Into the Abyss

“Co-pilot suspected of deliberately crashing jet into Alpine mountains” – screamed the headline out of every newspaper in the country.

But there’s so much a headline does not tell you. Isn’t it?

It does not speak about the co-pilot’s bruised knuckles that had pummelled a Mafia druglord’s face, moments before he fled the casino the previous night.

The headline missed out on the 54 missed calls lingering on the co-pilot’s mobile phone, most of them from his mother begging to ask why the house she lives in was being pawned away, leaving her out on the street with her few belongings, this dusty humid morning.

Nobody noticed the co-pilot’s flaring nostrils and gritted teeth as he watched the head-pilot pull the stewardess close and kiss her while she playfully pushed him away. He had himself courted the stewardess for long, and she had brushed him away saying she wasn’t ready.

The headline did not write about the glittery diamond ring on the stewardess’ finger. The couple was happily engaged and now called the “Adorable two” of the airline staff. It sickened him that she had said that she did not believe in the institution of marriage when they met three years ago.

Nary a soul at the airport lavatory noticed the co-pilot gulp down those pills before the flight, probably to hush down those troubled nerves.

“Co-pilot suspected of deliberately crashing jet into Alpine mountains” – screamed the news headline the next day.

There’s so much a news headline does not tell you – Whether all of this truly happened to him, or if he simply read a story like this one and imagined that it did.

~ “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” – Abraham Maslow~

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Paris

The artist hid behind his canvas, with a color pallet in one hand and a brush in the other and squinted as he observed the beaming newly-wed couple seated across the easel. They were among many such tourists seated on chairs on a sidewalk in Montmartre, the picturesque hill in Paris that had lent inspiration to the likes of Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali. An hour later, on being announced that the “masterpiece” was ready, the excited lady leapt out of her seat to view what she hoped to frame in her bedroom back home.

A moment of silence passed before she frowned, “It’s okaaay, but the woman in the painting does not resemble me. Surely these eyes are not mine!” Her husband didn’t seem happy either.

Deep down, the artist had seen this coming, and did not offer much resistance as they left, having underpaid him. It wasn’t the first time it was happening this month.

His shoulders sank as he watched the sun quietly set over the river Siene. He dug into his pockets and fished out his wallet to look at a wrinkled photo of a girl he had loved long ago, a girl he had left behind to pursue his dream of becoming a famous artist in Paris. Her emerald eyes were simply hard to forget.

He sighed and wondered which was worse –To be an artist in Paris, but never be able to paint for the woman who became his inspiration or to be in love in Paris, and never be able to express it to the love of his life.

Like several others who came and went there, he could not answer the question and it became a strange pain in the heart and soul, bringing with itself a feeling of unaccountable loneliness.

paris-artist-district--montmartre-kathy-fornal

~ “You can’t escape the past in Paris, and yet what’s so wonderful about it is that the past and present intermingle so intangibly that it doesn’t seem to burden”. -Allen Ginsberg ~

100 words: Amsterdam

We would spend long hours at the coffee shop fiddling with the myriad philosophies of life without contemplating old age. Debate the question of mountains or seas, while sitting in a room full of smoke. Banter over a cup of cappuccino, pausing to wipe the moustache of cream with the sleeve. Play chess, while wondering if the mind could exist on its own.

Talking and dreaming about a life far from here.

I can’t seem to remember when we stepped out of the café and got run over by the guys in suits, on bicycles, zooming down the fast lane.

~ “Some tourists think Amsterdam is a city of sin, but in truth it is a city of freedom. And in freedom, most people find sin.” – John Green.~

The last rain of September

It’s a sunny morning, but there’s an unusual dampness in the air. It’s the last day of September. In the busy city of Bombay, everyone seems to be on the move. People scurrying to work, hawkers setting up their roadside stalls and beggars getting desperate at traffic signals. The city is truly alive and kicking.

September is a bittersweet month really. It’s the end of the beautiful monsoons and an uncomfortable heat wave will soon set in. Yet, people are happy that they can be carefree again and step out sans the fear of getting drenched. The roads are abundant with 2-wheelers now – scooters are something you don’t see as many of during the fiery monsoons. Hawkers now shed the shabby plastic roof that barely protects their goods from the angry rains. And beggars bring their sleeping newborns to the roads in their arms to garner additional sympathy.

Everyone tacitly believes they’ve seen the last of the rains this year.

And then, all of a sudden, the sky turns a dark grey. The noise on the roads is overpowered by the roaring thunder. Indigo-colored clouds descend to the stage and sunshine makes a polite exit. And then it rains.

It’s not a drizzle this one, it’s a monstrous shower. The rains gush down and take everyone by surprise.

The 2-wheeler junta bolts for a roof under the bus stop nearby. Beggars hasten to the shelter below the flyover. Hawkers scramble about to protect their goods.

As I stand at the bus stop myself, I wonder how the last shower of rain is an expectation set in everyone’s minds specifically at the end of September. However, unknowingly, some of us live with a similar bittersweet expectation all year long.

Think about someone you loved dearly, and had to let go of. Think about the moment when you told yourself that this was the last time you were speaking to her. That this was the last kiss the two of you would share. That moment when you knew you were losing a part of yourself just to be someone new, who you perhaps were meant to become.

And while you believe this was indeed the last moment, somewhere deep down in your heart, you’re never sure yourself if you would unexpectedly see her again. Exactly how nobody can be sure, if this is indeed the last rain of September. The last rain evokes an emotion most of us are familiar with, perhaps something we never acknowledged before.

And then the rain stops. The sky clears. The crowd starts moving. The bus stop seems less crowded. You decide it’s time to move on yourself.

And when you look to your left, you see her … gathering her belongings, getting ready to move. You find it amusing; you’re seeing her after ages and yet you were thinking about her moments ago. And then as the sun shines bright again, she turns and looks at you.

A gush of memories come to mind. Good & Bad. Happy & Sad. All bittersweet. And then, subconsciously, you smile at her.

You wonder if she will smile back at you. Or will she angrily walk away. Is this the last time you will see her? Or will you see her again? Oh! Who cares about that right now! More importantly, will she smile now?

Even though it’s hardly been a few seconds, it seems an eternity has gone by.

And then, …

The Apology

The executive assistant was clearing some files off the shelf, when she accidentally knocked down the ‘BusinessWoman of the Year’ award. Panicking, she picked it up and stuttered trying to find the words for an apology. The boss walked up, took the trophy from her hands, kept it back on the shelf and smiled.

“It’s okay. It happens.” she said. The assistant felt relieved.

“Ma’am” she asked, “I have known you for over two years now. And I have never seen you lose your temper. How is it that someone as powerful as you is also humble and forgiving? Were you always like this?”

The boss took in the panoramic view from the tall windows on the 20th floor. The city seemed to shimmer in the vibrant lights that had painted red and yellow over the black of the night.

“No, I wasn’t always like this. Many years ago, I was young and immature, and foolishly smitten in love. I knew he was the wrong man, yet my heart refused to believe it. On a stormy evening like this one, in my little home on the old side of town, I told him I would kill myself unless he proffered the commitment I deserved. He loved me, he said, but had other responsibilities he couldn’t ignore. He walked out of the house. He left me to die and did not return.”

“I couldn’t forgive him. Worse, I couldn’t forgive myself. Haunted by that evening, I left the house, thinking I would never want to see that place again. However, a year later, I walked into the lane leading up to the same house. From a distance, I saw him. He was there – facing the house, down on his knees and in tears. I watched him cry for an hour and walked back, never to return.”

The secretary stood aghast. Finally finding her words, she asked, “So do you ever wonder if he still loves you?”

The boss smiled. “It doesn’t matter. Life simply became easier, once I accepted an apology I never got.”

Going the Distance

I grabbed a coffee from the café across the road, and scurried back to my clinic. As a young dentist in the new city, I was finding it hard to manage a long distance relationship anymore. I had spent the previous night on the phone; untying the strings that bound me to a woman I had now grown apart from. We had officially “broken up” and I was single again. Hence, the strong coffee this morning.

Dating again seemed a tedious activity. The women you’d find attractive would often be hard to hold a relevant conversation with. And the women you connected emotionally with would expect a long-term commitment in return. Ah, the woes of an urban Indian man!

My first patient today, was a blind young man. Prior to and after the elementary treatment, we exchanged pleasantries and engaged in small talk. He said he was recently engaged and was looking forward to his forthcoming nuptials.

“If you don’t mind me asking, aren’t you a little young to be engaged?” I said. “How long have you know your fiancée?”

“I’ve known her for 3 years now. We met at the Braille center where we both learnt to read again, post our individual accidents. Over moments where we learnt to understand our dark new world together, we became friends and grew to love each other. Today, she teaches Braille in another city, while I am a lecturer at an Arts college here. I realised that in a world where I cannot judge whether a woman ‘looks’ beautiful, I’ve come to love a woman who ‘makes’ my world beautiful. A week ago, I asked if she would marry me. She said yes.”

“Remarkable. Didn’t you feel the need to get intimate or live together before you made this choice?”

He shook his head and smiled.

“A woman is not Braille. You don’t have to touch her, to understand her.”

~ “Because maybe, You’re gonna be the one that saves me. And after all, You’re my Wonderwall.” – Oasis (1995) ~

The blind friend

In the autumn of 2004, I travelled along with a bunch of friends to a camp organized by my school in a quaint old village nestled far away from the city. A weeklong affair, the camp was meant to help us catch a glimpse of village life and to make us appreciate its simplicity. Blended with a cultural program, a cleanliness drive and a medical camp – this week also had an organized ‘social service’ agenda.

Fresh from heartbreak, I was eager to avoid the girl who introduced me to it. Hence, on this trip I found it hard to be a social butterfly, since the group now included the same girl. On the day of the ‘medical camp’, this paranoia led me to volunteering to stay aloof at the entrance, welcome villagers and seat them in the waiting area. It was heart wrenching in bits, but warm and pleasant for the most part. It was then that I met my blind friend. When he caught my attention the first time, he was telling off a doctor who had advised him to come visit a private clinic for advanced treatment. Perhaps in his late sixties then, he was lanky and tall, and had lost most of his eyesight to pneumonia in his childhood. The world appeared hazy to him and he needed a stick to get around. He knew the medical camp would not benefit him much; he was simply there like the others for a handful of free medicines and a dollop of perspective.

I bumped into him again, this time during the cleanliness drive, while he was sitting on a bench outside the temple in the town square and then again on a solo walk through the village. On the final night of the week, eager to avoid my ex, I sat with him during the cultural program on the bench outside the temple, while the program ensued inside. Unable to see anything, the choice of seat was insignificant to him. He spoke passionately of his village and his family. He said he was fond of singing himself and had participated in all competitions held in the village in his childhood. To prove his ability, he even recited a popular song from Anand, the Rajesh Khanna classic.

He invited me to come visit him before I left the next afternoon. Finding it hard to refuse, I left the camp early morning the next day, after having packed my bags, to visit him at his home. It was a small house in an alley, with hard dung floors and mud walls. His family members, arguably one too many for a house that small, were warmhearted and friendly. They seated me on what seemed to be the only chair in the house and offered me a papaya and 3 guavas as a token of their hospitality. I sheepishly offered a box of sweets I had picked up at the local sweet vendor. My blind friend insisted I share my phone number so that we could stay in touch. He would call from the local telephone booth he said. With a promise to keep our friendship alive, and a tinge of sadness that I would perhaps not see him again, I left the village with my colleagues.

We did stay in touch that year. He would call often and I would tell him about my life in the city. He would listen keenly, laughing at my anecdotes and emoting grimly at my petty academic concerns.

A year later, I left home for college. Apparently his calls continued, but I was no longer at home to take them, and my folks had nothing more to tell him than that I was in another city attending college now. Eventually the calls stopped.

Years passed. Nearly 8 years later, I was at home taking a vacation from work, when a close friend suggested we drive down to that village for leisure and return by dusk. As we approached the village, I couldn’t help remembering my blind friend, who I had completely forgotten about in all these years. At the village, my companion and I reminisced about our time at the local school we had stayed at, the brook we had sat by and winding village roads we had walked down on. And finally, before we left, we decided to stop by the town square near the temple.

And then, sitting on the bench in front of the temple, I saw my blind friend again, hardly a stone’s throw away. He seemed to be doing nothing, looking around and then at the sky. Here he was, my blind friend after so many years, sitting in the exact same place I sat with him years ago. He sat staring blankly at the space in front of him, at me, but unable to identify whom he was looking at. I wondered what I would say to him. I wondered what he had been up to all these years. I wondered whether he would be keen to know about what I had been doing these past years. I wondered if he would ask for my phone number again.

And then, in a moment where I felt spineless and faint-hearted, I turned back and left. And we drove as far as we could from the village. I left without meeting my blind friend.

I once heard a wise friend say that it is wrong of man to offer hope to another when he knows he will fail to keep a promise. He said it is wrong to offer a remedy when there is none, wrong to kill good memories when there are some and wrong to build a relationship in which you can’t fulfil expectations.

That is what I heard my wise blind friend tell the doctor, the first time I met him.

~ The road to hell, they say, is paved by good intentions. ~

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