Alia 

I saw her in the frozen food section. It had only been 3 months since I moved back to the city and about 12 years since I saw her last. 
She looked just the same. Elegant, purposeful hand movements, her hair, bouncing gracefully as she walked. 


“Alia”, I instinctively said aloud. Her back to me, I could see her freeze and her shoulders droop for a moment. She turned to confirm that she hadn’t heard a ghost and looked straight at me. Her face showed no emotion. She composed herself, picked up her basket of groceries and walked past me. 


I stood there, knowing that walking away would be the wiser thing to do. Instead, I turned and caught up with her. “I don’t even deserve a hello?” 

“What do you want?” 

I don’t want anything, I blurt out, insulted and mildly agitated. I just saw you and thought I’d say hello. 

“Cool”, she said and walked away again. Unable to keep myself from engaging in this typical passive hostility of hers, I walked alongside her and said “You owe me a little courtesy, at the very least…” 

She stopped finally, turned to me and said “I don’t owe you anything.” 

“It’s funny how you’re behaving like it was all my fault”, I said. 

“What’s the point of all this? It was 12 years ago. You’ve moved on, I’ve moved on. Why are you even saying all this? Why are you even here?”, she yelled, softly, through gritted teeth. She was always conscious about not making a scene. Her tone would suggest a yell, but her volume carefully masked it. 

“Of course. You moved on pretty rapidly though”, I said, “didn’t take you long at all to wrap things up nicely. Convenient little turn of events in just over a month”, the vitriolic sarcasm in my words peeling away at her composure. 

Her voice rising, she fumed “I trusted you. I loved you. To death. I gave my heart to you. Day after day, you punished me for loving you. YOU made it hard. YOU. YOU ASSHOLE. How dare you question me about what I did after you?” 

“You’re right. There’s no point talking to you. Go home to that fucking loser”, I said angrily, subconsciously hoping for a full blown fight. I was trembling. This crazy cocktail of grief, heartache and anger taking over. 

She hit me hard on my arm with that bony hand of hers. It stung just as bad as it did a decade ago. She was shaking now. “Not a fucking word against him. Not a fucking word”, she warned me. “That fucking loser, loves me. He looks after me. And he doesn’t make me cry. He doesn’t make me cry.” 

“Yeah. But he’s a fucking pansy. Masquerading as your fucking best friend. Does he even know you don’t love him?”, I was delirious and couldn’t stop, “Can he even get it up?”  

She dug her nails into my forearm with all her strength, I winced. I could tell she wanted to say something but no sound was coming out of her mouth. After she’d twisted her nails in me, she said, “You know what? I’m glad I ran into you today. You’ve made me realize that leaving you wasn’t a mistake. You’re a vile, toxic man. You may claim to love me but this isn’t how you treat someone you love. I’m so glad I cut you out of my life like the cancer that you are.” 

Her eyes welled up. And so had mine. There’s nothing I could say to her that could hurt her more in return. And although she was right in saying what she did, I knew she was filled instantly with remorse. I turned and walked away. “What? You’re walking away? Fucking coward. You were always a fucking coward when someone told you the truth about yourself. Come back and fight now, you fucking coward.” She just stood there while I walked away, there’s no way I wanted her to see me crying. 

I was still shaking as I sat in the backseat of my car. I had a lump in my throat and large tears hung precariously on my eyelids. My driver could sense that something was up, he kept looking in the rear view mirror. It gets easier to hold in your tears as you get older. Why didn’t I just walk away? Why couldn’t I have been more polite, less angry? Why did I have to launch into her husband? He really did look after her and her needs. I just hated his guts because he won and I lost. Twelve years ago. But life had given me so much in the last few years, why did I lose sight of that? 

Years of therapy undone in a few minutes. Sitting on that backseat, I tried to put the animal back in the cage, muffle it’s stupid mouth and focus on the present. I’m not a bad person, I told myself. I have people who love me and cherish my presence in their lives. Why does this volatile connection to her always burn everything in its path? I close my eyes and try to drown out the voices. 

“You didn’t get anything?”, she asked as I walk into the house. “There was a huge line and I was really tired.” Sensing something was wrong, she comes to hug me, “What happened baba?”, she puts her arms around me and I put mine around her slender waist. I force a tired smile and ask if the kids have slept. She nods and says “You know what? You need ice cream”. 

As she fills two bowls in the kitchen and kicks the refrigerator door shut behind her, she says, “Alia got a star in school today”. I go pale. “What for?”, I ask. “For being the most well behaved girl on her school trip.” I smile. 

“She’s such a lovely girl na, our little Alia?” 

“Yes”, I say, “she’s the best.”   

Bully

That’s me. In school. Shorter than your average kid but with twice the sass. And the unshakeable belief that the sun rose from my ass. I was in an all boys boarding school. Yup. That comes with its own set of challenges. Most of which, they tell you, “build character”, “turn you into a real man”, “foster relationships which last a lifetime”. Well, yes. And no.

 

There wasn’t much you could do if a senior wanted your new sneakers. They’d just take them. You couldn’t say no if they wanted you to wash their dirty socks, everyday. Or eat your share of food.

I’ve always had a problem with authority. And initially, these little ego tussles always bothered me. Being physically dwarfed by most kids, it was almost impossible to protest. I remember vividly, wringing my hands together behind my back and clenching my teeth when I was being yelled at for something really stupid. The senior stopped yelling, walked behind me and seeing my hands, red and perspiring, he said “This is your problem. You have a very large ego. Don’t worry. We’ll break it.”

Eventually, most kids end up shedding who they really are and guard themselves the best way they can. Some become aggressive, some become introverts. The defense mechanisms, inevitably, always stay in place. Long after the attacks have stopped.

As time went by, I learnt to be shrewd. I learnt to pander to their ego so as to get away with I really wanted to do. It was a small compromise.

It surprises me now, after all these years how easily we got used to this way of life.

Sometimes though, someone would cross the line. And for me, it wasn’t an act of physical violence inflicted upon me. It was something seemingly harmless that has stayed with me all my life.

I was in the eight grade. I was called to the twelfth grade dorm for some random work. This senior of mine, probably bored in the afternoon, asks me to climb into his locker. I barely fit. It was the kind of space where you couldn’t stand, sit straight or straighten your limbs, even for a small kid like me. As soon as I got in, he locked me in.

I don’t know if I was in for a minute or longer but it felt like forever. I kept begging him to open, banging on the thin steel. Looking back, it would’ve made more sense to close my eyes, breathe slowly and wait but I was scared and uncomfortable.

Light and air rushed in when he finally opened the door. I had tears streaming down my face. He was laughing. When he saw me in distress, he masked his feeling of guilt with arrogance and asked me to not be such a wuss and to get out of his dorm.

People hate bullies because they torment the weak. But that’s not all they do. Bullies give birth to new bullies.

What my senior did that day was wrong in itself. But apart from the actual act of sadism, he did a grave disservice to me and those closest to me.

He unknowingly taught me how to hurt people.

My school made me a self defense bully. So petrified of being hurt or bullied, I learnt to act out in anticipation. And as I got stronger, unshackled by the burdens of school hierarchy, my verbal blows got swifter and more efficient. For any minor act of aggression against me, or even perceived betrayal, retribution would be swift. And merciless. I mastered the art of knowing what and how to say things that would cripple someone. And although, I’d have the last word, I felt my heart shrink, become darker with each episode. I learnt to prey on their weaknesses, in much the same way a few of my seniors preyed on mine.

This behavior affects all your relationships. The one you have with your parents, your siblings, your spouse, your best friends and unfortunately, even your children. And as affectionate as one may be, you’re still a bully.

There’s nothing about being a bully that one enjoys. One doesn’t enjoy the hurt caused to your loved ones. And the sense of power is a misplaced one. Remorse inevitably follows. You end up living your life with constant guilt. You miss the purity of the heart you used to have, buried under all the layers of hurt and unresolved issues.

We use our pasts, like I used mine, to justify all that is wrong with us. Till one day, you decide to let go of it. We need to accept that it’s a choice we make. When we have two wolves whispering in our ear, one guiding us to the light and the other dragging us back to our dark patterns, which wolf do we end up listening to? A wise friend once told me, “The one we feed”.

You’re not the scared boy in the locker anymore. And everyone’s not out to get you.

Feed the good wolf. Believe in the best of you. Recognize your patterns, acknowledge them and bid them a quiet goodbye.

It’s time.

 

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Would you ever?

 What if I got too much for you to handle? 

What if I kept getting meaner? 

What if you thought I wasn’t worth it anymore? 

What if your tears ran out?

What if I got too weak? 

What if you fell out of love?

What if you met someone nicer? 

What if you found kindness elsewhere? 

What if you started resenting me? 

Would you ever leave me? 

There will always be nicer people. 

I will always find kindness elsewhere. 

I will resent you often

You’re not weak. 

You’re not mean. 

You’re you. 

There’s no good you or bad you. 

There’s just you. 

And I chose you. All of you. 

I can’t leave you. 

You’re my heart. Sometimes caustic. 

But you can’t separate you from me. 

And living with your worst self, 

Is still better than a day without any part of you. 

Would you ever believe me? 

  

“Charmed” 

  
I was about eleven when I first heard someone say it. Home for the summer holidays from boarding school, I was immediately impressed. We were all sitting at a restaurant and someone walked up to our table to say hello to a family friend. Upon introduction, he took her hand and said “Charmed”. She blushed in return. My eleven year old mind was blown. 
I have always wanted to say it from that day on. Being born and brought up in a small town in India, I never really got to say it to anyone. No one I met was charming anyway. When I had to go back to school, it was still at the back of my mind. The need to impress someone with my beautifully modulated “Charmed”. 

I was intensely homesick that year. A week into school, I feigned some illness, maybe a fever, to check myself into the school sickroom. The school sickroom had this compounder called Mr. Khushwaha. An arse of a man, I learnt, as I spent more years in school. He had this perpetually bored expression on his face and absolute contempt for kids, especially kids like me, who may have feigned their illness. This would be the first time I met him. I entered the sickroom, and approached him, sitting pompously behind his wooden desk, a BP apparatus in front of him. I stuck my hand out and introduced myself. Taken aback, he waited a few seconds before offering his hand to me, nostrils wide, the disgust evident on his face. 

I don’t know what came over me, I blurted out “Charmed”, with a slight eyebrow twitch and head tilt. 

His eyes widened and he shot me a look as though I belonged in a mental institution. I cringed from within. I could not believe my eleven year old self would be impatient enough to use “Charmed” on this jackass. 

It was the only time I’ve ever used that word in this context. I wish I’d waited for the right time. I’ve never had the courage to use it again. Or any other similar word like this. 

The next word on my list is “Enchanté”. With perfect French pronounciation. I’ve never been able to muster the courage to use it. You never know who may turn out to be Mr. Khushwaha in disguise. If you ever happen to meet me someday and I linger over our handshake, be certain that I’m saying “Enchanté” in my head. 

And I hope you’ll smile kindly. 

Toes 

  

Lying in bed

Broken and choked 

Helpless against the tide 

You close your eyes and hope for rest 

And curse yourself for having a heart 

Blessed must be those, with an empty chest 

A life free of pain 

Toss and turn 

A glass of water 

Pages of prose 

Nothing undoes the knot 

In this tempest of limbs 

I find your toe 

In it, comfort I shall seek 

With words not spoken, eyes long shut

Your toe speaks to me 

One stroke says I’m a good man

Two says it’ll get better 

Even the weakest hearts eventually heal 

And just as my chest fills with tears 

Like lovers in a violent mob 

Our toes lose each other again

 

Are we happy?

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I don’t watch a lot of television. But earlier this week, with the wife and kids away for a few days, I found myself alone and bored. Surfing channels, I settled on an old episode of House MD.

If you aren’t familiar with the show, it’s about this Doctor, Gregory House, who’s a genius with absolutely disastrous interpersonal skills. Each episode revolves around a medical case they try to diagnose and treat, with the personal lives of House and his team forming the backstory.

Chris Taub is a doctor on House’s team. He’s not the most talented of the lot, neither is he the best looking. He is married but he has cheated on his wife. His wife knows and they’ve been trying to deal with that issue for a while.

In this particular episode, Taub’s wife finds an online soulmate who fulfills the emotional lacuna she feels with her husband. She’s happier and more forgiving. In all of this happiness, she wants to have sex repeatedly with Taub. Sensing that he isn’t the source of her happiness, Taub feels used.

Despite being aware of his own shameful hypocrisy, Taub asks his wife to stop the online ‘friendship’. Justifying that all he had with the other women was sex. He was hurt that she has actual feelings for her online associate. She refuses.

One night, he comes home and sees his wife all dressed up, excited about date night with her husband. Taub says, “I think we should get a divorce.”

Not expecting this at all, the wife reels back and after a second or two, she says, “But I thought we were working through it. We love each other.”

Taub replies, “We do. I LOVE you. But are you happy?”

The wife, dressed in a beautiful little black dress and earrings, mascara lined eyes now welling with tears, sits on a chair near her make-up table and replies quietly, “No”.

Are you happy?

Showman

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B. N. Chatterjee was a funny looking man. Sitting there on his arm chair, the cane weave on the back creaked slightly as he shifted in his seat, he leaned forward every few minutes to relight the tobacco in his pipe. He dressed in a white kurta pajama and an ivory waistcoat with black piping, a uniform of sorts. A very thin, black-dyed mustache sat near his nose, a distance away from his thin, purplish lips.

I was eleven and this was my first trip to the school music room. A wonderful little place filled with sitars, mandolins, harmoniums, tablas and other delightful instruments, all begging me to touch them. I couldn’t resist, no one could, a ploink here, a thud there, everyone wanted to give it a go. Till some idiot would drop an instrument and Mr. Chatterjee would growl and in Bengali accented English, ask everyone to get out. But he was so funny looking, with his jet black hair (with some dye staining his scalp), his thick black glasses and his flaming red Bajaj scooter, that no one took him seriously. Much as he probably hated it, he knew the kids made fun of him and was quietly resigned to that fact.

Soon after my first trip to the music room, I became painfully aware of my limitations as a musician. I had harbored dreams of being able to pick up a guitar and strum out a tune, on a beach at night, surrounded by girls looking at me wistfully, warmed by a bonfire. And here I was, plucking nervously on a guitar string, with Chatto (that’s what we called him), looking at me with disgust, like I was some rotten fish. It didn’t help that I kept losing my plucker in the hole of the guitar and spent half the hour of music class, trying to get it out.

As the months went by, preparations for the annual Founder’s day orchestra performance began in full swing. Devoid of any musical talent, I was relegated to the back row, about 15 of us with some coconut shaped instrument filled with beads. We would be providing the super important background ‘chickachika’ sounds while the talented musicians took the foreground and played the actual Raaga. There were about four tabla players. A couple of days before the show, one of the tabla players fell ill and had to bow out. Distressed by the lack of symmetry on stage, Chatto calls me up front during one of the practices and asks me to sit in the empty place. He politely asks me not to actually play the tabla but just pretend to do the ‘dhak dhin’ finger motion, gently to the rhythm. Piece of cake. I’m awesome at pretend playing. I could sense his anxiety but I was just so thrilled to be in the front row.

Founder’s day was upon us. The show went off beautifully. The orchestra played proudly, practiced to perfection. I pretended to play, smiling for the cameras, trying to search for people I knew in the audience and make gleeful eye contact. After the performance we all gathered backstage, congratulating each other. Chatto was there, saying ‘Shabaash’ to his star pupils. Then, just as we were all about to disperse, he grabs my hand and says loudly, “I love this boy. He doesn’t know T of Tabla but he played like he was Zakir Hussain. Swinging his head and everything.” I didn’t know how to react, mainly because I didn’t know if he was being sarcastic or ridiculing me. But he kept going and there wasn’t any sarcasm in his voice. Mr. Chatterjee found it incredibly endearing that I would pretend-play with flair.

Deeply embarrassed as I was that night, a part of me felt incredibly reassured. Ever since I could remember, I’ve always loved being in the spotlight. But people always tell you to shun it, to work quietly, to curb that natural instinct to want to shine. And here was this man, so used to ridicule, from his colleagues and his students, who didn’t feel the need to trample over a little boy who wanted to just feel like he was playing brilliantly. He let me shine that night. And he loved me for it.

We had a different equation from that day on. I never ridiculed Mr. Chatterjee and he always jokingly called me Zakir Hussain. I played in the school orchestra for 4 years, moving my way up to the mandolin. I never really was a gifted musician but I practiced long and hard, committed the raagas to physical memory and never made a mistake during a performance. I spent an incredible amount of my free time in that music room, sometimes practicing, but most times, just taking to Chatto. And while walking to the dorm, if he happened to zip by on his scooter, while most students would shout “Eh Chatto” behind his back, I’d keep my silence. I knew a side of him that others weren’t fortunate enough to know.

Life is a bully. It makes us paranoid and superstitious. We trade in our spark for a more socially acceptable way of life. I fall into that trap too. But some days, and those days come infrequently now, I find myself often revisiting that October night in 1992. Chatto grabbing my arm, saying he loved this boy, who couldn’t play but wanted to be Zakir Hussain. It silences that nagging, doubtful voice in my head. It reinforces who I was born to be. And I step into the light again.

Hiding in the cold.

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This is my old house. I was born here and lived in this house till I was nine and went off to boarding school. Thereafter, I’ve only been a visitor, for a few days, weeks and recently, for a few hours everyday.

It is a house that grew with us, little parts being added or renovated as we grew, as our needs increased. The cracks of this haphazard growth adorn its many walls and she wears them proudly, like an irreverent old lady who has seen her fair share of life’s uncertainty.

I eat my lunch in this house everyday, an hour between the hustle and bustle of the hospital. On most days, I barely even notice the house but today, as I climbed up the unusually steep staircase, I was ambushed by a smell so reminiscent of my childhood that it made me stop, a nostalgic, anxious punch to my stomach sent me hurtling back a couple of decades.

In boarding school, we had two vacation periods every year. Three months in the summer and a month in December. The summers were arid and dry and went by rather rapidly. We were back in school just as the monsoon was finding its feet back home. It was the winter holidays that I remember more fondly though. They were too short to plan a trip out of town, so most of that month would be spent at home. Being tucked into bed by Mom at night, drinking tea with my father at breakfast (and dipping the hospital jeera puri in it, which was the standard patient breakfast till not long ago), laying around in the living room with a book, sitting in my Mom’s home office, reading comic books as she worked, sitting next to my grandmother as she watched television or embroidered covers for our throw pillows, they were simple times. Simple but incredibly special. Despite the euphoria of being home, I always had this anxiety lurking just beneath the surface, knowing my time at home was limited. This smell of home would soon be replaced. Dorm mates, mess food, homework and exams were always round the corner.

I live in a town where winter usually means a low of about 12 degrees Celsius early in the morning, at the peak of winter. So it’s never really cold-cold. But this house, with its closed doors and grandmotherly mustiness, traps in the cold, sneaking up on you when you least expect it. And in this vault like chilliness, I learnt to find my comfort. I would drown myself in my book, feet tucked under pillows, hiding from the inevitability of having to pry myself free from what most kids take for granted.

In school and so many times after school, I’ve been ambushed by this haunting concoction of sensations. Even when I’m not at home, sometimes even when I’m nowhere near geographically. The temperature and the smell of old upholstery, of fine dust glinting in the stray sunbeams which filter in, the smell of old wooden doors, the smell of a time which birthed this permanent vulnerability.

As I bounced up the stairs today, I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up. A reminder of a precious time. A reminder that no matter how old we grow, our weaknesses remain the same. A reminder that being enveloped by the cold, can be comforting too.

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Happy birthday.

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I met her when she was 17. She was a free spirit. Lived one day at a time, never planned for tomorrow, loved unconditionally. For a regimented fool like me, she was a breath of fresh air, as though someone unlocked the dark dungeons of my heart, cleared the cobwebs and let sunlight stream in.

Fifteen years, marriage, two kids and innumerable ups and downs later, we still remain that intensely volatile couple, with emotions always at the surface. We love passionately and fight bitterly. So much has changed and yet, nothing has.

I can’t believe you’re 32, the mother of our two lovely children. I still see you as that girl in cotton world tees, faded denim, sneakers and that ridiculously heavy backpack filled with books and food, running to catch your bus back home. And as you made it on the bus, you’d fight your way to a window (injuring a few fellow passengers with that bag of yours), with a big grin on your face and wave to me.

Happy birthday Riddhi. You’ll always be 17 to me.

Introducing the board members of my future company.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always wanted to build and run my own company. Not just any company. A really large company with multiple business interests, shareholders, board meetings, strategic acquisitions, large campuses with multiple cafeterias, helipads, the works. While that remains a slightly distant dream, I think I’ve already identified the core members of my team. Together, they form the board of this behemoth. I’d like you to meet them.

Aanya :
CFO

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Being the eldest, she should ideally be the Chairman. However, Aanya decided very early in her life that she doesn’t want to be part of a company that is stupid enough to employ her siblings. She started off on her own and made her fortune in online fashion retail. The board soon realized that the financial aspects of the company cannot be left to the remaining jokers. So it pleaded her to come and set things in order. Inheriting an astute business mind from her father and being excellent in math, she sorted the messy accounts of the company and streamlined the finances in a matter of weeks since she took charge.

She can be spotted working in her office late at nights and has often been photographed rolling her eyes during board meetings when her siblings come up with harebrained ideas. She threatens to quit every week.

Ahaan :
Chairman of the board

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There was absolutely no contest when it came to choosing the chairman of the board. The board was looking for a man who swam above the turbulent waters of day to day company running. Someone who could think beyond the obvious. Someone who really didn’t bother with the small stuff. Ahaan can be spotted in most board meetings, staring out of the window with a rather blank expression on his face, chewing candy. In his first week as Chairman, he bought himself a private jet. He conducts most of his meetings on that jet, parked in the hangar and occasionally spends a night or two in it.

He is relentless, stubborn and has a very definitive vision for the company. He fears no one in the company. Except the COO.

Myrah :
COO

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Most people in the company don’t see Myrah. They hear the clackity-clack of her stilettos and run for cover. She is sharp, ruthless and terribly efficient. It takes some amount of authority to control a workforce the size of a small country. And she exudes authority. It also helps that she is the only one the Chairman is scared of.

Rumor has it that she took the company private jet on a joyride on the very first day that it arrived and got nail polish stains on the Chairman’s seat. All of it for the sole purpose of annoying Ahaan. She is most often spotted in her office, or so they say. No one really has the courage to peep in.

Agastya :
Visionary and Head of Future Strategies and Acquisitions

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Gus, everyone calls him Gus, was handpicked by the Chairman to be his CEO. He wanted someone a little chilled, unlike his two bullying sisters. The trouble was that the CEO was expected to conduct a ton of press conferences and interviews. At each of these press conferences, as soon as Gus would make an appearance, lady journalists would start to squeal, like groupies. The squeals would be so loud that no questions could ever be asked. A few of them have been known to faint on occasion. Gus would try and speak softly into the microphone, “Calm down ladies” and flash a dimpled grin. It only made matters worse.

So now he heads the future strategies division. His creative mind has ensured that the company only invests in businesses built on great design ideas. He can often be spotted eating with the staff at one of the common canteens, surrounded by a bunch of girls.

So here it is. My company isn’t up and running yet but my team is set. And it’s a formidable team, with each member bringing their own strengths to the table. In a few decades, they are going to be on the covers of Fortune and Forbes.

Insider tip : Invest early, this company is going to be huge.

I'm a Gynecologist by profession but an artist at heart. Forever trying to bridge the gap between Art and Science. I love good design, good food and open minds. I hope you enjoy my blog.