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One last time

Ravi and I spent the usual  20 minutes rounding everyone up for dinner. This was the most demeaning job in the world, not because everyone was doing different things – Rama walking around in circles with the phone plastered to his ear, Iyer on his bed with his laptop on his stomach, rising and falling rhythmically, Anand walking in and out of his (bath)room wearing only a towel, Spike either sleeping in the most awkward position with a book sprawled beside him or fighting with Vc for a game of FIFA, Vc either washing clothes or fighting with Spike for a game of FIFA and Sp conspicuously locked in his room – but because everyone had the same answer, Call the others da, I’m ready. We decided to brave the humiliation and round everyone up. After all, this would probably be the last time we’d be having dinner together for years and certainly the last time in the mess hall. It was going to be one last time.

The 10-minute walk to the mess hall was the most emotionally laden one I’ve ever taken. We were all mindful of the significance of the meal. We were unusually quiet and somber and even Vc, as if to show his solidarity, stopped trying to step on Iyer’s sandals after Iyer snapped, his voice more masculine than it had ever been in 4 years. Sp complained about how his upcoming exam was the most difficult paper and Anand agreed. There was a collective gasp. Spike murmured something that sounded like Miss you guys. Vc wiped his eyes hastily and said something that sounded like Brothers. I thought I heard Iyer say Brethren. Ravi did not laugh. Rama stopped messaging. It was too much to take. I heard a string of violins playing far away and I thought I saw Karan Johar smiling at us proudly. I looked again, it was just Sai waving at us. The melodrama was killing us. No one said anything, but we knew we were all thinking about the same thing – mess food. Say what we may, we knew the mess hall was a lot more special than we’d ever admit. It was the one time of the day all of us sat around at a table, fighting and arguing, agreeing only when it came to complaining about the food. It had been a good 4 years and the mess hall had been as important a part of hostel life as any other. A montage of scenes ran in front of our eyes.

It started with a silent, grainy, black and white film. We saw ourselves – 4 years younger, hale and healthy, with more hair on our head than on our faces, noses twitching and a look on our faces that only newly incarcerated convicts wear. For some reason we were all happy. We stood in line, plates and spoons even, moving from counter to counter, examining rotis for burnt spots and daal for insects. We sat silently, ate quietly, laughed at each others jokes politely. Sp took out a bottle of thokku, Spike eyed it greedily, Vc burst out crying at the end of the table. Anand looked at me and I knew he was trying hard not to laugh. I smiled, torn between having to console an old friend and appear macho in front of a new one. As a mark of understanding, Ravi gave a roti to Vc. He cried harder. Anand burst out laughing. Rama joined in. The grains cleared up and a bit of color appeared.

The rest of the movie was easier to follow, they were just random scenes. In one, I carried a jug of water of a table of seniors and then for four more. In another, we lost a bottle of avakai uurga to a bunch of seniors in football jerseys and from the look on our faces, we guessed it was our last. We were joined by others in some videos and in others not all of us were present, but for the most parts, we were laughing and fighting, spitting and running, stealing bananas (and coming up with dirty banana jokes) and hiding each others cell phones. Around the time we started losing hair on our head and substituting it on our face, the video had sound and was a lot clearer than some porno documentaries we’d taken from the LAN. In these, we were no longer standing in line, we had no plates and certainly no spoons, we were taking thokku from healthier kids, asking them to fetch water for us and Iyer was the only one examining rotis and daal.

We saw all this in our mind, as if tied together in a common dream. And here we were, walking towards the mess hall for our last dinner together. It was a lot more emotional than I imagined it would be, more emotional than my last day in class and surprisingly more than the last Club. How many more years would it be before all of us sit together and eat again? Well, we could at least make that possible. Would it ever be possible to eat at the mess hall again? As we inched closer to the hall, with the same images, videos and questions running through all our minds, a humid blast hit us. We were brought back to the present, a rather harsh present, by a metallic clatter. Someone had dropped a plate and we saw something red and viscous struggling to flow off the plate. We looked around the place that had seemed so nostalgic in our mind – it was chaotic. It was hot as hell and the curtains hung still, belying the rather cool evening outside. With conversations in every Indian language imaginable (one overpowering the others), it was like we were dropped right in the middle of Ranganathan Street during Pongal and indeed, if it weren’t for the sweaty, smelly guys in shorts and baniyans, I would have thought so! But we knew – I cannot tell you how, but we did – that it wasn’t these things that bothered us. It was the smell. Oh Dear Lord the smell! In our rooms in Florida, New York, D.C. and Madras, we smell it even now. The putrid smell of old dough. Of saadam and the drainage, of saadam in the drainage! Of fungus-infested bread and tomatoes, of bananas and hot water. Oh the smell!

The silent, black and white, grainy image returned to our minds, grainier and shakier than ever. We looked carefully. Healthier we were, hair we had, but we realized why we had the look on our faces. This was why. This was why our noses twitched. And we weren’t happy. We were sadistic. We were laughing at each others misery. And in the present and in our heads, the emotion returned – Would it ever be possible to eat at the mess hall again? We looked at each other and we answered Ah! Fuck it! Let’s go to paati kadai.

As we stepped out into the cool, evening air we all heard a voice again, not in our heads, but very close to us – No da. I don’t eat egg. Let’s go to Classic.

And then the fight started.

One last time.

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5 years back one unassuming, petite figure staggered on to the podium in Club. She laughed nervously, words stumbled out of her mouth, almost as if talking did not come naturally to her. If I hadn’t seen her after that I would have probably died thinking Divya Ganeshan was a nervous, introverted, shy person, who talks only when talked to, who makes people feel uncomfortable around her because of her inability to break the ice. Mea culpa.

If Divya had been born in the early ’80s, I would have no doubt in believing that was the inspiration for Scrappy-Doo. She is tiny, she talks non-stop and often ends up taking on ‘villains’ many times her size. If she had a bugle, I can swear she’d do a Ta dadada ta daaa and run off shouting Lemme at ’em! I’ll splat ’em! Yeah, she’s scrappy! But curiously, she detests dogs. If you have seen some of the people she’s taken on in college – Spike, Bounce, Giri – you would be in no doubt of her bravado (and their magnanimity). Unfortunately, the calamity is least at the seismic center and most at the most vulnerable spot – yours truly.

She’s always the first one to talk. She opens with a bold sweeping claim, argues vehemently for it, sticks to it till she senses she’s going under water and just when you think she’s going to concede, she lands a punch, often in your stomach. Her humor quotient intrigues me the most and if I were researching mutations, I am sure I would be working on her funny gene. Yeah she has a very active one, thanks to her mom no doubt, but here’s the interesting thing – it functions properly as long as there are no stimulating external factors. The minute these stimuli are recognized, not only does the gene shut off, it takes over another function – it starts inhibiting your funny gene. Phenotypically, she will say something that will have you in splits, but the minute she realizes that you think she’s funny, she will come up with such gems that you wish you were beating her in an argument. That hurts a lot less. And the spirit-crushing Flop maara? and Aiyyo mokkai! Remind me to laugh on Sunday. I have known hordes of aspiring comedians get crushed under her brutal retorts and one, Pourush Choudhary, still wakes up in the middle of the night, sweating and palpitating, undoubtedly suffering from a barb inflicted by her in college.

All things said, she’s a wonderful person, as long as she has her daily dose of coffee, which is anywhere between 10 small cups and 15 large ones, and gossip. If she’s denied her coffee, very much like she’s denied gossip, she’ll get cranky. If you are not a coffee person, there cannot be a better coffee-coach than Divya. The passion with which she talks about coffee, drinks coffee, orders the coffee-guy to make coffee would have better serve a struggling artist.

If you’ve met her just the one time and decided she’s a bore, I pity you. If you’ve met her the 2nd time and are thinking about meeting her the 3rd time, I’ll kill you.

So I raise my cup of steaming hot, strong filter coffee in a toast to the funnest and funniest girl I’ve ever met – Divya Ganeshan!

Happy Birthday! 🙂

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Divya and I were talking about books the other day and quite predictably, about favorite authors and favorite books. Unlike similar conversations I have had with others, where we’d talk about the most recent book we had read, I found myself talking about some of earliest books I have read. And because they were the first books I’d read (and because I did not read a lot back then), they have a very special place in my book-list. We rewound my book-list enough to get me thinking on what has been occupying my mind for the past few days – what triggered my love for reading in the first place? Let me confess right away – I am not the most ardent reader I’ve met. In fact, most of my friends from college grew up ingesting just about anything that had letters on them. (Yeah, most of my book-friends are from college. The few school guys who read a lot now, didn’t read so much back then) I wasn’t so much into books for a while, though I read in patches till I was in middle-school and I finally got hooked on, thanks to my brother. But this post is not so much about the books that I’ve read as it is about why I started reading. The big question is easy enough to answer – I love reading because I love stories. As a kid, nothing got me more excited than listening to stories and the fact that I did not mind who the story-teller was, widened the horizon for me. So, in a sense, this post is a tribute to all the story-tellers who showed me the way to a whole new and an ever-expanding world of books.

As far as my abysmal memory takes me, I’d say my mom was the first story-teller and Ramayana was the first story. I now know that she was reading Kamba Ramayanam; back then it was just an old, fat, yellowing book which she read incessantly. I used to sit next to her and nag her to recount the story to me. She’d read a few pages, distill it and tell me stories as she fed me, but always ending with a moral. I guess she realizes now that I spat out most of the morals, along with the veggies. I vividly remember the ‘stories’ of the encounter between Raavana and Jatayu and Vali and Sugreeva and I secretly admired Vibeeshana. And these are the seeds for my love for secondary characters over the main ones – Karna over Arjuna, Bob Andrews over Jupiter Jones, Iago over Othello, Sirius over Harry, Peter over Heidi, Jughead over Archie, Haddock over Tintin and many of the now-forgotten characters in Fear Street.

As soon as I realized that my mom was censoring most of the interesting aspects of the story, I shifted my ears to my brother. We shared a room for a long time and the night times were a nightmare for him because I wouldn’t let him sleep unless he told me “just one story, promiseeee”. And what a story-teller he was! He would add enough masala to make the story interesting and yet, not enough salt to make it realistic. The build-ups, the voice modulation, the suspense, the drama – he told a story in a way only master story-tellers do. Among the many thing I’ve learned from him, is to interpret a situation, the characters and their mindset and how there are no ‘heroes’ or ‘villains’, but only characters. I don’t remember most of what he told me because he must have told me over 3 years’ worth of stories, but I do remember one and what a story it was – Macbeth! He was in college then and I was still in middle school – his understanding and interpretation met its match against my imagination and enthusiasm! Macbeth remains one of my favorite stories till date, though I’ve been meaning to read an unabridged version for ages now.

The timeline between mom’s Ramayan and bro’s Macbeth is extremely blurry. I know there are a lot of people who influenced me through their stories –  my thatha, Sudha Miss, Prema Miss, Vidya Vageesh Miss and a whole lot of others but there are 2 people who stand out as prominently, if not more, as my mom and bro. One of them is a person who is as anonymous posthumously as he was alive. No, I mean no disrespect, it is just how I saw him. He was married to my neighbor, a remarkable lady, who I call Athai, who deserves a separate post altogether. His name was Uncle and that is the only personal information I know about him. He was a tall, thin, extremely nervous man, with wavy gray hair, thick square spectacles below an ash-smeared forehead. He spoke with a quiver and you had to strain your ears to hear him. He was a shy, submissive and a very nervous man, who was extremely soft spoken, whenever he spoke. I am pretty sure there was a black story to their marriage because people were very awkward around him and because he was living in her house and in an orthodox Brahmin household, that’s well, ouch!  I remember his room, if it can be called that – it was extremely small, an add-on the the stairwell, with a sloping ceiling, where the brick-roof of the house sloped. There used to be a table, 2 chairs and I cannot be sure if there were any walls, because all I could see were books. If your imagination conjures up a dungeon where portions are brewed, a wine-cellar with books instead of casks or a shady shack where black magic is performed, you’re not far off from the truth. He never spoke to anyone (or probably the other way around) and the only person who had unquestioned access to his room and books was yours truly. Of course, I didn’t read those books, because most of them were in Tamil and Sanskrit and I was too young to read anyway. He spent all day in his room, coming down only to eat, bathe, pray and sleep. When I was in his room, and I was there hours on end during vacations, he would tell me stories – Dasavatharam, Ramayana, Mahabaratha and a thousand other stories that figure somewhere between these three. I was lost in the world of sages and boons,  kings and war, devas and rakshasas and mantras and monkeys. Then one day he passed away as quietly as he had lived. I don’t know what was the problem with him, though I know there were a lot. I don’t know if he made a positive difference to Athai’s life, but he sure made one on mine.

The other person who impacted my love for stories (and therefore my reading habit) is a very special person. He is the only other person in the world who can make sense of this post’s title before reading this paragraph. Arvind is as old a friend as a 22-year old can have. I don’t know when I met him (though for some reason both of us maintain that we met in the boy’s toilet when we were in the LKG), but he was been my buddy for almost 20 years now. Now, I can easily write an entire book on him, Rohit and Ganesh, my other old friends (and I nearly started one a few years back!) but this post, as you’ve seen, is very niche. Arvind is many things to many people, but to me he’s a master story-teller. We had sad excuses for excursions in school with trips to Vandallur Zoo, Chembarambakam Lake and many such open-‘air’ places under an unforgiving sun. Few things made excursions fun for me – the concept of an excursion (naturally), the bisibela bath and potato curry for lunch, the anthakshari contest and Arvind’s stories. Yes, many people, not even Rohit and Ganesh, don’t know this, but Arvind used to tell me endless stories (actually one story that was endless) during these excursions. I remember coaxing and cajoling him a few days before excursions, politely reminding him about the story he had to come ready with. I’d fight for a seat next to him (and it was quite a fight, considering how popular he was even then) and happily hear the story of the conch! Hence the post’s title! It was by far the most creative and captivating story I’ve heard and how a 7 year old (and subsequently a 8, 9, 10 and 11 year old) could churn out such a tale is still beyond me. I have no idea how the story goes, and I bet neither does he, but it had a lot to do with a certain magic conch and an evil (?) nail. I used to sit and listen in awe as he would effortlessly spin out a story that had all the elements of a Tolkienian fantasy. I am pretty sure he did not sit at home and concoct the story, because there were moments when he’d contradict something he’d said earlier and the ardent listener that I was, would point it out to him. Without as much as a comma-induced pause, he’d develop a sub-plot to cover it up. Creative license. I understood it then as I understand it now, but I saw myself as an apprentice training under a master, and these ‘inputs’ made me beam unashamedly. If I was as perceptive then as I am now, I would have marveled the speed with which he thought about the next scene in the story. If my mom’s narration made me take away morals from stories, bro’s characters thought me interpretation and Uncle’s stories made the story-teller redundant, Arvind undoubtedly is the reason for me appreciating the nuances of story-telling.

And here I am, a story-lover, a semi-ardent reader, a person who puts the book aside and fantasizes about the story, an enthusiastic blogger and hopefully, one day, a writer. To all the story-tellers in the world, keep telling stories. You don’t know the value of your conch.

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