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Archive for January, 2010

I hurtled around the two hundred metre track, as if my life was at stake. I had run two laps and there were eight more to go. There were fifty other competitors with me. And all of us were running under a scorching Bangalore Sun. Some like Hares and some like Tortoises. Eventually the Hares gave up one by one, a few at
lap number three, a few more at lap number four and a few, two or three laps later. But some of the Tortoises were gathering momentum. This was ‘do or die’.

The conditions were terrible. The weather was teasingly hot. The track was all sand. The dust repeatedly swirled into my eyes and nostrils. I sneezed and ran and then sneezed, sneezed and ran. My lungs were about to burst. My legs were about to be swallowed by the earth below. But I chugged along. Determined to breast the tape. I wasn’t going to give up. Never.

Six days prior to the race, I entered the “Nat Geo Everest Se Takkar” Contest. I saw the Contest telephone number being advertised on Television. I had tried calling the number a few times earlier, but never got through. This time I wasn’t going to give up. So I tried once more. A beautiful female voice
answered. I was told that it was the last day. Whew! Lady luck was smiling on me. It was a simple enough Tele Quiz. I answered correctly and three days later, saw an e-mail congratulating me on making it to the second round. My day had come. My dreams of climbing Mount Everest with the Indian Army, was no more on the distant horizon. It was at my doorstep and I wasn’t going to miss out on this mammoth opportunity. Especially after my application to an Everest Base Camp trek was turned down ten days earlier, by a prominent trekking organization, as the allotted seats were full.

Much before the appointed time, I was standing in a queue outside the playground where the event was schedule to start. I glanced ahead of me. There were thousands passionately waiting. Then I looked behind me. There were hundreds more joining the queue, by the second. We were scheduled to compete in five
rounds and each of them was an elimination round. At the end of the fifth round, five contestants from the thousands who had turned up would have been selected from Bangalore. They would then be joined by five each from Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata. A seven day rigorous training program would then follow and the best five would accompany the Indian Army to the Everest Base Camp.

The atmosphere was electrifying. I let my eyes wander. Almost everybody was chatting about the event that would begin in the next few minutes. Thankfully a participant –standing before me – and I got into an animated discussion about Iraq and the hostile tactics of Gorge Bush and Tony Blair. Suddenly, the gates
flew open and we were sent in one by one. After the mandatory registration procedures, we were all given chest numbers and divided into groups of fifty. The first event of the day – and the second round – was a ten lap race around a two hundred metre track.

So there I was running around the track, huffing and puffing. Thoughts of giving up the race after the third round hastened in and out of my mind. That’s when Haile Gebrechalidze, the famous Moroccan middle distance runner’s image came flirting across and flapped those thoughts away. No! I wasn’t going to give up. I was definitely going to qualify for the next round and all the other rounds after that, and find my way to the Everest Base Camp with the Indian Army. After a few minutes, I panted past the finish line and crashed into the bosom of the burning ground below. I knew I had qualified. Because the National Geographic Channel’s cameramen zoomed in with their Sony Cameras to film me struggling to catch my breath. After all I was doing middle distance running some fifteen years after I had hung up my athletic boots.

From over a thousand, the contestants were now pruned down to one hundred and forty. The third round was an obstacle course or the web round. Where groups of fifteen were asked to stand on one side of a giant nylon spider’s web, ease themselves through the holes in the web, and reach the other side without
touching the nylon chords. The group with the maximum number of contestants reaching the other side in fifteen minutes would be the winner. There were hues and cries. Cheers and jeers. Shouts and screams. It was crazy out there. Soon, the whistle blew and the competition came to a halt. While a few of the groups
had seven and some had eight members on the other side of the nylon web, my group had none. We were distraught and disappointed, albeit only for a few seconds. Because when the judges announced the list of contestants for the next round, I was in that list and almost seven other members of my group had also
qualified. I was amazed. The decision was based not on the number of group members who reached the other side of the giant web, but in terms of camaraderie, leadership skills, teamwork and a whole lot of other skills.

The fourth round was a Psychometric test and a personal interview round. The contestants had now been trimmed to just seventy five. From over a thousand in the morning, this was amazing. And I was among the fortunate few. Whew!

After almost an hour and a half, the Psychometric test and the personal interview round was over and done with and I nervously awaited the results. One that would send me into the final round to be held the next day, where the final five would be selected to join the fifteen from the other three metros. I could
see many a fingernail biting the dust. I could feel a legion of butterflies in many a stomach. I could hear the chirping of birds gently ceasing. And just then I saw the Sun gently disappearing into the distant horizon. It was twilight.

Soon the successful chest numbers were being called out. The cameras began rolling. This was my moment. Everest was going to be mine in a few days. And I would be seen on the National Geographic Channel, April onwards. I wasn’t overconfident. It was just that I had a gut feel that I would make it. There
were a lot of cheers as the successful contestants got up and went on to stand on a specially erected stage. From seventy five we were told that the contestants were being pruned to almost half. My heart beats began galloping. Even its decibels increased alarmingly. The numbers continued to be called out.
The cheers rose to a crescendo. There were five more to go. Then four. Then three. Then two. My number had still not showed up. I bowed my head and prayed.

“Please Lord; I want to climb Mt. Everest. Please make it happen. Please. I’ll break a hundred and one coconuts. I promise. I’ll go on a pilgrimage to Nasik. I promise. I’ll roll around your place of worship a hundred times singing praises in your name. I promise. But just make this dream of mine come true. Please
Lord. Just make this dream of mine come true.”

The last number was called out. A short, scrawny young man jumped out of his seat and raced to join the other successful contestants. The cheers reached gargantuan proportions. I was devastated. How could I have missed the bus? How could Mt. Everest not be mine? I sat there with a few others who didn’t make it.
Most of them immediately left the playground. But I refused to vacate my seat. It was as if a tube of glue had been pasted to my chair. It was nerve-wracking. Darkness had set in by now. I waited for a while, then walked to the organizer and asked him to check whether my number had been missed out by a quirk of fate. He peered through his laptop, then looked up and said:

“Sorry Sir! Your number is not in the final list.”

Even the faintest of hope that had engulfed me, now lay shattered. I picked up my broken pieces, gathered my belongings and trudged out of the playground with a weary shoulder and a heart full of woe. Everest was a distant dream.

I reached home, took a hot shower and plonked myself on the couch in front of the idiot box. The India-Zimbabwe World Cup cricket match was on. My mind raced back to the eventful day. So what if I hadn’t made it to Mt. Everest? So what? Will I sit around for EVER and REST? Never! My dream would come true someday. Just then the phone rang.

“Can I speak to Mr. Narayanan Vincent?” asked the thick male voice with a lot of concern.
“Speaking” I replied, wearily.
“Sir, I am calling from the Youth Hostels Association of India. This is regarding the trek to Everest Base Camp you had applied for a few days ago…”
“Yes…”
“Sir, I am happy to inform that you have been included in the list of twenty trekkers.”
“WHAT!” I almost screamed.
“Yes Sir! There was a last minute withdrawal of one participant. So I immediately fitted you in.”

I could not believe my eyes. I stood there with the receiver in my hands. Stunned, Stumped and Shaken.


Copyright © 2003 by Narayanan G. Vincent – All rights reserved.

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We first met when we were toddlers. He used to be extremely quiet, never known to using up his energies like I did. And as we grew up in two different geographies, we drifted away. Then came the first break in the ice. My father suggested that we kids go over to where our cousins lived, some 190 kilometers away from the Chennai where we had our residence, and spend the summer holidays with them. I guess he thought that we were becoming a bit of a nuisance and so decided to pack us off. But we did not realise that this would become almost an annual exercise. Nevertheless my brothers and I jumped in glee. This was the first time, we were being sent out of town ever since we grew out of our underwear.

That’s when I met him again, after so many years. He had an elder brother and a younger sister. Actually they were my nephews and niece. Their mother was my first cousin. But due to the disparity in our ages, we children generally introduced ourselves as cousins, and not as uncles and nephews. Though he was
younger to me by a good two years, we mirthfully got along well. He was more intelligent than his elder brother who was a year older to me. But because we were all of the same age, we went out together, played together, prayed together, had our meals together and slept the night together. There was a
wonderful manifestation of camaraderie between the five of us boys all the time. My niece, being a girl, was the odd one out. She would almost always be found cooking with a bunch of tiny wooden utensils using sand, water and leaves as the main ingredients. Some days it used to be her alone and a few other days, her friends would join her in the cooking feast.

While my niece cooked, we boys would bring the house down, jumping from the terrace onto the Chickoo trees, Mango trees, Neem trees and a delicate Guava tree that surrounded their house in a rather nondescript neighborhood. If we were not jumping from the terrace to the trees and from the trees to the
terrace, we would be playing ‘marbles’, ‘gilli-danda’, ‘French cricket’ and if our moods swayed or boredom got in the way, we could be seen playing ‘badminton’ with wooden table tennis rackets, that were available in plenty on the pavements in the town’s busy market place. And when we were fed up with all these games, we would most often than not play the all time favorite ‘hide and seek’. And guess where I would hide and never get caught? Up in the branches of the Mango tree. Oh! It was fun.

But the nephew I am talking about was a bit like my younger brother, quite diligent in studies. But sadly he was never into games or sport. In fact he was the only one who would hang onto the lowest branch of the Mango tree, when the rest us would swing like monkeys from the highest of highest branches. He was not the adventurous kind.

As time jetted around, my brothers and I would leave home and travel to different cities for our higher studies and work. And thus we boys got strewn around with the sands of time. But the elders on both sides faithfully kept in touch.

One day almost 10 years later, when I was working in Chennai I returned to my office after meeting a client. A colleague informed me that there was somebody waiting for me in the conference room. When I went in, I was aghast to see a skinny young gentleman perched comfortably on the leather upholstery,
leafing through a magazine. Recognition swelled on my face. It was my quiet nephew. He was working for a real estate company and had come to meet me regarding investments. I was thrilled to see him.

Thereafter we kept meeting at regular intervals, later on at his sister’s marriage, and further on at his elder brother’s marriage. The last was during my marriage. And every time I met him he continued to be the same skinny man I knew. At the same time his real estate business was becoming better and better
and he was gradually transforming himself into a young tycoon. I was glad. That was when his mother, my cousin, started scouting around for a suitable girl for him.

In October 2001, I had relocated to Bangalore. I got a call saying that he had been admitted at the Cancer Hospital in Chennai for Cancer of the Pancreas. I was devastated. I rushed from Bangalore. I found him lying on the hospital bed, all skin and bones. I was aghast. Tears swelled in my eyes. He smiled at me. I pushed the tears back, and went and gently sat down next to him.

Apparently, it all started with a simple stomach pain and constipation a month earlier in September. The local doctor in the town they lived treated him twice. But when the pain kept forging its way back, the doctor decided to take an X-ray. Doubtful of what he saw, my quiet nephew was asked to consult at this
famous Cancer Hospital in the Chennai. That’s where the specialist doctors attending on him detected stomach cancer. Soon many thousands of rupees disappeared down the drain. But gradually the treatment seemed to be coming alive. And two months later he was sent home.

A few months later when I met him, he was walking around, going to the movies with our other relatives and life seemed to be coming back to him. But he continued to look like the bag of bones I first saw on the hospital bed. That worried me. But I carried that worry close to myself and never discussed it with
anybody else.

A few weeks later, I got a call saying that he had once again been admitted at the Cancer Hospital after the pain in his stomach resurfaced again. Scans and X-ray’s were once again taken, but nothing came to light. So they decided to cut his bust open to see what the problem was. There was a thin cancerous film that
had engulfed his body from his abdomen and right up to his neck. The doctors were dismayed. They closed his body and told his family that the cancer was very advanced and that his days were numbered and nothing could be done about it. He was given two weeks to live.

Two days later when I saw my quiet nephew, he was very cheerful. Apparently he had been told that the medications would take a long time to heal and that he would have to bear with the pain and agony that came with the illness. But in the dark corner of his eye, I knew he did not believe one word of what had been told to him. And from the same dark corner of his eye, I knew he was ready to go. Only he didn’t say it. He remained quiet all the time.

When he had survived the two weeks, his family was asked to take him home. Relatives and friends came from near and far. Days rolled into weeks. And weeks rolled into months. On one of my visits to Chennai – where his family had decided to temporarily take shelter and stay, on account of the continued
treatment – I called on him. He was delighted to see me. My mind raced back as we cracked jokes and talked about the old times. It all seemed like yesterday that we were playing ‘marbles’, ‘gilli-danda’ and jumping from the trees and playing ‘hide and seek’. And now here he was lying on a naked bed, beside a
naked chair, that sat in a naked house, with naked windows and waiting for his departure from this world. Ah! How cruel could life be?

Some three hours later as I decided to leave, he held my hands and said:
“Remember how you ran away from our home after quarreling with my elder brother and how I came looking for you with your younger brother? I will never forget that day. I found you, you know. That was an incredible game of ‘hide and seek’ we played, isn’t it?”

I couldn’t believe that he still remembered this little incident after all these years and the unimaginable part was that he made that little incident look like a game – as if I was hiding and he was seeking me out. As tears swelled in his mother’s eyes, I hurriedly walked out saying that I’ll be back soon. That night I took the train and went back to Bangalore where I lived. Three days later, at eleven in the night on December 23, I received a call saying that he had passed away and that the funeral was to be held the next day at 11 a.m.

I took the 6.30 morning train. Having traveled by this train a number of times, I knew that this train was in the habit of checking in late, every time. I hoped and prayed and believed that the train would reach Chennai without any delay at 12 p.m., for that was the prescribed time of arrival. And I also hoped and prayed and believed that I would get to see the body before my quiet nephew was laid to rest.

Miraculously, the train was on time. But the city was being battered by a cyclonic storm. I rushed out, hailed an auto-rickshaw and asked the driver to take me to the cemetery, which was some 15 minutes away from Central Station. I was fervently praying that they do not bury him and that I somehow got to see him. Suddenly, the engine of the auto-rickshaw chugging through a river that used to be a street coughed and died. My heart died too. But my mind sputtered. I jumped out, paid the driver his fare, hailed another auto-rickshaw and raced through the rivers that had flooded this concrete jungle.

As I sailed into the cemetery, believe it or not, I could see from afar, the coffin still resting in the well of the Chapel, as if waiting for my arrival. The last rites had been delayed because of the deluge that had filled the burial ground. But just as I finished paying my last respects, the rain stopped and a few minutes later we buried him. He was only 29.

As I stood there, watching the earth swallow him gently, it looked as though he was playing a new version of hide and seek. A version where he had gone into hiding and one in which I would seek him out when my turn came.

Copyright © 2003 by Narayanan G. Vincent – All rights reserved.

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The heavens thundered. And streaks of lightning slit the night skies into two, then three, then four, five and into six halves. Like an uninvited guest the skies then opened up, sending down a rapid drizzle. Before Vikku could realize its intensity, the sky’s bladder unimpededly transformed the drizzle into a blistering outpouring. Vikku stopped his motorcycle beside the deserted road and looked around. There was no shelter in sight. And it was cascading by the gallons.

“Thank God for these rains. Now Bangalore will not run short of water this summer”, he thought as he climbed back onto his motorcycle and rode out into the rains. The hostel where he stayed was experiencing a severe water crunch and these untimely thunder showers were more than welcome. He rode slowly, halting now and then to peer at a distant light that he thought could possibly be a home or a shop or some sort of shelter, where he could find a place to halt awhile. But the rains tore down Vikku’s thoughts. And he kept riding. He had no other choice. He had to find a place to rest his wet body. Just then a bus shelter loomed into view. He bent his back low over the fuel tank of the Yezdi 250cc and accelerated.

The bus shelter was like a mini general hospital. While scores of people stood jostling each other, some sat huddled puffing away on beedis and cigarettes and some even managed to find some precious real estate upon which they lay down trying to catch some sleep. They looked like snakes wriggling with each other
during the mating season. There were also a few chewing ‘pan’ and spitting its juice on a freshly sprung rain water stream running beside the road alongside the walls of the platform. And as the red beetle juice snaked its way down the stream it looked as if an injured water snake was trying to make good its escape
from some of its enemies. Vikku parked his bike close to the bus shelter and ‘flew’ inside. One youngster smoking a ‘beedi’ gave him a quarter of an inch’s place so that Vikku could survive the onslaught of the rain.

He surveyed the scene around him. It resembled the days during partition. Most looked like villagers carrying household goods wrapped in bed sheets, towels, lungies and what have you. With every rumble of thunder a child would scream and cry helplessly, while with every streak of lightning a mother would cover the face of her child with the ‘pallu’ of her ‘saree’, lest the child go blind seeing the lightning. The rains were incessant.

Vikku having stood there for over an hour was growing impatient. He was returning to his hostel from a get-together of friends and classmates. Why did he ever take this route, he asked himself petulantly? He could have taken the busier road that wormed through the city. That way at least he could have found a
better place to halt. But now it was a little too late for doing a post-mortem report. He felt like calling a friend… a relative… but where was the phone? Where was the nearest telephone booth? There were no street lights and he couldn’t see a thing. He felt angry and brutally assaulted by these thoughts.

Just then a car sped past the bus shelter. Then a screeching noise rang through the darkness and pouring rain. The car braked and reversed at breakneck speed and hurriedly stopped outside the bus shelter. It was a black car with the windows rolled up. Some of the people trotted a few steps back and froze. Were
they gangsters who had come to rob them in this pall of gloom and ruin? As Vikku watched patiently, the rear window closest to the bus shelter rolled down.

“Vikram!” a voice pierced through the unbearably cold air and cascading rain. Vikku hesitated. He could not see the ‘voice’ inside the car. Pangs of fear mounted on him. The city had seen a spate of murders the past week and he wanted to make sure that he was not going to be another innocent victim. So he stood
rooted to the concrete flooring of the bus shelter.

“Vikram!” the voice pierced through the unbearably cold air again.

This time Vikku stepped out and shouted, “Who is it?”

“It’s me… John! Going to the hostel right? Hop in. I am going there too.”

Vikku stepped out into the rain and peered closer at the rolled down window of the black car. He recognized the face and at once seemed relieved and smiled unabashedly.

“What about my bike?” quivered Vikku, a sudden gust of wind throwing him off his feet.

“It needs a good bath anyway”, laughed John. “Leave it behind the bus shelter. We’ll pick it up tomorrow”.

The black Toyota Corolla belonged to Prithvi, a friend of John’s. They were both returning from a fashion show and Prithvi was planning to drop John off at the hostel till Vikku’s wet appearance changed their plans. They sped to a pub in the pouring rain gulped down a few beers, got dropped at the hostel gates,
climbed stealthily over the wrought iron railings and disappeared into the warmth of the hundred year old Jesuit institution.

That was how Vikku and John became good friends. They were not only going to the same college but were also staying at the same college hostel together. And that night the cascading rains had altered their relationship. From mere college mates and acquaintances they were now on the threshold of becoming the best of buddies.

As days swept into weeks and months, John and Vikku’s friendship grew closer and closer. John was pursuing his final year B.Com while Vikku was doing his BA. They rode on the Yezdi 250 cc wherever they went. To the movies. To the nearby shopping mall started by a prominent MNC. And even to romantic ‘dates’ hastily arranged by John. So much so that even if John had to go to a cousins’ place or to attend a function somewhere or to a book shop and sometimes even to the barber’s saloon it was Vikku who made sure that he dropped him off. For John it was always a free ride. And the money he saved by way of Auto fare went into beers, beers and more beers.

One evening after dinner John told Vikku that he was deciding to pursue an MBA programme in the US and for that he needed to complete one year of Masters. And that Madras University was going to be the venue. Because John thought that if he did his Masters from Madras University, he was not only going to get the 3+1 years’ that was required by all American universities, but also procuring the American visa would be simple and easy. John was a master tactician. Everything he did was always according to a plan. His father owned a large Coir factory in his native Kerala and sending John to the US for higher studies was no big deal for him. John was anyway going to return one day and take over the reigns of his father’s Coir Company and run it with new business techniques that he would learn in the west.

Soon John completed his Bachelors Degree in Commerce and was off to Chennai. After landing in Chennai he wrote to Vikku and gave him his contact address there. For a few days Vikku seemed a little lonely, but the kind of person Vikku was, friends and friendship was something he could forge easily. Soon Vikku
found a job and was lost in a glamorous world of advertising and films. His job took him to the most breathtaking locations in the country and then six months later to Chennai on a transfer.

And almost on the very same day Vikku contacted John and told him of his presence in Chennai. John was elated. They met that very evening and celebrated their ‘reunion’ with a few beers. After that Vikku would invariably sleep over at John’s place almost twice or thrice a week and then head home bleary eyed in
the mornings. John had a nice flat in Chennai’s business district. His father had made a few wise investments and this flat was one of them. That was how John rolled in bundles of green, while Vikku endlessly ran short. But John was always there, spending for him and not depriving Vikku of anything that would even remotely affect their friendship.

Vikku wasn’t a rich man. He came from a middle class family that had seen a lot of gloss and sheen in the past. But then as fate would have it, Vikku’s parents had plunged into hard times and it was Vikku who – along with his brothers – was trying to resuscitate a sinking ship. In these circumstances Vikku found himself devoid of even small ‘change’ by the middle of the month and it was always John who would perform the rescue act.

Once John went home to Kerala for a short break. Before departing he invited Vikku ‘home’ for a holiday. Vikku was a travel buff. Wake him up in the middle of the night and offer him a trip to some remote hill station or an island, Vikku would grab the offer and be off in a jiffy, only if he had the money. Now when Vikku hesitated, John said “Try and make it Vikku, Kerala is a swell place! And don’t worry about the money. Just come.”

A week later Vikku had packed his bags and together with John traveled the length and breath of Kerala. Though it was a long seven days, it was the first ‘big’ holiday in his life where he had embarked on a trip, away from his family and ‘on his own’.

For weeks and months after that, the twosome would still be talking and laughing about their tryst with beautiful white-sand beaches, gorgeous ‘white’ women sunbathing, mystic masseurs, drug peddlers, pimps and about restaurants that offered nothing but fish curry and stinking red rice, one that John enjoyed, but
Vikku slunk away from.

One day John called Vikku at his office and asked him if he could come that evening and help him out with some applications and letters that needed to be written to various universities in the US. “You are so good at that. We can also top up the evening with a few beers!” whispered John.

And Vikku would unfailingly go magnetically drawn to John by some quirk of fate. Soon the number of applications would mount and at the end of it John had applied to nearly 25 universities. By this time John’s TOEFL scores had also come and he had done reasonably well. And John was confident that even if he wasn’t getting a scholarship, his father would foot the bill.

A month later John decided that he was going to the University of Texas, Houston. And a few weeks later John came to Vikku’s apartment to tell him that everything was progressing well and that his application for the American Visa was the only thing that remained.

A few days later, John called Vikku at the office and told him that he had an interview with the Visa Officer at the US Consulate the next morning and asked him if he could come by and stay the night with him and drop him off at the Consulate premises at six in the morning. So that he could take advantage of the
time and get into the gates of the Consulate early.

Vikku went to John’s flat that evening, spent the night with him and learned that one of John’s younger brothers who was studying in a prominent college in Chennai had already left for the US Consulate to ‘book space’ and ‘stand-in’ for John in the serpentine queue, till he arrived at the Consulate the next morning. As planned Vikku woke up at five the next day, dropped John off at the US Consulate at six, and biked home. Before parting ways Vikku shook hands with John, wished him all the best and told him to call him and tell him whatever the result was.

John never called. Days flew into weeks and weeks galloped into months and still there was no news from John. Vikku was stumped. Did he get the Visa or did he not? If he did not, had he gone back to Kerala a heart broken man? But that wasn’t like John. Something must have happened, thought Vikku. That very evening Vikku’s father asked him whether John wrote or called him. And Vikku replied in the negative.

“That fellow is a time server!” Vikku’s father blurted out in disdain. “I knew it all along. But I did not want to hurt you and spoil your relationship with him. He made use of you, your time, your helpful attitude and your bike and now see what he has done. He hasn’t even bothered to keep in touch with you. How many months has it been since he’s been gone? One… two…”

Vikku sat sullen on the cane chair cupping his palm on his cheeks. He was pulverized at what his father told him. At the same time his father did make a lot of sense. But was John a time server, he asked himself? Did John make use of him to meet his ends and then dump him? There was a stoic silence, bordering on
the impassive. He then went about writing a letter to John’s parents in Kerala asking them for John’s US address. A week later John’s father sent him the address saying that John had come home to Kerala, packed his belongings and had flown to the US three days after he got the Visa.

Covered in angst, Vikku sat down and wrote to John.

“Dear John” he began,

“Oh how I hate to write these few lines. But I had to. You don’t know what your silence is doing to me. It worries me day in and day out. I wonder what has gone wrong between the two of us. Why didn’t you call me before you left? Why didn’t you write to me after you reached the US? Why…Why…Why…”

Four weeks sped by and there was no reply. So he wrote another letter.

“Dear John” he began,

“I thought you were my friend and I was yours. I thought our friendship was as thick as the shrubs that grow in the backyard of my apartment. Have you forgotten me or have you misplaced my address………”

Four more weeks went by and a reply from John continued to elude Vikku. Two weeks later Vikku’s younger brother arrived from California on 15 day vacation. At dinner time he recounted all his American experiences. And then suddenly out of the blue, he told Vikku.

“Hey! I met John in California.”

Vikku looked up paralysed.

“I thought he was in Texas” Vikku replied doubtfully.

“No, he had come to meet an acquaintance of mine who’s doing his Masters at the University of Berkeley.”

“Did you speak to him?”

“Yes! Only for a few seconds.”

“Then what happened?”

“Somehow it looked as if John wasn’t eager to talk to me.”

“Did he acknowledge the fact that he had received my letters?”

“I asked him that and he nodded his head. But then he immediately jumped the subject and got talking to Leslie, this acquaintance of mine.”

Vikku stopped eating. There was a lump in his throat. He slowly got up, washed his hands, stealthily walked out of the apartment, started his bike and rode out into the city. He stopped at a wayside self-service Cafeteria, ordered for a strong cup of coffee and as he waited for the coffee to arrive, strong bouts of thunder and lightning threatened the sky. He quickly gulped the coffee as soon as it came and rode out once again. For a few minutes he rode blindly, as if he was in caught in a maze. The monsoon winds blew gustily and brought with it the smell of rain. In a few seconds, pellets of water slammed Vikku’s hands and face and before he could realise the enormity of the weather, he was drenched by the north east monsoon. He glanced around as he rode. He had almost reached the outskirts of the city. The rain was coming down in torrents. So he turned and rode back, finally realising where he was. By now it was getting quite difficult for him to even ride in these painfully soggy conditions. A bus shelter loomed
into view and he bent his back low over the fuel tank of the Yezdi 250cc and accelerated.

He parked outside the bus shelter and dashed in, shivering bitterly. The bus shelter held a number of night revelers, some waiting for the last bus and some like Vikku waiting for the rain to hold off. Just then a black car sped past the bus shelter. Then a screeching noise rang through the darkness and pouring rain.
The car braked and reversed at breakneck speed and hurriedly stopped outside the bus shelter. It was a black car with the windows rolled up. Some of the people trotted a few steps back and froze. Were they gangsters who had come to rob them in this pall of gloom and ruin? As Vikku watched patiently, the rear window closest to the bus shelter rolled down.

“Vikram!” a voice pierced through the speedy wind and cascading rain.

Vikku hesitated. He could not see the ‘voice’ inside the car. Pangs of fear mounted on him. The city had seen a spate of kidnappings the past week and he wanted to make sure that he was not going to be another innocent victim. So he stood rooted to the concrete flooring of the bus shelter.

“Vikram!” the voice pierced through the cascading rain again.

This time Vikku stepped out and shouted, “Who is it?”

“It’s me… Paul! Going home right? Hop in. I’ll drop you.”

Vikku stepped out into the rain and peered closer at the rolled down window of the black car. He recognised the face and at once seemed relieved and smiled unabashedly. But then his thoughts darted back five years to that almost similar night in Bangalore.

“Vikram! Are you coming?” cried out Paul, yet again.

“Oh! Thanks Paul. Carry on.” Vikku stammered. “My home is just a few minutes away. And I have my bike too. I’ll manage.”

As the black Opel Astra ploughed into the river – that the road had seemingly become – and disappeared into the night, Vikku clenched his fist and shook his head. He wasn’t going to make the same mistake again.

Copyright © 2003 by Narayanan G. Vincent – All rights reserved.

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Having seen most of the south, my wife and I were keen on going to a place we hadn’t been before. As our brain cells started working overtime, the phone rang incessantly one day. I was in the bathroom, while my wife was in the kitchen. I thought she would pick up the phone and she thought I would pick up the phone (not knowing that I was in the bathroom). As the ringing of the phone kept slamming my eardrums, I wrapped a towel around me and dashed to pick it up. A pleasant but heavily accented American voice answered (I really hate it when Indians who have grown up in India all along, start putting on an American accent)

“Can I speak to Mr. Narayanan Vincent?”
“Speaking”, I said.
“Congratulations Sir! You have won a holiday for two to Munnar, Kerala from Club Mahindra Holidays.”

I couldn’t believe it. I reeled. It was the happiest knockout blow I had ever received. Still reeling from the blow, I asked the heavily accented American voice (I forget her name now), how I hit the jackpot? She told me that I was chosen from a `lucky draw’ held at a shopping festival we had participated in, recently.

My wife’s face lit up, when I told her of the delightful news. And soon we started making arrangements. The best part was, Munnar had `eluded’ us for a long time, for strange and illogical reasons. One of them being that Munnar was `tea’ country and therefore there wouldn’t be much to see around.

Eventually when we got there, it was perhaps the most beautiful place on earth. Perched 6000 feet above sea level, on the Western Ghats, in Gods Own Country, Kerala Munnar enveloped me in her bosom like no other hill station had done before. (The exceptions being Darjeeling and Sikkim). If the colour `Green’ had another name, it would be Munnar. Yes! That was the most amazing quality of Munnar. Unspoilt. Sylvan. Idyllic. And definitely not the victim of a `gang rape’ that Ooty, Kodaikanal, Mussorie and Nainital were being subjected to, time and time again.

There were so many things to see in and around Munnar. From `Eravikulam National Park’ to hordes of lakes and dozens and dozens of waterfalls. But it was our stay at Club Mahindra that added a lot of color to our holiday in Munnar. There would be fun and games every day for all the holidayers staying at the Resort. And these fun and games would begin at 6 p.m. every day. These games were designed primarily to keep the guests entertained as it was not advisable venturing out of the Resort in the dark. In short, there were tones of fun for everyone.

And on one such day we had the `Best Couple’ contest. Infact the announcement of the contest was a complete surprise to every one of us. After we were all seated, the Master of Ceremonies said that he would be conducting a few `games’, at the end of which the `Best Couple’ would be chosen.

He then called for four volunteers to be the Judges. After two ladies and two men came forward, he asked for four couples – one from each zone, North, South, East, West – to volunteer and be the participants in this `fabulous evening of fun, games and revelry’. Hardly had he mentioned `South’, that I shot out of my chair, dragging my shocked, surprised and bewildered wife with me. And as the MC went about choosing the other volunteers from the other three zones, my wife kept tugging at my shirt sleeves.”You must be crazy participating in this contest. And even crazier, dragging me along”.

I `excitedly’ told her to calm down and go with the tide. But quite frankly I didn’t have the faintest of idea as to why I volunteered to participate and drag my poor and helpless wife along. But then I kind of convinced her saying, “This isn’t a figure skating contest or something where a cluster of medals are at stake. This is going to be the good old `Spoon and Lemon Race’ and `Musical Chairs’ kind of competition. So take it easy lady, we’ll win” I said.

“We hardly have the `figures’ to take part in a `figure skating contest’, leave alone run around with a Lemon that won’t stop bouncing around, and you are already dreaming of winning the damn event”, she butted in.

The MC interrupted us and started explaining to us the rules of the competition. The first round was going to be a “Husband Singing, Wife Dancing” round. Hardly had he mentioned this that Mrs. Agarwal looked at Mr. Agarwal, the couple from North Zone and blushed. I refused to look at my wife. But all those who noticed the Agarwal’s laughed. The second round was going to be both “Husband and Wife” dancing to a popular but old Hindi song. And the third round was going to be the “Balloon Bursting” round.

And so the competition began. We were the first to start off. I tried hard to think of something good to sing. But my mind went blank. Then my wife suggested “Surangani…Surangani”, the Sri Lankan `Bailo’, an extremely popular song at schools and colleges all over India.

Soon I was singing. And as I sang I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. My wife was moving around the dancing floor like a ballet dancer. Bet `Vyjanthimala’ and `Padmini’ would have been jealous. I had never known she could dance so well. She had never told me that. Because whenever we had gone party hopping, I would be the `wild’ kind of guy, while she would squat in a corner, hibernating and waiting for me to make a re-entry into her life. So this came as a big surprise to me. Her dancing gave me that extra pep in my singing. The audience was smiling. Some were laughing. While some were in rapt attention. In a few seconds as my `singing’ and her `dancing’ came to an end, the applause was deafening. We had scored 17 points with three of the Judges giving us 4 points out of 5 and one giving us a 5.

The other couples soon followed. While the Northern couple secured 15 points, the Eastern couple secured 13 and the Western couple scored 12 points. We were in the lead. And my wife couldn’t believe it. Neither could I. For the first time in our married lives `winning’ was beginning to mean a lot to us. And we were not going to let it go.

The second event followed. We were to dance to an Old Hindi song that was going to be played. We looked at each other. I discovered a `gleam’ in my wife’s eye. That was exactly what I was looking for. Now the party had started.

This time it was the Eastern Couple that kicked off the second round, followed by West, North and finally us. I must say, the Eastern Couple took the evening out of us with their skilful and synchronized dancing. It was amazing to watch them shake their bodies to the rhythm of the old Hindi song (I forget the song now. But it was one of those golden hits of the 60’s). When they finished, the applause was mind blowing. And perhaps mine was the loudest. They had really danced well. The couple form the North came in next and they danced well too. Then came the Western twosome and then us. We tried to our best. Guess we were dancing together for the first time and so the harmony was kind of `missing’. Still we received a decent applause. With some in the 60 to 70 odd audience even saying, “Hey! You guys really dance well. You make a fine couple”.

But the Judges were the decision makers. So we waited. The Eastern couple came first with 18 points. The Northern couple got 17, we got 16 and the Bombay couple got 13. But after two rounds, we were still in the lead with 33 points, followed by the Agarwals from the North with 32 points, the Bihari couple from the East with 31 points and the Bombay couple with 25 points. This was a neck and neck battle. I guess it wasn’t getting better than this. I could see that the Mumbai couple had almost given up. But there was a steely determination painted on the faces of the other couples. Well… if they had steely determination, my wife and I had an iron determination. We were going to try real hard to stretch the lead and succeed.

In a few minutes the third and final round commenced. This was the “Balloon Bursting” round. The wife was supposed to sit on a chair twenty feet away, while the husband was to take a balloon each from the MC, run to the where the wife was sitting and burst it on her lap. Then run back and take another balloon, run to the wife and burst it on her lap, with his backs towards his wife. Then run back, grab another balloon, run again and burst it on the wife’s chest. The fastest to burst all three balloons and reach the finish line would get 5 points. The second fastest would get 3 points. The third would get 2 and the last would get 1 point.

The first to take the floor was the Mumbai couple. And how the audience laughed. It was like one tortoise running to the other tortoise. At the end, the Mumbai couple took all of 23 seconds to burst all three balloons. The next was the Eastern Couple. And they were quite quick, running and bursting all three balloons in 18 seconds. The Northern couple came next and clocked a time of 17 seconds.

The `day’ of reckoning stared at my wife and me. This was big time. The audience was in a fizz. And there was a buzz going around. Could we do it? Or could we not? I took hold of the first balloon in my hand and saw my wife sitting a good twenty feet away from me. I imagined Carl Lewis’ Gold medal run in the 100 metres at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The MC blew the whistle. I took off.

Not since school and college had I sprinted like this. My wife `froze’ seeing me charge. I could see her eyes closed. That’s when the first balloon went off. Then I `flew’ like the hare, grabbed the second balloon from the outstretched arms of the MC, ran wild, then turned and smashed the balloon on my wife’s lap like Michael Jordan jumping, turning and dunking in a basket. Then I `flew’ yet again. Grabbed the third balloon. Zipped back and banged it on my wife’s chest and tore away to the finish line. The MC looked at the stop watch. Then he looked at me. Then he looked at the audience. I could see the `unbelievable’ look on his face.

“11 seconds” he announced.

I screamed and jumped and flew to where my wife was sitting. We hugged each other. We couldn’t believe we had won. We had scored 38 points from the three rounds. Second was the Northern couple with 35 points. Third was the couple form the East with 33 points and the last was the Mumbai couple with 26 points.

And as we were `crowned’ the Best Couple, our joy and happiness knew no bounds. This wasn’t just a holiday, but the BEST holiday we had ever had. This was certainly a new chapter in our lives. The chapter of winning together. It was a wonderful and blissful feeling. A feeling that was second-to-none.

Copyright © 2009 by Narayanan G. Vincent -All rights reserved.

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With every increasing trip, my love for Mumbai was taking on gargantuan proportions. But sadly every one of those trips lasted at the most, a couple of days. But there was one trip I’ll never forget. This one lasted a good 10 days.

It was my fifth time in Mumbai. I had arrived to work on some `priority’ advertising campaigns for my Mumbai branch. I was put up in a decent hotel in Dadar and everyday I would take a cab to my office in Churchgate. And soon work began. For breakfast I would have Dal-rotis. For lunch I would have Dal-rotis. And in the nights, Dal-rotis. If my mood swung left, it would be Biriyani and if it swung right, it would be fried rice. I had to swallow these with a strange rigidity; because none of the restaurants offered the cuisine that I liked the most – Sambar, Rasam and Curd Rice. Or in more simple terms, the good old South Indian meal. And Mumbai being a place of distances, I couldn’t see myself traveling ten to fifteen kilometers, just to have Idlis and Dosas for breakfast. And Sambar, Rasam and Curd Rice for lunch. So I had to make do with Dal-rotis, as I despised the bread varieties in the mornings. I needed something nice and spicy to break my fast. And all that was available in good old Dadar was Dal-roti.

By the end of the third day, I was fed up. I couldn’t take it anymore. And my colleagues were amused to see me getting annoyed over a plate of food, everyday. It was fine for them to be amused over my precarious situation, but would they
live on Sambar, Rasam or Curd Rice if and when they came to Chennai, Bangalore or a maybe Cochin or Trivandrum? The answer would be a big NO!

So on the fourth afternoon, I had made up my mind that I would pull out all stops and travel to the very end of Mumbai, if required, to get my Sambar, Rasam and Curd Rice. Just then one kind soul in the office, told me that there was
this restaurant close to Eros Cinema that was offering `Thalis’ (meals). The very mention of `Thali’ and a different kind of creative juice flowed out of my gaping jaws. And in no time, it overflowed. And before it could flood the office and swamp the streets, I jogged to the restaurant this kind soul told me about.

There was a black board pitched outside the restaurant, with white plastic letters that shouted out in thick round fonts.
“Vegetarian Thalis” – Rs. 90/-.
“Non-Vegetarian Thalis” – Rs 110/-.
My heart sank looking at the price. But my spirits lifted me almost immediately and I heard my conscience crying out.
“Damn the price. Go have some Sambar Rice.”

So as I trudged in, all the stewards and waiters exchanged curious glances. I wondered why. And when I went to wash my hands in the wash basin and looked up at the mirror above, did I realize why they were continuously exchanging those
`curious’ glances. My face was radiating a light that would send the mighty `Sun’ into hiding. And my face had also developed a fabulous smile that was as long as the River Nile.

I sat down at a corner table. Soon a tie-flapping, nose-twitching, hungry-looking steward appeared next to me. I ordered for a “Thali” and asked him to get it real quick.
“Sir, it would take 10 minutes” he said.
“Areh Baba! I have a plane to catch, thoda jaldi lao na” I cried.
I was lying. There was no plane to catch. It was just that I was desperate for good old Sambar, Rasam and Curd Rice. In three minutes the tie-flapping, nose-twitching, hungry-looking steward accompanied by a sad-looking, eye-popping, gelled-haired waiter announced their arrival at my table. They set the `Thali’ in front of me and disappeared.

There was an array of dishes. From Dals and Currys to something that looked like Sambar and Curds. Then I attacked with all five fingers. They dived in just like the Spring Board Diving event at the Olympics. My taste buds were in for a rude
shock. The dish that looked like Sambar tasted `sweeeeeeet’. Would you believe that? I was jolted. Then I checked the other dishes by putting a spoonful from each bowl into my mouth. Every dish that lay spread out before me tasted
`sweet’. I thought somebody had played a prank. I could see my face turning beetroot red. There was smoke coming out of my ears. I wanted to scream. But I held myself, and beckoned the steward. The tie-flapping, nose-twitching,
hungry-looking steward, flew to my side, saw my beetroot red profile and bowing low, almost kissing the carpet, asked me with a politeness that I had never heard before.

“Anything wrong Sir?”
“Why is everything so sweet? Where is my South Indian Thali?” I blurted out.
“Sir! This is Gujarati Thali, not South Indian!”

I ran from the restaurant, totally defeated. What kind of a cosmopolitan city was this? How could Mumbai not have a single restaurant that offered decent South Indian meals? For the first time I hated Mumbai!

So I went back to the office. The kind soul, who had told me about this restaurant offering “Thalis”, wasn’t around. I think he was really lucky not to be there. Then one of the Art Directors told me about Hotel Kamat at Colaba. She said that Kamat definitely offered South Indian food. For the first time I could vouch for that. Because there were quite a few Kamats in the city I lived. So I confidently took a Cab, reached Hotel Kamat at Colaba only to find that “Thalis” were `over’ and that only light `eats’ were available. I looked at the menu and ordered for a “Sambar Vada”. I was starving. In five minutes the hot-hot “Sambar Vada” arrived – a steel bowl containing two round cakes made from rice flour and dal batter, fried in oil and soaked in Sambar. My hair stood up and I could not believe it. The Sambar Vada was sweet, sweet and sweeter than sugar. Was it yet another Gujarati concoction? Or were all these restaurants being run by Gujaratis and Gujaratis alone? Now I was really beginning to hate Mumbai.

That same evening, a colleague of mine Ganesh Iyer, seeing me suffer promised to bring me food from his house the next day. Being a Tamil Iyer, I knew that this was going to be a feast. I told him: “Drumstick Sambar, Potato Curry, Tomato Rasam, and Bagala Bath (Curd Rice)” were my favourites”. But to my shock, he did not turn up the next day. I was aghast and heart-broken. And I sulked to a corner just like a puppy would after getting a thrashing from his master.

Then at one in the afternoon, a fleet of creative and media guys descended from the office and set out to the Fort area nearby, to have lunch. And in no time I saw my feet being dragged along too. I had no other choice. Just as they trooped
into a restaurant close to Sterling cinema – that offered continental cuisine – I stopped outside the restaurant and asked the Security Guard, if there were any South Indian restaurants around. He immediately told me there was one “Madras
Hotel” a few minutes away and gave me the directions.

My eyes lit up and my appetite hastened back. I felt like a Tiger waiting to spring on a lonely Gazelle. I started to walk briskly. Then started trotting. Then jogging. Then running. Then flying. I was panting profusely when I screeched to a halt outside a small hotel with a faded blue colored board that said “Madras Hotel”. I galloped in and sat down. It was a small place. And giving me company were cab drivers, auto drivers and small businessmen. Who cared of what company I kept! All I knew was that my poor stomach was in the need of some spicy company. And all I needed was a good meal, full of Sambar, Rasam and Curd rice. I ordered for a plate, then another, then another and another and yet another, leaving the waiters and the cashier gasping for breath. It was the best meal – or meals – of my life. Meals that numbered five. On day
number five. During my visit number five. I loved Mumbai.

With my stomach full and the colour back on my face, I hummed, whistled and slowly trudged back to my office at Churchgate. I never knew, that a bellyful of fabulous Sambar, Rasam and Curd Rice would make so happy. I walked up the
stairs, ambled into the office and sank into my seat. I was drowsy. Then I turned and glanced at my desk. I found a big Stainless Steel Tiffin carrier parked on the table. Somebody tapped me on my shoulder. I turned. It was Ganesh
Iyer.

“Sorry! I am late” he said. “I have brought you your favorite Drumstick Sambar, Potato Curry, Tomato Rasam, and Bagala Bath (Curd Rice). Go ahead, have a feast!”

Copyright © 2003 by Narayanan G. Vincent -All rights reserved.

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Its four in the morn
there’s a knock on the door
the boat is waiting
to take her offshore

She stretches and yawns
and gently looks around
at four hungry mouths
sleeping on the ground

She’s all but twelve
and a mother of four
though in blood, a sister
a childhood gone sore

The last of the big tides
smashes the sand
the seagulls go calling
to lend a helping hand

To whom you may want to know
to the Fisherwoman of course
for she is just a girl
Feeding mouths of four

She calls out to the birds
she’s grown up with them
Throws a few chips
and laughs at the mayhem

Her uncle waits
for the small feet to arrive
His eyes go moist
His heart swells with pride

She was but eight
when his brother was swallowed by the sea
Her mother much before that
When she was just three

She stands tall
As the boat pounds over the waves
Fearless and confident
Through the morning haze

The seagulls cackle
As they fly overhead
Soon they will lead her
To the feast up ahead

The sun dressed in gold
Rises to salute
The figures in silhouette
As they return with the loot

She sells her catch
In grams and kilos
Sweating on the road
Bordering the shore

By mid afternoon
She’s counting the gains
In metal and paper
And trying to be sane

She runs home now
As fast as she can
To work on the stove
With a knife in her hand

Her siblings soon arrive
Twins of eleven and ten and nine
With hungry stomachs
As high as the tide

With their bellies full
They rush out to play
While the Fisherwoman begins
Yet another day

She cooks up some snacks
And packs them in a tin
As the sun bids goodbye
Calls her siblings in

The twin eleven year olds
Then rush to work
Chasing customers on the beach
With the tin, smile and a smirk

As night falls
The cold winds shout
The foursome snore
And the lights go out

She stretches and yawns
and gently looks around
at four hungry mouths
sleeping on the ground

Copyright © 2010 by Narayanan G. Vincent – All rights reserved.

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