Saturday, January 20, 2007

A Stillborn Attempt at Fiction

He couldn’t remember when he had met her for the first time. Was it at the office or at her apartment with the others? Or had it been on that first trip to Nice? No, he had definitely met her before that trip, but for the life of him, he couldn’t pinpoint the exact occurrence. That irritated him. Almost as if the first meeting would have been insignificant. That couldn’t have been. He believed in love at first sight.

He looked out of the window. It was quite dark now and the bus rolled along merrily on the new highway. The lights of shops on the busy highway zipped past. Now and then a petrol pump would emerge out of the kaleidoscope of images and seemed to stay for a fraction of a second longer than the rest. He was glad nobody was sitting next to him and patted himself mentally for traveling on a weeknight. His bag lay on the seat next to him. He opened it and took out a book of poems that he had purchased at ‘Crosswords’ the last weekend. He never read poems. But one of his acquaintances at the last party he attended had claimed to be enthralled by them and had gone into a long and fascinating monologue of his favorite poets and the beauty of their individual works. And so the next time that Vikram had gone to his favorite bookstore, he finally looked at the poetry section and picked out a thin book of poems from an Indian author whose novels he had read earlier and liked. He had flipped through a few pages right then and had thought- ‘This doesn’t look so bad’-and paid up. But he hadn’t gotten around to reading it as yet. He had been avidly following the football world cup on television these last few days. Everyone seemed to talk about it everyday. One couldn’t be in a position of being ignorant about such an important event. He had made a mental note of even watching the English Premier League next season.

The reading lights didn’t work. “Shit”, he muttered. He considered drawing the conductor’s attention to the malfunctioning bulb but then decided against it. What if he asked him to move to a seat where the reading light worked but which happened to have a fellow traveler seated next to him? He would then be in an uncomfortable position to refuse. Vikram mentally weighed the pros and cons of that situation and decided that he preferred to sit in isolation without his book of poems than share his immediate personal space with a stranger. What if that stranger turned out to be an inquisitive busybody and quizzed him endlessly about his book, life, career and the objective of his trip to Jaipur? Vikram was truthful and polite and frequently found himself drawn into conversations where he was an unwilling participant. His only means of defense was avoidance.

Fuck it, he thought, and put the book back into his bag and took out his iPod. Book and iPod, Vikram never traveled without either of them. A seasoned traveler, he was now ever cautious of boredom, which used to hit him quite frequently earlier when he wasn’t wise enough. Nowadays he carried spare batteries.

Dire Straits, one of his all time favorite bands. He loved Knopfler’s voice, his lead guitar work and the simple lyrics. He yawned. It had been a long day and he was still suffering from jet lag. Wait, no, it couldn’t be jet lag. It was almost two weeks since he had returned from Paris. It had simply been a very long and stressful day; he decided and closed his eyes.

He had definitely met her at the office the first time, he thought, and slept.

Books and Movies

There’s no TV in my house yet. But thanks to the Bristol Central Library I am surviving on a steady diet of books and movies. It’s back to fiction again as far as books are concerned and am trying to discover authors whom I have only heard of before but never read. I read John Updike’s ‘Villages’ and John Mortimer’s ‘The Sound of Trumpets’. Loved Mortimer, reminded me of the many Wodehouse stuff that I read when I was in school, except that Mortimer is a few shades darker. Updike was good too, but the novel reminded me of ‘The Sea’ in structure and sadly Updike kind of paled in comparison with the other John who went on to win that Booker last year. Currently I have my hands on E M Forster’s ‘The Longest Journey’. Quite an oldie.

As for movies, ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ is a very good way to start the New Year if you haven’t watched the movie already. I watched the movie four times over this weekend. Twice just to get the hang of what was actually going on, watched it another time with the subtitles and again with the commentary of Kaufman and Gongry, writer and director respectively of the movie. Also picked up a very entertaining documentary on ‘Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room’. Another one called ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ on Global Warming which had Al Gore (remember him?) who was quite a revelation. ‘United 93’ was another movie, about the plane hijacked during the Sep 11 attacks which apparently didn’t find its target. A very sensitively handled take on what is a difficult subject.

The local theatre in the city centre is called The Odeon. Today went and saw a movie called ‘The Holiday’. I almost regretted the decision. There’s too much saccharine in the movie, if you ask me. Diaz looks great but can’t seem to come out of her Charlie’s Angels’ skin. Winslet’s much better of course, except that her character is quite pathetic for most of the movie. A ‘Bridget Jones’ role but without the funnies. The guys don’t have much to do but am glad for Jack Black. The guy should get more meaty roles like this.

A song from the soundtrack of the movie ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind by Beck.

Change your heart
Look around you.
Change your heart
It’ll astound you.

I need your lovin’
Like the sunshine
And everybody’s gotta learn sometime
Everybody’s gotta learn sometime
Everybody’s gotta learn sometime.

Good Night, and Good Luck. I am going to watch that one now.

Hobbies and Risks

I believe that people who have a better quality of life assiduously work towards it. Of course ‘quality of life’ could mean different things to different people. Some people want to party every weekend with friends and so in a new place they need to reach out and make new friends they can party with. Others are happier to just settle into their weekends with a nice book and so they need to go out and buy or borrow some.

Bristol has a well organized chess league with a number of clubs around the place. This was something I had checked out before I came here. On the 28th of Dec, according to the local website there was a tournament called ‘On the Buzzer’, organized at the Downing Chess club.

I was almost half an hour late, what with the small difficulty of finding the place, but luckily for me, it was still the first round in progress. My soon-to-be opponent who was enjoying a beer as a consequence of what he thought was a first round bye was suddenly introduced to an opponent who ‘had come all the way from India to play him and called himself Anand!’

‘On the Buzzer’ turned out to be another name for what is more popularly known as ‘Lightning Chess’ where players have less than 10 seconds to make every move. I am notoriously bad at speed chess (not that I am much better at the longer versions) but after three rounds and six games with three opponents, I found myself on the second board as a consequence of a score of 4.5/6. Of course it was all downhill from there.

It was pretty late when I left the club clutching my reward for my effort which happened to be a nice-looking table clock. It was past eleven and I thought I had missed the last bus home. I asked about the nearest taxi stand at an Indian restaurant called ‘Tamarind’ who were winding up for the night and was heading in the direction indicated when I saw the bus I wanted come into view. My lucky day, I thought.

“Last stop.” It was only when the driver said that that I realised that I had taken the bus in the opposite direction and was now further away from home. I was now stranded by myself at a deserted mall next to what seemed like a highway. It was windy, cold and quite dark. Everything at the mall seemed to be closed and I was beginning to kick myself at my own stupidity.

Thankfully, there was a lone pub with a few final customers on their last dregs of beer which was still open. The bartender who happened to a bright looking girl with black framed spectacles and a high forehead was quite helpful and dug out a call taxi phone number.

“Thanks, but could you tell me where I am?”

She didn’t understand my question and said, “Oh you don’t have to worry. They are very reliable, our customers use them all the time and we have them all checked out.”
“No, no. Where am I? Where should I ask them to come and pick me up?”

“Oh, you are at Millson’s pub on Emersons Green.” To her credit, if she was surprised, she didn’t show it.

The taxi was booked but couldn’t pick me up for another half hour, which was at a quarter past twelve. Millson’s pub closed at twelve and their last drunk customer and staff weeded out. I waited in the cold outside the pub and when it was quarter past twelve with not a soul in sight, I started looking around for a corner where I could possibly shrivel for the night as my phone was dangerously low on battery.

I don’t think I ever felt happier on seeing a cab when it turned up a couple of minutes later and never gladder of my own name when the cabbie called out, “Anand?”

I cooked dinner after I reached home. I hadn’t partaken of the buffet dinner at the club since I couldn’t recognize any of the items on offer.


One of the big reasons why onsite opportunities are craved in the IT industry is the potential of making and saving money. Many Indian IT majors are forced to pay minimum wages abroad for the skills that our engineers bring to the table which our enterprising engineers in turn find quite plentiful enough.

Though I like making good money, I would rather it came to me by its own accord whilst I pursue a higher ambition, whatever that means. On the way I hope to enjoy a comfortable, that’s all I ask, comfortable life.

There are few things I would rather not do. One of them is sharing rooms, if I can avoid it. Somehow, I have been a bit lucky in this regard. Dad was making enough money by the time I was 14- an important age, I tell you- for me to have my own room. Providence made me join engineering and B school hostels with that same circumstance. So apart from the odd occurrence here and there, I – or others, depends on your opinion of me- have been well shielded.

The point of all this is – apart from trying to sound cool, that is- the fact that while six Indians in my client’s office –two from my company- are sharing a 3 bhk flat, I have taken separate digs in Bristol in a 1 bhk. Soon enough, the two colleagues of mine wanted to move into my place as they couldn’t get along with the others. I said fine as long as I could at least keep the bedroom for myself. I think they got “Don’t come near me” vibes and changed their mind. Pity, could have learnt some culinary skills from them.

Coming back to thrift, sometimes it could go to ridiculous levels and when you are staying in a group and want to make decisions for the whole group, the lowest denominator always prevails since the cost has to be shared. So the cheapest rice is bought, which results in poor results in the kitchen, though I am the last person who should be making a comment like this. Sometimes, it’s even competitive, who spends the least, or even, you spend more, you are a fool.

As for me, it ensures an entertaining stream of conversation.

“D&C, the other day the four of us went looking to buy plates. We saw the cheapest offer at buy three, get one free. When we decide to go for it, D decides that he no longer wants to eat out of a plate but will manage out of the small bowl that he has. Next day, I see him eating out of OUR plate. I could have almost hit him.”

I laughed and laughed.

“D&C, even I am getting worse by the day. The other day, after reconciliation, he owed me nine pence, which he was writing off. I said – I want my nine pence back!-.”

We were going out for lunch everyday. But for the last few days, we have been eating tortillas and yoghurt, not the best combination. After one such repast, my colleague calculates and says happily,

“We have managed the lunch in 90 pence each.”

I just stared back. I had thought we were eating this shit to avoid going out into the cold.

I didn’t give him the ninety pence.

At the Bus Stop

‘Mallik’s’ is a store which I had noticed from the bus on my way home on earlier occasions. ‘Asian Food and Spices’, it boldly stated and since I have no other choice left nowadays but to fend for myself in the kitchen, I had decided to give it a look over.

Half an hour later, I emerged from the shop clutching my bag of Asian food and spices and stood at the bus stand in the cold that I am getting slowly used to. Eight o’ clock in
Bristol is a pretty late time. Streets are empty and there is hardly any movement on the roads, making the night seem much darker. Mallik’s seemed to be the only shop which was open in quite a stretch. The cold always makes the wait seem longer than it is.

“Is there a bus coming?” I hadn’t noticed but a short, stout, middle aged black woman had been standing a few feet away. I craned my neck but couldn’t see a bus coming.

“On the board, is there a bus coming now on the board?” Just in front of my eyes on the board on the bus stand were the timings when the buses were supposed to land up on that particular bus stop.

“Oh man, it’s freezing out here!” she said to no one in particular.

Mallik’s shop-hand was now lifting crates of Asian fruit and vegetables and shifting them back inside the shop, preparing to shut down.

“What did he pick up now from the ground? Was that tobacco? Man, must be his lucky night!”

“I saw a woman earlier drop something”, she continued. “But sometimes when you try to help somebody, you get into trouble? So I’ve stopped doing that. Man, what’s happening to me?” She shook her head.

“Man, this country’s going to the dogs, I tell you. Everything’s closing early, even the pubs! Everything’s getting tighter, too much security, I tell you. The council! Even the council closes early. Do you stay in a council flat?”

I mumbled my ignorance.

“Man, it’s cold out here tonight! Am gonna have some hot soup when I get home.”

“At last, there’s a bus coming!” She exclaimed.

I couldn’t see any but sure enough a second later, the bus came around the bend and fully into view.

“Oh hell! Its full, the damn bus is full!” she exclaimed in disgust. Sure enough, as the bus came nearer, it became evident that all the seats had been taken.

“Am not getting on this. You can go if you want”, she said.

Of course, I come from a country where a bus is not full unless it leans on one side at an angle of thirty degrees.

“Yes, I’ll go”, I said and climbed in.