Sunday, March 12, 2017

Never Rains in California

"It never rains in California
But girl don't they warn ya
It pours, man it pours"
- *Albert Hammond (1972)*

These days I wake up to an unmistakable drum roll. It must be 5 AM, for that is exactly when the sump announces its utility, welcoming the morning ration, only to be briefly interrupted by a tap left open overnight sputtering to life. Vented, they make their peace, and the increasingly muffled beat picks up from where it left off. I don’t need to be up and about yet; this brass band aficionado has some more time remaining prone, appreciating the upcoming finer movements of the ensemble.

This third-floor two-room tenement, overlooking a wide expanse of greenish lake bed devoid of water and forsaken by Bangalore’s infamous land sharks, is shared among 3 of us old batch mates. The only employed ‘bread-winner’, and occasional generous benefactor, has justifiably hogged the main bedroom while we make do with the living. My immediate roommate maintains owl hours, sleeping during the day, and most important, leaving the “water-watch” to me. The sole duty being to be aware enough to close the valve once full; our landlord decided that installing a float valve was being too lenient on the serfs.

It’s hot, muggy and the rains have not been kind. We might be onto a drought, or so they say on TV. The arthritic ceiling fan, burdened with dust and grime, barely manages to push around its own shadow. I feel empty and tired. It seems like the dread that envelops you when you know you are forgetting something, something too frightening to recollect.

My elder sister had called me yesterday. It was very unlike her to dial, for from me she expects the right and privilege of a call incoming. She was at her in-laws, and sounded worried, mostly that I might be worrying too much, a circular logic that plays out even when my mother calls. I agree it is tough on her, always rooting for a ‘never-do-well’ sibling, in the shadow of an over-achieving duo that is her elder brother and her husband. “Try getting in somewhere. You can still give GRE. Wait, you gave GRE. What happened? Did they call?” and so on.

My mother, on the other hand, finds joy in being oblivious. I had made a passing mention, in hindsight avoidable, about a University in Southern California that I may apply to. The selection process to their School of Engineering was somehow lost on ‘simple village people’, as she liked to describe herself and her ilk. As a result perhaps, now everyone and her aunt have been appraised on her pride and joy moving to a place in the US, apparently named after a Mumbai suburb.  Yes it’s in Santa Cruz, CA, but she finds my correction beside the point. I am the cautionary tale, sheep gone astray, last on the boat, all rolled into one, whose mention in family circles used to attract a sigh and a change in topic. At long last, this one’s got onto something good, just like his brother, something that she might secretly hope would not involve discussing marks or grades, at least for now. She was relieved; I could be the next Santa Claus for all she cared.

Father stayed out of all this. His first two offspring had given him enough to take pride over. The eldest was “Stateside”, as in “hey, Bro, give me a ring once you're Stateside”. In his book, it only reads as, don’t call me while still a loser. The girl, my sister, a doctor, wasn’t doing too badly either. Until I’d say she married another, that Gold Medalist of Psycho, whose idea of small talk was always regurgitating a humble-brag as Fate had him cruelly torn between choosing Engineering or Medicine. The nut wisely chose the path to asylum sciences.

Not once did my Dad care to ask where I was headed, or why. He might have felt he had done his part. Most commonly summarized in “Do you need any more money?” a pleasantry he shared on every occasion he spoke to his youngest. It was not that my folks were comfortable. My father was very much retired, too proud to ask for help, and a poor judge of his own limitations. A combination that led to, among others, his recent ill-advised venture into organic farming, apparently to supplement his pension. The rains failed him, much like me, his crops wilting between a parched earth and a clear Nellore sky. But I suspect he saved the bulk of his disappointment over his bad loans and wasted crop.

On my part, I took the middle-ground in all I ventured. Especially in most fields academic, I gave a net return meeting the median GPA from a middling engineering college. The GRE score too stayed true to style. To complete the picture I aimed high enough to hit one of ‘US News & World Report’s “Top 3 Very Average Engineering Schools”, if there were one such category. For some reason I saw this as another shot at redemption, to prove to the naysayers that I too could make it. Not that many would say 'nay', that judgement was passed long ago. A Post Grad from the US, a Green Card, who knew. To be in the august company of those who got to dial their brother, this time local; only dial, for hell would need to be much cooler before I go visit that pompous schmuck.

The outlook might have been average, but a fortune was spent on classes, my present lodging and such, when it might have been much more prudent to look for a real job, any job. My sister had made that into a pointless crusade, only for me to play the 'Higher Education’ card. All this was not easy on my folks, though my mother did mention the troubles in passing. Like I said, he is too proud to ask, or tell.

I am not that proud. Not enough to lie to own sister. I did tell her of the red bordered envelope dropped off late yesterday. Post marked Santa Cruz, premium air, the University Seal large and mighty to the top-right corner. The document felt like smooth cardboard, triple-bond. The words seemed to float up, as the ground beneath gave way like a mountain of gravel.
They regret to inform my application has been rejected, the number of applicants being high, and so on.

The ringing from the tank had by now receded into a conspiratorial blubbering. Time to get up and about, for the Lord of the house had mentioned a series of walk-in interviews on the other side of town.
Headed for the exit, I glimpsed the small print on the envelope left face-down on the teapoy. 

"The State of California encourages all to save water, during its most serious drought since 1991”

Monday, February 13, 2017

Man of the House

I have been at the Police Station since 8 AM. Swatted away from every desk, I am now perched on a bench at the far side of the hall. Like a housefly maneuvering around a lunch spread, I have tried every angle and tack, and quite literally so. Walked up to the “walk-up” desk fronted by a gruff of a Constable, who over the last hour and several visitations of mine, had learnt to ignore me. Or any one of the half dozen desks, each equipped with piles of paper of varying crumble, and a single Constable of type gruff. Apparently, not one was hired to serve, and they were all doing a fine job of protecting their time from me. Alternately I tried tail-gating into the Inspector’s cabin or accosting the several humorless uniforms buzzing in and out of the place. All to no avail. “Wait, we/they will call”, was the standard issue response. The appropriate quip would have been why they did not wait enough before calling me in. But then, I let the wise crack be.

The adage about an Indian police stations was indeed true; the only ones getting any amount of attention were either in cuffs or uniform. The crowds have barely thinned since I made first contact with “Reception”. The wronged and the innocent (all latter, it seems, until proven otherwise), allowed to mill around a variety of desks for their minute of reckoning. I wonder if they were assigned to each based on the severity of their (alleged) offence; drunks at 1, pick-pockets at 2. Apparently, I did not fall into any category with any degree of severity, at least not which would warrant an immediate audience.

I let my mind wander, a grumbling stomach often reminding me that breakfast was long overdue. My watch staggered to 11, and my mind was still mush from the previous night. All I felt was an overwhelming sadness, and a fatigue I had never known in all 20 years of my life. I’ve been here before, same dance, a stern ticking-off, and no more. Only today seemed a longer wait.

I wonder what my Dad would be up to, and knowing him, he would not show for a day or two. Last evening went far worse than usual. He was at the door, back from any one of office, Rummy or long walks, in increasing order of occurrence. None my Mother ever fully approved of. But he has not been the same since opting for severance, now forlornly counting down to retirement. The dark moods and often foul temper were recent affectations.
He used to be different, even ‘cool’ to some of my envious friends. He taught me to fish, fly kite and when Mom was out of earshot, even swear a bit. With me as the only other panelist, he could hold forth on Platini, Hendrix or Direct Tax. He held me tight as I broke my heart over a pet no more. Another age and time, he let me be, as I sullenly watched a neighbor move away, taking an unspoken love with them.

Nevertheless, it would have taken me a minute (yes, all of 60 seconds) from hearing the bell, finding Mom too busy cooking to get the door, to grabbing the keys, and finally opening the gates to the barbarian.
In his defense, he had been to the market. He also had to lug two heavy bags all the way, since he had decided to help himself to a walk. Defense rests.
He rushed past and plonked the bags on the table. The darkness seemed to cling to him like a soggy blanket. What followed was the reason most of my time was spent between tuition classes, campus and any place other than home. It just hurt to watch good people being mean to each other.
Often the fusillade is returned in kind by my Mother. Almost as if this event was the high point of her day, where their shared tragedies could be shouted past each other. There always seemed scores to settle between them, real and imagined. Once, it was over who caused a flight to be missed, from a decade ago, on an airline long out of business. That particular episode may have ended in an embarrassed chuckle, but recently most of these seem to trail off into silence.

Yesterday there was a menace in the way my father rushed on, beyond the customary slamming of doors or flinging of an umbrella. A line was crossed when he swept the chopped garlic to the floor, as if marking a new low for all to see. As the recriminations flew by, I stepped in. Unintended, just that I felt they were inching closer with each pointless insult. It had come to this; I might have been the glue that kept us all together, but at that moment I became an overcautious referee denying them a good fight. Yet I leaned in, only that I ended up shielding my Mother while pushing back at my Father.

Slack-jawed, he staggered back, his mouth still forming inanities, but his voice badly trailing off. My Mother still held on to my arm, but the solace she drew may have soured to disapproval now.
“No, you don’t. You don’t. Stay out of this”, she pleaded.
She stepped across, her other arm held up mid-air, reaching out to her partner of three decades, as if willing to lift the spell. He, or whatever possessed him, again took a step back.
Slowly rocking on his ankles, his voice hoarse as he caught his breath, whispered, “You, dare. You?”

He had aged. Not in that very instant, but the sheen seemed to peel away. He looked about, dazed, hunched over, a boxer losing badly, hoping the next jab would end the misery. Then, just as abruptly, as if roused by thunder, he spun around and walked out. My Mother slipped away to the silence of her room, ever careful not to let her sobs tell her story.

Where would I go? I had no one to run to, or flee from.

The call from the Police Station arrived early next day. Brusque. No nonsense. Expected.
“Mr. Anil Gulati?”
“’Daffodils’, 24/B, 1st Main?”
“From East Cross Station. There is a complaint. You need to report here.”
Here we go again. ‘Disturbing the peace’, I’m sure. For the record, minus this particular push-about, most of their skirmishes have been sound spectacles. As evidenced by at least four complaints over the last couple of years, made by disturbed, yet particularly uncaring neighbors. I knew the drill.

Finally, at 2pm, the minion closest to my bench waved me over. Short, stocky, he was boxed in on all sides by files and folders of every possible vintage and type. I guessed as Constable Rumpelstiltskin, his salvation were the gold he would spin off all these.
Without looking up, he pointed towards the Inspector’s cabin.
“Meet the Inspector. There.”

I walked up, and recognized a vaguely familiar face. Oh, the same Inspector from the last couple of instances; this was getting awkward. He looked up, and then motioned to the chair before him. This one always insisted that I be the one summoned to the station, not the two-ring circus I left at home. He simply brooked no argument, or mention of the source(s) of the noise, and I always solemnly nodded as he gave a short speech on good neighborliness. Sign here, and here. That was about it.

By some miracle, the minion had managed to escape his tomb, and slowly rolled up next to the desk. He thrust a thin file before the Inspector. Without a word he took it and started poring over, all the time a ball pen flipping between thumb and index. This was unusual; the time normally spent was minuscule, especially considering the hapless still waiting in line. I did feel something was off. The minion was not helping, hands on hips, alternating a wild-eyed craning over his superior’s shoulder, and then at me.

Obviously bursting with child-like curiosity, he chimed, “This is that case?”
“Hm-mm”, his boss dead-panned, eyes never leaving the file.
“What to do?”
The Inspector sighed. Out of pity, I’m sure in equal measure for the other parties at his desk.
“Son, sign here”, he said, passing the file over. No talk this time, and I could not care less.
Being familiar, I quickly sped to the bottom of the second page, to the pair of rectangles holding up the garbage above.
My signature, as respondent, went on the right.
On the left, the aggrieved party, typically left blank
This time it enclosed the very familiar signature of my Dad.
My head still down, I felt my face twitch and burn, a tear not far away.
“Go home, Son. Sometimes, the closest stab the deepest.”

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Hung by the Length

She could never decide whether she had loved him solely for the Art. But over a couple of married decades, she had come to realize her hate owed pretty much to just that. The art, and it's ‘trappings’, as she preferred to smooth over. Theirs was a mutual admiration that sprouted as fledgling art students, each egging the other on in hard scrabble times, barely eking course credits and square meals. Love seemed Fated, a solace happily accepted by both. Only success came reluctantly, at its own time, welcomed nevertheless, each cash advance steadily unburdening the newlyweds. Fame came much later, mostly to him, the practitioner, for she had wisely opted for the less feted yet steadily paid job as art curator. The bouncers of the art world, according to him.

Not that she was a slouch; unlike him, she dabbled across mediums, brass being a favorite, a couple of corporate foyers had installations bearing her name. She took pride in it, but knew in her heart that a household with two artists may not be a well fed one. He could chuckle all he want, but she decided one of the two had to be sensible about money; in art that means leaving for a job that pays.

He might have been singularly devoted to his preferred medium, while she gave up on her calling to keep the two afloat. But unlike devotion, which he professed towards her as well, fidelity as a concept turned out to be quite fluid to him. Not one to point fingers, she knew their love had become more of a conditioned reflex, a warm memory perpetuated by a somehow interminable bond, an excess of courtesy in public, and a studied distance at all other times. She had her sources, many a fight and separation, and finally suspicions that had long turned to indifference.

There were at times months of silence between them, to her these interludes alternated between despondence or were vaguely liberating. She suspected he loved her still, but to her it meant utmost glorified respect and no more. All the while she drifted away from the very social circles they always called their own. Was this to show her disdain towards a set who maybe laid claim to her love or a way to punish herself so he may notice, even she could not fathom. Nor did she care, at that time.

Then, he passed.

Her husband, love of her life, comrade in struggles only they would ever know, artist in residence for some of the top schools in the country, skirt-chaser extraordinaire, mixing art and pleasure as easily he mixed paint. A true artist to the end, dying in harness, and quite literally so. His last work, yet unsigned, still on the easel, a faded denim hung from the nearest tack, the nubile young thing who bid him nighty-night the last to ease off him. He left sometime in his sleep. Without as much a goodbye.

As with all at such loss, only she knew what was left was the little emptiness, few regrets and a lot left unsaid. Yet the reminiscing was the worst. Pointless recollections causing her no end of torment. She remembered their last "good chat". It was a few weeks before the end. She was at his studio, early evening, nursing a hot tea. He stood indulgently over his latest work, a burst of warm color, almost alive; one of his better ones, she remembered thinking. An orange hue spread across the canvas, radiating from a white-hot center. A thin white line dropped vertically down, like a sparkler rod. She said it looked like a sparkler giving birth to a rising sun, or something to that effect, and he readily agreed. She knew better than to critique him, for he never cared much for any kind of critique!

It'd been a few months, and the auction house had decided to put up his last work. It was one of those 'occasions', and she had agreed to the invite after much persuasion. Since his passing, she had kept away from the very world she had worked so hard to build and be part of. She missed the cut and thrust, the surly familiarity of an oft-bickering couple, yet a formidable duo who together lit up many a company and conversation. Familiarity that bred contempt, yet some comfort. Good reason to take a break from the memories.

The ones she never missed were the art aficionados, the air-kiss crowd. The hoity-toity air heads who claimed to know as much of the wine they swilled, as the waste of paint & canvas they peered at. Not to mention the high society climbers, with nothing to lose but their hardly earned inheritance. He would laugh whenever she vented over the Art Crowd that flocked to her workplace. She too was one among them, as he would mercilessly needle her, only now she has a day job.

She sat away from the lectern, careful not to attract attention. Not that her husband's agent missed out on introducing the pick of the day's deep-pocketed gullible. She nodded politely, spoke very little; the commiserations seemed genuine, the attention warm. They seemed to truly miss him. The crowd settled as the proceedings were brought to order.

As the auctioneer picked up pace and voice, she let herself be distracted by the finely crafted catalog. His last work was listed towards the end, imaginatively termed
Lot 2B. "Untitled, unsigned, oil on canvas...”, and then she gasped.

There was indeed something off about the picture on the catalog, something she noticed on the banners while walking in. She thought better of speaking to his agent, letting it be as the event caught up. Now as she ran her eyes over the short Interpretation, she felt a slow guffaw coming.

"..the bright orb placed well off-center, the sunset to the West... a flat line trails off to the opposite horizon... an end of days, perhaps.”

Your friends have indeed outdone themselves this time, Roy.
They hung it from the wrong end.

Much like what had come of the life she had always known, to be admired the way it has become.