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Friday, March 23, 2007

ANAIDA

I am Anaida. People call me “Ida.” Blossom auntie and Percy uncle call me “An idiot.” I live alone in a flat on the first floor of a building in Bandra’s East Indian quarters beside Andrew’s bakery and cake shop and Bhatlekar’s betel-and-tobacco shop. I have lived there all my life at the intersection of two meandering narrow streets with buildings like mine on either sides dating back to the British times. The buildings are all greenish with age and mine is the only one with a lot of bougainvillea tumbling out of it. My bougainvillea. You will recognize them easily. I also have dandelions and some chrysanthemums.

I have lived among the bustle of the cries of trinket vendors, the clang of ice cream sellers’ bells and loud cries of the bread and pastry vendors all my life. From the balcony of my flat I have a good view of the intersection. I sit on a high stool in the balcony and look at the world passing by. I don’t go out and play with Margaret like I did. Margaret is my friend from St Andrews Convent School, where I studied.

I am alone because dada and mamma died two years ago, one after the other. Dadda died first of a heart attack and mamma immediately after that because of some viral infection. When dada died mamma wept a lot. After that she stopped eating regular meals and started wasting away. Blossom auntie brought her food, but she never ate. I know she was going to die. Cunning Percy uncle wanted her to die because being dadda’s only brother he could claim the flat for himself. But I am my dadda’s daughter. I wouldn’t let go of my beautiful flat with the bougainvillea and dandelions in different colors of the VIBGYOR spectrum. I studied that in school, about VIBGYOR, which then seemed like a nice word to know.

I work for a publishing company in Colaba. I am a typist. I type envelopes for the company whole day. All I do is type envelopes and addresses. I am surprised there are so many people to send these envelopes to. But Baretto, my supervisor, tells me the company’s income comes from these envelopes. If these envelopes don’t go we don’t get subscriptions and if we don’t get subscription the boss can’t pay us salaries. So I type and type and type till my fingers ache and ache. But I don’t mind as long as they pay me a salary that will pay my milk and bread bills.

I board bus number 81 to work. The bus route is long. But I take a seat by the window and watch people, my favorite pastime. I like to watch people. I like to watch the gleaming cars cruising past the dingy buildings of Mohammed Ali Road and the racket the drivers make by honking their horns at traffic intersections. Sitting in a bus I feel alone and at peace with the world, just like I feel peaceful when I sit in my balcony with my bougainvillea and my dandelions.

When I reach my office Mr Baretto is ready with the addresses I have type.

“These addresses are live people. Consider them people who eat and breathe. We depend on their business. They are givers of our food. Don’t make mistakes. It is easier not to make a mistake than to correct mistakes. I may not check an address and it may go to the wrong address and we will lose business. Right? Agreed?” He would say.

I would nod my head.

But I make mistakes and Baretto would get angry.

“Can’t you do anything properly, men? How many times I tell you to be careful. You don’t listen only.”

He is like Uncle Percy. Only uncle Percy is worse. Uncle Percy looks like the wrinkled and dour gremlins one sees in movies. He owns a community newspaper and is a compulsive gambler. He also drinks a lot and his face is red and florid like a ripe tomato.

In the evening I take the same bus back to Bandra, waiting with office workers like me for the crowds to thin so that I can go comfortably. Well that is my life since dada and mama passed away leaving me all alone in this big world. Dadda had warned me several times to be careful about the “big world” outside. He said “big world” with a roll of his eyes and pursing of lips below his Clark Gable moustache, as if the world was a frightening place. I am not afraid of anyone not even the “big world.”

Actually mama was sicker than dada and would have died sooner hadn’t she been blessed by her Wednesday Mahim novenas. She offered novenas for five full years, that too without a break. She would be there every Wednesday at Mahim Church praying for dada and me.

But when dada died she lost all interest to live. It was like she had no purpose in life. She became like a vegetable you buy from the market, getting up only to go to the toilet. She died in the toilet and neighbors had to break open the door to remove her still body. He face was all contorted and wet with sweat. I felt her hand and it twitched once, that was all. She was suffering from a viral fever for many days and hid it from me.

Soon after the funeral uncle Percy and aunt Blossom came with Fr Alphonso of St Andrews church with so much concern on their faces. I knew their ploy very well. Uncle Percy has very narrow eyes and mama told me never to trust people with narrow eyes.

“Anaida, we will take care of you, no, girl? You can live with us, like our own daughter,” Uncle Percy said.

“See, we are the only ones you have got,” aunt Blossom said.

I said I wouldn’t leave my flat with the lovely bougainvillea and dandelions. Who will water them if I left? If I don’t water it for one day it looks all wilted. Uncle Percy wouldn’t water it. He would sell the flat and then put the money in his loss-making community newspaper and pay off his gambling debts.

“Who will take care of my bougainvilleas,” I asked them.

“What men, bougainvillea, bougainvillea, as if bougainvillea is more precious than your blood relatives.”

“To me it is.”

I didn’t go with them because I would have to live with cousin Martin. Cousin Martin is drug addict and a rough man. He also drinks. I know I won’t be safe anywhere with him around. And when Uncle Percy and aunt Blossom get drunk what ill I do. They fight a lot when they are drunk. All three of them are capable of being rude and abusive when they are drunk.

No baba, I am not going anywhere leaving my balcony seat, the one beside the creeping canopy of bougainvillea stems that looks so beautiful as it tumble out from my balcony. Sitting behind them I can watch people and they would never see me looking at them. Only Margaret knows I am there behind the bougainvillea and waves to me. I wave back.

The next time uncle Percy comes visiting he has Fr Alphonso and Fr Pereira who used to teach us religion at St Andrews school. Fr Pereira is the one who said the funeral mass for mama. I like him more than Fr Alphonso, perhaps because he looks a little like dada with his Clark Gable moustache.

“Anaida, child you need some family, No? Who will look after you when you are sick? You become sick often, often, no? You get these stomach cramps no, painful, painful, then what you do?”

I think for a while. I know it is all uncle Percy’s doing telling Fr Pereira about my stomach cramps. He has no right to. He can rot in hell for doing that and I am not going anywhere leaving my bougainvillea and my dandelions and my balcony. They are my best friends and these people are my enemies.

Like that, like that it went on and on. Sometimes Percy uncle would come along, sometimes he would come with Fr Alphonso and sometimes with Fr Pereira. So many priests came and went with uncle Percy trying to rid me of my precious flat with the bougainvilleas.

My work suffered, Mr Baretto became short tempered and angry.

“Anaida, your productivity is falling, I don’t know how I can recommend you for a bonus this year.”

All I do is type his envelopes, envelopes, and envelopes all day. Still he brings me more and more envelopes and addresses.

“Anaida you are absent minded, you typed ‘Gorey’ for ‘Morey’. Look ‘Gorey’ and ‘Morey’ are two different people. If they get angry they won’t give us business. If they don’t give us business....” his voice trailed off into a very ominous silence.

That day on the bus I thought and thought a lot. What can I do to get that Percy uncle and Blossom auntie off my back? My work was getting affected and if I lose my job, I won’t be able to keep my flat and look after my bougainvillea and dandelions.

That day when I reach Bandra I didn’t go to my flat but went straight to the evening service at St. Andrews church. The church was where both dadda and mama were buried and I looked at their graves from far, I didn’t have the time. The church had gravestones in the courtyard and I walked carefully so as to not disturb the souls resting in them. The beautiful church was full of people and Fr Kenneth D’Souza, head priest, was celebrating mass.

After mass I went to the priests’ chambers and asked to meet Fr. Kenneth D’Souza. Fr D’Souza was preparing to go to the confessional. He saw me and stopped, his eyes wide with surprise and recognition.

“Anaida, what brings you here, child? How are you?”

I wished him good evening and said I was fine.

“Everything okay, baba? I know it has been a terrible loss to you, child. What to do both dadda and mama gone. That too in such a short time. What a terrible, terrible thing to happen, no?”

I was silent.

“Is anything wrong, Anaida? Why are you so quiet?”

“It is uncle Percy, father and Fr Alphonso and Fr Pereira. They have been visiting me regularly asking me to go and live with uncle Percy. I know their intentions aren’t honorable or honest, father.”

Fr D’Souza became silent and thoughtful. He adjusted his belt around his protruding girth.

“How long has this been going?”

“Ever since dadda and mama died.”

“Really? And they didn’t tell me a word,” he looked thoughtful.

“I thought you knew Fr D’Souza.”

“No. I don’t. I am hearing it from you only.”

“I know uncle Percy will take me to live with him and then sell my flat. He is already heavily in debt.”

“ I know, I know. I have been hearing stories of his gambling debts. Card games.”

“Yes, father.”

“Go Anaida. God will bless you and protect you. I will see about Percy and the priests.”

That ended the visits of uncle Percy, aunt Blossom, Fr Alphonso and Fr Pereira to my flat.

I, Anaida, have saved the day, at least temporarily, for me and my bougainvilleas and my dandelions.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

CHRISTMAS WITH CHERIACHEN

Cheriachen is sad. It is Christmas, a season to be joyful, and none of his children are around. It’s a day to be happy and jolly but he is not the least happy. He invited me for lunch on Christmas as my family was away and I went, as I am an acquaintance. We are related, yes, but a very distant relationship, in fact, he is a cousin four times removed.

The afternoon is a wintry cool, not too hot, not too cold, the plants in Cheriachen’s balcony dance in a complicated rhythm weaving patterns on the roof of his plaster-of-paris roof where Christmas baubles and streamers hang forlornly.

“There is no future in India. You know something? You should have gone abroad long ago,” he says morosely, “there is no happiness, no future here. Only sadness.”

“Then why didn’t you go?”

“See I could have gone. My brother is in the US, my daughter is in the US, a daughter is a nurse in Ireland, I can go and live with them even now, but I am comfortable in my life here, though I am not happy, I am not very unhappy here,” he says chastened.

“The same with me. I have learned to adjust. But I read there are guns in schools, violence, and racism, in fact, color discrimination, ten times that we have here.”

“What color discrimination? What are you talking? My daughters are as white as milk, put them next to the white Saiyips, you can’t tell the difference,” I forgot that Cheriachen and his children, though they were a darker shade of beige, considered themselves white, as white as an Occidental.

He pauses as his wife enters and offers me a cool glass of some colored water and Christmas cakes.

“How are you?” she asks me perfunctorily to which I give the standard answer. There is great tiredness and deliberation in her voice, as if she is not feeling too well.

“We were corporate employees. Our lives are gone. We get a pension, which is enough to make ends meet. Our children are enjoying the fruits of our labor.”

I remember, Cheriachen and his wife would walk the three kilometers from home to railway station every day, and not waste money on rickshaws. They would scrimp to the point of starving themselves, but they would save every extra Rupee. They taught their three daughters the value of thrift, and the children all grew to be responsible adults who knew the value of money, and, most importantly, how it is retained and not frittered away.

I know his routine nowadays as I live nearby. He goes for a walk in the morning, comes back exhausted, looks at an animated picture of a waterfall with sound effects, birds chirping, water falling on rocks, which the company he worked for gave him as a retirement gift. That’s all the nature he can afford in the concrete building in which he lives. The building is part of a complex named “Sahyadri,” in Vashi, New Bombay. Then he sleeps the whole day before he goes for an evening walk for purchasing groceries.

The phone rings insistently.

“Lillykutty, pick up the phone, it may be Jessy,” he says from where he sits. He has arthritis and a lot of other illnesses of old age, and is slumped in his chair, his chest collapsed into himself, his stomach protruding, and his face sagging with tissues that were once taut and healthy. His eyes have large circles under them due to sleeplessness, or, due to extra sleep. He sleeps all the time.

“It was difficult,” he reminisces, “bringing up my girls, the work was hard, I was a storekeeper you see, and if something is missing you have to take the rap. I slaved all these years.”

“Jessy is on the phone,” his wife Lillykutty says, “she wants to wish you.”

He gets up heavily from the chair and waddles to the phone re-tying his loose loin cloth around his waist. It had slipped.

“Haaaan, happy Christmas,” he cackles, “how is Shinymol? Fine? How is Joji? Fine?”

Static and an excited metallic voice at the other end.

Yes, he is happy for some time. But the happiness doesn’t last. His face droops again, his eyes again take a haunted look, he sinks into the chair.

“There, I mean in the US, they work only five days. And they don’t have to work like the company has bought our souls. They do their work and then go home. On weekends they go to beach resorts or holiday homes. If you don’t have a job the company pays you five hundred dollars a month, imagine. Around Rupees Twenty Thousand for doing nothing, just sitting at home. It’s not like here.”

It seems he is very upset and disgruntled, “Is that so?” I prompt.

“My other daughter, Jomi, who got married recently to a doctor, she is luckier,” he says pompously, “she is in Ireland and only works three days in a week and rests for four days, and draws a handsome salary, unlike here, you work six days and… all the harassment…,” he groans and shakes his head.

“And free healthcare, do they have free healthcare?”

“Yes, everything is free, absolutely free. Even education. I remember the difficulty I went through to get my daughters admitted to nursing school. I had to pay the hospital fifty thousand rupees. Then the fees, and after passing the miserly stipend they get for two years. Then for the passport, I had to bribe the officials. Yeverywhere corruption. God, it was so awful, but now they are enjoying a good life. God bless them,” Cheriachen says.

“Jomi took her doctor husband to Ireland, and he has a job in the same hospital where she works,” Lillykutty says from the kitchen. She sounds morose and depressed, too, two unhappy people in an empty two-bedroom flat. She is preparing our Christmas lunch. The smell of mutton and assorted curries fill the flat in Sahyadri housing society.

“Jessy’s daughter Shinymol studies for free. You should see her photographs,” he fishes out some photographs from the bottom of a pile of newspapers on the teapoy, “she is so fair, chubby, and fat, anyone would want to take her in hands and kiss her.”

“I guess it is the food they eat there. I read it is full of fat.”

“No. Not that. They don’t have to exert themselves, no? All they walk is inside their houses, from this room to that. To go anywhere they sit in a car, to go to school they sit in a car, to go to church they sit in a car. Not like we used to do. When I was a boy, I would walk five miles to our school, in Kerala.”

So that’s it. The number of empty, wasted miles spent walking is making Cheriachen a bitter man. He should have been in another country, sitting in a car, I think.

The phone rings insistently again.

“Lillykutty, it must be Jomi from Ireland,” Cheriachen says from his chair. He doesn’t make an effort to get up. He can’t.

Lillykutty comes into the room. Picks up the phone and says the usual “Merry Christmas.” She sounds happy.

Then she say “What?” into the phone and listens for a while. I can see her face fall, her body sag. Then she says, “Why do you want to do that? God, help us! God help us!”

Some static from the other end, a distraught voice. She motions towards Cheriachen.

Cheriachen comes to the phone, smiles joyfully, says, “Merry Christmas,” his sagging face muscles stretch, up, up, as he listens. He is imagining in his mind the heaven from which his daughter is calling him, free of worries, free healthcare, in fact, free everything. He is about to cackle when the whole muscles and integument of his face drop like a stone dropped from a height.

“What?” he says and looks at Lillykutty. Their eyes meet. There are tears in Lillykutty’s eyes. She sobs. Cheriachen puts down the phone. His eyes glaze with tears.

“Now, why would she want to do that? She has everything, works only three days a week, has around two lakhs salary per month, a good-looking husband, has everything virtually free, everything free….”

“We found the best husband for her, imagine, a doctor, handsome, too. We arranged the best wedding for her in the community. Now she says she wants to leave him, and she can’t get along with him,” Lillykutty says.

I look away. The rest of Christmas with Cheriachen was a torture, for me, at least.

THE COMPLETE MAN

“Georgie, you should eat your medicines.”

“Yes, you must,” they all agree.

His brothers Luke and Sam are here to make him take his anti-depression medicines regularly. So are his former classmates and childhood friends, Ravindran, Sanjayan and Gopi.

Georgie is acting strange. He is depressed. He won’t go to work. He lies all day in bed and reads strange, spiritual books. He knocks on people’s doors and says weird things. Things like:

“They are coming for us. Don’t open the doors.”

“There is a riot going to happen. Close all doors.”

“The Americans are going to bomb us. George Bush is coming. Take shelter. Go to the maidan and lie flat on the ground.”

He imagines things and thinks they are for real. He wasn’t like this, his brothers Luke and Sam agree. In fact, Georgie was the most brilliant of the three. A good student, a good sportsman, a good marksman, a good speaker, a good… in fact… good at everything he did. He would score maximum runs for the Red House he led in school, win hundreds of marbles in games, win the elocution and memory competitions, come first in the art and writing competitions, and still stand first in class.

Everybody was jealous. Jealous that he was so talented and they weren’t.

“He was good in everything?” Ravindran, an artist who now has a cult following in the advertising profession reminisced. He is content with the way life has treated him, with a lot of money and fame. For him Georgie is now the past, though he felt sympathetic. He remembered the time they would spend together in the school compound chasing butterflies, and Georgie laughing his good natured laugh. He doesn’t deserve this, he thought. Secretly Ravindran was jealous of Georgie in school . He always tried to outdo him in drawing and painting and each time he failed.

*****

The school term was about to end. Ravindran, captain of the Yellow house, was worried about his house’s performance. They would add up the scores in the art and writing competitions and his house would be last in the list of honors. His main rival was Georgie, captain of the Red House, and nobody could beat him in drawing, painting and writing.

Slyly he made a plan. He tackled Georgie rather roughly from behind during the afternoon football game prior to chasing butterflies. George fell and his hand was sprained and had to be cast. But he came back for the art and writing competitions with his hand in a cast. He scored well and took Red House far ahead of Yellow House. Ravindran had lost face.

*****

“Georgie, you should eat your medicines. You shouldn’t worry about what America or George Bush does. It’s their worry,” Sanjayan said. Sanjayan is now a chief executive of a newspaper group, and is widely traveled. Around him there is the smell of success, which is actually the smell of the various expensive colognes he buys when he is abroad.

“No. It’s my worry, no? My children are growing up. I have to support them, no?”

“But first you got to go to work and earn, to make your children secure, like this you have no security only,” Luke the elder brother says impatiently. He seems an impatient man.

*****

Back in school Sanjayan was the goal keeper of the Blue House and he was also a part of the humungous jealousy that Georgie generated in students of AFAC School (students of a rival school expanded this to “After Farting Attending Classes.”) He couldn’t understand how Georgie could do everything he did with complete dedication and seriousness. If he sets himself upon scoring a goal, he did it with an intensity that was frightening.

He was terrorized by Georgie’s appearance anywhere near his goal post. Georgie’s marksmanship was unerring and he could maneuver himself from any angle to score a goal. No goalkeeper was safe with Georgie around. Jealousy rose like a tide inside Sanjayan.

So when Georgie came menacingly towards him during a friendly football match, he saw his chance. He dived, collected the ball and gave it a kick in Georgie’s direction, aiming it at his face. The aim was accurate. The ball hit his face, and Georgie fell down. The kick of the ball had taken him by surprise. His nose bled and he had to be carried away to the school office before Luke came to escort him home.

******

“He was so brilliant, I was scared of his brilliance,” Gopi says. Gopi heads a knowledge process outsourcing project. He has a fetish for expensive shoes and casual wear.

“Yes, I, too,” Ravindran says.

“But he is still intelligent. He needs your sympathy and he would be all right,” Sam says. Sam is the younger brother, a softer version of Georgie. All brother look alike.

“That’s why we are here,” Gopi says, “I thought he would be someone very big some day. Not like this.”

“What do you mean?” Georgie asks indignantly. He thinks the people gathered in the room are a bunch of hypocrites, and knows what they have done to him. How dare they talk about him this way, as if he was some object, a dog that wouldn’t obey its master?

Georgie prefers not to say anything. He keeps to himself. He listens and listens to everyone’s opinion of him, and grows more and more estranged. Why do they talk about me thus? He wonders. This loneliness had turned into self-absorption, and then into seeking solace in drinks. When the world cut him out, he wanted to cut them out, as simple as that.

But a hypocrite such as Gopi seems to be provoking him too much today.

“He was so quiet and so dedicated to his work,” Sanjayan says, “He would solve algebra sums in no time, and I used to take my doubts to him.”

“This one here is the biggest hypocrite of all,” Georgie thinks. Gracy, his wife makes an entry, balancing a tray in both hands. She puts the tray down on the teapoy and with her slender arms passes tea around the room.

“You all tell him, no? I say to him take medicine, take medicine, all the time. He won’t listen to me, only.”

“You shut up, don’t talk,” Georgie tells her.

“I won’t shut up. You shut up. What?”

“If you don’t shut up, I will shut you up,” George’s face darkens with rage.

“People, imagine how I live with a man who talks this way,” Gracy says to everyone, “I don’t want to live with him. I will go to the police.”

For a moment Georgie looks like he would throw something at Gracy, but he doesn’t. He has a sweet nature, everyone knows.

Instead he says, “Does anyone know what that means?” He points to an elaborately framed picture on the wall. The picture shows a man and a woman, standing close together with an intimacy that could only mean they are lovers.

Everyone present shakes their head.

“The complete man. I wanted to be a complete man, once, perfect in everything I did,” his voice is inaudible.

There is a moment’s silence, as the meaning sinks in. His friends and his brothers look at each other and then at the brilliant man, now the antithesis of his own perfection.

“But, look at you, what complete? You are hardly a man,” Gracy’s harsh voice cuts in and then she ambles towards the kitchen.

*********

Gopi was the boy with writing abilities in school. He fancied himself as a future writer. But competition was stiff from Georgie. A love for literature and fine writing bound them. They used to exchange classic novels in comic format that they would borrow from the lending library paying Rs 1.50 each. Thus they would get to read two classic comics for the price of one.

One day Georgie had exchanged the comic version of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe with Rajendran’s Superman comic without informing Gopi. He came to know of this. Georgie confessed it was his fault. But, jealousy was a big thing, eating into their little personas, especially when they were children just forming the iron-cast personalities of their future lives.

Gopi stopped talking to Georgie. He thought that was the best way to punish him. He didn’t know what harm he had done. Georgie is hurt so easily, he has a tender mind, a tender soul. His soul cried for his friendship with Gopi. It was years later that they started talking.

Now as Gopi sat before him everyone wondered how he had succeeded when Georgie had failed. Gopi owned a car, a large flat, and wore expensive dress shoes. But Georgie’s house was barren, the paint was peeling and he wore dusty slippers.

*********

“Georgie you must eat your medicines,” Gopi says.

Georgie can’t take it anymore.

“See this jealous hypocrite. See what he is saying. Have you all no shame, where were you when I was really in need?” Georgie couldn’t control his words, he has lost touch with reality.

His friends and his siblings sit with mouths agape. Shock: disbelief: incomprehension.

The room falls silent. They do not talk for a long while. They realize they are all guilty of what happened to their brilliant friend/brother Georgie. If only they were a bit kinder to him forty years ago, in school, at home. They are all comfortable in their jobs and careers they have selfishly carved for themselves over the years, but they never even thought of the cruelty they had inflicted. Georgie was like the punching bag in the school gymnasium. Now that it’s too late, they realize that their words echo with hypocrisy, and their attempts at helping Georgie seems like a big sham.

The tea grows cold, the steam stops rising from the rims of the cups. They all rise to leave and Georgie escorts them to the door.

“Anyway, thank you for coming, so kind of you,” he says at the door.

LAUGHING GAS

She is ahead of him in the crowd. She is wearing the shortest of kurtas and a churidar that is so tight the buns of her behind form a perfect round football-ish sphere in red. The skin is so fair it is almost golden ("The golden girls" is the name he has coined for her type. They seem to have stepped right out of a golden chariot driven by Eros himself), the profile of the face is even and so well formed that water would glide from her forehead and touch only her nose and would slither further down and only touch the fronts of her breasts. She is wearing heels and the sleeveless yellow kurta only covers up to her waist. Aaah, he groans.

Adrenaline pumps. Nitrous oxide, or, laughing gas releases into his scrotal region, dilating the blood vessels, so that more blood pumps into his sexual organs. He had read in medical school that the reason for an erection is quite simply, nitrous oxide, or, laughing gas. Ha... ha... ha....

He remembers the texts he had read in physiology. "Mechanically erection can be compared to an electromechanically controlled hydraulic system. The most important roles in the phase of erection are played by nitrous oxide and vasoactive intestinal polypeptide (VIP)." So the sexual process is nothing but a release of laughing gas, the physician concludes. He as a doctor knows.

He... he... he....

But the exquisiteness of the human being in front of him is what he cannot understand though he has closely examined many of them in the hospital. But then there he is a physician, but here? What's wrong with him? Has he forgotten medical ethics?

He feels an urge to talk to her, but she doesn't look at anyone. She is inhabiting a world presided by the deity Eros, lost in some sweet memory of someone. A man? A woman? That someone is very lucky to at least know her. Of course, she would like to meet and talk to a post-graduate physician such as him.

Model? No. Airhostess? No. Office worker? Could be.

He was sure the work in the mundane and drab office in some congested lane in Andheri would grind to a halt today. Everyone would be staring lustily at her buns, her slow lilting walk, her silky black hair. Could he talk to her.

From what he could see from behind, as he slowly inches forward on the Kurla railway bridge is a soft cheek, and a bit of down around the ear. The slow-moving crowd has come to the end of the bridge and is slowly descending the steps to the west of Kurla. He is careful to keep right behind her, and it's easy because on both sides are slowly inching office goers clutch their rexine bags.

May be, at the exit when there is some more space he can walk ahead and introduce himself with a killer pick-up line. Something like, "Hey beautiful, it's a sunny day, can we make it funny?" No, that won't do. It has to be a lot better than that.

The crowd has moved glacially to the end of the stairs and is dispersing now. The slow crawl has come to an end. Now is his chance. he walks ahead. His heart thudding he prepares to turn around, he does.

"Hi! Darling! Goodu Maarrniinnggguu!"

He could have killed that man, the boor! He feels rage. Some men are so crude. This Road Romeo is dressed in cheap jeans, has his cowlick falling over his eyes, and has a hundred bursting pimples on his scarred face.

He walks ahead, glances back at her one last time. He freezes.

She has earplugs on! She is listening to music. There's no way she could have heard either him or the Road Romeo. He heaves a sigh, then groans, and then laughs ha... ha... ha.... After all, it's only laughing gas.

DO YOU BELIEVE IT?

“Three in one, three in one. Three movies for the price of one.”

He looks tired, his hair has not been dyed for a long time, white strands show under the black color that has been washed away. His voice grates. The evening is hot. The junction is clamoring with vehicles.

Pakya spits, drinks the glass of water in the smudged glass. Sweat drips inside his shirt.

“Which picture?”

“Loot Gayee Laila, Don, and Unkahee Chahat.”

“What?”

“It’s a hit. Laila’s honor has been looted. Genuine movie, what acting, just like real.”

“How much?” Pakya asked.

“Rupees fifteen for three movies, aree, baap, no sisterfucking theater will show you three movies. This Javed Kanya guarantees.”

There’s a poster of Amitabh Bachhan and Zeenat Aman, stars of Don, and a lurid poster of Loot Gayee Laila. She shows a lot of smooth, chubby thighs, and heavy bosom. It is dark and Pakya can’t see too well. The tea stall is clamoring with people sipping tea.

Should he go in? The so-called theatre is in a slum, there is a dark room that opens through what can be called a door, some seedy looking characters lounge near the door, suspiciously looking like murderers or rapists or both.
Pakya takes the glass of tea and sips it, downing it with the slow deliberation that wants to make the sweetness last.
The night is young and Pakya badly wants something to happen. That would include a visit to the dance bar, which is expensive, or this dingy, ugly little room in a slum that shows X-rated movies for Rs fifteen on a big LCD screen.

But he doesn’t like the look of Javed Kanya, who is dressed in white shirt and trousers, which were white once. Now it is a shade of brown. He is one-eyed, he squints. His long-sleeved shirt isn’t buttoned. The shirt front is open and the sleeves flaps about as he moves. His mouth is masticating betel nut, and when he speak the red juice runs down the corners of his mouth.

“Don, we are showing the old Don, starring Amitabh Bachhan, not the new Don, starring Sharukh Khan, baap,” he wipes his mouth with his hand, and afterwards scoops his private parts with the same hands and kneads them, balls and all. He shifts his hands and legs around a lot, in a sort of filmy style.

“What’s the difference between that Don and this Don?” Pakya asks.

“Old Don, Amitabh Bachhan, new Don, Sharukh Khan. What is Amitabh? What is Sharukh?” He ends his sentence with a derogatory lowering of his jaw.

********

Pakya looks at the inviting posters and imagines the bliss of seeing it all. At least the mystery of Laila’s taut thighs and bosom would be solved when he sees her on screen. Pakya drools. The sensation of lust passes down his head to his toes, pausing at his crotch. He works in an automobile spare parts shops where he is constantly fetching parts for his corpulent boss who sits, and sits the whole day ordering him around. The work frustrates him so much that he needs to escape every evening.

“Make up your mind fast, fast. What? Or, you won’t even get a ticket for Rupees Thirty. This Don is the best movie every produced. I can dare anyone to contradict me. Even our real-life Don grew up on this movie.”

“Which Don?”

“Arree, what Don, you don’t know. He grew up here. Have you ever heard of Chota Chetan?”

“Arre, that Don? Who doesn’t? What, you know him?”

“Know him? We played cricket together, he and I. We sold tickets in black market together. We were close buddies once.”

“And you?”

“Fate. He makes movies now. He controls an empire. I am still a hustler of movie tickets. He sits abroad, I am here.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Believe it or not, it’s your choice. Tell me do you want tickets, kali fokat, don’t do shanpana, what?”

“Hey Kanya, I will buy your ticket, huhn? But tell me your story. I mean, your story and Chota Chetan’s.”

*******

Pakya hands him the money. Kanya wets his fingers with spit and tears a ticket and gives it. There’s a long time for the show to start. The evening is getting warmer. It must be hot inside the theatre.

“Then listen. First buy me a glass of cutting tea.”
Pakya looks at his face, a million finely etched wrinkles crowd it like spider webs. He has only a few teeth left in his mouth, his speech is rough, disjointed.

“He and I were friends,” he says blowing into his tea, “why, we are friends even now. If he came here we would have a drink. He is from these parts, we grew up together, played cricket together.”

“Really?” Pakya is incredulous. His mouth hangs open. He had only read about Chota Chetan’s exploits from newspapers and television channels. That this ruin of a man knows, or knew, the real Don, the real real Don, not the Don of the films, fascinates him.

“Yes. And we sold tickets of the old movie Don together at the local theatre.”

“What does he look like?”

Javed Kanya tries to remember, but his memory isn’t that sharp. He wipes his mouth with his sleeve and leaves a long stain.

“Short, long hair just like you. He always used to toss it off his eyes. And yes he used to walk very fast, his rubber slippers flopping after him.”

“How did he become so big a Don and you are left in this dump,” Pakya asks motioning towards the dilapidated theatre made of tin sheets. Some Hindi music plays inside.

“I can make a picture with that story. Tell you a secret? Chota Chetan was inspired by this movie Don, the old Amitabh Bachhan movie, I mean.”

“How? You mean the movie Don created a Don in real life?” Pakya asks incredulously, his jaws dropping further.

“Yes.”

“You think I am a chootiya, a fool to believe you?”

“Abey, don’t call me Chootiya, what?”

Then Pakya remembers he is a friend of the real Don, and shuts himself up and listens.

“Those days… what a life we had. We were only small children, innocent of the ways of the world. We thought selling tickets in black was fun. It would fetch some money to buy clothes, a bike, and we could see movies for free.”
He is silent for a long time. The clamor of traffic around the junction is getting louder. More people are anxiously gathering around the theatre. Javed Kanya seems too engrossed in his story to care.

“We used to sit in the back rows and whistle and clap as Amitabh came on screen. Chetan would be too engrossed in the movie. His eyes would light up, he would jump on his seat, clap, whistle, and throw money at his hero. He was a bit too involved.”

Finally, Kanya drank what was left of the tea and spat on the road.

“You know this dialogue, ‘Don ko pakadna mushkil hi nahi namumkin hai’?”

“Yes. That’s my favorite dialogue.”

“It was his favorite dialogue too.”

“Aree, your mother’s! What are you talking?”

“Yes. Only he believed in it so strongly, so strongly that he couldn’t be caught by any one, not his enemies, not even the police.”

“I can’t believe it.”

“Believe it or not, it’s up to you. But this is his story. Now I have to go, got to sell more tickets.”

******

After the movie Pakya looks around for Javed Kanya. He is there lolling against the makeshift table that has a cash box and a bossy-looking man sitting in a plastic chair.

“Do you believe me now?” Kanya asks.

“No, I still can’t,” Pakya says shaking his head. He could never believe that a mere movie - floating pictures and dialogues on a screen - can create a real life Don out of a make-believe Don.

“Disbelief cannot alter the truth,” Kanya says wistfully. The night is hot as Pakya walks home. He fervently hopes he isn’t inspired too much by the movie.

2100 – THE LONG COMMUTE

The year 2100. Another morning, another commute, I groaned. I parked my mini electric car at CBD Belapur station and saw my friend Shashi N emerging from the thick yellow-tinged morning fog, wearing a heavy jacket made of bullet- and bomb-proof material. He is a technical writer and so am I, and, moreover, he is the only friend, and relation I have in this world. We are close.

We work in Bangalore, only a two-hour ride on the 500 kmph train from Beloved Leader Sharad P. Railway Station, the erstwhile Vashi Station, Bombay, named after the last of the great Marathha politicians. The former island of Bombay was totally destroyed in the great flood of 2047, and the then New Bombay, nearby, had assumed the identity of Bombay, for commercial and historical reasons. All that is left of Bombay is a few islands where the hills were, inhabited by the die-hard hill tribes who once used to boast that they were a superior race as they lived on Malabar and Pali hills. The CBD Belapur station hasn’t been cleaned, Teflon coffee cups and dazed sleepers lie around in careless disarray.

“Hi Shashi N.,” I greeted him. Surnames weren’t to be mentioned as religious fascism had peaked and religious mercenaries were everywhere planting bombs, shooting through small, light-weight, rapid action Mauser pistols. One could get killed if one’s surname was known.

“Hi,” he acknowledges morosely.

“Late again?” I ask.

“Yes,” he said mournfully, “I reached home at 2 a.m. this morning, and slept for hardly three hours. I had bought a thousand units of electricity and didn’t know I had let my computer on through the day, and when I reached home there isn’t even a single unit to light a bulb, or even heat some water for a bath.”

He looked shabby and unwashed, his hair matted with dust and dirt, as if he had slept at the station like the P.O.O.R. people lying around us with their impact-proof blankets. Electricity was strictly rationed and had to be paid in advance. No electricity meant nothing would run in the house, everything depended on electricity, and there was such a big scarcity. Gas and petrol was the privilege of the super-rich who owned cars run on fossil fuel, a scarce commodity.

“What’s that you are licking?” I ask.

He was licking the last slobs of a gooey liquid from a tube, shaped like a toothpaste tube.

“My breakfast. It contains enough nutrition to last me till I reach the Goohoo canteen.”

Goohoo was formed when Google and Yahoo decided to merge in 2085 when the Lin-Baden-run Vironi Corporation operating from Babylon unleashed deadly viruses on the networks that almost destroyed all World Wide Web servers.

I was wearing my bullet- and bomb-proof jacket and an old-fashioned helmet with a radiation-proof visor. Violence was common after members of the parliament fought with automatic weapons inside the law-making body and the Consortium of Corporations (called CC, in short, dominated by Goohoo) had taken over the legislative functions of the country. The transition was overseen by Beloved Leader Sharad P. who maintained that instead of corporations funding the government it was better if the corporations took over and gave politicians a percentage of the profits. There would be less wastage. Politicians drew a handsome salary sitting at home. The executive authority stayed in the hands of the policing machinery, now controlled by the Consortium, or, CC. They are the ones who introduced high-speed trains between Bombay and Bangalore. It was a big success.

“Nice Jacket,” I say.

“Five million rupees,” he says, “even after a special discount to Goohoo employees.”

Around us are a milling crowd all wearing hooded jackets and helmets. A small mean-looking person pushes us apart and scurries toward the platform. He is skinny; his walk is jerky, but fast. He is wearing a computer screen on one sleeve of his jacket and on the other has a keyboard. He is typing something on the keyboard even as he is cutting a neat swathe through the hundreds of morning commuters.

“Did you see him?” I ask.

“Yes, he is a Code Devil who works in Goohoo. I know him.”

Code Devils are the elite programmers trained by corporations like Goohoo. In a world totally dependent upon programming they are the new stars and idols, as movie actors used to be at one time, in another century.

The train arrives with a great sonic boom. It is bulging with commuters, all going to Bangalore, the technology capital. There are people clinging to it everywhere, even some mysterious hooded forms sitting on the roof. Life would be hell for them, what with the cold and chilly slipstream.

I close the visor of my helmet and Shashi zips up his jacket. Entering the train would be like squeezing through a fruit juicer.

A posse of women surrounded by heavily armed women police arrive and the jackets of all the desire sensors worn by the men on the platform light up and shimmer with desire. The rare creatures were escorted inside the train even before there is the possibility of Cupid aiming an arrow or two.

“Hey, to think that once they used to mingle with us!” I say.

“Blame skewed sex ratios. If they mingle they would be raped and killed. The CC did the right thing. At least, they have security now,” he says wistfully.

He knows. He has a girlfriend and is in love, a feeling the CC has patented and copyright controlled. Due to a variety of reasons including the population growth the CC legislated that all love should be a copyrighted commodity, like a program, and any use should attract a heavy Love Tax.

Therefore these desire sensors were mandatory. Anyone not wearing it could be sentenced to the Love Dungeons and anyone found coveting the opposite sex would immediately be arrested and confined for breaking the copyright code, unless Love Tax was paid.

For procreation the CC’s Ministry of Love had arranged for exclusive hospitals where a woman could walk in and have a sponsored baby and donate it to the care of the Consortium which would train them to be Code Devils. The consortium needed only programmers and the risk of casual flings upsetting the genetic engineering code was terrifying.

“How is Sangita?” I ask.

Shashi’s girlfriend’s name is Sangita. He had written and posted a love poem to her on the online forum Neterati. The Ministry of Love’s detection department had sensed this in their latest Love Audit. They also found that Shashi hadn’t paid Love Tax which should have been deposited in advance before a man and woman can fall in love.

“I feel so hopelessly torn apart. I haven’t met her in a week though we work for the same corporation. She is in a glass bubble across the lawns but I, I am so helpless, I can’t meet her. I fear for my life and hers, they are monitoring my thoughts, I can feel it, and I am broke, I can’t afford to pay Love Tax,” he says as we find a convenient corner inside the door of the train.

“Then give her up. Break up and tell her you can’t afford her.”

“It’s easy for you to say that, yaar. We are way too much involved.”

“But the most they could do is ask Goohoo to pay on your behalf, since they have the controlling interest in CC, and are represented on the governing board.”

“No, stupid, that won’t work. I get these fainting fits. When they monitor you they fill you with fatal love thoughts that almost kill, just testing us. Of late, it is happening frequently. I am afraid for my life. Even you are at risk if you are found with me.”

The CC had embarked on a Total Asexualization Drive to curb the sexual instinct that they hoped, rather vainly, would boost productivity in the workplace. This was fully supported by Narayana Premji and Azim Moorthy (grand children of the two pioneers, the second generation having inter-married) who had all along maintained that corporate goals should be above personal goals.

“Then what about all the books, novels, films on love and longings and the love poems that existed and still exist in libraries on this mysterious feeling called love. I don’t understand; I am lost,” I say. I haven’t felt any love for a woman since I haven’t been near one in years. I don’t even know who my mother is, or, rather, was. May be Shashi could explain what it was all about.

“Ah, that was the twenty-first century you are talking about. That was the time when Neterati was still an online forum of free expression for writers. I remember, a lot of love poems were posted there, a few of them were really atrocious, some were even spelt, ‘Pomes.’ Now they are underground. I still attend their meetings, though, surreptitiously.”

Shashi and I are wedged closely, inside the door, almost out of the train. The wind is howling around our ears and the sound is deafening as the train levitates within the field created by two powerful magnetic rails above and below it. I think of the hooded men I had seen sitting above the train. They would be shivering and their hands would be almost frozen by the cold.

We pass the Project of Outcasteing Religion (P.O.O.R.) areas between Poona and Bombay. These are the areas where the religious zealots live. Areas are marked by communal flags and their extreme poverty is obvious from the shabby hovels in which they live. They are all uniformly greyish, probably, the soot emissions from Alliance’s giant petroleum refineries in the area.

This is the dark space I had heard about, I mean, the P.O.O.R area. There is no electricity and life is as it was in pre-1879, the year the electric bulb was invented. They can’t afford electricity. The police ignore the denizens of these slums, they are afraid for themselves. Killings and riots are quite common and the CC is quite content with letting them decimate each other. After all, the Consortium assumes, it is their mistake that they didn’t learn to write programming code, or even understand computing algorithms, preferring to sow the seeds of religious hatred.

“So how are things at Goohoo?” I ask.

“Bad,” Shashi says, “at least for technical writers,” he has opened his jacket hood a little so that I can see his sleep-deprived eyes.

Poor man, I think, squeezed from all sides, not able to meet his girl friend, and, somehow, to add to all that the insecurity with his job.

A series of staccato explosions shake the train as it speeds across the vast arid land, still under a thick fog. The heavy rains had cut fissures through the landscape and the recent heat waves had all but burnt the earth to a greyish-black.

“Cluster bombs,” Shashi mumbles. The sounds grow distant. CC has instructed the train driver to disengage the compartment if there are any explosions in it. “Production should not be affected,” was the sole mantra. The rest of the train hurtled forward.

“Why is it bad?”

“It is bad, bad, bad, so bad I can’t tell you. My very existence in their mammoth air-conditioned bubble is at risk.”

“Why? Tell me no, why?”

“You know what those Code Devils have gone and done?”

“No.”

“They have written a program to author help manuals. They don’t need technical writers any more in Goohoo.”

“What?” I am so astounded I knock my helmet against Shashi’s head. He curses me in choice Malayalam invectives I won’t mention here.

“Yes, a bloody program writes help manuals. It writes stuff like “For p=p+1, next p” for something as simple as ‘turn to the next page’,” imagine, and the managers are happy with it. ‘After all, who reads help manuals,’ they say.”

That’s a holler. It is real bad news, without writing jobs both Shashi and I wouldn’t have anywhere to go, I think, as I look at the cold morning transforms suddenly into a hot mid-morning with temperatures hovering around 95 degree Fahrenheit. Presently we all are sweating.

“Global warming,” Shashi says, loosening his jacket, “they don’t seem to care. They have their climate controlled apartments in the Goohoo campus, and their minders and managers to assure them nothing is wrong. Why, even their television news channels are doctored by the Consortium. They only see the news CC wants them to see. They never travel in trains, and if they venture out, it is from their roof-top helipads to their private jets. What do they know about the long commute?”

“So if a program writes help manuals we writers would be out of jobs, what would we do?” I ask.

“Good question, dumbo! Even I don’t know,” Shashi shakes his hooded head, “What do they care? They say product life cycles are short. Before they can finish reading the help manual, the product is obsolete; the next model is in the market. So why write product help manuals?”

I shake my head, too. My career as a creative writer hasn’t taken off. Most of my manuscripts come back with form letters wishing me “all success in finding a suitable publisher.”

One publisher even said, “If you want to be published, become famous first.” That means if you are a woman, get laid by a famous man and write about the number of moles on his private parts, or if you are a man, well, the only alternative is tell all about the idiosyncrasies of corporations like Goohoo. But that could put my life in danger.

This could be the end of me. I would end up in a call center, after all, something I dreaded all along. I would be measured each day by the number of calls I make. I hate call centers. I hate them for being so uncreative, unoriginal, and so mechanical. There is software that senses and blocks all calls but they still persist.

Zap, zap, zap! Everything seems to spin around me. I am feeling a lot of love, er, feeling of being loved excessively. Though I have never been loved, I have sometimes fantasized about a queer feeling that came over me sometimes, and had given in to its frenzied rhythms.

Suddenly epiphany strikes. Am I also being monitored by the Love Auditors as I am with Shashi? Shashi is reeling, he holds on to me. His face seems a blur, so also the faces of all the hooded forms around us. The train, or what is left of it after the cluster bombs have struck, is hurtling along a vast desert that once used to be the Deccan Plateau, now laid waste by periodic meteor hits, as the outer atmospheric shield around the earth has mitigated to a very thin layer around the earth. The wind howls, the hooded forms, unzip their hoods, and I can see their eyes bulging, as they stare at us.

“You are Love Offenders. Get away from us,” their eyes accuse us.

I recover. Consciousness comes back at once. It was one of those Love Audits, and they seemed to have exonerated me. But what about Shashi? Shashi is slumped against me, his hood askew, drool at the corners of his mouth. I shake him, slap his face. No response.

“Is he dead?” I ask the man standing next to me. He has a red cross sign on his jackets and “Goohoo” written below it, apparently, a doctor working for the world’s biggest corporation. He is familiar with such situations as he has ministered to many employees who have died on their computer workstations.

“Yes, your friend is dead, you must throw him out now,” the doctor says.

“Should you be so cruel?”

“CC policy 11.13287.9840 on corpse disposal states that dead organisms could disturb the creativity index of the Code Devils who are travelling to Bangalore, and further, that dead bodies of Love Offenders should be dispensed of immediately.”

“But can’t I give him a funeral or something?”

“No, the body could putrefy by the time we reach Bangalore in this heat.”

I knew it was no use arguing.

Slowly he and other Goohoo employees, there seem to be quite a lot of them in this train, say a company prayer written in C--, nudge Shashi N, my only friend and acquaintance in the world, towards the door and push him out. Helmets, bullet- and bomb-proof jackets watch as the body disappears from sight into the fast-receding landscape outside the speeding train. The blazing afternoon is a blur. I close the helmet visor and say a prayer for Shashi. I must phone Sangita and tell her, if at all she is alive.

MARATHEKERI

“Marathekeri.” That’s what her mother Mary calls Julie. She is different. She is a chattakari, chattakari meaning Anglo-Indian girl from Kerala. She does unusual things. She climbs trees, she sits under them and dreams and when Mary calls out to her to clean the fish and chop the beef she goes and sits near the backwaters and watches the boats glide by.
...


“Girl, how will you tend to your family if you are like this?” Mary would ask.

“Mamma, don’t get on my nerves,” Julie would say.
She likes dark colors. She paints her lips blood red.

People just stare at her, turn around and say, “There goes our chattakari.”

“Phoo, poda,” she would say to them.

She likes to read. She reads Jane Austen and William Makepeace Thackeray. “Vanity Fair” is a favorite. She thinks she is English though she is half Malayalee.

“She has a Madamma’s blood in her you know. That’s why she is like that,” people say.


That day she climbed and sat on a huge tree in the compound her home in Trivandrum. The tree is old and gnarled. It looks like a Banyan tree. She actually meant to climb to the topmost branch. But she lost interest half way and she just sat there watching some children play.

The day was hot; it was also humid. She heard Mary call her, “Marathekeri, you again on that old tree? Wait till Pappa comes. I will tell him.”

But she doesn’t listen. She is listening to the sound of her inner voice. A voice that tells her she shouldn’t be here sitting on this tree. A voice inside that tells her she should stop dreaming of where beautiful women sit in beautiful parlors and speaking in hushed tones in the English countryside.

“You tell him what you want, Mamma, I am not afraid,” She calls out to Mary.

Then she listens to her inner voices.

“Julie you should fall in love. Didn’t Dennis make an advance during the last Christmas dance at the Railway Institute?”

“But I don’t like Dennis, he is so na├»ve.”

“But then how will you be like the heroine Amelia and her suitor Dobbin in “Vanity Fair”?”

“But Dennis isn’t like Dobbin at all.”

“What’s the matter? It’s time you had someone. Momma calls you a “marathekeri” meaning climber of trees. You can’t climb trees like this all the time. You are older now. You have to give up your childish petulance.”

“I am not petulant. And don’t call me a “Marathekeri” just because I like climbing on trees.”

“Oh, how can I tell you something without you flinging it back at me?”

“Then don’t.”

“Why?”

“I do what I like. I am Julie. I don’t need your advice.”

“Then do what you want. I am not bothered.”



She climbs down with a heavy heart. The day is still hot. Amelia was in her heart and her mind. She very much wanted Dennis to propose to her. But then what about her dream of Amelia, of being with soft gentle people who talk in whispers in the gentle countryside of England? Marrying Dennis would mean accepting the life of a railway man’s wife in some godforsaken remote railway station in India, like her mother Mary.

“Oh, tell me voice what should I do?”

The voice didn’t answer.

“Voice, voice, don’t leave me like this. Answer me. Don’t leave me like this.”

The voice didn’t answer.

"Oh, voice where are you? Don't leave me like this, please!" Julie cried bitterly.

The voice doesn't answer. The voice is dead.

(This was written for a writing exercise on Caferati)

COMPUTERBEN - A TRUE STORY

The domain name expired, with it my website went missing from cyber world. I was desperate. I phoned the domain registration company. All this while I was basking in the mistaken assumption that my domain and hosting was already renewed having paid for it earlier.

“But that was hosting renewal, not domain renewal,” Ms. Computerben informed me.

“But I had bought it as a hosting and domain package.”

“No. You renewed the domain. Your site is already showing, “This page cannot be displayed.””

“That I know. Thanks for the kind information.”

Computerbenji didn’t get the sarcasm, as she measured out each word of well-practiced spiel and told me what to do.

“If you have a credit card, pay online. That would be fast and your domain won’t expire. I will keep your domain name on hold till then. But remember there’s only one day.”

But I have a credit card, and for a computer geek as me, making an online payment is child’s play, I think, I mean like adding two and two on an abacus. I maintain a deliberately cool attitude through all this, you know, one must never let the machine overtake one, least of all a computer.

“That would be easy. I have a credit card. I will pay immediately and I hope the site would be online soon.”

“Yes.”

So I accessed the domain registering website to pay for my domain name. Their website is a bit muddled but I write such muddle and I can wade through them easily enough.

Me, write content? Who says? This one is straight out of scientific fiction. Total mess up.

I had to wade through many pages with flashy icons before I came to the payment page. There I click and enter my credit card number, the date of expiry, my name, and the code number. Yes, they need all the security they can get.

Then I click “submit.” Hurray job done! Time to celebrate, uncork the bubbly.

“But no, my friend,” computerben says, “more is still to come. Try this:”

Transaction Failed! I look at the screen agast.

Computerben has a habit of playing games. I go back. Do it all over again. No luck.

Transaction Failed!

By now my coolness has developed cracks the size of big lunar craters.

I phone my credit card company. I keep all numbers safely, I am a computer geek you see, so I know what can go wrong.

“See you fools, I have bought your card after much cajoling, and now I can’t use this lump of excreta. You better do something before I dump your card in the nearest stinking gutter.” I let them have it.

The voice at the other end seems oddly metallic. I am talking to computerben again. She doesn’t understand me.

Dial 1 for English Dial 2 for Hindi, - says computerben sweetly, with a false enthusiasm that irritates me. She says as if she is having, well, what else, an orgasmic high.

I dial 1.

Dial 1 for existing customers. Dial 2 for new customers. Dial 3 for our credit card contests says computerben. Did I hear right. Is it 1 or 2? Am I existing or am I new?

I take a chance and dial 1.

Dial 1 for gold card. Dial 2 for silver card.

I dial 1 again. I have a gold card.

Dial 1 for billing information, dial 2 for a loan on your credit card outstanding, dial 3 for grrrrr!

Exasperating, rude and genuinely maddening.

I almost convulse with indignation. Instead I use my string of chosen expletives. Even that doesn’t work.

And then:

Dial 9 for operator assistance!

Phew!

What brilliance! Couldn’t they have put an operator there in the beginning and avoided wasting my precious minutes? Whatever happened to the human touch in business? No, this is the age of computerbens, they want to show that they are the superior species.

“I am computerben how can I assist you?” This model is the primitive human clone.

“I made attempts to pay using my credit card. Each time it failed. I want to know the reason.”

“But, sir, this is customer support not billing support,” says computerben sweetly.

“What’s the difference?” I ask belligerently.

A moment of silence.

“The difference? Well, we handle support and they handle billing.”

She is positively amused by my ignorance and I can imagine a perfect sneer in her voice.

But I fall flat for this seductive line and ask for the number of billing support.

By now I am thoroughly ruffled. The cool avoirdupois is gone. I dial billing support.

Dial 1 for existing customers. Dial 2 for new customers, computerben’s sweetness is unwavering.

Again?

Again I dial any random number. I am smarter, being wiser now. I want to circumvent the system. I keep dialing any number till I come to that part that says dial 9 for operator assistance. I know computerben’s ploy by now.

At last, computerben says, Dial 9 for operator assistance.

I dial 9.

Mesmerizing, lilting music assails me.

All operators are busy. Please hold on, she says.

Meanwhile, the credit card company plugs their loans, their SMS contests, the music concerts they are sponsoring and the hurricane and tsunami charities they are supporting. Then a human voice, a live computerben clone comes online.

Your card number?

I give my card number.

Your expiry date?

I give my card expiry date. I have all these written down in a small diary, which I keep with me at all times. After all, being wired and networked means you are working twenty-four hours of the day anywhere you are.

Your name?

I give my name.

Your address?

Now why would live computerben want that? Is she going to pay me a visit? If so, should I dress up in a tie and jacket for the grand seduction?

“So what’s the problem?” live computerben clone sounds as if she is tired of watching 24-hour music channels but her voice is still sweet.

“I charged my card twice on the internet and each time the transaction failed.”

“What message did you receive?”

“Transaction failed.”

“But, sir, I don’t see anything wrong with your card. Then how did the transaction fail?”

I grit my teeth. She is supposed to know that. How do they manage to pick the dumbest ones for the job?

“I thought I asked you the same question. Aren’t you supposed to know computerbenji?”

“Sorry, what? Did you ask me something?”

“Yes, I asked you why my transactions failed, you dumbo. What’s the answer?”

“Nothing is wrong with your account. Try using the card again. It looks perfectly okay to me. But I see you have Rupees fifteen-thousand outstanding in your account.”

“Yes,” I say and rue all the useless clothes and gadgets that are occupying precious space in my meager house.

Will she ask me to pay up, or else?

“We will give you a loan of Rupees fifteen-thousand that will pay off that outstanding amount. This loan will only attract a one per cent interest. Otherwise we would charge you three per cent.”

“Yes, yes, yes,” I am so grateful that I stammer very badly.

On hindsight, I realize, this was a ploy. If they pay me a loan to pay this outstanding, who will pay me to pay for future expenses? Computerben laid a trap and I very gullibly fell into it.

“You will get the loan this very day. See the benefits we give you at ABC Credit Card Company. You will pay only one per cent interest,” Computerben’s voice is exultant.

“Thank you,” I bow graciously.

Another sale made.

Some more music from the albums the credit card company is sponsoring, some more new loan schemes and SMS contests and Computerben disconnects.

I am totally disoriented and at a loss for words.

Why had I phoned them in the first place?

To pay for my domain registration.

Did I get that done?

No!

But I bought something didn’t I?

A loan for Rupees fifteen-thousand at one per cent interest per month and more loans to come till I am completely bankrupt.

I phone my domain registration company.

“Did you pay for your domain registration?” The Ms. Computerben there asks me.

“No. I tried to make a credit card payment. But it failed twice. So what do I do? Will my domain name expire?”

“You can send us a cheque by mail. I will hold your domain name for two days. But no guarantee.”

But why did I go through the whole exercise when I could have paid by cheque? And the thought of having to pay a loan for my credit card outstanding still rankles me.

Never in the whole episode did I feel as if I was a human being interacting with another, not even once. Well, next time I have a payment to make I will trust good old cheque, and not computerben.

RINA’S DOG

I look at Moti from my window and feel sorry for him. How can I not feel sorry for a dog that thinks he is a bitch? That’s it, a bitch.

Moti thinks he is a bitch. Well, can you imagine that? That’s because Moti’s mother Kuthi had brought up him very protectively not allowing him to mix with other dogs. Moti became so effeminate that he started peeing like a bitch. He won’t raise his leg to pee like other dogs. Honest. He would squat on his hind legs like bitches do. Imagine a dog doing that. And, he wants other dogs to mate him. Now, that’s hilarious.

The whole problem of Moti thinking he is a bitch arose because Kuthi was very protective of him. How can he not realize he is not a bitch and do bitch-like things? He blindly imitates Kuthi. Now that Kuthi has a new litter she has no time for Moti. To compound matters for Moti, Kuthi treats him with disgust nowadays, and snarls at him when he comes near.

Moti is distraught and I can see loneliness in his eyes. He doesn’t eat. I feed him biscuits everyday but he is so depressed he doesn’t even eat. How sad.

“Rina what are you doing?” My mother calls out from the kitchen when I am feeding Moti. Mother doesn’t like dogs or bitches and would have nothing to do with the species. She doesn’t want dogs around her house and doesn’t like me playing with them.

“I am just feeding Moti,” I shouted out to her.

“You come back here right this moment.”

“But why, he is so feeble he will die if he is not fed.” I am stubborn and defend my friend Moti.

“If he is feeble let him die. I won’t have you touching that dog again,” she said appearing at the door of our house.

“But I like him no? He will die if I don’t feed him. Kuthi doesn’t care for him anymore.”

“That’s their problem. Who are you to solve dogs’ and bitches’ problems? Come inside right now.”

I go into the house downcast. I know Moti will die if I won’t feed him but mother doesn’t understand. Ma is like a dictator. She likes to dominate all the time. Sometimes she doesn’t speak to me for weeks when I disobey her. She is very unreasonable.

She thinks I get pimples because I touch dogs. What crap. Teenagers get pimples all the time. Look at my neighbor Simmi, her face is full of pimples, the size of small, small grapes. But I like Simmi. She and I play “house” wearing saris as our mothers do.

.....

I see Moti dying everyday from my bedroom window. I want to go out and feed him but I cannot. Mother will be furious. Even father doesn’t like canines. Between them there is a strong anti-canine lobby at home. I wanted to make Moti my pet. But, no luck. So I can only watch Moti’s agony, as he lies curled near Kuthi and her litter, wanting to cuddle up to his mother but shying away from approaching.

I call out to Moti as I go to school.

“Moti, Moti, come here.”

But he refuses to come. He only looks at with me with sad eyes. He is so confused about his gender; he doesn’t know whom to trust, as Kuthi has almost disowned him. Poor dog. A dog’s life must be terrible without a house or parents one can trust.

Kuthi is a vile bitch. Today I saw her bare her fangs and snarl at Moti. I threw a stone at her. That drove her away. I think she is ruthless. She must really be a wolf. Because near the place where I live in Panvel there is a forest. She must have lived with wolves in the jungles of the Western Ghats. I saw the ferocity of a wolf in her snarl.

......

Yesterday I saw some dogs biting Moti. Poor Moti was yelping with pain. Kuthi was nearby and didn’t even go to help her son. When will Moti realize he has to grow up and be a dog in his dog’s world? When will he realize that he has to pee with one leg raised and not squatting on hind legs like a bitch? I think that that bitch Kuthi hasn’t toilet trained him. Her fault. She has been too protective of him suckling him even after he was grown up and making him totally dependent on her.

I went and picked him up and petted him. I had to immediately release him as I heard my mother’s voice as she came walking to the door of our house.

“Rina, baby, where were you?” she asked.

“Here I am, playing.”

“You touched that dog again?”

“No.”

“I know you did. Look at your hands. I can see the cur’s fur on it.”

“No that’s just some sand.”

“Sand?” Ma fumed. “Go wash your hands before you enter my house.”

My house? Since when is it her house?

“Ma, don’t be so protective or I will become like Moti.”

I don’t think she understands. Kuthi denied Moti his life. She was overprotective and denied Moti the right to live his life. He doesn’t even know if he is a dog or bitch. So naive. I hope my mother wouldn’t make me too depend on her, now that I am grown up and all. I hope she realizes that I have to learn about life on my own.

I don’t want to be like Moti. I want to be independent, and my own person.

I went and sat at the table to eat.

“I told you to wash your hands,” Ma said.

“My hands aren’t dirty,” I said wiping my hands on my frock.

“If you don’t wash your hands I won’t give you the rasgullas I made.”

“Oh,” I controlled myself, “No, I don’t want. I am not hungry.”

I know I can come back, open the refrigerator and help myself anytime.

“What happened? You don’t like rasgullas anymore?”

“I like, but, not today. I am not in the mood.”

“Why?”

“Stop bothering me all the time, Ma. You know Moti is dying and all you can think of is making rasgullas for me to eat. He is dying out there,” I shot back.

Ma looked at me shocked.

I think the message got through. She didn’t talk to me for an entire week after that. Well, I needed the break. I am growing up. I am a young woman now. My friend Simmi tells me I did the right thing. She is a young woman, too, and we play “house” and talk as if we are grown ups.

As for Moti, the confused dog, he died a few days later. Poor dog. Simmi and I gave him a proper burial in the empty yard at the back of our house.

WILLIAM WORDSWORTH’S LEGACY

“Wordsworth-saab, want some fresh bananas?”

I am sitting on the steps of the Jehangir Art Gallery in Kala Ghoda, Bombay, opposite Elphinstone College. It's a hot and dusty day. It is 3 p.m. Sunlight arcs across the architectural details of this antiquated art district of Bombay. I am a bit exhausted and irritated when the man in an unwashed loincloth approaches me.

His eyes have that curious look of having seen it all, as if he can divine my thoughts. “Don’t disturb me, please,” I think. The idea was to shoo him away.

I am making background notes on yellow stick it notes and pasting them in a notebook for the novel I am planning to write about India, the country where my grandfather, Papa Wordsworth used to live and work. For clarity’s sake, I will call him Papa Wordsworth here. Yes, the same William Wordsworth, the grandson of the romantic poet William Wordsworth, my great, great grandfather, whom I will call Grandpa Wordsworth. Let me explain: Grandpa William Wordsworth had a grandson named Papa William Wordsworth – who was principal of Elphinstone College – whose grandson I am, William Bennett Wordsworth.

Elphinstone College also houses Bombay’s archives. I have been doing research there for, may be, two weeks. In these two weeks I progressed from reasonably well off to quite broke. It doesn’t matter, at least, to me. I am following my instinct. A story is what I want.

According to my research, grandfather was designated as an observer when the Indian National Congress, the party, was born. This is a pleasant revelation. I am an Indophile like him. I have loved India since the days I read about it in my grandfather’s yellowed volumes in his book-lined study. I loved his teak-wood-shelved study and the smell of old books. The musty smell still lingers in my mind as I sit here and look at a part of Papa Wordsworth’s life. To think that he walked these streets, that his shadow fell on these stones. Good Lord!

“Wordsworth-saab, please, buy some, they are fresh from the gardens,” the pleas are getting insistent, a tendency I notice in this great country. A “no” is probably a “yes.”

Again? But wait a minute, how does this old man know my name?

Papa Wordsworth was the principal of Elphinstone College somewhere around the turn of the nineteenth century, the eighteen-eighties, to be precise. Between Jehangir Art Gallery and Elphinstone College is MG Road on which the traffic is pretty raucous, horns blaring all the time. I have overspent, and my budget is all but depleted. I am ruined unless my literary agent, one David Darwin, could win me a million pound advance that he said the Wordsworth name could fetch. I never knew there is so much money in writing. But where is the story in this humming, screeching, hollering metropolis, where the crowds are as the ones in a fair in Hyde Park. It’s so hot, something I hadn’t bargained for, and dusty. Dust swirls into my eyes.

“Nature’s best fruit, Wordsworth-saab,” he is getting desperate, I can see from his sightless, cloudy eyes. I guess nobody has bought from this man since morning, as he sits beside the road looking earnestly at me.

I wave him away, show my displeasure. Go away, old chappie. I am hot and bothered and don’t like his importuning.

I see that roads in India are so noisy, unlike in England. First of all, the automobiles make a lot of noise. They seem to be working on some outdated internal combustion engines here. I am sure things haven’t changed much since my grandfather went back to England. I like the quaintness of these antiquated automobiles. It’s almost as if I am living in another century.

I see several antique Morris Oxford cars on the street. They are as round as toads. They call them ambassadors here. And there are many Italian Fiat models, which would have adorned automobile museums in my country. They make a big racket. To add to that, Indian drivers are horn-happy. Don’t mistake this, no reflection of racial bias, but they really like to create a ruckus. I ask Akhil why Indians talk so loudly, and he says, may be, it’s in their blood. Akhil is showing me around, he knows Bombay and says he writes. He is supposed to get me the big story idea. But I don’t see anything inspiring about his leads.

How does this wrinkled old man know I am a Wordsworth, the progeny of the grand literary tradition I am trying to propagate, alas, without success? I knew I would find my story in Bombay; discover something that I can expand into a novel. But, this heat and noise is killing me. My job as a journalist came to an abrupt end when The New English Sun sacked me for writing an article detailing the sexual preference of the English football team. Imagine. Most of those jocks there are homosexuals! I know these things. That revelation “wasn’t done” said my editor and he sacked me, the progeny of the Wordsworth tradition, I, William Bennett Wordsworth. Thereafter, I started writing short stories for literary journals and dabbling in collecting rare books, rare first editions of famous authors.

“Wordsworth-saab, want some fresh bananas, from the plains of Marathawada?”

His sightless eyes are rheumy behind his broken glasses; his skin is folded in a million small wrinkles around his eyes and mouth. His clothes haven’t seen water for, may be, years. His hands and legs are so thin they look as brittle sticks peeping out of his kurta and dhoti. He has a bamboo basket full of bananas before him and he is squatting on the corner of the stairs that lead to the art gallery.

“Are you speaking to me?” I ask the man in Hindustani. I know the language.

He nods.

“How do you know my name?” I ask.

He pauses. He takes a long time doing that. As if years, no, no, decades pass before his unseeing eyes.

“Wordsworth- saab, the same eyes, the cleft chin, the dimples around the eyes. How can I mistake that?”

I try to control the surprise from registering on my face.

“You mean you knew my grandfather, William Wordsworth, the principal of Elphinstone College?” I ask pointing to the college around which young students were disporting playfully.

“Yes, the grandson of the big English kavi samrat, emperor of poets, William Wordsworth,” he wheezes.

So he knows about Papa Wordsworth and his grandfather, my great, great grandfather. How does he know?

I am interested. I call Akhil. “Akhil come here, I told you I am discovering old roots. Here, it is. This man knows about Papa Wordsworth.”

Akhil and I squat in front of the old man.

“How do you know my grandfather?”

“When you have seen empires fall before your eyes, a people gain freedom, how difficult is remembering a face? Eh?”

His eyes are defiant, glowing with some vague pride of his people, the great Mahrattas. They ruled India once.

“Even then, I suppose, I could be someone else, an imposter,” I say.

“No. I am sure. You have his eyes, his cleft chin, and his cheekbones. How can I mistake? I was his chokra-boy. I used to work in Elphinstone College then.”

“What’s your name, baba?” Akhil asks him.

“Babubhai Kothare, from district Gandhidham, Gujarat.” His voice is broken from memories churning inside his mind. Like every Indian from rural India he mentions his village’s name after his own.

My grandfather lived in the eighteen-eighties. Therefore this man must be more than a hundred years old, this Babubhai. At least a hundred and twenty years. Yes, he looks that old. Look at his bone structure. Lord, he looks as if he could go on living for another fifty years.

“How old are you, Babubhai?”

He tries to remember. Then he gives up.

“I don’t remember. Who will remember? Do you want some fresh bananas Wordsworth-saab? I must sell this whole bunch today. Or...” his feeble voice trails off.

“Babubhai, tell me your story. I will buy the whole bunch of bananas from you. How much is it anyway?”

“Let me see, there are five dozens here. So, sixty bananas. At fifteen rupees a dozen, seventy-five rupees.”

I give him a hundred rupees, “You can keep the change.”

His eyes light up, he is overjoyed. His whole face crumples into a thousand crinkling laugh lines, a dry laugh, or, was it a cough, escapes his throat.

“I will tell you all about it, Wordsworth-saab. I will tell all about your grandfather. Just a minute, where should I deliver all these bananas? Do you have a bag?”

I don’t have a bag, “You keep all of it. Here I will have one, Akhil you have one too.”

Akhil says, “Thanks, Bennett, I am hungry. I think I will have two, Babubhai.”

We eat bananas squatting before Babubhai, the traffic around us zoom. People walk past to their destinations near and far. I want to hear Babubhai’s story and, may be, just may be, a story, a novel, will take shape.

“Come with me,” Babubhai eventually says after stuffing the money into a cloth purse and putting it inside his kurta.

“Where?” Akhil asks.

“To my house, my home.”

We cross MG Road in a sort of convoy. Babubhai ahead of us, and Akhil and me tagging behind him. The vehicles are noisy and blare their horns. Guess they have some maniacal need to be noticed.

Blimey! I am nearly run over by a taxi that screeches to a halt inches away from me.

Babubhai walks to the far end of the Elphinstone College gate where it intersects with the City Civil Courts. There is a cot made of strung rope leaning against the iron railing. Beside it are several bags, and a tin trunk.

He straightens the cot on the road and sits on the David Sassoon Library Road. Opposite us is the green garden of David Sassoon Library where people sit around and chat lazily. It seems so peaceful here.

“Sit, this here is my home,” Babubhai motions to the cot, and shouts, “Chotu bring tea for my guests. They are big people from foreign country, England, I used to tell you stories about that great country, didn’t I? Wordsworth-saab’s grandson himself.”

I wonder how a man can live on the street and call his cot his home. There are many like him. What would he do when it rains? I want to do something for him.

Chotu brings tea and squats on the road in front of us.

Then Babubhai tells me his story. Well, that is another story, which I intend to shape into a novel, but in short, the gist follows.

He was a chokra-boy who ran errands for my grandfather William Wordsworth, principal of Elphinstone College, grandson of poet William Wordsworth.

“And Wordsworth-saab, he used to be so kind, so humble in spite of his white skin, and so kind. He played a big role in our freedom movement.” Babubhai said looking intently at me.

So, he knew about my grandfather’s role, though meager, in the formation of the Indian National Congress. I felt my chest expanding with pride.

The Indians as well as the British treated him, meaning Papa Wordsworth, with great respect, as he was the grandson of a great poet and bore his eponymous name. Papa Wordsworth sympathized with the aspirations of the Indian people. That’s why when Allen Octavio Hume first established the Indian National Congress; he invited grandfather to be an observer.

Then came the Independence movement and Babubhai had seen all the movements and processions pass down MG Road before his own eyes. Grandfather returned to England and died when I was around twelve. Then Babubhai retired and the college authorities allowed him to live in the college premises. Then he started selling bananas squatting on the pavement, to earn enough to get by.

“Now I will show you something,” he opens a tin trunk, kept beneath the cot. First he extracts a plastic bag and then produces an old and yellowed book handsomely bound in leather.

“Here, take a look,” Babubhai’s trembling hands extend the book, his voice breaking in reverence.

“The Collected Works of William Wordsworth,” I read and exclaim, “Grandpa Wordsworth’s poems!” Then I look at the imprint, “A first edition, too.”

“There’s more,” Babubhai wheezes as he opens the cover.

I hold the book reverently. Inside it is written, “To my grandson, William Wordsworth, who, I hope, will inherit my poetic legacy.” The handwriting has broad cursive strokes, the way English actually should be written.

My great, great grandfather Grandpa Wordsworth’s own writing. My grandfather, Papa Wordsworth, didn’t do much writing, but he did carry on the legacy, I admit. Nevertheless, this work must be worth millions in the international rare books market. I know I am a collector.

I browse through the book. It is full of annotations by my Papa Wordsworth in his own hand.

“Priceless, the book is priceless,” I whisper to Akhil.

“I want you to have it,” Babubhai tells me.

“But Babubhai this book is worth a million, in fact, several millions pounds. I can’t keep it.”

He smiles a wry smile, “Then you can come and buy some more bananas from Babubhai, I will be right there,” he said pointing to Jehangir Art Gallery.

Then I make a quick decision. I know that if such a precious volume were left on the roads of Bombay, it would be lost forever. As it is, it would be of no use to Babubhai. I had to sell it and do something for Babubhai. But what?

“Here take this money for this book,” I give Babubhai all the money I had with me, around five thousand rupees. That would last him till I found a buyer for the book.

“You don’t have to sell bananas anymore.”

“Really?” His eyes are incredulous. I know he can’t take all this excitement on an Englishman’s face, what with the stiff-upper-lip types he was associated with.

“Yes, I will find a buyer for this book. And then I will come back and do something for you,” I knew he couldn’t understand what I meant and as to how a tattered old book could fetch a lot of money, even five thousand rupees.

Yes, I intend to sell the book. The commission will go to fund the novel I am about to write, temporarily titled, “William Wordsworth’s Legacy.” My agent David Darwin would be a very happy man.

Meanwhile, I have started planning for the William Wordsworth-Babubhai Kothare Facility for the Homeless in Mumbai.

THE E-SLAVE

The instant message she read was terse.

Night-witch: Do you have a soul?

You know what day it is?

Wednesday, no, Friday, no, Saturday? You don't seem to care, do you?

Jenny thought for a while, stumped for an answer. She doesn't know what day it is. She is so disoriented by the night shifts that she stopped caring. The message quickly disappeared without an answer as Night-witch rapidly typed questions after irritating questions on the messenger. Who is this Night-witch?

Jenny's actual name is Janaki. But the call centre where she works changed it to Jenny, which is her e-name, or electronic name. With the electronic name, she also had to fake an American accent, which she was trained to put on while answering calls. She works in a call centre as a voice-based support executive. She works in what they call a technology park. Her office is on the fourth floor of a modern building with central air-conditioning. The park has green lawns and well-paved roads, a rarity in India. But just outside this futuristic city, runnels of dirty sewage spill on the road and small children defecate in the open.

All night she attends to phone calls from far away United States of America for a multinational insurance company. The company she works for – Compucom – got the contract to receive and manage all the insurance company's incoming calls. The calls start coming in every evening when it is morning in the USA and end in the morning when it is evening in the USA. She sleeps during day and in the evening is picked up by the call centre bus and comes to work in a narrow air-conditioned office with rows of tables with 20 of them in a space of about 40 feet by 4 feet.

There are 250 executives like her all working night shifts. One of them is Night-witch. She doesn't know who because she doesn't know all her colleagues. Most of them leave in a month or two and are replaced. So it is difficult knowing everybody's name and faces.

She has only a few friends. She eats with them during the dinner break from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. After that they are supposed to swipe their identity cards and be at their workstations throughout the night. The nights are long and arduous and she feels sleepy. But to take a break she has to log out of the computer first. If she logs out too often the supervisor, one Mr. Sheth, will ask questions.



Mr Sheth sits in a cubicle the size of a toilet. He is a harried and harassed man, always studying his computer screen. His mind is filled with productivity figures like how many calls were attended on a particular day and how much each employee has produced. When there are problems like abusive callers, Jenny summons him, and he sorts out the problem. Like the time a drunken caller was abusive with her a few days ago. “You m***$^& you don't know anything about me. How can you manage my insurance policies?,” he said in his alien accent with which Jenny was now familiar.

No amount of sweet words and training could pacify him. That was when she called Mr. Sheth.

Mr. Sheth came to her table. All the other executives were watching.

“Hey Mister, he said into the phone. You are not in the proper frame of mind. Please come back when you are sober and we will attend to your call.”

“**&&^&*” from the other end.

“Look we have no time for callers like you. Please behave or I will have to report you to the police.”

Report to the police? From India? About a man in the US? He was kidding, of course.

The caller hung up.

“Handle them politely but firmly,” Mr. Sheth said and disappeared into his toilet-sized cubicle.

Pooja is Janaki's friend. Pooja's online name is Pamela. They both share the same birthdates. March seventh, both of them are Pisceans. Both, pacifists and accepters of fate. Pamela is getting married and all she talks about is the lengthy traditional rituals she has to undergo before marriage. She is from Punjab and weddings there are quite elaborate.

She has to make gold jewelry, buy silk saris, another silk ghagra-choli with elaborate gold filigree for the wedding reception and a house and furniture for themselves in Navi Mumbai. Jenny and Pamela get along well. They walk to the transport buses together and sit together and are inseparable.

“Who is this Night-witch, Pamela?” Jenny asked one day, when they were traveling in the bus together. They always called each other by their e-names to tease each other.

“I don't know. Why?”

“She sends me these instant messages and before I can reply, she disappears.”

“Strange.”

“Yes, strange. Most of them are questions that upset me a lot.”

“Girls are vegetables, they get bored and listless in the midnight shift,” one night the instant message read. That night the office was solemn with only the clicking of mouses and key depressions sounding like the chattering of a stream over a rocky bed.

Before Jenny could reply the message had disappeared. That was rude. She should report it. She went to Mr. Sheth.

“Mr. Sheth of late I have been getting some funny messages on my messenger.”

“Does it bother you?”

“No it doesn't but I think it interferes with my work. It disturbs me sometimes. It affects my productivity.”

“Okay I will look into it.”

One day Jenny came to the office and saw the horizontal blinds pulled tightly across the windows.

“They don't want us to even look at the dark sky and the lights anymore,” Pamela said.

“This is not fair.” Jenny said.

“Like everything is fair over here,” Pamela said.

“We are nothing but slaves, friend.”

“We are e-slaves with e-names and pseudo identities.”

When Jenny went back to her workstation a message on the instant messenger popped up.

Night-witch: Do you have a soul?

Jenny: No. My soul has been sold.

Night-witch: They have even sealed the toilet windows. You have no soul, no sleep, e-slave. You don't deserve sleep for selling your soul.

Jenny: Who are you?

Night-witch: It doesn't matter who I am. I also have no soul.

Jenny: What are you?

Night-witch: Do you wish to speak in a phony accent forever?

Jenny: I am getting the creeps!

Night-witch: How do you like to be a creature of the night?

That really got to Jenny. The rest of the night was torture. Her mind was not on the calls she was answering. She became very afraid. The office seemed to close in on her. She couldn't look out of the windows from the fourth floor occasionally and see disconsolate e-slaves like her walking on the street below, going home after finishing shifts that ended in the evening. The whole estate seemed filled with grumpy and sleep-starved, weary eyed people like her. They all had dark circles under eyes, bad skin and hair as if made of some jute fiber. They all looked frazzled. Who was this night-witch? An e-slave like her?

Now she regretted having accepted the job. She had accepted the call centre job without thinking. A job was better than sitting at home and waiting for her parents to find a nice boy to marry her off, she thought then. But this wasn't proving to be the job of her dreams she had imagined.

Some nights there was no water in the rest rooms and it stank. Some days the mosquitoes inside the office restrooms were so thick that she was scared she might get malaria, a disease she dreaded.

“I am scared of getting malaria, working here,” she told Pamela.

“Like the plague?”

“Like the plague.”

“Me, too. I had it more than once. It is terrible. You feel like lying down and dying.”

“Working on the night shift weakens your immune system,” Jenny said.

“By now we might have become immune to malaria, I suppose.”

“It also plays havoc with your digestive system,” Jenny said.

“My digestive system is already a mess,” Pamela said and they both laughed.

Jenny arrived one day and Pamela wasn't on here seat. She started work as usual as the phone at her terminal was ringing with the insistence of a hungry child. Soon she was immersed in the details of people's insurance policies and their troubles with buying security cover for their cars and homes.

She saw Pamela emerge from Mr. Sheth's cubicle. Pamela didn't look at her. Pamela went to her table took her purse and just walked out. Jenny made a note to call Pamela when it was time for the dinner break. She attended 10 calls before dinner each one in a rising scale of tortuousness.

During dinner break Jenny phoned Pamela on her mobile phone from her own sleek mobile handset. That's one advantage of being living on the razor edge of technology. E-slaves had to use technologies to keep up with the world.

“Hello, Pamela what happened?”

“Hi, Jenny, I was sacked!”

“But why? What was the reason?”

“I have been found out.”

“What?”

“You know the night-witch?”

“Yes. The tormentor of my midnight shifts.”

“That was me.”

Jenny's jaws dropped.

“But why did you send those provocative messages?”

“I was bored. That was the only way I could keep myself awake.”

“Come on, you can't be serious.”

“Do you have a soul you e-slave? Do you wish to spend all your life in a narrow workspace answering calls and speaking in a phony accent that makes your mouth ache? Do you want to be a creature of the night forever? Do you wish to be enslaved by people who live thousands of kilometers away, who you will never meet? Do you have a soul?”

That was the last Jenny heard from Pamela.