Siblings in a Bathroom

"Do you mind?": I had the strangest visitors.

“Do you mind?”: I had the strangest visitors.


They didn’t notice me. If they did, they couldn’t have cared less. They sat, arms crossed, looking deeply pensive. They didn’t move for the longest time. Two house mice in my bathtub.

I tried dabbing them with a pole, attempting to scare them off. They remained resolutely still. I nudged them with a sheaf of rolled-up newspaper. To no avail.

“Do you have an empty plastic bottle you have no use for?” I asked my mom.
“Why, what happened?”
“There are two little mice in my bathroom and I want to get them out”.

A bathroom is the last place on earth you want company. When I was a schoolboy, we used to have yoga taught by a Naturopath (a doctor who treats patients using natural remedies). He was an energetic man in his early 30s, but spoke and moved with the zest of an adolescent. He had twinkling eyes, foppish hair and always wore half-sleeved shirts, untucked. A well-maintained mustache covered his upper lip, and he always wore a warm smile.

We had to close our eyes during the class so that we would feel uninhibited while doing the yoga exercises. Even while making us stand on our heads or touch our foreheads with our knees, the doctor took care to keep the atmosphere relaxed and light-hearted. He would crack jokes, would whisper in your ears if you were doing something incorrectly.

“Why do you grunt, instead of answering normally when someone calls you when you’re in the bathroom or toilet?” he once asked us.
We giggled and there was muffled laughter.
Knotting his brows into a frown, tying his hands behind his back, he strode back and forth in the classroom.
“Mmmmmmm….. what?” he said in a shrill, childlike screech of a voice.
Tell me mom!
He was mimicking how we’d react in such a situation.
There was more laughter, this time free and unrestrained.
What is it?
“Isn’t it true?” he said, turning towards us.
He had stopped pacing.
“Do you know why? Because those places are the only ones where you are completely with yourself. You’re completely free, there is no one else you need to worry about. No one wants to be disturbed while in there”.
He spoke of it like it was a spiritual experience.

That has stayed with me, for some reason. Maybe because it helps, in part, explain the appeal that solitude holds for me. I like being around people with whom I don’t have to apologise for who I am, either through speech or gesture.
The bathroom is where I close my eyes and make my dreams. I soap them and nurture them. It is where I give myself a thousand affirmations, the place where I draw my energy for the day to come. And now there were two little mice sitting there.

Rummaging through the kitchen cupboard, I secured an empty 2-litre Sprite bottle. I turned on the gas stove, heated a knife and carved an opening in the bottle big enough for mice to get in. Then I slipped a slab of peanut chikki, an Indian sweet made of jaggery and groundnut, inside the bottle. The idea was to coax the mice into the bottle, capture them and release them outside the house. A trap, but without the spring.

I rushed back to my bathroom, bottle in hand. “If a mouse jumps at me, I am going to bat it away with a defensive flick,” I thought, gathering a rolled-up newspaper in my left hand and willing myself to recall my cricket-playing skills. “Just remember, as far as the mouse is concerned, you are a much bigger animal”.

Taking small, tentative steps towards the bathtub, I noticed that the two mice were in exactly the same position I had first seen them in. They could have been in church. I placed the bottle — the side with its open mouth — near the mice. I nudged them with the newspaper. Their tiny eyes darted back and forth, as if aware something was afoot, but not serious enough to demand movement. Finally, I gave a resolute push at one of them and it bolted straight into the open bottle, while the other scurried to the end of the tub. I immediately placed the sheaf of newspaper at the mouth of the bottle, trapping one mouse.

I gingerly lifted the bottle and headed for the terrace. Common sense said I should let the mouse loose right that moment. But that’s what growing up with a brother does to you. They two mice looked very similar to each other. They also looked like they hung out together all the time. They scaled walls, traveled distant lands… anyway, I was reminded of me and my elder brother. When we were kids, we used to be a two-member gang. My brother is the extrovert and I am the introvert, so I used to tail him wherever he went. Our parents taught at a university, so we lived on campus. We used to hide among the mulberry plants and bunk school, rear puppies in secret in a mango garden, run scams selling wrestling stickers to school mates. We even fell off a tree once, together. We were fellow travellers, co-conspirators.

No, I would set both mice free together. What if they were brothers? I didn’t want to make them lose each other.

Holding the paper at the mouth of the bottle, I placed it upside down on the floor. I added a hefty notebook on top as contingency, in case the mouse was too strong and tried to topple the ‘trap’.

The second mouse had hidden itself in the bathtub drain when I returned. I would have missed it if I was not looking for it. Welding itself into the edges of the drain, like a furry Letter C, it was impossible to prise it free using a newspaper. I finally placed an empty bathroom cup near the drain and specked a few drops of water on the mouse. It sprang from the drain on pure reflex and ran straight into the cup. My coup was complete.

Closing the open end of the cup, I sat it down near the other mouse upside down. One by one, I then took both of them to the terrace. Standing behind a railing, I first let go of the mouse in the bottle. It fled my presence in a series of hurried hops and was out of sight in no time. The peanut chikki lay on the open terrace, unbitten and gleaming in the sun. I hurried to release the second mouse. When I set it free, it too scuttled away in short, rapid leaps. It seemed headed in the same direction the first mouse had. I hoped they hadn’t lost each other. If they had, maybe they would come back for the peanut chikki.

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You Do What, Exactly?

Why?

Why?


Had I not clasped the railing just in time I would have tripped 30 feet to the floor below and been splayed on the mauve tiles on the ground floor. I had stepped on the thin thermacol sheet that comes with packages of new household items, like televisions and washing machines. The sheet itself, gray and rectangle as a doormat, lay on the vacuum cleaner, resting comfily like a defeated man leery of redemption.

The vacuum cleaner was creamy white with slabs of angry orange on its sides and top. The patina of dust on it made it look weather-beaten. It was. The machine’s been with us for almost 20 years. The cobwebs that hung about the vacuum cleaner, fluttering about in the wind like drunken lovers on a ship, were the only things alive in the machine. It didn’t look angry anymore.

I walked away. I was on my way to take a leak. “Vacuum cleaner,” I thought, once inside. “Vacuum. Cleaner. That name makes no sense at all. How do you clean a vacuum? You can’t clean something that’s not there. Or does it create a vacuum by cleaning all the dust and cobwebs?”

I flushed.

“But why then is it called a vacuum cleaner, and not a vacuum creator? How do you clean vacuum? It’s vacuum because nothing’s there in the first place, isnt’ it?”

I have no idea.

“Now Wait a Minute…”

"Where have I seen that before?"

“Where have I seen that before?”


Have you ever seen someone who looks like you? I’ve seen a spitting image of myself in dreams sometimes, standing right across me and carrying on with his life as if I never existed, and it has always disturbed me. In Tamil movies, (and most of Indian cinema, including Hindi cinema) it’s usually the male lead who has to contend with this duality and the complications that arise from this situation are conveniently overcome by casting one of the two characters as the ‘bad guy’. The bad guy always dies in the end, usually after realising that the mirror image he has been fighting was in fact his long-lost brother (usually a police officer).

But reality is more complicated than that.

At some point in life, we’ve all come across anonymous people with faces that look uncomfortably familiar. “I’ve seen that face somewhere,” we think, “but I can’t place it”. It gets worse. There are some faces, I’ve noticed, that kind of ‘repeat’ themselves. Each time I see that kind of face on someone, it belongs to a different person but I could swear I’ve seen it before, in some other context. I wonder whether this is true for everyone.

A couple of months ago, I went to a wedding in Odisha, a state in central-eastern India. It was the bridegroom’s wedding procession (‘baraat’), a traditional ceremony in Indian weddings where the bridegroom sits in a car or atop a mare and is taken on a procession to the wedding hall. It’s a noisy, colourful affair, with relatives and friends swaying their hips to popular movie numbers and singing along with them. Most usually loosen up prior to the baraat with a tipple or two of alcohol. It was there that I saw him.

He was barely out of his teens, wore a yellow t-shirt and black, carbon-framed glasses. He was dancing maniacally to the Hindi songs that were blaring out of the loudspeakers. I’ve seen that face, or minor variations of it, a lot of times in my life. “Here we go again,” I thought. I’ve long since stopped trying to figure out who exactly these faces resemble, because I’ve never ever succeeded getting there.

But this time, I got him. Some days after returning home from the wedding, I was going through old photos from my college days when I caught him standing right behind me, looking away from the camera. He was darker than the guy I saw in Odisha, the glasses were round instead of rectangle, but the similarity was very much there. I felt such a wave of relief. I had, for the first time, finally identified a face that had eaten up so much of my time.

But I was also puzzled. Because he wasn’t really anyone close to me. He was just a friend of a friend. I don’t remember his name, or even one proper conversation between us. But the mind is such a mystery. We remember so many trivial things we don’t need to. We forget things that we consider really important.

But identifying him has also convinced me that I am not imagining things when I think some faces look particularly familiar. They are really out there, I tell myself. Just keep looking, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get them.

Crank It Right Up

Pressure: Let's shake on it, say Justin Langer (left) and Daniel Vettori

Pressure: Let’s shake on it, say Justin Langer (left) and Daniel Vettori


Justin Langer was a tough opening bat in the great Australian sides led by Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting, his flintiness often overshadowing a deceptively efficient strokemaker. In a team filled with marquee names, he seldom got the credit he deserved.

Daniel Vettori has been New Zealand’s outstanding bowler for the past 15 years, notching up 681 wickets in all formats of the game. His batting, however, still has the ‘what if’ look of Ridley Scott’s ‘American Gangster’. All those beautiful shots… if only we could have had a little more depth. With a bit more application, Vettori would have a much better batting average than 30.10.

So. An Australian and a New Zealander.

Besides a healthy antipodean dislike for each other, they share another common ground: pressure brings the best out of them.

Langer averages 68.75 batting in the fourth innings of Test matches away from home. That’s almost 23 runs more than his career average. Vettori’s fourth innings average away from home is (for a bowling allrounder) a very impressive 38.50, almost 8 runs higher than his career average.

Batting in the fourth innings of a Test is, by common consent, one of the more difficult tasks in cricket. By the time the fourth innings rolls around, it’s usually at least Day Four of a 5-day Test match and the pitch has more cracks on it than a Bollywood actress’s face without makeup. The ball turns, keeps low, spits up, reverse swings. It’s a tough grind at the best of times. When playing away from home, it gets even harder. The reputations of many a fine career have been dismembered in these sessions.

I am a fourth-innings man. I work best when under the pump. When working against an imminent deadline, sat in front of the computer, I go into a pensive mood, cradling my chin on my right thumb, with the index finger pointing to the skies in a classic Godfather pose. My family knows better than to disturb.

In a more serious vein, man is said to be at his most creative when faced with daunting odds. Even renowned business schools follow this model. Students are divided into groups, given minor sums of money and asked to multiply it within a particular time-frame, say 2 or 3 hours. Delhi University students recently generated Rs 1.22 lakh from just Rs 7,500 within six hours on the streets of Delhi. It’s a way to challenge yourself.

These past few months, I did some of my best writing when applying for admission into Master’s programs in journalism. I got into some, could not accept their offers because they didn’t offer a scholarship, and didn’t get into others. Regardless of the results, the experience of writing Statements of Purpose has proved to be unexpectedly enriching. The very name — Statement of Purpose — had suggested a drab experience wherein I’d furnish platitudes about how elite the Master’s program at a particular institution was and how privileged I’d be to be admitted there.

But it was, instead, a wonderful voyage of self-discovery. For instance, I realised that my father has been the most influential person in my life. (Easy to say, hard to realise); that David Halberstam’s ‘Summer of 49’, which I once picked up for Rs 100 (about USD 2 then), was the most important sports book I’ve read; that ‘The Verdict’ is my favourite movie and that Economics can actually be a very interesting subject.

Writing SOPs (Statements of Purpose) has resulted in a strange phenomenon. Nowadays, when I place my hands on my laptop, the left ring finger hovers over the Ctrl key and the right index finger deftly rests on the Left Arrow. This is because I edit stories backwards i.e, I move from the period, back to the part that needs correction by using the Ctrl+Left Arrow combination.
Once I finish the correction, I go back to the start of the paragraph and run over the entire content, from right to left, using the Ctrl+Right Arrow combination. My hands have become so used to the rhythm of this process that sometimes my fingers look as if they’re involved in a sexual act with the keyboard. Such is the plight of aspiring writers.

Anyway, here are the final couple of articles that were published at http://www.ibnlive.in.com in April. I couldn’t update them as I was caught up in the application process.

a) Why Barcelona Must be Afraid

This was written just before the UEFA Champions League semifinal clash between Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Bayern had just steamrollered Juventus, the champions of Italy, in their quarterfinal meeting and I had said Barcelona better watch out for the Germans. Bayern duly gave a footballing masterclass to the Spaniards, winning the tie emphatically by an aggregate score of 7-0. They also went on to win the Champions League final against Borussia Dortmund.

http://ibnlive.in.com/blogs/arunpradeep/3389/64482/champions-league-why-barcelona-must-be-afraid.html

b) Bayern Flex Muscles, Real Just Glide
This covered the first leg of the quarterfinal clashes between Bayern and Juventus, and Real Madrid and Turkish side Galatasaray. Bayern were dominant even in the first leg and could have wrapped up qualification then and there. Juve were lucky to survive. Real strolled to an easy 3-0 win against Galatasaray, but would make life difficult for themselves in the second leg. They eventually went out in the semifinals, losing out to Jurgen Klopp’s underrated Borrussia Dortmund.

http://ibnlive.in.com/blogs/arunpradeep/3389/64458/champions-league-bayern-flex-muscles-real-just-glide.html

Pick a Number.

Preparing for the GRE when you’ve been out of the loop for 10 years in mathematics is enough to make a grown man wince. At 27, I wince every day nowadays.

What on earth is the connection between journalism (the normal see stuff, observe stuff, reflect stuff, write stuff genre and not the astrophysics and gene mutation genre) and mathematics? Mathematics? As Thompson would ask, what in the name of crippled, half-mad jesus are they trying to pull?!

“That’s it,” I told my mom a couple of days ago. “Im not giving the GRE. What’s the connection between journalism and maths? It makes no sense”. I threw my mobile down and sat on the cot.

My mom is a chemistry major — no, wait — but she’s also my mom, so she understood. However, I’ve been banging my head against maths for a month now and she said I might as well give it a go.

So Im gonna give it a go, one-hard-spank-in-the-ass and that’s it.

In other news, here are two other articles I managed to push through for IBNlive.in.com. I had to blank it in one of the intervening weeks due to the ridiculous power outages in Tamil Nadu, thanks to dear old lady J. As Dame M would say, “you got a bloody cheek”. She can say that.

1) http://ibnlive.in.com/blogs/arunpradeep/3389/64098/serie-a-capricious-milan-roll-over-mighty-juve.html

That went up today, and it was a fantastic match. Milan had looked lost as recently as two weeks ago, but they’ve started showing encouraging signs since the 2-2 draw with Napoli on Nov 17. Ricardo Montolivo has finally been handed the opportunity to play for a big club and he’s come of age this season, emerging as one of the real leaders of a still-evolving Milan. El Sharaawy, who has 12 goals already this season, didn’t score against Juve but his energy seemed to translate to the entire team. I still can’t believe he had scored only 4 top-flight goals before the start of this season.

2)  http://ibnlive.in.com/blogs/arunpradeep/3389/64080/la-liga-atletico-madrid-gatecrash-realbarca-party.html

This was a tribute to Atletico’s brilliant start to the season, in which they trail Barcelona by just three points. Falcao’s certainly the headboy of this team but they also got some serious talent like Arda Turan, Raul Garcia and Diego Costa. Add to that a coach that doesn’t seem to have a price, they’re certainly on to something.

The Power Of Rajinikanth

Superstar: Rajinikanth’s Star Power Is Jaw-dropping

I had failed to make a train reservation. It was the festive season and college would not reopen till a week later. I had no idea how to make a Tatkal booking online and I shuddered at the thought of rising early — around 4 am — to make the quick walk across the road from our college to the railway station and make the booking in person if I was to have a chance of landing a train berth.

So I decided to take the bus home. Long-distance travel by bus in Tamil Nadu is a fascinating, if exacting, experience. I’m not referring to the air-conditioned, heavy suspension buses that have sleeper ‘births’ similar to the ones in trains. I’m talking about the lean, metal-jangling beasts of the road with clattering windows and minuscule baggage racks. They usually have fellow passengers who doze off with old Illayaraja songs blaring from the mobiles in their shirt pockets (few carry earphones).

Some wonder if you could lend the magazine on your lap, if you’re not reading it.

These buses are a paradox. They are incredibly cramped, yet remarkably airy. If you can find a seat by the window, you’ll have the luxury of going to sleep with the moon shining down on you. You can see small towns become bigger and bigger as you near them and then vanish back into obscurity.

The tera-bad suspensions will wreak havoc on your sleep, but you can make plans.

Travel, in my opinion, is the best time to make plans. They turn out to be more optimistic if you’re seated by the window, as if the certainty of progress outside — non-negotiable, and only in one direction, forward — makes you upbeat over how you will fare in your own plans.

But traveling in these buses is by no means a simple point-to-point affair.

The vehicle would not have crossed the city limits when the first voice of concern is raised. “Yen Saar, padam podaliya?” (‘Sir, aren’t you screening a movie yet?’)

Any frequent patron of these long-distance buses will tell you that more often than not, the movies screened in the TV sets installed in these vehicles are crass offerings with an overload of violence and machismo. To listen to the speakers installed somewhere in the middle of the bus, you’d think someone was roasting corn in the background. The volume would suddenly surge during the middle of a conversation in the movie, then drop off as impulsively.

Frequent travelers like me have grown to stay unperturbed by such intrusions. We have learned to repudiate them by pretending they do not exist, even as we try to align ourselves to the rickety rhythm of our ride and fall asleep. A staple feature of most of these rides is the screening of back-to-back movies. The first movie would scarcely have ended and the ears would have just started to recuperate when the second would start. It was during one of those ‘second’ shows that I realised the magnetic effect Rajinikanth has on Tamilians.

It was well past midnight when they screened ‘Baasha,’ the second movie of the journey. ‘Baasha,’ a flick about a common man turning a dreaded don after another don kills his close friend, is agreed to have been the movie that catapulted Rajinikanth to superstardom from mere stardom. After ‘Baasha,’ Rajini pulled away into a rarefied space of stratospheric wage, expectations and pulling power. Today, his status is only getting bigger — he’s the highest paid actor in India now — 17 years after Baasha’s release in 1995.

When I was making this trip home, it had been 8 or 9 years since Baasha’s release. The film is one of the most frequently telecast on cable TV, and Rajini had starred in a handful of movies since then. However, I was curious how many were still interested in watching the film. Only a few were braving sleep and watching, with the rest content to give the flick a miss this time around.

Or so I thought. A celebrated scene in the movie has an enraged Rajini, now reformed and in disguise as an autorickshaw driver, escorting his sister to meet a minister who had demanded that she sleep with him in order to get admission to medical school. Instructing his sister to wait outside the minister’s room as he talks to the minister, Rajini reveals his bloodstained past with remarkable sang froid, a nonchalant smile playing on his lips.

(A link to the scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o-XicHO7ETw)
(Watch from 2.00 minutes)

We don’t get to actually hear what Rajini tells the minister, and the affair is seen only from behind a closed door. As Rajini recounts his trigger-happy days, the look of terror brought about in the minister by the revelations is what makes this scene terrific. The music director of the movie has nicked Brad Fiedel’s ‘Terminator 2: Judgement Day’ theme to use in this scene, as in many other important moments in ‘Baasha’. But that should not detract from the fact that the scene remains one of the most iconic in Tamil cinema.

I knew how popular the scene was among Tamilians, so when it was about to begin, I was curious if anyone would actually wake up from sleep to watch it. I was about to turn around to check when,

Clack. Clack. Clack. Clack.

Practically half the passengers in the bus were releasing the hatches of their push-back seats and sitting back upright, shaking off sleep, eyes still bleary.

They wanted to watch.

It was almost 3 am.

It was extraordinary. People waking themselves from sleep — which can be hard to earn on a bus like this — to catch a minute of a flick they might have seen hundreds of times.

It was then I understood, the pull Rajinikanth has on the ordinary Tamilian. That’s the best illustration of star power I have ever seen, including the ones in all those movies.