Thursday, November 14, 2013

Childhood's End

Yet another Tendulkar post? Why? Why? WHY? I'll tell you why. You see, when people say stuff like, "There'll never be another like him," they're usually full of shit. If there is, or was, already one like him, then why can there not be another? It makes no sense.

Which is why, when there is one chap who can say with complete honesty (and accuracy) that there will never be another like Tendulkar for him, you should listen to him.

***

So many people talk of childhood as something idyllic, a glorious period to which they would return in a jiffy, if only they could. In some ways it is true. I think my imagination was more active then. And I didn't have to file income-tax returns. But in all other ways it was a total wet blanket. I didn't own my time. It was ruthlessly cut up by humans and gods (who never asked my opinion) into calendars, seasons and terms; and into various 30-to-45 minute periods, on a variety of subjects, most of which I found a complete bore.

I would get bundled out of bed at an obscene hour. I would then lose the majority of the day with folks to whom the only thing I had in common was that we endured the same classes together. I would get a couple of hours for myself in the evening, watched over broodingly by The Clock, but right after that it was on to the homework, then dinner and bed. No one would ever listen to anything I had to say because no one listens to kids, really. I didn't have any money of my own, so I couldn't have the things I wanted. On Sundays, they even dragged me to church. Seriously, what kind of a life is that?

Imagine a seven-year-old bearing the crosses described above. A kid just discovering a sport that everyone around him is crazy about. Imagine then, that just as this kid is learning about life a little and the disappointments therein, a curly-haired imp breaks into the national cricket team. The kid can empathise with the imp - the imp is just a few years older than him, and looks way out of place amidst the stiff, serious saps that constituted the Indian cricket team then and the moustachioed men they played against. But the imp is good... really, really good. Little though he is, he makes his dour team-mates look like the journeymen that they are and even, in very un-Indian fashion, takes the fight right to the opposition camp. There is much of the bully in the imp. When they pull a knife, he pulls a gun. When they send one of his to the hospital, he sends one of theirs to the morgue. Etc. Pretty soon, one of the moustachioed men is heard whispering to another moustachioed colleague, "This little prick's going to get more runs than you, AB."

Tendulkar was a hero in ways that no words can describe and in emotions I can never again recapture. Because I will never again be seven. I will never again bestow loyalties and friendships like I did then. I will never again be as trusting or so free of cynicism. Above all, I will never again need a champion. And that was exactly what Tendulkar was: he spoke for us little ones. If you knew anything at all about the Indian cricket team of the 90s, you'd know that "shambolic" was a kind word for it. If ever a team was made to make other teams feel good about themselves, this was that team. It was an almost exact metaphor for my general dissatisfaction with the world I lived in.

But there was Tendulkar, shining in the midst of it all! From amidst the squalor of that disgrace of a sporting team, he conducted endlessly, effortlessly, symphony after the other of backfoot drives and counter-punches. Of course, he would inevitably end up on the losing side but what of it?! That's how life was - kids never knew any permanent victories; they would win their little battles but would get caught at the end, or even if they didn't, the next day life would go on exactly as before. But still, Tendulkar... he showed us that the little ones were indeed better and cleverer than the oldies, held back only by circumstance, by an implacable fate that ruled over an unfair world. His batsmanship was more murderous rage than textbook grace - and that appealed to me, too. In a world of unending routine, of textbooks, rules and where The Clock reigned, Tendulkar stopped Time itself. He showed me the possibilities.

I don't know how many people have had this experience. Of having a genuine all-time great not only introduce them to a sport but also grow up along with them. Tendulkar took his first steps on the world stage just when I was starting to be aware that there is such a thing as a world stage. Since then, I've watched him grow from the Promising Kamikaze Kid into, first, a contender for the Best Batsman In The World to, later, an Immortal Of The Game. And while I watched he would even hold my hand or give me a leg-up now and then: corny as it may sound, you really had to be there to know how much of us we had invested in him. His disappointments were our tragedies, his successes - be they the occasional miracle or the more frequent belligerent defiance - elevated us with him. He carried not just a cricket team but a whole generation, and who knows, maybe even a nation.

Thus the thumping hearts when the master blaster walked to the crease, the inevitable crescendo of strokes around the park, and the agony and the chair through the television set when he got out. I remember sitting in the library one day, reading a Sportstar article on what Tendulkar would be like in 10 years time, when he was all grown up. No, it could never happen! Sachin would never grow up! Cricket wasn't a sport for me back then, it was a boy.

We have a great team now: bowlers capable of bowling out the opposition twice, a fielding side no longer the laughing stock of the world, and a top order lined with genuine batting gems - all of them as good as each other, and none the obvious lynch-pin of the batting; there is no Tendulkar amongst them and they have no need of one. And for all these reasons this team is a lot less interesting than the Indian team of the 90s, the one atlased by Tendulkar. But the unforgivable sin was committed by the man himself: he grew up. He became less impetuous and more calculating in his game. And as the imp grew into the senior citizen I gradually lost interest in the game, for my allegiances have always been to individuals, never to teams.

Not that I blame him... not too much anyway. After all, the kid - the one with treasons, stratagems and spoils jostling about in his head - he too grew up and disappeared without so much as a by-your-leave. In his place is now another of the big ones, so despised by the kid back then. And one who never did change the world the way the kid once intended to. So who am I to blame the imp? Everyone grows up.

The one sadness, if that is the right word, I have about Tendulkar is that in a way he has been too successful. Statistically successful. Already, people have him buried under a mountain of numbers and I guess, as time goes by, that is the element of his game that will be remembered the most. He will not be remembered the way V.V.S. Laxman will be. His career will be analysed and dissected by numbers. And for a guy who hates maths, and for whom Tendulkar was once a ticket to a world away from numbers and rules, this is more than just irony - it pushes dangerously close to tragedy.

So... if I may reuse (slightly edited) something I wrote a while back:

I watch less and less cricket these days, and the day is not far when I stop watching it altogether. The memories that top the list should a stranger tap me on the shoulder and, in answer to my enquiring eyebrow, break the silence with "Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and days of auld lang syne?" will not be of Dhoni holding aloft the World Cup, or any number of trophies won in Australia or South Africa. It will be of Tendulkar in the 90s, caught in a floundering team but all the more magnificent for it. Tendulkar the record breaker, Tendulkar the accumulator, has his place but the real legend is the Number Four forever walking in at 10 for 2 on foreign shores and yet who never took a backward step; the batsman who carried a side not with dour defence but with the most dazzling array of strokes in world cricket.

I hope that when his career is remembered, it is the imp that comes first to mind; before the icon, before the record books, before the scalpel, there was the curly-haired bully and his cleaver. Tendulkar is so much more than just some numbers and Indian wins.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Ruminations on werewolf flicks and post-apocalyptic road movies

I have the sneaking suspicion that movies of these two genres aren't epidemiologically well researched. Consider this. Zombie movies (variations of which constitute a large percentage of post-apocalyptic road movies) depict multitudes of zombies, with a few ragged survivors fleeing from place to place in search of a mythical haven. Werewolf movies, on the other hand, have one (or, two or three, at best) werewolves at loose amongst a terrified population. The safest place to be around full moon is at home, all shuttered in.

Why this discrepancy? In both genres, transmission generally happens through bites, so there is no reason why zombies have such a numerical superiority over werewolves in the demographics of Reelworld. Is it because zombies are slow and steady and just one can be easily avoided by walking around it? That would, admittedly, make for a pretty boring horror movie. Does the speed and agility of werewolves mean that film-makers can scrimp on make-up and special-effects costs by having just one on the screen? Or is it more of a mood and world-view issue? If it's the former, writing a few strong letters to the editors of newspapers and weeklies seems to be the appropriate course of action. The latter, though, is more vexing and could cause large-scale reordering on the movie-shelves of aficionados.

Most real cineastes order films taking into account various factors such as director, age, genre, language, budget and the like. And this has thus far had me placing post-apocalyptic road movies and werewolf films side-by-side on my shelves. However, new thoughts, hitherto hidden deep in my subconscious, have risen to the surface, prompting a re-evaluation of the Algorithm.

Post-apocalyptic road movies in general, and the zombie sub-genre in particular, are pretty gloomy. They represent the end of the human race, of everything that we know and recognise. Sure, the stamina (and lethargy*) of zombies makes them ideal cross-country hunters and allows film directors to cover vast distances and show us breathtaking vistas, but this gorgeous photography is usually presented as a requiem. They serve merely as indefinably sad reminders of all that we once had and have lost. There is always the sense that The Road, our most enduring symbol of hope, is either ending just round the bend or carries us on relentlessly through the heart of darkness.

Werewolf movies, on the other hand, have a vitality and a humour to them that belies all the talk of a disease or a curse or whatever - the characters have a transformation more akin to Buck's in The Call of the Wild: painful at the start, but for the better in the long run. Sure, these too are themes of change and an end to our current ways, but in a positive sense - lycanthropy is a metaphor for a return to our roots. Plus, werewolf movies have the likes of Michelle Pfeiffer, Julie Delpy and Jenny Agutter in sexy roles, while folks in zombie movies generally give the impression of having crossed off sex and showers as relics of a bygone era. And you know the world has serious issues if sex is no longer foremost on everyone's minds.

So... do these genres belong side-by-side - in the sense that they are the opposites that give meaning to each other? Or is a re-ordering called for; with zombies next to Michelangelo Antonioni and werewolves mixed in with Terry Gilliam or Federico Fellini? Do reflect deeply and write in.

*Much as I like Stake Land, I don't approve of films showing zombies as having superhuman speed and reflexes. Come on, they're the undead! They don't have the metabolism for all that leaping about.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Isak's Tale


A young man journeys down an endless road in the company of many others. The road leads across a rocky plain where nothing grows. The sun's fire burns from morning to evening. They can't find shade or coolness anywhere. A harrowing wind stirs up huge dust clouds. The youth is driven forward by an incomprehensible anxiety and tormented by a scorching thirst. Sometimes he asks himself or one of his travelling companions about the goal of their pilgrimage. But the answer is uncertain and tentative. He himself has forgotten why he ever set out on his journey. He's also forgotten his native land and the journey's final destination.

Suddenly, one evening, he finds himself standing in a forest. Dusk sets in and all is quiet. Perhaps the evening wind sighs through the tall trees. He stands amazed but also anxious and suspicious. He's all alone, and he discovers his hearing is weak, since his ears are inflamed from the merciless light of day. His mouth and throat are parched from the long pilgrimage. His lips are cracked, pressed together around curses and harsh words. So he doesn't hear the ripple of flowing water and doesn't notice its reflection in the dusk. He stands deaf and blind at the edge of the spring, unaware of its existence. Like a sleepwalker he wanders unaware between the sparkling pools. His blind skill is remarkable, and soon he's back onto the road in the burning, shadowless light.

One night by the camp fire, he's seated near an old man who's telling some children about the forests and the springs. The youth recalls what he's been through, but faintly and indistinctly as in a dream.

He turns to the old man, skeptical yet courteous, and asks, "Where does all this water come from?"

"It comes from a mountain whose peak is covered by a mighty cloud."

"What kind of cloud?" the youth asks.

The old man answers, "Every man carries within him hopes, fears and longings. Every man shouts out his despair or bears it in his mind. Some pray to a particular god. Others address their cries to the void. This despair, this hope, this dream of deliverance, all these cries, all these tears are gathered over thousands and thousands of years and condense into an unmeasurable cloud around a high mountain. Out of the cloud rain flows down the mountain forming the streams and rivers that flow through the great forests. That's how the springs are formed where you can quench your thirst, wash your badly burnt face, cool your blistered feet. Everybody has at some time heard of the mountain, the cloud, and the springs, but most people anxiously remain on the dusty road in the blazing light.

"Why do they stay there?" asks the youth in great astonishment.

"I certainly don't know," replies the old man. "Perhaps they've convinced themselves and each other that they'll reach their unknown destination by evening."

"What unknown destination?" asks the young man.

The old man shrugs his shoulders. "In all probability, the destination does not exist. It's deception or imagination. I myself am on my way to the forests and the springs. I was there once when I was young, and now I'm trying to find my way back. It's not easy, let me tell you."

The next morning, the youth sets out with the old man to seek the mountain, the cloud, the forests and the rippling springs.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Misjudgement

They shot Jones in the head, then threw Belloq in with him. And amid mighty celebrations, the Ark was brought before Hitler. The pause was heavy while Jehovah drummed idly on the kitchen table. It was said later that the Nazis may not have thought things through.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Weight

It was the heaviest thing he ever saw; four immense pillars held it aloft.
"But it weighs nothing at all," whispered the architect in his ear, "Threads of silk tie it down or it would float with the wind."
"What're the pillars for, then?" he asked with a tremor.
"Oh, they're for you. They support your mind."

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Travelling Hans

Once upon a time, in the land where coconut trees and paddy fields co-exist like Hansel and Gretel, there lived a boy named Hans. Hans wasn't a common name for a little boy in those parts. Boben, Princey, Innocent, Blossom and Mathukutty, all common names for little boys, yes. But not Hans. And so he got teased terrible by little boys named Boben, Princey, Innocent, Blossom and Mathukutty, who just wouldn't leave him in peace. "What a weird name you have! You don't belong here. Why don't you just go away?!"

And so, one day, he did just that. Gathering his meagre possessions up in a knapsack, he stopped by the German Consulate for a visa, and soon found himself in the land where beer and sauerkraut co-exist like Holly and Kit (no, really, the first time he had a bite of sauerkraut, Hans dropped to the floor in convulsions, thinking he'd been poisoned).

The Germans were curious about him. "Wo kommen sie her, Hans?" they asked. Hans stared at them uncomprehendingly and then replied tentatively in the only German he knew, "Sprechen sie Englisch?" "You are named Hans and you speak no German?" And they walked sadly away, shaking their heads.

And so you see, Hans belonged neither here nor there. That is often the way of the world.

xxx

Hans enjoyed himself very much in Germany. In the country of his birth, he had been living in its cities for far too many years and had gotten accustomed to fighting his way through a day. Here in this foreign land, he was pleased to be back amongst the rhythms of the life he remembered from his childhood, far away from the dehumanizing crush. Here were a friendly and cheerful people often kind to the strangers they crossed paths with. People with smiles on their faces and sometimes a "You look lost; may I help you?" to spare for Hans.

As he got to know the country a little better, he grew to admire the care and the love with which the Germans build things. The Deutsches Museum in Munich, he was told, would hold him for 36 days if he spent a minute on every exhibit. He gaped in wonder at Gutenberg's press, at the first automobile built by Karl Benz, at one of the early Wright planes (and no, not a model: the actual thing, in a hangar it shared with several other aircraft, some of which he was allowed to step into), at a U-1 submarine... it is a disservice to even attempt to list the treasures in there.

Hans had grown up in a port city on the Arabian Sea and the cranes and the ships sometimes called out to him in his dreams. So he made his way to the other end of the country, to the great port of Hamburg. His first visit, though, was not to the masses of floating steel on the Elbe and that peculiar sadness that only shipyards can convey, but something that spoke of German obsessiveness. The Miniatur Wunderland. "The largest model railway track in the world" is attraction enough to anyone who remembers even a little bit of once being a boy, but it is much more than simply that. It has room-sized models of Swiss towns, the Hamburg airport (complete with plane taking off into clouds), the Grand Canyon, all in such detail that the parents who'd brought their children in there became, for a few hours, even younger than them. As much fun as the models are, Hans spent more time studying grown men and women gently jostle with their kids: their ambitions were not very big - all they wanted was a little space by the Berlin railway station, to press their noses to the glass, to get closer to the tiny windows of the shop housed below the tracks, and to peer inside at all the furniture built painstakingly to scale.

If Hans were forced to find fault with Hamburg, it would have to be with its propensity for long spells of gloomy weather. The sunnier days sees the locals head for the two lakes around which the city is built, but Hans had his most intimate experience of Germany's gateway to the world on one of its cold, drizzly evenings. This weather meant that there wasn't a soul around as he walked through the warehouse district and on towards the port. Hans found the warehouses, built on the sides of the endless canals criss-crossing the district, impossibly elegant. The lights were all on - both on the roads and in the buildings - suffusing everything in a golden light. He paused often on the numerous bridges (Hamburg, he was told many times, has as many bridges as Venice, Amsterdam and London put together), and wondered what memories would hurt more in the months to come: the gracefully lit buildings or their achingly fragile reflections in the canals? But he did not allow himself to feel too sad, for there, in that time, he was in his own fantasy film, or, if you prefer, in his own Wunderland. And he had it all to himself. How could the Hamburgers ever bring themselves to stay at home - no matter the cold, no matter the rain - and leave their beautiful city in its entirety to passing strangers like Hans?

xxx

But there are no gardens without serpents and so too were his travels not without its troubles. He hadn't had water to drink for days. They didn't seem to like it much there, instead preferring a bitter, honey-coloured drink that they served in giant mugs and to which Hans didn't take at all. And so it was that a chance meeting with a kindly innkeeper changed his life. The encounter did not start very promisingly for Hans but if you stick around till the end, you will see how his life is about to take a turn.

"Innkeeper, innkeeper, may I please have a glass of lemonade?"
"You want Sprite? I have lots of more interesting things with alcohol in it," said the kindly wench.
"No, I don't want Sprite! I want lemon and water. Why do you guys keep calling Sprite lemonade?"
"You want me to drop a lemon into a glass of water and you want to drink it?"
"No, no, no. You cut the lemon into two... like so, yes?... and then you squeeze it here and... and now, do you have any water?"
"Water?" She asked, scratching her chin, "The stuff in the taps that you use to wash cars and clean plates? I... I'm not sure I can give that to people. I'll have to check with the health and hygiene board. I could lose my license."
"Oh, you'll be fine, trust me. You pour the water into the glass with the freshly-squeezed lemon juice, like so you see, and then you add a little sugar. Yes, perfect!  Thank you very much."
She wrinkled her nose as he raised the glass to his lips and asked, "Are you really going to drink that?"
"Of course! I've been looking forward to this for weeks!"
"But... it just seems so... unhealthy. I have beer, very nice beer. Can I interest you in some?"
"Aaargh! Don't mention the word beer in my presence again!"
"You don't like beer?" She looked hurt, but then brightened again. "No worries. We recognise in Germany that not everyone may be blessed with the sense to like beer. We have something else for them. We call it Radler - it's half beer, half lemo... erm... Sprite."
"It's still half beer."
"It's also half not beer, which is too much of not beer if you ask me, but we do like to make allowances for the differently taste budded," she said generously.
Hans was having none of it and downed the glass in one gulp.
"How much do I owe you?"
"Oh, nothing," replied the crestfallen girl, "I don't think it's right to charge people money for a little bit of lemon and some water. You really like to drink water?"
"An unhealthy habit I picked up in the Far East."
"Hmm...  We used to have a king you know, long ago. We called him Mad King Ludwig because he liked to drink a lot of water. He drank so much water that one day he drowned in it. There's a lesson in there somewhere, I think, " she added, looking at Hans meaningfully, "So, anyway, he built a castle high up in the Alps - a very beautiful one - near an Alpine lake with blue waters, called the Swan Lake. And it is said that there is a chamber in his castle with a magical basin that is always full with water from this lake."
"Wait, are you saying there's a castle here in Germany where I can drink as much water as I want? As much refreshing, cool, pristine, blue water?"
"Yes. And you don't have to be deliberately disgusting with your descriptions. You'll probably end up drowned and bloated like poor Mad King Ludwig."
"Yes, yes, yes. Fine. All right. And what is the name of this castle?"
"The Neuschwanstein."

xxx

As Hans cycled up the path to the castle floating amongst the clouds crowding the Alps, his jacket was tight about him. The rain stung his eyes and his fingers were frozen to the bone. He half expected to see snowflakes falling like feathers from the sky. He bitterly thought for a few uncharitable moments that if this is what these people called summer, then they could keep all of their First World comforts and their six-percent unemployment. He wanted none of it.

The castle was as gorgeous as anything he'd dreamed of as a child, when his head was full of fairy-tale princesses and rich kings. But for now, he needed a place to hide. Tourists rack up experiences like the brave little tailor who cut notches in his belt for each fly he'd killed, and spending a night in a castle like the Neuschwanstein, with all the water he could drink... well, that was an experience he was willing to take risks for. The difficulty, though, was that the rooms in the castle were smaller than he'd expected and finding a hiding place proved more difficult than he'd hoped. The story goes that Ludwig had the design for the castle in his head already as a boy, and the finished version in many ways reflects that. This was no trophy toward a pompous man's bragging rights, but a boy's dream for the happily-ever-after - cozy and pretty and a place to call home.

But Hans was nothing if not industrious and the Germans expect too much honesty for their own good. He spent much of the afternoon well hidden and listening to the guides taking the visitors around the castle. They were informative but, because they're employed by the Bavarian government, are not allowed to go beyond the dull. That, of course, only makes the naughtier of the visitors enjoy tormenting them that much more...

"Is it true that Ludwig was gay?"
"Well, he did have a jewellery box."
"Interesting. So, he and Richard Wagner did more in here than discuss music, then?"
"King Ludwig was, of course, Wagner's patron and this castle was built as a homage to him. As you no doubt noticed, many of the rooms here are themed after his operas."
"That wasn't my question, was it? Do you know where they did it? It couldn't have been that bed - shouldn't a king have a king-size bed? Or was Wagner a very small man?"
"Wagner never set foot in here. Shall we move on? These tours have a half-hour time limit."

xxx

The room was very small, with space for just a small coffee table and two chairs. The windows were enormous and in good weather would, Hans supposed, afford spectacular views of the Alps and the countryside below. But even with the rain lashing the windows and with the dark only occasionally lifted by streaks of lightning, Hans didn't feel like getting out of his chair. There is sweet beauty and there is also the violent kind and Hans had room in his heart for both. He was transfixed.

As the hours slipped by, Hans started to feel a little lonesome. Fairy tales do not often end with the dashing prince retiring to his room with a good book. Thus, when the next flash of lightning lit up the room, Hans wasn't displeased to note that the chair opposite him was no longer empty. It wasn't a princess as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood of the window frame, but rather a tall, well-built bloke in regal attire. Even so, all things considered, he was still an improvement over the inky emptiness that had hovered over the chair just previously. Hans stared at the apparition with interest. The apparition studied Hans imperiously.

"Guten Morgen," said Hans, for it was just three hours from sunrise, "Ich hei├če Hans. Ich komme aus Cochin. Sprechen sie Englisch?"
"Ja, ja," said Mad King Ludwig, "Those infernal castle tours are in both German and English. Over the decades I've managed to pick up a little bit of English - and some Russian and Spanish, too."

They talked. Because of the masses of tourists that visit the Neuschwanstein everyday, Ludwig was well up-to-date with events in Germany and around the world. Even so, Cochin was a long way away - in distance, time and habits - and Hans found him a polite and attentive listener. For his part, Ludwig narrated the sad stories of a century-and-a-half ago. He was a king not much interested in the affairs of the state and instead indulged his great passion for architecture. He was much loved by his subjects, though not so much by his cabinet, who accused him of bankrupting the state for his grandiose projects. But he'd financed his castles with his own money and suspected the cabinet were trying to pin their failures on him. He planned to sack them all but, as very often happens to star-crossed heroes of tragedies, he was unlucky and they got wind of his plans. They acted quickly and with an efficiency they'd never exhibited when running the country they had him declared insane. The doctors who signed the report had never even met him, let alone examined him.

Three days after he was deposed, Ludwig was found drowned in a lake, in three feet of water, along with the doctor who'd headed the panel set up by the cabinet. Was it an accident? Did he kill the doctor and then himself? Or was he murdered? To this day, no one knows. Not even Ludwig himself. He had narrated the events thus far without any trace of rancour. After all, these were stories of long ago and an afterlife of forever roaming the halls of his beloved castle wasn't such a bad deal - even if the hordes of tourists poking about aggravated him now and then. But now, a trace of wistfulness crept into his voice.

"'I wish to remain an eternal enigma to myself and to others,' I'd always said, but I never imagined that my own death would torment me for eternity. I just don't understand it! One minute, I'm walking by the lake with the doctor, and the next thing I know, I'm lying dead on a slab in Munich, not quite sure what happened. Something did happen, of course, but I don't have the foggiest notion!"

xxx

Hans was now deep in the Black Forest, in a train on the Hell Valley railway line. It is one of the famous train rides in Germany, passing through forests, meadows and by lakes, sometimes rising steeply over hills, sometimes passing over deep gorges. He'd been in the Black Forest for a few days now and, given that he spent much of his youth amongst hills and greens, this should've been the highlight of his trip. But truth be told, he was bored.

Perhaps it had to do with how little it resembled its name. It was too beautiful, too much like a postcard in every direction. He tried to imagine himself in one of the houses he could glimpse from the train. They stand alone, sometimes by a lone tree, with grass extending for acres all round. Everything's just the right size. The hills are gently rolling, with bright-yellow carpets of flowers, and the grass everywhere, green and seemingly mowed by a heavenly hand - Wimbledon looked just like that on his high-definition plasma television back home. To come back to the original question, should he ever find himself waking up in a bed with a window that opened out to all that beauty... he'd give himself two weeks before he bought a one-way ticket to Berlin.

Then again, perhaps he was uncharitably attributing his impatience and his boredom to the place because he didn't want to look further, because then the fingers would point to something terrible. Before meeting King Ludwig, he had been free of responsibility in any form. He was a stranger in a beautiful land and he was content to walk all day where the road took him. Getting away from "here" and getting to "there" no longer seemed so life-and-death because he had no obligations to be anywhere: the clock had no hold over him. For the first time in his life, the journey was more meaningful than the destination because there was no destination. People were no longer obstacles that thwarted his plans but fellow-beings who added light and colour and made the road all the more interesting. But if that were so, what did that say of how he'd spent the decades up till then?

And now, he was again saddled with responsibilities. He could not refuse King Ludwig and so he was now a knight on a kingly errand. He was back to being Industrious Hans and he had no time to linger and waste. A couple of stations before Donaueschingen, he alighted. He then discovered that the grass that looked Wimbledon-like from the train was in reality knee-high and quite difficult to walk through. From the station, he could see the line of trees that stood all alone. The guardians of the future, they were called, though for the life of him he could not figure out how they were guarding anything by standing inoffensively in a line in the middle of a meadow. He asked them. They replied that they were named thus because they remembered the past just as it happened, unclouded by prejudice or agenda. Besides, they added with a touch of irritability, they were just trees. How should they know why humans give the names they do?

Hans then asked them why the place was called the Black Forest when it was all mostly greens and blues. Ah, they replied, that's because the name was given it over 2000 years ago, by the Romans. The trees were so tall and thickly together that they allowed no sunlight through. They tried to tame it, with not much success, and even endured a brutal military defeat not too far from there that halted their northward expansion. But humans are especially good at waging war with nature and over the centuries the thick forests were replaced with wood more suitable for civilisation. The masses of trees slowly gave way to villages and cultivation and to its modern-day picturesqueness, and now it is more famous for its cakes and cuckoo clocks than its trees. Why, even as fairly recently as three centuries back, the forest was still black and foreboding and littered with big bad wolves and gingerbread cottages. There were witches who specialised in luring little children with roofs made of chocolate and then cooking them in giant iron stoves in the kitchen.

But then, along came Friedrich the Great of Prussia and all this changed. He foresaw a time in the not-too-distant future when rubber sacks would play a prominent role in sexual intercourse... and what were the people to eat then? Besides, considering all the crap that kids ate, he was not sure they constituted a nutritious meal. And gingerbread cottages attracted ants in their legions and brought about frequent epidemics of the flu - because the roofs melted in the rains. So, he looked southward at this new plant the Spaniards had brought over from South America. It was nutritious, hardy and easy to grow and its numbers were unlikely to be affected by a spike in Durex sales. It would save millions of lives.

But his citizens took one bite of this bland, tasteless tuber and they said, "No, thank you, dear king. You keep your potato." But Friedrichs do not end up being kings, much less great kings, without an astute grasp of psychology. He had the potato declared the forbidden royal fruit and had guards posted around his potato fields. Everyone wanted them now, and at night they crept into the badly-guarded fields and stole some for themselves. And thus, the potato became a staple of the German diet and the witches of the Black Forest had to look for alternate employment. Indeed, most of them took up jobs behind the information counters of the Deutsche Bahn or the cloakroom of the Berlin State Library. And his grateful subjects, to this day, leave potatoes on Freidrich's grave in Potsdam.

The trees would have gone on in this vein had Hans not firmly stopped them in their tracks and told them of the purpose of his visit: how did King Ludwig die? They told him. Unable to get the other nagging question out of his head, he asked them why the king could not remember the last few minutes of his life. "Oh that," they replied, "when someone dies suddenly, the brain has no time to transfer their memories from the short-term banks to the long-term ones. Is a common complaint amongst ghosts."

xxx

"... you were walking by the lake when you spied the boat. You saw your chance to escape over the lake and to your cousin, the Empress of Austria. You were convinced that if you could then present yourself to your people in Munich they'd see that you were not mad - at worst only eccentric - and would've had you reinstated. But the guards saw you try to escape and shot you in the back. And they were forced to kill the doctor, who was the sole witness."

"The bastards."

Hans and Ludwig watched in silence as the sun rose over the mountains. Presently, Ludwig said, "I suppose you'll soon have to leave. Normally, as brave a knight as you would get half my kingdom or my daughter's hand in marriage. But I have no kingdom now in this Federal Republic of Germany and if I'd had any daughters - which I didn't - they'd be a hundred-and-fifty years old."

"Oh, that's all right. You're really a very nice king, Ludwig. It was my pleasure."

"No, I can't let you go empty-handed. I see that you've developed a taste for travel. So, here, take this knapsack. Its dimensions are 56 cm x 45 cm x 25 cm, and if the airline's hand-luggage restrictions are even smaller, it will magically shrink itself. It is a portal to another dimension, invisible to baggage scanners. This, therefore, is a bottomless knapsack and never again will you have to wait at a baggage carousel nor will you lose your shaving kit in transit. And no customs officer shall ever again charge you usurious duties, either. Happy travels, my friend!"

Thus began the first day of the rest of Hans's life. He would live happily ever after, but first he had to find a laundromat because his clothes were by now quite dirty.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Happy Women's Day!

Dear [insert subscriber's name],

It's been brought to our attention that today is International Women's Day. As we understand it, it's not a day for any particular women, but for all women. Even you.

We at Fifty-Fifty would like to celebrate a woman's willingness to listen - especially over long distance - her patience to understand, her strength to support, and so on and so forth. Please take this opportunity to call up all the other wonderful women you know and let them know how much they mean to you and then wait on the same line for them to let you know how wonderful you are and how much you mean to them. In the months to come, you will gaze at this phone bill with those wonderful eyes and say to yourself with a soft smile playing across those sweet, caring lips, "Ah, that was International Women's Day."

Have a wonderful day!

Kind regards,
Fifty-Fifty Telecommunications.

P.S. - Please ignore if you're not a woman.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

M

A murderer of children stalks the streets of Berlin. Four and a half million people live in terror for eight months. The police are without a clue and work round the clock tracking down leads. The criminals suffer even more, with daily police raids grinding their businesses down to a halt. They chafe also at the accusation that this monster must be from amongst them. Not so. They are better than him. They don't kill without a reason.

And so they must find him. And kill him. But because they have rules, because they are better than him, they will give him a trial...

"You must be taken out of action! You must go!"

"But I can't help it! I can't... I really can't... help it!"

"We know that one! Before the judge, we all 'can't help it.'"

"What would you know? What are you talking about? Who are you anyway? Who are you? All of you. Criminals. Probably proud of it, too. Proud you can crack a safe or sneak into houses or cheat at cards. All of which it seems to me you could just as easily give up if you had learned something useful, or if you had jobs or if you weren't such lazy pigs. But me? Can I do anything about it? Don't I have this cursed thing inside me? This fire, this voice, this agony?"

"So you mean to say you have to kill?"

"I have to roam the streets endlessly, always sensing that someone's following me. It's me! I'm shadowing myself! Silently... but I still hear it! Yes, sometimes I feel like I'm tracking myself down. I want to run, run away from myself! But I can't! I can't escape from myself! I must take the path that it's driving me down and run and run down endless streets! I want off! And with me run the ghosts of the mothers and children. They never go away. They're always there! Always! Always! Always! Except when I'm doing it. When I... Then I don't remember a thing. Then I'm standing before a poster, reading what I've done. I read and read... I did that? I don't remember a thing! But who will believe me? Who knows what it's like inside me? How it screams and cries out inside me when I have to do it! Don't want to! Must! Don't want to! Must! And then a voice cries out, and I can't listen anymore! Help! I can't! I can't! I can't..."

This is why I watch films. Because they take me to places I've never been to. Because they make me one with a serial killer. Because they remind me that people living in glass houses should not throw stones.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The backpacker's guide to Pune on a shoestring budget

  1. Arrive at the Pune airport. With backpack.
  2. Avoid the pre-paid taxis from the counter inside the airport. They're much too expensive. Use the post-paid auto stand outside. They're just as expensive, but as you pay only after the ride, you earn a little bit of interest on the princely sum you'll eventually fork out.
  3. To save on exorbitant hotel accommodation, proceed to spend the night in any apartment you happen to own.
  4. Avoid autos for any other travel. Auto drivers are elitist and tend to accept fares only to very specific destinations. They'd probably be delighted to take you to Berlin, or say, Barcelona, but mention any local spot - and unless you've hit on the one place loaded with memories where the chap kissed his first girlfriend - the reaction you're most likely to see is wide-eyed horror that anyone would want to go there.* Cross off "Public Transport & Dealing With When There Isn't Any" from your list of to-dos.
  5. Once in your apartment, note its distinctive (but pleasant) smell that reminds you of a David Lynch movie. Not any particular David Lynch movie, but one he's never made. (I can't fathom how my memory works sometimes.) Cross off "Nostalgia & Household Cleaning Products."
  6. Now that autos are a no-no, you're left with virtually no way to explore the city, save walking. So, call up old friends with cars, who're willing to lug you around - particularly to the better restaurants. You may wish to stock up on medical insurance before you do. "Erm, that was a little too close to that little boy on the left, there..." "Oh, was it?" she replies conversationally, "You know, I'm so used to driving on that side of the road where I come from." Cross off "Traffic & Cross-Cultural Studies."
  7. While in the car, notice the signboard that says "Aga Khan Palace - 2 kilometres to the left." Have your friend describe it to you. Cross off "History & Architecture."
  8. Muse that there are now more girls in shorts on the roads than from what you remember. Cross off "Fashion & Culture."
  9. Now that the novelty of staying in your old flat has worn off, you may wish to spend the remaining days somewhere more habitable. Call up your ex-colleagues. Spend the next hour fending off invitations by the bucketful. One wants you at his place because he has a young son and you'd be just perfect for a "this is what you'll grow up into if you don't do everything I say" lecture. The second wishes to use me as a prop for a "there but for the grace of me, go you" message to her husband. You choose the second because the first is a vegetarian. And she cooks the best prawns and fish for you, for dinner - presumably out of guilt. Cross off "Sampling The Local Cuisine & Engaging The Natives."
  10. Meet with your ex-boss. He's only agreed to meet you because he wants to tell you all about the dreadful code you wrote for him, that he had to burn midnight oil for years and years afterward to fix. But he does introduce you to a new coffee shop, so feel free to cross off "Fine Dining & Dealing With The Past."
  11. Arrive at the airport with 2 minutes to spare. And then be chagrined to discover that Pune has a rule that you get your baggage screened before checking in. The line for that is a kilometre long. As you stand with tears streaming down your face, cross off "Punctuality & City-Specific Airport Rules."
*That said, you'd probably be interested to hear of this experience of mine. It was late at night and I had to get to my friend's place in a hurry. There was a steaming plate of prawns curry waiting and 16 kilometres lay between me and it. Flagging the nearest auto, I did my enquiry in the meekest voice I could manage. "Sure, 150 bucks," he said. I was astonished. He was asking me for a fare about 20 bucks less than what the meter would charge! This was surely a first for Independent India. I was torn between dragging him out of the auto and giving him a hug, or ordering a plaque to commemorate the spot. But a few kilometres later, doubts began to gnaw at him.

"Say, did you say you wanted to go to ***"
"Yes, that's what I said."
"You know, this is Saturday night and I'm a little drunk and I heard it as ****"
"Hmm..." I replied non-commitally.
"You wouldn't, by any chance..."
"No."
"I'd normally charge 400 bucks for this distance, you know," with almost a note of pleading.
"Tough shit, a deal's a deal."

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Night Watch

"What kind of refugees are we talking about here?"
"Mostly human, sir."
"Do you mean that most of them will be human, or that each individual will be mostly human?" said Vimes. After a while in Ankh-Morpork, you learned to phrase that kind of question.

xxx

I've only just started the book but have a feeling that this'll be my best Pratchett yet.

And so far, the book's a lot better than the painting.