead of the ‘for Christ’s sake, which century are you living in?’ the branch manager to his credit said, ‘don’t worry, we’ll make sure not many people get to know of this. We’ll fire Armaan, but I’ll make sure he keeps his trap shut.’

The HR Director was tempted to ask how the branch manager planned to make sure Armaan kept his trap shut, but she decided not to. That was none of her business.

That evening Armaan sat on the sofa in his bachelor’s pad, nursing a glass of whiskey. His mobile rang.

‘Where are you?’ he asked the person at the other end.

‘Almost there. I’ll be there in five minutes.’

Armaan finished his whiskey in two gulps and kept the glass on the mantel piece.

The door bell rang and he opened the door. Kritika ran into his arms.

‘How was it?’ she asked him breathlessly without bothering to disentangle.

‘If only that bitch wasn’t around, this wouldn’t have happened.’

‘I warned you so many times to not to try that in office.’

‘Not my fault. You were irresistible. Your butt, that is.’ Kritika bit Armaan on his neck by way of a response.

They were silent for a minute. Then Kritika said, ‘you’ve been drinking.’

‘Just a small one.’

‘Tell me what happened. Have you been fired?’

‘Yes. Immediate termination! Not even a month’s notice. But I will get a reference, provided I keep my mouth shut.’

‘Thank God for that!’ It must be the branch manager who arranged for that, Kritika thought.

‘Why don’t you ditch your husband and come and live with me?’

‘Especially now that you are jobless,’ Kritika teased Armaan.

‘Of course. I’ll get a job soon, just a matter of time.’

‘Fine, get a job and I’ll come over with both my kids. You will enjoy looking after them, won’t you?’

‘Why don’t you bring over your husband as well? We’ll make him look after the kids while we have fun.’

‘You bastard, you,’ Kritika said as she kissed Armaan and they both laughed out aloud.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Book Review: The Enemy at the Gate by Andrew Wheatcroft


In 2004, when Turkey’s admission to the European Union was being debated, Frits Bolkestein, a Dutch member of the European Union's executive committee objected on the grounds that Europe risked becoming "Islamized" and the Battle of Vienna would have been in vain.

The Battle of Vienna took place in 1682. At that time, the Ottoman Empire had crossed the zenith of its power and glory. Almost 600 years ago in 1071, at a place called Manzikert in Turkey, Turkish forces had defeated the Byzantine troops of the Eastern Roman Empire. It was the beginning of the end for the Eastern Roman Empire, which had outlived the Western Roman Empire by almost 6 centuries. The Ottomans considered themselves to be the heirs to the Roman Empire, though other western powers did not share that opinion. The Ottomans moved from one victory to another. Murad I and his Christian vassals defeated Lazar, the Prince of Serbia at Kosovo Polje in 1389. Serbia became a vassal state until 1521 when Belgrade was captured. At the Battle of Mohács in August 1526, Sultan Suleiman I (Suleiman the Magnificent) defeated King Louis II and occupied southern Hungary. Vienna blocked the Ottoman route into the heart of Europe. At the height of its glory in 1529, the Ottoman troops led by Suleiman the Magnificent tried to capture Vienna, but the siege failed.

Andrew Wheatcroft’s book The Enemy at the Gate chronicles the second attempt by the Ottomans to capture Vienna, this time in 1683. Wheatcroft is uniquely positioned to describe this conflict since he is an expert on both the Habsburgs, the then most powerful ruling power in Europe with control over Vienna, and the Ottomans. Wheatcroft’s previous works include books on both the Habsburgs and the Ottomans. In clear, lucid style using limpid prose, Wheatcroft builds up the battle settings, giving us an inside view of the players and politics involved. The Thirty Years War had got over just a few decades earlier and there was not much warmth between the Habsburgs and the Protestant powers. It was even said that Protestants living in Ottoman Europe were treated better than Protestants under the Habsburgs. Even Catholic France was not very supportive of the Habsburgs. The Ottomans too had a major enemy in the form of the Persian Empire with whom they were constantly fighting The main difference between the European wars fought by the Habsburgs and the Persian wars fought by the Ottomans was that the Habsburgs learned a lot from their experiences. Their armies had an organisation and chain of command which the Ottoman armies lacked. The art of generalship was well developed. The Ottomans relied on individual bravery and skills, while the European forces relied on teamwork, organisation and methodical preparation.

There were so many areas where the Ottomans were much superior to the Habsburg forces. Their supply chains were much better, with Ottoman soldiers on the battlefield put up in much more comfort than the average Habsburg soldier, though the Ottomans were so far away from home. The biggest advantage which the Ottomans had was that there was a central authority in command, usually the Grand Vizier, who acted in the Sultan’s name. In the case of the European forces, the soldiers were supplied by many nation states, some of whom were reluctant to do so and all of whom required payment or other rewards.

The Ottomans lost the battle for Vienna, one of the most intense battles ever fought. There were various reasons for this loss, the main one being the incompetence of the Turkish Grand Vizier, Kara Mustafa. Do read the book to find out the various mistakes which the Ottomans committed. Both sides were charged with zeal, religious and nationalistic. Wheatcroft cites quite a few examples of bravery, but I don’t want to describe them here and spoil the fun. Wheatcroft’s descriptions of battles and troops are second to none. For example, when Wheatcroft describes the Polish hussars who arrived just in time to relieve the siege, he says:

The Polish hussars were heavy cavalry par excellence and they had no equivalent in 17th century Europe, In effect a holdover from the great age of medieval chivalry, man and horse together were a missile with their lance or wielding their long spear like triangular swords more than four foot long – they existed only for the charge. Facing the disciplined volley fire of western armies, they had largely become a liability, but against the Janissary infantry of the Ottomans or their loose flowing formations of sipahis, they could be as devastating as artillery fire.

Wheatcroft does not stop after the Battle of Vienna. He goes on to describe how the Europeans capitalised on their victory and went on to win more battles. Hungary was freed from Ottoman power, though the initial attempt to take Budapest was a failure. As the Ottomans became weaker and weaker, they began to be regarded as just another European power. The Habsburgs and the Ottomans discovered various mutual interests. After Napoleon was defeated by Czar Alexander I, the Russians became stronger and this led to the Austrians and the Ottomans growing closer. During the Crimean war, the Turks fought on the side of France and Britain against Russia. Finally, in the First World War which resulted in the destruction of both the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman empires, the Habsburgs and the Ottomans were on the same side.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Short Story: A Few Reasons to Return Home

Sreejit’s face has a look of intense concentration as his fat index finger glides over his blackberry's scroller. No, Tim hasn't replied to his angry email yet. To be honest, Sreejit isn't expecting a reply from that bastard. Tim's last email had made it clear that the next round of discussions would take place only after three months.

The man sitting to Sreejit's left has a respectful look on his face. A blackberry is not a very common sight in Kerala, not even in the first class waiting room at the Ernakulam Junction railway station. The man wants to tell Sreejit something, but Sreejit refuses to make eye contact. Instead, he opens old emails on his blackberry and reads them, his eyes focussing on the blackberry's screen intensely as if he is reading something very important, as if they are unread emails.

An announcement is made over the loudspeaker. The Netravati express is 'shortly expected to arrive on platform number 3.' Sreejit rolls his eyes in exasperation and puts the blackberry into the travel pouch around his waist. 'I don't believe this,' he says loud enough for his neighbour to hear.

Sreejit’s neighbour does not let go of the opportunity. 'This train is always late. Today it is late by only forty minutes. Usually it is late by at least four hours.'

Sreejit exhales and tells his neighbour, 'before leaving for the station, I called up Railway Enquiries and asked them if this train was on time. And they said it was.'

'IST stands for Indian Stretchable Time. Forty minutes late ... that's not late at all!’ the neighbour guffaws. ‘Once this Netravati Express was twenty four hours late. It came exactly on time, the next day!'

'I guess I've got used to seeing things done in a different way. I've been away from all this for almost five years now.'

The opening is not wasted. 'Are you from the States?'

'No, from the UK. I mean, things are not perfect over there. Trains do run late once in a while. But, this ...’ here Sreejit stops for emphasis. ‘This is incredible. They don't even apologise for the train being late. And of course, there is no need to explain to us why the train is late.'

Sreejit's neighbour becomes an apologist for Indian Railways. 'Netravati is coming all the way from Bombay. A journey of over 24 hours. So it can be a little bit late.'

'I ought to have taken a taxi to Trivandrum. I was told the train will be more comfortable. Now I'm not too sure.'

'My name is Babu. What's your good name?'

Sreejit is trapped. As a rule, he does not talk to strangers when travelling on trains. A habit inculcated over five years cannot be ignored. But he does not have a choice. He is forced to admit that he answers to Sreejit.

The train enters the station majestically. There is a rush of activity. People rush to the doors and mill around. Some people start getting inside even before the passengers have got off the train. Sreejit and Babu are travelling first class and so they don't have to fight their way into the train. They settle in a section of the compartment which has only two other people, an old man sleeping in a corner and a woman in her thirties.

The first class seats are reasonably comfortable, but there's dirt on the windows. Sreejit takes care to ensure that he doesn't touch the window sill.

The train has been at the station for fourteen minutes now. Sreejit looks at his watch and gives Babu an enquiring look. Why not? Babu is more than happy to explain matters. 'This train has come all the way from Bombay. At this stage, it won't be very punctual.'

'Makes a lot of sense to me. It's a 28 hour journey to Trivandrum, isn't it? Why be punctual for the last leg from Ernakulam?' Sreejit does not hide his scorn.

'It's scheduled to stop for ten minutes. Since it is late...'

'Since it is running late, I would expect it to leave as early as possible. It's been here for almost fifteen minutes now.'

Babu changes the topic. 'Are trains very punctual in England?'

Sreejit sighs and gives Babu a happy smile. He takes his time in replying. 'You know, I have a rather long commute to my place of work. I live in Reigate, that's in Surrey and I catch a train to London Bridge from Reigate everyday. Once every ten days or so, a train will be late, by a couple of minutes. And once a month or so, a train will be held up for say, ten minutes.'

'Is that all? In India we are used to trains running late all the time....'

'When a train is late by a few minutes, we start cribbing. In the UK, people complain about minor things. Out here people are passive. People don't care if the trains run late.'

'There's not much point in cribbing in India. We have too many people and not enough ...'

'I don't think so. It's also a question of attitude. If a train is late, there will an announcement every few minutes explaining the reason for the absence. They'll tell us the train is held up at such and such a place due to such and such a reason.'

'You must find it so difficult here after living in England.'

'I hate to say this, but after living in the UK, it's so difficult to adjust to the way things are done here.'

The train moves off and Sreejit heaves a sigh of relief. 'Finally,' he exhales. Babu sighs in relief as well, as if he is too embarrassed at having been let down by Indian Railways in front of a foreigner.

Sreejit decides to re-read the email he received from Tim a few days before he went on leave. It doesn't matter how many times he has read it before, Sreejit feels a fresh pang of rejection each time. Tim's email was very blunt and to the point. As discussed at the review meeting held the previous day, Sreejit's performance was not satisfactory. They didn't think he was capable of fulfilling the requirements of his role. They realised that Sreejit had a demanding role, but if Sreejit could not improve his performance and meet the five objective parameters set out below in the next three months, they would ask him to leave.

A vendor arrives with lunch boxes – there's chicken biriyani, sambhar rice, curd rice, fish curry rice etc. Sreejit buys a chicken biriyani while Babu settles for some curd rice. They start eating.

'I heard that food in England is very bad. Is that true?'

'Not at all. It is very hygienic and clean. You won't fall ill if you eat food from a vendor on a train.'

'Oh! Do you have people selling food items like this?'

'No, but each train, especially the long distance ones, will have a buffet trolley with an assortment of sandwiches and beverages.'

'Sandwiches! Is that all you get? It must be very difficult to live on such things?'

'I am used to that now. Actually, these days, I don't like spicy food. Come to think of it, why add spices to food? They don't have any nutritional value. In fact, they deflect the real taste of food. If you eat spicy food all your life, your taste buds will slowly die. You won't be able to appreciate subtle flavours. In fact, Indian food doesn't have subtle flavours.'

They go back to their foil packed food. Sreejit chuckles to himself. At the pub the day before he went on leave, he had nicknamed Tim Dr. No and everyone had laughed. Hopefully the name would stick. Tim had a habit of starting every sentence with a No. They all hated Tim and his joke had made him very popular. But Sreejit was the first of Tim's victims. Why had Tim picked on Sreejit?

Sreejit finishes his lunch first, because he doesn't eat half of it. He looks around for a bin to dump his foil pack, but doesn't find one. 'Just throw it out of the window,' Babu tells him. Sreejit is disgusted beyond words, but he reluctantly opens a window and throws out the wrapper. He then goes to the end of the compartment to wash his fingers in the tap. When he comes back, Babu is the process of disposing his lunch wrapper through the window.

'I just don't understand why there can't be a few bins in every compartment? Labour is cheap in this country. It won't cost too much to have the bins emptied at every other station!'

'We are used to all this,' Babu put in mildly.

'I guess I shouldn't be shocked, but I am. Each time I return to India, I get a jolt when I see the way things are done here.'

They are silent for a while. The train reaches Allepey, but no one enters the first class compartment.

Sreejit opens Tim's email once again. He goes through the five parameters they have set for him. They appear objective but they are not. His technical knowledge apparently is not good enough. How the heck can such an allegation be called objective? Before Tim arrived on the scene with a mandate to 'trim' the company, no one had complained about his technical knowledge. If at the end of three months, Tim ‘objectively’ decides that his technical knowledge is still not good enough, they can fire him and there is precious little he can do about it. He has consulted an employment lawyer. His company is entitled to fire him as long as it follows all the procedures, he has been told. He can take his company to the employment tribunal claiming unfair dismissal, but unless he can prove that his termination is on account of race or religion, he is unlikely to win. No, he can prove nothing of that sort. All his colleagues are polite to him outwardly. No one has assailed him on account of his religion or skin colour. He isn't a homosexual or anything is he? his lawyer had asked him wistfully. If he is and is being harassed about it by his boss, he might sustain a claim that he is being terminated on account of his sexual orientation. No, I am not gay, Sreejit had politely replied though he wanted to scream at the lawyer who charged him 300 pounds an hour.

It is actually the last of the five parameters which hurts the most. He can live with an allegation of inadequate technical knowledge since he knows that it is a lie. But he cannot live down the allegation that his client handling skills need to be improved. He has been asked to work on his verbal skills so that clients can understand him better. It was the last parameter which forced him to shoot off an angry reply to Tim just before he caught the flight to India. Yes, I do speak with an accent. However, I've never had trouble communicating with anyone. That idiot who complained about my accent last month is prejudiced. He is biased. He is a racist. You don't have to believe him. Surely you know me better than that. I have been in the UK for 5 years now and my accent had always been legible. It was not as if I spend all my time talking to clients. Not more than ten percent of my time is spent with clients. I have been with the company for three years now and there has been only one complaint so far.

He knows that Tim won’t reply to his email. The Human Resources department has prepared Tim's email and any response will also be prepared by HR. They have done it many times before. The UK has some of the most employee friendly laws in the world, but if an employer wants to fire an employee, he can do so, provided he is patient and is willing to pay lip service to all the rules.

'So you don't see yourself ever returning to India, do you?' Babu asks him.

'Actually, I might. There are so many things about India I don't like, but India is still home. I will come back to Kerala one day and settle down here.'

'Really! That's very good. I thought you are....' Babu hesitates and then continues, '..you are one of those who hate India so much that they will never return.'

'Ha! Ha! Of course not! I have gained so much from my experience in the UK and when I return, I will have a lot to contribute.'

'I'm sure of that. When are you likely to return for good? Anytime soon?'

'I don't know. I may come back in a year's time, I may return after ten years. It all depends.'

Babu is too polite to ask what it depends on and merely gives Sreejit a smile as he goes back to his blackberry.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Short Story: Suicide Attack

The two fighters said their final goodbyes. Almost the entire tribe was there to see them off on their last journey. One of the attacker’s brothers was in tears. However they were used to doing things without displaying a surplus of emotions and so most eyes were dry. The decision to launch the attack had been taken less than an hour ago.

Not surprisingly, there were no prayers being said. They didn’t believe in God or in any higher being. Rationalists to an extreme degree, even the two fighters about to carry out the attack would have scoffed if someone had offered to pray for them. There were no explosives to be used. They would use their traditional weapons for the attack, weapons they had used almost from the time they were born. The massive retaliation that was expected would almost certainly kill the two fighters in a matter of seconds after the attack was launched.

They had the reputation of being the most disciplined soldiers on earth. No order was ever disobeyed, though the foot soldiers did at times think their commanders were being batty. This was one of those times. There was absolutely no strategic advantage to be gained by this attack. The enemy would be displaced for less than a few minutes before he returned to his original position. What was more relevant was that the enemy's presence so close to their camp was not doing them any damage. None of their supply routes had been blocked. They even had enough stocks to last them for a week. Nor did the enemy show any signs of planning to reinforce his position. If not attacked, the chances were that the enemy would leave on his own sooner than later. In all probability one of the commanders at the top was trying to score a few brownie points with the Chief by launching this attack.

The order was given and the two fighters moved off. They carried nothing with them, except their light weapons. They reached the enemy's base and started their ascent. The smooth polished black surface offered no fingerholds and was not particularly easy to climb. The older of the two fighters, a grizzled veteran of many wars, found the going slightly tougher than his younger mate who actually skipped along, as though he were on a picnic. Once they crossed the black heath, the ascent became entirely vertical. They would have found the going impossible if they had not be so lightly armed. Their feet kept getting entangled in the black netting which succeeded the smooth black surfalce. The younger fighter was at times tempted to lend a hand to his older mate, but he knew it would not be appreciated and so he did not make such an offer.

It had taken them ten minutes to reach the top of the black netting from the time they started their ascent at the base. They were now ready to attack. At this stage, the older fighter moved slightly ahead. He was a lot more experienced and would pick out the best place to make the initial contact. It took him a few seconds to make up his mind. By this time, the enemy most probably felt their presence. The fighters could sense the enemy forces searching for them, moving towards them. Without further delay, the older fighter launched his attack, taking care not to get entangled in the outgrowth.
He bit into the fleshy leg and his victim howled in pain. The younger fighter immediately followed suit, but as he tasted human hair, he realised that he had made the mistake he had been warned against.

'Eeks Ants!'

The enemy moved his leg a bit and the ants standing around the feet cheered. Their immediate objective had been achieved. It remained to be seen if the enemy would move away from that area entirely.

A heavy hand slapped against the trouser leg and crushed both fighters, but they continued to hold their positions, their teeth firmly clamped into the enemy's leg. The younger fighter wanted to open his jaw and take another bite that didn't include human hair, but decided against it. His current bite was not too bad, there was a decent chunk of human flesh involved, though it would have been grand if he could have avoided the hairs altogether. It was not as if he hadn't been warned. Intelligence had reported that the enemy was particularly hairy.

They felt a warm current against their back and knew their end would be coming soon. They would be dying for the benefit of their brothers, who would cease to remember them in a few hours time. Sure enough, a plump hand hit them both at the same time, killing the older fighter immediately and breaking the younger fighter's back. The trouser leg was now fully rolled up and the enemy searched out the remaining source of his pain. An index finger was used to crush the younger fighter to death.

'Bloody ants,' the victim repeated.

The two brave fighters did not die entirely in vain. May be the commander who had ordered the attack was not so stupid after all. Seeing so many of the dead fighters' comrades milling around, the enemy made a strategic decision to retreat. It remained to be seen how long the enemy would stay away.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Short Story: A Delightful Old Lady

Mark saw the old woman wave at them and ignored her. She must be waving at someone else he told himself as he struggled with little Anna in his arms and the big rucksack on his back. When the old woman waved for the second time, John spotted her and said, 'Look Mummy, she's waving at us.'

Karen turned around to look in the direction John was pointing and was rewarded with a few more waves. There was no doubt about it. The old woman standing behind the wicket gate was indeed waving at them or rather beckoning them to her.

'Mark, she's waving at us,' Karen needlessly told Mark who was by then looking in the old lady's direction.

Mark hesitated and said, 'she looks harmless. Shall we go take a look?'

'Why not?' Karen said rather crossly because she knew that John would be upset if they didn't. She was quite tired after trekking through the tea covered hills that loomed all around them. If she had a choice, she would have rather they continued their trek back to their hotel at Peermade, which was at least 30 minutes away.

As John led the way, Karen said doubtfully, 'may be she wants to ask us for money!' There had been no scarcity of beggars ever since they had landed in India two weeks ago.

'Doesn't look like it,' Mark muttered, more to himself than to Karen, as he continued to lead the way to the small cottage, which had peeling cream paint and a red roof.

'Hi!' Mark told the old woman much before he was within her hearing range. But he nodded as well and so she smiled in reply and opened the wicket gate a little bit.

She had a squeaky high pitched voice. 'I saw you people walking with the big bags and the baby and I thought you must be very, very, tired. Why don't you come in and have some tea?'

Mark was perplexed. Where he came from, people didn't invite you for tea just like that. He gaped at the old woman who was wearing a faded red pullover that came up to her knees and a skirt with some funky pleats. Karen must have been really tired because from behind she said, 'That's so nice of you. I'd like some tea. Thank you so much.'

The old woman opened the gate fully wide and walked back to the cottage, halting after every few steps so that she could turn around to see if they were following her. Mark realised that what she wore underneath her red-pullover was a saree and not a skirt.

The cottage's veranda had an assortment of potted plants, some of which definitely needed trimming. The veranda led to a small drawing room furnished with a set of three plush settees covered in red. The walls were lined with cupboards crammed with books and toys. 'Do please sit down,' the woman said. Without losing the permanent wide grin plastered on her face, the woman rang a bell. Mark and Karen sat on the edges of the largest settee wondering what was coming next. John sat in between them. Karen had Anna on her lap. The bell was rung once more. A young woman in a dirty saree materialised with a smile and a pair of enquiring eyes. A five year old child had been clinging to her saree till a moment ago, but now the child was waiting for her mother just beyond eyeshot of the guests.

'Kavitha, some tea for these fine people,' the old woman told the maid and was rewarded with a perplexed look. The order was repeated in Malayalam.

'Actually I would like a Four X,' Mark declared, only to get a sharp dig in his side from Karen.

'I beg your pardon. I don't understand,' the old woman told them. 'What would you like?'

'Oh never mind him,' Karen waved gaily at the old woman.

'I was just joking. Four X is the amber fluid we drink in Queensland,' Mark clarified.

'Never mind him,' Karen repeated yet again.

'Bring us three cups of tea,' the maid was ordered. She left the room for the kitchen, picking up her waiting daughter on the way.

'It's so good to see someone from England,' the old woman told them. 'My husband was the first Indian hired by the Beckley's Estate.'

'Actually we are Aussies, not Pommies,' Mark said. The old woman gave him a blank look.

'I have never been to England, but my husband went there once, just after the war.'

'My name is _______.' The old woman said a name which neither Mark, nor Karen caught.

'I'm sorry....I didn't get your name,' Karen said politely, her voice trailing off towards the end and waited for the old woman to repeat her name. She did not. Instead she waited for them to introduce themselves.

'I'm Mark. This is my partner Karen, my son John and my daughter Anna.'

'I'm so glad you decided to stop by for tea.'

They were all silent for a while. 'Things have changed so much, not necessarily for the better, you know..'

A sudden thought occurred to the old woman. 'Let me make sure Kavitha does not add milk and sugar to the tea,' she told them and disappeared through a door which led to the kitchen.

'Ma, can I have a lolly?' John asked as soon as the old woman left.

Instead of answering, Karen pointed at a cupboard filled with toys. 'John, oh look at that elephant! Isn't it beaut?'

'Ma, I want a lolly!' John insisted.

Mark got up and walked around, stretching himself.

'Ma, a lolly!'

'Mark, can you please take out that elephant for John?'

'I don't think we should. It looks dirty enough. The whole place is full of dust.' He walked over to a cupboard filled with books, peered inside and said, 'these books. They are so dusty and falling apart. I don't think anyone has read them in ages.'

'I want a lolly!' John said even louder. Mark quickly opened the toys cupboard and took out the elephant. For good measure, he took out a duck as well. The elephant was given to John and the duck to Anna.

John sat down on the carpeted floor and started to bounce the elephant up and down. Anna dropped the duck to the floor from where she sat on Karen's lap. Karen picked up the duck and gave it back to Anna who held on to it.

The old woman appeared with Kavitha behind her carrying a tea tray. Kavitha's daughter had tagged alongside her mother, but once again stopped just behind the curtains. 'I'm so glad I checked on Kavitha. I've told her so many times that English people like to be served tea without milk and sugar mixed in it, but she had forgotten!'

Kavitha put the tray on the table in front of Mark and Karen and went back to the kitchen.

The old woman poured out the tea.

'Milk?'

'Yes please.' 'Yes please.'

'Sugar?'

'Yes please.' 'Yes please.'

'What would your children like? Shall I get them some biscuits?'

Before Mark or Karen could reply, the old woman said, 'Kavitha can go to the shop and buy some biscuits, but it will take some time.'

'Oh! No drama. Please don't bother.'

'I was planning to buy some biscuits, but ...'

'How is you tea?'

'Ace,' Mark said.

'Pardon me?'

'It's very good.

'Do you have a lot of English visitors?'

'No, not really. Not many people come this way!'

'Don't you like the elephant?' the old woman asked John who had abandoned the elephant and was planning to renew his demand for a sweet.

John did not reply, but looked around wildly, his eyes darting from the toys cupboard to his mother.

'Would you like another toy little boy?'

The old woman walked over to the cupboard and picked out a soldier and handed it over to John.

'John, say thank you,' Karen reminded John who mumbled his thanks.

'He is such a sweet little boy. How long are you in India for?'

'Three weeks. We've done two already. Up north. Delhi, Jaipur, Agra and now we have a week in Kerala.'

'What do you do in England? Do you work for a bank or a company?'

'I manage a station. In Australia. We're Aussies you know.'

'A station? Is that a station for trains? A railway station?'

'No, for sheep. A large sheep farm.'

'You must be joking. You are not a shepherd. You must be a station manager at King's Cross or Charing Cross or Paddington.'

'It doesn't matter, does it? How long have you lived in this cottage?'

'For the last sixty years. After my husband retired, Beckley's gave him this cottage. When my husband was alive, we used to have a lot of visitors. We...

'We ought to be going,' Mark said as he put down his cup.

'John, let's put the toys back.' Mark tried to take the elephant and the soldier from John who held on to both of them.'

'Oh, let the little boy keep the toys.' The old woman turned to Anna and said, 'you can keep the duck.'

'But we can't do that,' Karen objected. 'I'm sure they are exy!'

'Please take them. There's nobody to play with them. I rarely get any visitors these days.'

'You could always give them to someone else.'

'There is no one else.'

The old woman rang the bell once again and Kavitha came in, picked up the tea tray and left, collecting her daughter from behind the curtains on the way back.

Mark and Karen continued to look hesitant.

'Would you like a plastic bag for the toys?'

'A bag would be good.'

The old woman shouted something at Kavitha's retreating back. Within a minute, Kavitha came back with a polythene bag and gave it to Mark.

'Can't do without plastic, though we call ourselves greenies.'

'I beg your pardon?' The old woman had the most politely puzzled look on her face.

'Never mind. Never mind. We got to be going. Thanks so much for the lovely tea.'

As they walked out, Karen said, 'she was such a delightful old lady, wasn't she?'

'Yup, but she was starting to yabber and she thought we were Pommies!'

'I didn't understand half of what she said.'

'Nether did I. And I doubt if she understood more than one-fourth of what we said.'

Karen giggled. 'Still, she was such a sweet, delightful old thing.'

'I guess John and Anna are the only children she has seen in a very long time!'

As they walked away, Kavitha and her daughter watched them for a while through a window. Then Kavitha went the sink and started to wash the tea cups and saucers. After she washed the cups and saucers, she kept them on the floor and told her daughter, 'here, you take this towel and wipe these cups and saucers dry.'