Monday, November 30, 2015

Fiction - Seize the Day

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single girl in possession of a good boyfriend must be constantly reminded of her loveliness. Shefali Ahuja is no different. At various stages of our courtship, whenever my love for her had seemed to falter, she would stare at me with her doe-shaped eyes.

“Don’t you love me?” she would ask with pupils dilated, nostrils flaring and her eyelashes pointed like a battalion of fiery archers ready to shoot if I happened to give the wrong response. Which was never.

In such a situation, and believe me I’ve had lots of practice, I usually grasp her hand and press my fingertips to her lips. It helps if I seem to be in low spirits.
“Yes, yes, yes,” I say. “Darling, even life isn’t worth living if I can’t be with you.”
Nine times out of ten, my declarations of love would assuage her doubts and set her mind to rest. Her facial muscles would relax, and a hint of a smile would play around her lips as the dimple on her right cheek put in a welcome appearance.

But something was wrong today. She sat unsmiling, nervously kneading her hands as she cast her eyes at the summer blooms of jasmine around us. We were relaxing under the famous virgin tree, the one that students of Delhi’s Hindu College adorn each Valentine’s Day with water-filled condoms and heart-shaped balloons. There are no such decorations on the tree today and the final exams are almost upon us, although the eternal optimist in me always dreams of the day the spare condom in my wallet would come in handy. Shefali and I had kissed often, but it would take a lot of convincing for her to go the whole hog.

It’s unnerving. She is looking at me again. I know what that stare means. And it’s not good. When this happens, she usually wants me to prove my love to her. And today I’m not in the mood for one of her weird challenges. One time, she made me run shirtless down the main college corridor - which wasn’t so bad, since I’ve been spending hours at the gym and am always on the lookout for an opportunity to show off my abs.

And then she made me cram her hostel room with enough red roses to render me bankrupt for two months. Shefali was pleased with the roses; my dad wasn’t. I was subjected to an hour-long lecture on how he had juggled two part-time jobs to get through college, and now his no-good son was frittering away his inheritance.

Once Shefali fell out with her friend Urvashi and thanks to my background in English literature, I was asked to come up with 24 lines of rhyming poetry that cast aspersions on her character. A WhatsApp-fuelled chain of ridicule ensured Urvashi bunked classes for the next two weeks.

Call it my sixth sense. Each time George R.R. Martin is about to kill off a central character in his medieval fantasy novels, I’m afflicted with an impending sense of doom. On this breezy March morning, I shudder to think what lies ahead.

Shefali is gently caressing my forehead. I recognize the signs and brace myself for the words about to fall from her lips.
“Prove that you love me,” she says.
“Of course, darling”
“This one is tough”
“You know I will do anything for you, Shefali”
“And if you do it, I’ll give you what you’ve been waiting for”
“Just tell me. What do I have to do?”
“Well, Venkat was mean to me today.”

It is crystal clear now. Venkat is Shefali’s classmate in their second-year History honours course. I’ve to teach Venkat a lesson, beat him up and avenge my lady love. It won’t be easy. Venkat goes to the gym too, and there is a slight chance I may suffer a black eye or two. But the promised reward would make it all worthwhile. And my wallet would carry one less condom.

“Do not worry, Shefali. He’ll fall at your feet and beg for mercy.”
“But you should not beat him up”
I must look confused, for Shefali smiles and whispers in my ear. These were not sweet nothings.
“Are you mad? I can’t do that”
“But you said you will do anything for me”
“Yes, but this is crazy”
“Really? Is that how much you love me?”
“No buts. He should be in the canteen. You have five minutes”
“I’ve to do this now?”
“And now you have four minutes and 58 seconds”

I look at my watch and hesitate. For no apparent reason, I’m reminded of Professor Gupta’s class on Metaphysical poetry last week. We were reading Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress and I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the poet as he pleaded with his lover to yield to his passion. Life is short. Don’t put things off. Carpe diem. That’s Latin for ‘seize the day’. Of course.

I set off running across the college grounds, scrambling through hedges and taking the shortcut through the administration building. Outside the library, I nearly crash into a pony-tailed woman - her arms piled high with books - but I swerve at the last minute and arrive unscathed at the canteen. I scan the crowd for any sign of my target. Plenty of students tucking into greasy bread pakoras and cups of milky tea. But no Venkat.

I look back to see Shefali entering the canteen. She is breathless and weary. Must have been running after me. Our eyes meet. She taps her watch and frowns before collapsing into the chair next to mine.
“You have less than 30 seconds left”
“But he’s not here”
“He has to be”
I’m about to retort when I spot Venkat outside the canteen. It’s the hardest decision I’ve had to make in my life. It’s now or never. Shefali had noticed Venkat too, and I probably had just a few seconds to do it.

I observed him carefully as he walked to the door. I knew that time was running out but suppressed the urge to check my watch. I took a deep breath and started counting in reverse under my breath. “Ten, nine, eight, seven...”

As Venkat entered the canteen, I grabbed his arm to get his attention and pulled him in for a kiss. I had aimed for a quick in-and-out movement that would yoke my lips and his lips together for a fleeting second. But my counterpart had other ideas. Venkat grabbed my neck and kissed me again, trapping me in a lip lock as I flailed about, my pumped-up biceps proving ineffective against his shock-and-awe guerrilla tactics. This is not how one should adhere to the bro code.

When I’m finally set free, I am suddenly aware of hooting and whistling in the canteen. The rumpus is punctuated at regular intervals by the thump of something sharp digging into my right shoulder. I look up to see Shefali hitting me with one of her high heels. This is not turning out well.

“What are you doing?”
“You cheater!”
“You kissed Venkat”
“But you asked me to”
“Would you jump out of the window if I asked you to?”
“But I did this for you”
“Ya, right!”
“I don’t understand”
“Venkat told me you had a crush on him”
“I didn’t believe it and here you are kissing him”
“We are done. We are over. Don’t you dare speak to me again.”

Shefali turns and storms off. Her white T-shirt is stained with the remnants of a stray bread pakora let loose by an overexcited student. I want to warn her, but this doesn’t seem like the right time. I have bigger fish to fry.

I turn towards Venkat. He is smirking. And not looking sorry at all.
“What’s your problem?”
“Revenge, my friend”
“What did I ever do to you?”
“To Urvashi. You made her miserable.”
“So what?”
“She was my girlfriend, you nitwit”

I put two and two together. The universe had conspired against me and Shefali.  The funny thing was I wasn’t even angry with Venkat, Urvashi or the bread pakoras. I push my way past the throng of curious  students in the canteen. Photos of the impromptu lip lock have made it to WhatsApp already, and as I make my way back to the virgin tree, I find students giving me supercilious looks. Great. I’ll have to lie low and go off social networks for a while.

At the virgin tree, I got through my wallet and prise out the spare condom hidden behind the 10-rupee notes. It doesn’t look like I’ll get a chance to use it this year. Damn you, Shefali. I place the condom carefully on the trunk and walk away.

Seconds later, I’m back. And the condom is stowed in my wallet. I should probably hold on to it for a while. Forget Shefali, there are plenty of other fish in the sea.
(This short story was originally written for the TOI Write India: Ashwin Sanghi contest)Creative Commons License
"Seize The Day" by Tony Tharakan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Feel free to share this story, BUT with mandatory author credit and the blog post URL. You may not modify the text or use it for commercial purposes.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Movie review: Tamasha

In the years to come, I hope Imtiaz Ali's "Tamasha" will be remembered for more than just introducing legions of Bollywood fans to the sun-dappled French island of Corsica.

In Ali's sixth film as director, A-listers Ranbir Kapoor and Deepika Padukone play Indian tourists who chance upon each other in the birthplace of Napoleon. The instant conversational intimacy between the two strangers leads to a week of reckless abandon. After all, what happens in Corsica stays in Corsica. That was the plan.

On her return to India, Padukone's character is unable to shake off memories of her carefree companion. Months turn to years, and she starts spending time in a New Delhi bookshop that Kapoor's character is known to frequent. Fate brings them together, they exchange names (Ved and Tara) and start dating. Happily ever after?

But Ved is no longer the ebullient comrade of Tara's Corsican sojourn, metamorphosing into a corporate stooge doing PowerPoint presentations. Conversations falter and Tara's charming smile begins to wane. Ved is gobsmacked when Tara spurns his proposal.

This is where - as the second half begins - that director Ali reveals there's more than romantic love in the air. "Tamasha" is the story of Ved's fundamental confusion about who he should be and his journey towards self-discovery. He struggles with the conflicting demands of filial duty and his longing to be a story-teller, honed by furtive childhood visits to a yarn-spinning greybeard in Shimla.

Indeed, director Ali occasionally slips in placards to make sure the audience is aware of the spectacle unfolding on screen, beginning with the phantoms of literary lovers (Romeo and Juliet, Ram and Sita, Heer and Ranjha) that break free from young Ved's fertile imagination.

The effect isn't seamless though and "Tamasha" counts on charm, chemistry and Corsica to cast a more complete spell than they actually do. Ali's direction is uneven in parts and the film may have overreached in the second half, where there are periodic lulls between moments of dramatic brilliance. Some audiences may find the change in mood from joy to anguish unpalatable.

Even if "Tamasha" falters, "Rockstar" Kapoor is not at fault, turning in one of the most assured performances of his career. His is by far the more credible character, and the one to whom screenwriter Ali allots the best lines and scenes (Watch out for the interactions with his manager).

But doe-eyed Padukone, easily the best thing that has happened to Indian cinema this decade, holds her own in what is essentially a Ranbir Kapoor film. I just wish the audience were treated to more of Tara. All I gathered about her life is that she's some sort of globe-trotting tea taster.

Apart from the cinematography, considerable credit goes to the film's music by Oscar-winning composer A R Rahman. The unobtrusive background score helps focus the spotlight on the film's central action. Among the songs, my favourites are Matargashti - a celebration of Corsica's beauty - and Heer Toh Badi Sad Hai, which plays as Tara pines for her soul mate. The instrumental Parade De La Bastille is a haunting melody.

RATING: 3 of 5 stars

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Fiction - Coffee Break

There I was, minding my own business, slurping my Java Chip Frappuccino and staring at the Kindle in my hand, lost in a medieval fantasy far removed from the sweltering streets of New Delhi -- when she walked in. It was the sound of her heels on the wooden floor that made me glance at the woman, but it was her striking beauty that made my eyes follow her to the faux-leather couch a few metres away.

My brain, jerked back to reality from the walls of Winterfell, registered her silky voice as the barista took her order for a cappuccino grande, non-fat. She laughed as the man behind the counter asked her name a second time. "Sheila," she said. "Sheila, with an e and an i." She looked back and caught my eye; her wide smile partially obscured by strands of thick, black hair. I held her gaze and smiled back.

She was in her 30s and dressed for the Indian summer, teaming a white lace shirt with blue palazzo pants and a black stone necklace that matched the sparkle in her eyes. She was the prettiest woman in the room and way out of my league.

The next thing I knew, Sheila was asking me something, but I didn’t quite catch it.
"Are you alone? May I join you?"
"Well, sure"
"Good! I need to speak to someone," she said, easing into the seat next to mine.

Before I could regain my composure, Sheila burst into laughter. I stared, nonplussed, until she pointed to the side of her coffee cup where the barista had scribbled 'Sila'.
"They misspell it all the time," she said. "I've been called everything from Seela to Shayla."
"Oh, that’s nothing. I’ve been called Bony."
"Really? How awful," she said. "What’s your name?"
"Ah, it doesn’t make sense till you know my name. I’m Tony."
"And I'm Sheila, although you knew that already."

I smiled sheepishly as she rummaged through her handbag, pulling out a blue silk scarf and a small package wrapped in a newspaper.

"Tony, are you married?"
I stared at Sheila, too startled to respond. Beautiful women don't strike up a conversation with strangers in public places. At least not in India. Even if they do, they don’t ask invasive questions to break the ice. If I had done the same thing to a woman, she would have probably told me I’m a creep and left the place in a huff.
"Just confirming. I noticed you don’t wear a wedding ring. It's OK if you don’t want to talk about it."
"No, I was just a bit taken aback. I am not married."
"Don't mind me. My friends tell me I’m weird and ask the first thing that pops into my mind."
I smiled. But she didn't smile back, and pursed her lips instead.
Sheila leaned towards me, and dropped her voice to a whisper.
"The thing is I've just killed my husband."
"I couldn't take it anymore. I stabbed him."
She unwrapped the package in front of her, revealing a kitchen knife, its blade stained red with blood.
"I need your help," she said.

I stood up. I didn't know what to do. No one else seemed to have heard Sheila. Her words had been lost in the babble of caffeine addicts. I could make out the strains of Audrey Hepburn's "Moon River" in the background. Over at the next table, a pair of young lovers was lost in each other's eyes. A young man hunched over a laptop with headphones plugged in. At the back, giggling schoolgirls were busy smearing birthday cake on the face of their victim.

I looked at Sheila. Her words had shattered my perfect Saturday afternoon. It couldn't be. This was a joke. It had to be. Perhaps it was part of a TV show. I remembered switching channels once and chancing upon pranksters preying on unsuspecting people, telling them outrageous things to gauge their reaction. I looked around, hoping to spot TV cameras or spy cams or anything suspicious. Nothing.

Sheila was looking at me with her beautiful kohl-rimmed eyes. I sat down, my brain in overdrive, thoughts flying and connections being attempted and failing. I needed more information.

"Is this true?"
"But why are you here?"
"I wanted coffee. I couldn't think without a cup of coffee."
"You should go to the police."
"They'll arrest me."
"Obviously, you've murdered your husband."
"He deserved it. He was assaulting me."
"Why are you telling me this?"
"I need to tell somebody."
"Why the hell were you laughing earlier?"
"I don't know what to do. When I'm stressed out, I react in unexpected ways."
"What do you want from me?"
"To hide the body and give me an alibi."
"Dream on. I'm not crazy."

I picked up my Kindle and left, rushing out of the door and ignoring the security guard, who was holding his hand out for a tip. I crossed the road before I turned to steal a look.

She sat in the Starbucks cafe, sipping her coffee and staring out of the window. The blood stained knife lay next to her handbag, covered with her blue silk scarf.

This was crazy. This had to be weirdest thing that ever happened to me. And in a strange way, I found it thrilling. This was the most excitement I’d had in years. After we broke up, Priyanka had moved on with her life. She now lives in Mumbai with her husband and two-year-old son. I was stuck in a dead-end journalism job, a couple of dates which went nowhere, and now this mysterious woman wanted me to help cover up her husband's murder. Weirdly enough, it made me feel wanted. Do not judge me.

I returned to the café. She watched me as I walked back to my chair and sat down. Over at the next table, the young couple hadn't noticed my absence. The man twirled a strand of the woman’s hair, while she caressed his ears. The guy on the laptop was furiously typing something. The schoolgirls, finished with their merrymaking, were huddled up on the couch and talking animatedly.

I looked at Sheila. She had finished her cappuccino.
"Do you want another?"
"No, thank you"
"What do you want me to do?"
"Why did you come back?"
"I don't think you are the kind of person who goes about murdering people."
"Well, this is definitely my first."
"I think I'll help you."
"You will?"
"I've my car. We'll get rid of the body. And we'll go away to a new city and start over."
"Why should I go with you? We've only just met."
"Ah, you think that's creepy. Asking a stranger to get involved in a murder is way creepier."
"And why do you assume I want to go with you, just an hour after killing my husband."
"Do you want my help or not? We have to leave. We need to go to your house asap."
"No, we can't. I'm waiting for somebody."
"Ah, there he is."

Sheila got up to greet a bearded man in a T-shirt and jeans. He looked at me, smiled and held out his hand.
"Hi, I'm Rajesh, Sheila's husband."

As I stood there, speechless and unmoving, Sheila whispered something to him. Rajesh nodded and sat down, his eyes still on me.

"Please sit down, Tony," said Shiela.
"I can explain everything"
"Is he your husband?"
"So you didn't kill him?"
"And the blood on the knife?"
"Fake. Calm down. Everything's fine"
"Why did you tell me you stabbed him?"
"I'm sorry. The thing is…"

And Sheila explained it all. How she was a forensic psychologist delving into criminal minds. As part of her research, she spoke to random strangers at cafes and restaurants, analyzing their responses to potential situations that could involve breaking the law. Rajesh wasn't part of the study, but he helped her occasionally.

I was still having trouble taking all this in.
"You expect me to believe you go around telling people that you've killed your husband."
"Well, it's a different scenario each time - rob a bank, assault somebody, smuggle cocaine."
"And do people help each time?"
"They rarely do. It was a shot in the dark, and I didn't think you would agree to help."
"Wait a minute. You said yes?" said Rajesh, his smile waning.
"Well, yes. I'm sorry. I have no idea why I agreed. I'm a really nice guy if you get to know me."

Sheila leaned forward and clasped my hands.
"Why did you agree, Tony?"
"I don't know. I still can't believe it."
"You were ready to risk prison for me. Do you trust people so blindly?"
"You didn't seem like a bad person."
"A wise man once said that if you give your trust to a person who does not deserve it, you actually give him the power to destroy you."
"I've learned my lesson."
"Trust no one, Tony."
"That I won't. Not after this."
"I wish you the best in life. It was nice meeting you."

And with that, Sheila and her husband walked out of the café and out of my life. I sat there for a while, breathing in the aroma of coffee beans, and thought about what she had said. The sun was setting when I left, but I was ready to face the world again.

(This short story was originally written for the TOI Write India: Chetan Bhagat contest)
Creative Commons License
Coffee Break by Tony Tharakan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Feel free to share this story, BUT with mandatory author credit and the blog post URL. You may not modify the text or use it for commercial purposes.

Photo credit: I don't have a grinder :( via photopin (license)

Sunday, November 15, 2015

More Books

One DayOne Day by David Nicholls
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Dex and Em love each other, or do they? This novel uses the unusual format of using one day (July 15) over a course of 20 years to offer snapshots of their lives. I felt myself drawn to these weird but believable characters. And it's not as rom-commy as "When Harry Met Sally". Spoiler ahead - there isn't a happy. I wish there was one though. The Hollywood adaptation stars Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess.

The HippopotamusThe Hippopotamus by Stephen Fry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This has to be one of the funniest novels I've ever read. Fry's work is best described as a kind of raunchy P.G. Wodehouse. And in "The Hippopotamus", there's the mystery of miracle healings to boot. Fry's second novel is incredibly witty - and filthy. Be warned. There's a horse involved. Highly recommended for fans of British humour. And a movie adaptation is being filmed.

A Clash of Kings  (A Song of Ice and Fire, #2)A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Continued with Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy, having watched the corresponding episodes of the TV adaptation after every few chapters of Book Two. There are some chronological continuity issues, but I still think reading the books helps you enjoy the TV series better. I'll go slow, and hopefully Martin will publish the sixth instalment by the time I catch up.

The UnnamedThe Unnamed by Joshua Ferris
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I found this much-hyped novel about a successful lawyer who suffers from an unnamed affliction -- well, he is a compulsive walker and often finds himself waking up on the ground miles away from home -- too dreary for my tastes.

Ferris writes beautifully, but the premise would have worked better as a short story. I couldn't connect with the characters and they seemed one-dimensional. For an amazing novel about how illness affects the family, read Jerry Pinto's "Em and the Big Hoom" instead.

Those Pricey Thakur GirlsThose Pricey Thakur Girls by Anuja Chauhan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

To those who say this book is a desi version of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, let me just say that such comparisons are utterly unfounded. Yes, it is a breezy read and it's nice to have a rom-com set in New Delhi in the 1980s. Still, Chauhan's The Zoya Factor was far more enjoyable, perhaps because of its autobiographical elements. But I should tell you "Those Pricey Thakur Girls" does trump the soppy TV adaptation. No, I don't watch it. I just happened to catch a few minutes of one pathetic episode.

View all my reviews

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