Category Archives: Book Excerpts

THE FREE MAN

Aditya Sudarshan

A young man stepped into the room. He was wearing a plain white shirt, with the sleeves rolled up, and blue jeans. He was clean-shaven; his hair, well-combed, was dark and glistening, and when he smiled at Madhav, he showed good teeth. Then he pulled up the chair, sat and crossed his legs in one easy motion.

‘I am very happy you have come here,’ he said. ‘Did you sleep well?’

The voice fit the face. It was jaunty, to the point of arrogance. Madhav said nothing. There had been lit, in a corner of his mind, a tiny spark of recollection.

‘Yes,’ said his captor, ‘We have met before. We have even fought before.’

He shifted his position in his chair, and pulled at the fingers on his left hand, with his right. Then he did it again, and then again and again, tightening his grasp each time, before tugging free. In between he settled on Madhav a look of encouragement. ‘Do you remember’, he seemed to be saying, and with that repetitive movement, to be assisting recollection, ‘Try and remember.’

As he watched the stranger’s hands, locking and unlocking like the seatbelts on an aeroplane, a tremendous outrage took growth inside Madhav. It seemed to him that he was being condescended, and moreover, in respect of an activity that he had no interest in undertaking, which only exacerbated the insult.

‘Who are you?’’ he said with scorn,. ‘I am not going to jog my memory. It is for you to introduce yourself. It is for you to explain yourself.’

The young man looked disappointed. He let his hands rest on his knees. ‘You’re very touchy.’ he sighed.

‘I am an officer in a Ministry of the Central Government,’ answered Madhav. ‘And I have not, as you put it, come here. I have been forcibly dragged here. I am not accustomed to being treated in this manner and I have no desire to play games. Now, will you please–’

‘It is not a game,’ said the other. ‘There is a purpose’

‘Nonsense!’ replied Madhav with an added annoyance at being interrupted, ‘There is no conceivable purpose that warrants the abduction of a free man in a free country!’

He felt now completely unafraid, even though he had put into words the very thing that had clearly happened to him. An unexpected light-heartedness was swelling within him; it bolstered his spirits; dispensed with the need to dwell on the danger. He felt suddenly that if he rose to his feet and merely waved his hand, he could sweep aside this dandy boy and the table and chair to boot, and skip free through the doorway.

But this ebullience, radiating outwards, seemed to strike his captor like a chill wind. The young man straightened his back, and crossed his arms. He fixed dark eyes on Madhav, as though to pin him to the spot where he sat.

‘That is how you spoke the last time we met.’ he said, in a voice now low and grave.

‘I think’, said Madhav, ‘I remember.’ It was indeed coming back to him. ‘We met at Vinay’s party, didn’t we? Last December?’

The young man bent his head in assent.

‘Of course, that’s right! We had a conversation too! About-’

‘About the ennui of our lives.’

‘The ennui of our lives!’ Madhav laughed. He was suddenly buoyant with good humour. ‘What else? What else does one talk about at Vinay’s parties? But I’ve forgotten your name.’

‘And the future of the country.’

‘Yes, that’s the other thing’, Madhav chuckled.

‘You were saying,’ said the young man, ‘that a sense of ennui is inevitable, when one is well-off and privileged, with no great problems of life and death to confront. No great battles to wage for oneself. No great evils to conquer.’

‘Was I?”

‘And that as the privileged few in a nation so poor and backward, we bear the additional burden of leading the way. That this burden can be heavy and wearisome at times, that it adds to our fatigue, but that a sense of its importance- and a sense of humour- will keep us going.’

‘It all sounds very wise’, said Madhav ‘so I must have said it.’

The young man’s chair went crashing to the floor. He had jerked to his feet, toppling it over in his clumsiness, but he seemed not even to flinch, so powerful was the thrust of his emotion.

‘It is a lie!’ he cried, ‘Every part of it!’

‘Ah!’ Madhav grinned delightedly, ‘I remember your name now. Sachin something or the other, right? You’re the new boy at Outlook, am I right?’

The scenes from the party floated back into his mind, in soft and pleasant hues. It had been a lovely evening, cold on the terrace, but warm with liquor, with the urbane city haze obscuring the stars, and settling comfortably over the smoke of cigarettes and the easy chatter of a familiar lot. They knew each other well, they knew who they despised, there were no surprises.

Except for this clean-cut young man, the same young man who now stood before him, shivering with passion. Vinay had introduced him around with an air of charitable amusement; clearly, he had been taken up on a purely casual invitation; perhaps he did not even recall it. But the world was small, notoriously so in the city, and Sachin was soon taken care of; various connections, more distant or less, were quickly established. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, his closest acquaintance had turned out to be the prettiest girl at the party- Monica Sharma, she of the mischievous mouth and the quick-silver intelligence. At some point in the drift of the night, they had both appeared before Madhav, and that was when the young man had showed his immaturity.

‘Never indulge in a philosophical debate if you are going to take it seriously. Now that,’ said Madhav, ‘I remember saying. Do you remember my saying it?’

‘Yes,’ said the young man. He was still on his feet. ‘And that was the biggest lie of them all.’

***

Excerpted from Aditya Sudarshan’s novel, The Persecution of Madhav Tripathi (Harper Collins India, 2015)

***

Aditya Sudarshan Photo Credit: Vidhyalakshmi Vijaykumar

Aditya Sudarshan
Photo Credit: Vidhyalakshmi Vijaykumar

Aditya Sudarshan is the author of A Nice Quiet Holiday (Westland Books, 2009), Show Me A Hero (Rupa and Co., 2011) and The Persecution of Madhav Tripathi (Harper Collins India, 2015). His short stories have been published in various magazines and anthologies. He is also the author of a number of produced plays, including The Green Room, winner of the Hindu Metroplus Playwright Award for 2011. He writes literary criticism for The Hindu Literary Review and other publications, and political satire for NDTV’s The Great Indian Tamasha.

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ALARM BELLS

Malsawmi Jacob

Fire on the mountain, run run run!

“Parte, Parte,” Thanpari’s mother shouted breathlessly. She had come back literally running from the morning market on hearing the news.

“What is it, ka nu? [i] Is a tiger chasing you?” Pari asked in her habitual joking way. “Let me get the axe to kill it,” and pretended to be going for it.

“Parte, it’s no time to joke,” her mother said, half amused, half annoyed. “Call the children and get them ready. We have to run away from here. There’s going to be war between the MNF and the Assam Rifles. With our house so near the barracks, it’s not safe to stay here.” And she told her daughter the news she had heard.

***

Some MNF men had been on a mission to capture the Quarter Guard of the Assam Rifles in Aizawl and were getting ready for the operation. They were cleaning their guns and fitting the grenades. They talked as they worked. “We must get some of the vai [ii] army heads to decorate our houses as in the olden days,” one said. They all laughed.

“Then when we have sons we can give them names like Vailukhaia,” said another.

“Or Vaikapa, Vaithata, Vaisama ” rejoined another.

“A bad idea! If you give such names to your sons, their friends will address them as ‘Vaia’. Do you really want a son called Vaia?”

“That’s right! You think you’re trying to evict vais from the land but you will be multiplying vais if you give your sons such names.”

“Ha ha ha ha!”

The crucial task ahead did weigh on their minds but the mood was upbeat.

“We are well prepared, we can expect this one to go smoothly,” said Captain Chawnghminga. “We must do it a bu ang thlap, perfectly according to the book.”

“Yes, we are almost independent now.”

More laughter.

“By this time tomorrow we will be a free country.”

A sudden hush fell over the group. The magnitude of the moment seemed to have taken hold of them.

The hand of a boy who was handling a grenade trembled. The grenade slipped out of his hand and rolled on the floor. No one knew how the pin came off. He watched in horror helpless, transfixed.

Chawnghminga acted quickly. He went down on the floor and threw himself on the grenade, covering it with his body. It went off immediately. Those who heard the sound came to see.

The house owner’s daughter, a girl of about twenty, was the first to reach the room. She gave a piercing scream and tottered out. Others ran in. Pieces of flesh were pasted on the walls. Blood was splattered all around.

The news was relayed fast. Two young men were despatched to inform the family of the victim that an accident had taken place. The youth group took charge according to normal practice. All the local people knew what to do in an emergency. They were trained for that from the moment they became teenagers.

“Booommm….” The deep bass of darkhuang sounded out in the night. In the quiet late night air, the sound travelled a long way. After a gap, another boom. And then yet another after an interval. Those who heard understood that the gong was announcing death.

Zorami, then aged eleven, woke up from her sleep. She looked towards her mother’s bed and saw that she was awake and sitting on the bed. “Ka nu, where is it from? Who has died?” she asked.

“I don’t know, it seems to be from Zarkawt side. It’s not loud enough to make out where it is. We’ll get to know in the morning. Go back to sleep.”

The swift footed ones living close by ran to the church, from where the gong sounded,   to find out who had died.

The youth flocked to the dead man’s house to keep the family company, singing hymns to comfort them. The next day, the men made the coffin and dug the grave. The funeral was held a little before noon.

After the burial, the MNF group re-assembled in another house. They were exhausted with the previous night’s ordeal, with shock and sleeplessness. But they were not able to rest. Lieutenant Thanga, the second in command of the group, addressed them.

“Captain Chawnga died to save our lives, as we all know. If he had not taken the brunt of the grenade’s force, more of us would have died. Because of that accident we could not carry out our last night’s mission. I think it is our duty to complete that work. Should we allow our captain’s sacrifice go in vain?”

Some spoke up. “If we do not carry out the task it would be a shame.”

“Yes, his spirit deserves our respect. Let’s go ahead and do what we have to do.”

“But isn’t it better to wait for some days and recover our strength?”

“No, no! Let’s strike at once.”

They stormed the Assam Rifles camp in the night. But the Rifles men were ready for them. A gun battle raged the whole night. It continued the next day too. People living in the houses nearby left their homes for safer places.

***

Thanpari was the eldest child in the family. She had just turned fourteen. Her father, a travelling trader, was out of town. As her mother told her, she herded her two brothers and two sisters. They finished their morning meal and started packing. They grabbed a few clothes and two blankets, some uncooked rice and a few food items – all they could carry, and left their home.

The youngest, Mawiteii, three years old, had to be carried. The boys, Masanga and Mathanga, aged six and eight, were excited. To them, it was fun carrying their luggage and marching out of home.   Only Hmingteii, the sister just younger to Pari and twelve years old, could understand the enormity of the situation. She trembled and wept as they left their home. They set out on foot, as they had no access to any other form of conveyance.

The family reached the outskirts of the town in the afternoon. They spent the night in the house of a distant relative, and set out again the next day after the morning meal. They were heading for the village where Pari’s grandparents and uncles were living. On the way, they met others who were also fleeing Aizawl. These talked about an all-night gun battle between “Vai sipai and Mizo sipai,” and how scared they were of getting shot in the crossfire.

As they went up on a hillside, Aizawl town was clearly visible from the path. They heard the sound of aeroplanes, and saw that they were flying low over Aizawl. Some things dropped down from the planes, loud cracking sounds and fire followed. “It’s burning, houses are burning!” some of the travellers exclaimed.

“They’re dropping bombs!”

They all watched in horror.

“If father comes home now, what will he do?” Mathanga asked in a sudden touch of worry.”

“What will we do if a bomb falls on him?” Masanga echoed the anxiety.

Their mother winced and said, “Don’t think of such terrible things. Just walk on.”

***

The group of MNF soldiers who attacked the Assam Rifles were still engaged in gun battle. Tired and sleep deprived, they fought with double ache in their hearts. They had lost Captain Chawnga but could not mourn for their saviour. Spurred on by guilt and anger, they fought ferociously.

Suddenly, a roaring sound came from above. The men looked up in the midst of their shooting and saw two aeroplanes in the sky. They put down their guns and watched in horrified fascination as some objects dropped from the planes and fell with loud bursts. Soon the houses caught fire.

“Aaahh! Awiii!” Women screamed.

“They are dropping bombs!”

Children cried, calling on their mothers.

“What shall we do?”

“Run! Run to the jungle!”

Karei Alas! It’s awful!”

“All our things are lost!”

“Where is my baby?”

“What will we do with grandpa? He can barely walk.”

“We have to carry him.”

People fled in alarm out of the town, many running with no clear idea of which way to go.

About two decades earlier, during the Second World War, there had been fears that the Japanese might reach Mizoram. But the area had stayed safe. Not one bomb of the enemy had fallen. But now, India had begun an attack on a part of its own territory. Targeting its own citizens. The Mizo people began to experience genuine terror for the first time in their national history.

In one home, Zari, a nineteen year old girl, was about to serve the morning meal when the planes roared above. A loud crash some way off, the house shook.

“Get under the beds!” Pu Luaia, the father, said. He set an example by rushing into the bedroom and crawling under the double bed. Zari and her two younger brothers, also in their teens, followed and quickly slipped in under their own beds. Mother was the slowest. “Quick! Before it hits you!” her husband said and pulled her in beside him. More blasts, but farther away. Finally, the planes roared off and became silent.

They all crawled out, shaken. “They’re likely to return. Get ready, we have to flee. Let’s go to the forest,” Zari’s father commanded. They packed in a hurry, in silence. “Take the food along, we’ll eat when we reach a safer place,” the father said. So they loaded the pots of cooked rice, vegetables and boiled chicken along with its soup in an em and set out. All carried loads, Zari carrying the basket of cooked food. The chicken soup spilled and wetted her clothes. But there was no time to go back and change. They hurried on.

On the way they met a large number of people who were fleeing too, all heading towards the woods. Just as they entered the forest, they heard the sound of aeroplanes again. They crouched under bushes.   Children cried, their mothers tried to calm them. Some of the older children were curious, and wanted to watch the planes. Pu Luaia cautioned them. “Don’t look up, the pilots can see your eyes! Hide your faces!” More crashing sounds.

Then the planes flew away and it was quiet again. The whole party camped for the night among the trees. Many of them set out for nearby villages the next morning. But Pu Luaia’s family and some others stayed on.

It was going to be a long haul.

***

Notes:

[i] ‘My mother’

[ii] Non-Mizo plains people

***

Excerpted from the forthcoming novel Zorami by Malsawmi Jacob

***

Malsawmi Jacob lives in Bangalore. She writes poems, stories and other materials, and also teaches English in a degree college as a guest lecturer.

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SHAMSHEER BARAHNAA: A SELECTION OF URDU POETRY

Javed Akhtar

THE TASTE-OF-WORDS-WEBYe khel kya hai

Mere mukhaalif ne chaal chal di hai
Aur ab
Meri chaal ke intezaar mein hai
Magar main kab se
Safed khaanon
Siyaah khaanon mein rakkhe
Kaale safed mohron ko dekhta hoon
Main sochta hoon
Ye mohre kya hain 

Agar main samjhoon
Ki ye jo mohre hain
Sirf lakdi ke hain khilone
To jeetna kya hai haarna kya
Na ye zaroori
Na vo aham hai
Agar khushi hai na jeetne ki
Na haarne ka bhi koi gham hai
To khel kya hai
Main sochta hoon
Jo khelna hai
To apne dil mein yaqeen kar loon
Ye mohre sach-much ke baadshah-o-vazeer
Sach-much ke hain piyaade
Aur in ke aage hai
Dushmanon ki vo fauj

 

Rakhti hai jo mujh ko tabaah karne ke
Saare mansoobe
Sab iraade
Magar main aisa jo maan bhi loon
To sochta hoon
Ye khel kab hai
Ye jang hai jis ko jeetna hai
Ye jang hai jis mein sab hai jaayaz
Koi ye kehta hai jaise mujh se
Ye jang bhi hai
Ye khel bhi hai
Ye jang hai par khiladiyon ki
Ye khel hai jang ki tarah ka

 Main sochta hoon
Jo khel hai
Is mein is tarah ka usool kyon hai
Ki koi mohra rahe ke jaaye
Magar jo hai baadshah
Us par kabhi koi aanch bhi na aaye
Vazeer hi ko hai bas ijaazat
Ke jis taraf bhi vo chaahe jaaye
Main sochta hoon
Jo khel hai
Is mein is tarah ke usool kyon hai
Piyaada jab apne ghar se nikle
Palat ke vaapas na aane paaye
Main sochta hoon
Agar yahi hai usool
To phir usool kya hai
Agar yahi hai ye khel
To phir ye khel kya hai
Main in savaalon se jaane kab se ulajh raha hoon 

Mere mukhalif ne chaal chal di hai
Aur ab meri chaal ke intezaar mein hai

 

What game is this?

My opponent has made a move
And now
Awaits mine.
But for ages
I stare at the black and white pieces
That lie on white and black squares
And I think
What are these pieces?
Were I to assume
That these pieces
Are no more than wooden toys
Then what is a victory or a loss?
If in winning there are no joys
Nor sorrows in losing
What is the game?
I think
If I must indeed play
Then I must believe
That these pieces are indeed king and minister
Indeed these are foot soldiers
And arrayed before them
Is that enemy army
Which harbours all plans evil
All schemes sinister
To destroy me
But were I to believe this
Then is this a game any longer?
This is a war that must be won
A war in which all is fair
It is as if somebody explains:
This is a war
And a game as well
It is a war, but between players
A game between warriors
I think
If it is a game
Then why does it have a rule
That whether a foot soldier stays or goes
The one who is king
Must always be protected?
That only the minister has the freedom
To move any which way?

I think
Why does this game
Have a rule
That once a foot soldier leaves home
He can never return?
I think
If this is the rule
Then what is a rule?
If this is the game
Then what is the name of the game?
I have been wrestling for ages with these questions
But my opponent has made a move
And awaits mine.

***

Bahadur Shah Zafar

Shamsheer barahnaa

Shamsheer barahnaa maang ghazab, baalon ki mehak phir vaisi hai
Joode ki gundhaavat qahr-e khuda, zulfon ki latak phir vaisi hai 

Har baat mein us ke garmi hai, har naaz mein us ke shokhi hai
Aamad hai qayaamat chaal bhari chalne ki phadak phir vaisi hai 

Mahram hai habaab-e aab-e ravaan sooraj ki kiran hai us pe lipat
Jaali ki ye kurti hai vo balaa gote ki dhanak phir vaisi hai 

Vo gaaye to aafat laaye hai sur taal mein leve jaan nikaal
Naach us ka uthaaye sau fitne ghunghroo ki chhanak phir vaisi hai 

The naked sword

Her hair’s parting a naked sword, its fragrance is like that
Its styling like the wrath of God, its fall is just like that.

Her every word is packed with heat, her pride is beauteous too
She enters like Armageddon, hips swaying just like that.

The flowing rivers know her well, sunbeams confide in her
Her shirt a diaphanous curse, her bangles clink just like that.

Her siren songs announce my doom, her rhythms take my life
Her dance causes a hundred fights, her anklets chime just like that.

***

Excerpted with permission from Penguin Books India, The Taste of Words: An Introduction to Urdu Poetry, edited by Raza Mir.

***

Raza MirRaza Mir teaches management at William Paterson University, USA. He is the co-author of Anthems of Resistance: A Celebration of Progressive Urdu Poetry. He can be reached at urduwallah@gmail.com.

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THE BLIND LADY’S DESCENDANTS

Anees Salim

An excerpt 

Anees Salim

I embraced atheism at the age of thirteen and a bit. At thirteen, I had finished my Quran lessons, along with Akmal. I was a quick learner, quicker anyway than Akmal, who saw the hand of Allah in everything. We had a young Quran instructor who came to the Bungalow every evening on a rickety bicycle, the end of his white turban flying behind him like a kite’s tail as he rode down the drive. We never got to know his name, having called him ‘Ustaad’ for the four years he taught us the Quran. He ate quickly and noisily, and left the china so spotless that Jasira could study her face on the rice plate after he had eaten at the Bungalow. Once he wound up the class, ate and left, he doubled as the night muezzin at the town mosque, and we heard him call the pious to prayer through the microphone: a long, melodious wail billowing down the railroad and funnelling into the house through the dense front garden. As the singsong swept into the Bungalow and Mother, Jasira and Sophiya hastily pulled shawls over their heads, I would think of the whistles from the railroad, of the head that appeared over the wall and the dung pack that landed on the dark face with a soft plop. But I was never sure and never resorted to blackmailing. You can’t crucify a young mullah for things he might just not be guilty of.

He taught us the order of ablution on the portico steps, and watched over us as we practised namaaz in the living room; crossing hands, kneeling down, pressing our foreheads against prayer rugs spread between ancient furniture. He reviewed our namaaz afterwards, always giving me better grades than he gave Akmal.

There are so many rules to say your prayer. If you break wind during namaaz, you break a big rule, and you are to discontinue the prayer then and there, with no second thoughts. That was one important thing I learned from Ustaad. The rest I forgot. During Friday prayers, Asif’s father stuck shamelessly to this decree, rushing off to the artificial pond behind the mosque for fresh ablutions. Once, he left the prayer hall soon after the namaaz had begun, and I watched him from the corner of my eye as he squatted on the pond’s edge for another wudu. Then, as he was retracing his steps to the prayer hall, he froze at the doorway; after a moment, still dripping from the ablution, he went right back to the pond again. I had somehow ended up in the front row that Friday, near an arched doorway with a view of the activities outside the prayer hall. Arms crossed on the chest, lips quivering with prayers, I tried to fight down a sudden convulsion of sniggers. But the more I tried to suppress it, the deeper it left me in stitches. I prayed harder, just to erase the image of Asif’s father falling into the water and the pond bubbling up around his waist. But deep inside me, I heard echoes of laughter, like a group of television audience guffawing.

‘Come here,’ the imam beckoned me to his corner once the prayer ended and people were pouring out of the mosque.

I went and sat on my knees near him, my fingers interlocked and placed between my thighs, my face red and innocent like I was born only half an hour ago.

‘You came here to say your namaaz?’

I nodded. I was already repenting. Honestly repenting.

‘Making fun of me is how you say your namaaz?’

The imam was a thin old man with a goatee the colour of marshmallows. If you got your head stuck in a mountain of marshmallows, this was how you looked when someone pulled you out, a big white fluff sticking under your chin.

‘No, no,’ I stuttered.

‘I saw you imitating me, step by step.’

I looked helplessly at his goatee, imagining his marshmallows being gnawed up by rats soon after he got buried. When malaa`ikah came to question him like constables, to quiz him about his sins and saintly deeds, to qualify him for heaven or otherwise, what would they see? A rat-fight inside the grave for his goatee?

‘You were also making faces at me.’

False charges! What bloody cooked-up charges!

Having finally gained confidence and control over his wind mechanism, Asif’s father strode into the nearly empty mosque, leaving on the aisle wet footprints, which faded quickly from the olive floor. He chose a mat near a doorway and made preparations to say his namaaz. As he knelt down and touched his forehead on a square of sunlight, the imam tapped me on the knee and asked for my address.

If I told him I was from the Bungalow I would have been spared further rebuke, he would have let me off with a stern warning; such was the esteem the Bungalow enjoyed in those days. But I sat with my head down, guarding the Bungalow with lips sealed tight.

‘Have you gone dumb?’ he asked again. ‘What’s your name?’

‘Asif,’ I said on an impulse.

‘What’s your father’s name?’

Asif’s father was crouching down again in the patch of sunlight, bowing carefully in the direction of Kaaba. I pointed a shivering finger at the Big Fart.

‘You are Dr Ibrahim’s son?’ the imam asked, stroking his goatee, looking mildly impressed and terribly upset at the same time.

‘Yes,’ I mumbled.

‘Go and wait till your father finishes his namaaz.’ With a twig-like finger he showed me where to wait for my temporary father, by a pillar in the veranda that overlooked the graveyard, which suited me just fine; I slunk away the moment his eyes wandered off me.

Next Friday, I realized how strongly Akmal resembled me—at least to Mr Goatee and Dr Big Fart—when he returned from the mosque, grinding his teeth and muttering under his breath. He had been cornered by the imam and the doctor, who grilled him until Ustaad intervened and told the raging duo that Akmal belonged to the Bungalow—the vital information I had taken pains not to divulge. I had ducked Friday prayers and sat with Sandip in the tunnel, watching trains as they bore past us with a swish, a clank and a blare bundled into one thundering bang. I haven’t gone back to the mosque since, unless it was for a burial in its backyard. And burials have been adime-a-dozen since.

Though it was Dr Ibrahim’s farting fit that had initiated me into atheism, I guess the real catalyst had always been inside me, even when I sat for the Quran lessons and learned verse after verse by heart, probably even before I knew something called atheism existed. Let me put it this way: prior to Akmal being pulled up in the mosque, I was fifty per cent atheist, after that, cent percent.

The Bungalow has a history of accommodating staunch believers and religious rebels alike. My paternal grandfather was a scholar in Arabicone of the best, they say, in the whole country. My father was indeed a theist, but not the mosque-going, rain-or-shine-I-will-pray type. All the womenfolk, down several generations, have been the god-fearing ones. Akmal, who refused to attend prayers for a fortnight after that fateful Friday, turned a stauncher Muslim by the third week and returned to the mosque in a Kufi cap.

At first he donned the Kufi cap only for Friday prayers. Then it became permanent on him, as stupid as the head it sat on. He even started to wear it to the industrial training centre where they taught him to rip open a transistor and fix everything back with a soldering iron. (Jasira boasted to her friends that Akmal was being trained as an electronic engineer, and later in life she would pay the price, pai by pai, for such heartless lies.) He shaved off his developing moustache and let his beard grow, which graduated into a chin-curtain variety in five weeks flat. In due course, his piety became so well known in our family circles that one of our uncles returned from Hajj with a handful of souvenirs for him. Things I would not have given a second glance: a turquoise blue tasbih, a bottle of zam-zam water and a car hanging of Kaaba, which was nothing but a tiny black cube with golden calligraphy on a yellow strip near the top. He never grew sick of working his fingers on the beads of tasbih and had a small measure of zam-zam water every night, like an appetizer, until there was not a drop more to be had. The car hanging he gave to Mother, who hung it above her bed, and it remained there for years, untouched, indifferent.

***

Anees SalimAnees Salim is an advertising professional employed with Draft FCB Ulka. He is the author of The Vicks Mango Tree (HarperCollins) and Vanity Bagh (Picador). His third novel Tales from a Vending Machine will be published by HarperCollins in July.

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Home, Where All the Stories Are Born

Kaushik Barua

© Divya Adusumilli

© Divya Adusumilli

1947: Kham, Tibet 

In the semi-darkness of Lhasang’s childhood evenings, his father Dadul enacted the life of King Gesar of Ling.

Dadul leapt and swirled, dodging arrows here, thrusting a sword there. The sleeves of his chuba, hanging well below his hands, rustled as they kept up with his heroics.

‘I am King Gesar,’ said Dadul, ‘sent by the gods to save the dharma. And to kill the enemies of the Buddha.’ He swung his sword in a wild arc.

The performance ended with Dadul swooping down to lift Lhasang into the air. Or it ended when both father and son were grounded as Pema, Lhasang’s mother, hustled them into the kitchen for dinner.

Lhasang was six when he first saw a Gesar performance outside his house. That was when the wandering drungpas who performed the epic visited their village. As soon as he heard about their arrival, Lhasang ran to the tent that had been set up for the bards. ‘Hurry up, Apa,’ he said to Dadul who followed, panting, behind him.

But when he got there, his enthusiasm was dampened by his first sight of the performers. They were so quiet, sitting placidly on the cushions.

‘But they look … they look …’ he turned to Dadul, ‘so ordinary.’

‘That’s because they’re saving their energy,’ said Dadul.

‘For what?’

‘For the evening. When they perform. Just wait, and you’ll see.’

That evening, Lhasang got to sit right in front, the children forming the first ring around the bards. Beside a bonfire, dried barley flour was sprinkled to make a temporary stage for the singers. The evening began with a prayer for the long life of Kundun. After the gods had been pleased, the drungpas began. Their shoulders were padded, heavy gold brooches hung down their chests. And from the crowns on their heads, four poles with flags shook in the wind as they leapt, their arms slicing the air. They were giants in the evening.

As the embers faded, Lhasang heard the whispers rippling through the audience. Those closer to the arena swore they saw hoof marks appear in the barley-tsampa powder as Gesar’s ghost joined them. Lhasang felt the chilly night close in. He looked behind him and saw Dadul, one eye fixed on Lhasang. Dadul smiled at him. Lhasang turned back towards the performance and peered through the flames, scouring the ground for Gesar’s presence.

Later, he admitted to Dadul that he was scared. ‘Remember Kundun,’ said Dadul. ‘He will always keep you safe.’

Lhasang heard that many of the drungpas had learnt the epic by magic. At home, he told Pema his theory: ‘They wake up from sleep and they already know all the verses. It’s a seed of magic in their heads.’

But Pema was quick to dislodge this idea. ‘All magic is nonsense,’ she said. ‘You see, sometimes real life can be more magical. Hundreds of times, the story has been passed from an old man’s lips to a young man’s ears. Each time one dies, another takes his place. Isn’t that magic?’

‘Actually, I don’t care if it’s magic or not,’ said Lhasang. ‘I still prefer Apa’s performance.’

Three hours by horse from his village, Riwoche, there was a monastery. But Lhasang had heard more about the Jokhang temple in Lhasa than about the Riwoche monastery. When people returned from Lhasa, the whole village sat around them as they stretched their arms to show how big the city was. It was bigger than the eye could see, they said.

‘Do you have to cross rivers?’ Lhasang asked one of the pilgrims.

‘Many,’ he replied, ‘but one sight of the Jokhang, and it’s all worth it’.

But Pema never allowed Lhasang anywhere near the river skirting their village. ‘You do not ever enter the river!’ Pema screamed and pulled his ear when she saw him step into the water once. ‘Do you want to be taken away by the naga spirits hiding there?’

‘But then, how will I ever see the Jokhang?’ Lhasang asked.

He often heard of villagers making the trek to the nearby Riwoche monastery. ‘The pilgrims there have big hearts. And they have bigger bags of silver,’ said Dadul. ‘You can sell them anything.’

Lhasang knew that Dadul went further than most, braving expeditions to different corners of the country. He returned from his excursions with goods that could again be fed into other travellers’ routes. All of Dadul’s merchandise eventually reached the large cities: Kathmandu to the south, Chamdo in the east or Lhasa across many rivers to the west. Often the dregs of his exchanges were stored at home, momentarily a treasure trove for Lhasang: tea from Yunnan dried into cakes and wrapped with yak hide, salt from the lakes of the northern Changtang plateau. And the most bewitching of his father’s hauls—rare gems like coral, lapis or turquoise—which in other hands and ears would have denoted nobility. In Lhasang’s palms, they were just bright seductive playthings.

The world seemed safe to Lhasang, but as Dadul and Pema reminded him, it was not. Their village was part of Kham, an eastern province of Tibet. And since nature refused all that humans needed, they had to steal from one another. Nomads who roamed Kham ambushed trading caravans, forcing a somewhat fair redistribution that a frugal geography denied. A good bargain didn’t guarantee a successful deal. A trader needed a sure foot and a surer gun. But Dadul never carried a weapon.

‘Why don’t you carry a gun?,’ Lhasang asked Dadul during one of his daily prayers.

‘Come here.’ Dadul patted his knee. He fished out an amulet hanging from his neck. ‘You see this?’

Lhasang held the cylinder; little paper scrolls were crammed inside.

‘This is from the Jokhang. The House of the Lord in Lhasa. All the gods that protect Bod, our nation Tibet, have blessed this. You must remember—if the gods want to protect you, then no human can touch you. And if the gods want you dead, then no gun can save you.’

‘All the gods? How many are there in Tibet?’

Dadul screwed his eyes closed. ‘I don’t know. As many gods as there are humans. But if you have to choose one, then choose Kundun, our Dalai Lama. The whole world knows his power. He watches over all of Tibet. The whole of our country Bod might be just a swamp, but he is the lotus. He will always keep you safe.’

‘Then how come you’ve never told me any stories about him?’

‘Because he has just been found; he is still a boy. There are many miracles that he will perform in his life, but we have to wait. Do you want to hear the tale of Padmasambhava tonight—the man who taught Buddhism to Bod?’

‘No, Apa, I don’t want to hear about any more lamas,’ said Lhasang. ‘Tell me about the man with the black cloak. The assassin.’

‘Lhalung Pelgyi Dorje.’ Dadul smiled and started. ‘The man who conquered fear. And killed the godless king …’

For Lhasang the boundaries of fear lay much closer, at the sight of the neighbour’s Mastiff, straining at a rope that tied him to the door. Thankfully his mother Pema was always available, clapping at the dog to repel evil spirits. Lhasang believed Pema could do anything, even transform the nature of things: she could whip clumps of yak hair into balls of fluff. She could transform yak milk into hard balls of cheese that he kept snuggled in his mouth for hours. Pema was his protector.

Lhasang’s play zone was restricted to their courtyard, under the sometimes watchful, sometimes vicious eyes of the neighbour’s dog. In fact, occasionally, if Lhasang was being too frisky and Pema was busy in the kitchen, she would bundle him into a blanket so he couldn’t disappear into the hills outside. She would leave him squirming inside the blanket, dumped on his mattress, for an hour or two.

‘That is no way to treat a six year old,’ Dadul said to Pema’s back.

‘What do you know about how to treat children?’ Lhasang heard Pema retort.

‘Well, I have one, don’t I?’

‘I’ll let him out when I finish cooking,’ Pema said and, from his blanket-world, Lhasang heard the ladle scratch the soup bowl. ‘You don’t know your own son, Dadul. He only pretends to obey, he never does. He needs hard love. Especially if he is to survive Kham.’

Thus Lhasang grew up between reality and stories. Pema rebuked him all the time: ‘Don’t go out alone,’ ‘Don’t tease that dog,’ ‘Don’t stand behind the mule when it’s eating.’

And Dadul fed him stories every evening: about Padmasambhava who came to Tibet from the Swat valley at the insistence of the ruler Trisong Detsen; who subdued the demons of the land, spread the words of the Buddha; who even convinced his consort—temporarily converted into a flying tigress—to give him a lift to Bhutan where he worked his wonders again. About Milarepa, who started his life with great evil but found enlightenment later; whose heart was as white as his robes and whose skin turned as green as the nettle tea he drank all day.

‘Why do you have to spend all your time telling him these fantastic tales?’ Pema sighed.

‘Because,’ said Dadul, ‘these are the saints who have created Bod. Who have shown us the dharma.’

‘Saints?’ said Pema. ‘Now Bod has more bandits than we have saints.’

Lhasang nodded at both of them.

For Losar, when the year was turning new, his parents took Lhasang to the nearby monastery. Their mules followed the river north for a few hours, first cantering along the road, then grappling with the slush of the narrow path where the river lapped the foot of the hills, and finally climbing a ridge from where they could see the Riwoche monastery. For Lhasang, it was a spectacular sight: a massive, squat building, like a giant wrestler crouching on his toes. The vertical stripes of red, white and brown on the walls enhanced the height of the main structure, but it was the breadth—spanning almost half a mile—that seemed extraordinary. There was a smaller second floor with a shingled roof that curved outwards. On top, in the centre, a spire-like tower rose from the roof like a lotus stem. And though he had heard of many wondrous buildings in the tales that filled his evenings, this immense structure now seemed very alien, even frightening.

Dadul swung Lhasang down from the mule. He was dressed in a chuba like his father, swathes of lambskin hanging down from both shoulders and tied at his waist by a leather belt.

They entered through the huge doors on the eastern flank into the monastery’s courtyard. It must look imposing even when bare; now it seemed endless, filled with a sea of praying monks in their orange robes. On the fringes the crowd pushed forward but still couldn’t detach itself from the walls.

Lhasang walked into the hall, and was lost at once in the all-embracing chaos of the monastery.

The crowd of the faithful had a life of its own, swirling like the ocean that the gods had churned for nectar. Darker clumps of chubas filtered into the lake of orange that led the chanting. Initially the three of them hugged the walls; even Dadul was taken aback by the thousands of people who had gathered. Guttural incantations bounced off the walls till echo and voice met midway.

As the crowd sank further into faith, Dadul shut his eyes. Pema, usually wide-eyed in vigilance, also shut herself off in prayer. Lhasang stood in front, his vision blocked by the grey–brown walls of people around him. He couldn’t figure out which way the crowd was moving, like the gods that he had heard no one could understand.

Soon, Lhasang had been swept away by a surge of the devout. There was no way he could move on his own, or find his way back. When he realized he had been separated from his parents, he looked to the walls for reference. He saw the statues and murals lining the hall, but no sign of Dadul or Pema. Among the numerous Buddhas, he saw the thousand-armed version of Avalokiteshwara, an eye embedded in each palm, all of them looking down at Lhasang’s despair. He felt sick; it seemed like the prayers were rising from everywhere. While putting on his Khampa warrior act, he could whip his hair around to his mouth, so long had his braid grown, and he could ride his horse into battle with a dagger clenched between his teeth. However, this bravado had melted. Soon the gods too seemed to be mocking him. You Khampa warrior! You little Gesar! You can’t even find your parents now? He clawed his way through the legs around him, but none of the lurching figures were his parents.

His screams for ‘ama’ and ‘apa’ faded into the chants. And the reverberations that shuddered through him gave birth to many fears: not seeing his parents again, never being able to find his way back home. He tried to remember home; maybe thinking about it would somehow bring it closer. He remembered the ground floor of his house, his feet shuffling through the straw, the four mules tethered to the central pole, chewing their fodder and shitting; he remembered feeling his way along the yak dung wall till he reached the inclined tree trunk, climbing the trunk to his parents’ bedroom, walking to the little corner where his mattress lay bundled.

Suddenly, Lhasang was back in the anguish of the monastery—a large hand had clamped down on his shoulder.

‘Are you Dadul’s little one?’

‘La-yin. Yes, I am Dadul’s son.’

‘We’ve been combing the crowd for you. Where did you disappear?’

The man had his hair tied in loops above his head, wrapped in a black tassel and topped with a silver nugget. A turquoise earring dangled from his left ear and was almost as long as his beard. His name was Dawa, he said, and he was a senior official of the region. He was part of the crew of searchers his parents had wailed into action when they realized the little hand holding on to Dadul’s chuba was not Lhasang’s.

‘Come, let’s go find your parents. They must be going crazy.’

Dawa grasped Lhasang’s hand and eased his way through the gathering. Lhasang held on tight. They searched all over the monastery, squeezing through the crowd, but couldn’t find his parents.

‘Where are Dadul and Pema?’ Dawa roared at the crowd.

A hail of replies followed.

‘They went upstairs.’

‘No, Dadul went up to the ridge.’

‘Pema was talking to the dob-dob lamas; they’re riding towards the river now.’

‘Bah,’ said Dawa. ‘I have to leave for the village. Tell Dadul I’ve found him and I’ll be taking him back home. I’m not leaving him here with all you lkug-pa, fools—you will lose him again. Tell them to come back, no need to scamper all over the hills.’

They didn’t wait for Dadul; Dawa was an impatient man. And Lhasang didn’t know what to say as Dawa explained, muttering under his breath, the need for communication in such times.

Dawa pitched Lhasang onto one of his yaks and they set off for Riwoche. While Dawa and the other men gripped the yaks with their legs, Lhasang’s legs stuck out on both sides, and he had to rely on the good temper of his ride for safety. Each time the yak hunched over to climb a slope, he had to grab a handful of its hair to stay perched. And when the yaks flagged, one of Dawa’s servants whipped out a large stone and pounded their behinds, and the beasts—mildly irritated—picked up the pace again.

When they crossed the bend in the river, Lhasang knew the village would sneak out from behind the next hill. And soon, despite the reluctant yaks, he would be home. Where he could sink, like butter in his morning tea, into the world where he belonged.

Excerpted with permission from Windhorse (HarperCollins India, 2013)

Kaushik Barua 2Kaushik Barua has lived in Guwahati, Delhi, London and Rome. He graduated in economics from St. Stephen’s College in New Delhi and subsequently studied international politics and economics at the London School of Economics. He is currently based mostly in Rome where he is working with the United Nations. Windhorse is his first novel.

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THE GIRL FROM NONGRIM HILLS

Ankush Saikia

The Girl from Nongrim Hills
Ankush Saikia

When Bok reached there were a couple of cars on the road below Sandra’s house. As he parked in his usual place under the streetlight Bok saw four youths coming down the lane on the other side of the road. They were all well built, with short haircuts, and there seemed something wrong about them. He locked his bike and stood there for a while, watching as they got into a silver-grey Indica with a taxi permit sticker on its windshield. The car turned around and headed back towards Jingkieng. As it passed the streetlight the driver turned to look at Bok: he had a swarthy face with a deep scar on the right side from cheekbone to chin, and was now wearing a red baseball cap. Bok knew what was wrong; they didn’t belong here in this locality, he had never seen them around here before. He crossed the road and started walking up the dark, narrow lane. From up above he could hear music coming from Sandra’s house. He was halfway-up when someone hissed at him from the trees beside the track.

“Bok! Come here.”

He could vaguely make out his brother, sitting in the dark on what looked like a fallen tree trunk. Bok’s first impression was that he was drunk already. He took out his cell phone and put on the torch and went forward a few steps, only to be shocked by the sight of Kitdor’s bloody, swollen face.

“What happened?” he asked, squatting down beside his brother. “Who did this?”

Kitdor spat out a gob of something that looked like blood, and said, “I’ll tell you. First help me get to the back of the house.”

Bok helped Kitdor to his feet, and with his brother leaning on him they went up the lane, opened the gate, and went around the house to the back. They could hear the shouts of the children from within the house. Kitdor asked him to open the storeroom door and put on the light, and he limped over to a moorah amid the dusty household clutter and sat down holding his right leg. Bok leaned his guitar case against a wall.

“I hope you don’t have any fractures,” he said, looking down at Kitdor.

“Who knows. I’ll have to check. Can you go and call kong? Tell her to get me a dabor of hot water, there should be some in the kitchen, and a cloth, I can’t go in looking like this.”

As Bok turned around his brother added, “And tell Jerry to get me some whiskey.”

Inside, the party was going on at full tilt. The kitchen and the dining area were full of his sister-in-law’s relatives, and after that came loud music and children chasing one other around the house. Some of the early guests had started eating dinner, while the drinkers were popping behind a closed door. He found the maidservant, and next Jerry, and repeated his brother’s instructions to them. His nephew came running up to him, followed by his excited friends. Bok picked him up for a kiss, and gave him his present.

“Thank you mama Bok!” the child shouted, and was off again.

“When did you get here? Have you seen Kit?”

He turned to find Sandra standing behind him, wearing her usual red lipstick and heavy coat of blush on the cheeks. He hesitated for a second.

“Bah Hep’s behind in the storeroom.”

“What is he doing there?”

Bok beckoned her to follow him.

They went through the crowded kitchen to the rear of the house and then into the storeroom. Bok pushed the door open to find his brother wiping himself clean with a wet cloth, an aluminium basin of faintly reddish water in front of him, while Jerry, who happened to be Sandra’s cousin, was putting together a drink in a plastic glass.

“What happened to you?” Sandra shrieked. “Today is your son’s birthday!”

Kitdor mumbled something as he dipped the cloth in the water once again.

“What’s wrong with you I don’t understand!” she continued. “Clean yourself up and come inside, all right? Everyone is asking where you are.”

She glared at her husband and at her cousin before stomping off. Bok noticed she hadn’t asked his brother what had happened, or if he was hurt. That was the way she was, more concerned about the party than her husband. After she was gone Kitdor gently told Jerry to get back to the house, saying he would follow in a while. Bok lit a cigarette, poured himself a stiff whiskey, and sat down on the edge of an old wooden chest. The door had been left ajar and he could hear the rain starting to come down on the cemented ground. Six years his brother had lived in this house. He looked at Kitdor pressing the cloth dipped in hot water to one of his cheekbones. They looked similar, the two of them, and their hairstyle was the same, with the side parting on the right side. People could make out they were brothers at first glance—only Bok had a thin moustache and goatee while his brother was clean shaven. He remembered the Indica driver’s face, the deep scar and the fierce stare, and an involuntary shiver went through him.

Bok passed the cigarette to Kitdor, and his brother took a deep drag before speaking. He said, “I need your help. I need 50 lakhs.”

“What?” Bok said, not believing what he had heard.

“I need 50 lakhs within the next seven days. Otherwise they’ll kill me.”

“But 50 lakhs for what?” Bok demanded; he could feel something constricting his chest and couldn’t breathe properly. “Who’s going to kill you?”

Kitdor took a drink from the glass Jerry had given him and put in back on the floor. He took off his half shirt and, sitting there in his vest, started wiping his arms.

“I’ll tell you how it all happened,” he said. “A couple of weeks ago an old contact of mine from Guwahati called me. Said he knew some people who were looking for guns. Now it just so happened that …”

Excerpted from The Girl From Nongrim Hills by Ankush Saikia (Penguin Books India)

***

Ankush Saikia was born in Tezpur, Assam in 1975. He grew up in Madison, Wisconsin; Assam; and Shillong, Meghalaya. He has worked in journalism and publishing in New Delhi. In 2005, he was on the shortlist for the fourth Outlook/Picador-India non-fiction writing award. He has published two books so far. The first, Jet City Woman, a short novel set in Delhi and Northeast India, was published by Rupa & Co. in 2007. Spotting Veron and Other Stories is his second book, also published by Rupa & Co., in 2011.

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THE KING’S HARVEST

Chetan Raj Shrestha

The King's Harvest Chetan Raj Shrestha Aleph Book Company 2013 English Fiction/Paperback pp 150/INR 350

The King’s Harvest
Chetan Raj Shrestha
Aleph Book Company 2013
English Fiction/Paperback
pp 150/INR 350

Tontem had gathered his motherless family the evening before his departure – Chyadar, Cimit, Batti and Turist, all named after precious objects. Chyadar was the eldest, with a strength that came close to matching Tontem’s own. He had seen thirty-two winters, and spent the last ten years in a continuous grumble for a wife. Cimit was fifteen winters younger and his elder brother’s faithful helper. He caused an annual inconvenience when he disappeared before the rains to shake off the wandering spell that came over him. Batti was at an age when her father inspected the corner she slept in every morning for the crimson evidence of womanhood. And Turist, the youngest, had seen eight winters, enough to know that his brothers were the mightiest people in the world. Tontem’s second wife, Wangmo, had died giving birth to Turist on a day when the floor of the forest was strewn with the white flowers of the chilauney trees, an observation that made him remember her with fondness at least once a year.

Dinner was extravagant that evening. They slaughtered their smallest hen and sprinkled the last of their stock of salt on it. As always, Tontem and Chyadar ate most of the meat, and they passed on the bones with remnants of flesh to Cimit and Batti, and then to Turist who sucked out the marrow from hidden hollows and made whistles out of the leg bones. After dinner, Batti and Turist cleared the hearth blackened by years of soot and whispered to each other about what lay beyond their valley.

Turist asked his father where they were going. Tontem scratched his deformed ears where 8he experienced a perennial itch and said, “To Kaila Sardar’s house at Yeigang.”

He told them of his decision: he would leave in the morning for Yeigang, four hills away, accompanied by Batti and Turist, all carrying samples of the harvest. They would reach at sundown and there Tontem would find respite from a mystery that had haunted him for six harvests. Why, after twenty-nine years, had Kaila Sardar, the king’s trusted and punctual collector, and Tontem’s only friend, stopped coming to Lhaizalzed from Yeigang to collect the king’s share of the harvest? Was he sick, had he left Yeigang, and did he know of the decaying harvest in a damp barn which stank throughout the valley while pests buzzed around it as if it were a giant corpse? And worse, the harvests this year portended to be the most sumptuous in all his time at Lhaizalzed. Tontem and his children had all seen the precision of the rains and felt the saplings stiffen under their touch.

But in a way, Tontem already knew what he would discover at Yeigang. Two days ago, he had seen his friend in a dream wearing new clothes, and he had woken up with the knowledge that Kaila Sardar had already passed from this life to the next.

“We need some salt. And I think my friend has fallen,’ he said to his children.

Tontem became reflective then, as he often did after eating meat. He scratched the soles of his feet, to take care of the incessant itch that had nagged him since his dream. The tiny flaps of skin over his ears drooped as he repeated for his children the only story that he knew, the story of his life, and one that, like their salt, had to be consumed a bit at a time and over many seasons.

The tale that Tontem told his children, of his origin and his fortune, is one that cannot be told in his words, for those words are weary and taking their last breaths in our world, spoken by only a scattered few who cannot find their way to a common house. So it must be recounted in a borrowed tongue, as must the events that followed his departure from Lhaizalzed. These words will be embroidered by imagination and betrayed by memory and should be tolerated only because they contain more prophecy than faith, and more faith than fidelity.

*

Many years ago, when his children were forest animals that had not yet entered the realm of humans, Tontem was a child in Toring village, situated on a red-soiled hill far away towards the setting sun. The houses of the village freckled the hill, and at its centre was the Toring Yabla’s estate, where Tontem had been born. And precisely in the middle of the estate was a large two-storied Kothi, painted as blue as the Losoong sky and so spacious that fifty people could sleep in it. At its head was the giant-shouldered Yabla who had married the bloodless Chumla for an heir. The Chumla had given him a son after eight years of marriage and then refused to share his bed on the irrefutable grounds that her duty was done and her freedom fairly won.

From Toring the Kanchenjunga range appeared as a distant and majestic rock which began the day as naked as an infant and by mid-day had settled on a throne of clouds. Between the village and the mountains, there was a hill whose slope resembled the back of a sleeping dragon. On the crest of the dragon’s back stood a golden-roofed monastery from which rose occasional plumes of smoke and, on auspicious mornings, the sonorous rhythms of the gyalings that travelled through the air to reach Tontem’s ears as he slept in the servant’s hut which he shared with his mother.

Sometimes Tontem had to sleep alone when the Yabla sent for his mother to prepare a dish whose knowledge was her preserve alone. She told Tontem that it was a heathen confection which took all night to make and had to be eaten in the greatest secrecy. It was the source of the Yabla’s strength and wisdom. But he could tell no one, not even Palden, for if word did get out, there would be a death curse on the cook, his mother. Tontem never got to see, smell or taste the dish, and he still thought of it sometimes, fifty years later.

Tontem’s mother belonged to a clan from the mountains that had stayed sequestered throughout history and had come down to the hills only in the last century, attracted by the advantages of agriculture. They came down first to the land of the Tibetans, then lower down to those of the Lepchas and were on their way to acclimatization by the foothills, which the Nepalis had recently made home. They spoke a language that had evolved in isolation, and which differed from the other prevalent ones, because it had as many signs as sounds. There were many of his kinsmen in the areas around Toring. Some had converted to Buddhism and worshipped at Dragonback Monastery. A great many worked in the estate and their language was common within it, spoken amongst others by the Yabla, who had learnt it only to better oversee the workers in his fields.

Tontem’s mother told him how she had come to Toring as a child, and seen her mother die from diseases they had no protection against. She had grown up in the Kothi, and had never married despite the numerous clansmen who had sworn to look after her. Tontem’s birth had been a miracle, for it had been a fatherless affair. But it was not this wizardry that got Tontem noticed in the estate. It was his ears. Instead of the mushroomed folds that everyone possessed, he had been born with two flaps of cartilage that drooped like winter leaves over pea sized holes. They mocked him on some days and revered him on others, for they had no way of telling whether his deformity was an auspicious curse or evidence of a damnable previous life. When Tontem asked his mother about it, she told him that it was because he had been a fish in his previous life, and had swum the waters of the mountain lakes, while the other servants had been large-eared dogs scavenging for shit. Tontem learnt to grow his hair until it covered his ears and the taunts receded. The solution was partial, though, for while the hair shielded his ears from sight and ridicule, a slight bump on either side of his head was always visible. Nevertheless the ruse held for decades until his destiny withdrew the protection and he went bald soon after the birth of his youngest child.

Tontem found respite in the company of Palden, the Yabla’s youngest son. He was the only one whose mockery Tontem was spared, because, having an eye smaller than the other, he knew the torments of a deformity. When Tontem was as old as Turist was now, they were together all the time. One day in particular was especially memorable. It was after the Saga Dawa festival, on the fifteenth day of the fourth Buddhist month, which commemorates the birth, enlightenment and pari-nirvana of the Enlightened Sage. The two friends, who were the same size, nicked Palden’s silken festival clothes from the clotheslines in the yard. Tontem wore these clothes and discovered that Palden and he could pass off as brothers. And so they went to the men in the fields and announced their brotherhood. Yes, you are brothers, the men said and laughed to each other. Then they went to the maids in the kitchen and the scullery. Of course, the two of you look alike, they said and laughed. Then they went to the Yabla, who laughed the loudest of all and asked them to tell that to the Chumla, Palden’s mother. The Chumla looked at them, sniffed, stripped the silk off Tontem, and sent him naked to his mother, who whipped him so hard that he had to sleep on his stomach for a month.

“Never forget you are a servant unless you want to die eating money,” she said.

By his thirteenth year, Tontem was almost as tall as the Yabla and as broad shouldered, while the Yabla’s own son, Palden, remained slight and pale, a reflection of his mother. As he grew older, Tontem came to resemble the Yabla more visibly, making his mother blush and leaving him secretly happy. He resented his miraculous conception and would have preferred the parentage of the Yabla, so strong that no bears had been seen in Toring since his birth. As the resemblance grew, jealousy twisted the minds of their fellow servants until there came a time when Tontem worked in the fields with men who would not speak to him and his mother worked in the kitchen with women who would not stop talking. She spat on their contempt and asked Tontem to ignore them. The rest were servants, she said, because they either had the iron burden of debt on their backs or the stamp of slavery on their souls, while Tontem and his mother were so because the Yabla was taking time to make up his mind about which house and how many fields to give them for their superior skills.

During Tontem’s fifteenth year, after the first maize harvest, word of the secret dish must have escaped from the Yabla’s private kitchen for his mother lost the blood from under her fingernails. Two months later the tip of her nose began to sweat, a month later her hearing disappeared, and her exhaled breath turned as cold as the wind at midnight. The fever took away her senses of taste and smell, her limbs lost their heat and when a black mark appeared in the centre of her tongue the village shaman was called in to exorcise the curse. He emerged from his trance admiring the ferocious tenacity of the spirit that had possessed her. The blood emanating from her mouth increased from a dribble to a stream, and seven hours after the shaman conceded defeat she vomited out her intestines and went still. When they laid out her corpse, it was as pale as the khadas they had garlanded it with. After her death ceremonies they burnt pine leaves for a week to purify the kothi. Then the Yabla called Tontem and gave him some money.

He then said, “Your ears are like paper because of your past sins.”

To atone for those sins, the Yabla asked him to go to the Dragonback Monastery, whose monks were his clansmen and were expecting him. Tontem was touching money for the first time in his life and his steps staggered under the weight of the three coins. The Yabla also gave him some remnants of old brocades, speckled with green, yellow and red, and from these Tontem fashioned a gown of rags. He walked through the forests looking like a king without dominions and after a day and a night reached the Dragonback Monastery, located between Toring and the mountains and ruled by an Abbot who conversed with the spirits of saints during his daytime meditation and made peace with the wrathful deities in his dreams.

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Chetan Raj Shrestha-credit-S T GyatsoChetan Raj Shrestha is from Gangtok, Sikkim. He trained as an architect and specialised in heritage conservation.  He has lived and studied in Darjeeling, Bangalore, Mumbai and Sydney, and currently works in a collaborative architectural practice in Gangtok. The King’s Harvest is his first book.

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FIRST-CLASS CRICKET

Gulu Ezekiel

Captain Cool: The MS Dhoni Story Gulu Ezekiel Westland 2013 English Non-Fiction/Paperback pp 211/INR 200

Captain Cool: The MS Dhoni Story
Gulu Ezekiel
Westland 2013
English Non-Fiction/Paperback
pp 211/INR 200

Mahi’s first full-time job was in 2001, as a ticket-collector on the South-Eastern Railway’s Kharagpur (West Bengal) division. It was in the grade nine category, the kind of job a lower-middle-class family in India would strive for, providing as it does the comfort of job security.

For the first time he had to move out of his beloved Ranchi and live in Kharagpur (two hours’ drive from Kolkata) which boasts of having the world’s longest railway platform. Tennis ball cricket tournaments were all the rage in Kharagpur and Dhoni was hugely popular at these events, attracting up to 20,000 spectators to watch his exciting batting. Many of the unique shots he plays he ascribes now to batting against the tennis ball on 18-yard pitches where yorkers were common. Particularly the one he has made most famous–digging the yorker out of the ground and whipping it to or over the mid-wicket boundary.

It is a shot requiring immense strength of the shoulders and forearms, and he claims he can pull it off–where others have suffered injuries while attempting it–due to the robustness he inherited from his ancestors.

It was around this time that he was called for trials for the Railways Ranji Trophy team at their home ground, the Karnail Singh Stadium in New Delhi. It was the only time he briefly flirted with the idea of leaving his Bihar mates. But the trials turned out badly.

He kept for just three balls, batted briefly and was promptly rejected. He claims it did not bother him at the time. But when he was selected for the Duleep Trophy in early 2004, the Railways came calling again. This time it was his chance to turn them down.

‘I said, “No, no, I’m not coming,”’ he recalls. ‘Perhaps I was rude or whatever, but it had a big impact on me. The incident really pushed me to do better. I was neglected in a big way at that trial. I got more determined to be at a level where you are performing consistently and you are recognised by everyone”. (Cricinfo, 24 March 2008).

The rejection also forged in him a determination, once he became captain of India, that a class player must be given an extended run in the side even if he has struck a bad patch. In that sense, perhaps, the Railways selectors unwittingly did a big favour to Indian cricket.

Life was tough in Kharagpur, away from his family, and in the tiny flat he shared with colleagues. By late 2004 he quit the Railways, and in May 2005 joined Indian Airlines as a manager.

By then, of course, he had made his ODI debut and had the luxury of turning down an offer from Jharkhand chief minister ArjunMunda of the post of deputy superintendent of police. He also declined a job offered by Tata Steel in Jamshedpur.

It took five hard seasons on the domestic circuit before he got his break in the Indian team. But all through those years he never wavered in his loyalty, sticking by the Bihar (later Jharkhand) state team, unfashionable though it was. Dhoni claims he was happy playing Ranji Trophy, never feeling disappointed when he missed out in selections. His ability to stay positive came from the firm conviction that merit and performance would lead to higher things.

‘I believed in performance. I never picked up the newspapers to see if I was picked for the Duleep Trophy or Deodhar Trophy matches for East Zone. For me, it was more about playing cricket, enjoying cricket. I knew if I’m good enough I’ll get a chance and for that I have to be consistent. In my mind I was very clear that if they don’t give me a chance for Duleep or Deodhar Trophy, it doesn’t really matter–I’m happy playing for my state. If I can play consistently well for my state, that’s good enough for me because I love playing cricket more than anything else.’ (Cricinfo, 28 March 2008). Dhoni was among the first generation of small-town players from non-traditional cricket centres to rise to international heights.

Mohammed Kaif, Parthiv Patel and Yuvraj Singh had set the trend a few years before Dhoni, and now it has become well established, with the likes of IrfanPathan, R.P. Singh. Joginder Sharma and Praveen Kumar rising from obscurity and sometimes impoverished backgrounds to reach the Indian team.

The days of dominance of players from the traditional metros, while not quite over, have certainly been eclipsed by the country boy cricketer and his burning hunger to succeed. Jharkhand was carved out of Bihar as a separate state in November 2000, with Ranchi as its capital. But it was not till the 2004-05 season that its team competed in the Ranji Trophy under the Jharkhand banner, absorbing players from Bihar (which no longer competes as a separate state team). Till then, players from Jharkhand continued to represent Bihar.

Dhoni never led his state side, despite being offered the captaincy during his breakthrough 2004-05 season, preferring to stay and concentrate on honing his batting and wicketkeeping. He had a taste of captaincy only very briefly in school and college. Even more remarkable, then, that he has taken to leading the national team like a duck to water.

The 1998-99 season was spent playing for Bihar in the Cooch Behar Under-19 tournament (three-day matches) and though he did not make any waves, Dhoni did enough with the bat (185 runs from eight innings, three not out with one 50) and gloves to retain his place in the next season. Bihar made it to the final in 1999-00 and Dhoni also represented East Zone in the C.K. Nayudu Under-19 zonal one-day tournament that season.

Dhoni’s form with the bat picked up in the second season of the Cooch Behar tournament and he had three half-centuries and three scores of 40-plus on the way to the final. But the Bihar boys were in for a rude shock when they faced Punjab in the four-day final at the Keenan Stadium in Jamshedpur in September 1999.

Winning the toss and electing to bat, Bihar would have been pleased with their total of 357. Dhoni was second top scorer with a typically robust 84 (12 fours and two sixes). Then the Punjab batsmen took over, taking up nearly two and a half days in compiling a massive 839 for five wickets in 222 overs.

It was a severe test of Dhoni’s stamina. It was also his first sight of the prodigious talent of Punjab captain Yuvraj Singh, who smashed an amazing 358, adding 207 for the second wicket with Ravneet Singh Ricky and 341 for the third with Vivek Mahajan.

The Bihar bowlers were clueless and Dhoni had to be satisfied with a lone stumping. But it was a lesson worth learning for the youngsters.

Though the C.K. Nayudu tournament was a flop for both East Zone (losing all four games) and their wicket-keeper (97 runs in four innings), Dhoni’s first-class debut followed immediately after. It came for Bihar against Assam in the Ranji Trophy at the Keenan Stadium on 12 January 2000. Bihar captain Sunil Kumar had kept wickets earlier in the season and was one of the side’s leading batsmen as well. But it was felt the triple role was a burden, and so Dhoni was selected to wear the big gloves with Kumar playing as a specialist batsman.

The day before the same teams had met in the Ranji Trophy one-day tournament, Bihar winning by eight wickets. Dhoni took one catch but was not required to bat.

The first-class debut played over four days was something special though. He managed just one victim (Assam opener Parag Kumar Das stumped off Avinash Kumar in the second innings) but made an immediate impression with the bat. Coming in at number seven in both innings, Dhoni struck a rapid 40 from 62 balls in Bihar’s first innings of 258. Assam replied with 247 and when quick runs were needed in the second innings, Dhoni stayed unbeaten on 68 (striking eight boundaries in both knocks) from 89 balls as Assam were set a target of 355. They collapsed for 163 on the final day, handing Bihar a win by 191 runs.

At the end of the match, veteran left-arm spinner Avinash Kumar–ironically playing his last first-class game–told the young debutant: ‘You have the talent to play for India.’ It was a comment that struck Mahi then, and has stayed with him ever since.

Randhir Singh, the medium pacer who had played two ODIs in the ’80s, was one of the state selectors who spotted him and was coach of the Bihar Ranji Trophy team at the time. Looking back at those early struggles in a recent interview, Dhoni appeared bewildered by his own rise from anonymity to international fame.

‘To even to get into the Ranji Trophy side was a big thing,’ he reminisced. (Cricinfo, 28 March 2008). ‘Fortunately we had a selector (Randhir Singh) who believed in youngsters. We (Bihar) qualified for the Cooch Behar Under-19 that year and made it to the final, so there was a big change and all of a sudden we saw five youngsters getting into the Bihar Ranji squad. That was a start. Bihar was considered a small state and for you to be a part of the (East) zonal team, especially to get into the XI, it is tough. Yo u had to perform consistently for that.’

With Bihar qualifying for the Ranji Trophy Super League as the second team in East Zone behind Orissa, Dhoni gained the experience of playing against leading sides from around the country.

Bihar’s campaign in the Super League was a disappointing one, failing to win a single of their four matches and Dhoni managing just 175 runs in eight innings.

It was a harsh welcome to the tough grind of Indian first class cricket but an experience which would stand him in good stead over the next few seasons.

He finished the season with 283 runs from 10 innings (five matches) with one not out and one half-century at an average of 31.44. He also claimed 12 catches and three stumpings. It was hardly an outstanding performance but the promise was obvious.

A quick learner, Dhoni absorbed the lessons of his first season and by 2000-01 he was beginning to look more polished both in front of and behind the stumps.

In the Ranji Trophy one-day match against Tripura that season, he recorded his highest score in senior cricket to date, 84 runs from 73 balls with 10 fours and four sixes, the sort of rollicking batting that would earn him fame and fortune in the years to come.

The match was held at the tiny Calcutta Cricket and Football Club ground in the south of the city, and the short boundaries were easily cleared by his strong blows. He had been promoted to opener in the tournament and finished with scores of 4, 84, 43 and 1 in the four East Zone league matches.

That season he also represented East Zone for the first time in the Deodhar Trophy one-day tournament, playing a match against South Zone in Kanpur.

Then came the big breakthrough on the national level and that, too, on the big stage of the imposing Eden Gardens in Kolkata.

It was in January 2001 that Bihar faced Bengal in their final league match of the season. Dhoni had behind him a string of low scores in the four-day Ranji games and may have been feeling the heat to retain his place in the playing XI.

Batting first, Bengal amassed a huge 608 for five declared with centuries by Nikhil Haldipur, Alokendu Lahiri and Rohan Gavaskar.

Bihar’s aim was to avoid the follow-on. They failed to do so but they discovered a new star in M.S. Dhoni. He reached his maiden first-class century, 114 not out, on 5 January to take Bihar to 323 in their first innings. Following on, Bihar reached 302 for three to earn a creditable draw. Dhoni’s was a fighting knock. He batted for over four hours and faced 206 balls and though the innings contained its liberal share of boundaries (17 fours and one six), it was the way the 19-year-old shielded the tail-enders that impressed onlookers.

In fact there were three distinct phases to his century. Coming in with the total reading 228 at the fall of the fifth wicket, he started with a flurry of boundaries. But as wickets began to fall around him, he dropped anchor.

Once he realised he might run out of partners and miss out on his maiden ton, he let loose again. He found an able partner in number 11 Dhiraj Kumar who contributed just nine runs in a last wicket stand worth 55.

Dhoni reached three figures in flamboyant style, smashing left-arm spinner Shibsagar Singh for a soaring six over long-off.

Sadly, the day was marred by a shocking display of petulance from another teenager, all-rounder LaxmiRatanShukla, who had played three ODIs a couple of years earlier. Shukla’s first over with the second new ball went for 16 runs, Dhoni cracking three boundaries. Shukla responded with a beamer and a mouthful of abuse. Dhoni complained to the umpires after the over but things only got worse. Shukla was eventually sent packing from the field by his captain and did not take the field the next day.

Nothing, though, could ruffle Dhoni’s feathers. While one teenage prodigy was beginning to disintegrate beneath the public gaze, another was just beginning to make his mark. The drawn match ended a miserable season for Bihar, which finished fourth in the East Zone league and failed to qualify for the next stage. Dhoni’s figures for the season read four matches, six innings, one not out, 195 runs, highest score 114 not out, average 39.00. He also claimed six catches and one stumping.

With no more matches for Bihar, some of the momentum was lost for Dhoni, and this may have been one cause for the drastic drop in form the next season. In fact, 2001-02 was an unmitigated disaster for both Dhoni and his team.

Having made the breakthrough with his maiden century in the previous season, he was expected to carry on from where he had left off. Instead, he went through the season with just one half-century (96 against Orissa) in four Ranji four-day games and four Ranji one-day matches as Bihar finished a dismal fourth in their zone in both tournaments.

It was a tough time all round. Usually down at number six, Dhoni was often called upon to save the follow-on, a difficult task for someone who loved to play his strokes. All that combined to leave him, after three seasons of first-class cricket, with a sense of disappointment. Dhoni now found himself bombarded with advice to soften his aggressive style of batting and also switch to a higher-profile state team. But he stuck to his guns, determined not to tamper with the methods that had got him this far on the first-class scene. And he also refused to ditch his team.

It was a wise decision, one that paid rich dividends the very next season in which he reeled off eight half centuries. The Plate and Elite group system was introduced for the first time in the Ranji Trophy in 2002-03 and Bihar had another poor season, finishing bottom of group B in the Plate section, losing all four of their completed matches. They did better in the Ranji one-day tournament with two wins, a tie and a loss, and Dhoni had scores of 10, 74, 88 and 74 as Bihar finished second to Bengal in the East Zone rankings.

After missing out on the Deodhar Trophy the previous season, Dhoni was back for East Zone and added another two 50s in three games.

Cumulatively, it was his best season by far. In the four-day and one-day matches–in which he was now regularly opening– his combined figures for the season read 682 runs from 15 innings (one not out) for the healthy average of 48.71. The crisis of the previous season had been overcome by the only method Dhoni knew–bold, attacking cricket. The die had been cast.

The momentum was maintained and by the end of 2003- 04 he was beginning to catch the eye of the national selectors. Everything was finally falling into place.

The innings that shot him to national prominence was in the Deodhar Trophy match against Central Zone on 27 January 2004, a virtual final before his adoring fans at Jamshedpur. East Zone needed to win the match to claim the title in the round-robin tournament and they did so in fine style, crushing their opponents by 142 runs. It was the first time East Zone had won the Deodhar Trophy since 1996-97 and Dhoni was a star in his own backyard.

Opening with Nikhil Haldipur, he smashed 114 runs from 124 balls with 12 fours and three sixes, as East ran up a formidable 324 for four wickets from their 50 overs. It was a no-contest after that. This was his second century of the season, following 128 against Assam in the Ranji one-day game. Raju Mukherjee and Prakash Poddar, two former Bengal cricketers, were the talent research development officers appointed by the board for the Deodhar Trophy. They passed on information about Dhoni to Dilip Vengsarkar, chairman of the Talent Research Development Wing at the National Cricket Academy.

Mukherjee told me they had mentioned Dhoni’s name as a ‘match-winning hard hitter’ in their reports. ‘I also mentioned that his wicket-keeping did not impress me. Dilip took the initiative to nurture and develop Dhoni’s raw talent. I, of course, cannot take any credit for Dhoni’s success.’

Incidentally, he was not keeping wickets in the Deodhar

Trophy, that role being handled by Bengal’s Deep Dasgupta who had played Test matches by then. Dhoni’s batting prowess thus saw him play the role as a specialist opener in one-day games. A month later, he was selected for the East Zone team for the Duleep Trophy, making his debut in the elite zonal tournament against the visiting England ‘A’ side, the first foreign team to be invited to play in the tournament. Once again, he opened the batting with Dasgupta holding down the ’keeper’s slot.

The match in Amritsar was the second for East in their group, and they had to win to reach the final. Dhoni had missed the first match against South Zone but now he made people sit up and take notice with another forceful batting display.

There were four current or future international players in the England squad, including Kevin Pietersen and opening bowler Sajid Mahmood, both touring for the first time. This was my first sighting of the player whose name had been increasingly appearing in the media.

I introduced myself to Dhoni and we chatted for a few minutes, between innings, on the boundary edge. I recall his face lighting up when I told him that I had spent a year in his beloved Ranchi back in 1973. We briefly exchanged yarns about Ranchi and our respective schools. Though the meeting was brief, I found him friendly, polite and articulate.

It was the first time Dhoni was playing against an international side, but that hardly fazed him as he clouted 12 boundaries in his first innings of 52.

It was certainly an eye-catching performance and there was a buzz round the ground as he added 93 for the opening wicket with Shiv Sundar Das. In the second knock he struck four boundaries in another quick 24 as East won by 93 runs to reach the final against North Zone in Mohali.

Dasgupta was dropped for the final and Dhoni opened the batting, also keeping wickets. Set a stiff target of 409 to win in the fourth innings, Ashish Nehra and the other North bowlers must have wondered what hit them as Dhoni raced to 60 from 47 balls with eight fours and a six. But the momentum could not be maintained and East lost by 59 runs. Dhoni also picked up five catches behind the stumps to complete what had been another outstanding season.

It now appeared only a matter of time before he graduated to India colours.

The second chapter of the book, Captain Cool: The MS Dhoni Story, has been extracted here

GULUCAPGulu Ezekiel is one of India’s best known sports writers with over 30 years of experience in print, TV, radio and on the Internet. He has previously been Sport Editor at Asian Age, NDTV and indya.com and is the author of over a dozen sports books. Gulu has also contributed to numerous sports books published from India, Australia and England as well as written for over 100 publications worldwide since his career began in 1980. Based in New Delhi from 1991, in August 2001 Gulu launched GE Features, a features and syndication service. He is a familiar face on TV where he is regularly invited to air his views on various news channels.

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Inclusion in the Exclusionary City

Duncan McDuie-Ra

The neoliberal transformation of Delhi is creating spaces of engagement between Northeasterners and the Indian mainstream. The desire for Northeast labour in the city’s global spaces is fuelling a rapid increase in migration from the Northeast frontier, the very limit of India’s geographic and territorial imaginary. It is precisely because these spaces are crafted as un-Indian that they are open to peoples outside the boundaries of the nation. Importantly, economic inclusion is not matched by social inclusion, and this will become clearer in later chapters. Here I focus on economic inclusion in two sectors: the rapid growth of new consumer spaces for the middle and upper classes, and the growth of the services sector serving global capital. I focus on these two because they were identified by respondents as the most common sectors for Northeast employment in Delhi. Both sectors are also popular in Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Mumbai. Two other sectors that draw Northeast labour are the airline industry and the hospitality industry, especially high-end hotels and resorts. These are not discussed here, as overall employment of Northeasterners is lower and they tend to be centred in other cities in India.

New consumer spaces

In Delhi, neoliberal transformation has produced consumer spaces that are physically within India but resemble other ubiquitous, though amorphous, global spaces. New consumer spaces are exemplified by the proliferation of upscale shopping malls. Unlike neighbourhood bazaars where shops are usually organised along adjoining lanes and may include ‘dry market’ goods like clothes and electronics alongside ‘wet market’ goods like fish and vegetables, shopping malls are contained spaces without ‘wet market’ goods, the climate is controlled, entry is restricted, customers are dropped at the door in vehicles – thereby minimising contact with the street – and restaurants and cinemas are included under one roof. As Christiane Brosius argues, the mall in India makes shopping an ‘experience’ (2010: 53), while Nita Mathur argues that the shopping mall in urban India helps to ‘reframe status distinctions’ (2010: 219). During fieldwork I concentrated on three interlinked malls in Vasant Kunj, a suburb in south Delhi: the Ambience Mall, the DLF Promenade, and the DLF Emporio, marketed as Delhi’s ‘most exclusive’ malls with almost 300 stores across the three malls. These malls are the outcome of the ‘planned’ and ‘world class’ development described above. The malls are owned and operated by the Indian firm DLF Ltd., a real estate firm described as using construction projects in Delhi ‘for expressions of numerous ideologies of modernity and community life’ (Srivastava 2009: 338).

The malls are by any reckoning exclusive spaces. Right of admission is reserved, airport style security is performed, access is difficult without motorised transport, and the scale of the space itself seems designed to intimidate. As Brosius’ study of consumerism in Delhi has shown, at the heart of consumer spaces like the DLF malls is the aim to satisfy the desire of the upper and aspiring middle classes to ‘live abroad in India’ (2010: 65). To truly experience this kind of statusdriven consumption, consumer spaces serving these classes have become de-Indianised. By this I mean that these spaces seek an aesthetic that transports consumers away from the city, and even the nation, outside and into the global world of fashion, food, and brand-name consumer goods. This has served the interests of Northeast migrants. Migrants from the Northeast have Tai, Tibeto-Burman or Mon-Khmer lineage, and thus their features are similar to those of East and Southeast Asian peoples. Their labour is in demand because they reproduce the de-Indianised aesthetic without the need to import foreign labour.

During fieldwork I visited these three malls over twenty times. I visited at different times of the day and on different days of the week to converse with Northeast migrants. I also met Northeasterners working in these malls at other sites including Northeast neighbourhoods and university campuses. Northeasterners are ubiquitous in clothing stores, sports stores, spas and beauty stores, restaurants and cafes (except Indian restaurants of which there are few), and home wares stores. They were especially well represented in stores that project a global brand image: Adidas, Benetton, Esprit, Levis, Nike, and Zara. There were very few Northeasterners working in ultra high-end retailers aimed at rich consumers making major purchases: jewellery, expensive watches, wedding dresses, and expensive suits. In restaurants, Northeast men and women worked as wait staff, maître d’s in more expensive restaurants, and in the kitchens of cheaper eating-places. They also work as concierges at the mall entrances.

This suggests very defined roles for Northeast migrants in the new consumer spaces of Delhi. Aside from those working in the kitchens, Northeasterners are all in very visible roles. They are rarely in managerial positions and in some stores they do not handle cash transactions. Women are cast in highly sexualised roles, particularly in fashion stores, restaurants, and spas. The body is emphasised in tight clothes, heavy eye make-up, and lipstick. In some restaurants and spas, women were dressed in cheongsams, the tight fitting Chinese evening dress. Given the historical and contemporary anxieties over China in Indian political and popular culture, the sheer number of Chinese restaurants in malls and upscale south Delhi neighbourhoods is astounding. Most are simply more expensive versions of Indian-Chinese restaurants found throughout the country. For the extra cost, the interiors are full of hanging red lanterns, dark wood tables, dragon motifs, and Chineselooking staff from the Northeast. In other cases, emphasising body shape is less important than portraying exotica. In more expensive Korean restaurants I have met Naga women wait staff wearing hanbok, a flowing traditional dress that hides body shape. In an upscale Himalayan restaurant in Hauz Khas, the female wait staff wear bakhu, a Bhutia/Tibetan tunic with a long dress and a silk honju (blouse) underneath. The irony is that many of these women are not from Sikkim or other parts of the Himalayas but are from Manipur and Nagaland. They look the part, but likely work for low wages and speak good English to better communicate with the clientele – a mix of trendy Delhi youth, artists, foreigners, and visitors to the city from across the Himalayas. The contrast to the clothes worn by women out on the streets of Delhi could not be greater. The masculinity of Northeast men is less clearly defined, though in places their bodies are emphasised through dress projecting athleticism and street fashion sense.

In these global spaces, Northeasterners perform these roles because they look, speak, and act ‘un-Indian’. They are not associated with a particular caste, religious or regional group within the boundaries of mainstream India. They are simultaneously neutral and exotic. Their high visibility in Delhi is recent, owing to the surge in migration, and thus they act as a new labour force to complement the new consumer spaces of the global city. The labour force crafted through orientalised exotica, mixed at times with a sense of East Asian cool, constructs a space that is in India but not of India; perfect for ‘world-class’ aspirants of the middle classes. As Zana, a 23-year-old male from Nagaland put it, ‘for Indians it is like going to Bangkok for shopping. We look the same but some of us can speak Hindi’. Many of the young people working in these jobs are very aware of the ways their race is desired and many are uncomfortable with this construction. Yet they also see it as a way they can take advantage in a highly competitive urban labour market. Thus tolerating and utilising this portrayal is an important part of staying afloat in Delhi.

Northeast migrants working in malls and restaurants expressed a number of reasons for pursuing this kind of employment. Some work in order to pay for their education, some for their siblings’ education in Delhi, some send their earnings back home, some are working to stay in Delhi and seek refuge from conflict, and others to set themselves up to travel abroad. For example, Ben, a 19-year-old male from Haflong, a town in the Cachar Hills district of Assam, worked as a concierge in one of the malls. He came to Delhi at age 17 to find work. After two years in Delhi he had recently got his job at the mall after working in a restaurant kitchen. His main duty was to give directions to consumers and to tell people not to take photographs in the mall. He found the job boring but liked working inside the enclosed space away from the dust, the cold winter, and the hot summer. He wants to go back home but he is not sure what he would do there, so for now he stays in Delhi though he doesn’t make enough money to send home. In a global chain restaurant in a new shopping mall I met Chon, a woman from the Naga areas of Manipur working as wait staff. She had come to Delhi at age 18 to work and send money back to her family. She had got the job through her flatmate, also from Manipur, and she had since secured jobs for other friends. She found the work good but as the restaurant closed after midnight she didn’t like leaving alone late at night. She misses Manipur but feels she is better off than she would be at home.

Many respondents had experience working in other locations before getting their job at the malls. For some of these respondents working in these malls was better than their previous jobs; they were paid more, it was clean and quiet, they were shielded from harassment and violence, and several respondents were proud to work in such a fancy place. A few respondents mentioned that the clientele in the malls was easier to deal with than in other shops and restaurants they had worked in previously. Others seemed conscious of their disproportionate representation in malls as opposed to any other area of life in Delhi. However, the most critical views of mall labour came from Northeast migrants who were not working in malls but who witnessed the phenomenon through friends, relatives, and neighbours. Achi, a Naga woman from Manipur resident in Delhi for over ten years, said that Northeasterners have come to be servants of the ‘wealthy and sophisticated’. She said this is creating aspirations among them that life back home can’t fulfil. Zana argued that Northeasterners work in these malls but can’t afford to shop there, so they are becoming viewed by the Indian mainstream as a race of shop assistants and waiters. This makes it easier for them to get work in these types of jobs but harder for them to be taken seriously in other professions or in their studies.

The Services Sector

A major part of Delhi’s transformation has been the shift from manufacturing and heavy industry to the services sector. In response to pressure to ‘clean up’ the city in the 1980s and 1990s, coming from what Baviskar (2003) refers to as the diffusion of ‘bourgeois environmentalism’ among the middle and upper classes, the Supreme Court pushed for the relocation of polluting industries outside residential areas (Rosencranz & Jackson 2003). This was followed by the pursuit of foreign investment in the services sector, and the powerful DDA has worked to appropriate land and make it available to developers courting foreign capital. As Dupont demonstrates, Delhi ranked first in cumulative foreign direct investment flows in India from 2000 to 2005 (2011: 540-1). Investment has benefitted the services sector, especially in the special economic zones. Delhi and the National Capital Territory area has had 72 such zones approved since 2005 and these are concentrated in Gurgaon and Noida, satellite cities that have stretched the reach of the Delhi government into neighbouring states (Dupont 2011: 541). Call centres have been set up in these zones and in other redeveloped parts of the city. Gurgaon and Noida are home to Delhi’s call centres mostly serving global corporations (Taylor & Bain 2005). Call centres depend upon access to a relatively low-cost labour force and one that is welleducated and fluent in English. This has served the interests of urban upper-caste workers, but as yet there has been no analysis of the explosion of Northeast labour in call centres, especially in Delhi (Upadaya 2011).

Northeast labour is in high demand in these call centres. Unlike shopping malls that desire a visual orientalism, call centre employers desire the non-Indian accented English spoken by most Northeasterners, especially those from the hill states. Literature on call centres in India has identified the various tactics adopted to hide the accents and personalities of the labour force (Taylor & Bain 2005: 278). Research in Delhi call centres serving North American voice-to-voice clients shows that workers in call centres are trained to ‘neutralise’ their accents (Mirchandani 2004). Additionally, call monitoring, scripting, and ‘locational masking’, as in hiding the fact that the call centre worker is located in India, are all crucial components of call centre work.

Most Northeasterners from the hill states and hill areas attend English medium schooling, and literacy rates in hill areas are very high (Government of India 2002). English is also the lingua franca spoken between different ethnic groups. Some may speak Hindi but usually after English, as they attend school in the English medium and consume English language films and television. (5) Hindi is banned in Manipur as a result of ethno-nationalist campaigns to restore the Meitei language and resist Indian domination. With limited engagement with the Indian mainstream, most Northeasterners do not have a typical Indian accent in English. In addition, most Northeast migrants in Delhi are unmarried and in their 20s. Most do not have children or have left their children with relatives back home. This makes them able to work shifts timed to serve Australian, European, and North American business hours. As such, Northeasterners have become desirable as a ‘flexible’ and well-qualified workforce for the burgeoning call centre industry.

As familiarity with the industry has grown, Northeasterners have begun migrating to Delhi solely to work in call centres. As mentioned in the previous chapter, call centre recruitment agencies travel to the Northeast recruiting high school and college graduates. Job advertisements are plastered all over Northeast neighbourhoods in Delhi. During conversations with Northeast call centre workers it became clear that migrants with experience of the industry act as conduits for new arrivals. There is no sense that there is any financial gain in this, rather this is a function of community support among migrants. Salaries in call centres are undisclosed, and if an employee discusses their salary with other employees they can be fired. Most salaries are determined at interviews with recruitment agencies in the Northeast and in Delhi. In a conversation with two respondents from Nagaland, Stephen and Zana, both of whom had worked for several years in call centres, discussed how they trained their friends for these interviews so they could have a larger starting salary. Call centres also try to poach workers from one call centre to another by offering higher salaries. Wary of this, experienced migrants encouraged friends to overstate their salary slightly and baulk at offers to move until those targeting them increased their offer. Sometimes they would mention this offer to their current employers and ask for a pay rise to stay put. As Zana noted, ‘it’s survival of the fittest in the call centre.’

For many Northeast migrants the call centre industry offers livelihood opportunities that can’t be found at home. Finding work is relatively easy, and migrants who come to Delhi for other reasons often find themselves working in call centres when their initial plans don’t work out. I met respondents who had taken full-time work in call centres after dropping out of university. Others were trying to get a job after university to tide them over until they could break into their preferred field. Others had gone back home and found it difficult to adjust and had come back to Delhi with no real plan and eventually took up work in the call centres. Others stayed working in call centres to avoid having to go home, especially to areas of conflict.

Call centres have been particularly resistant to unions (Norohna & D’Cruz 2006). Respondents rarely mentioned unions. Those that had problems in their workplace left and found work somewhere else or put up with the conditions. Most Northeasterners depend upon support networks with their own tribal and ethnic groups or the church, and labour organising means joining networks with Indians with whom there is limited trust. Similarly, workers’ unions back in the Northeast are far less powerful than ethno-nationalist organisations, student organisations, and insurgent groups. In the context of high unemployment and low wages back home, introspection on working conditions is less pertinent. This plays into the hands of employers who have a growing stream of well-qualified ‘flexible’ employees who are well qualified, unorganised, and far from home.

——————-

(5) The exceptions are Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, where Hindi proficiency is much higher than in the other hill states.
Excerpted from: McDuie-Ra, Duncan. Northeast Migrants in Delhi: Race, Refuge and Retail. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012. (pp 71-77)

Dr Duncan McDuie-Ra is a senior lecturer in development studies at the School of Social Sciences and International Studies of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. His research focuses on development and change in Northeast India and other border areas of Asia and the Pacific. His most recent book is The Politics of Collective Advocacy in India: Tools and Traps (Kumarian, 2011), co-authored with Nandini Deo.

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Facebook Phantom

Suzanne Sangi

Facebook Phantom Suzanne Sangi Duckbill Books 2013  Rs 199, pp 232 Paperback English/Fiction

Facebook Phantom
Suzanne Sangi
Duckbill Books 2013
Rs 199, pp 232
Paperback English/Fiction

I could tell it was going to be a long day. My two very best friends, Neel and Joanne, were going on and on about Neel’s birthday and some new fashion designer!

I just wasn’t much of a party-lover, and my fashion sense wasn’t as evolved as theirs. I quickly ran out of interest when it came to the right mix and match of tops and jeans and shoes. We were meeting after a week, and I hoped the subject would change soon.

Neel Sarathy has been my best friend since third standard. I’d stood up for him on that first day we shared one of the double desks in class. He had been a favourite target for many of the boys in the class. I guess that had actually toughened me up. We had been an inseparable duo until Joanne showed up in fifth standard. Then we became an inseparable trio.

I chewed slowly on my egg puff as we walked and I waited for the conversation to take a new turn. The new designer was coming to town and of course, would be hanging out at Debonaire, Neel’s mom’s totally fabulous outlet. All well-known designers in and visiting Bangalore hung out there.

‘So do you wanna come see him too?’ Neel asked me, breaking my trance.

‘Oh, the designer guy? Is he any good?’

‘Duh!’ He threw a hand up in the air, exasperated. ‘Haven’t you been listening to anything I was saying, Li? Amazing designer? Most definitely. Hot? You have no idea, girl!’

‘Of course. You would know. I believe you, Neel.’ I shook my head. ‘What’s his name?’

Neel and Joanne rolled their eyes and replied in chorus: ‘Akash Chaula.’

‘Get a grip, Li. You’ve got to start showing some girl instincts there.’ Joanne did her walking backwards thing, which she does when she wants to seriously ‘look’ into a person’s eyes and talk to them, which was a tiny bit annoying.

‘Ya! Like the ability to grasp a hot guy’s name,’ Neel added perkily.

‘Oye! The instincts are there, alright? It’s just …’ I looked up at Neel sheepishly—the guy was seriously tall, like almost six feet, though he was only turning sixteen next week. ‘I am not that into fashion designers or models. I mean, some of them are seriously hot but not exactly my kind, you know.’

‘Chill, Li. You don’t have to worry about offending me. It’s just the inconsiderate majority out there who stereotype fashion as something disgusting and unproductive, that pisses me off,’ Neel finished off bitterly, but smiled kindly at me.

‘Ah, touchy,’ Joanne murmured.

We turned the corner and were at Neel’s place.

‘Look! The roses are starting to bloom, guys. This time, I can swear that I did not take help from my mom.’

He pointed to the little garden in front of his house. He loved to try his hand at different things: painting, craft, stitching and recently, gardening. He was majorly talented though he didn’t make a big deal of it and people usually didn’t notice.

‘W-o-w!’ Joanne exclaimed and clapped her hands together like a little kid. ‘Damn cool, Neel. What the hell on earth can you not do?’

‘That would be nothing. ’Cause hell is definitely not on earth,’ Neel laughed.

‘Honestly, Neel, it’s beautiful! What you planning to do next?’ I asked as Neel opened the door for us.

‘You gonna follow the footsteps of our poet laureate here?’ Joanne jerked her head towards me. Okay, I wasn’t bad at poetry but the kid liked to exaggerate.

‘Haha. Poetry is, unfortunately, not my thang, girl.’ ‘What. Have you given a shot at least?’ Joanne did not

give up.

‘Well. Yeah, of course I have. But, like I said.’ He shrugged his shoulders and turned the lights on.

I liked to hang out in Neel’s house; we all did. I mean the three of us (that pretty much is ‘all’ to me). It was not very large, but comfortable. There was a sense of light, and the very modern paintings—which I could hardly understand—filled it with colour. And it was spotless 24/7.

Neel’s dad had died when Neel was five. So, it was only Neel and his mom, Nita, who were the best of friends.

4

‘Oh my god! Is tomorrow 15 April?’ Joanne snapped, suddenly propping herself up on the couch.

‘Yes. Obviously, Jo. A week before my birthday, 22 April. We’ve been talking about it the whole day!’ Neel seemed kind of offended.

‘Oh crap. First day of my music classes with Godzilla!’ she moaned, hitting her head on the soft couch.

‘You’re not seriously going there, are you?!’ I asked with pity.

Godzilla was the nickname of our music teacher at school, Mrs Preksha. Joanne’s parents had insisted she go for extra classes with her, though Joanne had begged and moaned that she wanted any other teacher. We had just finished our tenth standard exams, and Joanne’s parents felt that she would spend all her days being idle unless she attended these classes. They were not usually control freaks, but this summer had some nasty surprises.

‘Yes. I. Am. Going,’ she muttered feebly.

‘Aww … don’t worry, hon,’ Neel chimed in. ‘You’ve always wanted to, like, seriously learn music, right? So this is a good opportunity.’

‘I know. It doesn’t matter if it’s Godzilla or any other hag out there. I mean, she’s not that bad, you know …’ I trailed off.

‘Except for the stinking attitude and I’ll-strangle-you-if -you-don’t-get-this-note look that she gives,’ Joanne cut me off before I could finish.

‘She has a daughter,’ said Neel, much to our surprise. ‘Like, a girl?’ Joanne asked dubiously.

‘What the … of course, a girl. That’s what daughter means, right?’

5

I started cracking up. Soon, Joanne and I were giggling hysterically.

‘How did you come to know that? We didn’t,’ Joanne asked, taking a breath.

‘Haha. Very funny,’ Neel said dryly. ‘She’s just a bit older than us but I don’t think she’d be too hard to get along with.’ ‘Do you mean to say that you actually checked out a girl?’ I  asked,  trying  to  keep  a  straight  face,  which  of  course,  I couldn’t.

‘Well, not exactly check out but …’ he seemed to have run out of words and his face turned pink. He looked like a little kid who had been teased.

‘Alright. That’s enough, okay? Time out, guys. You’ve had enough fun with me today.’ He made the T-sign with his hands and jumped on the couch between Joanne and me.

I woke up groggy. I had overslept. Again.

‘Shit,’ I muttered and turned off the radio on the table next to my bed, though my favourite song ‘Tonight’ was playing.

I reached for my cell phone from the table and checked the time. 6 pm. My already abnormal sleeping times were getting crappier.

The house was unusually quiet, which meant that my dad had not come home from work, and my mom and sis were chilling, probably watching a highly dramatic, romantic, macho and tragic serial on TV.

My phone vibrated and a message flashed across the screen. It was from Neel.

Hey Li, heard anything from Jo?

Today was her first day in music class and it must have got over by now.

Hiya Neel. Nope. Just woke up from my evnin slumber: P

Well, I’m kinda worried. She didn’t reply to my texts or calls. I hope everything’s alright.

That was weird. Joanne was never one to hide any kind of emotion from us, and that girl could text faster than you could say I-can’t-text-right-now.

Ah. Don’t worry Neel. I’m sure everything’s ok. Maybe she’s busy or sumthin.

I really didn’t feel like worrying. I was still stiff from my nap. Besides, this was Joanne. She’d call up sooner or later. Still, I dialled her number. The hello tune cranked up and I couldn’t help but smile. It was the hilarious modified version of Eminem’s ‘Stan’, ‘Christmas Stan’.

And then, after a few seconds, she picked up the phone. ‘Hey Jo-Jo! What’s going on, dude?’

‘Hi Li. Wassup?’ she asked listlessly. And her voice cracked at the end.

‘Neel’s been trying to reach you the whole evening. Why haven’t you picked up his calls or texted him back?’ I demanded.

‘Listen, Li. I had a real shitty music class today. I’m really pissed. And that Godzilla’s psycho daughter whipped my ass in front of a whole bunch of students!’ I could feel her fuming on the other end.

‘Whipped your ass?’ I asked incredulously.

‘She humiliated me. It was terrible, Li.’ Her voice cracked again and I could swear she was crying this time.

Whoever could make a girl like Joanne cry had to be plain cruel. I felt my blood boiling.

‘Hey there, Jo. Don’t cry. Tell me what happened? Calm down, honey.’ I tried my best to keep my voice under control. Showing anger wasn’t going to help her.

‘Well, classes started normally. I was introduced … and apparently I’m the only newbie at that shithole this summer. We kicked off with some basics, you know. And then Godzilla went out for the last hour, which left her daughter and a few of us.

‘She told us to play what we had learnt today and twitched her little butt around like she was in charge. She told me to play too and so I did. And she started getting really nasty and making fun of me and stuff. I swear I could have yelled her head off but then Godzilla returned and I didn’t want to give a bad impression on the very first day if I was going to have to endure the whole summer.’ Joanne started sobbing uncontrollably.

Joanne Leslie was beautiful, smart, outspoken and I couldn’t imagine anyone treating her like that. I tried to project my anger on a slightly healthier level.

‘Oh my god, Jo! I’m so sorry. What the hell is wrong with that girl? Me and Neel, we’ll figure something out tomorrow, okay?’

‘I really appreciate that, Li. But I don’t think that’s … I mean … I can handle this.’

‘Did you tell your parents about this?’ I asked, concerned. ‘Yeah, no. I mean, I told my mom but not my dad.’ ‘That’s enough, I guess. But you can’t let it happen

again, okay?’

‘Of course not, Li. It won’t happen again. I was weak today; a bit emotional and cranky.’

‘PMS?’ I asked.

‘Maybe. I don’t know,’ she gave a muffled laugh.

‘Jeez. Get a calendar,’ I snorted, glad that she had lightened up.

‘Thank you but I’ll keep such private issues to myself,’ she snapped playfully.

‘Alright, Jo. Just take care of yourself, okay? And I think you should call Neel. He’s been worried sick.’

‘Yah. I definitely should.’ She sighed. ‘Thanks for calling, Li.’

I gave a huge yawn and got up. How was I going to sleep tonight after three long hours of sleep in the evening? I went into the bathroom and splashed my face with some cool water, rinsed my mouth and brushed my tangled hair, and then wandered out of my room.

‘Hey, you slept so long I thought you were dead.’ My usually-sweet, sometimes-too-sarcastic sister Sonya greeted me, sprawling lazily on the couch as I passed by her in the sitting room.

‘Unfortunately, I’m not dead,’ I replied sourly.

She snorted and turned her attention back to the TV, grimacing at something on the screen.

‘Ma, I’m hungry,’ I announced, entering the kitchen.

She was on the phone, talking really fast, and seemed a little pissed. One of her colleagues, I guessed. Mom worked in a social institute dedicated to the welfare of women and kids. She was buried in work most of the time, but she thoroughly enjoyed it.

Interrupting my mom when she was on the phone was never a good idea (except for like a real emergency). She ignores you, gives you killer looks or yells her head off.

I opened the refrigerator and it stared back at me emptily.

‘Did someone raid the fridge while I was asleep?’ I grumbled, taking out half an apple. Nothing else. I closed the fridge grumpily and took a bite of my half-apple.

My mom snapped her phone shut and gave a relieved sigh. ‘Huh, baby? Did you ask for something?’

‘Uh. Yah. Is there anything edible in this house right now?’ She narrowed her eyes at me. ‘Not right now. I’m going to  start  fixing  dinner.  Why?  You’re  hungry  so  soon?’  she started  moving  around  the  kitchen,  taking  a  knife  and  a huge cauliflower.

‘Gobi manchurian?’ I asked hopefully. ‘Would you like that?’

‘Most definitely,’ I squeezed her back and she squirmed, giggling.

‘So what did you do today?’ she asked, slicing the cauliflower.

‘Hung around. Read. Ooh, there was an article today about a new designer who Neel’s been talking about for weeks. He invited me to meet him too …’

Ma interrupted. ‘But you’re not going, right?’ she asked sternly, her eyebrows scrunching together. Ma wasn’t so keen on me hanging out in the fashion hub.

‘Of course not,’ I laughed. ‘Where was I?’

‘With the new designer.’ She smiled at me and started washing the cauliflower.

‘Then after lunch I slept.’ ‘Slept?’

She narrowed her eyes at me and I quickly muttered defensively, ‘What? I was sleepy. That’s not a crime, is it?’

‘Of course not, but I hope you’re making good use of your time,’ she said matter-of-factly.

I muttered inaudibly, taking this as my cue to get out of the kitchen before she could tell me how to make use of my precious time, like I hadn’t heard it enough. Jeez, this was supposed to be our summer holidays! Moreover, school was done. Literally. Neel, Jo and I were going to join the same pre-university and finish up college together.

I stood in the corridor. I could hear my sister giggling uncontrollably at something on TV, but decided to return to my room.

I didn’t know what I felt like doing. I thought about the useful things that I could do this summer, other than hang out with Neel and Joanne (of course, no one dared mention this among the ‘unproductive’ activities in my list of daily activities). My mom had wanted me to learn French, which I was quite keen to do. But I had refused to start until college began.

I plodded up to my desk. I gave my spinning chair a twirl and then sat down heavily. I stretched myself and stared at my PC, which gaped back blankly, almost invitingly.

I logged into Facebook and phew! There were fifty-two notifications. Well, it had been two days since I’d gone online and I’d subscribed to the ‘close friends’ thingy. Post-boards and everybody was once again hooked to Facebook apparently.

I went through the list one by one, ignoring the apps, invitations and photo tags. My friend request list had 201 requests. I had stopped accepting friend requests from unknown people once my list had crossed four hundred. I quickly swept over the latest ones, seeing if there was anyone I knew.

I accepted three of the requests. One girl was from the Hindi tuition I used to go to, another was a guy I’d heard Joanne talk about, and the third—well, I thought he was really good-looking (if that was really him and not some model whose picture he had picked from somewhere and stuck as his profile picture).

When I clicked on the inbox, there were three messages from someone I didn’t remember being ‘friends’ with.

Suzanne SangiSuzanne Sangi is sixteen years old, and doing her pre-university course in Mount Carmel College, Bangalore. She loves music, sings and plays the guitar. Facebook Phantom is her first novel.

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