Monday, June 16, 2014

Orthopedic Adventures

A tale from the past.
New Delhi, circa 1987.

ELLO!” ANNOUNCED THE CHEERY VOICE of my friend Kailash through the office phone, “I’ve had an accident.” I congratulated him, sighed, and wrote an application for half-day’s leave.
      Kailash collects accidents like stamps and coins. His prized accident occurred years ago as a result of which he lost his memory, and he created a sensation by asking his mother to introduce herself. The memory returned promptly, however, after – as I suspect – she walloped him therapeutically over the head with her handbag.
      This time he was driving along the Ring Road, fast asleep. His subconscious mind, busy screening him a dream as well as controlling the car, probably failed to take into account the essential circularity of the Ring Road. Injuries were trivial – fractured ribs, a broken leg, and total absence of amnesia.
      The last one was worrying though. It meant I was in for a slow-motion rendering of each lurid detail. But when I reached his home I found him in bed reading the book the Complete Yes Minister, too absorbed in it to talk. I reminded him that Yes Minister was too hilarious a reading material to go with broken ribs.
      But having peculiar tastes in such matters, he impatiently changed the subject and asked me to get him a pair of crutches. His earlier pair was worn out, he said, and in any case, out of fashion.
      In those times I had a racing cycle on which I used to go everywhere very fast indeed – my average speed was 30 kilometers per hour, sometimes even touching 50 so I could easily keep up with the flow of traffic without having to give way to motor vehicles.  So I cycled fast to Netaji Subhash Marg, Delhi’s crutch street. With a variety of models on display, choice was difficult. Finally I settled for an orthopedic masterpiece in anodized aluminum, which I thought Kailash’s personality. The problem was transporting them.
      The store did not make home deliveries. So I took a decision and tied the masterpieces to my racing bike, tips pointing straight ahead like gun barrels. The visual effect was neat; it was difficult to tell the crutches and my silver painted bike apart..
      The sight of a bearded and bespectacled Madrasi zooming on a racer fitted with a streamlined contraptions fired popular imagination. Some stressed on the aesthetics and called it a “disco bike.” Some thoughtful people saw it as a symbol of the existential predicament of the Delhi cyclist and said, “Arre dekho! These days cycles come with built-in crutches.”
      The only ones who seemed to attach any ominous significance were the police. Delhi was crawling with them then as it is now. At one junction, traffic had been held up for a VVIP motorcade. As it was usual with me, I edged the cycle through the traffic emerged at the very front, my crutch barrels pointing straight ahead. As I freewheeled to a stop, a policeman leaped down from the kerb, sten-gun poised, and studied my bike and its appendages  carefully. In the tense moments that followed, I could almost see the officer’s prefrontal cortex working furiously. The intrepid cop finally understood, relaxed and eventually scratched his nose with his trigger finger as he looked around for more potential terrorists.
      That evening I handed over the crutches to Kailash. “Thank you,” he said, and returned to his reading. He had graduated to Yes Prime Minister and his ribs were still in place.

Monday, June 9, 2014

How I attended the Wrong Wedding

HIS HAPPENED THIRTY YEARS AGO when I was working in Delhi. I had never attended a North Indian Hindu wedding. So when our office clerk Yashwant Singh invited me for his daughter’s marriage, I readily agreed.
      So on a cold January evening, dressed in my best I went to Laxmibai Nagar, (a government residential colony in South Delhi), only to discover that there were three baraat ghars (Hindu wedding halls) in the locality.  I tried the first two and was directed to the third ghar.
      The baraat (the wedding procession) was just going in. The bridegroom was seated on a white mare, a little boy squeezed in front of him. Entwined in tinsel, a “note-garland” lay about his shoulder, in crisp new currency notes of two and five rupees, its locket a single one-rupee note. Ahead, a dozen youth were dancing bhangra to a band.
I followed the party at an uncertain distance.

      I looked around for familiar faces from my office, but there were none. A group of ladies were waiting at the door of the ghar. Then it dawned on me: I am from the bride’s party. Shouldn’t I be with them? But all men seemed to be on the bridegroom’s side. I tried standing equidistant  from both the ladies and the gents. That way no one could accuse me of breaking any taboo by standing in the wrong group.
       Then the scene became lively. A fight had begun, so mildly that at first it seemed part of the ceremony. Rapidly it became business-like. The dancing youth were now kicking and punching each other, screaming expletives of high voltage. Elders rushed about with folded hands, begging for peace.
      “Pagal hain sub!” (madness!) said the bridegroom in anguish, surveying the unorthodox way his marriage was being celebrated. As I watched, a hefty young man lifted the bridegroom off the saddle and carried him away.
      No, not to be thrashed, assured an old gentleman standing beside me, and explained this was a traditional custom. He then looked at me carefully. [Mustn’t ask silly questions.]
      “Aao! Khana khao!” (dinner ready!) bellowed one of the elders over the din. Instantly the fighting stopped. Everyone casually raced inside, where a buffet was waiting.
      As I was swept in with the crowd, I tried to catch a glimpse of Yashwant Singh or anyone else I knew, and got increasingly confused. At the end of the hall stood a pair of thrones, decorated with plastic flowers. The bridegroom was seated in one, in a pose reminiscent of Rodin’s Thinker. The bride’s throne was occupied by a ceremonially dressed boy! Must be another traditional custom I thought. [Gay marriages were unthinkable in the 1980s, and are still illegal in India.]
      Hungry, I wedged my way through the seething mass of humanity and grabbed a plate. As my belly got filled my mind became clear: I was certainly attending the wrong wedding. Providential, I thought, happily munching a chicken leg. Yashwant Singh’s family were strict vegetarians.

hile having ice cream, I overheard a conversation. The thekedaar (contractor) and a guest were discussing the menace of strangers who came in just to eat. The thekedaar was describing how the other day he knocked the wind out of one.
      The badmaash [rogue] was suited, booted, wearing tie, vie . . . !” he recalled with relish. I fingered my jacket lapel and tie nervously. Clearly there was no safety in being well-dressed. I got this horrible feeling of being watched. Indeed, a gentleman in an elegant blue suit and gold rimmed spectacles was staring at me. I sat on a chair and contemplated my next move.

        A loud crash from the crockery section indicated that the fight had resumed. Swear words exploded once again. Everyone except the bridegroom went to watch. Taking advantage of the confusion I swiftly walked out. All was well, except that the spectacled man was right on my heels.
      He got into the same bus as I did. Once the bus started moving I became brave. What the hell can he do now? I sat down firmly beside the man in the elegant blue suit and gold rimmed spectacles and asked him, “Whose marriage was it?”
      The gent shrugged. He didn’t know either. Nor did he seem to consider it necessary to know. 

Friday, April 25, 2014

Profoundly Mixed

T IS MIXED,” said Doctor Gupta as he turned off his torch after probing my mouth and reading the omens. He was answering my question, “Doctor, is it viral fever or malaria? Or worse?” I was not used to feeling ill and this sudden sickness made me feel completely helpless and disoriented. The doctor seemed to have realized that too, for he returned to his desk and wrote a generous prescription.
      Dr. Gupta’s clinic was strategically located in the depths of  a medical shop. His board outside was uncluttered by medical degrees and read simply, “Dr. Gupta’s Clinic.” He must have too many degrees to be accommodated on a single board.
      The doctor’s equipment also bespoke of the simplicity of his genius. It consisted of a torch, and a cold steel spatula used to hold mouths open. His sphygmomanometer and stethoscope were dusty from disuse. Nor did Dr. Gupta have a clinical laboratory. He didn’t need one. One illuminated look into any patient’s mouth was enough to tell him exactly how mixed the illness was.
      “You will be fine. Two hundred rupees,” said the doctor, handing me the prescription.
       I suspected I was being set up but the only way out of the clinic was through the medical shop. The chemist was ready and waiting for me, smiling like a friendly spider putting at ease the latest arrival in the web. While shelling out another five hundred for the medicines I consoled myself my illness was mixed.
      Back in my flat I consumed the first batch of capsules and took to bed. When I woke up   I had an out-of-body experience. I floated in the air and said profound things. I  understood my mission in life which I expounded to my friends who had come to visit me.
      They, however, bundled me off to a hospital, an unbelievably expensive one located in the diplomatic enclave of New Delhi, targeting foreign diplomats. I was to learn later that it took many ice packs and injections to reduce my out-of-body-experience.
The Miraculous Floating Diplomats  
(Actual photograph. Lent by the Embassy of France, New Delhi)

WHEN I CAME TO, I was in a multicultural heaven that resembled a hospital ward. It was crawling with diplomats with assorted seasonal conditions, each presumably highly mixed. People of different races, colors, textures and sexes floated around me, their IV bottles high above them. Angels in nurses uniforms glided through them.
      The bed next to mine was occupied by a European diplomat, a drip bottle hanging from his bedside stand. After some time I noticed a second bottle had been added. The tube from this new bottle was plugged into a large pink-and-white female diplomat sitting cross legged on the bed, her back open from shoulder to rump -- freckles peppered her like brown stars in a pink sky.
      I decided it was my mission to count all those stars. The more I counted, it became clear that each freckle was not just a star but an entire galaxy. The Universe was revealing its secrets to me on the naked back of this lady!
      Abruptly the lady blanketed herself in dark matter, ending my connection with the universe. Both the diplomats had turned and were now staring at me. I wondered whether to request the lady to let me resume my mystical bond with her backside. But the man spoke first. As he sounded French I replied, “Enchante, I'm Sajjeev.”
      It turned out that he was not introducing himself but asking me to move to the next ward so that his girlfriend could occupy my bed.
      Au revoir,” (get lost) I said coldly and closed my eyes.
      I heard the Frenchman and his girl sigh and murmur about Indians and pull curtains closely around the bed. Throughout the night their bottles clinked together. No IV drip can stand in the way of two motivated French people. 

The universe manifests itself*
on the freckles of a female French diplomat.

Each freckle is an individual galaxy. Atheists and skeptics who have no access to freckled diplomats should stare at this photograph for one hour to observe the universe. Viewing in a state of  high fever is recommended.

[Photograph lent by the Parapsychology Department, Diplomatic Hospital, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi]

      When I woke up next morning I no longer felt that profound unity with the universe, but that was all right. From the Frenchman's side the extra bottle had disappeared along with the attached girl. He looked amiable, though bleary-eyed from a well spent night. I too felt good and smiled at him. I wouldn’t have felt half as good, had I known then I would have to scrape up my life savings to get out of that hospital. 

*"To see a World in a grain of sand
    And a Heaven in a wild flower;
    Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
    And Eternity in an hour."
    (William Blake)


Monday, April 14, 2014

A pigeon in the hole

picture credit:


OOK!” COMES STELLA’S EXCITED VOICE from the living room. “There’s a pigeon in here!”
     “Um,” I say, engrossed in my work.
     “She’s not afraid of me. Do come and look.”

     Reluctantly I leave my desk to witness the great scene. The pigeon is sitting in the showcase, cooing to itself. And Stella’s pretty face is all aglow.
     My irritation vanishes as I recall how much little things used to matter to me when I first came to Delhi from Kerala, years ago. I was a sharing a friend’s flat near India Gate then. His rear balcony was a traditional nesting place for pigeons. My favorite pigeon was one who let me stroke her as she sat nursing her chicks behind a broken chair. All was well until the day my friend went on a cleaning spree. He scooped up the chicks into a dust pan and threw them out. I saw them flapping their stumps of wings before spattering on the ground eight floors below. I felt he had thrown me down.
     Then there were squirrels. In Lodi Garden I used to sit with bated breath as they climbed on my hand and nibbled peanuts from my hand. I was once even bitten by a rather nervous squirrel who seemed not to know where the peanut ended and my hand began.
     The bugs here too behaved differently. Unlike their high flying energetic cousins in Kerala, cockroaches in Delhi just sat and stared when you went after them with a slipper. Among the other novelties were monkeys in government offices, peacocks that wandered about people’s backyards oblivious of their status as national birds, vultures who punctually queued atop buildings every morning to catch their “air buses” that carried them three thousand meters up in the sky – and exotic birds that came flying all the way from Siberia for nesting in the city zoo of all places.
       For each new observation I formed a theory. As I theorized more and more I observed less and less. Finally even what little I noticed stopped affecting me. Some time ago I saw a pigeon trying to build her nest in a traffic light. There was no space, and the twigs kept falling down. In the evening she was still at it, picking up the fallen twigs and putting them back again mechanically. I was unmoved except for a fleeting thought that the pressure of city life might have caused the poor pigeon go cuckoo.
NOW HERE IS STELLA, fresh from Kerala, ecstatic at the little marvels of a new place. Feeling odd I beckon her to the kitchen and carefully open the window which I was postponing cleaning out of sheer laziness. A family of sparrows is nesting on the sill. The mother bird flutters out, uttering sharp warning chirps. That brings her dark headed mate to the scene. Both the birds perch nearby and stare, dumb with anxiety.
     The two chicks inside seem freshly hatched. As we sign a torch into the nest, the chicks eagerly gape their huge pink beaks, begging for food. “Put some food into their mouths,” I suggest. Maternal instinct prompts Stella to say firmly, “No, let’s leave feeding to the mother bird.”
     Stella fills a little bowl with crushed rice and lentils and places it on the sill. Next to it she another filled with water. (Unlike in Kerala, here there is no danger of an invasion by ants on the rice and lentils, and by extension, on the chicks.) Then she hurries downstairs with a fork to dig up some worms. I wonder if she will ever find one in this sun baked earth. 
     I am sure of one thing: I will not clear that window until those fledglings grow and fly away.