Sunday, June 26, 2011

Band of Brothers


How did it happen? What do you mean how did it happen? Do these things need precedence or logic for them to happen? How did Ramar Pillai manage to convert a soup of herbs into petrol? How did, all of a sudden, without any warning, every single Vinayaka idol start slurping Aavin milk around the city? How did the current chief minister lose popularity (again) and the ex-CM get reelected (again)? How? Do we even need explanation in this country, in this city, where horoscopes are matched so perfectly that even a bucktoothed, thin and rapidly balding groom can land himself a svelte, fair-skinned doe of a Madras girl and beam as he clutches her tightly through the infinite rolls of silk? How? These things just have a way of happening around here. It just so happened that thirteen years ago, across the country, a bunch of women, their bellies distended due to the grade-A stock of the Indian Y chromosome, gave birth to a pride of healthy boys and while the new parents, still unsteady about how to hold their newborns, figured out what to do with the new additions to their lives, decided, unanimously, to name their boys, Ashwin.

The band consisted of four Ashwins and one non-Ashwin. Let us meet the cast.

Ashvin Matthews (that is spelt with a V, not a W, as he would like it to be known) was the Mallu guy. He was the tallest of the group and the one with connections at Sishya School. He was the one who, only a month ago during lunch time, breathlessly broached the fact to his friends that Sishya School was having a Western Music competition and that they should compete. He was the one. Ashvin Matthews considered himself to be a singer, given his Kerala roots and by logical extension, a definite connection to any of the umpteen singers in the film industry whose name was Unni-something.

Then, there was Ashwin Ganapathy. He was the mellow one, always lost in his reveries or spaced out in some non-sweaty, non-Madrasic paradise. His hands and mind apparently had no connection and he had the superpower to stare at the ceiling or outside the window and still manage to hold a rhythm on his guitar. Ashwin Ganapathy was perhaps the most gifted of the group. It was he who doled his sagacious guidance when chords were getting too gnarly or bass lines too ornate. His early terrifying childhood scars of learning to play the violin in the Carnatic school of music had bestowed upon him a keen ear and a perspicacious sense of melody.

Then there was Ashwin Mandana, the Marwadi fellow, whose presence at school was as rare as spotting a black-and-yellow zebra in the Gobi desert. Ever the sly one, he always found ways and means of sneaking out of class and wiggling his way through exams by hiding chits in his underwear. If he ever did show up to a class, he was promptly sent out within the first five minutes due to any one of the infinite misdemeanors that were not tolerated at St. John’s English School. These ranged from not wearing a banian inside one’s shirt to using a rubber band, chewing gum and one’s fingers to launch sticky projectiles into the blue ribboned and well-oiled hair of the opposite sex. But Ashwin Mandana was also a resourceful guy and he would be the chosen one to bribe Linus into getting the band an O.D. form. He played the lead guitar.

Then there was M. Ashwin, an enigmatic asshole of a guy, who, according to Ashvin, spoke the crazy African pygmy language of Goltese. Nobody knew what the M in his name stood for and years of wear and tear had abraded his name to Yemashwin. M. Ashwin considered that to be an homage to the god of death, Yama, and considering his recent discovery of the sub-genre called Death Metal, he found this nickname fitting. Yemashwin wore a gold ring on every finger of his right arm and his neck was festooned with a nest of golden chains that sonorously rang with every movement of his as if he were a cow. This breed of Ashwin, however, suffered from a strange hypersexuality due to the fact that his testicles descended and were engorged with sperm at the tender age of three months. If there was one thing fair about Yemashwin, it was that his lecherous Golt eyes mentally undressed every female – from the nubile and developing girls in his class, to the beggar lady squatting outside the temple, wearing nothing but a decomposing rag. Having been the last one to cadge and grovel at Ashvin’s feet (it was Ashvin’s idea to start a rock band), Yemashwin was given the unsavory and most boring aspect of playing in a rock band – the bass.

And finally, the last member of the young band, the percussionist who glued it all together, the eternally caffeinated one, the rich bugger, the one whose father worked in the Gulf and whose mother was an airhostess or a model or something so fancy that he refused to disclose the details to anyone, the one that the others wished they were instead of being themselves, what with the freedom to come and go whenever and eat wherever, with pocket money scaling in the hundreds of rupees, finally, we are introduced to the non-Ashwin – Shyam Sundar. Shyam was the shortest of the group and this was accentuated by the fact that he had to sit on a stool to play his drums (his father had purchased it for him from that paradise of duty-free – Dubai), rendering him virtually invisible. Having no one to slap or chide him, he had taken to himself to brew a quite excellent decoction every morning, which he used to make stretched filter coffee during the day. This, he consumed like medicine, many times a day. When his caffeine twitches reached a crescendo, he invoked the ire of Ashvin as stray cymbals and completely cacophonous drum rolls would be rendered absolutely out of turn. But credit is due where credit is due and it was Shyam who dreamt up of the name for the band, a name that was as incongruous and out of place as four Ashwins and one non-Ashwin in a rock band, a paradoxical riddle of a name, considering the fact that only one of the five even technically qualified to be a part of it. And that name was – The Rock Brahmins. (Ashwin Ganapathy was the only Brahmin in the group, if that wasn’t evident).


‘Practice at Shyam’s house,’ Ashvin had said to the boys as he unlocked his Hero Ranger. ‘Six sharp,’ he added for extra clarity. The others nodded and sped away, eager to nominate songs and begin practice. It was a no-brainer that the practice was to be held at Shyam’s. No other household could have tolerated the squeals of the electric guitars, the terrifying rumble of the bass, the spastic vocals and, worse of all, the dup-dish-dup-dish-dup-dish rhythm of the drums.

No one.

Chappals would have been hurled, doors knocked and angry neighbors would have demanded an explanation for the sound pollution this close to the first term exams. No, Sir. It had to be in that third floor island that was surrounded by three empty flats, that eternally dark-unlit-house-after-sunset flat that women returning from the temple avoided looking at as if it were a bad omen, that dungeon of vice where the Gulf father returned with a non-mother and, sometimes, even the airhostess or model mother returned home with a non-father, where tipsy laughter could be heard after midnight, that was the place, Shyam’s ‘pad’, as he liked to refer to it as, where the weekly practice was slated to be.

However, sadly, things were not meant to go according to plan.

On the first week, while deciding what songs to perform, Yemashwin suddenly snapped his fingers in the muggy air and said, “Yov! I got an idea. Shyam, you have powder-aa?” Of course, Shyam had powder. He had powders that these silly Madras buffoons had never heard of – Yardley, Nivea, and even the very masculine American powder – Arm & Hammer. He superciliously coughed a laugh and pointed to his parents’ room. Yemashwin ran in and ran out with the Yardley powder box, stopping once to briefly glance at the photo of Shyam’s mother atop the fridge. He tore a sheet of paper from the Femina magazine that was lying on the coffee table, sprinkled at least a kilo of powder into it, assiduously rolled the paper, stuck it in his mouth and said, “Yov! Guys! Check it out. I’m smoking.” He blew into his ‘cigarette’ and instantly transformed all the remaining Ashwins into white ghosts with a heavenly Yardley Rose smell.

Pthu!’ Ashwin Mandana spat and accidentally let some spittle land on his knees. He absently wiped it and said. “This? Smoking? Dei, Shyam. You have any agarbathi?” Shyam rolled his eyes and pointed to the fridge. The Marwadi nimbly ran to the fridge while wiping his face free of the Yardley, expertly extracted a single incense stick, lit it and returned to the group.

“Watch this,” he said and stuck the burning incense into his mouth. He puffed his cheeks out and sat there silently for a few seconds, bobbling his head and perching his eyebrows above his scalp. He rapidly retrieved the still burning stick and turned to his friends and slowly opened his mouth, letting out a puff of sandalwood flavored smoke. He leaned back in contentment and stuck the incense out to the others as if it were a communal cigarette that had to be passed around. Ashwin Ganapathy took possession of it and stared at it in wonderment. His entire thirteen years of Brahminical upbringing had failed to reveal to him this wondrous quality of the humble agarbathi. Here he was, having brainwashed into believing that this was only an offering to the gods, a means to sanctify the shrine. He smiled at its glowing tip and contemplated its magnificence.

“You fuckers,” Shyam said in his characteristic nonchalance. “This shit amuses you or what? Check this out.” He slid his hands into the chasm in the sofa where the seat met the backrest and fished out a pack of cigarettes.

“Why fake it when you can do the real deal. Dei, Ashvin. Pass me the matchbox.”

Ashvin, who had been trying to tune his guitar to no avail, sighed, and did his host’s bidding. “We must begin practicing, da. It’s already late.”

“Ya ya!” Shyam said, lighting the cigarette and taking a drag. The Ashwins watched in wonder as the real cigarette burned red and authentic smoke filled the room. They coughed and then all stuck their hands out at the same time.

And like this, they lost the first week.

During their second practice session, after everyone had parked and locked their bicycles and had assembled on the sofa, Ashvin got up and using his immense height said, “Listen, we have only three weeks, okay? You guys are not being serious. We have to start practice today. Now, what song should we do?”

Ashwin Ganapathy was stroking a cactus plant. Ashwin Mandana sat splayed on the sofa, his finger scratching his nether regions. Shyam was listening to a Michael Jackson cassette on his Dubai-imported Walkman and the Golt was squatting on the floor, ruffling through a stack of old newspapers that he had found near the chappal stand.

“Guys,” Ashvin said, putting his hands on his hips and towering over them. “You are not serious. What should we play? Hmm? MLTR?”

“That’s a homo band,” Ashwin Mandana flatly replied, still scratching his groin.

“What’s homo about it?” Ashvin demanded furiously. “And why are you scratching so much? Got ringworm or what?”

“AIDS,” Shyam said, having turned down the volume now.

“AIDS doesn’t make your balls scratchy, okay,” Ashwin Mandana said, a bit uncertainly. “Does it?”

It did not. Every man, boy, uncle and grandfather who grew up in Madras had itchy balls. That was a fact. It was as certain as the fact that the sun rose in the east and the P.T.C. buses didn’t have A/C. No one doubted it. Some sprinkled Shower To Shower, others Yardley, still others abstained from undergarments and many others invented creative solutions that involved a pair of scissors, a Reynolds pen cap and a hole in their pocket. But the important answer to the question of whether or not itchy testicles were a symptom of Acquired Immuno-Deficiency Syndrome was momentarily dwarfed by Yemashwin’s sudden launch into the air with a Goltese war cry.

Ammababoi!’ he cried. ‘Is this Playboy-aa?’ he asked, opening a magazine that clearly said Playboy on the front cover. The centerfold came tumbling out and the well endowed foreign goddess was now clasping her hair and lustily staring at Yemashwin. He flipped her around for the benefit of the others and any residual conversation died a tragic death.

‘Yeah,’ Shyam said, removing his headphones and letting it dangle on his neck. “It’s from U.S.”

The Ashwins clamored to obtain possession of this new drug and in the process many pages came unhinged from the sacrosanct Bible. Shyam laughed at this boorish behavior of his friends. What village bums, he thought. Never seen any boobs in their lives! Cha!

“Have any of you shagged?” Shyam asked, running his fingers through his hair. He remarkably looked like Rajinikanth when he did this and, of course, having been told this, he spent an inordinate amount of time trying to flick a cigarette in the air and trying to catch it in his mouth. But the abject Tamizh movie industry or cigarettes were the last thing on the Ashwins’ minds.

“Shagged?” Ashvin asked. “Means?”

“Rubbed your dicks?”

Everyone laughed a healthy laugh as if this was a knock-knock joke told right. Then there was an uncomfortable silence. A silence of illiteracy.

“Mandana is doing it now,” Yemashwin wanly offered, but it wasn’t very funny, especially to the rubber, who glowered in his place.

“Really? None of you? Pff! Try it. It’s very…exciting.”

“What should I do?” Mandana asked, his distant blue-blooded Marwadi Kshatriya genes weakly asserting their presence. “How does one shag?”

“Just hold your dick and move it back and forth.”

“Then?” Yemashwin asked, puzzled. Why would anyone do that?

“I’m not going to tell everything. Try it. You will know.”

This enigmatic reply threw the nascent band that had yet to pluck a single note, nay, tune a single guitar, into a pandemonium, the intensity of which was only rivaled by the Vanandurai Fish Market. Facts were hurled and they were countered with more hearsays. Suddenly, everyone knew someone - some elder cousin, some friend — who had explained how to perform this fancy act called ‘shagging’. Gestures were demonstrated in air with fists and careful tips were given that supposedly increased the pleasure of the experience. But alas, with this much theory circulating in the room, it appeared that no one soldier, besides Shyam, had been brave enough to venture into this mysterious Battle of Shagging. There had been rumors, supposedly, of blindness and a guaranteed passage to hell to all those who try it. Shyam smiled at this naïve confusion floundering around him and offered a solution.

“Go try it now. Take the Playboy to the bathroom. Just try it once. I promise you won’t go blind or to hell. I’m still here and I can see.”

No one ventured. Each looked at the other and grinned. Shyam upped the reward. “If you shag, you become a man.”

Not once did the Ashwins question Shyam about his knowledge of shagging. One does not question Shyam about such non-academic topics. Shyam knew everything outside of the pages of the textbook and exam question papers. He had flown alone in an airplane and that alone gave him bragging rights. He drank coffee and smoked cigarettes. That sealed the Shyamness in Shyam. He was an adult trapped in a thirteen year body. He belonged to the world outside the school where people drove motor vehicles to work and paid the bills at hotels. Shyam was just going through a temporary phase of childhood and his friends happened to know him. No. You don’t question Shyam’s G.K.

“Okay,” the Iyer boy said. “I’ll try it.”

The others looked at him as if he were a sacrificial maiden about to have her head chopped off by a drunk Mayan high priest. They bowed instinctively in deference. It must be his temple going, Ashvin reasoned. They say the temples hold great powers. The Golt looked at Ganapathy with tears in his eyes as if he had just lost a best friend to AIDS and they were about to cremate him. He wiped away the tear before it embarrassed him. Mandana was shaking his head side to side in awe, still unable to believe that someone was now shagging in the toilet as he existed on this planet. Shyam put his headphones back on and fast-forwarded to the next song.

Barely three minutes later, the toilet door opened and Ashwin Ganapathy walked outside, sporting a giant stain on his shorts that vaguely resembled the map of Australia. The boys looked at him like devotees of a famous saint, and it was apt because Ashwin Ganapathy had a beatific smile plastered on his face. In fact, if one squinted and cocked their heads to the side, he was a spitting image of the deity, Murugan, who was very popular on Tamizh calendars. All it required was for him to hold a vel and to wear a crown.

“Guys,” he said softly. “I’m a man.”

And like this they lost the second week.


By the time they got to the penultimate week, panic had set in, amongst other things such as manhood. Four of the boys (Mandana and Ashvin being the newer ones) were now bona fide men as ordained by their cult leader - Swami Shyamsundarananda. Their gaits were charged with a swollen sense of pride and accomplishment and they felt as if they had just come in possession of a bazooka. They were walking guns now, loaded with bullets. Bullets that were begging to be spent and spend they did. When they met at Shyam’s place, each of the freshly minted ‘man’ had stories to tell and only the Golt, Yemashwin, sat aloof in this group, feeling hurt and stabbed in the back, for was it not he who had precipitated this…this emancipation with his discovery? Then why did fate spare his blossoming? Was he cursed to languish his entire life in a cracking voice that sounded like he had eaten a donkey, but had quite not managed to swallow it whole? Were people going to continue hesitantly addressing him as ‘madam’ on the phone when he answered? Was he going to be this same height, this un-manly midget-like five-foot-chillar inches high from the ground? Did he try shagging? Of course he had tried to shag. He had tried to shag like he was cramming for his maths final exam, but his tap opened dry and hours of this fruitless endeavor over the week had only resulted in burns. He sighed at his misfortune, consoling himself that at least if he was an Early Man, he would have positively been the first guy to discover fire, given his persistent and powerful rubbing techniques.

Meanwhile, the man who went by the name Ashvin took control of the group and then panicked hard. “What the fuck are we doing, guys? Shagging and smoking? The competition is barely in two weeks. We still don’t know what song to play.”

Mandana grunted. “How about Walk Like an Egyptian?”

Shyam thought about it. “We need a piano for that.” He meant a synthesizer, but these things were interchangeable, considering their nonexistence. “How about Winds of Change? Scorpions?”

“That song with the whistling?” Ashvin asked, drawing from his encyclopedic knowledge of Western Pop music.

“Yeah, that.”

“That’s a good song. We need one more. We have ten minutes on stage.”

And then Yemashwin, in his wallowing self-loathing and pity, intending to fling excrement at these pompous shaggers, decided to suggest an impossible song. “How about Sweet Child Of Mine? GNR?”

There was a palpable sense of something heavy sitting in the room. Everyone looked at each other. Guns N Roses? Could they pull it off? Didn’t it require a Slash in the group to destroy the lead? They automatically looked at Mandana who shrugged and plucked the opening notes in bits and pieces. But surely the song had to be supported with a solid rhythm, a set of chords on which this behemoth of a song could tower above. Staring at the chilli plant’s white blossoms, Ashwin Ganapathy twanged the required chords, albeit at a much slower tempo. Of course, what was Sweet Child O’ Mine without that bold, lighthouse-like bass line that erupted right at the beginning of the song and demanded its attention? Yemashwin stared at his pathetic acoustic guitar with its Karuna brand strings and plucked off the notes on the sixth string as close as he could to the original bass line. It was passable. “I’ll give you the notes,” Ganapathy said, without looking up. That left the percussion and Shyam leapt to his drums and thrashed some beats and swirled around his seat and destroyed the cymbals with a powerful crash. Of course Ashvin didn’t care to sing the first few lines of the song. He knew he was good and everyone else knew no one cared about the vocals. The girls always went for the boys with guitars and that’s why there were so many guitarists in the Rock Brahmins.

“Gentlemen,” Ashvin said solemnly. “I think the Rock Brahmins are going to kick ass. Be prepared for swooning girls and tours. We might have to go to Fishermen’s Cove and god knows where all to play. This is the start of a new beginning. It’s a man’s world and we are going to conquer it.”

There! That man business again, thought Yemashwin, as he tuned his Karuna brand sixth string endlessly. He sighed, perked up and resolved to ask Shyam if he could borrow a page from the Playboy to take home. Maybe some boobage will precipitate this ‘Newton’s Fourth Law’ as Mandana had expertly put – “To and fro motion produces white lotion.” In the worst case, he told himself, he could just spill some of his sister’s Lakmé Fairness Milk and claim victory. With that problem resolved, he set about learning the bass line from Ganapathy and soon the Rock Brahmins were finally rehearsing for their big performance.


There were two types of schools in Madras. One followed your time-tested pantheon of education — the Central Board of Secondary Education a.k.a. CBSE. The CBSE was the ecosystem where young bookworms munched on the pages of the Gulmohar Reader and learned to count on their fingers, then morphed into pupae, spinning an irrelevant and confusing silk filled with unnecessary information about Civics and History and Sanskrit, before breaking free and emerging as serious butterflies during their last two years, with their minds trained only in the hardest forms of science or accounting known to mankind. Here, you would find the usual suspects – Vidya Mandir, PSBB, PS and, of course, the mighty and luminous St. John’s English School.

And then you have the…okay, there are three types of schools, actually. Then you have the schools that followed the State Board syllabus, who had collectively showed their butts to the CBSE and decided to impart their own fair and balanced education to the children. It was rumored that in these schools the speaking of the English language was strictly optional, in fact, forbidden, even during English periods. Such kids could be easily found loitering on the streets who counted in Tamizh and were such experts in that confounded system of rote learning (a remnant of the British legacy) that entire passages would have been memorized from their silly textbooks, ready for regurgitation and prompt erasure on exam days. That said, these State Board-based kids still were formidable opponents in the annual mental slaughter known as the university entrance exams. In this allotment, you will find some stalwarts like Vanavani, Don Bosco and various irrelevant ones such as Chintradripet Higher Secondary School.

And finally…well, actually there might be four types of schools, not three. It is very easy to gloss over the Corporation schools that existed as an underclass of schools. Here, education was free and also totally absent. Classrooms resembled stables and the students were wild animals. It is said that the animals of Guindy Zoo made annual excursions to these schools for pure enjoyment. So horrible were the conditions in this type of school. One would be hard pressed to name schools (Olcott Matriculation comes to mind), but no one really knew anyone who went to these schools or if anyone went there at all. They existed like streetlights and dustbins - silent, decomposed and defaced edifices.

Which brings us finally to the fourth variety, of which only two existed – ICSE. Ask any school kid in Madras what ICSE stood for and he would shrug and go back to memorizing whatever it was he was memorizing on that given day. It actually stood for I Cannot Study Everything. Precisely two schools in Madras subscribed to the ICSE syllabus – Sishya and the very philosophical sounding and as much confusing, The School. The The School was a big pain due to its pretentiousness and also because of the article, The, as the name of the school, which caused lot of confusion in conversation.

“What school is your daughter studying in?”

The school.”

“Yes, which school?”

“That’s what. The school.”

“The school what? It’s not even a sentence. Are you educated?”

Many believed that the real name of the school was silent, like the p in psychology and only was revealed to the students after they had paid the atrociously high fees. Regardless, the crème de la crème of Madras merrily sent their pampered offspring to The School or Sishya and considering their relative proximity, it was a common sight to see a traffic jam of Mercedes, Contessas and Cielos in the Adayar region every morning and afternoon as the spoilt brats were chauffeured to and from school.

Sishya School. So rich were the students who attended it and, conversely, so few of them existed that most children in Madras had never met anyone who studied there. To be invited into Sishya felt like being called into the private antechamber of a Mughal king. The immaculate paint on the school’s walls, the infinite expanse of football and cricket grounds, the crop of shady trees dotting the campus and the conspicuous absence of a battalion of school buses arrested the boys’ minds as they made their way to the auditorium. Only Ashvin, an ex-Sishyaite, appeared nonchalant, displaying the weary and detached look of a autorickshaw driver who had spent his entire life shuttling tourists to the Taj Mahal, as if all this splendor and opulence meant nothing to him.

It was competition day and also hot and muggy. A cool sea breeze wafted inside the heads of everyone present. Outside the auditorium, a carnival atmosphere was trying to secularly coexist with the heat. A few open tents had been pitched and vendors were selling everything from ice cold drinks to samosas. Speakers had been mounted strategically such that one could not escape the din on stage at any place within a few kilometers of the school. The Rock Brahmins had coolly arrived on the scene and were seated amongst the audience, waiting for the horrendous Light Music competition to get over before the Western Music could begin.

Shyam was drumming with his drumsticks on the headrest of the seat in front, much to the consternation of a wizened teacher. Mandana had already befriended the Chemistry laboratory attender and was cheerfully enquiring about the laxity in the school during exam days. Ashvin Matthews, with Shyam’s borrowed Walkman shrouding his ears, clenched his eyes and was studiously singing along with Axl Rose. Yemashwin, trying to appear cool and casual, had sunk into the metal chair and was observing the local female wildlife. Only Ganapathy was lost in a soft rapture with the goings-on of the Light Music competition and was unconsciously slapping a rhythm on his thigh with his palm.

The Light Music came to a finish as a spectacled nerd finished whispering Kuch Na Kaho and was booed off the stage. There was polite and scattered applause from the teachers in the audience, however.

In their rigorous two weeks of practice, the Ashwins and Shyam had overlooked one simple thing that was fundamental to any competition – competition. Not once had they considered that there would be other teams, perhaps more competent than they were. Now they were being forced to consider.

There was a handful of bands in the chairs around them. Their uniforms were a giveaway. The boys spotted Vidya Mandir in their vomit green pants. Then there was PSBB dressed in shirts and pants that had vertical green stripes as if someone dunked them in glue and rolled them in a vat of vermicelli. A bit further, there were a few students in the costume of Chettinad Vidyashram - miserable checked shirts on pansy blue pants. Yes, there was competition. But, four students with slanted eyes, broad shoulders and straight hair were seated next to the Rock Brahmins and Ashvin Matthews recognized this breed instantly.

“Chinkys,” he whispered.

“Fucking north-eastern Chinkys,” Mandana qualified and a shiver ran across the group. It was said that the “Fucking North Eastern Chinkys” were legends with the guitar. They could play Hotel California backwards if they so chose to. They were also very competent at playing it forwards, it was said. These north-easterners, these cuckoo hatchlings, clearly Chinese or Burmese masquerading as Indians, were a force to reckon with and so, just as a group of chimpanzees meeting another group in the wild would each send their emissaries to first scope out each other, Ashvin struck a conversation with the Chinky who he perceived to be the vocalist.

“Hey! Which school, man?” Ashvin asked nonchalantly.

“St. John’s,” replied the non-Ashwin, smiling. He stuck his hand out.

Ashvin’s eyes ballooned. Was this a coup? Hadn’t Mandana carefully bribed Linus, the Principal’s attender, to get them a signed On Duty form? Weren’t they going to submit the form to their class teacher in order to explain their absence? Weren’t they the only set of five students who could technically be excused from school as of now? It was certain death to anyone who didn’t possess the OD form. In St. John’s English school, not wearing a banian or being absent from class without valid reason was tangoing with torture. Then who were these chink-fucks, what were they doing here and, more importantly, how come no one had seen them before in school?

Of course, it was Ganapathy who cleared the issue. “International School?” he asked and the Chinky vigorously nodded. Oh! So they were the music warriors from a sister tribe – the St. John’s International Residential School, a godforsaken Gulag that existed in an alternate universe in some armpit of Madras with a name that ended in -bakam. This wasn’t the posh and regal St. John’s Besant Nagar, that temple of learning and beautiful developing girls, which sat on the edge of the city and offered a panoramic view of the Bay of Bengal from its terrace. No, this was the “other” St. John’s.

Matter closed.

By now the Chinky had informed his other friends of the Rock Brahmins and chairs were moved to form a loose circle. Everyone appraised the other’s instruments and considering the glut of Karuna brand strings, everyone considered themselves equal.

“John,” the first Chink said, shaking hands with everyone.

“Peter,” the next one said.

“Paul,” followed the next.

Jesus! Ashvin Matthews thought. I’m meeting a bunch of saints.

“Paul,” said the last one and added with a smile and a smattering of English, “we both same name.”

“Big deal!” Yemashwin said. “Yov! We are all Ashwins and he is Shyam.”

Shyam waved his drum sticks. “I’m the drummist,” he said, just to make sure it was clear what his role was. “Where’s your drummist?”

The first Paul replied, “We don’t have one. We are doing only acoustic songs.”

“Oh!” said Mandana, a bit arrogantly. “Only acoustic? Like what?”

“Just…Hotel California. What about you guys?”

“We…” Ashvin nervously started, “…we are doing Sweet Child O’ Mine,” he said and suddenly felt like a Coke employee who had just divulged the recipe to a Pepsi salesperson. The Rock Brahmins glared at Ashvin for this treachery. What the fuck, man? Why is he telling them this? Surprise was always the best weapon in war. Didn’t Feng Shui or some famous Chinese baba state that? Now their surprise was gone. Shyam was sure that one of the Pauls would surreptitiously waltz to the judges and smugly tell them to expect a GNR song.

Yemashwin smacked his forehead and cupped his face.


For, in the noise of the distracted crowd that was getting more animated at the impending Western Music event, came the smooth notes of the bass lines of Sweet Child O’ Mine. The saint named Peter had casually slung his guitar and was easily plucking off the notes as if they were low hanging custard apples. While his fingers spidered all over the frets, he laughed and talked to the others, displaying no effort whatsoever. Yemashwin scrambled to watch his fingers, eager to copy as many notes as he could. But before he could remember them, there was applause and the emcee announced that it was time for Western Music and the crowd erupted in cheers.


“It’s cool, man,” Mandana said, looking very serious and holding his palms out. “It’s alright. No one wants to listen to Hotel California. That’s what everyone plays. You get points for originality. And no one performs that song acoustic, okay. No one. It needs two lead guitars. Both electric. You know that last bit where they stand on stage and talk to each other and play? Imagine doing that with an acoustic guitar. Impossible lead, man. Impossible.”

The pep talk worked and Ashvin smiled a bit. Shyam relaxed. Yemashwin resumed “bird watching” where he last left. But seconds later, Paul and Peter were on stage with their two acoustic guitars, facing each other and talking, as they played the impossible lead. It was as if the Eagles had died and reincarnated into these four Chinky saints. When the other St. John’s group was done, the crowd went berserk. Lunch boxes were thrown in the air, along with shoes, paper rockets and ribbons.

The emcee, a fresh young thing in a short skirt and a tight translucent shirt that revealed a stringy bra, sauntered onto the stage and warbled, “We seem to be having some problems with the amplifier. Can the…” she consulted her notes here, “…Rock...Brahmins come backstage, please?”

It was show time!

The Rock Brahmins made a slow and languorous walk to the backstage as if they were coming to accept the Grammy’s. No one clapped, but there were giggles and coy whispers passing around. Ashvin Matthews had moved from Sishya to St. John’s and a few Sishyaites had recognized him.

Ashvin lead the band, as any decent vocalist would. Ganapathy, his face displaying a rare sense of excitement and anticipation, was whistling softly. Mandana and Shyam were talking in whispers, with Shyam drumming the air in front of him, compensating for his height with an animal ferocity. He had already drunk three cups of coffee before arriving and had managed to find a Nescafé vending machine in the school’s cafeteria, from which he had purchased three more.

Yemashwin trailed the band. He fought his shyness and turned his head a bit to take a glance. He almost swooned at the sartorial chutzpah of the Sishyaites. It was as if the girls’ skirts were a mile above their knees. In the mangrove forest of cream skinned, waxed and glistening legs, Yemashwin felt like a lost Bengal tiger, searching for an escape. He nervously smiled and a couple of girls giggled and waved at him. Sweet child o’mine, he thought, staring at their chests. He wondered if his poor father’s government salary could afford to send him to Sishya.

They reached backstage and were immediately confronted by Vandana, the emcee.

“Sorry, guys,” she said animatedly. She was chewing gum and speaking fast. She had more lipstick than anyone else the boys had ever seen (discounting the photo of Shyam’s mom atop the fridge) and she was standing up on her toes every few moments. This caused her skirt to go up and down as if invisible goblins were furiously working pulleys and ropes under her skirt. Her neck swanned out from her starched white shirt and terminated in a glossy mop that was alluringly free of drying jasmine bunches, coconut oil or cheap blue ribbons that formed an unofficial part of the average St. Johnian girl’s uniform. Her dangly earrings and pearly white smile convinced Yemashwin that she was the girl on the Sunsilk shampoo sachets. “Wire broke or something. They are almost done.” She casually placed a hand on Yemashwin and said, “So! Rock Brahmins, huh? Cool name! Fuck! Only band with a name actually.”

The men smiled and nodded. Words had frozen in their heads and hung like centuries old stalactites. Their primal need to fight or flight had been turned on and adrenalin and testosterone was coursing through their body. On the one hand was their imminent stage performance, exacerbated by the delay, and on the other hand was this nymph, coolly flirting with them. Good Lord! Look at her boobs! Did she stuff a pair of channa baturas inside her shirt or what?

Vandana moved closer.

Intentionally, Yemashwin surmised. He felt her soft breast collapse into his biceps.


“So,” she said, pulling out some chewing gum from her mouth and twirling it as if it were a lock of her Sunsilk smelling hair. “What are you guys playing?”

Shyam found his voice. “It’s a surprise. You won’t believe it.”

“I hope it’s not Hotel California again,” she said, rolling her eyes in mock frustration and then giggled. “Three bands have already performed that!” She moved a bit and Yemashwin compensated, refusing to let the softness in his life vaporize so easily. She didn’t seem to mind. In his trilingual mind, however, he realized that vanda meant a thousand in Telugu and somewhere in the deep recess of his brain folds he tried to connect the fact that uttering her name once was akin to reciting the sloka containing the thousand names of god – the Vishnu Sahasranamam. But he never got that far. The amplifier was fixed and the Rock Brahmins were on next.

Vandana introduced them and sashayed out of the stage, winking at Yemashwin and showing him a thumbs-up sign on her way out.

The band members took their positions and waited for Shyam to climb into his seat behind the drums. He looked like a tank commander going to war as he disappeared behind the drums.

Ashvin Matthews took the mike and cleared his throat. With the deepest baritone he could summon, he said, “Friends! We are from St. John’s English School. Today, we would like to play a song.” Shyam rolled his eyes and said (a bit loudly, perhaps), “What the fuck is he doing man? Is he going to sing Papa Kehthen Hain or what?”

But Shyam was vindicated when a hooligan in the crowd yelled, “Play the fucking music.” Ashvin blushed and nodded towards Shyam.

There were oohs and aahs as he struck the sticks against each other, setting the rhythm. From the audience’s point of view, it must have appeared as if the drums were playing by themselves. When Mandana turned on his distortion unit and began plucking the first few notes of Sweet Child O’ Mine, there was absolute and complete pandemonium in the auditorium. More lunchboxes were thrown in the air. Some were flung out of the auditorium to display prodigious lunchbox throwing skills of a few. The boys and girls loosened the knots in their neckties and jumped on top of the chairs. All this happened in the first ten seconds when the song lay bare in its virginal state with nothing but the universe and a lead guitar.

Then it was time for the bass. The song was so well known, it should have been a nursery rhyme or a national anthem of some country. At the appropriate moment, the listener’s mind anticipates the onset of the bass, the rhythm, the percussion and so on. However, two weeks of practice does not a rock band make and what the Rock Brahmins had failed to master was volume. In their spermatozoan fueled need to stand out in the crowd, each of the Ashwins had set his amplifier’s volume to maximum and so when it was Yemashwin’s turn to slip into the song, all that the crowd heard was Mandana’s incessant opening notes, grating on their ears. The God of Death lived up to his name and killed every eardrum in the auditorium and began reaping their souls with his jejune bass notes. The bass was so loud, it caused glass to shatter on a window that already had a cracked pane. The first pair of hands in the crowd went up to shield its owner’s ears from the pillaging noise. But the Rock Brahmins had been set loose and the next instrumental Ashwin joined in, headbanging magnificently with his NCC-style haircut, along with the caffeinated and invisible drummist who now launched a nuclear missile of hatred on his drums. He beat them so hard, one of his sticks cracked and a piece flew into the audience. Unable to take this pheromone outburst, Ashvin Matthews, the last one to enter this musical dramedy, slid onto the floor on his knees, clutching the mike, singing, “She’s got a smile that it seems to me…” without realizing that the mike had come unplugged from its amplifier as he glided towards the audience. There was only the cacophony of untuned guitars and a spastic drummer who was banging away on the cymbals like they were dragons emerging from a hole and had to be beaten back. The only respite to the song came when the entire obnoxious performance reached the middle of the song (Ashvin had managed to plug his mike back after everyone on and off stage had yelled at him to do so) when the words, “Where do we go? Where do we go now?” were sung. The audience, half in shock, the other half in pain, mumbled the chorus in unison, perhaps, in a desperate plea to end this torture. It was a rhetorical question. Where would they go now? No place was safe.

The rest of the song then continued anyway.

History has seen its share of butchers. The Jallianwallah Bagh massacre. The Nazi concentration camps. Et cetera. And now, to that list, perhaps, in some CBSE textbook some day in the future, this miserable performance by the Rock Brahmins would be added. It could be under the Battle of the Chinks. Or, The War on Eardrums at Sishya Battleground (circa 1994). Or, perhaps, under the Treaty of St. John’s To Never Play “Rock” Again.

There were other bands that had performed before and after the Rock Brahmins. None were as good as the Chinkys, but none were as bad as the Rock Brahmins either. They had gone with a healthy quiver of average songs – an MLTR here, a Tracy Chapman solo there, one even managed a Beatles song (Yesterday). After the two extremes, the tamed and shell-shocked audience gingerly clapped along or sang in their minds with the other teams or went to get lunch, now that their lunches were all over the floor.

Soon it was all over. The judges tallied their points and decided that the Chinkys were indeed the best on that day.

The Rock Brahmins assembled outside the school, waiting for Mandana’s father to pick them up in his Maruti van. They aimlessly stared at the festive crowd that was milling about. The excited girls walking about with their loosened ties and bouncing breasts didn’t entice them any more. Some passed by them and snickered. That hurt and Ashvin managed to hold a brave smile. He looked around at his fellow warriors and gave a nod. It was a nod of survival. It was the nod of a virgin’s submission. This was their first time and it could only get better from here on.

“If we practice, we can come back next year and defeat those Chinks,” he said with certainty.

“There is Vidya Mandir culturals happening next month,” Ganapathy said. “If we rehearse more, we can do better.”

“I need new sticks,” Shyam said, drumming his fingers on the concrete. And then he contritely added, “I’ll practice more. I fucked up in the middle.” Of course he had also fucked up the start and the end and everything in the middle, just as everyone else had, but a sympathetic pat on his back was delivered by Mandana.

“Where’s Yemashwin? Where did that Golti fucker go?”

“I saw him when we were packing up the instruments,” Ganapathy said.

“It shouldn’t be too hard to find him. You can hear him from a mile with all those bells around his neck,” Mandana said, mockingly.

Everyone shrugged. Wasn’t he with them all this time? They looked around, craning their heads to search the crowd. Was he buying a drink, that asshole? A Frooti to gulp to forget his sorrows? They didn’t spot him, but they did find Vandana walking across the school yard, her magnificent bosom undulating, as if two tennis balls slammed into the air in the slowest of motions with the largest of kinetic energies. Her friends were equally meretricious and the boys’ hearts beat in quick syncopated rhythms, quite unlike Shyam’s drumming.

It was in this suspended state of animation when Yemashwin approached them from behind and clasped their shoulders in a display of camaraderie. He gave them quick pats and sighed.

Yov! Guys! You know what?” he said.

“What?” Shyam asked absently, his eyes unblinking.

“I’m a man now,” he said, staring at the goddess who had transformed him.

June 20, 2011

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Kamappan's Revenge - Ch 1


The basics, first. What? When? Where?

Where: Madras. The coastal city off the Bay of Bengal, famous for its three seasons – hot, hotter and (currently) hottest, besides, of course, the endless yards of silk saris dotting in and out of ancient temples where crows and priests bawl their loudest for prasadam; where the life jolts awake at four in the morning with Sahasranamam and Suprabhatam chants and assiduous kids sleepily continue their homework or cram History and Geography into their heads; where the city’s main passions – temples and curd rice – meld with its core – cricket and filter coffee – resulting in complete catatonia on the days with cricket matches on the TV. Whereas cities like New York would like to remind you that it is a city that never sleeps, Madras will shrug the shrug of a veteran housewife maami and threaten you that it is a city that will not let you sleep. The heat crawls on you like the penetrating eyes of the villagers seeing a stranger. If you have not broken the salt with the city, the city will break you first. No one is pardoned or excused. Even big big film starlets with too-big cooling glasses, sitting in their white A/C Contessa Classics cannot escape Madras’ fiery breath once out of their icy cocoons. The heat is demonic and visceral. It will exsanguinate you in the middle of Mount Road if you were as stupid to be walking in the afternoon. Madras’ temples might be merciful but she herself is merciless. There is no cure for the Madras’ hot and muggy summer, save melting into its bosom, eyes wide and arms open, and sucking at its warm breast, as I was currently, dressed in loose cotton clothing and a Bata Hawai chappal flopping at my feet, sweating my way to TKS’ house.

When: Oh Madras, how you change? One moment, you are a sleepy coastal town with the Marina Beach your biggest attraction and Mylapore defining the city limits. Slow chugging steamships docked in your harbor, unloading spices and ice blocks in exchange for your cruel hot treatment. What did the British see in you that they came in throngs, set up colleges and schools, bathed in the backwaters of the Cooum river, instilled the violin into your centuries old Carnatic music and opened warehouses filled with ice along Triplicane? And how they adorned you with their Victorian brick buildings – Central Railway Station, Loyola College campus, High Court – those regal and anachronistic, foreign and scandalous edifices during their time. And what did they see in creating the likes of Boat Club, Country Club and Gymkhana Club where the salt of your own earth wore fancy hotel costumes and entertained the angrez with gin and tonic and demonstrations of stereotypical desi stuff like charming a tone deaf cobra? Or making a boy disappear up an untethered rope? Or lying on a bed of nails?
And here you are now, progressing in slow motion. Whereas Bombay, Delhi and Calcutta have leapt and bounded in ‘modernisation’, opening bars and disco clubs, allowing teenagers to roam on bikes with their Siamese girl friends, opening up eateries, pizzerias and coffee shops, you seem to have taken great joys in opening another Nalli showroom or another branch of Grand Sweets. And, how you cling to your past and traditions? Chiding couples holding their hands in the beach; sending the alcohol-thirsty patrons to shady “wine shops” where the booze is handed to you from under a shuttered wall in exchange for exact change; clinging on to meaningless Iyer-Iyengar rivalry and not allowing girls to stay unmarried beyond their teens.
Oh you beguiling city, how enticing you are when you display this bubbling mixture of tradition and modernity, when, after performing the abhishekam, the devotee heads straight to Saravana Bhavan for a good tiffin and then to his coaching class, leading him to the gates of IIT and onwards to the United States of America only to send his parents first-class air tickets via Air India and also bring back suitcases filled with pen-pencils, Staedtler erasers, Toblerone chocolates and meaningless sundry for youess-eyed cousins and nephews and nieces.
How you shun the rat race of the Bombay citizen as he hangs on to his ticket, life and leather strap inside the metallic millipede that is the local train, always on the move, getting home, to work or the movie theater, the bar, disco or to their friends’ place. No time for themselves; always at the mercy of their desire-filled tectonic plates, moving, grinding and faulting at all times.
And how you shy away from the metropolis of the north and the capital of the country – Delhi – with its minarets and arches smack in the middle of the city. I see how you wonder if that is a tourist city or the capital of the country? No culture vulture. All mixed breed people. Chi! Chi! Whose father is a Hindu and whose mother is descended from Akbar or Birbal or whatever Mughal invader who spilt his seed in that region. Yes yes, they brag about their history – Jantar Mantar, Taj Mahal, Qutub Minar – but how far back does it all go, you have to ask, no? So the British invaded Madras too, but they loved Madras, is it not? Madras was their sultry mistress with coffee drunk lips and a red dot between her smoldering eyes. It was their jewel; a cultural pivot point from which many an Archimedes wanted to move the world. Not like the Delhiites, chewing and spitting paan everywhere and anywhere. Karma! Karma!
And of course, what to compare with those fishmongers in the East? Calcutta people are only famous because of Mother Teresa and nothing else. Madras, what is that I hear you whispering: sorry to say, Calcutta, but some of you are more Chinky Chinese than Indians, sporting slanted eyes and eating hot dogs. Only the Chinese eat dogs and cats. Having a tram running over dogs and ancient bicycles right down the middle part of your hairy city does not make you some big metro, is it not? Why, for all that brouhaha about tea-stalls where intellects commingle and discuss politics, don’t their Brahmins eat fish? Yes or no? Plainly answer and don’t dilly dally. Yes, isn’t it? Ha! Calcutta, it seems, more like Hypocritta!
Culture and tradition is the quintessence of a healthy and balanced city. Centuries of isolation beneath the Vindhyas have given you, Madras, the unique advantage of your own distinct south Indian culture – madisars, filter coffee, curd rice, coconut oil, the whole nine yards, to pun the phrase. The British were your only invaders, nay, guests. Even they courted you with respect; you were their exotic concubine: baking them with your hot and tempestuous muggy summers and then drenching them waist-deep in your torrential monsoons. When they pulled out their violins and mandolins in an attempt to display their culture, you reduced them by absorbing those instruments and churning out raagas and keertanais of such fine calibre that people wonder if Tchaikovsky’s compositions were on an instrument that heralded its roots from Madras.
Oh Madras, the city of my birth, how you uniquely position yourself as a metropolis and a flashing beacon of orthodoxy. While the world around you eggs on in its blind grope for flashy things, you, Madras, in 1993, still retain your charm and individuality. It will be years before you, too, will meet your match from the west; when you, too, will gas the streets with poisonous cars and motorcycles belching smoke; when you, too, will denude the idyllic Besant Nagar coastline by allowing, unchecked, the opening of clothing shops, coffee shops, DVD stores, supermarkets, restaurants, fast food stalls…the whole gamut of foreign bacteria that have begun infecting the other metros that no antibiotics could cure; when you, too, will brag about your average citizen’s commute from Adayar to Teynampet to be two to three hours, not the thirty minutes it takes today; when you, too, will go full out and allow the opening of bars and pubs, discotheques and beach houses for your young adults to paw and grope at each other while their heads swim with a peacocktail of stimulants. But why lament about the future when it hasn’t beaked out of its shell yet? After all, it is only Madras, and not yet Chennai (that aberration of a name that can only be relegated to describing the annoying eye disorder… Conjunctivitis… Madras Eye… Chenn-eye!). For now, it is 1993 and the situation is not yet alarming and I am on my way to my best friend’s house. I must soon direct the distracted Reader’s attention to a couple of foreigners, but we still have another dimension to define.

What: not so easy, dear Reader. Certain events require the acceptance of a spoonful of disbelief, a pinch of incredulity, a dash of fancy characters, all tossed together and pressure cooked for a while. Starting with tamarind water also helps.
Let me ease your discomfort by mentioning one word: earthquake.
See! I told you it would be difficult to believe, but you must hold my hands and walk with me till I show you how it happened. The floating friend was just the trigger for a series of events, a piece of dirt around which this pearl of a story condensed. But not so fast. Not yet. We still have to introduce the other characters of this tale.
Allow me.

Born and brought up in Besant Nagar, I never questioned the etymology of the two most non-Tamizh-or-Sanskrit names that revolved around my life: Besant Nagar and on its shores, Elliots Beach.
If one were to take Second Avenue and go down past the bus terminus, past the Vinayagar Temple and the only tennis court in Bessie, past Olcott Memorial School, you would end up in a dense canopy, as if inside an Amazonian jungle. This, Reader, is The Theosophical Society. Why, when and how it was created, I do not know. Suffice to say that its existence has drawn many spiritual white skinned tourists from around the world who pedal slowly into Bessie on their antediluvian Hero bicycles, wearing kurta-pajamas and toting a khadi jhola, their faces radiating some sort of bliss that they could not find in their home country, but did so after staying within the Society’s confines. What happens inside will consume another tome and will be relegated for “afterwards”, but for now it must be known that one of The Theosophical Society’s founders, Annie Besant, a lady, upon her timely demise in this surreal coastal town bequeathed her name for posterity by expunging the existing name. Maybe it was the locals who did it in honour of her deeds. But, then again, the locals spoke no English during her time, as the Anna Universities and Loyola Colleges were still in their infancy then. Anyway, that was that and Annie Besant City humbly got circumcised to Besant Nagar. With that G.K. update, we proceed to Elliot’s.

Elliot was a Portuguese hero, TKS once told me, the only Portuguese to have a memorial (the Kaj Schmidt) erected in his honor. As the legend goes, Elliot was one day swimming in the limpid, turquoise blue Bay of Bengal, backstroke probably for a while, breast stroke when tired, and then most probably, doing the dead man’s float, letting the currents gently waft him past the sandy shores towards the Temple of Eight Lakshmis or perhaps, even closer, to the Velankani Church. There was Sir Elliot, quite presumably swimming on a hot muggy Madras afternoon (the date on the Kaj Schmidt Memorial can tell you more), with the merciless sun beating down on all the poor umbrella-less sods brave enough, or stupid enough, to venture anywhere on the land, the now-warm now-cool water mollycoddling Sir Elliot’s swimming body, when he saw three people being swept away by the current. Immediately, he swam towards them, with powerful Portuguese free style strokes and brought them to the pristine sandy shores of Madras.
And promptly died.
Thus, TKS surmised, the local government decided to name this beach Elliot’s Beach. TKS, and probably every other post-British-era-educated government official who paid his way to office and was only in charge of cutting ribbons around statues for The Hindu’s photographer, had not paid attention during Stella Miss’ grammar class, as that was how the beach came to be known to everyone in Madras – Elliots Beach. No apostrophe. Just Elliots. It was probably the second worst named beach in Madras, right after Marina Beach, the world’s second longest beach.

Of course we were banned from crossing Second Avenue, the spinal cord of Besant Nagar, so there was no way we could get all the way to Elliots all by ourselves without the accompaniment of an adult. And since adults had day jobs where they hardly worked or worked hardly, we always saw the beach during evenings through dusk and left before night fell.
So, then, what happened around Elliots at night and day when curious eyes were busy staring at textbooks? That fisherman with a stump for a leg whose irregular thumping gait that could be heard echoing through The Theosophical Society on full moon nights as he fished for sharks sitting at the edge of the Broken Bridge? Fact of fiction? The smugglers from Ceylon who anchored near the Temple of Eight Lakshmis and sat smoking cheap beedis as the local police bartered with them? Ramayana or real? On certain nights when scores of bioluminescent creatures swarm to the coast and there was no one to see, the sinuous leathery shape of that beast periodically illuminated by the strokes of the Marina Beach lighthouse? Panchantantra or not? Who knew? While it was a land of smugglers, murderers, fishermen, mermaids and buried treasure, Suganthi Miss, our buxom Geography teacher, closet succubus, was correct about one thing about Elliots - land and sea breeze.

Suganthi Miss, that dream torturer of pre-or-post-pubescent boys with her diaphanous, jasmine-scented pink saris, bent on haunting the minds of yet-to-be-men by lazily sauntering across corridors during silent Math periods, was actually a slave driving she-devil as far as we were concerned. But she was right about the geography today and suddenly, on this muggy Saturday afternoon, the gulmohar and the neem trees, pregnant with flowers and fruit, started swishing in the wind, sorry, in the sea breeze, and nimbly took my mind off the heat.
By now, impatient Reader, you must be tapping your feet about this TKS character who seemed to be popping up everywhere with aplomb. So, without much ado, I introduce you to one of my best friends:

Tirunalveli Krishna Sathya Narayanan was his full name. TKS Narayanan was how the class-teacher called him during the morning and afternoon attendance. TKS was what the rest of the world minus his family called him. Dabbu, much to his consternation for its meaning (money) in the Telugu language, was what his family (except his Paati) called him. Narayana, as if in a devotional plea to the namesake god, was what his Paati called him.
There was nothing extraordinary about his looks: average height for a thirteen year old, a head shaped like a drumstick seed with an unruly mop that valiantly fought the teeth of any comb. TKS lived a very special life, according to Murali and me. His parents were in Qatar, a place somewhere in the middle of the Arabian desert. To get there, one would have to pass through security check at the airport, a very important procedure TKS assured us solemnly, board a huge plane that shows up once a week (not that tiny Indian Airlines plane), choose between (gasp!) Pepsi or Coke served in a can, not a bottle. And then wait for six hours before it landed near his house.
This was always the toughest part of his descriptions to believe because he never brought us back samples of the said canned Pepsi or Coke. As if they would not give him another if he asked. That was a lie; we knew it. TKS rarely spoke the truth. His mysterious parents showered him with gifts each time he visited them during the holidays to assuage their guilt of transferring the burden of bringing up a boy onto his grandparents. TKS claimed that his house in Qatar was so big (he wouldn’t show pictures) that he would roller skate (his mom denied him from bringing them back to India) from one room to another and (liar!) skateboard down the different floors. In Qatar, all the women wore a black blanket all over them so you couldn’t see who it was.
‘Why?’ Murali had asked.
‘Because they feel cold. I told you they were Arabic women.’ TKS explained and it made sense to Murali. I sort of believed that because I have seen these mysterious cold women in the gullies of Hyderabad when, once, my paati took me to see a Muslim seer who had, she said, magical powers. A black blanketed woman, with a cloth mesh in front of her eyes, served us sweet pink tea. When I picked the saucer and cup, I saw her hands were shaking. So, yeah, we believed some of what TKS doled to us about Qatar, but not all.
TKS’ parents dumped the responsibility of schooling and upbringing onto his maternal grandparents. Thus, he lived with his thatha and paati. TKS’ thatha was an active old man, very jocular at times and highly incendiary otherwise. As long as we behaved ourselves, he would make jokes and laugh with us, but if we screamed too loud or tried to do wheelies in the porch, he would lash out us and (annoyingly) say stuff like, 'Didn’t your parents teach you manners?' But TKS always threw a fit of tantrum and bailed us out at those times.

Diagonally opposite in nature was his tiny cross-eyed Paati. She never screamed at him, undid his shoes after he came from school, brought him coffee (unheard of), let him lounge in his school uniform until he went to play (immediate lashings at my place), then picked his uniform from the verandah, pulled out the necessary books to do the homework and then hand-fed him dinner. She was always timorously crooning, 'Yenna da, Narayana,' each time he flung his socks on his StreetCat or ran out of the toilet without pouring water or turning off the lights. She whispered, 'Yenna da, Narayana,' as Suganthi Miss excoriated him about his behavior during the monthly parent-teacher meeting whence TKS’ guardians were always summoned. She screamed, 'Yenna? Da? Narayana?’ when he ran across the vegetable stall to snatch an apple and start munching on it. She was a gentle darling of a Paati, very much like my own. But if my paati took care of me, I would never do all the things TKS did. He was a spoilt brat with rich parents who lived in the middle of a desert, surrounded by shivering Muslim ladies in black blankets and was always thumped on his head or got his ears pinched by his larger-than-life Thatha. But he was our friend and I guess, in a way, we loved him for who he was.

It was a good ten minute walk to TKS’ house and when I was not being caressed by the wind under the shady trees, the Madras sun baked my neck, legs and other exposed parts of my body. To get to TKS’ house, one could either take the road, or, impossibly, take a shortcut through the cemetery that was also a burning ghat. TKS’ Thatha, that shrewd fox, got a handsome deal on a house that oversaw the cemetery (his Paati would always look down when she went around the thulasi plant in their backyard, lest she saw the smoke coming from the ghat). My mom was a little apprehensive when I told her first where TKS lived and warned me not to go there often. ‘It is just not right,’ she said rolling the rotis one day, ‘and there might be ghosts,’ she added for extra measure, without realising that the opposite effect ghosts had on me. But she settled fine when I returned home safely the first few times.
I saw Murali’s tiny BSA Champ bicycle parked neatly in the porch and felt a leap in my heart. Murali was already here. I ran the last few yards and went inside the cool, air-conditioned house.

The housewives of Madras only got better with the prestidigitation of their culinary skills, with their fingers gaining their own senses, tasting, feeling, seeing tamarind balls, turmeric, coconut powder, garlic, copper vessels, steel spatulas, idli vessels, in short, the entire kitchen. TKS’ grandma, however, unfortunately, a poor victim of strabismus, tended to reach for the wrong ingredients in her culinary creations. Whereas interchanging, even by accident, salt with Horlicks or channa dal with Cadbury’s Gems was forgivable, the aging Paati had begun to substitute cockroaches, spiders, ants and other miscellaneous vermin for comestibles sending TKS and his Thatha into epileptic fits. I speak, keeping in mind, the revolting image of TKS opening his lunch box one day and wondering why the fried brinjal had withered legs.
His Thatha, thankfully, was nowhere to be seen and was most probably, at this time of the day, sitting in a PTC bus somewhere with a bagful of vegetables bought at wholesale prices at T-Nagar or Mylapore, bawling about the government or the turgid international politics to some unsuspecting school kid.
TKS was slumped in the big armchair in his white Tantex vest (which was advertising old Maggi ketchup and coffee stains) and shorts (sporting stains of attempts to wipe the stains on the vest). His Paati had quite visibly served him some upma sometime ago, as there were crumbs on the floor that were currently being investigated by a horde of industrious ants. Murali was animatedly talking when I walked in, his neatly combed and Parachute-oiled hair never leaving its preset position.

‘…That’s what he said, ya,’ Murali said, with his hands on his hips and pouting. A tiny dimple formed on his right cheek that had been festooned with Gokul talcum powder. Every evening, after Murali came home from school, his mom forced him into the bathroom to scrub his face with Mysore Sandal soap. Just before he left, she would bend down, hold his plump cheeks in her left hand and comb his hair, ensuring the part was prominent and perfect. She would then stick the comb into her hair and then dab some of the talcum powder from the light blue tin can (with an infant Krishna coyly holding his feet and staring beatifically) much to the annoyance of Murali. She would step back, survey her makeup, momentarily sigh wishing Murali was a girl instead of a boy, and then shoo him off.
Murali was a simple fellow, really. He never meant harm to anyone and his diminutive stature always elicited pity from all his friends’ mothers. While Murali hated his hair to be combed, right after he left home, he would stop at the first parked motorcycle's rear-view mirror and after wetting his fingers would carefully design his coif the way he liked.
Murali was a pious boy and religiously performed his sandhyavandanam and pranayama exercises daily after bath, twice a day. This was something I was guilty of not doing and a bone of contention with Amma. She would point to Murali and say, ‘See how chammathu he is! Doing his sandhyavandam daily. If you also do-off, you will come first in the class.’ Of course my retort that Murali never came first in the class did nothing to stop the attack.
Now, I must tell you one funny thing about Murali. His plumbing at home has some issues. So, of late, while having his evening shower, he said that he has been getting shocked. Once, he claimed, he flew across the toilet. We bawled as he narrated it pitifully. ‘Yenna, ya?’ he whined. ‘I am saying I am getting shocked, you bledy fellows are laughing.’
But that was Murali, always tiny and always at the receiving end. But he has a very important role in this tale and you are advised to feel pity towards him and pinch his cheeks for now.
Where there was electricity, there was magnetism. And all that shock treatment must have given Murali a magnetic personality. All his friends' mothers, mine inclusive, loved him and still pinched his cheeks. Dilly, the Parsi girl in our class, sometimes gave him long stares that didn’t quite seem platonic. That one time I caught her staring at him and wetting her lips, I nudged him and told him that Dilly was staring. He just ignored it and went about copying the notes from the blackboard.

‘How can anyone float on air?’ TKS asked, a crinkle of annoyance stitching his brows together. ‘It has to be a trick.’
‘What are you guys talking about?’ I asked, catching only the words beggar and floating.
I closed the door behind me, lest the ferocious fighting Thatha came out yelping about paying a high electricity bill and whether my parents would be so kind as to consider chipping in if I were to leave the door open again.
‘Vishnu! Finally! Come, man! Listen to Hydrogen now.’
‘Dei TKS, stop calling me Hydrogen Nambiar, okay?’ Murali threatened, wagging his finger. Only it looked like a squirrel growling at a dog. Many months ago, after learning about the elements, TKS seriously decided that Murali’s size and demeanour warranted the nickname Hydrogen Nambiar. This name, he tossed around every time he wanted to rib Murali.
‘Sure! Sure! So, Vishnu, someone has been calling Murali’s home and introducing himself as me, it seems.’
‘Not you, ya. Aiyo! Stupid!’ he slapped his head hard and the resulting force flung him onto a nearby wicker chair. ‘He says Narayana! Narayana! And then talks in a whisper.’
‘Aah! That only, machan,’ TKS said, his voice loaded with sarcasm. ‘He tells my name and then gives instructions to Murali. Last instruction was to go to the Shiva Temple and check out a floating beggar! Comedy da! Some pundey is crank calling our Hydrogen Nambiar and now he wants to go and check out the beggar.’
‘Murali,’ I said, trying to placate him. ‘How do you know this is not a joke da?’
‘Because he has called before, ya. He called twice. Once he called, said, Narayana Narayana, and then told me question by question what was coming in geography exam next day. Correctly, he told. Then he called again, said, Narayana Narayana, and then told exactly how many runs Tendulkar will make in the series. He is not some joker, ya.’
I looked at TKS, a tad astonished. Predicting Tendulkar’s score was no easy feat. ‘Really-aa?’
‘Aama da!’ Murali insisted. ‘One beggar is going to float outside the temple today.’
TKS shrugged, got up, shook the upma crumbs off his vest and went inside to change.

Aiyo! The thought of slipping back into that infernal heat deflated me, especially as I sat here, enjoying the rarity that was air conditioning. Murali sat down, lotus position, on the floor and using his hands tried to lift himself off the ground.
‘Hey Vishnu,’ he said, ‘you can see my hands now-aa?’ and after moving them around, ‘Now?’ and so on.
Reluctance and lethargy infiltrated my system and the chilled air made me want to take a nap, until TKS’ Paati made a cameo with a dripping karandi in her hands, enquiring, ‘Vishnu, have you eaten? Wait, pa. I made some brinjal and ladies-finger sambar. I'll get some mixture. Eat and go,’ and then retreated.
I took the threat seriously.

Murali was already outside, kicking the stand off his white Champ. TKS came out from his room, wearing a T-shirt with the words Led Zeppelin emblazoned loudly across it in yellow. He put on a cap that had a pair of sunglasses fixed to it. What was not obvious was that if he flipped a switch, a bunch of LEDs would light up on the frame of the sun glasses and travel across his face like an army of marching ants. TKS thought it was the coolest thing in the world. I thought he looked like walking hotel sign proclaiming Hotel Pataas Bhavan. For now, the switch was off and the dead LEDs looked like tiny pustules on the frame.
He pulled out the StreetCat from the verandah, carelessly letting the tyres leave streak marks on the walls. He mounted and began pedaling and as was norm, I ran behind the bike and hopped on to the carrier seat behind, now screaming, ‘Wait, man. Slow a little,’ and putting my legs up on the two tiny nuts that held the rear wheel in place, with the bike now swerving left and right as TKS fought to control it and then ending in a smooth ride as TKS rhythmically pedaled. I held to the sides of the seat for my dear life as TKS pedaled away from brinjal sambar, with Mysore Sandaled and Gokul Talcumed Murali trailing us in his white Champ, yelling, ‘Dei TKS-Vishnu, slow down, ya,’ with one outstretched arm and then standing up and pumping his legs to catch up with the larger StreetCat.

TKS, oblivious to his comrades’ uncomfortable situations, one on a tiny bike straining to catch up and the other sitting on a small piece of bum-biting steel, straining to hold on to a slippery rexine seat cover, started singing a new song he learnt from the 10th standard boys – ‘My shoes are from Japan,’ he gesticulated generally towards Japan, ‘And my scent is an Armani’, he mumbled another line in meter to hide the fact that he had forgotten the actual words, and then screamed, ‘But my heart is Hindustani,’ with wild patriotic pride, laughed, and started again, ‘My shoes are…’

There we were, on a hot Saturday, with Murali doggedly following a patriotic singing lunatic who was ferrying a very scared me, dodging and weaving amongst broken pumpkins, yellow autorickshaws, parked P.T.C. buses and the occasional Enfield or Vespa, as we were off to spot the floating mendicant outside the Shiva Temple.