Thursday, May 29, 2014


When the winding stairs to history
Suck people like blind men into it
I could feel the heaving and laughter
Of those girls who climb ahead of me,
Along with the smell of their oiled hairs;
Down there, with the sugar canes
Thirst also gets crushed and squeezed.

Atop the four minarets as usual
Pigeons and people talk about love
And complaints; on the walls
Where graffiti is banned, there lay dead
Names and endless obscenity
Burqa clad streets pierced by gazes

Mangos ripened by chemical agents
Yellowed beliefs in beautiful arrays
Like the players drowned in concentration
On either side of a chess board
Religions, beggars and merchants

Climbing up to the history is easier
While coming down muscles pull at thighs
Ahead of me still I hear the panting and laughter
Of the girls who carry oil smell in their hairs
All the monuments swallowed by cities

Are like this only; do not slip while coming down. 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Sleeping Bride in the Airplane

(picture for illustrative purpose only)

Whenever I travel by flight I look for that enigmatic woman who had once enthralled Gabriel Garcia Marquez on his flight from Charles De Gaul Airport in France to New York City. In his collection of short stories titled ‘Strange Pilgrims’, he recounts this story of an enigmatic woman under the title, ‘Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane’. Marquez had seen her at the airport lounge, an extremely beautiful woman with an ‘oriental sadness’ on her face. He becomes inquisitive but she moves away. Inside the flight just before the announcement regarding the completion of boarding, to his surprise, this woman walks in and settles down in the seat next to him. She calls the airhostess, tells her that she does not expect any food or snacks, and goes on to sleep. After eight hours of travel, she wakes up, just touches up her face with some minimum make up and walks out of the plane leaving Marquez to wonder about her identity. The whole tension of not knowing a person who has caught his attention makes the whole magical story of Marquez. May be we all get to see such people, male or female, somewhat enigmatic, but we leave them behind without giving much attention after certain point. Marquez’ success lies in his persistence to know her but his inability to ask her anything.

Recently, when I was flying from Delhi to Trivandrum, unlike on other occasions, I got a middle seat. I hate middle seat because I am afraid of being caught between two strangers. I do not like fat people sitting next to me on either side. I get claustrophobic whether they are males or females. If they are women, I am all the more worried because any accidental move of your hand or leg could invite unnecessary looks of hatred or suspicion from them. So I prefer aisle seats and often I make it a point I get it. But this time it was a pre-booked seat and the flight was full to its capacity. The boarding attendant expressed his inability to accommodate me on an aisle seat and he apologized to me for not providing one. It was an unusual gesture but by that time I had made up my mind to sit between two strangers. My only prayer was that my fellow passengers on my either should be lean and thin, humane, accommodative and not arrogant. Inside the flight, I found the man at the window seat was an elder Malayali man who was constantly checking the menu in the in-flight magazine and comparing prizes. Before the closing door announcement, a young woman came and sat next to me at the aisle seat.

My head was reeling with a bad cold and though I had a book with me I did not have any intention to read it. Before the flight took off, from the young woman’s telephonic conversations I could make out that she was also a Malayali and was carrying excess baggage which she had got accommodated with a Malayali staff woman in the airline company. I was too sleepy but I was afraid that my hand would touch this young girl while sleeping. So I leaned more towards the window side where the elder Malayali was still sitting and wondering at the exorbitant prices of the in-flight food. Before the flight took off, I was already in deep sleep. Sometime, halfway I got up and found myself amongst a host of sleeping people around me. The man was sleeping, the young woman was sleeping, a large jawed young white girl across the aisle was also sleeping. I found her sleeping interesting because she was carrying a large volume of Ramachandra Guha’s ‘India After Gandhi’. From the parting of the book I could make out that she had read the book half way through and still she was trying to read fighting her sleep. Finally she succumbed to the sleep. With sleep penetrating her mind deeper and deeper, I found her lips slowly parting, neck falling back, head tilting and falling to one side. It is so pathetic to see people in different depths of sleep. This young woman’s mouth was opening in a very sad way, which I did not want to look at for a long time. I craned my neck and looked behind and looked ahead of me, and I found most of the people sleeping as if there was no tomorrow.

The girl sitting next to me was also sleeping. After the halt, when it took off from Mumbai and started flying further down south towards Trivandrum, once again people fell asleep. I was oscillating between sleep and wakefulness. Suddenly the pilot announced that there was some turbulence in the air and we were supposed wear our seat belt. It was said earlier that the pilot was a Mexican and I found it quite a coincidence that I was thinking of a Latin American writer, Marquez and the flight was commanded by a Mexican. I woke up and looked out of the window from a distance. The bright light outside was now gone faint and dark cloud like formations began to appear. From my right side, from the far off window a faint light was filtering in and it fell directly on the side of the girl who was sitting next to me. Her face appeared to me as a silhouette and I could see very minute hairs coming out of the contours of the silhouette. She was fast asleep. Her lips were quivering but it was not opening the way it was happening to the foreign girl. That means, I thought, she was not in deep sleep. She might have been dreaming something. What it could be? Let me tell you, I am not Marquez. So I could not think much and I left her there to her sleep or day dreaming.

The flight landed in Trivandrum. I got up and she too got up from her seat. Surprisingly, she gave me a smile. I smiled at her. She asked me whether I was going to Trivandrum or elsewhere? I said I had come here for some work but I belonged to the city. After a few seconds I asked her where she was heading to? She told me that she belonged to central Kerala and someone would come to pick her up. Then she went on talking to me for a while, which surprised me a bit. She said that she was working in a luxury hospital in Delhi as a nurse and for the last three years she was living Delhi. This time she was here for her marriage. She was going to get married after ten days and her bridegroom was living in a Gulf country. She even told me that there would be an engagement ceremony exactly two days before the marriage. She said that the betrothal would take place at her home and the marriage would take place in a church near the groom’s house a few kilometres away from her home. I asked her whether someone would come to fetch her. She said her father would come and as she was not comfortable travelling by road as she was prone to bouts of nausea, she preferred to travel by train. Then she told me that after her marriage, she would go back to Delhi next month and perhaps, once she gets a job in the gulf countries, she would join her husband there. It was time to move out.

I did not say good bye to her as I was following the queue before me. She did not say bye either to me. At the baggage collecting belt I found her standing at the other corner. Now I was more worried about reaching home myself. The thunder clouds had already darkened the sky and it was about to rain. In the car, on the way to home, I just thought of her. Why did she tell me about her life? I was an absolute stranger. May be she was absolutely happy and she wanted to tell someone about her marriage. I smiled to myself because I had forgotten her face by then. But why I wondered why I did not ask her name? She did not ask my name either. She was just happy. May be I too did not want to know her name. 

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Moving Story of Sandeep, the Barber

(A barber shop. Picture for illustrative purpose only)

This is the story of a barber and his name is Sandeep. His story is exceptional on many counts. Before I go into Sandeep’s story, it is imperative to say a few things about barber shops. Rich or poor, most of the males with hair and facial hair need the services of a barber, if not regularly, at least once in a while. Rich people have family barbers who come to their home every weekend to service all the male members of the family including children. Poor go to the lowliest of barbers who sit under the canopy of a tree or under some shade on a pavement. In India and also in many part of the world, a neat hair cut and a clean face is considered to be the signs of social conformity, therefore decency. Those people grow hair and facial hairs are supposed to be rebels, who gave little attention to their looks. In fact the rebels grow hairs because primarily they do not believe in looks and also because most of them operate from social fringes (like the revolutionaries who live in forests) they do not have time or facilities to do justice or injustice to their hairs. Most of the social and cultural rebels keep long hair and beard because they believe in its symbolism (a symbolism that heralds their membership to the actual and imaginary rebellious groups), especially in the post industrial times. But there used to be times both in the west and east when people thought that long hair and rich and thick facial hairs are the signs of richness, social affluence and prosperity. Hair showed some sort of manliness and wildness, and courtiers and commoners liked it alike. But today, with a homogenized concept about looks of both male and female, controlling the growth of facial hairs is an important personal activity for many. A clean face is promoted and a body devoid of hairs is promoted as there is an industry that thrives on hair controlling or removing products. The old barber shops have gone out of fashion and their spaces have been taken over by saloons and parlours.

We have the memory of an old village barber shop still afresh in our minds. It used to be one of the village hubs of many activities. The barber is a man who speaks out, has an opinion about things political, social and moral, and he keeps the attention of the ‘sitter’ focused while his fingers works on his head and face. Before a barber you willingly submit yourself. I would say no meditation hall, no guru, no yogic exercise and no deep penance would bring you that kind of attention when a barber runs a razor at your neck. When your attention tends to wander there are some pictures on the walls to bring you back. They are the pictures of silver screen damsels in skimpy clothes looking at you so invitingly from the glossy calendars. Sitting at that chair, you could let your fancy wander when the barber works on your head. A barber shop used to be a magical world. Today, the saloons do not have that personal touch of rural intimacy. The moment you get into a men’s saloon (often spelled MENZ for effect), you feel that you have entered a corporate space. Uniformed boys with atrocious hair styles for themselves invite you to the cushioned leather chairs. You look at the large mirrors lined with LED lights and you look really good before they start their work. Now you want to look better, if not best. The walls do not have the old glossy calendars with enticing sirens. The shelves across the walls have all those hair care and beauty products available under the sun. Your attention is focussed on the large flat television screens which flash silent but violent gyrations of male and female hips and other body parts. One of the uniformed boys approaches you with a small bottle of clean drinking water. Then you are clinically analysed by a stylist. You are given more than one suggestions about your looks. And you settle in (or surrender before) one of those suggestions. You are covered with a layer of synthetic overall which has all semi pornographic pictures printed all over. The work is clinical, impersonal and meticulous. They use less of their hands and fingers but more of machines and accessories. Even for a normal head massage, they take out vibrators and battery powered massagers. In the meanwhile they keep telling you about the new products available. Like the best advertisers in the world do, these boys tell you how the warts and blackheads make your skin ugly, how the pores have been closed for a while, how a particular product would do wonders for you. Would you like to have a facial? Would you like to have a total face rejuvenation therapy? The full package costs only nine hundred rupees. And the ambience created by LED lights, Punjabi rap and men reclining on various chairs with boys working on different parts of their body, you too are sent to a semi-sleep state and exactly when the whisperings of these boys work as military commands. These orders appear as soft persuasions. Sometimes you yield while your pocket goes light.

For a long time I too have been a saloon visitor not because that I want to improve my looks (which is beyond any kind of improvement further as I believe that after David, mine is the perfect face in the world, why not?) but because there are no good barber shops available in the vicinity. All the barber shops have been changed into saloons. Only difference is in the size of the space from which they operate; the methods are same. The craft of scissoring has gone; the machines have taken over. That’s why at Neb Sarai in Delhi for trimming my beard I chose to go to a normal barber shop that fits to the bill. There are a few of them there as Neb Sarai still not a town and has a lot of characteristics of a village. It is not that Neb Sarai does not have ‘saloons and parlours’ (there are many) but these barber shops attracted me for a different reason; I wanted to know what is on there. How they withstand the competition given by the saloons. Yes, of course, primarily it is with rates/charges. In a saloon you do not have any service less than Rs.150. But the highest rate of any service given by these barber shops are still lesser than the lowest rate the saloons offer. Secondly, the patrons are not the upmarket youngsters. They are the old timers and those people who cannot afford Rs.100/- for a normal haircut. Another difference is that in saloons you get a menu (rate card) without spelling mistakes. But in these barber shops you have menu cards with a lot of spelling mistakes. It reads ‘New Ret’ (New Rate), ‘Hed Mazaz’ (Head Massage), ‘Body Mazaz’ and so on. But if you are gentle enough you could have a very good laugh inside.

Sandeep’s barber shop is a typical old time barber shop. Half glass door, a curtain to prevent sunlight, three wooden chairs, one large mirror, a few accessories, no shelves with fancy items, a fan (no air conditioner), enamel painted interior with a few calendars. I had been to this place once but there was another boy at that time. When you are in a restaurant or barber shop, you are comfortable when a familiar guy is around. Sandeep was working on a man’s face when I entered. I asked for the other boy. He said, the other boy was ill and his work would be finished in a moment. He gestured me to wait. I sat on a wooden bench and looked at the mirror and I was horrified by what I saw there. The hands of the boy (at that time I did not know his name was sandeep) was completely deformed. His fingers were curled up and palms were fused into a lump. Little bit of protrusions came out of it and they were fingers. I thought he was a leper or suffering from some disease. Was he going to touch my face with those fingers? I wanted to run away. But I did not want to hurt him so I politely walked out while dialling a number in my mobile. “Sir, in a minute this work is done,” he called out. I gestured that I was coming back in a minute.

Outside the shop, pretending to be at phone, I stood and watched the boy working on that man’s face. The person who was getting the service from this boy with deformed hands looked was completely at ease. He did not show any disgust. I was wondering at myself about what I was doing there. Why the man was comfortable? If he was comfortable then why should not I? If that boy was born like that then my running away would deprive him of his right to do his work. If he was a leper, then if he was working, he must have cured of his illness. If he had some other skin disease, the doctors might have given him a clean chit otherwise how in a village he could run a barber shop. I stood there frozen. Still I could not reconcile with the fact that this boy was going to touch my face with those fingers. But finally I made up my mind. Everyone needs a chance in this world, I told myself. Who am I to negate him of that chance? Even if he is a diseased person, I am going to sit before him and let him work on my face, whatever may come.

I walked into barber shop and the other person had just got up. The boy asked me to sit there and I sat. He came near to me and I saw his chin and lower jaw and the skin going down into his shirt. They were all deformed a bit. I looked straight into his eyes and smiled, fighting some middleclass problems in my mind. He asked me whether I needed a hair cut or shave. I told him that I needed to get my beard trimmed and I told him what the expected outcome or look was like. He understood. I observed him covering me up with an overall. I looked at him picking up a pair of scissors and comb. And finally he touched my face, feeling my beard and sizing up its length. I closed my eyes with all my muscles going tense. Then lo....his fingers touched my facial skin. I felt the softness of his fingers. That did not feel different from a normal person’s touch. My body relaxed. I sat there completely at ease. His fingers kept on touching my skin. I let it happen and I felt absolute happiness in me for overcoming my unjustified disgust. Each time I woke up from that feeling of touch when the boy asked me whether his styling was good enough. He had done wonders. He did exactly what I had asked for. Shall I spray some water on your face, sir? He asked. I said yes. He sprayed water on my face and he cleaned my face with a fresh towel and I was so happy for no reason.

The shop was empty and a few people came in between and said hello to him and left. One of them walked into read a newspaper. Then I asked him his name. Sandeep, he said. I asked him about his village. A village in Uttar Pradesh, he said. With a little bit of hesitation I asked him, “Sandeep, if you don’t feel bad, shall I ask you something?” He smiled at me, perhaps, he had heard the same question before. “Yes, sir.” “What happened to you?” He knew what I meant. “It was five years back. We are farmers. I went home for the harvest. There was a fire in the barn. I was caught inside the fire. It took one and a half years to come out of the hospital. Then it took another year to get these fingers in working condition. They just did not move. A long struggle, sir. But I wanted to give it a try. I did not want to run away from life. People come and walk out looking at my fingers. But I don’t call them back. When you walked out I knew why you did so. But I cannot call you back sir. Still you came back. I was reading your mind, sir,” Sandeep Said.

I held his hand and told him, “Sandeep, I salute you, for this grit and courage. And remember, if I do anything with my hairs while in Neb Sarai, it will be done by you, only you.” He smiled and took Rs.20/- from me. I said bye to him and walked out. Way back home I was murmuring, “Everyone has got a right to decide and live his own destiny. And none has the right to take it away from him by denying opportunities.”

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Sunday Thoughts: Petty Pseudo Feminist Posing as a Radical

(A still from Stop or My Mom Will Shoot- for illustrative purpose only)

I like facebook not because I could update my profile pictures like an impressionist, according to the change of light, and get a few ‘likes’ but because this platform helps me put my ideas into a public domain. If you look at the growth of facebook, one could see it too had its own infancy, its growing up years and its own maturity. As facebook changes its styles and tabs once in a while, I cannot say for sure that it has achieved its maturity completely. But the facebook team has got its own needs to keep it fresh and new to be there as the market leader. I know, like many of you know it already, that the data posted out there is used as samples of market analysis and product proliferation. It is a soft surveillance system; but so long as it is not intruding with vehemence in my personal life I am ready to live with it. There are dangerous indications also there: in a semi-conservative society like India the facebook is now a part of the personal history. Your character is assessed based on what you have done in facebook during the last few years. Character integrity of a marriageable young girl is determined by her previous facebook activities. Those boys and girls who seek corporate jobs frantically clean up their facebook accounts and request their friends not to post any objectionable comments or stuff there. The big brother is watching you. The corporate houses want to know, before they employ you whether you are in good company or not. If you have expressed any anti-capitalist sentiments anytime in facebook, it may curtail your chances of getting a corporate job by 90 per cent.

However, facebook management is like a doting parent. It has given a lot of privacy options to keep your activities limited to your close friends or to let it go to a larger audience comprised of ‘unknown’ friends. You could hide your identity, pretend to be someone else, yet your facebook behaviour could, in the long run, give a true picture about your affinities and affiliations, your political views, your social engagements and even your sexual preferences. But the catch is not that. If you are a real person and you want to be in facebook and you accept friends out of the ‘need’ to be known or to be ‘heard’, or out of clear cut choices, then you are risking your life in public. If your wall is open and you post something there, if your ‘friends’ post some comments below it, you cannot climb on the roof top and scream that you are ‘littering’ my wall. When you submit an opinion, facebook automatically presumes that it is open to the public unless it is protected otherwise and limited to only a few people in the closed network. Facebook is no longer in its infancy. The members of facebook also have gone through their infancies; you may remember how we all used to boast that ‘having a coffee’, ‘In London it is raining’, ‘I am in Goa’ and so on. Today, most of the facebook members do not behave like children on a beach. They too have learnt how to use it.

But unfortunately, some of our so called intellectuals, who do not have any idea about how facebook works want their views to be seen and heard by the rest of the world but they do not expect any comments on that; they expect the whole world (read, the facebook friends) to say only good things about their comments. They do not want to debate anything at all there. They will be sharing anti-Narendra Modi slogans day in day out, but if someone questions them regarding the same issue, they will immediately jump up on the roof top and cry that someone is attacking their facebook wall. It is the ultimate form of cowardice. I have been seeing our so called artists and intellectuals posting something and the moment a debate starts running away from it, or literally abusing the person who comments. I had a very bad experience from an old woman artist yesterday. I need to recount it here.

This old woman in question posted a short video of a few activists water cannoning those people who urinate on waysides. As this old woman is a proclaimed ‘feminist’ and a gender bender for convenience ‘shares’ too many politically correct posts in her page and as she is in my ‘friends’ list (I keep her there for old times’ sake) they appear in my homepage. Just to keep a watch on her pseudo art and pseudo activities I spend my precious three minutes to look at those posts. Yesterday she posted this short video which I found extremely offensive. Some masked activists were assaulting unsuspecting people on the wayside. True, they were urinating in public. But the assault was inhuman. I was furious and I thought those people, in the name of activism were taking law in their hands. So I posted the following comments just below the link that she shared. I am putting the unedited version of my comments here for your perusal:

“Here is another aspect of it; the gender one. Most of the people who urinate in public are men. It is as if they are given license to do that. Women do suffer not only holding their bladders but also seeing these male obscenity in public places. But what do you do, when your bladders are full and you do not find any public toilet? If you want to ease desperately when you are at Saket can you travel a kilometer to urinate at Lado Sarai? It is not a male right but it is the outcome of an insensitive governance.

“Consider this, most of the metro stations do not have public comfort systems. Both men and women suffer out of it. As in our society men are naturally licensed to do public obscenity, they dont mind pissing in public. But as I said before, women are the real victims of it. Now they have set up a few toilets in Delhi with glossy ads on it. But do they have attendants there to help women? How could women go into these dark toilets? Men's toilets are unclean and most of them think that it is better to urinate outside than going inside.

“ We have found Indian solutions to this menace: One, writing graffiti like 'Son of a Donkey don't pee here'. But you are willing to neglect the warning when you are pissy. Then you fix god's pictures on the wall. It is the only potent way of keeping both pissing and spitting. But this religious solution cannot be a permanent solution.

“Remember, nobody pisses for fun. People urinate on the wayside because they do not have any other option. Hence infrastructure development and spreading awareness are two important things. In the age of performance art, like the people in the video, it is a good occasion to laugh. But the agency that has adopted this method of 'spreading the message' should be arrested and put behind bar with immediate effect.

“Will these people water cannon those people who use 'sister fucker and mother fucker' words in every sentence in their public conversations? Will these people do the same to those who spit on the walls? Come on false intellectuals, sit up and think. Performance art is not a solution to social ills.

You may read for yourself and assess whether my comments were hurting or abusive. But you will be surprised to see this good old lady’s answer to my comments. I am pasting it here:

“thanks Johny Mulluvilakom Lakshmanan, but this is a form of pissing on my wall....

I was shocked to see this answer from this good old lady, who is a self proclaimed feminist. I always hold that she does sub-standard art. But that is a critical point of view. However,  as a person I have never kept any grudge against her though she hopelessly thinks that she is still a radical thinker and could mesmerize people with her ‘thoughts’.

So I thought it is pertinent to tell all of you that if you comment on your wall, and your wall is open, facebook is going to let it be as a debating platform. People WILL comment. Either protect your wall, or have balls to debate. If not you are not good for facebook, and absolutely not good for the society, even if you think you are an artist or a public intellectual safely sitting in some star apartment.