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AAM CIVILIAN PARTY

Small town India, so charming.

I know it’s probably stupid to sprout such elitist thoughts right in the beginning of a story, but I wanted to be honest. Honest. It was the music. If you’re ever driving down the highway and happen to cross some remote village, don’t listen to the Swades soundtrack. It makes you feel like you’re going to save the “people” from drought or rescue them from caste politics, or win that goddamn cricket match and send back the goras and the music, bah, it just makes you believe. Quit India! Jaya Hin.. Sssh. Ok. This is unfortunate. Reality, as you would’ve guessed, was nowhere close.

I wasn’t going to save anyone. No. I wasn’t going to fix the local water problems or educate the village children or sing subliminal messages during the annual Ramlila performance. I was researching coconut oil. That’s right. This closet singer of the Yeh Tara Who Tara was heading to free the locals from the remote possibility of dandruff and seasonal lice infestation. Cue shenai chorus.

My destination was Ahmednagar, a quaint little town, five hours from Bombay that had somehow managed to become the hotbed for coconut oil research in the country. In our world (where every woman dreams of lush bouncy shiny playful hair), Ahmednagar is like the golden goose, the standout performer with an undeterred consumption of coconut oil, defying the odds of region, religion, caste, cattle and culture. This of course makes it a must visit for anyone interested in the follicle cleaning habits of SEC B, 25-35 year old, married Maharashtrian women who want to move up in life, w/o compromise. DJ please.

Now, this story would’ve been rather drab (I didn’t find the Holy Tail (Pony)) had it not been for a fortuitous coincidence. Go on, you can say it again. Fortuitous. The thing was, Ahmednagar, the charming underdog town of the movies where you can’t help but scream out Bakhtawar! also happened to be home to the Armoured Corps, the combat division of the Indian Army – basically the guys with the keys to the tanks. A conversation back home revealed that a family friend was sweating it out at the academy there, and wouldn’t it be great if I looked him up?

It certainly would be. My mind was still abuzz with pre-perspiration problems of the real housewives of Little India, and a diversion was certainly welcome. I was to wrap up research, wash off the grime, re-oil and meet young Captain Soorthi at headquarters at 21 hundred hours sharp.

Sounds like a perfectly innocent plan no? It was. But as any veteran would reluctantly confirm, on the field, things rarely go according to plan. The remainder of the evening went by in a haze. I’ll try and recall it as much as possible. Rated ‘T’ for trauma.

20:30: I leave my hotel, ready for a night of booze, binge and general brouhaha. It’s always nice when a week of boring research dictation suddenly sees the light at the end of the carpal tunnel. I was quite flexed.

20:50: I get waved past a few check posts and enter the Army Cantt, which as one would expect, looks nothing like the rest of the town. Its always surprising how the base in any city, any little town, looks so polished and pristine, as if it has nothing to do with its host dwelling. A city within a city. Like a bubble. The air is sweeter, the shrubbery maintained, everyone wears shoes. Valid thoughts maybe, but perhaps best suited for another time. On the road, they were sufficient distraction and soon I ended up stuck in the middle of a dark, deserted, beautifully graveled road, with only speculatory stares from passing cadets for company. A frantic phone call followed.

21:00: Young Captain Soorthi arrived, revving his official motorbike, but he didn’t seem too pleased. Odd. His eyes were bunched close, converging around my neck, adding a certain edge to the scheme of things. Finally, the impasse broke: You can’t wear a round neck t-shirt to Nagar man.

Civilians, he mumbled.

Let’s take a moment. From where I come from, this ‘dandy civilian land’, round neck t-shirts are a perfectly presentable way of having dinner, in a small town, with a friend you haven’t met in a few years. I’m doing fine thank you. And what the hell is Nagar? Aren’t we in Ahmednagar? Nagar is like calling a place Pradesh. Jharkhand sounds cooler.

Civilians, he grumbled again.

This was to be the general theme for the evening.

21:10: A couple of quick phone calls revealed we could maybe, perhaps hang out at the ‘Annex’, if the seniors weren’t around, and if I was positioned as a helpless friend who just didn’t know the rules, but meant no disrespect. There was even talk of pretending to be an out of town distant cousin who just happened to be passing by and was being given an unplanned tour. Annex, if you’re interested, is the slightly louder, slightly wilder but more accepting of civilian joints in the place. As in, the army kids and wives hang out there all the time. So I figured I’d be welcome. Civilian camaraderie right? No.

21: 30: We settle down on a nice high table with our first round of large whiskeys and some excellent mutton kebabs. There’s a general buzz about the place. The new batch of cadets had just arrived and was working the tables, mingling with the seniors and professors alike. My friend, the Captain, decided to take a few minutes off to schmooze himself. This was fine by me considering I had the clammy indulgences of Western Indian women to worry about. But just as I was making headway (sweat leads to stickiness that blocks the pores that oil can lubricate and prevent sweat from accumulating so therefore aha) a senior officer happened to cross the table. It was probably my thinking face that seemed welcoming. He paused, then approached and it was clear he was wondering if I was one of the new cadets looking for an introduction.

You, he said, umm, are you, well, umm.

Now there’s a reason why he was confused and yet quite sure that I wasn’t one of “them”. You see language is the centerpiece of the Army way of life. Not just words but more so the body. It’s kind of embarrassing when you’re the only one slouching in a crowd. You get found out pretty quickly. I had to maintain a ‘chest out, back arched’ stance while the kind gentlemen sweetly enquired about my whereabouts, background and training. Luckily, Captain Soorthi swooped in just as we breached the question of battalions.

Civilian, said bugger Soorthi. Civilian, said the Brigadier. And hands were shook.

22:15: I was still reeling from the inquisition, when a group of actual cadets stopped by to meet Captain Soorthi and presumably, me. By then, I was getting used to the G.I stance a bit. Sir, they called me. Sir, they called him. Good Evening Boys I replied. Captain Soorthi wasn’t having any of it.

Civilian, he said. Oh Civilian? They replied. Nice to meet you Mr. What brings you to Nagar?

Another slap on life’s dilemmas. Advertising is a pretty iffy profession to explain as it is, but more so, when you need to justify it to a group of young sprightly cadets, all of who, naively mistook you for a respectable senior officer a few minutes ago. How does one bring legitimacy to the statement – ‘I research the life and times of fruit & nut oil application in the average middle class home of India, but East India is handled by somebody else’ compared to their probable reply – That’s sweet. We ride tanks and hope to save the country one day.

Ordinary Civilian, I mumbled. Civilian, they concurred. Another large whiskey was had.

23:00: The night was on its terminal legs when we grabbed a few chairs, now that some of the seniors had retired. Behind, one heard the cackle of a young flock, maybe 13-15 year olds, some of who, I suspect, had been observing me rather carefully. Army kids, I assumed. Oh those Army kids. I knew some as a child, but they were always so full of their “many travels”. Oh the beaches, oh the hills, oh the desert. Bah. And I was angry when they got to ride in those epic army buses, escorted by those epic armed Jawans, while I struggled to hang onto the rails of our DTC. I swear, I think I saw them sneer from those trucks. In hindsight, maybe that was just the Delhi winter hitting their smug faces. Boom! And here we were again, years later, but they still jeered. At my civilian accent, and my civilian haircut, and my civilian capacity to hold alcohol. I was getting a little loud by then and a little off balance I suspect.

Civilians, they whispered. Civilians! I replied. That’s right! They gasped. We’re almost the same! Excuse me? Yes! No. Army school is not the Army! So? I did P.T. too! Forward march check! Left, right, left! My rant was not well received. Captain Soorthi confirmed. Simon said it was time to go back.

23:30: The car gently whizzed pass the roads of Nagar and then limped across the bumpy ways of Ahmednagar. Sitting back, jumping up, I couldn’t help but wonder how disconnected I was from this world of the Army. As an institution, it had all these rituals and culture that I would probably never understand. But the flip side seemed true too. Speed bump! The Army seemed to be in a bubble, which perhaps prevented it from living like the rest of the country did. Which was kind of ironic. Them and us. It sounds so silly. So unnecessary. But then, you weren’t the aam civilian who got hustled at the Nagar Annex on his one night off from drudgery. I guess, for now, we must go our separate ways, the Army and I. Like real men. Firm handshakes. Gentle nods. Stiff ahums. The world needs more peace after all, and it certainly can’t do without coconut oil. Jai Hind.

 

23: 31: Just then, as my head hit the car roof on a particularly inspired bend:

Men. That’s what it is. What if the secret to Ahmednagar’s fortunes was no longer it’s women (who were already fans of my hair oil), but their men – the husbands and brothers and fathers and sons, working in the sugar factories and vada paav stalls. Perspiration anyone? Hmm. And whom do these men admire the most?

Aam Civilian Party

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THE ‘OTHER’ ELECTION

It’s that time of the year again. Well that time, this month, every five years that is. The greatest democracy in the world is taking a stand. Coconuts are being cracked, garlands are being sewn, veins are being popped. You guessed it. It’s election time at the Knick Knack Paddy Whack Club of Delhi South East, District 1232.

Why, you ask, has the media ignored a story of such obvious concern? Well, apparently, they were “occupied”. And that the lead wasn’t “hot” enough. Not enough “zing”, said an editor. Hah. Well luckily, some of us still believe in the power of journalistic integrity. And so, in the true spirit of national interest and to try and fill the gaping void post the end of West Wing on television, I bring you this special report, free for publishing, straight from the battlegrounds. Suck it Dr. Roy.

Many of you might not be familiar with the Knick Knack Paddy Whack Club of Delhi South East, District 1232. And why would you be? It’s not a club for everyone. Some have, in the past, even termed it a tad elitist. A clique of the old convent boys, the Gordon Gekkos, from Stephen’s and Xavier’s who sit around in their Sunday patios, sipping stiff whiskey sours and fine French wine. But this is all conjecture of course. Not much has been written about the Club, owing to it’s strict ‘members only’ policy. Some have traced its origins back to the time of Tharoor and Jaitely. Some say it’s the birthplace of the modern Lutyen intellectual. Some say it’s just a place for burnt out boomers who have nothing better to do and who don’t particularly fancy their wives. None of which can be confirmed of course.

But all this about to change now. For the first time, the Club has opened its doors to the outside world for review. Why now? And why this reporter? Well to begin with, my uncle is the new Honorary Secretary of the Club. Which, if you have ever been to Delhi, means I can do whatever the hell I want to do. But more importantly of course, the Club finds itself in a sticky impasse. A three-way battle of succession is dominating its usually peaceful election process, and well, surprise surprise, the media has been summoned. We are to cover the story, bring it to the members, help them make an informed decision. It’s called journalism Dr. Roy.

Anything specific you’d like me to cover Uncle?

Just the usual election stuff. Infrastructure. Development. Religion.

A homing pigeon crept up on the windowsill nearby. Then..

We should’ve skipped the Dandiya last year. I knew the dhoklas were too much.

The pigeon cooed as if to concur.

Meet with Venu first. I’ve told him you’ll be dropping by.

Venu was Mr. R. Venugopal, immediate Past President, Ex. Honorary Secretary and now leader of the opposition. I met him at his campaign headquarters; otherwise known as the second guest bedroom, at his sprawling bungalow in D block Greater Kailash.

Mr. Venugopal sir, you’ve been the President before. Why do you wish to stand again? Isn’t it time to give the others a chance?

My question seemed to offend him. The orange squash never came.

Son, I’ve been a member for 17 years, but let me tell you, it’s never been this bad. Who knows what the Knick Knack stands for anymore? We have no direction. No leadership. No values. Is it Table Tennis? Is it Carromboard? And what is this Foosball nonsense? Fooozball? Phhoozball? Where do we draw the line? And why must we change the biscuit policy huh? What’s so wrong with Monaco? Are we too big for Monaco? Are we too good for Monaco? Is Monaco not cookie enough? Let’s give a dog a bone! That Suresh, he’s rooollling home!

Mr. Suresh Karri was the incumbent President of the Club and the strongest contender in this race. On most days, his win would have been comfortable, but the incident last month at the annual dinner had stripped his support base considerably. Sources say it all began with Mrs. Gupta’s famous spring rolls, which for some reason got mixed up with Mrs. Ahluwalia’s kathi rolls. Cutting a long story short, Mr. Sharma, the now Treasurer, ended with minced chicken in his mouth, and proceeded to dispense its fowl contents on his immediate neighbor, Mr. Raman, a pure Brahmin, who also happened to be the brother-in-law of Mr. Madapu, Mr. Suresh’s biggest supporter and the leader of the sponsor committee. Mr. Venugopal, seated on the adjoining table, meanwhile spared no time in raising the question of a no-confidence vote. The motion was swiftly passed and fresh elections were declared the week after.

When I met Mr. Suresh, he seemed a man distraught. Even the warm rays infiltrating his garden gazebo in Safdarjung Enclave didn’t seem to service. Posters of ‘Fingerlickin’ Karri’ were now peeling off the fine glass walls.

There was nothing I could do, he explained. The kitchen committee was headed by Mr. Venugopal himself, and I’m quite sure he had this all planned out. But anyway, I’m not here to point fingers. My agenda is simple. Curb. All. Attrition. We lost too good men to our competitors. ‘Unwanted Dads’. ‘What do I do with my Sunday blues?’. Even ‘canifartinpeace.org’. It’s very disheartening to see the old blood leave us on a whim. We need to woo them back and by God, I’ll be the one to do that.

We will be the ones to do that, corrected Mr. S. Raghuram, Mr. Suresh’s campaign manager, incumbent Vice President, Secretary Next Generation and the President nominee for the following term, if Mr. Suresh was to win this term. We’ve been working hard on a clear plan of making the Club more appealing to our younger members. My proposals for casual jeans on every second Sunday and a two-day stubble leniency are almost through. Yesterday, we even discussed the idea of doing away with tie clips entirely.

Mr. Suresh coughed as if to signal that they were still on record. At, the end of the day, his No.2 continued, it’s all about the numbers. I’ll get in the young, Suresh will get in the old, but it’s the special members who will decide this vote.

The special members were a crack team of five veterans, who had all been unsuccessful in gaining any significant post in the Club, but had been granted ‘special’ status on account of their continued monetary patronage. They were popularly known as the ‘fringe’ members, a due reference to their critical duties. Managing Director in-charge of Film Screenings, Cultural Director of the Annual Dance, Ambassador for Cold Beverages, Hot Tea and Cakes Commissioner, and the Inspector of International affairs. The last post had been vacant for much of the year, adding to the numerical dilemma. As per records, Mr. Chandra, the last man to hold the post, had been unsuccessful in arranging a Skype call for the President, who had wished to chat with his daughter studying in Washington. The connection had broken midway, and Mr. Chandra had been unceremoniously fired.

With a tight race ahead, these new kingmakers were now demanding their due. One Mr. Sawhney, the reigning Ambassador for Cold Beverages, had even staked his claim as the new Sergeant At Arms, the head of discipline committee. The post had been long held by the Mr. K. Sahne, a retired chemistry professor, who had been using this post as a fitting reply to the senior members, many of who happened to bully him during his school days. In particular was the case of Mr. Kapoor, the Under Secretary to the General Secretary, who had been allowed to enter only two of the last twelve meetings. Mr. Sahne had lost many a batata patty to Mr. Kapoor in his teenage years, and had decided to serve him the potato solid.

In all, it seemed that the Club’s electoral problems ran fairly deep. Politics was at it’s highest, tantrums were reigning supreme, the wives had been involved. The battle seemed almost symbolic of the current state of the Club – an institution stuck between the old and the new, with the previous guard refusing to let go, and the next generation unable to take it forward. A dynamic further pickled by the rise of a few fringe players, who insisted on treading the dotted line. Who will finally win is anyone’s guess, but one thing is sure, in this political battle, the Club is almost certainly at a loss.

With three boiled eggs and half a cucumber sandwich, this is Yudhishthir Agrawal, for shortsillystories.

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1

DR. LOVE

It was the worst of times, it was the couldn’t have been worse of times. It was the age of defeat, the epoch of pain, the epoch of incredulity. It was the season of plight, it was the season of darkness. Spring brought no hope and winter was truly coming.

The mood was glum. The weather, oh so plum. In October last year, I found myself nursing a broken heart with my scaly left palm and a throat that was heavily parched. “Incapable of love”, she had seemed to indicate. “You never know, you never try, you love yourself and nothing else!” But what else must I do my love? I tried to reasonably reason. Maybe the two of us just need a little more time? “No!” I do love you but must I love your pet Jaju too? “Yes!” Oh please, please, this is unfair. “He’s not a pet you know!” she retorted with some belief. “The family has spoken. He stays but you must leave.”

It was with traces of such dogged nostalgia that I sunk towards the local dive, to drown my sorrows in another few more pints. And things would’ve gotten deep and dark again I promise, had I not seen, through the corner of my eye, an old familiar face, sitting alone by the bar, lost in a few himself. A face so opportune I tell you, that I can only describe it as a fresh beam of hope in an otherwise unflattering year. Could it really be him…Dr. Love?

Back then we just called him Dr. Love. The Dr. was honorary, the Love was necessary. He was that kinda guy. Smooth with the ladies, the guy who knew the works. What must be said when, to whom, with how much emphasis. Venus was saturn in front of him. He could predict her moves with uncanny accuracy, making him the slickest, slyest beast I’d ever met. Lessons would be learnt just by observation. Notes would be taken. Classes would be had after hours. If you were friends, he would offer personal advice, sometimes even a few minutes to explain the intricate dynamics of the game. Young students would camp outside his room for hours and the college radio begged him repeatedly for a segment every year. But he, Dr. Love, kindly refused each time, choosing to live and lead by example instead. He never ever disclosed the statistics mind you, but I can tell you they were many. For over the years, he had collected each story, made meticulous notes as would a man of such high passion, and built on his able repertoire. The strike rate was par excellence. In fact by our final years together, some young enthusiasts had even bestowed him the famed honor of the F.R.C.S. – for his work in the field of Far-Reaching Coitus Solutions. Dr. Love. (FRCS). Ah, what a guy. Life for him, one could safely presume, was all but hubba bubba.

And what luck I told myself to have found the man himself, sitting next to me on such a dire depressing day. If there was anyone who could help me, it was surely the doctor of love.

‘Dr. Love? I approached with a gingerly grin. So many years it’s been’.

‘Ah yes. I did see you there. How were you old friend?’

‘Life is well. But love, Dr. Love, love has served me a bitter pill. In fact that’s what I wished too d…’

I felt inclined to pause midway. Something told me that things were not as I had imagined. His face lacked the fresh cinnamon smile I had so admired, replaced sharply by thick brown cracks of age; the hair, almost always oozing with confidence and musk had now virtually disappeared. His breath was warm, the voice raspy.

‘And please’, he gently reminded, ‘just Luv for now. L.U.V. I’ve dropped the O. Couldn’t stand the E.’

I’m sad to report but he looked a man hardened by years. A retired general who had clearly resigned from his past glory. He looked the part who could’ve been, should’ve been, but must’ve been party to a crucial error somewhere.

In his case, I quickly gathered over our next few rounds, it was the ridiculous choice of actually pursuing his stage name legitimately. Medicine is not much like love, Luv? I supposed. But the name, he sighed, the name had become quite personal. Dr. Love. He just couldn’t stand the thought of letting the Dr. go; after all it did take years in the making.

Now its not that he wasn’t a bright man. Oh he was as sharp. Retention, as you would well know, is a crucial part of the mating game. And there was no one better at remembering names, numbers, quirks and figures than Dr. Love himself. Knowledge, he often said in our weekly foyer sessions, is all but what separates the soup from the sex.

Alas. It was this very knowledge that seemed to have stabbed him in the back.

You see, a man of such wit and mind finds it hard to separate himself from the subject at hand. And while medicine was clearly not his first choice, it was by virtue of proximity that he developed a fond liking for the nuances of the human anatomy. The eyes were his favorite. Her iris and retina, the way her pupils dilated when they’d had a few. He loved the hair too. The thin shafts and bridles that touched her face, tickling her cuticles till they snuck out from under their tender buds and follicles. It was a different kind of high. The lips and skin he savored for the weekends. The contact of her upper vermillion border with his made him tremble in his place and dare he refuse the commands of her cutaneous touch. Goose flesh were created and destroyed on request. And the uvula. Oh what a mystery! What a sensation that palatine uvula!

But as all doctors would reluctantly confirm, his heart was truly in the heart. Her ventricles created a different vibe, the left and right beating in rare exotic rhythm. He was a prisoner to her pulse. Holding hands but never ever missing a count.

This was his life now. And as you might have guessed, the reason for his demise. For how could a man love another, when he saw her as more flesh and blood, and less love and lust? Women, he explained in real time, were now nothing more than mere skeletons of a prettier kind. Their flesh was all but regular flesh, their touch nothing more than mere friction of bones. He had seen the world naked. And frankly, he wasn’t impressed.

‘But, umm, is there nothing you can do to stop this Dr. umm, Luv?’

‘Stop? Hah. Can one unlearn what one has truly learnt? Knowledge, my friend, can never be erased.’

His head shrunk into the glass again. I could see he needed that final gulp. The man had lost everything he had ever known. His moves were now useless, all that expertise a waste. He had been a bachelor ever since. I took a few gulps myself.

‘Umm, uh about my problem Luv? Is there anyway you can help? Anything at all? I’ll take anything.’

He shrugged again, stooping low and very wide. ‘What can I give you my friend? There’s nothing to offer anymore. Medicine has sterilized my love. All I have is this’, he said, throwing a few sheets of paper bound together in a tight white binder. ‘I was planning to send it to the Journal of Medical Sciences today. But I don’t really care.’

‘You can have it if you like. It’s got everything I know. And everything I never wanted to know.’

Dr.Love

5

ANNA, THE IDLI DEALER

He’s there when you need him the most. The munchies. The morning after, when the stomach rumbles and tumbles, jack in a box, spinning in all directions possible, nailing the triple back flip, dancing to be fed. Mornings routines are always so dramatic.

Unfair even. Making you suck it up and answer the inevitable question of carbs v/s proteins, potatoes v/s bananas, muesli over cheese. You wake up feeling like a king, ready to feast on the day’s bacon and by breakfast you’re the pauper again – angry, unfed, loosing the liquid battle of too much water in your masala oats. Oh masala oats. How I crave a revolution.

Do you hear the people sing? Singing a song of hungry men? It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again!

It was on one such inspired dawn that I happened to meet the man who would change my mornings forever. Anna. That’s what they called him. No one knew his real name. Anna, the local idli guy. Anna, good old Anna, the bringer of fresh cheer and morning high. Anna, the Tamilian, maybe Malayali, or was it Kannadiga, idli guy, who occupied a blissful bylane of Santacruz West, selling warm idlis for a steal, with just a cycle and a smile for company. Anna, lord help him Anna, whose idlis were as soft as peaches. Chutneys that sure spit a bite.

This is hard. So hard.

You see Anna wasn’t like the other idli guys you might have met. He didn’t offer the customary shebang that goes with the profile. No incense. No gunpowder. No lined lungi for legitimacy. He was all about the idli. The perfect shape. The right viscosity. The tensile strength. A performer. A magician. A maverick with his hands. The idli Scott of his times. Serving, wrapping, returning his masterwork and your exact change in less than 15 seconds. A real businessman. Cut-to-cut. No pleasantries attached. Not even eye contact. Sometimes I wish there was some. I wish I could tell him how I really felt. Ah…

This was one of his more peculiar traits – eye contact. He never made any. Almost going about his business with a fine fidgety edge, quick to serve and dispense, never encouraging chitter chatter, a quiver of the index finger and upper right lip. No handshakes. No cyu laters. Only translucent bags. A lot of sweat. He seemed uncomfortable even, as if some larger powers were at play. Something deep. Something dark. Something dangerous. Illegal. Its like he sold idlis like he was selling drugs.

And I knew, I just knew there was something foul. I had smelt it in the air. And it wasn’t the guys eating missal paav next door. Maybe the local police was involved? Had they given him a hard time just because he was a late entrant into the breakfast game and had taken it by storm? Was the local vada paav lobby behind all this? Maybe the Matunga mafia? Not the Marathi manoos? No. No. It couldn’t be. Rice is the grain of the nation. We’re all bound by the belly as brothers. This was gunpowder of a different kind.

I’ve seen Breaking Bad mind you. I know what happens to perfectly good-natured men who get caught on the wrong side of the batter. Maybe Anna had a serious problem on his hand. Maybe there was an emergency. Maybe his real name was M.S. Subbulakshmi. I don’t know. It’s all so bloody confusing.

And sure. You might think I’m being overly dramatic, but I’m not. I’ve seen things. I saw him. Selvam.

It was a Monday morning I guess. I was late for work and needed a quick hit. A classic splash and dash I presumed. I rushed to Anna, signaling the usual from afar. But something was amiss. Anna seemed more anxious than usual. His eyes flickered in quick succession; the pocket-handkerchief could feed a thirsty slum. His moves were sloppy, the chutney dripped and dapped, the idlis were dull and lifeless. He wasn’t alone I quickly gathered. Standing next to Anna, towering above rather, was a man I’d never seen before. He seemed to be in a hurry, almost waiting for the crowd to clear up before making his maiden pitch. Anna seemed to know what was about to happen, but he kept a brave front, almost shielding us from the events that were to follow. He was proud man like that. A true servant of the people.

The large gentleman soon became impatient and let out a short, assertive hmm. The kind that typically gets things going. I was the last one to get my fill, so I lingered. Just to be sure, just to help in case I was required. It wasn’t asked for. He signaled Anna to walk ahead almost like a prisoner being directed to the gallows. All I could see was a solitary auto rickshaw a feet away. Then, he muttered the word that I would only later begin to fully comprehend. “Selvam”.

Anna shuddered. I fluttered. This seemed like a story well beyond my city boy purview. But I couldn’t leave. I stayed. I walked alongside my captive friend, twiddling gibberish on my phone. Classic sidekick stuff.

From my angle, all I could see was the left edge of the auto. It had a fresh coat of yellow and green. Gentle instrumental music played from the front. An incense stick was wedged firmly into the left side view mirror. This was no ordinary auto I figured. An arm crept out eventually. Selvam. Just the arm. No face, no shoulder, no body. A white linen shirt. A gleaming gold bracelet. A scar if I remember right. Anna shook his hand reluctantly. Starch was all they had in common. Maybe Ram Gopal Varma. He offered some idlis to break the ice, but the move was swiftly rejected. Selvam wasn’t looking for breakfast. He was here for his free lunch.

I saw Anna twitch violently, this time taking extra caution to assess his surroundings. Then, without warning, he dug deep into the recesses of his undershirt and produced a wad of notes, packed tightly in his patent translucent bag. The bag was poor quality, and the notes were clearly visible. A week’s earnings I would assume. A heated discussion followed. Anna smiled and trembled in variation, Selvam clenched and unclenched. The rings on his fingers did most of the talking. His wookie, the mute Chewbacca, meanwhile tapped Anna shoulders now and then, as if to remind him of a previous presentation. Eventually I saw my dear friend relent and pull out another set of notes from his left trouser pocket. The new notes were soggy. So was this blasted scene.

I asked Anna about Selvam once the auto left, but he seemed reluctant to oblige. Smiling, hiding his pain, he seemed a man broken in this suburban culinary war. Selvam, he muttered. Selvam, he smiled. That was the last I saw of Anna.

A new idli guy materialized in his place the next day. He said he never heard of a man called Anna. He said maybe Anna had gone back to the village. He said maybe Anna had gone back for Onam. He said maybe I was talking about Anna, his elder brother, who sold appams in Chennai. Sure. Brothers share recipes you know. The imposter’s idlis had leaves on them. Leaves! And tiny rectangular shavings of carrots. That’s right. Carrots.

It’s been over a month now, but there’s been no sign of Anna ever since. No news, no note, no nufing. Things are really not the same. Dawn has lost its colour again. The sparrows have disappeared. The masala oats have returned. I’ve stopped carbohydrates in protest. Hoping, maybe, I don’t know, to please the gods someday. Atkin Anna would be proud I think. The fat is gone, but the pain, the pain still remains. Nostalgia is a horrible thing.

In memoriam.

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4

LIVING ON THE EDGE!

A for Agrawals. A for Adventure. A for Antonyms.

My family – The Agrawals, is made up of, what one can only call, a group of hopeful intellectuals. We prefer the power of words, the laws of physics, the myths of the Mahabharata to get our freak on. You won’t find us rappelling down mountains, or jumping off planes, or diving deep into the hidden depths of the ocean. No sirree. That’s not our play. There is no secret life of Yudhishthir Agrawal. We don’t even like dogs. As in, we’re afraid of them. Petrified really. All nine of us combined. Woof woof.

Now, I know this sounds pretty darn traumatic already but, not surprisingly, it only seems to gets worse.

You see, in the end, man (and by man, I mean man or woman of course) is still just a prettier ape in disguise. He (I mean she, umm, just go with it) has a basic need to raid and conquer, to make and destroy, to shriek and give in occasionally to the unflattering Neanderthal inside. And we Agrawals are man do doubt! We might not have the classic bone of adventure (did somebody say bones?) but we have the need for speed nonetheless. Think of us as the chimps that never went on hunt, but recorded it all with a friendly, enthusiastic smirk. The Pirates of the mind I like to believe. Indiana Jones and the armchair. The return of the planet behind the planet that returned the planet of the apes.

See, this is exactly what happens. We get lost in the big bang shebang, and never reach the real point. Adventure, as I was struggling to say, is really not our cuppa tea. And yet, to fulfill our duties as honest law abiding decedents, we feel obliged to tease our edge with some rather, how do I say, unconventional means.

Television, for instance, is our preferred leap of faith. We’re practically living on the remote islands of Lost and in the operation theaters of Grey’s Anatomy and the whatchamacallits of Revenge. Holy LED Samsung! We’ve memorized Star Trek, have sworn to Star Wars, and have dutifully rejected the screen adaption of The Hitchhikers Guide, twice. Even 101 Dalmatians is OK when it’s on TV. Come 10pm and we’re boldly go where no man has gone before. I mean seriously. Sitcom sweats and everything.

Anyhow, the point of this rather elaborate introduction was not to talk about television of course. That was so last year. It was instead to set the context (and soften the bite) of our latest obsession – the fidgeting fuel gauge of our cars.

Now now, really, don’t try.

You see, in the absence of typically traditional interests, my family, The Amazing Agrawals, has had little choice but to infiltrate a seemingly harmless phenomenon to shake its Baniya stirrups. The fuel gauge, as you would well know, serves the rather critical purpose of indicating whether or not your vehicle has enough fuel to get you to your destination. If the gauge is near E, you fill fuel till it goes above E. Simple. And if not, you run the risk of finishing the reserve stash, kept just in case of emergencies. Now, ‘emergency’ is the operative word here. Most sane people don’t touch the reserve stash, as it serves that very purpose of hope in a situation of distress. But alas. Alas, alas, alas. Where the ordinary man sees the grain of logic, the Agrawals smell the sweaty smell of opportunity.

We like to test our reserve capacity. This typically means, not filling petrol even if the gauge goes below the dreaded E. Now, let me be clear. This is not another scheming way of saving money. I mean, sure that’s an added bonus (and why not I say?) but, the key really is the thrill. It’s a bloody thrill. Not stopping for gas even when the gauge flickers and fumbles, the car huffs and puffs, when the engine coughs on its first few hits of air. We don’t stop, but cheer. We wait and see, and guess and bet, testing the outside limit of Honda’s claim of breakthrough fuel efficiency. Will the car ever stop? Or will we once again reach our destination, just in the nick of time? These are the questions that keep us up at night. It’s also probably why we never reach anywhere on time. Or why people don’t call us anymore. Hmm.

Anyway, imagine driving on long highway in Gurgaon at night. Imagine the fuel gauge stammering precariously close to the E sign. You see a damp petrol pump on the other side. Do you stop? The adrenalin is pumping. You drive on. Now imagine that the streetlights go out suddenly. There’s a weird chill in the air. Let’s throw in a few snarling dogs shall we. Grrr. And a police siren. We must have a police siren. You can’t go too fast lest you use up too much fuel. You can’t go to slow, lest you stop and can’t start again. You might get mugged. It’s a battle of nerves and steel. Hand and feet. Gear to gear. Easy on the turns. Very easy on the bumps. Wooh. I’ll jump from any mountain that can offer this quality of fear.

Living on the edge did you say hmm?

But, but, I suppose I should be honest as well. Things are not as rosy as you might have imagined. The new car guys are building engines that run on practically anything, and we hardly get to experience the mortal fear of desertion I described above. And with all this talk about hybrid…I mean things are only going to get from bad to worse. Sure it might save the world, but it’s doing no good for the Agrawal morale. Uh uh. How are we supposed to stick the stakes with these new engines and fuels and complicated technologies around? What do we do when there is no start and stop, no cough and litter, when the car runs as smoothly as a peeled potato skin, even when the gauge is well into reserve? What do we now? And what about five years from now? Good gosh man. (and woman)

The other problem of course is that our extended family has steadily refused to acknowledge our particular point of passion. They often borrow our cars and return it, in good faith I presume, with the tank full of throbbing fuel. This, in turn, means a forced sabbatical from our daily excursions, which I can tell you, has been the subject of much heated debate at the dinner table. I mean it’s sad, really sad, when families fail to understand each other. To each his own I used to think. I don’t make fun of their river rafting picnics do I? Though you’ll never run out of fuel there will you? Just saying.

That said, our odd little fascination has brought in the occasional reward too. Our drivers don’t misuse the cars. How can they? People steal and often return our cars. How far will they take them? We never get fined for speeding. And we never ever ever run over anyone. (It’s common knowledge that you maintain the car at a steady average speed for most efficient consumption of fuel. So)

Its perfect really – this method to the madness. Economical. Treacherous. Educational. I mean where else do you get to learn about your innermost fears and the basics of fluid mechanics and how much money you can actually save in a month? And I know, I know this doesn’t sound ‘typically’ adventurous but I can assure you it is. We might not be the greatest of athletes, sure. We might not have the biggest frames or the bushiest beards or a respectable sense of balance or direction. But, but, but, but, give us a packet of Bhujia and a freshly exhausted car and well, wooh, we’ll show you how to have a good time. It’s wild really. Living on the edge like this. Just shooting the breeze. Dodging the bullet. Milking the cow. Cranking the horn. Riding the wave. Breaking the fast. Spinning the dolphin. Smelling the monkey. Waking the vulture. Braiding the tiger. Lacing the lion. Twerking the turtle…

(Do Note: In the absence of a suitable ending, the author has once again dived into the welcoming depths of indulgence. Also, the preceding stunts have been performed by more than willing practitioners. Please, do not, maybe, necessarily try these at home.)

Living on the edge!

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AUNTIE ON COCAINE!

None of us saw it coming, not even my mother. And she knows things.

Well my auntie, my mother’s sister, a real gem of a doll had recently undergone an unfortunate hip replacement surgery which had rendered her immovable for the next three months. Painful, definitely, but the operation did also come with the compensatory bonus of a few months of welcome rest – a time to really kick back, spread out and wedge. With a pillow under the bum of course. Now, I’m not saying this was ideal, but one could certainly see the silver lining in the crack.

Not so much my auntie though.

You see, my auntie is a rather gregarious personality. Generous with her love and her opinion. If you’d met her, you’d probably remember her as lively. She is what they call the true social butterfly – bustling with activity, the toast of every evening, friend of every friend, the real dish of the day. And this unplanned sabbatical didn’t go down too well with her plans of mass pollination. Especially with Diwali around the corner.

Diwali, as you would well know, meant endless evenings, copious bouts of socialization, opportunistic weddings and a general sense of brouhaha towards strangers and family alike. Missing this would be like missing the Royal Rumble. A personal loss for auntie no doubt, but also a spanner in our family’s long term ambition of infusing some much needed funk into the Baniya ways of debauchery. You see, she was our chosen flag bearer at the upcoming Punjabi card parties. Whiskey for every whiskey. Joke for every joke. Shahi paneer sticking it to chicken malai tikka. Without her, what were we but some vegetarian starters discarded in a corner?

The mood, you could safely say, was not too festive. The season was about to begin and our quarterback was perched firmly on the bench. What were we to do? My 16 year cousin suggested the use of technology to make up for this unfortunate hiccup. Specifically a new cellphone – the touchy feely, internet induced, icon spewing, multitasking, mega GB gadgetagooboo kind. Something that would arm my auntie with the necessary tentacles of connection, ensuring her adequate presence in our lives and of course some much needed peace of mind. The only catch was, she wasn’t much of a technology buff. Not a novice either, but a sure rookie in the ways of our cellular generation.

A 3 week training schedule was thus hurriedly devised. Quarterly modules on etiquette, language, models and platforms with a special two day workshop on the internet and the space beyond. The workshop, of course, was open for all. By the end of the first week she was ROFLing, LOLing, XoXoing like a pro. By the end of the second @auntiee556 had added us on all possible platforms and networks. By the third, she was everywhere. All the time. A three side flanking technique that looked impressive on paper but would soon become her signature strategy of annihilation. The seed had been sown. The monster was slowly rising.

We didn’t know it yet it, but this was perhaps the beginning of the end. We were hoping to groom a graduate of certain merit, a modern day domestic icon, a service to the community, an auntie free with technology and the takda, swyping with purpose, pleasure and precision. What we got was, well…

You see, it wasn’t the ROFLing, XoXoing and #tagging that was the problem. It wasn’t even the :), 😉 and the :P, though they were quietly stretching the boundaries of familial restraint. It was in fact the little noticed and oft discarded ‘!’. Yes, that same tiny ‘!’, that harmless drop of joy used to connote a certain sense of excitement and revelry from the sender. Now I know what you’re thinking – what damage could an innocent ‘!’ really do?

Well, I sincerely hope you never have to experience the answer.

They came from everywhere. Those blobs of menace, splattered across every line, often in diads and triads, daring us, egging us, begging us with their unbridled enthusiasm and relentless cheer – have you ever been high on cocaine?

Hi auntie. How you feeling?

Good!!! How were you?!

I’m good. Hows the pain?

Bad!!!!! Hurts a lot!!! Lots of medicines!!!

That’s tough. Can I help?

No!! You can’t!! No one can!!!

Oh, I’m sorry

Just pray :P!!!!

I will.

Yes yes!!! Please do!!

The thing with cocaine is, and this I’ve only heard, that it injects your brain and body with so much energy that the person feels almost infinite. I’ve read of cases where people haven’t slept for hours and have eventually had to be sedated in quiet desperation. Now, I’m not saying my auntie was high on cocaine, hell no. But just try, for a moment, to understand the sentiment.

I was quite well behaved the first few days. Responding in respectable hmms and hellos, and oh my, I hope you get better soons. Not feeding the ‘high’ as the experts dutifully recommend. But soon, the messages became more demanding, rising in intensity and frequency, almost commanding an urgency in replies.

Where are you!!!

What are you doing!!!

I’m so bored!!! 😛

Now I love my auntie. I really do, but this was getting out of hand. The strain of faking consistent enthusiasm was taking a toll on my impeccable nephew next door persona. I found myself cursing and cringing every time the phone beeped. The knuckles hurt, the wrists screamed, the burrow furrowed. Something had to be done.

Luckily, streams of dissent had begun to emerge from the rest of the family as well; my parents, my sisters, the part time maids. We were all a bit mad and found ourselves with few choices but one.

An intervention.

On Saturday morning the following week, a few of us, handpicked by the elders on account of experience and respectable hygiene, missioned it to my aunt’s house for an honest to god chat.

You see auntie, it’s not the messages, but the exclamation marks, my sister began.

They’re just not right you know auntie.

You can use them of course, but not all the time. Ok auntie?

She seemed to understand I think. Though her eyes looked deeply sullen, as if suddenly robbed of all energy and blood. Her head down, her finger’s crossed. We left without tea.

Things didn’t change much. By the end of next week, the pace had quickened again, this time reaching us across multiple forums and topics. There were new exclaims about the government, the prices, the festival, the food, the neighbours, the pets, the neighbour’s pets, the poor and the upcoming wedding of our second cousin’s step daughter.

This program needed some serious medication.

A doctor relative recommended we make it difficult to find the drug itself. In our case it was the wild idea of stealing her phone one weary night, and getting it adequately corrupted through the vigil agents of my neighbour at work. By morning, the phone was as good as brick.

So sorry to hear that auntie. I might have a spare phone in case you need it.

Sure I did. An old Nokia 3310. Hah. The original prodigy with big podgy numbers and an exclamation mark that took at least five presses of the number 9. That’ll show her I thought. Skillful, yet quite considerate. Next door nephew for the win.

It was not to be of course. By evening, wily auntie had mastered the controls of her new gadget, switching guilefully between the right thumb and index finger, with enough time to break every snake record I had accumulated during my extended years of puberty. Things were getting personal now.

What do we do? I asked her husband in desperation. Something has to be done uncle, we can’t go on like this. We’re losing sleep, we’re losing relatives, we’re losing credibility! The card parties are about to begin and we’re not even invited! How will we ever recover from this?

Hmm, he said after taking an extraordinary amount of time in contemplation. Maybe we need a long term strategy. Maybe I need a nap. Maybe something that will make her forget this problem once and for all.

You mean an extended period of abstinence?

Exactly. How about London?

London! That’s perfect. We can send her to Khan’s uncle’s villa for the winter!

And maybe give her a phone with a, well, ‘not so appropriate’ data connection

Which will make it difficult to send a single text… genius! Plus, it’ll save us money, so ye to the Baniya way!

It’s decided then, London for the winter. I think I’ll take a vacation too. How far is Kaniyakumari from Trafalgar square?

By January, three more months had passed and we hadn’t heard a word from auntie since. I’ll admit I missed her a little. Her passionate updates did at-least cheer up my mostly dreary days at work. And after work. And before sleep. And in the middle of the night. But I’m not complaining. Apparently she wasn’t either.

I was later told that she had returned from London in the start of January itself. But still no news? Not a single Hello! Was she alright? It wasn’t till the end of the month that I finally mustered enough courage to ask how she was doing.

Hi Auntie! How you doing?

Hi. I’m ok.

Ok? Are you sure?

Yes.

How was London?

Fine.

Just fine?

Ok.

Ok!!?

Ok.

I’m told rehabilitation is a tough tough program. Patients suffer from depression, anxiety and the gloom of persistent relapse. Most leave as hardened individuals – often numb to the world and it’s previous pleasures. And I could see that change in my auntie too. Suddenly, our conversation was bereft of her usual cheer, as if the love had been sucked out in one hard stroll in the by-lanes of Piccadilly. I blame myself. I don’t know what happened back there, nor can I imagine how bad the period must’ve been, but somehow I think I was responsible. It was my own inadequacy, my own inability to deal with the situation, my own insecurity and selfishness that had brought this upon my auntie. I love my auntie goddammit. I thought I’d save her, not make her half the woman she used to be. I’d ruined everything. For everyone. I mean who uses full stops after every word huh? Staccato. Really. Auntie. I mean. Really?

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1

FOR WHOM THE HAIR FALLS

I’m turning 30 in two months and things are not looking good. Not good.

My body is failing me, my skin is peeling, so is my mind. I am no longer the youngest member in the room. I don’t remember the name of the youngest member in the room. I have a patchy beard. People are asking me for advice. They’re actually asking me for advice. And still not letting me into bars. And my hair is falling.

That’s right. I said it. My hair is falling. I can feel it now, the wily widow’s peak. Like a girlfriend whose recently bored – slowly but surely slipping away. The hold is slighter, the mornings horrible, more gel is required to get things going.

I could blame my dad, his dad, his dad even, but it’s not going to change a thing. This story has been written, years ago by a generation of racist genes that deemed my kind as just not good enough. And that Panjabi’s would give them rosy babies. Well fuck you racist genes.

Why do you play with me such oh might one? Why do you entice me and then take it all away? I see the pain in my dad’s eyes. I see it in my uncle’s. I saw it in my grandfather’s. The deep wrenching hurt of hair that once was. I see the scars on their shiny bald heads. A battle fought tooth and nail, hair and clipper, oil and shampoo, but a battle lost, lost even before it was begun.  It pains me, these paternal wounds. It reminds me that I’m not strong enough.

So I strive. I preserve. I persevere. I curate and farm and nourish. I plan for the drought. I wait for the drought. I water for drought. I hope that the drought will never come. I, the overtly optimistic one, hope against hope hopen.

But reality doesn’t waste time on such frivolity. And with each passing day, I notice; I notice little threads of my being, symbols of my twenty’s and my teens, my first kiss and my first fight, gently waltzing down the cushion and the sink and the gutter. I see them mocking me as I once did the mirror. I don’t like the mirror so much now.

Time had come for drastic measures and so off I went to the barber, heavily willed and sufficiently sedated to cut my dying locks into shape. To keep them short and crisp and army like I purposed. To make them my soldiers at bay – the ones who stand straight! yet gently sway. I had to stop them from defecting, my men. Every war has sacrifices. And I was going to make mine that day.

The setting was the local barbershop. A nice quaint little place. Clean cuts and close shaves it said at the door. That’s the stuff, I told myself. A man doesn’t need long hair to prove that he’s a man. Long hair is for boys. Little squiggly metrosexual boys. I’d like to look crisp and clean I announced. Grow a beard maybe. Yeah. That’s what’ll I do. I’ll cut my hair and grow my beard. A full beard. Like a man. Women will like such a man. Yeah! I amuse myself such while waiting my turn. I curse and amuse and convince and retract and convince and rebut and hold my turn. We’re old friends we are, me and the locks. We know each other too well. This break up wasn’t fun.

Peter came through smiling. Peter, I think his name was. It could’ve been Pran, or Pankaj or Paul, I was too consumed with grief to really bother. His scissors were shining, as was his smile and I felt a bit relieved. Maybe this was a good thing. I felt comfortable around Peter. His friendly glance and receding mane, told me that he felt my pain. I felt an urge to let it all out. To tell him my story, to ask him, to beg him for help. A hand, a shoulder, a strategy – anything that could prolong this long torrid affair. He smiled at my innocence. A disarmingly pleasant smile. The smile of a sage who’d seen it all, who’d seen many a men squander down this path, a soul who’d lost the battle but had won the war. The war of the mind. It was a disarmingly charming smile I tell you. The kind that told me that things were gonna be all right.

Let’s get started, he announced, fiddling with my hair to get a better feel. He turned them left, then turned them right, exposing the true damage of the years. I was afraid to even look, as if being stripped naked, questioned on my callus attitude and lack of conditioning. I took it all – the jibes, the prods, the repeated speculation. Then promptly handed in my spectacles as a prisoner would hand in his sword. I’d left it to him, this battle. Thrown in the towel. Retired from the race. My eyes were now closed, as if in deep meditative silence. Only the sound of scissors filled the air. It was excruciating. The imagination going wild with each snip and each cut, strands of hair gently falling to my lips, as if teasing me of my decision. I clenched hard and resisted.

Hmm, Peter bellowed. It seemed the problem was far deeper than he had expected. This might take a while, he said, requesting me to pick up my glasses and watch. Watch? Does a slave need to watch his own execution I wondered? But he wanted me to watch it seems. He needed an audience. Even Peter, the veteran, the enlightened one, needed an audience. Such was the scale of my problem.

You see, he explained, the problem is with the roots. They roots are too weak and that, well, is the root of the problem. He smiled, admiring his uncanny wit. I sneered. The roots are stronger at the back here he continued, tugging at a tuft of my hair. Leave them alone, I begged him with my eyes. This hair is fine, but the ones in front, well…I eyed him this time, daring him to touch me again. He seemed to understand my angst and stepped away, at once disarming me with his smile. This is a problem, he said. We’ll have to cut them a different way perhaps. I can’t grow more hair for you, but maybe, maybe I can hide it somehow. I can’t guarantee. But, hmm, there might just be a way…

Hide? I asked myself. Had it come down to this? Did I need to hide my hair now? I used to have good hair. Rich hair. Bouncy hair. Hair with fucking volume. Many a hand had fiddled with my hair. Was it so bad that my barber could only offer a maybe guarantee? Was my hair nothing more than a saintly stylist’s annual challenge? I think I know how Shahjahan would’ve felt when they took it all away. Those fucking Aurangzeb racist genes. My receding hairline had become Peter’s purpose. There’s was a glint in his eye. As if a challenge finally worthy of his skill. The end of a long glorious career, the final bow, the big finish. He was going to salvage my hair and then retire his tale. Oh boy, what joy I saw on his wrinkled face. As if, Michelangelo himself, prepping before the Sistine Chapel.

We can leave the top long, the front short, the sides slanted, the back planted. It’ll look like there’s a crop of hair, but it won’t really be there. Got it? An illusion he announced, snapping his scissors as if a magician before a reveal. Now you see it, now you don’t, aha! He started humming a tune now. Something that told me he was enjoying my ungainly display of courage. He clipped and he cropped, he swerved and swayed. He bent down, brought mirrors, changed sheets thrice. There was a lot of hair that day. I kept my eyes closed throughout, relying on my ears to narrate this tragedy. His scissors clipping past my ear as if whispering the winning chant. I could feel my head lighter, the skin nearer, the sounds clearer. It seemed we were getting close.

Just a while longer he said, 45 minutes into the act. I was getting restless now, but I knew the master needed time. I was his canvas, the chapel wall, and I was to offer myself, in all my glory, with no lumps, jerks or resistance. Just the top part left now, he said. You can see if you wish. I declined, preferring to attend the victory march instead. Carry on Peter I told him. I know I’m in good hands. Just go gentle on the top alright. They’re really not used to visitors.

10 more minutes and I began to feel a strange tingle above my left ear. You know, a tingle, like a tickle but almost unnatural. I took hold of my specs to investigate, but instead found Peter smiling from behind. The same disarmingly charming smile. He seemed pleased. Pleased at his accomplishment, a job well done, the smile that told him he still had it going on. That’ll show ‘em newbies with their gelled hair and pocket knifes. Old school is the only school. Clean cut, close shaves he seemed to murmur. Yeah! I was happy to have offered him this moment of glory. I was happy to have witnessed this moment for a while. It even distracted me from my key purpose of inquiry. I could still feel a strange tingle above my left ear. More than a tingle maybe.

It was my scalp. Specially, a red rosy rambunctious gash on my scalp.

Why was there a gash on my scalp I wondered? And why could I feel my scalp in the first place? And where the hell was all my hair? Sacrifices are common in war I told you, and this time it seemed it was common sense. Peter, the man I once called master, the barber with the disarming smile, the swine of a man had snipped the entire left mane off my head, leaving little but skin and tiny wisps of hair, as if rookie soldiers being called to action well before their time. I looked like a skin head with glasses. With little hair on the sides and a mop crop on top. Ooh watch out folks! He’s gonna skin us then spin us!

A modern day Don Juan, Peter insisted. Machismo style. My hairline seemed invisible, sure. The sheer ugliness of my new crop did make the hairline less of an issue. GI Joe, he encouraged. More like Dilton Doiley joined GI Joe. I’d won the battle, but had lost the men. The entire left wing of men. In my attempt to salvage my receding hairline, I had been handed the haircut from hell.

Months of misery followed. 3 months and 16 days to be precise. I did win a lot of arguments though. Jumped quite a few queues, even the cabbies seemed to oblige. Maybe it was my tone, maybe my accompanying beard, maybe just the pain of feeling my scalp every time I sneezed.

I wear my hair longer now of course. As if in defiance. As if to compensate for my adultery. As if to remember a better time that was – a playful nostalgia when the sky was blue and the wind was fine. I can’t keep her, I mused, but I can surely keep you. We’ll hold each other tight I promise.

I even hear him singing sometimes, Peter, that swine. His hum like the sound of church bells, each strung together with the strands on my head. Ting ting ta di di ting ting, ting ting ta da di ting. But I like this sound. I laud this sound. I sing with it everyday.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece, a part of the main. My hair is the less, as well as if yours were, as well as if a manor of my friend’s or mine’s own were. Any man’s loss diminishes me more, because I am involved in mankind, the whole, the sum. And therefore never send to know for whom the hair falls; for I know I know, it falls for me.

For whom the hair falls