Wednesday, May 17, 2006 

Maximum Ceetee

“Coffee, sir?”

“I prefer it strong and black”.

An early morning check-in and he still sounded groggy.

“Ummm, I thought I said no sugar too”.

“Mmmmm… Sir, can I ask you a question ?”

Raised eyebrow, quizzical.

“You asked for the black coffee, and then sent me back to get the sugarless stuff, so you could call me back twice, didn’t you?”

Dancing eyes, unsaid promises of deviltry. He beckoned her closer.

“Sweetheart , I wanted this particular concoction because it is the only thing that blends in colourwise, and masks the smell of, the rum I’m carrying in the hipflask without spoiling the taste.”

She was scandalised. “ Drinking is not permitted on national flights, Sir!”

Aaj kuch toh nasha, aap ki baat ka hai,
Aur thoda nasha, bheeni barsaat ka hai
Humme aap yunhi, sharaabi na kahiye
Yeh dil pe asar, toh mulaaqaat ka hai

He breathed, almost into her ear. To any of the other passengers, she was just a solicitous airhostess removing old newspapers from the bag in front. She shook her head, blushing, and left.

“Sir, SIR !”

He shook himself awake, and saw her terrified face inches away.

“We’re gonna crash! The weather is really bad and we’re losing control and the starboard engine just died and …”

He gave her an unhurried peck on the cheek.

“Mmmmm, if I’d known you were wearing this perfume, I wouldn’t have bothered with the alcohol, Angeleyes.”

He pushed her gently into the seat, and tucked the napkin with scrawled writing into her palm. He made his way into the cockpit. The sky outside was a maelstrom of inky clouds scudding along. He felt that familiar tightness in his temples. The solitary cold drop of sweat along the ridge of the back, each millimeter it moved tingling, making him more alive, more keenly aware of the shrieking dances of a million ghouls outside.

“Who?” The Captain twisted in his seat at this intrusion, and then a streak of lightning lit up the cockpit, and he half rose. The fresh faced kid next to him rose with pinched features, still pulling a brave face. “ Mister, this is out of bounds. Leave NOW”. Like the thin red line in the east that is the precursor to brilliant day, his voice had a dawn of hysteria.

The Captain gestured him into silence, the clutching of a drowning man at a lifebelt.

“Just like old times, Sonny ?”, he said. “Get in and lets us see if you have forgotten what I taught you about flying”. The Captain nodded, not trusting himself to speak. He eased into the still warm seat, and the Captain displaced the rookie at the co-pilot’s controls. He raised an eyebrow, and grimacing, the Captain rose, pulled a wet tissue from the bunch, and jammed it into the detector on the top. He smiled a bleak smile then, and lit up.


“ We know the problem; this hydraulic line is clogged and we dare not cut it. For one, we don’t have anything to patch it up with, and for the second, we cannot lose any more fluid. To top it all, the weather is terrible, zero visibility, buffeting winds”.

Outside, the thunder boomed, a heavenly tom-tom of drums calling the clouds to witness the punishment of these upstarts who dared the heavens.

He reached down to the thin rubber hose and yanking it off, knotted it above the clot. He turned to the rookie. “Go to the Cutesome who called me. Get her case”, he said. The rookie scurried and returned with the relief of contributing. He opened the case, and whistled as he upended it. Frilly wisps fell to the floor, with a compact, brushes and bottles of stuff. He picked up a bottle of varnish and a reel of floss. Pinching the rubber, he opened out the clogged portion and removed the block. “Tell Laura I love her”, he hummed, as he applied a sticky plaster to the cut, splinting it with a broken off plastic spoon. He dipped the floss in the varnish, and still wet, wound it around the splint. “Give it 30 seconds to harden”, he said.

“Now as far as the fluid loss is concerned...” He removed the hip flask and handed it to the Captain. “Never travel without emergency rations”, he said. The Captain poured into the tube, carefully. He undid the knot, plugged it in again and the system’s vein pulsed as it started functioning once more.

He stubbed out the cigarette, and the Captain recited the practiced litany of the landing checkoffs. “Not a dry eye in the house”, he sang, terribly off-key. The landing was tense but uneventful, and he nodded to the rookie as he stood up. “Sing like me, but fly like him”, he said, indicating the Captain, and then he was gone.

The airhostess looked at him wide-eyed. “I thought we were lost”, she said. “Never a doubt, lass”, he said. And he misquoted so smoothly that she took some time to realise it

The art of kissing isn't hard to master;
so many pretty things seem filled with the intent
to be missed, it's a question of who is faster.

He patted her cheek, and said “This city is the final refuge. Never a doubt that I would reach there”. He pointed to the crumpled paper she still kept in her hand. As he reached for his battered case from the rack, she unfurled it, and read the scrawled lines. Even as she looked up in dawning comprehension, he was leaving.

The tears stung her eyes as he walked away, and she furiously blinked through the mist as she called out.

“Sir ?”

He turned, already the puzzled generic nondescript, armoured in obscurity.

“ Namaskaar and thank you for flying Indian. We hope you will be with us again”.

“Don’t let them promise you a Rose Garden, Toothsome”, he winked, and then his visage shuttered as he turned to face the City.


Across barriers of decades, context and culture, the original to which we have paid this tribute has been a beacon of poignant humour. Read it.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006 

Deja Vu Demitasse

I had this GREAT idea for a story. It was about a man I would meet in hospital reception. He would look at the scar on my hand and say ‘I had an accident once’. And then he would get flustered, panicky even, and would open his jacket. It would have hundreds of those 4 x 6 cards, all neatly laminated, in pockets sewn into the lining. He would hunt feverishly, and fish out one. It looked like one of those speaker’s notes. He would read out details of his accident. I would watch him vaguely puzzled. Then he would sit back, satisfied. And hand me a card that said he had progressive short term memory loss. That is, he would begin a story, but lose the thread of conversation in between and fall silent. So he carried all his stories in 4x6 cards, so that as soon as he began, he could fish out a card.

He would look at my hand, and start 3 stories; the one that he finished, above. One he would get flustered and not be able to finish. One he would start and I would help search the card and finish.

Then he would explain with another card how he used to recollect long stories. And how his memory was progressively getting shorter. And how he had started getting these cards made to retain his memories.

And he would start saying thrice about his overriding fear as time passed on. And not be able to finish. And in the end, would be able to convey it.

‘How will I remember meeting you ?”

I bounced this idea off somebody really creative. Got back an answer that went roughly mmmmm…. Uhuh. Then was gently informed that this story has already been told.

Was musing over this for a couple of days, then I remembered where even this “mistaken originality” tale had been told.

Don’t ask me any details. A thousand others do jobs identical to mine. My hopes and fears are shared by millions more. These hankerings after attention, affection, exclusivity; these fears of saying too much and too little; these trite verses and bland comedies …

Generic, seared, like the brand on cattle, by unknown gods with unfeeling regularity.

Thursday, May 04, 2006 

Death, Where Is Thy Bling ?

At some level, it must have been prevalent from the earliest days of society. What differentiated it was the organised plunging of a cross-section of the world into celebratory gloom.

Suitably solemn announcers gave glum updates on how assorted personalities around the world had declared themselves shattered by the loss. The female components looked haggardly made up, and with occasionally breaking voices, played the part of the brave bereaved beautifully. Street interviews with lisping children who bemoaned the loth of their Queen of Hearth allowed the announcers to compose themselves for the next round of anguish. Those on the spot, of course, were allowed the luxury of tearstained faces and shoddy makeup, as they updated on the earthshaking importance of the report lodged in the nearby police station, and talked in hushed tones of how the waiter at her last restaurant had noted her deliriously happy. When they managed to snag an actual Personage, like the driver of the truck that towed away her car, they took precedence over the regular shots of peripheral appendages: an old acquaintance, an ex-butler etc, who claimed exclusive kinship of the soul with the deceased. Of course, intrusive shots of kith and kin as they were hustled in and out of limousines were the topmost priority. Paternal chiefs in gruff and matter-of-fact tones explained how the entire might of the Police would be employed in debunking laughably absurd conspiracy theories. Vast sections of the media who had played up salacious details of her life now featured blowups of roadside shrines, with a poster, and flowers, teddy bears and teary-eyed passers-by.

The striking fact was of course, the globality of the phenomenon. Amongst her multifarious public appearances was to manage the incongruity of looking a brand ambassador for obscenely costly jewels and clothes while talking of issues that were far removed from her comprehension: mines and famines. Thus we had disfigured African waifs mourning her; bishops in Latin American countries held masses for her; several of the more outré religious sects held séances and wakes. Nearer home, three towns announced naming of streets in her name, and the chef of the 5-star she had stayed in during her last visit came on TV with never-revealed details about how she had tasted a spoon of Gajar Halwa and pronounced it sinfully rich. Artisans in Behala cut clippings ; it was obvious that the next Puja would see a demand for statues of her, along with the obligatory Ganguly. A massive success, this.

The satellite television in India has always hankered for a chance to similarly concoct a maelstrom of mush; they tried then, but the Big One has eluded them thus far. Now it is on again; but even a nation hungry for heroic tragedy cannot overlook the essential smallness of scale.