The deer at Hauz Khas Village

                                              Illustration courtesy: Shivali Chandra

It was a lonely Saturday evening for Rathin, despite the loud music blaring, and people talking loudly in the background. Rathin was done with the world at large.

With the single-minded intention of drowning his sorrows in more than a couple of drinks, he had checked in at the Lord of the Drinks Meadow at Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village. After hopelessly bar hopping that evening, which left him emotionally drained, the Meadow seemed like a relatively quiet place to sit and ruminate. More than just that, it seemed like an acceptable option compared to returning to his lonely abode fully sober.

“The Village is becoming unbearable. All the places are too loud, too crowded, and too…young,” he thought to himself. Rathin hated the last adjective. He hated admitting that at 27, he was inching towards the much-dreaded 30s. But only a year ago, Rathin was part of the crowd he today summarily dismisses as “young”.

He loved the loud music, the vibes, and the general feeling of having arrived in life that the Village offered him the first time. But everything that is once hipster, must become mainstream, someone wise told Rathin the first time he set foot in Delhi. He couldn’t remember who.

The Meadow is inside the famous Deer Park at the Village, and by some stroke of luck in that otherwise doomed evening, there was a cool breeze blowing. Rathin settled for a secluded spot with a view of the park. A mesh wire fencing separated the park from the watering hole. Beyond the mesh were tall trees of all varieties. The moon played hide and seek with the clouds and the leaves that danced in the breeze.

Rathin called for a pitcher of Long Island Iced Tea, the tropical variety, and took two deep breaths. Sanity came at a price in this city. It had been a long day, walking around Lodi Gardens, in search of some solace and inspiration. A struggling writer in the big city, Rathin’s pen had run dry. He couldn’t create magic with his words anymore.

A one-book old writer, he hated admitting that he was terribly scared of becoming a one-book wonder.

He knew how important it was for him to make his second book a stellar success. Money was running out, and folks back home were getting impatient. The manuscript of his second book was rejected by three of the biggest publishers in the city. They said it lacked depth. Truly, Rathin was out of depth. His folks were peeved with his creative pursuits, and would not have any more of it. They wanted him to fit in, and be a part of the race Rathin so loathed.

The Meadow was filled with the rich and fancy of Delhi who had come in their fascinating chariots. “I am so terribly underdressed, God!” he muttered under his breath.

Indeed, in his jeans, polo t-shirt, and dusty sneakers, Rathin was spectacularly out of place. The fancy lights and water fountains held the promise of a different world he desperately wanted to be a part of. He dragged his feet deeper under his knees, hoping that no one would notice them in the darkness.

A server presently brought him his favourite concoction of Vodka, Rum, Tequila, Triple Sec and Orange. He thanked the person and asked for a lighter. He drew two deeps drags of smoke, before scratching his unshaven chin and taking a small sip.

“Aah! This is heavenly,” he thought to himself. Rathin loved Delhi. The city gave him new aspirations every day, of a better life, unimaginable back home. There was a reason Rathin persisted against all odds and wanted to stay on in the city. He drew more passionate sips as he recounted his struggles.

His struggles, he believed, were temporary. Light would shine on him sooner or later. Life would come full circle. There were no chinks in Rathin’s conviction. But at times, fear and criticism cut him deep, leaving him with inner wounds to heal. Coming to terms to his inner hurt had taken Rathin a while. All he wanted was intimate understanding from loved ones. But it was hard to come by.

Rathin was not a struggler by any means. Of this he was certain. He had a regular job and no airs of being a writer. He had deep respect for his job, for it brought him the means of sustenance. But he knew he deserved more. He knew he deserved to be part of a better world. Accidents of birth could not prevent him forever from acquiring his real place. His thoughts raced, as alcohol coloured his imagination. He poured out more of that magical concoction, as his body and mind finally relaxed without any inhibition.

And then he saw it. A deer stood on the other side of the mesh fencing, looking right at him. Where did it come from?

Rathin had no idea. Perhaps it was the lights, and the music, that made the deer curious. Rathin moved closer to the fence, just to make sure it was not his imagination playing games. It was indeed a deer, and it was unafraid of anything. Rathin took out his camera and tried to get a good shot. But somehow, the camera would keep focussing on the fence, missing the deer every time.

He moved even closer to the fence, the deer observing his actions very suspiciously. Rathin meant no harm, but the deer was a mute, dumb animal, with the easy choice of running away. But strangely, it seemed to enjoy the attention. It even walked two steps towards the fence.

Rathin moved even closer in drunk ecstasy at finding a companion this lonely evening. The deer reciprocated. He placed his hand at the fencing, and the deer attempted at some physical contact by placing its wet nose at the exact same spot.

“Who are you?”, Rathin thought he blurted out, amazed at his own ludicrousness.

After a minute of complete silence, accompanied by muted beats of uptempo club music, it seemed to Rathin that deer spoke to him.

“I am the only deer in this park that will dare to do this. I am an outcast. My tribe disowned me because of my curiosity. They warned me not to get too close to the humans, but I can’t resist. Every time I hear the music, the human voices, I am drawn closer,” the deer said.

“Shouldn’t you be with your own kind at this hour of the night?”, Rathin shot back.

“I should be, but they do not approve of me.”

“So, you live all alone in this sprawling park? Doesn’t it get lonely at times?” Rathin was growing curious.

“It does, but it is a part of living life on my own terms. My tribe is predictable and boring. They do not like to explore. I couldn’t take for it long. So I left them, and decided to make it on my own,” the deer replied.

Rathin was taken aback. A talking deer in the Village well past midnight on a Saturday? That has never happened before!

“I am an outcast too. My tribe doesn’t like me much either,” he quipped back, hoping the deer would continue the conversation.

“Well, if that is the way it is, then that is the way it is, my friend!”, the deer had a prompt reply ready.

“Nice to meet you! I have to go to look for some water now,” continued the deer, as it placed its nose against the fence, as if in some form of inter-species greeting. Rathin placed his head against the fence, his forehead feeling wet suddenly, due to contact with the deer’s nose.

In one moment of shared solidarity, he felt like he had found a kindred soul, in the unlikeliest of places. The deer hopped away into the dark of the night.

Rathin cleared the bill, feeling empowered by his alcohol-fuelled conversation with a deer. Was it for real? He did not know. And he could not care less. Or spoil his own new-found vigour.

The struggling writer had found a new muse. The deer at Hauz Khas Village.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

City people

It was the worst phase of Rajesh’s life. Life, as he knew it, had come to an abrupt end.
The Global Financial Crisis, downsizing, pink slips, and then UNEMPLOYMENT.

The sequence was like that of toppling dominos. One instance of entropy was introduced somewhere in the system, and no remote corner of the system was spared.

First went his job, and then his self esteem. Then, when the mortgage on the car was due for long, off went the car. It was nobody’s fault, but everybody suffered.

But a man’s ego is very fragile. When there are questions raised on his abilities, he gets hurt.
Rajesh was broken. He had applied to a number of other companies but no one was in HIRE MODE, apparently.

His colleagues had taken up menial jobs – retail boy, waiter, primary school teaching.

But, not him. Sometimes a man’s ego is very rigid, and it colours his view. He had decide that his management school degree would soon bring something his way, sooner or later. He couldn’t work as a retail boy!

But, now two full months since the lay off, he was still fishing for jobs and his fishing rod caught nothing.
He sat watching the Sun going down between the hills. This was a ritual everyday.

After a hard long day of applying for jobs, cold calling people, trying to seek help from his network, he would climb to the peak of the city’s only hill, and sit there, till it was dark.

On most days, he was alone besides having some stray goats for company. Today there was an aged ‘pahari’ woman who was collecting firewood.

He gazed at her as she collected firewood. Her mongoloid features looked statue-like in the bronze light of the setting sun. She worked in a machine like manner with a familiar folk tune on her lips.

Sometimes when a tune sounds too familiar but you cannot identify it, it is like the fragrance of wild unknow flowers which you bet you’ve smelt before but cannot name.

He looked at his watch. 4:30. An hour more.
Everyday he sat there, and looked down the hill. The depths were scary. When a man is alone and depressed, all sorts of thoughts cross his mind.

But he had resisted. He had put a deadline within which if he didn’t find a job, he would end it all – at this very place.
Till then, it was on hold.

He still had time. The hill-woman provided a stark yet welcome contrast to the state of his mind. She was so calm, unruffled.
He pictured his life before the meltdown. It had looked so perfect. And now, it’s all gone.

A stream of tears escaped the confines of his eyes. Angry, frustrated, and helpless he kicked at the trunk of a fat tree. But the trunk was thick and he hurt his leg. He sat down again.

The woman looked up momentarily and again went on with her work. Rajesh calmed down and went back to watching the sunset. So beautiful!
Orange, big ball of fire.

The Brahmaputra below reflected a thousand more tiny suns. Fishing boats ferried in the distance. The birds flied back home. It was. . . .so beautiful!

But he couldn’t feel the happiness in his heart. . .

“Babu.”, the woman called out.

He was lost in his thoughts and didn’t realise that the woman had come closer.

“I see you coming here everyday, but it’s not good”.

“What?”.

“The hill. . .it is not good. It gives bad ideas to lonely people. They jump. They die. Don’t come. Come with partner.”

“What do you care?”.

“My son jumped last year. His wife had run away with a plains’ youth. He sad. He come here everyday. He jumped. His little son cried. I cried. This hill is bad”.

“I’m sorry to hear about this. But I was not going to do anything like that”, he lied.

“Theek hai babu. Time to go. My grandson is hungry. I warm some milk from him with firewood. Don’t worry, babu. Everything be alright. You city people think too much. You want everything. But if you lose, you break down. You eat pills, you think you’ll live long. But you die. You city people should learn to live, babu. Don’t worry, everything will be alright”.

He watched the woman climbed down the hill. The stray goats were her.
Finally the sun set, and Rajesh stood up to leave.

Suddenly, the idea of suicide didn’t feel so great. Something would turn up, he was sure.

The Storyteller.

As much as I love train journeys, I must admit that I do not enjoy socializing with a fellow passenger on a train.
No. I’m not that guy.
I’d rather sit down at the window seat, with a book, maybe, or ear-phones.
Or better still, I’d just look out the window and take in the sights and sounds of rural India.

But, chatting up with a fellow passenger? No, that’s not my deal.

So, it was a bit irritating when this young-ish looking boy sat down next to me and forced me into conversation.
I tried to be as rude as possible and scare him away. But, he was one persistent chap.

“So, what is this book you’re reading?”.
“It’s a novel”, I murmured without looking up.
“Is it a happy story or a sad one? Do people die in it?”.

I looked up at his face. He was staring at my face. His eyes had a bluish tinge and a placid nature. His face looked tired and weather worn but his eyes shone brightly.

And the persistent manner, in which he stared till he had his answer made me very uncomfortable.
“Well, there are a few deaths, but in all, it is a happy story”.

In the course of the next two hours, this chap managed to strike up a conversation with me. And, strangely enough, I enjoyed the conversation.
He told me all about himself – how he had to leave his village school after the death of his farmer father.

He told me that he was going to the city to become a helper at his uncle’s barber shop. He’d become an apprentice there and learn the trade. With some experience and money, he hoped to set up his own shop a few years down the line.

I don’t remember having a conversation so long with a fellow passenger on a train before. But I didn’t hate it. At the end of it, I even ended up giving him a couple of hundred rupees out of pity.

Soon, it was my turn to catch some sleep. I was travelling with my father, who was sleeping all the while on the upper bunk. Now it was my turn.
I bade the boy farewell as his stop would come after only an hour and I’d be asleep by then.

I climbed up to the upper bunk and made myself comfortable. Soon, I dozed off. I dreamt of horses and the sea shore. Weird connection! I guess my mind was too tired after all this travelling.

Next morning when I woke up the boy was gone. He had got down around midnight, I suppose.
I climbed down and sat just next to my father.

“Did you sleep well?”.
“Oh yeah! Just about”.

“The poor kid thanked you for the money before getting down. Tough luck! Life’s really hard on some people”, my father said.

“Why? What’s wrong?”, I asked.

“The poor kid barely makes a living shining shoes in the city and now both his parents are dead. Didn’t he tell you his story? I was really moved and handed him three hundred rupees just before he got down”.

“WHAT? Well, he told me a story alright but a VERY DIFFERENT ONE INDEED! We were robbed by a blue-eyed storyteller, Dad!!!”.

The Night

Foreword : After eleven days, I’m writing something just for myself apart from VOICES FOR DAMINI. As I settle in my bed all prepared for this winter’s coldest night, my mind drifts away to those outside – the homeless. This is about them.

The cold, biting winds chased her around. She had shifted base thice from evening, trying to find herself a warmer place to spend the night.
Just that morning, the police babu’s had evicted her and the other beggars from the shed near the Railway Station.

Nothing much. Such cat and mouse games were routine. But perhaps, this time it was ill-timed. Winter was at it’s harshest worst that night.

The fourth ‘shelter’ was under a tree and near some bushes, that provided natural warmth. But, it was right on the side of the road and vehicles that plied through the nights made sleep very uncomfortable.

But, beggars can’t be choosers. Literally and figuratively, too. She laid the cardboard cartons on the ground – a foundation for her bed.

Then the plastic sheets that she had collected all through summer – so long-sighted she was!

Then, looking around carefully to make sure that there was no one watching, she took out the warm blanket that she had carefully packed with plastic sheets.

She had stolen the blanket from her neighbour beggar just two months back. Survival was of paramount importance. Didn’t matter how.

Carefully, she made her bed, and settled in. Her body shivered momentarily at the touch of the cold blanket. Few minutes later, she felt warmer and began to drift away in sleep.

She dreamt of garbage bins full with leftover food. The dream made her warmer.
Soon, the procession of inter state trucks started. With the crossing of each truck, there blew a wind that shook her to the bone.

Add to that, the noise of their machinery and honks. She was up again. Uncomfortable and cold, she tried her best to wrap the plastic sheets around her tightly.

Insulation was scant and the mercury rose with the night’s progress. Past midnight, it was really tough and she thought she won’t last. Like Birju and Maina who left last year, she, too, would pass away in sleep.

Suddenly, she felt some soft warmth at her back and shivered. She rose her head to find that two street dogs had cuddled up to her, without much formalities.

In the darkness, she couldn’t see well enough to note their colours. But strangely enough, she felt better at the unexpected warmth.

She was not alone in this cold night.

That night, three creatures lay in one breathing, warm bundle and somehow survived the night. An unexpected, need-based friendship. But, somehow, still very beautiful.

The wait.

Sanjay was overjoyed.
After spending months away from his village, he was finally going home now.

The first semester of College had already taken the youthful enthusiasm out of him.

Mathematics had never seemed so mechanical in his whole life.
But this was College.

Uninspiring lectures. Unimaginative courseware.
Professors with dead-pan expressions.

To his great relief, he was going home now.
Albeit, for just a few days.
The bitter memories of his first semester flashed through his mind, like images, one after the other, as he stood waiting for the bus home.

It was going to be a ten hour long bus ride; and his supplies were adequate.

Food, liquids, and yes, books! Lots of them.
Books – the blessed tools that helped him see through the first morbid six months at College.

He remembered how he buried himself in books even as his roomies partied. Sanjay really detested the city guys.

He hated how they were always ready to make him look bad in front of the girls. He hated how they made fun of his speech impediment.

“Sa…..sa…..sa…sanjay!”, they would cry out in chorus, as he entered the classroom.
Results were instant. The girls reciprocated with giggles and meaningful glances.
He felt like dying; more self-conscious than ever before.

City girls – those nymph like creatures, doused in expensive perfumes, dressed like little princesses with their tantrums.
For the first few days, he could not think of anything else. He had never seen such girls, let alone from such proximity.

But his eyes did not have a leer. No sir!
He was what you’d call a decent guy. But he sure was overwhelmed.

Presently, he was shaken out of his thought-chain by the sudden arrival of a girl at the bus stop.

Sanjay threw a sideways glance at the girl, who was wearing jeans and a tee.
She had long waist-length hair that she wore in a single plait.

He wanted to strike up a conversation; break the ice, as they say. But he didn’t trust his speech. Not anymore.

Unpleasant memories of a previous encounter came to mind. He shooed them away.

The girl took a bottle out of her bag and sipped some liquid. Sanjay saw her face.

She was attractive, and pleasant looking.

He further measured his chances of striking up a successful conversation.

“What if she doesn’t reciprocate, or my stutter repels her?”, Sanjay thought.

“Who cares? No one has to know about this. It’s just the girl and you in this lonely bus stop in the middle of nowhere!”, his braver self reasoned.

Yes! Sanjay realized that he was away from prying eyes here. He could easily strike up a conversation with this girl. No performance anxiety. No nervousness.

Who knows?
What if the girl was also going to the same place?
What if they got seats together on the bus?

Ten hours of togetherness!
He would kill for that!
Chances were high that in those ten hours, he could get the girl to like him.
Maybe she would also give him her number – what an achievement that would be!

For the first time in his life, he could have someone remotely close to a ‘girlfriend’.
Maybe, if he tried.

He summoned up all his courage; tucked his stomach in, and inflated his chest.
Sanjay didn’t know what to do with his skinny hands. They always got in the way.

Anyway, he walked up to the girl and even as sweat beads were forming at his forehead, he asked, “Excuse me, are you also going to Rwanal?”.

One full sentence without stammering a bit! This was indeed an achievement.

“No, I am afraid. I’m going to Lyansing. Why do you ask?”, she replied with a smile.

All his rising hopes were dashed with that reply. Lyansing and Rwanal. No connection at all. They would not be even on the same bus.

Just then, a bus appeared on the horizon; behind it, a halo of reddish dust.
Soon, the bus made a stop.

“Rwanal” – read the hand-written pamphlet glued to the windscreen.

He nodded at the girl and boarded the bus.
It rolled away sluggishly.
Sanjay looked at the girl at the stop. She was looking the other way. She was waiting. For her ride home.

Even he was waiting – to strike up a meaningful conversation with a girl.
Something he hadn’t done in a long time. Something that would give him a world of confidence.

The journey continued.
So did ‘the wait’.

We all are waiting for something. Something good.

Salary Day

Little Sonu was excited.
It was the first day of the month – salary day for Baba.

For the whole month, Baba had toiled away, making those scary big machines run in the factory.

Sonu looked at the wall clock.
6:30 p.m.
Half an hour more, Sonu thought to himself.

Soon, Baba would arrive with pockets full of chocolates – the first of the many perks of the salary day.

Then, Baba would give the most of his salary to Maa.
With a smile of relief on her face, Maa would safely tuck away the money in her trunk.

“Beta, go get dressed quickly!”, he would say stroking Sonu’s oil-smeared hair.
It was as if Sonu was waiting for those very words. He would quickly jump into action, putting on his best clothes, pair of shoes, and his fake plastic watch.

Soon, they would be out in the crowded streets, walking hand in hand. Sonu in middle. Parents on his side.

Maa looked unusually beautiful on salary days. She would wear her hair in two long plaits, put on her favourite Yellow sari, and put a red bindi between her eyes.
So beautiful.

Baba seemed like the boldest man on salary days. He would simply barge into street side shops, haggle with keepers, and buy toys, a new sari or two. Maa looked at Baba with eyes full of wonder.

And Sonu just couldn’t stop admiring Baba.

“I will be like Baba when I grow up”, he would resolve silently.

Soon, they would go to the neighbourhood cinema hall, and watch a movie. He enjoyed the song and dance. And also the brave heroes.

Back home, he tried to replicate the stunts he saw in the movie.

At the end, they would all return home, laughing, joking about the day spent.

Sonu would sit on his father’s shoulders. He could smell Baba’s scented hair.
Maa and Baba held hands. Sonu noticed that.
They were happy.

Salary day was the happiest day of their little universe. As the day came to a close, Sonu felt a little sad. For ahead of them, lay one full month of discipline, frugality, and no evening-outs.

But he smiled when he thought that a similiar evening-out awaited them after the long dry spell of frugality.

That sinking feeling

He felt the cold water embrace his whole body, and a chill ran down from head to toe.

The first touch.

The first feel of cold water on the naked body is an experience that words can’t seem to describe, no matter how great a writer one is.
The water touches you – shock, sudden sensation, a bit of numbness.
And then – acceptance, meek submission. Then, there’s peace.

He was sinking and he made no attempt to save himself. He couldn’t. He looked calmly at the star studded night sky, ready to embrace death.

Just minutes ago, a car had made a sudden stop at the bridge over the water.
Four strong men had alighted from it.
Then, there was a loud splash in the water below.
And, the car had sped away.

As some water gushed into his nose, he made an involuntary, abrupt attempt to free himself. But the ropes were too tight. And the venom injected just minutes ago was slowly starting its work. He couldn’t move his legs and the numbness travelled upwards. Fast.

The water found free passage from nose to mouth and a sharp pain in his head ravaged him.
Then, his head went completely under water, while the numb relaxed lower body still floated.
He tried to keep his eyes open. He tried to focus. He tried to feel death. After all, he was dying for the first time.

The cold water met his hot eyeballs. A temporary feeling of relief. And then his eyes felt a burning sensation. He could no longer see the stars from under water, just the dull black night sky.

Soon, the struggle for air would start. He knew it.

But, he didn’t want to die like that – gasping for air. He had no reason to live anymore. And he wished to enjoy the feeling of sinking slowly.

Some wishes are never granted.

The other woman.

The Artist was dead. He was no more.

People mourned his death. Experts talked in important, low voices about the great loss to his art form that his death shall cause. They clucked their tongues and shook their heads sadly.

The electronic media made a spectacle of the whole episode. TV vans were set up in front of the artist’s house.

Multiple television anchors quizzed his family members, servants, his gardener, his dog. People at home stayed glued to their television screens, while news panelists sang empty rhetorics.

His family had flown in from abroad just that morning. His wife shed profuse tears, her hand on the corpse’s cold forehead. His son paced worriedly, talked to important looking persons, and carefully averted the television cameras.

Ministers and important people came and went with their entourage. People thronged his house to pay their last respects.

But the person who was the closest to the Artist stayed home. And wept.

The Other Woman.

Her whole world had come crashing down with the Artist’s death. He was everything to her, and all she could see around herself was darkness.

When he was alive, she had begged him to legitimize their love. But he had declined.

“I don’t need a marriage certificate and a registration to love you.”, he had said.

He was impractical. He was an artist.

“What does a ‘marriage’ signify? Nothing! My legally married wife hasn’t seen me in years.”, he had argued.

He was a lover. And he loved her with all her heart. He looked after her well. But he never bothered about legitimacy.

And now, that the Artist had fallen, the vultures had arrived, from far off skies to feed off his ‘carcass’ – his legacy. They had formed an invisible fortress to ensure that she couldn’t break through into it. To ensure that she would never be heard of again.

But, she didn’t complain. She was destined to shed copious tears, and sigh from far, for she was ‘The Other Woman’. Not to be acknowledged.