The Lucky Pencil

Birthday celebrations in my home are minimal and predictable. The day would not differ much from the rest of the days in the year except for a few additions to the food menu, one pack of chocolates for my classmates, a handful of toffees for me and a mandatory visit to the nearby temple. I would be forced to wake up early in the morning, have a hot water bath and visit a few of the nearby temples. By the time Appa and I were back from the temple Amma would have made some sweet rice pudding besides the usual breakfast. There were not any birthday gifts in all those growing up years. However, my 7th birthday was a bit different. I remember it vividly. I had decided to feign illness and skip school on that day to enjoy a relaxed and princely lunch. However, amma was not feeling well on that day. Therefore, there was neither the sumptuous meal in the offing nor the rice pudding in the morning. After the usual temple visit, appa packed some curd rice and tender mango pickle in the tiffin box and dropped me at school. I tried to resist but my efforts were in vain. “It is better if you are at the school. She cannot take care of you today. She needs to take care of herself first!” prescribed appa as I got down from the motor bike at the school gate. “OK”, I moaned gently.
Just before I took off to my class, he surprised me by giving me a new pencil. I had asked him for a new pencil a week back as mine was almost reaching the end of its life-cycle. It was the first time I had seen a pencil like that. It was written S-T-A-E-D-T-L-E-R. I did not know how to pronounce it. It felt different from the Nataraj and Apsara pencils that I had used until then. I grabbed the pencil and ran off to the classroom. I desperately wanted to try out the new pencil. Borrowing a sharpener from Arun, I carefully sharpened it. By no means, I wanted to break the delicate graphite head on the first try. Amazingly, like butter the reels of wood peeled off. I collected the long ones and carefully placed them inside my pencil box handling it delicately like the wings of a dead butterfly. It would find its place on the “hall of fame” inside my pencil box. Green-eyed folks on my bench gazed at me. Slowly but surely, my grip on the pencil tightened.
Our class teacher, Miss. Marina had just walked into the room by then. The first period as usual was English. The Gulmohar textbook for English learning was turning out to be a difficult one to master. The words were getting tougher with each passing day. It was Lesson 2 dictation test and my heart palpitated. I had not studied a bit since I had planned to skip the class anyway. My palms too perspired and the pencil slipped in my hands. After the attendance check, and when the dictation test sheets were being distributed, I brought out the toffee pack filled with 100 Cadbury’s Éclairs, stood up and announced that it was my birthday to the teacher and the class. I wanted to slow down the scheme of things deliberately. My friend, Arun’s eyes lit up with glee as it meant he would get a few more chocolates since there would be more chocolates than the strength of the class. For some unknown reason, I started giving two of them to each one of them, leaving the toffee pack nearly empty. Arun was visibly disappointed. I gave him and my bench mates whatever was left in the pack after saving three for me. Meanwhile, the determined teacher proceeded with the dictation. An irritated and mood-off Arun decided not to let me have a look at his answers. He bent his head over the answer sheet and blocked my view with his body. I tried to peek into his answer sheet but then his handwriting was unusually illegible to my trained eyes. Each letter resembled the legs of strange birds and animals running away from the paper, scratched so fast that the sheet nearly tore in between. I had no other choice other than to guess the spelling of most of the words. I had that bad feeling in the lower part of the stomach of familiar butterflies flying after screwing up an easy exam. ‘If I ended up in the last five today I had to either suffer caning or write all those words 10 times by the next day. In the worst case both!’ my mind worked out the probable outcomes. I prayed that the new pencil would work some magic and save me from embarrassment!
After 10 minutes, Miss. Marina announced, “Time up. Swap your sheet with those of your neighbours and correct it. The solution is on the blackboard.” and she started writing out the answers on the blackboard. Arun, squint his eyes and reviewed my answers. He started striking every written word with a repressed anger. I clasped my hands and breathed a quiet prayer. I decided to use my trump card. Opening my pencil box, I let Arun have a good look at the extra chocolates that I had saved and pushed the box towards him. To my surprise, he did not yield. Focusing his head back to the textbook, he continued correcting the paper with a cold face. I corrected Arun’s paper matching it with the solution on the board soon realizing that he had everything right! ‘What a mean-spirited fellow!!! What about me?’ The only solace was that the teacher would not cane me since it was my birthday. Instead of caning, the punishment was an unwelcome and unavoidable imposition – write each of the words ten times by the next day.
“Any full marks?” ma’am inquired. “Arun”, I replied hesitantly. She gave her toffee to Arun. Then, she asked, “Who all are below 4?” A few hands shot up. The names of the regulars were announced. One by one, she caned each one of my classmates who scored below the cut-off. To my utter disbelief, Arun did not announce my name. “Good god! How did that happen?” In a flash, I took the still unconsumed toffee and dropped it on Arun’s lap. He looked back, perplexed and collected the toffees happily. We exchanged back our answer sheets and I stared at the answers for a long while. ‘Surprise!’ I really had six correct answers out of the fifteen. Correct in the true sense, that is without any help from Arun. My guesses turned out to be perfectly right. I had only one thing to thank – My New Pencil! Otherwise, why would I have any of those baffling spellings right without reading the text even once! ‘But, my toffees…?’ They were gone.
After that incident, I had only one tale to narrate during the lunch break and I had only one tale to narrate at home that evening – “The awesome power of the yellow and black striped lucky pencil”. Of course, none believed me. My friends were initially eager to hear to about the incident, but laughed heartily when I told them that it had some special powers. My parents dismissed the entire episode when I told about this incredulous event. It was on the last day of the comprehensive exams that year would I come to know the entire truth. Meanwhile, I wrote my notes, shaded the pictures in the textbooks, drew many new pictures, added horns and moustaches to the illustrations in the text and ask what not. I did everything with a confidence never before felt for I had this wonderful new pencil! A few days after a problem of a different nature arose. Before I realized, my pencil had become the size of my index finger. “Now what?” Soon it will be unusable. I was not ready for this. I complained about the waning pencil at home every day. My frustration compounded when my friends started mocking at me alleging that my marks, my performance and enthusiasm were just by-products of the new pencil and would vanish with the pencil. I wished that I had inherited a magic fountain pen and an ink bottle instead! That would have at least lasted longer.
After much thought, I decided to discuss this with my parents. “Appa, my pencil will become too small to use in a few days. What to do now?” Although initially he tried to console me saying that he would get me a new pen, once he realized that I was inconsolable he bounced the question to amma. She found an opportunity in this and coaxed me to recite the prayers in the evening without fail, keep the pencil near Ganesha statue before I went to bed after completing the homework every day. “Rest everything leave it to Ganesha. He will help you out. After all he is the remover of all obstacles.” Reluctantly, I agreed to the suggestion, though I despised praying and studying for long hours. There was no other way to regenerate that pencil like a lizard’s tail. Nothing happened the next day and for a few more days. I was getting impatient with every passing day. The pencil had become half the size of my finger. I attached a broken pen to its back and continued using it. I made it a point to use the pencil only for the most important exams that year. My handwriting that had improved began its retreat to older ways, so were my marks, all south bound. It was the day after Ganesha Chathurthi. By then, I had given up all hope when on the morning of festive day the unbelievable happened.
“Boom!” There was a new pencil near the statue similar to the one I had kept yesterday. The one I had kept there was gone. It had my name etched on one side just the same way I had done on my previous one with a razor. One letter looked a bit different. Rest all the same. “Brilliant!” I thanked god, looked around me. Having ensured that no one was around, I recited a silent prayer. Amma was in the kitchen. I ran elated and told her the superb news. She smiled at me, patted my head and whispered, “See I told you, no. If you have faith in God and recited the prayers faithfully he will help you out!” I grinned ear to ear and ran to the veranda where appa was scanning through the newspaper. I somehow felt that he was expecting me at that moment. I beamed, produced the pencil and jumped in front of him like a circus dog on two legs waiting to catch a bone. He responded rather oddly, “Enough of fooling around. Now that you have your pencil go and study!”
From that day onwards, I started studying with a renewed vigour devouring my textbooks. To my surprise, the whole activity of learning and spending time with books was increasingly pleasurable and rewarding. My mark sheets reflected this renewed interest. I was cracking every exam out of shape. My friends and teachers were amazed. My parents would just nod and continue as if there was nothing new. Every month I would continue getting the new pencil until the last exam of that year. On the last day, instead of the pencil I got a strange hand-written note. It read, “You have done well this year and proven that you are a good boy, smart and well natured. Therefore, I have moved the powers from the pencil and moved it to your brain yesterday night. You would not need the pencil any more. Go ahead and write this exam with any pen or pencil. Good Luck!!!”
I was heart-broken. I had no other way other than to believe the slip. It was too late to find a way out of this new conundrum. The handwriting looked very familiar to that of appa. I ran to him with the note and shouted, “Did you take the pencil and leave the note there?” Was he pulling a trick on me? He acted ignorant about these and added that he would not come between me and the elephant faced god for these silly matters. “Silly!” ‘How could he call this silly?’ I thought. To my biggest surprise mom had nothing new to tell me other than to convince and reassure me. She furtively glanced at appa in between the conversation. In the end, I just sharpened my old Nataraj pencil and hurried to school since I had no time for a debate. After getting the question paper, I recited the prayer once and peeked at the paper. Questions looked familiar and answers seemed possible. I started to believe that the letter was indeed right. I wrote the answers double checking the final answers before submitting it. I did that exam far better than the earlier ones.
Appa was waiting in the veranda when the school bus dropped me back. He held a cardboard box. I jumped, grabbed and opened it expecting a new toy or something else interesting for being an exceptional student this year. As I tore it open, inside I found all the finger-length pencil stubs that I had kept near the Ganesha statue yearlong and the sheet of paper that I had read in the morning! I stared at him astounded. Amma came out and asked, “How was today’s exam?” “Good” I stuttered. She explained, “See. We wanted you to realize that it was nothing to do with the new pencil but your own effort. You had never put so much effort earlier. This year you had put so much of effort thinking that it is the magic of pencil but then you had studied so well that you do not need the help of that stupid pencil anymore. You can write any exam with any pencil and clear it pretty well. That is why we planned all of these! Now come inside and have the Ghee Dosas before they are cold. I will tell the complete story then!” Appa brought out a pen box. It was engraved P-A-R-K-E-R on it and looked a lot classier than the other pens that I owned. I threw my bag on the sofa and rushed to wash my hands before trying it out. It wrote on the paper as my fingers rode on amma’s silk saris. In a few minutes, I had all but forgotten about “the lucky pencil” and was feasting on the delicious dosas. I had many more questions and it would take me a few more days to grasp my parents’ master plan to get me interested into learning! The Parker pen was safely clipped to my shirt and the thirst for knowledge to my heart. It would stay that way for a long time to come!

~ Trilok Rangan ~
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Appa – Dad
Amma – Mom
Dosa – South Indian Rice based dish

Published – http://www.indianruminations.com/contents/fictions/the-lucky-pencil-%E2%80%93-trilok-rangan-karnataka/

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Very Short Stories – Part 2

Fallen Flowers

Everyday evening, Meera would get off 278E, the bus from Shivaji Nagar and would religiously buy flowers from the flower vendor sitting outside the temple. The florist woman would measure the artfully strung flowers placing the free end to the tip of the middle finger measuring it up to the elbow joint – ”Oru Muzham – Patthu Roopa!’’ After buying the flowers, she would quietly take the road next to the Krishna temple. One day, the curious woman asked, “Amma, whom are you buying these flowers for?” Her eyes were moist with tears as she bravely replied, “For my husband. He died in the valley of flowers fighting for the country”. Meera’s answer lingered in the air for her Krishna to respond…

Diwali

To see unfeigned happiness is a rarity. On that Diwali day, I was lucky enough to witness unadulterated joy. Crackers were going off in all directions, diyas lined the walls of houses and the balconies, joy filled the bright faces. I was bursting crackers and that was when, “Anna, anna oru pattaas kudukkaraengala?” (Brother, would you give me a Cracker?), a feeble but excited voice asked. Turning around, I saw a shabby looking kid probably from the nearby slums. Before even he could have completed the sentence, my mouth had uttered an unpleasant “No”. It took me just a few seconds to realize my mistake but by then the kid had disappeared into the festive crowd. Later in the night, I saw him digging into the cracker rubbish. He was collecting crackers that had failed to fire. With remorse, I approached him and tried to make it up for my inglorious act of the evening. I gifted him a small box full of sparklers and crackers. I also gave him a few unused T-Shirts of my nephew hoping that they would fit his frail frame. He quietly collected the packet and ran away without expressing any visible signs of gratitude. Five minutes later, I saw his cheerful eyes lit up with joy as he held the color sparklers wearing one of the T-shirts that I had gifted, which drooped halfway down his forearms! Happy Diwali, I told myself.

Naranga Mittayi

Stopping his car at the Pettikada the Man asked, “Naranga muttai undo? Randu Roopaikku!” (The cheapest sweet that one can get in the villages and pettikada is the small shop by the roadside esp. in villages). The Man looked at the glass jar filled with colorful sweets. Shopkeeper looked quizzically at the man and took a handful, wrapped it in a newspaper and handed the pack to the Man. As the windows of his BMW rolled up, he popped one mittai into his mouth and closed his eyes slipping into a trance. There, he became “Anthonikutty” wearing “Valli” trouser and wheeling a punctured cycle tyre through the mud roads.

Lost and Found

“Enji mittai, Enji mittaai”, “Choodulla vartha Choodulla vartha Mullaperiyar Anakettilil Villal, Vyapari Vyavasayi sammelanithil sangattenum 5 paerku parikku”. Varghese double checked the zip of his bag. The private bus to Pariyaram was about to start. 15 minutes of incident free journey to Pariyaram from Chalakudy, he prayed. He heard a whistle and the engine came to life… **** “Pariyaram…” He woke up startled. The bag was gone. His heart skipped a few beats and he felt short of breath. He had two lakhs of cash in that bag taken as loan for his daughter’s marriage. “Chetta… Here, your bag. You had slept off and the bag had fallen off.” He did not know how to thank that man. He just said, “Thanks…”

Unanswered Questions

“Heeeyya.. Heeyya…” Ramu hid behind his dad’s Mundu tightly gripping his hands. It was his first week in India. The Oracle clad in a red cloth and a waist-let of jingling bells (aramani) paced in frenzy in and out of the temple courtyard. He carried a sword in his right hand and an anklet in his left. His family and other devotees stood in a circle. In the red oil lamps of the Bhagavathi temple, the Oracle resembled a mad man, jumping and dancing hysterically to the sounds of drum and illathalam. Then all of a sudden, he hit his head with the sword and blood oozed out of his head. Ramu’s grip on his dad’s fingers tightened. Then the drumbeats eased and his pace slowed. He approached Ramu’s grandmother and murmured something in her ears.

On their way back home, munching the tasty Prasadam, Ramu inquired his dad, “Acha, who was that? That was pretty frightening!!!” “Kuttaa, athaanu Velichappadu. Bhagavathi, through him answers all the questions we have in our minds. Once he gets possessed he speaks god’s voice”, his Dad explained to a wide-eyed Ramu.

“Really? I had one question in my mind. But, he didn’t answer that!” Ramu was sad as he said that. “What’s that?” asked his dad. “Where did Mom go?” Ramu looked at his dad’s gloomy face and his head drooped. Behind, in the rufescent lights of the flickering oil lamps, the exhausted oracle was stripping his makeup off.

Very Short Stories Part 1

From Land of Stories and Story-Tellers

Chennai is blessed for it has a beach, a long shoreline. It is here the rich and the poor walk the same wet soil, the water that washes the dirty feet laps and cleanses the rich legs too. They are one and same there by the side of the sea, for at least a few moments, breathing one another’s exhaled air…A kid came running and hugged me from behind, her grip tight around my legs. I turned around and her eyes narrowed failing to recognize me. Her grip loosened, eyes swelled, and words stammered. She is lost. She took me for someone else and now her eyes frantically searches for the faces she knew. I lifted her on my head so that she could see the crowd and search her loved ones. She found her father. A man richer than the earth. He thanked. Her brother hugged. Her mother nowhere to be seen. But she laughed again. Her laughs brought smile on my face. I walked back with a corn in my hand, the only gift I accepted, for my mother sold corn that I never knew the taste of…!

The Hindu Priest – Devan

I remembered that young temple priest. His head shaved, his forehead and body smeared with sandalwood paste , bathed in sweat coming out from the temple kitchen. His skin hugged his body like a tight brown cloth on a skeletal frame. A torn, yellow towel covered his lower half, hardly reaching his knees. His hands held the garlands for the his deity. White, Red, Yellow and green were the colors on a cotton thread, woven into a simple garland for the simpler deity from the simplest human. He smiled at me. His face glowed like the god behind him. Like the king of a hundred thousand lands. Standing there I saw the real god, outside the Sanctum Sanctorum – Devan, the priest.

The Half Open Window

She was coming back. I don’t know where from. Closing the gate, she turned around, short hair, shorter sleeves on her white Kurta, Sharp nose and sharper limbs, a compound wall between us…Our eyes met… Electric effect.. Thousands of tamil movies played… I felt my heart melt as she walked away. But nothing happened.. A cold stare remained…

The power was out. I felt my way through the messy roads to reach the gate. A nineties Yezdi roared, it’s silencer louder than normal for there was no sound. I could hear crickets sing and dog’s barking a mile away. My neighbour’s kid on that. The angry young man he was. unkept hair, long and in all directions. Gave me a threatening glance.

A moment later, I came out.  This time the sharp eyes and sharper angled body of that girl awaited me. She sat on the rear seat – the typical Indian way. Her eyes shone in the moon light. It smiled. It said, “SShhh….” Her hands pressed the young man’s shoulder. He got it. The bike roared and they were away.

Summer Rain

It rained here in Bangalore. Wind plays around with the blocking structures finding its way through my half-opened windows. It’s cool. It has that peculiar smell, of spring flowers and dried leaves, now all wet, and decorating the black roads, turned into a slippery mash, of neem and of Eucalyptus. Lightning streaked the distant horizons like a dream half- lived. They brought memories – Of Pilani and the summer rains…

Aging

I am torn between many a souls, split between many a realities, between people who cared. A handful of promises made waiting to be kept – I am that man in between, not a boy anymore !!!

Signs

It felt like a dream. I wanted to wake up. Realized there was no waking up. I was living it. Every second, every breath of it. Everything seemed unrealistically real. It was dark. There was light. I was walking towards it. Images blurred. I was not able to understand. Every scene played like a 35mm clip, parts of the dilapidated reels eaten away by time perhaps. Were they flashbacks, my present or the future seen from a future to come thereafter? No Idea. Vague. Mysterious. I was walking a thin line. It was not a question of life and death. It was about sanity and madness !

Love

He asked,”Can you sing for me?” “No, you better not hear me sing !”, she replied, “But I can dance for you”, she volunteered. “I can’t”, he shook his head. But still they danced to soft music hitting the table and chairs, singing till the dawn peeped into their room, the warmth of the morning filled their eyes and the room. (The couple were blind !)

Technology – Changing A Kid’s Life

Today, I saw my cousin’s five-year old kid using an iPad with ease. Not just looking at it, but browsing menus, interacting, playing keyboard, games and what not. Then he came to the Dell laptop that I was using, kept his finger on the screen and tried to do the same thing expecting my laptop to respond only to be disappointed. Disinterested he was at the clumsy keyboard, left quickly to pick up the iPhone to play “angry birds’. Now that is Technology Revolution !!! I had used a black slate, wet cloth and a chalk to study, look at today’s kids !

~ Trilok ~

My Friend – Hari

The last few moments of his life were when he understood the purpose of life, its meaning that he had failed to comprehend until now. Emotions invaded his still brilliant eyes. He had realized his mistakes, but life hardly gives anyone a second chance. Just a few years of continuous drug and alcohol abuse had taken a heavy toll on him. It had eroded the life in his years and erased the years in his life. All of us knew the end was near. The last few of his uttered sentences were eloquent filled with emotional words of love, and apology.  He wanted us to forgive him for all his mistakes. Our mere presence was a relief to him, he said. He spoke about the kings and the white horses that would come take him away to heaven. I wasn’t sure whether it was him or his side effects speaking. His words were drowned in a cough that he was fighting to suppress. He fell silent, as if he accepted the inevitable, as if there wasn’t any need to speak, as if he wanted to fall asleep once and for all. We were all there watching when teardrops swelled in his eyes, and rolled over his pale cheeks. His eyes were now speaking the words his tongue failed him to. There was a momentary gloom on his face, and then all of a sudden it lit up. Might be, he saw the golden chariot on the horizon!

Latha was there crying all along. She held his hands between hers, clasping as if she would not let anyone steal him away from her. Her tears were unstoppable. He was her life’s purpose and now he lay right in front of her, waiting silently for the inevitable and permanent departure. She was there in his joy and sorrow, success and failure. But now, this pain was unacceptable. . She loved him so much that she wished she could trade her life with his. I felt he understood her emotions and could read her mind without her speaking about it. But he kept quiet and did not say anything to comfort Latha. He just took her hands, kept it on his forehead and asked her whether death is going to be painful. After all, in her lap he always felt comfortable, just like a newborn child. She kissed his forehead. A teardrop from Latha’s moist eyes jeweled his eyebrows. He kissed her hand in return and closed his eyes. I think he wanted to cry aloud but managed to put a brave smile on his face. I was not able to control my tears; I do not remember myself crying ever before.

His brother, Giri, was weeping profusely near his bed. He was his friend, philosopher, well-wisher and the world to Giri. They hugged and recalled the memories of the good old times, the amazing trip to the foothills of the Himalayas, the white water rafting, bungee jumping in Rishikesh and many a bike trip on the faithful Royal Enfield in search of exotic birds through the length and breadth of Kerala. He promised that he would be there with him whenever he needed, whenever he took the bike and hit the road.  An inconsolable Giri fell on his chest as if he were listening to his fading heartbeat.

Next was my turn to bid farewell to my buddy. We had 15-20 years of fond memories to talk about and laugh. Instead, he just said one meaningful word, “Thank You”. I put on a brave smile and told him “Always welcome”. He reminded me, “You have to fill in my part. Please take care of her and let her never cry ever again.” He asked me to take his diary, read it and then burn it.  Till then, I never knew the fact that he maintained a diary. He had a special few to whom he wished me to convey his love, regards and well wishes. I also typed his last e-mail and Facebook message and sent them out for him. The message was simple – “I had got love here. I hope it will be the same wherever I go. Thanks for making my life wonderful while here. Cheers!” I had to deactivate the accounts after that. By then my hands were shaking and I was feeling dizzy.

A cold breeze found its way into the hospital room disturbing our farewell. He wanted Latha to pull the blanket up his chest. He closed his eyes, whispering that he wanted to sleep. He held my hands firmly. Slowly, his body went numb, his grip eased and the palm lost its warmth. He was no more. His still lips remained stretched in an unfinished smile. We felt ourselves slipping into a vacuum created by his absence. That moment, I realized that I had lost something that would never be replaced and our lives had changed from then on. My legs trembled. They couldn’t hold me further. I sat down. I could see Latha, his mother had already fainted on his still body. Giri, with dry eyes, was staring at the smiling face that Hari left behind.  My heart questioned, “God, is this what I lived all my 60 years to see? Is this the same happy family that it was a week back? My son, my friend – Hari is gone. We were more than a father-son duo, we were two happy friends. Still he drifted far away from me. Why didn’t you give him a chance?” As Hari lay there lifeless, my younger son and wife shattered, I sat sobbing with one hand on Giri’s head and the other one on Hari’s cold head.

~Trilok~

This piece was inspired by an article about the demise of a teenage boy to drug abuse. He was a brilliant student who fell into the trap of drugs, alcohol and cancer sticks. Ten years after his death, his family spoke about the void that his death had caused in their lives and how things could never be the same again in their daily lives.

Linguistic Chaos

  • As experienced and written by – Trilok Rangan
  • Inspiration to pen this and title suggested by –  My brother Ashwin
  • Corrected by – Jens Joseph
  • Thanks to my friends who read the manuscript and gave their valuable inputs

I was early at the station, a full 30 minutes before my train arrived. It was the much awaited Diwali week and looked to me as if the entire Bangalore was travelling. The winter winds played havoc tossing the empty paper cups and litter around the platform. But nothing stopped people from heading home. People in all shapes and sizes ran around frantically with bags which screeched, rolled, lumbered along with them. Children were in a playful mood, some of them running, some of them chasing the stray dog that found its way to the ‘passenger’ platform. A very few babies were crying like factory sirens. Amidst this familiar haphazardness, I bought an English magazine, found an empty bench, and started browsing the pages peacefully tuned to the only English FM channel. Travelling is something I love and hate at the same time. I love the people I meet, the experiences and the memories it gives but I hate the discomfort some journeys ‘gift’. However, that particular night had enough in store to thrill me. At 10.00 p.m., the Bangalore – Kanyakumari Island Express dragged its way to Platform 2. I admire Indian Railways for they manage the extensive rail network through the length and breadth of a country like India, catering to a huge population while pricing their tickets economically. I often wonder how can they run this millipede on such low charges! For all I know, they must be subsidizing it out of my tax money. So, I hardly minded my coach being overly crowded. People reserved real estate on the dirty floor with two sheets of newspaper; spread it across wherever they could squeeze in their tired bodies. They gave the beggars and tea vendors a real fight. My seat number was 68, close to the not so fragrant toilets.

My coupe was already full- three students, probably doing nursing, a woman and her husband, two middle aged men – one of them an engineer with a reputed IT company in Bangalore (his laptop bag advertised it loud) and an old woman who seemed somehow related to one of the middle-aged men. My coupe was too full for the six seats it legally allowed. I crosschecked my reservation and sat down. Half an ass of mine hung in the air as if I was on a crowded share-auto, paying half the rate and waiting to jump out the moment my stop comes. With much difficulty, I managed to squeeze the other cheek of my ass on to the seat. Shortly, the T.T.E. (Ticket Examiner) showed up. I got my tickets validated and spoke to him in broken Kannada and English. Thus, kick-started the chain of events that would climax the next day with blank looks and embarrassed faces.

Having completed the formalities, we all eased on to our respective seats. For some reason I wanted to avoid a conversation on that day. I pulled out the magazine and started reading it. I was immersed into the magazine when the old woman made a bold statement in Malayalam to the younger man on her right. “I think he is not a Malayalee. Look at his hair color, his overall looks and the way he speaks. He doesn’t seem like one and it doesn’t look like he understands us too!” Everyone in the coupe heard her. Inside my heart a wicked smile appeared. I understood the implied meaning and the pun intended in her tone. I am a Tamil Iyer from Kerala, the so-called Palakkad Iyer, settled in a town called Chalakudy near Thrissur. We speak Tamil at home. Having done my schooling in Kerala I know Malayalam far better than my mother tongue. I graduated in Electrical Engineering from a college in North India. Therefore, I divorced the typical Malayali accent from my English long back and added fluent Madrasi acquireHindi to my vocabulary. Besides, I lacked the typical Malayali moustache and had acquired a copper tinge to my hair, which was just because I oiled my hair far less. I did not raise my head from the book or show any sign of comprehending the language, and kept flipping the pages. I was curious to know where that conversation was headed to.

My mobile phone buzzed. It was my Dad. I always speak to him in Tamil. While speaking I managed a steal a look at the face of the old woman. She had an air of confirmation, an elated feeling like a 10-year old kid winning a bet at school. She turned and smiled deviously, nodding like an over-sized Halloween pumpkin, at the man whom she had been talking all the while. She probably was his paternal aunt since the man spoke less and restricted to wordless conversation techniques like nodding in all directions, simply smiling etc.  To my surprise, I managed to attract the attention of even the nursing students, all girls from some college in Bangalore. They were going to the southern part of Kerala, which was evident from their Malayalam accent with the typical Kottayam slang. They too started assuming that I was from Mars and Malayalam was alien to me. They liked my smile though. The pretty and smart one giggled, “He must be a corporate guy on business travel to Cochin. Cochin has become so cosmopolitan. People from throughout India have settled there and travelling home to Cochin these days. I think I will like to settle down in Cochin rather than the Gulf” She was trying to sound genuine. The girl with smaller head agreed, “Right. Anyways he looks cute. Must be less than 25. Just that he is a little fat around the edges.” The third one was either intelligent or dumb. She just smiled. The difference between being fat and getting fit is replacing that round ‘a’ and with a thin ‘i’, easier said than done. One of my ears was glued to the phone and my other one picked up the stray conversations like a misplaced radio receiver. I said bye, ended the phone call and picked up the book pretending to be reading. By now, I had begun to enjoy the conversation where they were trying to give me an identity.

To add to the curiosity that my linguistic chaos was causing, I received a call from my colleague Abhishek. We often converse in Hindi. He had some questions on the client delivery on a software module that I was working on. Well, I was so involved in the conversation that my voice got a bit loud and I failed to notice the myriads of changing expressions that painted the faces of my coupe-mates. Only when I finished the call did I notice that almost all the eyes were glued on my face. Well, I do not like people staring at me for whatever reason be it, admiration or condemnation. The middle-aged software engineer gave me inquiring looks. I think the words ‘client delivery’ inspired him and looked eager to add to the technical jargon. I thought that he wanted to initiate a conversation with me and was probably fumbling for the right words.  These days, I hear software engineers are better off communicating through a chat window where eye contact would be minimal. May be being in the hi-tech industry he might have got used to that medium than real-time communication! I guess I should have given him my Facebook ID.

I had the day’s Economic Times that I took from my office lobby, stuffed on one side of my small backpack. The young couple had a probing glance at the paper and then me. They were having the privilege of reading the paper upside down kept on my lap. I have often noticed a strange human behavior – if you buy a newspaper, you do not read it fully. However, if your fellow passenger has a paper and he is sitting next to you then you crane your neck and manage to read it much to the owner’s displeasure, at times requesting the center page or the sports page from him. Well, I have only one suggestion to the people with this psychiatric problem – buy your own paper and give it the person sitting next to you. Then start reading the paper when he or she is reading it. That way you would not displease him and satisfy your mental condition!

I opened my food packet from Subway and pulled out a bottle of Coke from my backpack. I kept the two on top of the yellow business newspaper. That was when my “hot under the collar” boss decided to call me. I had a heated conversation with him. The call extended for 10-15 long minutes. This conversation obviously was in English. It was getting late. I gobbled my food, washed my hands and face, and immediately asked the crowd to disperse, as I wanted to sleep in my designated middle berth.

The young couple spoke for the first time. The man of the house implored me in Indian English to exchange my berth with another one which was just two coaches away so that his wife can sleep in the same coupe. I politely refused the offer. I was making a master plan for tomorrow. Therefore, I decided to stay in the same coach. He swore in Malayalam assuming that I would not know the meaning. It did not cross him when a man learns a new language or travels to a new state that speaks a different language; the first words he acquaints himself with are the verbal abuses. I managed to look away and ignore the swearing.

After the lights were out the lower berth folks started talking about how I lacked manners and was not ready to adjust. She (the elderly) thought that I was a featherbedded brat. “Money and life in Bangalore affect the kids the most”, she declared. Everyone seemed to share the same opinion. A hymn of acceptance echoed from the other souls as well. “When I was young…” Was she ever young? That question crossed my mind. She started the story of her childhood days and youth when her angelic qualities were unmatched. She was polite, caring and helping everyone. Then she became a devoted mother and taught her kids how not to be like me. She was not hearing the loud snores of people around her.

The three girls managed on the upper berths. The third one travelling on a waiting list ticket managed to share the berth with the thinner girl. Someone murmured, “Did you really like that guy?” The other replied, “Yes”. “She must be kidding”. I recognized that voice. It was the prettier one of the lot. “Didn’t you notice his ears? They are like elephant’s, awkward and projected out. His eyes are squinted esp. when he looks to the right. His must be overweight by at least 15 kilos.””Forget all of that, how did you end up having a crush or whatever it may be, on him when you hardly have spoken to him?” Forget all that. She can forget but how can I? Every word of her hit me like arrows. I am overweight but not obese. Do my eyes cheat when I look to the right and my ears they seem quite normal! My well-wisher interrupted, “Quiet, he will hear you”. I thought to myself, “The damage has already been done what more could you do?” “He can’t understand Malayalam”. She sounded confident.

I slept, far removed from the English word -”peacefully”. My coach rocked like a cradle to the lullaby of the noise from the railway tracks outside. The next day, I woke up to the rumble of my empty stomach. As usual, the train was running late by an hour. After brushing my teeth and emptying a major portion of sanitizer on my palms, I had my breakfast and morning tea. Train seemed reluctant to move from Palghat station. I noticed that the software engineer had got down somewhere in between and office goers had filled his seat. Three white pressed dhotis fitted the place where one pants once sat. The rest of the gang was now impatiently waiting for the train to move. It seemed they had a tiresome and long journey ahead. I had an hour more of travel left provided the driver and the invisible gods of railways permitted motion.

Finally, the train tiptoed at the pace of a bullock cart. Children on cycles screamed elatedly as they overtook ourbcoach. I took my camera out, started zooming in on them, and captured a few snaps. Bharatapuzha came soon. It is the largest river in Kerala but with the least amount of water except during monsoons. Thanks to the slow pace of the train, I managed to take a few more good pictures. That was when my fellow passengers tried to strike a conversation with me.

They could not speak Martian so English was preferred. The gray haired middle-aged man accompanying his aunt spoke, “Are you a professional photographer?” With a Canon point-and-shoot camera, I can hardly claim to be a semi-professional. I corrected him “I am just an amateur enthusiast, learning.” Now, others found words. They too quizzed me, “Are you going for a trip to tour Kerala – God’s own country?” This time it was the woman – one-half of the couple from yesterday. “No, I am going back home visiting my family for Diwali”, I was happy to correct them. They looked surprised. The girls giggled. May be they wanted me to take a picture of theirs. I did not. They all asked me a few more questions and kept me occupied. The topics of discussion ranged from globalization and liberalization to allotting another train from Bangalore to Trivandrum. They also touched upon topics like how Kerala would benefit if it opens up trade like Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The atmosphere shifted to the one inside a barbershop or a tea-stall in Kerala where the topics of discussion varied from the depression in the American Economy to the health of Fidel Castro.

Time went flying by and before I realized my destination came. I packed my stuff and got ready to get off the train. People were surprised that I was getting off at a small town. The girls spoke for the first time to me, ’Hey mister, are you sure this is your stop?’ I reassured them that my Dad would be waiting. I gave the woman and the pretty girl a chit of paper each folded into four. They opened the chit. In loud and intentional words, I told the crowd near the door in fluent Malayalam – “Please move. I need to get off here.” Chits were opened. The woman’s note read in Malayalam, “My parents also brought me up well and I know how to respect elders.” The Girl read out in Malayalam, “I am fat, squint-eyed, elephant-eared and taken.”

I turned back to have a look at the coupe. The blank looks and embarrassed faces of five fellow travellers thinking about the night before on the train painted a sorry picture. I walked away with a victorious smile on my face and a wicked glow in my eyes talking aloud in Malayalam.

~Trilok~