Category Archives: anecdote

I have Got the Pins and Needles

An edited version was published by Helter Skelter Magazine on 10th September 2012.

Needle and Skin

I have always wanted a tattoo. Nascent pictographs created from the controlled symbiosis of needle and ink on nothing but bare skin… yes, it has held a certain allure for me. But of course, it was off-limits. Read: strictly forbidden by my parents.

Mom: “You will get AIDS!”

Dad: “You want to be like those hippie kids?”

Me: Silent (You know the pose: Eyes down, serious face with occasional nodding. I am usually in my happy place in my head.)

But I have always wanted a tattoo. And, I usually get what I want. Eventually.

So, this was me in Bangalore in Jan. I have recently had an irreconcilable tiff with a boy I liked back then. I was also discovering new facets to my personality, being away from home for the first time. And not just away, mind you, but away in a different continent altogether.

It’s almost afternoon. I am alone in my friend’s apartment. Her friend, Swati Kejriwal, calls me up.

“Dude, it’s my day off. Let’s do something!”

“Yes, let’s. I want to get a tattoo. Can you take me to your guy?”

“Her guy” referred to her tattoo guy who she went to for the numerous tattoos she already had. I mean, if I was going to immortalize a part of my body with body ink, the least I could do was go to a place I could trust.

“Do you know what you want?”

“Yeah.”

It was a dragonfly. I liked what it signified. Maturity. Awareness. Independence. Renewal. Not to mention that Konkona Sen’s character of an aspiring writer (like me) in Wake Up Sid also had a dragonfly. Just where I wanted it.

We fix a time, she shows up in an auto, and we leave.

The parlour, Dark Arts Tattoo Studio, is a part of a comfortable little bungalow in Frazer Town.

The owner of the parlour, Pradeep Menon, is sitting in the front of the entrance, sipping beer. Swati and Pradeep greet each other like long-lost friends.

“This is my friend, Sanchari. She is the one who wants to get a tattoo,” I am introduced.

He glances at me, “What kind of tattoo?”

I hesitate, “A… a dragonfly?”

He asks one of his workers to take me inside to help me choose a design.

I am surprised to see the inside of his studio. It’s clean and brightly lit, cool with the air conditioner on. There is another woman inside, waiting to get a large tattoo on the inside of her arm. I am too nervous to ask her what she’s getting.

I choose my tattoo, and then am introduced to Anurag Pradhan, who’s to be my tattooist.

“Here, do her’s. It shouldn’t take much time,” Pradeep smiles, “it’s a puchki tattoo.”

This makes me giggle. It is indeed a tiny little thing I am getting.

So while Pradeep takes on the monster on the lady’s arm, I am ushered inside to prepare my nape.

I deliberately choose the nape. Think about it. You can hide it with a collared shirt at work, and then flaunt it in a swimming costume. Or, halter necks. Or, low-cut blouses. Or, to lovers. In moments of intimacy. Like your very own dirty secret.

Any-way.

The lady who helped me earlier, wipes my nape with an alcoholic solution, and then shaves the area. Then she sticks on a paper with my chosen design, pulling it off after making sure the design stays put on my skin.

Imprint of the design

“Ready?” Swati grins.

“Sure…”

I am not, though. I am having sudden second thoughts. I remember my childhood visits to the doctor.

Doctor (holding the injection with the evil, glinting needle on it): Ready?

Me: Won’t hurt, will it?

Doctor: Not at all.

What lies! Inevitably, I screamed. Was this going to be a nostalgic reprise?

Here too, I surrender. I hand my camera to Swati and position myself as directed. Anurag is serious, his concentration elevating my nervousness quotient.

I hear the needle whirring. I wait for the pain.

Anurag at work

I wait…

There is none.

“Well?” Swati asks, as she clicks away.

“It doesn’t hurt! I mean, I kind of like it…”

Everyone laughs.

In fifteen minutes, tops, I am done.

I am given instructions on how to keep my wound clean for the next two weeks, and then, after throwing away the ink used on me, the lady offers me my needle.

“Do you want your first needle?”

“First needle?” I am confused.

“Yes. Everyone keeps their first needle.”

She sounds sure of my desire to come back for yet another tattoo. I don’t contradict her, even though I know I won’t.

I accept the needle as my due.

Later, I ponder breaking the news to my parents. Eventually.

I touch my dragonfly for reassurance, tracing the wound with the tips of my fingers. The permanence comforts.

As does Swati’s mantra:

It’s the only thing you can take with you to your grave.

Amen.

Photo credits: Swati Kejriwal

Dragonfly

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Anniversary Blues

I should be up and about. Rejoicing. Celebrating the completion of my second year as a blogger. But I am sick. Even while writing this, I have to pace myself. Type a little. Catch my breath. Lie down for a bit. You get the picture.

When I came back from India, about two and a half weeks ago, I thought the tiredness and the infrequent fevers were a result of overexertion. Four months of it. But the fevers got worse. They were always the same. Violent shivering, followed by sweats. They became more frequent in nature. In fact, I was weak and nauseous all the time. Something was definitely wrong.

The doctor took one look at me and asked, “Did you take any of your malarial shots before leaving?”

Err, no. I was too busy with other things. Plus, I thought myself to be invincible. Surely, a few mosquito bites wouldn’t kill me?

“No,” I said, guilty as charged.

“Hmm… I suspect a case of malarial strain. Get these tests done.”

Wow. Malaria. The Great Indian Adventure doesn’t seem to get over.

Last night, I couldn’t stop shivering. Four layers of blankets did not do the trick. I felt guilty. Ma was awake due to my invalidity. Every half an hour she would feel my forehead. Baba, who hasn’t even recovered from his own illness, was up too. I felt angry at myself. And perhaps, a little vulnerable.

I have found that vulnerability often leads to stupid existential questions. In my case, I asked Ma, “Will I die?”

“If you are fated to, then yes,” she said in her usual cavalier manner. Before I could question her on her morbid joke, she added, “But don’t worry. You won’t die so soon. You will live to be in your eighties.”

You see my mom takes inordinate solace in the words of our family astrologer, according to whom I will live to see the Grand Old Age.

But what if he was wrong and I did not make it? What would I miss?

Let’s see…

I would not live to be thirty (which in retrospect, doesn’t seem like a bad proposition).

The Great Indian Novel that would not be written (ahh.. all that research gone to waste..).

The second M.A and the Phd that would not be done (I did like the sound of Dr. Sanchari Sur).

The dreams, wishes and fantasies that would never get a chance to be fulfilled.

The love that would never be professed…

Okay, maybe I am getting a little ahead of myself. It’s malaria. Maybe. Not c-a-n-c-e-r. Nobody dies from malaria these days.

So, with a brave face and a que sera sera eshque attitude, I gave my blood and other things to be scrutinized by lab rats. The pronouncement comes in a few days.

Meanwhile, I will stop moping, cross my fingers for the best, and hope for a better anniversary next year, and the next, and the next, and the next…

(Afterall, everyone deserves a second chance. I am just counting on mine.)

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Photographing Death

The Hand that Kills: The knife used for the “halal cut”

DISCLAIMER: Some of the images may be offensive or too graphic. Please view at your own discretion.

An edited version was published by Helter Skelter Magazine on 13th March 2012.

I am not the senti type. I don’t cry at movies. When I have friends sobbing, I pat them. Awkwardly. Once, when I was five, I watched a chicken being slaughtered. Without flinching. So, when I went to buy mutton at the local mutton shop last week, the severed head of a goat lying a few meters away from my face did nothing to deter me from peering at it, curious.

“Where do you kill your goats?” I ask the guy.

Young and dapper in his lungi, Nafeez says, “Why! Right here!”

Not having seen him do it even once in the past two and half months I have been here in Calcutta, I prod, “But when?”

“At around 6:30-7:00 ish in the morning.”

That explains why. I am never up that early, except when I am headed to the fish market.

Before I can curb my tongue, I ask, a trifle too eager, “Can I watch? I mean, can I photograph?”

He smiles, “Sure…”

I am not sure why I make the request. I am not even sure why I have this sudden morbid desire to photograph the last few moments of an animal’s death. But what I am most not sure about is why he doesn’t react negatively to my strange request.

I arrive early. The shop is yet to open. The streets are getting busy with people rushing to work or school. Some of them give me stares. Dressed in my pjs and a hoodie, with my camera bag on a weekday, I must be an uncommon sight. I ignore the white noise, waiting patiently for Nafeez.

But Nafeez doesn’t show. It’s past seven. Another guy, much older in appearance, shows up. I have seen him before. I assumed he was Nafeez’s father. Or, assistant. I watch him open the locks, and sweep the front. I ask him about Nafeez. He shakes his head and asks me to call him, offering a number. I feel awkward about calling my local butcher, so I decline, indicating that it’s okay, I will wait.

I wait. It’s almost 7:30. The sun is at a high. The traffic is worse. The number of staring people has increased. I can feel myself sweating under my hoodie. I curse myself. I should have never come on a weekday.

Finally, Nafeez shows up. Smiling, headphones plugged into his ears. He is unapologetic. Instead, he gets to work. Quick.

His shop, like most butchers’ shops, is raised at a height. What I didn’t know was that there is a reason for that height. The shop houses live goats underneath its floor. Nafeez removes one of the floorboards, indicating inside, “Are you sure you will get good photos while standing outside?”

I peer into the darkness, the bleating of the scared goats much clear now. I see two to three goats scurrying around in circles in the enclosed space. One of them sticks its head out of the gap and bleats frantically. I imagine it saying “help!” I want to feel bad, but I feel nothing. My head says it’s going to die anyway. Might as well document it.

“You are right,” I say instead, as I climb onto the shop floor, making room for myself in a corner.

Nafeez takes a small knife, and reaches for one of the goats. It escapes him. He quickly reaches for another, trapping it with his thigh. I watch, unable to click. In a few seconds, he has cut into the jugular.

It strikes me that this is what “halal cut” is. I watch the goat struggle briefly and then die a slow, silent death, as its blood forms a small pool at Nafeez’s feet. I click. And, click. And, click.

A customer, an upper middle class Bengali babu, waits outside, impatient to get some fresh meat.

To Nafeez (in Hindi), “How long will this take? Should I go to that other shop?”

To me (in Bengali), “So, what is that you want to gain from taking these photos?”

Before I can defend myself, Nafeez answers on my behalf, “It’s her pleasure.”

I shrug.

“I love taking photos. It’s a hobby,” I say.

Later, I ponder over his words. Was it my “pleasure” to watch this poor beast die? Was I a sadist?

Someone I once knew was excited about his trip to Barcelona. The first thing I had asked him though, was whether he was going to see the bullfights.

“Uh… I don’t think so. I don’t really like the gore,” had been his answer.

Well, I don’t know about the gore, I had said, but think about it. The poor thing is going to die anyway. Shouldn’t you honour its death with your presence?

We had laughed about it. Ha, ha.

Now, the joke is on me.

Laugh, why don’t you?

Update: All of the photos from this collection were accepted recently by two different magazines. While “Fasting and Feasting,” “Death and Dying” and “The Hand that Kills,” made it into scissors and spackle, “Leftovers” was taken by Carnival Magazine. Oh, and I gifted a framed copy of “The Hand that Kills” to Nafeez. He couldn’t stop grinning.

Death and Dying : Nafeez holds the goat down as it bleeds to death

Leftovers

Fasting and Feasting

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A sip or a spoonful won’t do/ No, I want it all.*

You did.

*Poison Cup by M. Ward.

You meet a stranger for coffee. It’s not a date.

Coffee leads to dinner.

Dinner leads to Saturday night plans.

Saturday night leads to Sunday morning.

And a few more meetings.

And then, you say your goodbyes. You fly off to another country. A month later, he will be gone too.

There are six months to kill.

There are no promises made. No commitments. Zilch expectations.

But you guys keep in touch. Talk often (He doesn’t want you for a pen pal). Skype for hours and stare at each other’s faces.

Then he says something and messes up. Makes you angry  (and breaks your heart). You slip up just to prove a point (and end up hurting him).

Then you guys become strangers. Formal and superficial.

You miss him. But you seal your lips (and try and seal your heart too).

There are four more months to kill.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Two of my (love) poems, “In Transit” and “Respectable,” are in the February issue of Red River Review (To read, click on February 2012 issue, and check out #73 and #78).

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A Novel Idea

Ok, fine. It’s true.

I am pregnant.

With an idea for a novel.

So, after much arguing and shooting down of parental objections-

“How can you go alone?”

“You will be bored in two days!”

“Wait till you fall sick…”

“Is this how you waste your hard earned money?”

“What are your plans for the future? When do you plan to get married?”

and so on it went- I bought a ticket to the city of my birth for a four month stint.

With Calcutta, there is no method to its madness. There is no modus operandi waiting to be cracked.

Winter is not cold. The streets are choked with dust, screaming in silence for the monsoons due to arrive six months later. Cars honk without stopping. People stare and spit, obnoxious and devoid of shame. Mosquitoes serenade you after dark (right before they deliver their love bites). And, the volley of questions… oh the questions.

My mejo jethu asked on our first meeting, “I just don’t get it. How did your father allow you to come alone?”

“I was planning to run away, in case he didn’t,” was my pensive answer with a polite smirk. I am becoming quite adept at these polite smirks.

My maid asked, “What time did you go to bed last night?”

“Late,” I answer again, my polite smirk popping up undeterred. Who the eff cares? You are being paid to clean the house and cook occasionally.

My friend from my nursery days, “You guys are so forward. Your parents are really liberal, aren’t they?”

Just the smirk this time. Oh, if only she knew.

And after being hit by a bout of fever, vomiting, cough and cold, and delhi belly (which should be rightfully renamed to India belly)- all in the span of two weeks after my arrival- I rolled up my sleeves and got down to work.

Work meant research. Work meant reading. Work meant revisiting my thesis ordeal last summer.

Flashback to last summer:

I am trudging through a hundred page Master’s thesis on religious identities of Indian women through fictional representations. In other words, I am screwing myself royally, while the saner of the grad students are taking the easy way out through summer courses. There are nights when I cry myself to sleep, reminding myself constantly of my trip to India that lies beyond those hundred pages.

In the present time, I stare at the books I have ordered. They are filled with academic essays on the time period I want to research.

Smile, dear child, my muse mocks. This is what you wanted, remember?

*I am currently in Calcutta, India, until the month of April, researching and working on my first novel tentatively titled, Blood Red Sky.*

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Paperboat Promises

When I was a little girl living in Calcutta, I learnt how to make paper boats. I suppose it was one of those things you pick up as a child. You become adept at making boats and aeroplanes from notebook paper in-between classes. My fascination with making “art” out of paper extended to the point where I became slightly obsessed with origami at some point. I suppose the fleeting nature of such art attracted me greatly. Just like one becomes enamoured with the short-lived rose.

Nowadays, I play with words in the hope that they will last beyond the page. Beyond the reading. And perhaps, beyond me.

My poem, “Paperboat Promises,” was published in The Montucky Review today. You can read it here.

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The Man, the Artist… my Dadu

Dadu and I

It’s five years to the day. That’s how long it has been since he left.

I remember the day I got the news. I was in Professor Ruth Knechtel’s satire class. I received a call from dad, and ignored it. Later, when I called back, mom gave me the news. Dadu had passed away the night before.

A lot of people don’t know this. But it was Dadu who  instilled in me the love of storytelling. The earliest stories I can remember were told to me by Dadu. They were tales of his childhood in his ancestral village, located in current Bangladesh, formerly a part of British India.

Dadu is the reason I am who I am. He dared to follow his dreams, and broke away from the family business. My ancestors were traditionally traders of paan, a leaf that is popular in India as a mouth freshener post-meals. He came to Calcutta as a young man to become an artist. And today, I can dare to follow my dreams of becoming a writer, thanks to him.

Paan

He worked for Bombay Photos, and perhaps, his most popular art piece is the Nirma Washing Powder dancing girl.

Nirma Washing Powder dancing girl

I was his favourite grandchild. And, I am not even the youngest. He had an unshakeable belief that I was his mother, reincarnated. Sure, it’s true that my face shape and bone structure bear an uncanny resemblance to my great-grandmother, but that could very well be because we share the same genes. That is what I tried to tell him. He brushed it off. Apparently, when my mother was pregnant with me, my great granny came into Dadu’s dreams and told him, “Son, I am coming to your family.” That’s the story he firmly stuck to.

We were close. I dreamt of him often after he passed away. He would come into my dreams and impart bits of wisdom to me. I wonder whether those dreams were a projection of my own desires, or whether it was Dadu coming to give me a sort of closure. I would like to believe the latter.

But he hasn’t been coming into my dreams for over two years now. I think he has either passed into that place where all souls go to, or if there is reincarnation, then he has been reborn already.

I know I will feel a familiar vacuum when I visit Calcutta this year.

I miss you, Dadu. A lot.

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