Ninety Six

The most complex emotion that we all learn first, is vanity.

It happens the day we set eyes on a mirror and fathom its magical property. That only because of it, we are able to behold something we’ve never seen before. A conditional, unusual, not-meant-to-be-seen sight. Ourselves.

Nothing can ever look like what we see in a mirror.

I became aware that I am not the only one who feels this way, when I watched others see themselves in a mirror.

When I was a little girl, my father would seat me on the cool marble counter-top and let me watch him shave. He’d put an almost invisible spot of cream on his heavy, bristly-as-a-beard brush, and lather it all over his cheeks, with the same generosity he’d show while buttering my toast. My skinny, handsome Santa. He’d then slide the blade into the head of the razor, screw on the handle. He’d wash the apparatus and maintain constant eye contact with his reflection, the running tap sounding like a drum roll. Then, silence. He’d draw out his breath, bare his jugular, and with a little hover, etch an oblique incision in line with the base of his ear, and rake on downward – making a track of his soft, daddy skin.

He’d relentlessly retrieve his face from the indecency of labour’s stubble, reveling in the corners of his puckered mouth, the velvet of skin above his upper-lip, the straightness of his jaws, the difficulty of his cleft. He’d regard his work of art, or maybe himself as a work of art. It was a private moment between man and mirror that I’d watch enchanted each morning. And he’d test the effectiveness of his efforts, by giving me a kiss and nuzzle on each cheek.

Good to go, daddy.

Years later, I can recount the various ways people, particularly women, look at themselves in a mirror. There are those who shyly steal peeks between curtains of hair being shaped and pruned. There are those who pout and air-kiss their reflections after finding the perfect lip colour. There are those who finally discard their cardigans and ask if their arms have become fat since the last time they came. There are those that go up-close, practice a repertoire of reactions, and check if their eyebrows are now even. There are those that, after completely unrelated grooming, always contemplate the imperfection of their nose. Then there are those, that resort to the privacy of their car’s rear-view to check if their upper-lips have been suitably feminized.

Feeling beautiful is a need. Being beautiful is actually optional.

Beauty, without effort, has never made anyone happy. Women with glowing skin hate that their breasts are small. Women with perfect feet hate their hips. Women with slender arms and lissome legs hate their unruly hair. Women with translucent, milk skin hate that their eyebrows are so loud.

It’s the beauty magazines that tell you how beauty looks. Beauty parlours show you how to feel beautiful with what you have.

Women come to our parlour to thread, cut, polish, exfoliate, wipe, dye, tear, tweeze their flaws away. A workshop where they systematically change the only things that they can and want to change about themselves. The parlour is a sisterhood of the vulnerable where all are naked – beyond what the eye can see. Arm hair, dead cells, premature grays out in the open. Guard down.

Inside here, it is safe to have flabby thighs, outrageous tattoos, chipped nails, uneven tans. An ironic temple where truth becomes a whitened lie.

Today, was somehow different. My client was a young, bubbly girl, a riot for her sisters here. She got them to start on their “that guy was awful in bed” jokes, and even narrated her own misadventures featuring outrageously funny nicknames. She rolled up her sleeves, and as I set out to powder her arms, I saw the most angry network of old blade-cuts. With as much composure as I could manage, I careened and coasted around the scars. She laughed and said, “Don’t worry, they don’t hurt.”

When she left, I watched her see herself in the mirror. Eye contact. Chin up. Bright eyes. Wide smile.

Good to go.

All the lessons we need to know in life, are in our bodies: Healing is inevitable; Nothing can stop the passage of time; Our truest selves will always surface; We are as unique as our fingertips; We are as young as we feel; This is it, here we are.

With our minds, we are just brave.
But with our bodies, we are armed.

For dearest Pudge. Sorry for all the delayed poems.

Ninety Five

My favourite hangout has always been my grandfather’s room.

It has always held all the things that have ever held allure for me. The tapes of Disney movies of endless repeat value. Chocolates “from foreign”. Stationery “from foreign”. Ornamental bottles of perfume (and other ethanol compounds) “from foreign”. Money to go watch movies. The magic Godrej out of which certificates, wedding and vacation albums, shawls, and an assortment of family heirlooms flew. The snuggest sweatshirts. The computer. The internet connection. The coolest cellphones. Secrets.

And – the books.

I blame my grandfather for my whole wordy affair.

When he was just rolling his sleeves up, the country was stirring into a republic. The British were leaving, and had given Indians an unbelievable currency to seek their place in the world: the English language.

My grandfather has a knack of picking up things of longevity. That explains why he worked at building an immaculate English vocabulary, by building in his house the most solid foundation for it: a library.

That explains the bound volumes of Asterix, Tintin, Amar Chitra Katha, Commando, Beagle Boys, Nat Geos dating back to 19 freaking 70, timeless tomes of classics. The Westerns (he’s got the whole collection of Oliver Strange’s Sudden), The Epics (Rajgopalchari’s Mahabharatha and Ramayana, Mario Puzo’s Godfather). The big fat encyclopedias. The Kannada-English dictionary. The English-Kannada dictionary. The ladies – Jane Austen, George Eliot, Agatha Christie, Ayn Rand. The shameless James Hadley Chase and Ian Fleming. The ceaseless John Grisham and Robin Cook.

In his shelves, I have found the right books, when life needed me to find them. The Brothers Grimm as a tot. Gone with the Wind in High School. Leo Tolstoy in Pre-Uni. Satyajit Ray in College.

My mother says he gave away over two-thirds of his books before I was born, because, well, he didn’t see anyone else using them.

Roughly six years later, I gleefully hopped on an ironing board, placed my right arm against the still-hot iron box, and wailed, seeing a displaced purple squarish patch of skin give way to bright pink flesh. A scar I still have.

My grandfather had then conjured up the most brilliant distraction: Asterix in Switzerland. To date, it is my favourite cover – Obelix picking at the holes in the huge, fascinating hunk of Swiss cheese he’s hugging, Asterix sniffing the Silver Star dreamily, both in a vault with gold coins.

I had sat in my grandfather’s room, tears almost dry, at his lap, and giggled and giggled and had almost poked my burn.

A few years after, he and I went on our first shopping trip together. It was Sunday and we were heading to MG Road for some adult-world work. We decided it was a good day for me to finally see Gangaram’s. The pricey bookshop was closed, and I was on the verge of tears. So, his big hand held my tiny one, and took me straight to the symbolically British Higginbotham’s.

My eyes devoured all the colourful volumes there, but my middle class manners left me one step short of salivating. I hid behind my grandfather when a pretty girl came up to me and asked if she could help. My grandfather smiled and told me to say hello.

Soon, I was in the possession of three books: A chunky 3-in-1 Nancy Drew (purely on my insistence), A yellow covered A Tale of Two Cities (purely on his insistence), and an extremely handy Oxford Mini Dictionary.

We finished shopping, he bought me cotton candy outside Plaza, and we went home, me sticky with cotton candy and excitement.

Each of these books has marked different stages of my growing up.

The Nancy Drew, I gave up when I was older, as an improvised I-forgot-her-birthday gift for a friend. The Oxford Mini Dictionary, around 7th standard, taught me the meaning of the word “fuck”, and gave me a general idea of human reproduction. A Tale of Two Cities, I finally read once in high school, and twice for a paper in Degree college.

Since then, my grandfather and I have gone book-shopping only three more times. Once, for an uneventful Strand Book Sale. Second, for a failed Avenue Road experiment with second hand textbooks. And the last – when he introduced me to the erstwhile Premier Book Shop.

The reason we went to the Premier Book Shop had made him very angry. It was the first – and so far only – time I had lost a library book. I had recently topped class in English and won a gift coupon worth 400 Rupees. I was going to spend it, replacing, instead of owning, Jeffrey Archer’s Twelve Red Herrings.

Books, just as my grandfather had promised, have a way of teaching you life’s lessons.

Now, on each of his birthdays, I try upgrading his Asterix collection by gifting him one missing volume, with a letter folded inside.

I am two years away from completing his collection. Perhaps I’m presumptuous in saying so.

But this is the wisdom I inherit from my grandfather: To sign your name on every book you possess – for it is wealth, and this is the only way you pin yourself to a universe.

Thanks, Udupa, for setting this off in my head.

Ninety Four

Today, we stole cigarettes from our teacher.

We were standing in the corridor, discussing lunch plans. Futility, since we both knew it would be the staple cup noodles. Our Eco teacher came along, and the staple nerds rushed to sing half-assed “Good Afternoon Sir”s. Degenerates will do anything for extra marks.

Somebody bumped into EcoMan, and a pack of gold dropped to the ground.

No one else seemed to have noticed. So, V casually swooped in and pocketed it.
The bastard’s glasses didn’t even slip down his nose.

Somehow, I knew I was going to be involved in this escapade.

I think the biggest reason why V and I hadn’t smoked before was, well, we didn’t know how to ask the cigarette shop aunty. Sure, we knew all the names. Sticks in the gold pack were called Kings. The ones in the white were Milds. And there were the Ultra Milds and other nasty smelling shit called Garams and pansy Menthol and Cinnamon. Names weren’t the problem. We didn’t have the right swagger. Aunty’d know instantly that we were rookies.

I don’t know why, in the Big Bad World, there is no place for rookies. The first time V and I went to a pub, V had laughably asked for two mugs of beer. The bar guy had smiled a little too widely. As precaution, I hadn’t shaved for two weeks, hoping to look 18. I was praying the bar guy wouldn’t ask for our IDs. He didn’t. I think my plan had worked.

We were definitely better informed than last time around. All hail RatTail.

Our idol senior, RatTail (who managed to evade authority and successfully flourish a rat tail) smokes the crudest things called Smalls and Navy Cuts. If he manages to see us skulking in the corridors, he usually summons us and we go up to the watertank of the lab buildings where water’s ever-logged. We sit behind the tank, and RatTail strikes a match.

I don’t know about V, but whenever RatTail blows out plumes of blue smoke, I secretly steal lungfuls passively. I’m always fascinated with how he sits on his haunches, cigarette protected by his hand against visibility – except for the ratting lazy wraith. Bugger takes his time. The pull with the crisp crinkle of paper and leaves burning. The greedy sssss inhalation. And a content plosive exhalation – smoke hurriedly tumbling out of his mouth and nostrils, faster than commuters at a Mumbai station.

After the ritual’s over, RatTail fizzles it out in the nearest stagnant green pool, pulls out his deodorant and liberally spritzes himself and us, and with finality, flicks the telltale butt into far off oblivion. I always make a mental note to never play carom against this guy.

V and I decided to establish our own venue of ritual – who knows, after today, he and I would probably be seasoned smokers. We decided to test the terrace of his apartment complex. The last few periods (snigger) of the day, we killed discussing how hot girls look when they wear sling bags across their shoulders and their torsos make percentage signs. If only practical Maths was half as engrossing.

We went over to V’s. He sneaked out a pet jar of coke, his so far unlucky Axe deodorant, and without a trace of irony, matches from the Puja room (Nobody in his house smokes – at least openly. I once saw his dad smoke at a nearby tea-stall. And I don’t have the heart to tell him). And we set off for the terrace, about six floors away.

His terrace has a miscellaneous room, and with a little acrobatics, one can sit above it, hidden among many solar system units. It’s vertigo-inducing enough to keep the pesky young ones, and the judgemental oldies out. The middle of the spectrum, we realized judging by the number of cigarette butts there already, were moral thieves just like us.

We sat on our haunches, just like Rat Tail would. V stuck a cigarette in his mouth (there were seven in all) and proceeded to almost burn his eyebrows. He blackened a side of the cigarette significantly before successfully getting an amber end going. He made the same hissing sound, and coughed promptly after. His eyes were rheumy. Now, my turn.

The first thing that struck me about holding a cigarette – was how I didn’t know how to hold it. Do I push it to the axis between my fingers? Do I pinch the butt with my thumb and index finger? Do I sandwich it between first joints, or the second joints of my fore and second fingers? Of course, I registered how the cigarette was quivering. I think I licked my lips. I inhaled at an odd timing and filled my mouth up with smoke. I didn’t know what to do with it. It was counter intuitive to swallow it, so I blew it out. Nothing happened. My tongue felt coated. V said I was doing it wrong, that I didn’t make that ssss sound. So I tried again. Pull. Ssss. Cough. Out. Awesome. I’d just smoked.

Actually, not so awesome. It tastes like shit.

This must’ve been the second reason why I’d never smoked. In my limited experience of life, I have come to realize that the first time you do these much-hyped things, you are always let down. My first shave burned. My first love letter burned too, but in a slightly different way. My first beer tasted like fermented piss. My first kiss was insipid. My first blue movie was horrifying. My first arthouse film  (Citizen Kane, sue me) was an all round what-the-fuck.

Growing up is expectations ripening into disappointments.

Yet, I think the unexpected firsts are the things that rank as awesome. Like the first strand of a girl’s hair I found stuck on my jacket. The first morning I saw after staying up all night to finish a book, again, for the first time. The first high of cracking an algorithm for a self-imagined project.  The first time I discovered that bras, for some reason, have a sweet little bow right at the center.

V and I decided we’re not really the smoking type. We sprayed on the unlucky Axe and drank up the coke in silence. V left the now-5 pack there for someone else to discover.

We went down to his house a little guiltily. I noticed how odd V’s body language was, evading directly speaking to his mother, paranoid about the smell. We both held our breaths when she sharply inhaled and sniffed the air. She mysteriously said, “Have a bath no? Why waste scent?”

V came to the bus stop with me. And for some reason, got on the bus too. He said he just felt like the ride and took the window seat. We sat, lost in thought. I, for the first time, noticed the bumps in my co-passengers’ pockets, and discerned each of their consumption capacities. The squarish tens of Milds. The fat of twenties. The slim and stunted Navy Cuts. The slim and slightly taller Kings – or maybe, 3+ cigarettes of other names in a makeshift home before being incinerated.

My stop was here. I got off, V followed suit. We dodged a few autos. V insulted the mother of a brazen cyclist. And we burst out laughing. Both in amusement, and the relief of an unexpected happy ending.

And then he asked, “Why didn’t you tell me you knew my dad smoked?”