Wednesday, June 28, 2006

A short story by Vikram Karve - The possibilities are endless

(a fiction short story)

The Mysore Race Course is undoubtedly the most picturesque race course in India. The lush green grass track, the verdant expanse right up to the foot of the rugged Chamundi hills which serve as a magnificent backdrop with the mighty temple atop, standing like a sentinel. The luxuriant ambience is so delightful and soothing to the eye that it instantly lifts one’s spirit. And on this bright morning on the first Saturday of October, the atmosphere was so refreshing that I felt as if I were on top of the world!

“I love this place, it’s so beautiful,” I said.

“And lucky too,” Girish added. “I have already made fifty grand. And I’m sure Bingo will win the Derby tomorrow.”

Girish appraisingly looked at the horses being paraded in the paddock, suddenly excused himself and briskly walked towards the Bookies’ betting ring.

I still can’t describe the shock I experienced when I suddenly saw Dilip, bold as brass, standing bang-on in front of me, appearing as if from nowhere. “Excuse me, ma’am,” he said. “I think you have dropped this.” In his hand was tote jackpot ticket.

He was looking at me in a funny sort of way, neither avoiding my eyes nor seeking them. I understood at once. I took the tote ticket he proffered, put it in my purse and thanked him. He smiled, turned and briskly walked away towards the first enclosure.

I felt a tremor of trepidation, but as I looked around I realized that no one had noticed in the hustle-bustle of the race-course. As I waited for my husband to emerge from the bookies’ betting ring, in my mind’s eye I marveled at the finesse with which Dilip had cleverly stage-managed the encounter to make it look completely accidental.

It was only in the solitude of my hotel room, after lunch, that I took out the jackpot ticket and examined it. I smiled to myself. The simplest substitution cipher. A last minute resort for immediate emergency communication. That meant Dilip wasn’t shadowing me; he hadn’t even expected me at the Mysore race-course. But having suddenly seen me, wanted to make contact. So he had contrived the encounter, and left further initiative to me. The ball was now squarely in my court.

I scribbled the five numbers of the jackpot combination on a piece of paper. For racing buff it was an unlikely jackpot combination which did not win and the ticket was worthless. But for me it was contained some information since I knew how to decipher it. To the five numbers I added the two numbers of my birth-date. I now had seven numbers and from each I subtracted Dilip’s single digit birth-date and in front of me I had a seven digit combination. I picked up the telephone and dialed (Mysore still had seven digit telephone numbers). It was a travel agency – a nice cover. I didn’t identify myself but only said, “Railway Enquiry?”

“Oh, Yes, madam,” a male voice answered. I recognized it at once. It was Dilip, probably anxiously waiting for my call. “You are booked on our evening sightseeing tour. Seat no. 13. The coach will be at your hotel at 3 in the afternoon. And don’t carry your mobile with you. We don’t want to be tracked.”

I looked at my watch. It was almost 2:30. Time for a quick wash. I tore up tote ticket and scribble paper and flushed it down the toilet. It was too dangerous to keep them around once their utility was over. And should ticket fall into the wrong hands, one couldn’t underestimate anybody. For human ingenuity cannot concoct a cipher which human ingenuity cannot resolve.

The tourist bus arrived precisely at 3 o’clock and soon I was in seat No. 13, a window seat. I had hardly sat down when Dilip occupied the adjacent seat No. 14. He was carrying the ubiquitous tourist bag, but I knew what was inside - the tools of his tradecraft.

“Thanks for coming, Vibha,” he said.
“I was scared you’d do something stupid, indiscreet.” I scolded him.
“You haven’t told your husband about your past?”
“I don’t know.”
“Tell him now. There’s no place for secrets between husband and wife”

“I can’t. I don’t want to. It’s too late now.” I was getting a bit impatient now. “Listen, Dilip. This is dangerous. What do you want? My husband…….”

“He’s gone to Ooty. It’s a four hours’ drive. Should be half-way by now,” Dilip interjected looking at his watch.

“He is coming back tomorrow.”
“I know. In time for the Mysore Derby. Your horse Bingo is running, isn’t it?”
“How do you know all this?”
“It’s common knowledge. Besides I make a living prying into other people’s lives.” Dilip paused for a moment. “Don’t worry, Vibha. The races start only at two tomorrow afternoon. We’ve got plenty of time together. He won’t know. I promise you.”

The bus stopped. We had arrived at the Mysore Palace.
“Come, Vibha. Let me take your photo,” Dilip said, talking out his camera.

“No,” I snapped.
“Okay. You take mine. I’ll stand there. Make sure you get the Palace in the frame.” He gave me the camera and said, “Have a look. It’s a special camera. I’ll focus the zoom lens if you want.”

I pointed the camera in the direction of the palace and looked through the viewfinder. But the palace wasn’t in the frame. The camera had a ninety degree prismatic zoom lens. I could see the tourists from our bus crowding around the shoe-stand about fifty meters to my left, depositing their shoes.

“Who?” I asked.
“Lady in the sky-blue sari, long hair. Man in the yellow T-shirt and jeans, still wearing his Ray Ban aviator.”

I happily clicked away, a number of photos, the target couple not once realizing that it was they who were in my frame.

“I don’t think they are having an affair,” I said, once we were inside the cool confines of the Mysore Palace, admiring the wall paintings of the Dasera procession. “The boy looks so young and handsome. And she’s middle-aged and her looks- so pedestrian. A most improbable combination.”

“That’s why the affair is flourishing for so long!”

I gave Dilip a quizzical look.
“Three years,” Dilip said. “It’s going on for over three years. The woman is a widow. She gets a maintenance from her in-laws’ property. They want to stop it.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.
“The right of a widow to maintenance is conditional upon her leading a life of chastity.”

“What nonsense!”
“That’s what the lawyer told me. The one who commissioned this investigation,” Dilip said. “They’ll probably use this evidence to coerce her into signing-off everything. Maybe even her children.”

“What if she doesn’t agree ?”
“Then we’ll intensify the surveillance. A ‘no holds barred’ investigation. Two-way mirrors with installed video cameras, bugs with recording equipment,” Dilip paused, and said, “In fact, in this case I’m so desperate for success that I’m even considering computer morphing if nothing else works.”

I was shocked. “Isn’t it morally disgusting? To do all these things. Extortion. Blackmail. To what length does one go?”

“Once you have the right information, the possibilities are endless,” Dilip said softly, “It’s not my concern to worry about moral and ethical issues. I never ask the question ‘why’. I just state my fee. And even if I do know why, I’ve made it a policy never to show that I understand what other people are up to.”

“What are you up to? With me?” I asked.
Dilip did not answer. He just smiled and led me towards our bus. I was glad I had not married Dilip. I had never known he could sink to such depths. I hated him for the way he was using me. Taking advantage of my fear, my helplessness. The bastard.

Nalini, my elder sister, had been right about Dilip. But for her timely intervention, I would have married Dilip. Even eloped with him. I shudder to think what life would have been like had I married Dilip.

“It’s beautiful,” Dilip said, looking at the famous painting - ‘Lady with the Lamp’ - at the Mysore Museum.

“Yes,” I answered, jolted out of my thoughts.
“Remember, Vibha. The last time we were here. It’s been almost ten years.”

I did not answer, but I clearly remembered. It was our college tour. And Dilip had quickly pulled me into a dark corner and kissed me on the lips. A stolen kiss. My first kiss. How could I ever forget?

“Vibha. Tell me honestly. Why did you ditch me so suddenly, so mercilessly?”

“Nalini told me not to marry you,” I said involuntarily, instantly regretting my words.
“And then she forced you to marry Girish, your brother-in-law.”
“Girish is not my brother-in-law. He is my co-brother.”
“Co-brother indeed! He is the younger brother of your elder sister Nalini’s husband. So he is your brother in law also isn’t it?” Dilip said sarcastically.

“So what?” I snapped angrily. “It’s not illegal. Two brothers marrying two sisters. And it’s none of your business.”

“Business!” Dilip said. “That’s it. Two sisters marry two brothers. So it’s all in the family. The business. The money. The tea estates and coffee plantations. The industries. The property. Everything.”

“So that’s what you had your eyes on, didn’t you? My father’s property!” I knew it was a cruel thing to say and I could see that Dilip was genuinely hurt. Instinctively I realized that Dilip was still in love with me. Maybe he was jealous of my successful marriage, my happiness and probably my wealth, my status in society and that’s what had made him bitter. But seeing the expression on his face I knew that Dilip would not harm me, for he was indeed truly in love with me. “I’m sorry, Dilip. Forget the past and let’s get on with our surveillance,” I said looking at the ‘target’ couple.

And so we reached the magnificent Brindavan gardens, posing as tourists in the growing crowd of humanity, stalking the couple, taking their photographs as they romantically watched the water, gushing through the sluice gates of Krishnarajasagar dam, forming a rainbow admits the spraying surf.

After sunset we enjoyed the performance at the musical fountain sitting right behind the ‘couple’. Suddenly, the lights went out, everyone stood up and started moving. Trying to adjust our eyes to the enveloping darkness, we desperately tried not to lose track of target couple as they made their way, in the confusion, towards “Lovers’ Park.”

It was pitch dark. But through the lens of the night vision device I could clearly discern two silhouettes, an eerie blue-green against the infrared background. The images were blurred and tended to merge as the two figures embraced each other, but that did not matter since I knew that the infrared camera would process the signal through an image intensifier before recording, rendering crystal-clear photo quality pictures.

“Let’s go,” Dilip whispered, and we stealthily negotiated our way out, but in hindsight, there was really no need to be clandestine about it since we were just another couple ostensibly having a good time in the dense foliage of “Lover’s Park” as it was known.

Pondering over the day’s events I realized how right Dilip had been. Surveillance involves hours of shadowing and stalking training and tracking your target, sitting for hours in all sports of places like hotels, restaurants, parks, cars etc, hanging around airports, railway stations, bus stands or even on the streets, waiting and watching. A man and a woman would appear for less conspicuous than a single man or a pair of men. And if they look like a married couple it’s even better for the cover.

I wondered why I’d agreed to do all this. Maybe because I felt a sense of guilt, a sort of an obligation that I owed Dilip. Any girl always has a feeling of dept towards a decent man who she has ditched. Or maybe because I wanted to find out what life would have been like had I married Dilip. Or maybe because I was scared that Dilip would blackmail me. Dilip was the only secret I had kept from my husband – a skeleton I wanted to keep firmly locked away in the cupboard. I guess it was a combination of all the above reasons,

The tourist bus reached my hotel at precisely 9.30 p.m. Before getting down from the bus, Dilip handed over the bag containing the infrared device, special cameras and all paraphernalia to a man sitting right behind us.

“Who was that man?” I asked after the bus drove away with the man in it.

“Never mind,” Dilip said leading me into the foyer of the hotel.
“No,” I insisted. “I want to know.”
“It is sometimes important for an operative conducting surveillance to put himself under observation.”

At first the sentence sounded innocuous, but gradually comprehension began to dawn on me, and as I realized the import of those words I experienced a chill of panic. All sorts of thoughts entered my brain. Photographs of Dilip and me. The man may even have bugged our conversation. The possibilities were endless. I looked at Dilip. Didn’t he have any scruples? My impulse was to run to my room and lock myself up. But when Dilip invited me to have dinner with him in the restaurant I knew I dared not refuse. I had no choice. Dilip now had me at his mercy. He had his manacles on me. The only way to escape Dilip’s clutches was to tell Girish everything. But could I? Especially after today! I couldn’t even bring myself to imagine the consequences.

After dinner I invited Dilip to my room for a cup of coffee. I knew it was suicidal but I had decided to give Dilip what he wanted and get rid of him, out of my life, forever.

The moment we entered the room, the phone rang. It was for Dilip- a man’s voice - probably the same man sitting behind us in the bus.

Dilip took the receiver from my hands and spoke, “I told you not to ring up here……… What?........But how is that possible ?......... Oh, my God! I am coming at once.”

“What happened?” I asked him.
“We got the wrong couple on the infrared camera in Lovers’ Park. Couldn’t you see properly?”

“No, I said. “Just blurred images.”
Instinctively I rushed with Dilip to his office-cum-laboratory. He told me not to come, but I did not listen, a strange inner force propelling me.

I looked at the blurred images on the PC monitor. Then as Dilip kept zooming, enhancing the magnification and focus, the images started becoming clear, and as I watched something started happening inside me and I could sense my heartbeats rise.

It was Nalini and Girish. Or Girish and Nalini. Whichever way you like it. It doesn’t matter. Or does it? Nalini, my elder sister - the very person instrumental in arranging my marriage to Girish. And Girish - my beloved ‘faithful’ husband. Their expressions so confident, so happy, so carefree. So sure they would never be found out. So convenient. How long was this going on? Living a lie. Deep down I felt terribly betrayed. I felt as if I had been pole-axed, a sharp sensation drilling into my vitals, my stomach curdling as I threw up my dinner.

It was extraordinary how clear my mind became all of a sudden. “Listen, Dilip,” I said emphatically, “I want a full-scale comprehensive surveillance. Two-way mirrors, bugs, video, audio - the works. A no-holds barred investigation. And dig up the past. I want everything.”

“No, Vibha !” Dilip said. “I can’t do it.”
“You can’t do it or you won’t do it?” I asserted. “Listen, Dilip. You have to do it. I want you to do it.”

“Why, Vibha. Why?”
I smiled and said, “Dilip, remember what you said in the afternoon; your motto : You never ask the question ‘why’. You just state your fee.” I paused. “So Dilip. Just state your fee!”

“But, Vibha. What would you do with all this information?” Dilip protested.

“The possibilities are endless,” I said, almost licking my lips in anticipation as I could feel the venom rising within me. “Yes indeed! The possibilities are endless!”

(A fiction short story)

Friday, June 23, 2006

My Monkey Trap


“Come, Vijay,” Captain Naik said, leading me into his study, “I’ll show you something interesting.” He opened a cupboard, pulled out a strange-looking contraption and laid it on the table. I looked at it, confused but curious. The peculiar apparatus consisted of a hollowed-out coconut attached to a solid iron chain, about two feet long, with a large metal stake at the other end.

“You know what this is?” he asked.

“No,” I answered

“I got this in Penang when I was cadet, almost thirty years ago,” Captain Naik said, picking up the coconut in his left hand, holding the chain in his right.

He looked at me and explained, “This is a monkey trap. The hollowed-out coconut is filled with some cooked rice through this small hole, chained to the stake which is driven firmly into the ground. Look at this hole. It’s just big enough so that the monkey’s hand to go in, but too small for his fist filled with rice to come out. The monkey reaches in, grabs the rice and is suddenly trapped. Because his greed won’t allow him to let go of the rice and extricate his hand, the monkey remains trapped, a victim of his greed, until he is captured. The monkey cannot see that freedom without the rice is more valuable than capture with it. That’s what happens to most of us. Probably it’s the story of your life too. Think about it.”

I thought about it and said, “Suppose I quit the merchant navy. What will I do?”

“Why don’t you join me?” Captain Naik suggested, “It’s a comfortable job. Professionally satisfying. And plenty of time for your family too. Besides, I need people like you. Of course, you won’t get your tax-free couple of thousand dollars, but the pay is good by Indian standards.”

Captain Naik was the director of a maritime training institute in Goa, running various courses for merchant navy officers. It was a lovely self-contained campus on the shores of the Arabian Sea. At first I wondered whether he had a vested interest, but I knew that was not true. Captain Naik had been my mentor and well-wisher; it was he who had groomed me when I had been a cadet on his ship many years ago. And later too, when I was a junior officer. That’s why I had made it a point to visit him the moment my ship touched Murmagao port.

For the next six months, as I sailed on the high seas, I could not forget the ‘monkey trap’ – in fact, it haunted me. And soon I knew what my decision would be. But first, I would have to discuss it with my wife. Truly speaking, that was not really necessary. She would be the happiest person on earth. For I could clearly recall every word of the vicious argument we had just before I left home about seven months ago.

It was our tenth wedding anniversary and we had thrown a small party. As I walked towards the kitchen door, I noticed my wife, Anjali, engrossed in a conversation with her childhood friend Meena, their backs toward me.

“Tell me, Anjali,” Meena was saying, “If you could live your life again, what would you like to change?”

“My marriage!” Anjali answered. I was stunned and stopped in my tracks, dumbstruck, at the kitchen door.

After the party was over, I confronted Anjali, “What were you doing in the kitchen all the time with that Meena friend of yours? You should have circulated amongst the important guests,”

“I feel out of place in your crowd,” Anjali answered.

“My crowd!” I thundered. “And you regret marrying me, do you?” I paused for a moment, and then said firmly, “Listen Anjali, you better stop associating with riffraff like Meena. Think of our status.”

“Riffraff!” Anjali was staring at me incredulously. “I was also what you call ‘riffraff’ once. And quite happy too! What’s the use of all these material comforts? And wealth and so-called status? None of it can compensate for the companionship and security of a husband. This loneliness, it’s corrosive; eating into me. Sometimes I feel you just wanted a caretaker to look after your parents, your house, and of course, now your children. To hold the fort while you gallivant around for months at a time. And that’s why you married a simple middle-class girl like me; or rather you bought me! That’s what you think, isn’t it?”

I winced when she said, ‘bought’. But in a certain way, I knew it was true. Which is why I lost my temper and shouted, “I don’t gallivant around - It’s hard earned money I have to slog and undergo hardship for! I do it for all of you. And yes indeed! I bought you. Yes I ‘bought’ you! That’s because you were willing to sell yourself. Remember one thing. No one can buy anything unless someone is willing to sell it.”

I instantly regretted my words realizing that they would only worsen the gaps in our relationship. Gaps I had failed to fill all these ten years by expensive gifts and material comforts. That’s what I was always doing. Always trying to use money to fill gaps in our relationship.

And now, almost six months later, I was flying home after handing over command – for the last time. My last ship. I had made my decision. It was probably the meeting with Captain Naik and the ‘monkey trap’ which clinched the issue, but my decision was final. I had even written to him and would be joining him at his maritime training institute in a month. But I did not write or tell Anjali. For her I wanted it to be a surprise – the happiest moment of her life! And mine too.

I didn’t hire a luxury air-conditioned taxi from Mumbai airport direct to my house in Pune like I always did. I knew I would have to get used to being less lavish in the future. So I took a bus to Dadar and caught the Deccan Express at seven in the morning. I was traveling light – no expensive gifts this time, and it being off-season, I was lucky to get a seat in an unreserved second-class compartment.

When I reached home at about lunch time, I was shocked to find Anjali missing. My old parents were having lunch by themselves; my children were at school.

When Anjali arrived at two in the afternoon, I was stunned by the metamorphosis in her appearance. Designer dress, fashionable jewellery, permed hair, fancy make-up - painted like a doll; in short, the works.

“What a surprise!” she exclaimed on seeing me.” You should have rung up.”

“Anjali, I want to talk to you. It’s something important,” I said.

“Not now,” she said, almost ignoring me. “I am already late. I just came for a quick change of clothes. Something suitable for the races….”

“Races?” I couldn’t believe it.

“Don’t you know? Today is the Pune Derby. Mrs Shah is coming to pick me up. You know her? The one whose husband is working in the Gulf. And you better buy me a new car.”

“New car?” I asked dumbfounded.

“The old one looks cheap. I hate to be seen in it. Doesn’t befit our status. We must have something good – the latest luxury limousine. I know we can afford it.”

The next few days passed in a haze of confusion. Punctuated by one surprise after another from Anjali. She wanted a deluxe flat in one of those exclusive townships. To send our children to an elite boarding school in Mussoorie of all places, membership to time-share holiday resorts, a farmhouse near Lonavala, and on and on – her demands were endless. And in between she would ask me, “Vijay, I hope you are happy that I am trying to change myself. It’s all for your sake. You were right. It is money and status that matter. Without a standard of living, there can be no quality of life!”

I did not know whether to laugh or cry. That she was once a simple domesticated middle-class girl whose concept of utopia was a happy family life was now but a distant memory to her. To ‘belong’ was now the driving force of her life.

I wish I could give this story a happy ending. But I’ll tell you what actually happened.

First, I rang up my shipping agent in Mumbai and told him to get me the most lucrative contract to go to sea as soon as possible. Then I wrote a long letter to Captain Naik regretting my inability to join him immediately. But I also wrote asking him to keep the offer open. Just in case there was a reverse transformation in Anjali – back to her earlier self.

I am an optimist and I think it will happen someday. And I hope the day comes fast; when both of us, Anjali and I, can free ourselves from the Monkey Traps of our own making.

Dear Reader. Close your eyes and ponder a bit. Have you entangled yourself in a monkey trap of your own making? Think about it! Reflect! And in your mind’s eye visualize all your own very ‘Monkey Traps’ which you have created for yourself.

What are you waiting for? The solution is in your hands. Just let go, and free yourself.

And do let me know what you feel – Which is more important: Freedom or golden manacles; standard of living or quality of life? And do help me free myself from my ‘Monkey Trap’.


Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Journey

(a fiction short story)

What I am about to tell you happened last week. I am twelve years old, I’m a girl and my name is Pooja. I was traveling from Mumbai to Pune by train. I’ve traveled by train so many times before, but this was the first time I was traveling alone.

My father came to see me off in the AC Chair Car on the Deccan Queen at Mumbai. He seemed anxious and kept on saying the same things again and again, ‘Pooja, take care. Don’t get down at any station. It’s only a three hour journey. She’ll come to pick you up at Pune. I’ve told her your coach and seat number. And I’ve told uncle to look after you.”

‘Uncle’ was a young man of about twenty-five on the seat next to mine. “Don’t you worry, sir,” he said to my father, “she’ll be delivered safe and sound.” He gave me a friendly smile. It was a genuine warmhearted smile, not a patronizing one of forced geniality. He looked quite smart and handsome. I liked him and felt happy to have him as a companion. And of course I had the window seat in case he turned out to be a bore.

Now my father was talking to the train-conductor, probably telling him the same things. To look after me. Make sure I reached safe and sound. Repeating the same thing again and again. I felt embarrassed but didn’t say anything. For I knew my father genuinely cared for me. After all, he had no one else in this world, except me.

I felt worried about Papa. That’s why when he kissed me on the cheek just before the train started, I whispered in his ear, “Papa, don’t drink too much.” I knew how much he hated being all alone and lonely and now I wouldn’t be there to look after him.

The train moved. I looked at my watch. 5:10pm. The Deccan Queen started speeding towards Pune. We would be there by dinner-time.

The young man next to me took out a book from his bag and kept it on his knees in front of him. It was a ‘Mills & Boon’ romance! I smiled to myself. He seemed to be an interesting character. Young men in their twenties surely don’t read Mills & Boon. Or do they? Well this one was! Actually he should been inside the Mills & Boon, as the Hero, rather than outside, just reading it!

I was curious and wanted to know more about him. So I looked at him and said, “Hello, uncle. I’m Pooja.”

“Oh yes! Pooja Ranade! Age 12!”

“How do you know all this?” I asked taken aback.

“I read the reservation chart,” he said. “No matter how many times I begin a train journey, I always have an intriguing interest in finding out who my fellow-passengers are.”

“Are you a detective or something?”

“No,” he said smiling. “I’m in the Navy. The Merchant Navy.” He held out his hand,” Girish Pradhan. And don’t call me uncle. Just call me Girish.”

We shook hands. His grip was firm, strong. He really looked handsome and strong – a manly man!

The Mills & Boon paperback fell off. He picked it up and put it back on his knees. It seemed funny. A manly man like him reading Mills & Boon.

He spoke, “Been to Pune before?”

“Oh yes,” I said. “My father worked in Pune there before we came to Mumbai. But it’s the first time I’m traveling alone by train.”

“Then you can help me out,” he said. “You know a restaurant called Vaishali?”

“Don’t tell me you don’t know Vaishali?” I asked surprised.

“No,” he said. “It’s the first time I’m going to Pune. But she told me it was a famous restaurant and I’d find it easily.”


“My friend.”

“Girlfriend?” I asked curious.

“Okay. You can call her that. She’s a girl and she’s a friend. She’s told me to meet her at Vaishali. Tomorrow at 10 o’clock in the morning. She promised she would be there.”

“At Vaishali?”

“Yes,” he said. “She told me that the Dosa at Vaishali is even better than the one at Shompen.”


“It’s the best restaurant in Port Blair.”

“Port Blair! That’s where you met her, is it?” I asked. This was getting interesting.

“Yes. Last December. We were sailing to Singapore and unexpectedly had to dock in Port Blair for some emergency repairs. Just three days. And there I met her.”

Wow! A real life romantic story! And this was like a fairy tale. It was getting more and more exciting and I wanted to ask him so many things.

Who was she? Her name? What happened? How did they fall in love? And what about the Mills & Boon on his lap?

But before I could speak, he suddenly said, “Hey! Why am I telling you all this? It’s supposed to be secret.”

“I promise I won’t tell anyone. She’s more than a friend isn’t she?”

“That’s what I’m going to find out. Tomorrow morning. In Vaishali.”

“Now come on, don’t tell me you haven’t met for her one year!”

“Really. We haven’t met after that. I was sailing. And she didn’t give me her number, address or even e-mail id. Just told me to come and meet her at Vaishali in Pune at 10 tomorrow.”

“So exciting, and mysterious,” I said, “I wish I could come too.”

“Sure. I’d love if you come.” he said. “But before that you must tell me more about yourself. Why are you going to Pune?”

“To see my new mother,” I blurted out without thinking. I love to talk to someone who loves to talk, he was so easy to talk to, and my words just came tumbling out. My mother’s sudden death. My father sinking into depression. His drinking problem. Everyone advising him to remarry. His refusal. Just for my sake. And this proposal. My father insisting that I see her first and like her. I told him everything.

“You mean your father hasn’t even met her?” Girish asked.

“No. Only relatives. Papa has only spoken to her on the phone,” I said. “Actually Papa is worried. About me. He wants me to meet her first and like her. He loves me so much. So he sent her a long letter and she too sent a letter to me asking me to come to Pune , stay with her for a few days and we could get to know each other.” I couldn’t speak any longer. Tears had welled in my eyes.

For some time there was silence.

I felt embarrassed at having told everything to a complete stranger. But I felt good too. Why? I do not know.

I wiped my tears and nose with my hankie and said, “I’m sorry, uncle.”

“Uncle? Hey, come on. I’m not that old. Call me Girish. I told you, didn’t I? And don’t worry. I’m sure everything will work out and you will be happy. I’ll pray for you!”

“I’ll pray for you too! I’m sure she will marry you!” I said.

“I hope so,” he said. I’m just about making it to this appointment at Vaishali. Almost by a hair’s breadth. I signed off from my ship in Japan yesterday. Reached Mumbai today morning. And here I am on the train. She told me if I didn’t keep my appointment with her tomorrow, she’d go ahead and marry someone else.”

“So romantic!” I said. “I’m dying to meet her.”

“So am I,” he said. “It’s more than one year since we said goodbye to each other at Port Blair on the fifteenth of December last year promising each other to meet tomorrow – the 24th December this year at 10 a.m. at Vaishali restaurant in Pune.”

“Why 24th of December?”

“It’s her birthday”

“But you must have written to each other. At least spoken on the phone. E-mail.”

“No. I told you didn’t I? She didn’t give me anything; her address, e-mail, phone number nothing! She was in Port Blair on a holiday. And me. I’ve been sailing since.” He paused, picked up the Mills & Boon book from his lap and said, “This was the only thing she gave me. This Mills & Boon book she had in her purse.”

“Can I see it?”

“No. You are too small for Mills & Boon.” He kept the book in the plastic book-rack in front of his seat, turned to me and said,” Pooja, you must come with me to Vaishali tomorrow. I’ll pick you up and we’ll get a surprise cake. We’ll celebrate her birthday together.”

“But you haven’t even told me her name.”

“You’ll find out tomorrow,” he said. And if she doesn’t come, I’ll be heartbroken. Then you can console me. But I’m sure she will be there waiting for me. She promised. Whatever her decision, she said she won’t ditch me. She’ll definitely be there for our appointment.”

I looked out of the tinted-glass window. The sun was about to set. Outside it was getting dark. Inside it was cold. The Deccan Queen slowed down. 6:45. The train entered a station. I read the name – it was Karjat.

I turned to Girish and said, “Let’s get down. You get good batata-wadas here.”

“How do you know? The first time you are going to Pune isn’t it?

“It’s the first time I’m traveling alone,” I said. “We used to go up and down between Pune and Mumbai so many times when Mama was there.”

“I’ll get the Batata-Wadas.Your father said you’re not to get down.”



We strolled on the platform eating the delicious batata-wadas and suddenly Girish said, “I’m nervous. I really hope everything works out.”

“Me too,” I said. “Papa is so lonely. He needs someone. But he’s so worried for me. He keeps worrying whether I’ll like her or not.”

“Of course, she will like you. I’m sure it will work out. For both of us. Why don’t you bring her to Vaishali tomorrow along with you?” he said.

“I’ll try. It’ll be good. I can see your future wife and you can see my future mother.”

“Okay, try. But you must come.”

“I will,” I said. “Like a kabab-me-haddi.”

We laughed and got inside the train. The Deccan Queen began its climb up the Western Ghats.

“Hi, Girish!” a loud voice said.

I looked up. It was a young bearded man. A boisterous type!

“Oh, Hi Sanjiv. What a surprise? What are you doing here?” Girish getting up from his seat.

“I’m going to see a girl in Pune,” the man called Sanjiv said.

“And you, Girish? What brings you to Pune,” Sanjiv asked.

“I’m looking to buy some real estate; an apartment, plot, bungalow or something,” Girish lied shamefacedly. I suppressed a giggle.

“Real estate? Great. Hey, why don’t you have a look and the Row House I bought just a month ago in Lonavala. It’s ideal for shippies like us. If you like it, you can book one. The scheme is still open.”

“No, No,” Girish said, “I’ve got an appointment in Pune. With the builders.”


“Tomorrow morning. At ten.”

“And where are you going to spend night?”

“I don’t know. Some hotel or someplace.”

“Oh come on Girish. Why don’t you spend the night with me instead of hunting for some dreadful hotel at night? We’ve so much to talk. I’ve got your favourite single malt stocked up. And once you see my awesome Row House you’ll forget about buying a house in Pune. And I’ll drop you first thing in the morning. It’s only an hour’s drive to Pune. I’ve got to go and see that girl too!”

I could sense that Girish wanted to go so I said, “It’s okay. I’ll manage. She’s definitely coming to pick me up.”

Sanjiv looked at me in a curious manner, so Girish said, “This is Pooja. My co-passenger. I promised her father I’d deliver her safely.”

“Hi, Pooja, “Sanjiv said. “Girish and me are batch mates and shipmates. We were cadets together. We’re meeting after five years. Please tell him to come.”

I knew that both of them were dying to talk to each other, have a good time, so I told Girish, “ You get down at Lonavala. I promise I’ll look after myself. I’ve got my mobile with me and I’ve got her phone number also. And suppose you were not here – I would have reached anyway isn’t it? ”

I insisted, and egged on by Sanjiv, Girish got down at Lonavala but not before requesting the lady across the aisle to look after me. He also gave me his cell phone number and making me promise I would ring him up and also my Papa the moment I reached Pune .

It was only after the train left Lonavla on its final run to Pune did I notice that Girish had forgotten his Mills & Boon. I took out the book from the rack and opened it. On the first page was written in beautiful cursive handwriting:

“Dear Girish,

I shall always cherish the lovely time we had together in Port Blair. But remember there’s a thin line between pity and love.

I recognized the exquisite distinctive handwriting at once. It was exactly the same as the handwriting in the letter I was carrying in my purse.

I knew I had to ask Swati just one question : “Had she ever been to Port Blair?”

And to Girish I sent an SMS asking him to be on time for his appointment in Vaishali at 10 in the morning.


Thursday, June 08, 2006

Cutlet at Dadar TT


If you happen to be at Dadar TT, on one of those hungry evenings, and are in the mood for something different, then head for a small eatery called ‘Swagat’ next to Birdy’s at the northern end of Khodadad Circle. It’s an unpretentious down-to-earth place, so don’t bother to go inside, unless you want to suffocate in the fumes emanating from the kitchen; just sit on one of the tables outside and order a plate of Veg Cutlets and wait in anticipation whilst watching the action on the street.

You won’t have to wait for long, for here they mean business; and you will find thrust in front of you, a plate with two dark brown piping hot vegetable cutlets in a bed of freshly cut tomatoes and cucumber.

First, an exploratory nibble. The cutlet is superbly crisp on the outside, but inside it’s a zesty melt-in-the-mouth medley, an almost semi-liquid conglomeration, a spicy potpourri, or rather a delicious hodgepodge of assorted vegetables (carrots, beetroot, peas, potatoes and many others). It’s hot – both temperature-hot and spicy-hot – and leaves a tangy sensation on your tongue. No, don’t go for the glass of water – just place a slice of cucumber on your tongue, and when it cools down, pop in a slice of tomato. That’s the way begin to eat it!

After the first bite, you won’t find it that piquant, especially if you add a dab of tomato sauce, but if you want to really relish it, do eat it in small pieces, exactly as I described it, without any additives like the dreadful tomato-pumpkin sauce the serve at these places. Let the symbiosis of tastes come through ( of the blended medley of vegetables and spices, chillies and coriander, ginger and garlic and the crisp crust ) and let the aftertaste and pungency linger within you for some time – so please don’t have tea or coffee, or even a sip of water, immediately after enjoying the cutlet.

You may have eaten all types of cutlets, in various sizes and shapes, but this one is different. The vegetarian cutlet at Swagat is no ‘run of the mill’ stuff! You can take my word for it.


My wife’s concept of a cutlet :

Take all the leftovers from the fridge, ‘CUT’ them up, season with salt and red chilli powder, mash, make into rounds, roll in leftover breadcrumbs/atta, and ‘LET’ them into a hot pan with yesterday’s left over oil.

You see, her recipe is quite simple - you “cut” and you “let” and, presto, you have your cut-let.

No wonder I crave and pine for a decent cutlet and don’t let go of an opportunity to satiate my gastronomic yearning whenever and wherever I can find a cutlet (including the insipid bland apology they serve on the Deccan Queen).

Dear Reader, please let me know where I can enjoy some good cutlets, veg and non-veg, so that I can embark upon a cutlet-eating spree. Meanwhile, let me close my eyes, heighten my gustatory senses, and in my mind’s eye, savour with simulated vicarious relish, the unforgettable cutlet I enjoyed at Swagat in Dadar TT. Oh yes, it was different!


Wednesday, June 07, 2006


(a fiction short story)

“I want to go home!” the father, a redoubtable looking old man, around seventy, shouts emphatically at his son.

“Please Baba. Don’t create a scene,” the son, an effeminate looking man in his mid-forties, says softly.

“What do you mean don’t create a scene?” the old man shouts even louder, waving his walking stick in a menacing manner.

“Please calm down! Everyone is looking at us!” an old woman, in her mid-sixties, pleads with her husband.

“Let them look! Let everyone see what an ungrateful son is doing to his poor old parents,” the old man says loudly, looking all around.

“Ungrateful?” the son winces.

“Yes, ungrateful! That’s what you are. We did everything for you; educated you, brought you up. And now you throw us out of our house into this bloody choultry.”

“Choultry! You call this a choultry! Please Baba. This is a luxury township for senior citizens,” the son says.

“It’s okay,” the old woman consoles her husband, “we’ll manage in this old age home.”

“Mama, please!” the son implores in exasperation, “how many times have I told you. This is not an old age home. It’s such a beautiful exclusive township for senior citizens to enjoy a happy and active life. And I’ve booked you a premium cottage – the best available here.”

The mother looks at her son, and then at her husband, trapped between the two, not knowing what to say as both are right in their own way. So she says gently to her husband, “Try to understand. We’ll adjust here. See how scenic and green this place is. See there – what a lovely garden.”

“I prefer Nana-Nani park. My friends are there,” the old man says.

“You’ll make friends here too,” she says.

“Friends! With these half-dead highbrow snobs?” the old man says mockingly.

“Okay,” the son intervenes, “you both can take long walks. The air is so pure and refreshing at this hill station.”

“Listen you! Don’t try all this on me. I’ve been walking for the last fifty years on Marine Drive and that’s where I intend walking the rest of my life.” He turns to his wife and says peremptorily to her, “You pack our bags and let’s go back to Mumbai. We are not staying here!”

“Try and adjust,” his wife beseeches him, “you’ll like the place. Look at the facilities here – there’s a modern health club, gym, library, recreation; everything is here.”

“Gym? You want me to do body building at this age? Library? You know after my cataract I can hardly read the newspaper! And I can get all the recreation I need watching the sea at the Chowpatty.”

“Please Baba, don’t be obstinate,” begs his son. “This place is so good for your health. They give you such delicious nourishing food here.”

“Delicious? Nourishing? The bloody sterile stuff tastes like hospital food. I can’t stand it – where will I get Sardar’s Pav Bhaji, Kyani’s Kheema Pav, Vinay’s Misal, Satam’s Vada Pav, Delhi Durbar’s Biryani, Sarvi’s Boti kababs, Fish in Anantashram in Khotachi wadi next door…”

“Please Baba! All you can think of is horrible oily spicy street-food which you should not eat at your age! With your cholesterol and sugar levels, you’ll die if you continue eating that stuff.”

“I’d rather die of a heart attack in Mumbai enjoying the good food I like rather than suffer a slow death here trying to eat this insipid tasteless nonsense.” The old man looks at his wife and commands, “Listen. Just pack up. We are not staying here like glorified slaves in this golden cage. One month here in this godforsaken place has made me almost mad. We are going right back to our house in Girgaum to live with dignity!”

“Please Baba. Don’t be difficult. I have to leave for the states tonight,” the son pleads desperately. “I’m trying to do the best possible for you. You know the huge amount I’ve paid as advance to book this place for you?”

“You go back to your family in America. I’m going back to my house in Girgaum! That’s final!” the old man affirms to his son. He looks at his wife and says, “You want to come along? Or should I go back alone?”

“Mama, please tell him,” the son looks at his mother.

The old woman looks lovingly at her husband, puts her hand on his arm and says softly, “Please try to understand. We have to live here. There’s no house in Girgaum. Our chawl has been sold to a builder. They are building a commercial complex there.”

“What?” the old man looks at his wife as if he is pole-axed, “you too!” And suddenly his defenses crumble and he disintegrates; the metamorphosis in his personality is unbelievable as he meekly holds his wife’s hand for support and obediently walks with her towards their cottage.


Monday, June 05, 2006

Happenstance (a short story) by Vikram Karve

(a fiction short story)

“Excuse me, are you Urvashi Mukherjee by any chance?” a feminine voice said on my right.

I turned my face and looked at the smart young woman wearing a red top and dark blue jeans. Though not ‘fair and lovely’ in the conventional sense, she looked very desirable, in a sensual kind of way. Chic and sexy, flowing hair, just the right amount of make-up, she exuded confidence, and as she looked at me with those wonderfully radiant, large and expressive dancing eyes, I felt a strong attraction towards her, even though I myself was a woman.

“Yes. I’m Urvashi Mukherjee,” I said.

“Hi! I’m Babita. Babita Khanna,” she said.

“Sorry Ms. Khanna, but I don’t think we’ve met before.”

“Sad isn’t it? But I know everything about you Urvashi!” she gave a vivacious laugh and reached out to my arm displaying a rather impulsive and gratuitous intimacy and said, “I recognized you instantly, the moment I saw you. You look exactly like you do in your photograph!”

“My photograph?” I asked, pulling away my arm.

“Yes. You look lovely. Exactly as in the photo Milan keeps in wallet.”

Milan! I didn’t like the way she casually referred to my husband by his first name. She’d called me Urvashi too! I was truly flabbergasted. Who was this woman? Acting so intimate, talking on first name terms. And how had she seen my photo in Milan’s wallet?

“You know Milan?”

“Of course. We work in the same office. Hasn’t he told you about me?”

“No. I don’t think so. At least I don’t remember.”

“That’s surprising! I know everything about you but you know nothing about me!” she paused, and then said, “ Milan should have told you about me. He’s told me everything about you!”

“Milan’s told you everything about me?” I repeated. Bewildered I turned my face away from her and looked straight ahead at the painting in front of me.

“Hey, Milan didn’t tell me you were an art-buff! I never imagined I would run into you here - at the Jehangir Art Gallery.”

“I’m no aficionado,” I said, trying to sound sarcastic, “I’m just killing time here till it stops raining.”

“Aficionado! That’s a good one! I never imagined you’d speak such highbrow English considering you’ve studied in the vernacular.”

This was too much! Anger began to rise inside me, but the woman persisted, “You know Urvashi, Milan keeps telling me of your hilarious malapropisms when you were newly married!”

“I’m sure he’s told you about our honeymoon too?” I blurted out in anger instantly regretting the words the moment they left my mouth.

“Of course,” she said with a mischievous smile, “the way you got all sozzled on your first night on the beach in Goa when he mixed Feni in your juice trying to remove your inhibitions!”

Now I was really furious. I didn’t want to talk with this woman any longer, so I said, “Bye Ms. Khanna. It must have stopped raining. Time for me to go. I’d hate to come in between the beautiful paintings and a true connoisseur of art like you!”

“Hey! Come on! I’m no connoisseur of art. I too ran in here to take shelter from the heavy rain,” the woman laughed and said, “and listen – don’t call me Ms. Khanna, just call me Babita. I’m calling you Urvashi isn’t it?”

“Okay. Nice talking to you,” I said and walked out of the gallery to the foyer of Jehangir Art Gallery. It was still raining so I stood at the entrance looking out towards Kalaghoda waiting for the rain to stop.

To my horror I noticed that the woman had followed me and was standing next to me which made me feel quite uneasy and uncomfortable. She was a real mystery. How come Milan had never mentioned her? He always told me everything. At least that’s what I thought. Till now!

I had plans for the afternoon and didn’t want her clinging to me like a parasite.

“Let’s go shopping she said as if reading my mind through clairvoyance. What will you do all alone at home? So she knew! Milan had told her even that!”

“I’m really not keen on shopping right now,” I said. “Besides I have to get home early. We’re going out for a movie and dinner tonight.”

“No, you aren’t.”

“What do you mean we aren’t? He’s already bought the tickets.”

“Maybe, but he’s not going to turn up before midnight. You can take my word for it.”

“He promised me!” I said defiantly.

“Promises are meant to be broken! He won’t come. He’ll be busy doing my work since I’ve taken the day off. And then he has to go to a business dinner.”

“Business Dinner?”

“Don’t delve too much!”

“What nonsense! I’ll ring him up right now,” I said and took out my mobile.

“No point,” she said, “his mobile will be switched off right now. He’ll be in a meeting. But don’t worry. Milan will ring you up at around 6 to call off your movie and dinner programme. He’ll tell you he has to work late. He won’t mention the ‘business dinner’ part though.”

“How do you know all this?”

“I told you. Milan tells me everything. There are no secrets between true friends.”

Friends? This was getting murkier. First she was a colleague; now she’d become a friend! Oh yes! How bizarre? No secrets between friends; but plenty of secrets between husband and wife!

The rain was down to a drizzle and she said, “Come let’s go shopping. And then we’ll enjoy ourselves. We’ll go to all your favourite places. And do all the things you like.”

I wondered why she was doing this to me? What was her motive? Was this really a chance meeting, a coincidence, happenstance, serendipity, or was it a contrived coincidence? I had to get to the bottom of it all, so I said, “Okay Babita. Let’s go. I want to find out whether Milan has really told you everything about me!”