Winter – Romance

I met G on New Year’s Eve 2016 at Mandi House.

It was winter. The best part of winter. When it’s cold but not too much.
You can smoke fumes out of your mouth in the thick morning air while walking to class. Peas still sprout when soaked overnight and Parachute oil hasn’t frozen in its entirety in the bottle. You wear just enough layers to not need a bra (at least the less endowed ones), yet do not have to hide your cute sweater under another quilted jacket. The chilly wind against their scantily clothed chests hasn’t eaten into the rickshaw bhayyas’ pace in the mornings, yet.

Shaving of course is out of the question.

At this point, I need to confess a couple of things. My roommate had been away for almost two months, and I was thoroughly enjoying it.
I lived in my natural habitat of a cluttered room, the little floorspace was filled with copies of The Hindu and printed fliers of IAS coaching material, collected and shoved into my bag after class. I’d started wearing bhasmam regularly because it reminded me of people I love. My warrior of a chair carried a backbreaking pile of dirty clothes to topple over any moment and I went to class in the clothes I went to bed in. The bed itself was filled with Haldiram’s Aloo Bujia, a thin plastic cover of 5 tomatoes bought for 10, and leftover packs from previous tiffin any time of the day.
I fit my body in there somehow.

Evenings were dry and beautiful with an occasional warm drizzle, and by all means I avoided being in my room for long. It’s when (home)sickness slowly creeps in and lodges itself on your neck to stay until dinner.

I was doing India’s Struggle for Independence by Bipan Chandra. Love you Zindagi played in my room every night after I returned from the reading room. I routinely smiled at other building-mates and refrained from (/clearly avoided) talking. By this time the chetan at the sambar vada/pizza sandwich shop that had open counters and high tables knew I wanted chai to the brim, just like the chetan at office does now. Old Rajendra Nagar was filled with puppies that followed you on the roads and needed to be fed from your tiffin bits at night.

The terrace was still the only place I could see the sky wasn’t as little as it seemed from amidst all the buildings on the ground.

Probably most important bit is I didn’t have to zone into my thoughts like I do now and did before. I was living in them.

In college, I’d go to canteen alone for a lot of different reasons, and I was lucky to always have people that asked “Are you here all by yourself?”
It was only after almost a year I realized I was disappointing people with answers such as “It’s alright” cos they thought I was upset at not having company. So I later rephrased it to “Oh a friend is coming. It’s alright” and things were sorted out. Unless they decided to give me company until the friend (never) came :D.

I hadn’t talked to a soul at ORN in the course of these two months. Except the sabjiwala and Komal at my reading room reception. And New Year’s Eve was to be spent watching a play at ShriRam’s Arts Center, Mandi House. Alone.

(Yeah don’t worry, a friend was coming).


“Can I have one at the extreme back please?”

First time at a theatre alone and I had mistaken a play for a movie, and extreme back for  balcony view.
G in the second queue overhears and looks over, smiles a friendly stranger smile. I return the smile and wait for the doors to open.

On the way to the Arts Center were walls painted Inquilab Zindabad, posters of Che Guevera, lots of young and older men and women all of whom seemed like students. Reading newspaper and eating Maggi, outside shacks and shops nearby and on circles around tall trees. And all I could think was how I’d have turned out had I joined DU and studied English, or even joined for MA after B.Tech.

I wasn’t sure then, but when was I ever?

I’d quite probably have turned leftist, sat under those trees reading The Hindu, turned up in loose neutral kurtas instead of my favourite Lifestyle sweater, worn chappal instead of Converse and carried a cloth bag instead of Wildcraft. I’d probably still have turned up for this play. Probably.
At least I knew I wasn’t a literature person by then.

As soon as I get seated I realize my folly. I can hardly see the actors’ faces, having especially asked for the backseat. The play is about the revolt of 1857 and I have a leaflet about the troupe and the actors. They’re probably college students, always rushing to catch the Metro for their practice sessions in scorching summers and chilly winters. I would’ve impressed with my Doordarshan-imparted Hindi, though started from the top every time I missed a line.
I would’ve sucked with the lines.

Memorizing dialogues and scenes, indulging chai sessions between, and Maggi from that shop outside on lazy afternoons after naps. Streetplays on weekends, processions at India Gate, LeftWord Books for every book launch. Never miss a LitFest and never miss a lecture. Debate over Yechury’s points on the phone with Achan and borrow Amma’s sari for characters when I went home for vacation.

I don’t really know how differently I’d have turned out.
What if’s and I have had a romantic relationship since forever anyway.


There’s a cosy canteen attached to Centre’s right with low tables and chairs. It’s evening now and the sky is losing light, it’s getting chilly outside. I sit down with hot chowmein at an empty table. There are a couple of benches and desks outside, and through the door I can see young students in their sweaters and mufflers clicking selfies before their foods arrive.
We could all be at a tea shop in a beautiful hill station at Manali or Nainital, sipping tea and eating chowmein. Barfi could jump in any second singing Iss dil ka kya karooon with Ileana De Cruz in her long dress, shoes and pink hairband. And I wouldn’t need to get up and dance because I’d already be.

Next to me, a lady who I’m positive appeared in Taare Zameen Par to judge the painting contest comments “Isn’t Three Arts Club doing quite brilliant these days?”
She has grey cropped hair,  wears a starched saree and is seated with other older men who look like they could be college professors or The Hindu editors, with a general wise air. All neutral shades. They drink tea. I wonder if I should’ve ordered tea with my chowmein.

G appears opposite to me at my table, placing a bag on the last vacant one, and has ordered Maggi. I shift my water bottle away from G’s plate, polite. I’m hardly ever impolite to strangers. At this point I’d like to say I’m one of those I’m sure everyone’s good at heart people. I love being disappointed.

“Is it your first time to a play?” G is smiling more broadly than the summer sun.

“I’ve been to a couple back home, first time alone though.” G sits down.

“So where are you from?” “I’m from Kerala. Where are you from?” I can’t help the full sentences amidst all the smiling.

“Delhi.”

I smile broadly as well.
Like when you find the flavor of tic-tac you were rummaging for in a large bucket at a supermarket. Except there’s no way we knew each other’s flavors. Yet.

G is an arts graduate. PG in English Literature. Civil Services preparation.
“ORN?”
“Yes. You go to Vajiram?”
“I go to Sriram.”
“Evening batch?”
“Morning, actually. You must go in the evening batch?”
“Morning, actually.”

Later as we walk out from the canteen into the tall trees, under the orange lamps I can spot G’s backpack that says WildCraft. I smile stupidly, like Swetha says I often do when seated by the window in our office bus.

Everyone should have the privilege to meet themselves, sometime.


I had earlier decided I’d remain stoic for as long as I could hold out. But that New Year night I talked to more humans over Never Have I Ever. And realized I’d always, always loved people.

When Umadri packed up and left for college in late May, I asked her to list out the things and people she’d miss (yea I do that). On top of the list, was who she was when we were at ORN.

Some days I think I’d give anything to go back to being the unfuck-withable dragon-hunter. Impenetrable to my mother’s calls to life as we know it.

Why is life not the way I know it?

IMG_20161216_175545                                               Old Rajendra Nagar, Winter 2016

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(I quit) Dragon hunting

G and I don’t talk a lot. I need to notify a day in advance so the Flight mode is switched off and we can call. So when we do, it’s for the most pressing of issues.
“I’m considering quitting dragon-hunting”, I chip in. At this point, I haven’t decided and am awaiting comments. Speculation is in order.

“Yes”.
Not No.
Not Think about it maybe.
Not even The world doesn’t care anyway so stop only if you want to, as I’d hoped.

Yes/No’s are powerful. They break hearts. They ruin self-esteem. They cause damage that takes a lifetime to heal. Yes/No’s change life as we know it.
Do not ask unless you’re ready to have it go either way.

The thing is, (surprise) I don’t really hunt dragons. Not because they do not exist, I knew that when I became a dragon-hunter. I couldn’t care less even if they did.
I do not make a living out of it, I hardly make anything out of it really. And not many know I call myself one, it’s privy to few. You don’t just tell people that you’re (surprise) boring, you let them figure it out.

Now I don’t have a particularly fragile heart, but dragons are a sensitive matter.

Well that’s all for today, I quit. There’s stuff aplenty out here on earth I’ve found, so I don’t think I’ll be going back anytime soon.
At least the dragons are happy.

 

 

The tea shop with no neon lights

A man walks into the only tea shop that doesn’t sport animated neon signs in this part of town. He hands over a thermos flask to the owner at the counter stirring the large vessel of boiling milk. He doesn’t utter a word but walks straight in and alights on the cranky red stool against the tea-stained wall.
It’s a line of adjacent shops on this side of the main road – on the other side you have the hospital buildings – the scanning center, casualty, the subsidized medicine store BPL cardholders queue up at.

On this side, the neon lightboards are turned on at least an hour before darkness sets in with dusk –  English Medicines in red cursive letters, Hot tea & Biryani in a thick blue font, Vegetarian Restaurant in another. Many announce Tourist Homes – funny they’d call the residents tourists considering none would voluntarily be here.

The signs vie for your attention like a new breed of daily Instagram feed. They would probably have been irrelevant in another part of town but here, in the din surrounding the government hospital, with a hundred people scampering around any time of day and night, it sells.
Attempting to charm when every shop offers the exact same set of items – buckets and mugs, coarse threaded towels and thorth, jugs and steel plates, essential crockery – spoons, knives for families that came away from home in emergency, magazines to lighten your mood, and of course neon lights because every shop has it on this side.

Except this one.
Amidst the cacophony outside, this tea shop slows time down. Maybe because it lacks the urgency of those flashing lights.
The owner takes the flask and fills it with tea, looking for signs of objection from his customer before proceeding – he sees and nods in approval. The man knows his customers well. The ones that want to engage in a bit of chitchat, complain about hospital facilities (or lack thereof), others that want to know if there’s black tea available, some offhandedly commenting on the propensity to rain.

But some just sit on one of his cranky plastic stools, quiet. They’re the ones he wishes God would bless. Though technically he doesn’t believe in God.

He lives with his wife in a one bedroomed apartment in a lane near Medical college junction, big enough for the two of them to keep their few possessions and their TV. Business is good, especially during monsoons when all the dengue kicks up.

Before this, he and his wife sold tea with vadas in a road near the temple at Guruvayur. Business was podipooram there. He woke up at 4 and was at his shop by 4.30 after an ice cold bath and a glass of black tea his wife prepared. Men and women from all walks with their little kids, occasionally older fathers and mothers with their newly wed children and in-laws would arrive in Venad Express in the wee hours, stop for a quick tea at his counter before checking into hotels nearby.
You could see the sleepy-eyed family, kids rubbing their eyes, some threatening to fall off their chairs (there were very few in his shop) before his tea jolted them back to wakefulness. They’d want to know when the queues at the temple were shorter and on what trains they could leave by evening. As day proceeded, his shop would get crowded with people thronging at its steps.

Back then his shop was neater. Life lent his sturdy Communist spine a 12degree bend but he never acceded to his wife’s suggestion of selling Guruvayur appan souvenirs like every other shop nearby – car fixities, chain lockets, rings, pictures for the pooja room, miniatures for the study table, some Guruvayur pappadams.

It was big business – all of it – he could be heard saying often. The sheer number of sweaty weddings with couples and their tiny cohort of relatives that stood in queues, devotees lining up from 5 am until 12, all that money clinking in purses and pockets to make way into the temple chests.
It also made his living.

His wife’s idea would definitely make some extra cash, but he was a non-conformist and didn’t conform. What’s a tea shop got to do with the deity that feeds on all this money? Sell some knickknacks eda, it’s not against our leaders’ ethics, his wife-appointed Communist maaman assured him. Neither is stashing money away in lockers and hitting their wives, he had retorted.
He was not one of them and he was proud of it.

So he had never sold any trinkets at Guruvayur, and when his wife’s arthritis drove them to Trivandrum, he had no neon light adorning the entrance to his shop.
It was practically useless, there were tall yellow lamps at the wide junction that lit up all 7 roads and the vehicles entering. And who keeps boards for Tea? People poured in anyway. This was a reference hospital and people came in without anyone’s invitation. Away from home, the poor needed hot tea for families, for patients in bed, for those in recovery and those awaiting surgery.

He could make small talk – it was part of his job, more so part of his curious mind, but it was the quiet customers he really liked having. Who trusted him to do his work and handed over their apprehensions along with their flasks, at least for the few moments it took him to fill them. It’s a solemn entrustment, for someone else to take charge.

He liked reading too much into things.

His shop was an entry ticket away from the commotion, from blinking neon lights and hurrying hordes. From the suffocation that built up when they had spent a few days at this place and longed to pack up their few belongings, the mat and the newly bought buckets and mugs but mostly the mended patient, and leave.

Of course he couldn’t help them with their son’s raging fever, the mother’s acute pneumonia or the longing for heading back home. But for a few moments, life was back to normal – the two glasses of tea everyday, the only permanent bits in an unpredictable life. It’s why they longed to move out of hospitals onto this side – they could talk about vadas and cricket here and nobody would judge.

Soon enough they’d leave with a word of thanks to the doctor, another word to the person in white and white that nursed them, injecting every dose of prescribed medicine into their vein asking with a smile if it hurt too much.
The guy on the other side in the tea shop who filled their flasks with hot chaya and gave a reassuring nod every morning and evening remains forgotten. The stranger who asked you about your mother’s illness and your hometown. You’ll remember the taste of his tea on the first evening back home and casually mention him as a token. And then you’re allowed to forget all about the shop with no neon lights.