I’ve been bringing back flowers—dried, dead, fallen, plucked prematurely, tread-on with sports shoes and bare feet and by the monkey-on-the-bicycle, slightly wilted overnight—to the apartment and stacking them in a glass tumbler ceremoniously for the past two weeks. A less than disingenuous archaeologist (or a flowers-in-jars version of a taphonomist) would be able to chart mood swings with a casual sideways glance at the now almost-full tumbler. (Note to self: scan before the contents of said jar hit the waste bin.)

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The habit cemented itself in place during the Diwali week when there was no one else in the rooms (or outside of the rooms, I think) and the flowers helped fill the empty flat with other dead things. The setup: a prodigious loneliness post a botched morning run (because the air is too chilly in an unexpected, sneaky way air can be—somewhat perverse for Vijayawada—in November and because I under-slept after a regular late-blooming allnighter); the sun in neat geometric patterns across the quilted lawn; abandoned patches of termite-churned earth; almost-dandelions, dry and anticipating a wind kind enough to put an end to their lo(u)nging, etc.

Then on the seventh day, I enter the room flower-laden and exhausted and sweating through layers of running shorts, and the lady[1] is all smiles and eyeing the tumbler. She’s decided it will be nicer to have some out-of-the syllabus flowers in there. (The housing society has an efficient, predictable flowering plant pattern in place. Take the same route everyday and you end up with the same dead plant parts in nearly the same stages of decay filling your table-top glass tumblers. It is no fun. Not when you realise the effort-v/s-effect imbalance is skewed obviously towards the former.) She’s decided it is time for a change from the timetable-esque tableau in the tumbler. A small, kind act of adventure perhaps. She’s decided on a hibiscus in light orange turning a deep crimson towards the inside, and a light pink one I can’t hang a name onto, with a stamen that resembles a regular wick (not John-) deep in the middle of the whorl. She says the Chembarathi (H-biscuit, Hibiscus) is a Mandaaram. I nod a satisfied/surprised/acknowledging nod and don’t betray my small-ish internal outrage. Then I realise an orange Chembarathi is as “Chem-” (red) as a non-white Mandaaram that is indistinguishable in terms of all etymological minutiae from an orange Chembarathi.[2]

I’m outraged at my internal outrage now.

1: She is from Namburu, “that side.” She helps clean the utensils and the bed-sheets and the room and makes a mean dal curry given the chance. We are past the ‘have you seen the pickle-jar’ phase, without having been through the ‘mynameiskeyaar-whatisyourname’ phase; so it is somewhat weird to be around when she is. The scene is domestic but it is a furniture-showroom-with-ordinary-lighting type of situation.

2: Later (three days later, today) post a long-ish (short) conversation with Miss. S on the appropriated names of flowers I realise this would mean a wildly different kind of nostalgia out of context. Maybe not in the original greyscale so much. Yet.

The landscape presents itself differently when you are standing in a bus (to Vijayawada this time); the ditches that seem to hug the road otherwise turn out to be rivulets a stone’s unexcited throw away (and towards the city, yellow LED lights line the otherwise shapelesss water); the acacia plantation appears grounded not far below the highway; the lively first-floor rooms are less enticing to peer into over their now displaced sense of privacy; the potholes and too frequent speed bumps feel more immediate to the spine as the grab-pole rubs against you in calculated thrusts of mild indignation.

The bus looks empty from the outside, observed head on, and I get in to a sea of sitting bodies on the floor and shopping bags of the thick-and-well-worn variety (not the fresh-off-the-supermarket variety; these ooze character) in various states of disagreement with their owners and the floor. My knack (thanks to the road curving outwards to meet the bus stop across from home) for being able to tell how full the bus is from the outside doesn’t help when the people retreat to using the floor for what it is. The lady conductor is annoyed there are too many passengers going too many places along the way. The bus has to stop before it can reach a respectable speed on the highway, with all the speedbumps and people getting out at stops they mistake for their own. Small arguments materialise as the people who mistakenly get out defend their choices and the people inside launch small lessons in geography and road construction. The bus sticks to service lanes dodging the occasional cow (and later, three dogs facing away and oblivious to evening traffic). The driver is a man who has seen enough; he doesn’t honk anymore, at the cows or the three dogs. During an argument (not the mistaken bus stops one, but a different one about state transport buses not stopping where they should) he keeps looking to the left at the man aglow in righteous anger and pays no attention to the road in front. There is a moment of panic as the bus veers into the dusty footpath, while a quick flick of the driver’s wrist sends it back up against oncoming traffic. He looks forty; the lady conductor maybe older by a year or five. He’s switched off the low-floor bus’s modern contraptions and a touchscreen hangs dead to his left. The lady conductor is always angry, and has a yellow malli tucked into her hair shaped into an awkward pretzel with an air of being messed with too many times. She folds the notes lengthwise and holds them between her fingers the way private bus conductors do. She resembles a Geisha in her oversized coat over a floral print polyester saree and the folded notes swatting at an invisible fly like an unfurled fan. I don’t share the image with her for fear of being yelled at in Telugu. Telugu at rest sounds like it is going a thousand kilometers an hour; you can’t tell if the people yelling at you are in fact, being polite. Of the bunch of University students that get in at the next stop, a girl in a tie-on niqab eases into a rehearsed texting position along the shopping-bag-laden aisle. She handles the holding-onto-seats-while-keyboard-pecking act admirably well as the older lady sitting sideways on the seat in front stares with what I take to be a sense of worn time. As always, I am more concerned whether the texts are well punctuated, capitalised and if the ellipses are true ellipses. She (not the niqab girl; the old lady) smiles as our eyes meet at yet another unplanned stop and people rearrange themselves and their bags and their drooping children to acknowledge the newly empty seats. We reach Vijayawada in an hour that seems to pass with no more mistaken exits. As we pass the compound walls decorated in flowers (in different stages of undress, if that is possible) and the city wakes up into the evening, the bus conductor looks relieved and the niqab reunites with her friend who had scored a seat early on. The friend wears a pissed off face and rimless spectacles in place of a head dress. I think the head dress could have traded places.

The bus station reads nothing like a destination. People are in flux. Even when they are eating from the many stalls that make the bus stand, they seem to be holding a ticket to somewhere. The stalls don’t look like permanent structures either. Some essential grounding element is missing in the way their walls meet the tiled floor at strict right angles. I wonder if improperly brutalist buildings look restless too. I wonder if there is a direct bus to Chandigarh.

Baker’s Inn is (as it seems the right—the only—way to be) tucked away into a lot right after the Paradise Biryani building. I vow not to look up a bookshop on the ill-behaving Maps application. For a change, I let biryani sit higher in the checklist as I retrace (the ten) steps to Paradise. The store is empty but for two tables and IT people at the counter, waiting for their take-away orders to turn up. The menu is tilted to favour real biryani aesthetes and not the grass-and-peas ones.

I wish, for the three hundred and twenty seventh time, there was a half-plate option for people who prefer the fine-dining-walk-of-shame-from-the-counter alone. (It is degrading for the same reason it is easy to find a seat in a packed restaurant when you go in as a party of one; the management is happy to fill tables if that means more money and less conversations. Then there is the original thing with two-plate dinners disguised as single, full-plates.) This restaurant is near empty and disorienting; in its airportly odorless-ness. I pick the corner-most seat. A helpful cutaway diagram in a McDonaldesque printed sheet below the kadhai boasts extralong basmati rice and extrarich masala and a Biryani Club membership ad promises a free one down the line. (I imagine that one to be a slippery slope or a very thin line if at all, as I fiddle with the sides and a dearth of spoons. I eat with my hands. [Not that nobody else does; I just don’t use the cutlery for transportation.]) The well at my father’s place is dug like a giant, condensed L. The bottom caves in to (Under? Below? Imagine a huge, solid, rounded L of emptiness.) where one stands to draw water from, and one can’t really see into it as far as one would like to. I proceed to recreate that well in the biryani pot, avoiding the extralong rice for the (three; 3) pieces of paneer and many pieces of carrots impersonating more pieces of paneer. (I must say one of the three [3] pieces was more of a slab by biryani-pot standards. But I digress.) Tiny insects (about the size [and consistency, and taste] of a cumin seed) nosedive into the leftover rice and I can’t tell if they are used to this. The badges just say PROBIRYANIDIVETEAM. The insect-garnished food releases a nice biryani-smell as I bring handfuls closer to my noggin, not like fake-biryani at all. I wonder if the IT regulars at the counter had something to do with the aroma-late-release mechanism. The hara bhara kebabs (all nine [9] single-person-shaming pieces) taste tired, in an appropriate way. I wish I had the blue Tupperware lunchbox with me. I am sevety-nine percent certain, that along with the towel, a Tupperware lunchbox is one of those things you can’t afford to get out of the galaxy without. I attempt reading some fairgrounds-reporting as I eat and it doesn’t work out the way it used to. The food demands attention (with the kamikaze cumin seeds and whatnot) and the chain-restaurant ambience makes me focus more on the spices in an attempt at savouring it despite.

Baker’s Inn is equally lovely for its lack of patrons at this hour. The portions are surprisingly one-man-friendly for the Valentine’s day ambience. There are no (0) fake flowers in sight. I order a Rich Truffle pastry to go with the coffee. It turns out to be sweet enough for a table of four. (I don’t mind.) The coffee drips from a swanky CCD-branded machine and sets expectations right. Not a lot happens over it. The paper cup has pink butterflies and random basic shapes on it. This I hate.[1]

I take a different road back to the bus station and am glad I did. As I get off the auto onto the loud and in-flux bus station premises, Mr. D calls up to say Dekho is in a design history book now. He wants to know if I am happy. Maybe the news hasn’t sunk in enough to make me sound cheerful. I manage to ask after the studio people before the buses and people going places are too unbearable to be talking on the phone. I text him with a promise to eat more cake if that helps bring more good news. He says I should, everyday. Design history books are expensive business. Having something you helped make printed in one of them is supposed to be a big deal first, and a soft-but-heavy cross to bear, next. I skip the big deal bit and find a Guntur bus. I look at the cropped-and-saved Guntur Talkies poster to double check if the bus is really Guntur-bound. The conductor confirms this and seems to be less on edge than the last one. I think this one is married to the driver. There is something very domestic in the way she hands him the one-liter ex-Sprite bottle. A frail young man is sleeping on the 3-seater bench ahead of where I sprawl. He is asked to leave at the first stop. He doesn’t look surprised at the request and is relieved the demand came early. He plays a fixed, recurring part in the domestic scene, judging from the way all three parties take the whole deal in with an unstated-kind-of-compliance. The bus is a home on wheels at night. All scenes turn domestic past the hour a city sleeps. This is why it is wise to stay on the streets after the shuttered shops have shut and the last of the hundred-rupees-no-bargains-pajama-vendors have gone home. The bus is empty and jumpy on the speedbumps. The conductor breaks into a song and the bus is now a cradle. She doesn’t have a malli tucked into her perfect hair.

1: With the appropriate intensity expected of a man on a biryani-then-sugar high.

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At 112mm (the lens’s narrowest end), descending to Vijayawada.

The sun sets over buildings as the city wakes up. People look up from their evening commutes and soak their worries for a longlived moment in the amber light of the day before the third of the smaller lights turns green and then reset their paces. They reach home and open their windows and stand outside on the many amber-lit balconies and listen to Thamarai in peace. I doubt the Thamarai bit. The amber-lit evenings see windows open with and without overturned crosses up top. Lost in a sea of people and buildings and tall cars and short trees and longwinding streets bathed in amber, the opened windows and the thieving, adultering conversations that drop by with the wind find purchase in the folded-away curtains and dried laundry fluttering in the balconies. I hear traces of Visiri from the neighbours’ radio as the station gets stuck for a shortlived moment in a faraway frequency carried over over the laundry and the teacup left over the sill. There are no radios in the city. The windows remain shut and the ones with upturned crosses stay open for longer than they have any right to be. There are no conversations apart from the ones in one-way streets lined with packed supermarkets. Over the air, a dog-food advertisement layers itself over the one for superthin undergarments. People in cars don’t look up in fear of accidentally looking into the eyes of children selling plastic knickknacks and jasmine threaded into uncanny helices. The cellphones keep reminding them their choice of the fork in the road at this hour of commutes and street children and superthin undergarment adverts was indeed, pathetic. The sun sets over buildings as the city lulls itself into sleep.

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I want to fall in love inside a bookshop and never leave. Hold my sambharam while I acknowledge the hopeless unoriginality and the likely impossibility of the whole situation. I have, in the recent and otherwise past, come very close to going down on my knees (not to look at an unloved pile of newsprint in the corner) and recovered as someone leaned too close to the usual suspects. Countless tomes* have filled bookshelves and spilled over (looking at you, Blossoms) trying to mix the carnal with the dustjacketed. I have fallen in love with books before. And I know people come to bookshops still. How hard can it be to put the two together?

*Miss K is definitely not one.

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If things were to go to plan, the eenth wouldn't have offered us this view of things. Not this easily, anyway. Things went way off plan and when it rained, the rain forgot the pauses in between when the couples and the not-couples and the retail-cigarettes-seller and the two kids who got their bicycles out just as the first drops came down, could move on to the next unloved roadside busstop. During the night, the adequately bass-ey crash betrayed something bigger than a wannabe coconut falling on something that we didn't want coconuts of significant sizes to fall. We hoped ourselves back to sleep; maybe it was another overripe jackfruit left for the squirrels to finish off and in their haste they started to gnaw off from the stalk down.

The twin cycads share their elevated cuboid of yellow-red earth off to a side of the courtyard. Unwilling to stand each other, parting ways centimeters off the ground, one leaned on the kitchen terrace as it bore fruit, the other missed the stay-wire and the odd areca palm leaf hanging on to the thrill of being airborne, till the time it gave up and met the ground again like an awkward ex-lover.

In the morning the courtyard had an isosceles triangle stealing a kiss from the newly transferred passion-fruit pot, leaving the pot in one piece and putting the hungry young shoots in their place. We figured the tree (shy of a couple of hundred of years, at least, going by the marks old leaves left) must have soaked through as the wind finished it off, bending it where an enterprising hornbill had many party congresses ago claimed shelter. We call the tree-feller for advice after we cut the leaves out and sort them for a possible stint at decoration and nod to each other as he says the geometry is best left untouched for a while and the chainsaw is too delicate for wood like this.

The palms are good places for a cat to find some purchase. Miss K runs up the leaning one after a few scratches to its base and runs off into the overgrown kitchen terrace garden. She then sneaks off the roof down the palm as I climb up to see if the naughty, silent tom isn't waiting for a chance at showing off. Today, she looks up at the fallen one, is not happy as I lift her up to the wreck and spends a moment examining her dominion as the slope leads nowhere.

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The new leaves take us by surprise. The neighbours, passing, ask for a sapling for after the rains. It rained overnight and the sprouting leaves hold onto the memory of what came down as if the sky isn't going to break all day. It is a pauseworthy sight as the morning sunlight erupts into a million (definitely fewer) little pieces through the new leaves and leaves tiny copies of an upside-down sun all over the passion-fruit. Then the rain comes back looking for places it left dry and washes off the beauty along with the dust.

H and G enter a clearing in the woods. They see the daal-chaaval house at the far edge. The children are hungry and the house a promise of a full belly. They approach the door, chained and padlocked. The doorkeeper wouldn't let them in until they tell him their most sacred secrets, most treasured stories. Tthey are baffled by the request. Hungry and out of their depth, they bare their hearts and think nothing of it. The doorkeeper collects their stories in two glass jars, ties a piece of cloth around H's, corks G's.

H and G enter the first room and see other children leave breadcrumbs everywhere as they walk around. The doorkeeper and his friends tread on them, now and then. The children's stories ooze out from the crumbs and fill the room with their scent and wetness. The children look starved, holding on to the perfect golden loaves of bread in their hands. An invisible hand gives H and G two whole loaves soaked in the tales they parted with at the door. As they tear into the perfect golden crust, the invisible hand guides the pieces away from their mouths and onto the ground. Being children, they think nothing of this. Their hunger is now unbearable.

H and G enter the second room. It is wider and the walls are painted a blinding white. The ceiling, set too high to be inside the house they thought they had gotten into, is set high, at-least a hundred leaps into the metric system. They are asked to prove their H-ness and G-ness. Their loaves of bread are now almost all gone, crumbs outlining the paths they walked, leaving only the faintest aroma of the secrets they once held. The children have already forgotten half their stories. An hour or so of fiddling with the leftover pieces later, they are nodded at and declared worthy of staying in the second room. Along the high walls, they now see windows; some open, some not. Squinting, G manages to catch a glimpse of a pair of eyes behind one of the open, veiled windows. A falling loaf of bread distracts her. She may have imagined the eyes. (Nobody would build a daal-chaval house only to spy on the children, would they?)

The children think nothing of it all. Their hunger is now complete.


A particularly entertaining sense of ennui and a general one of ungiven fucks metastasise into the entire week, creeping up from the Friday afternoons with a hint of breeze and plenty of leftover sleeplessness in the air. Legs propped up against a stolen quote off Bukowski on the windowpane (taped among other neatly aligned bits of paper and rescued remains of stickers and knick-knacks catching, and then releasing shards of the fading light into the otherwise unmoving insides of the studio) and sponsor-logoed cups in various stages of growing moulds over leftover tea, one leaning adventurously over the sill onto the stack of ungodly coffee-shop-issue-sachets of sugar and dairy powder, as if to say "any day now," one silently thinks up variations of "HOW I WON OVER THE FADING LIGHT OF THE DAY AND FOUND JOY IN THE GREAT OUTDOORS" and several impossible ways of syndicating it to the three or four websites still not strong on their title games. I mentally edit out the JOY and look for a catchier word to take its place.

HAPPINESS would do. Or maybe, DUST.

On the Railway Line, Rats

The train is empty on the inside, bustling with life at the doors. I find a soon-to-be-window seat at the far end of the compartment, opposite a visibly annoyed specimen (who had to relieve my seat of his own propped legs) and someone who looks like a very responsible father to college-going children. I see he is worried. I feel like starting a conversation then remember I don't really feel like it. I bury my head in the Kindle and instantly regret looking at the letters too closely. I had cheaped out and bought the one that made them look like they ran out of curves. After four (five-ish) stations, the window-seat is mine and the specimen is happy again, I lean my face onto the muddied pane and look at healthy rats run around the tracks at Sion. It makes me think of the last time I went to a barber shop, eleven or so years into the past. I had always picked the one on the slope up, right before the Co-operative Bank on the left and assorted Ayurvedic medicine shops on the right, tucked right behind the unofficial parking for buses ferrying the few who still wanted to head to Sivapuram. The inside half of the shop always had heaps of cut hair in neat, undulating piles. One could tell each person's hair apart, as if it retained a memory of who it came from and clung together in a final act of beauty.

I look up at a train unload its burden onto the platform on the other side, moving on before stolen glances allow themselves to turn into something beyond punctuations around bending over pieces of light in their hands. All the love stories that could have been theirs, depress people leaning out of the compartments. Some find love on the tracks, never meeting because a geometry lesson tells them so. Most glance up from their lives backlit on endless loops and miss the tracks.


It is between cringing at the type-size in the Jonathan Franzen Purity paperback and fruitlessly hunting for an unwrapped copy of Jerry Pinto's Em and the Big Hoom, that the flannel-clad girl moves out from beyond the Indian Literary Fiction shelves. Given my truckloads of inexperience with the ladies and the double barrelled confusion that had presented itself in the last sentence, I fail to react to her presence at first, take two steps back onto the Jeffrey Archer-JRR Tolkien stack. I look up from the barren colophon page and into her eyes, for the briefest of moments. They are black, everyday eyes, but something about the spectacles framing them makes one think of old magazine ads for detergent powder. I follow the tips of her fingers as she reaches out for a white paperback edition of In Custody. I wonder if she properly punctuated her text messages. I wonder if I should find out. I put the Franzen back where it came from and nod to the person calling out THE SHOP WILL CLOSE NOW. It is far too early. It is always far too early. I get out into the footpath and break through a stream of people heading for the station. I find the chaiwallah two pillars from the shop, and take in the cool wind. It is raining somewhere else.

I reach the end of the cup, squinting at the dregs, and it smells of detergent. It occurs to me I should look up.

I like longwinded reserved-in-advance-because-not-hardcore-enough train journeys for the environmental bragging rights as much as the flooded toilets and miniaturised trashcans. I was told IRCTC has started mentioning these in the second page (or third, I don't want to remember) of the totally multipage PrintEticket.pdf, right under the multicolour ad for a hotel cheaper than a half-decent print-out of the PrintEticket.pdf. I have this thing of printing out colour PDFs in colour and the black and white ones at half the size. Don't ask. Then I started looking for the "agree to terms and policy while we remove your left kidney and replace it with a life-size nendran banana ripened with Sulfur and whatnot" and failed after the third try. I wish they did the same thing to SMS confirmations and sent a minor Murakami novel sized text along after each booking, and employed unemployed graphic/interaction designers to slyly infiltrate them with links to paid porn sites and whatnot.

The four old ladies, Gujarati and clad in overflowing headdresses and unapologetic laughter and keeping the lights on till midnight lent an unmistakable AnjaliMenon vibe to the whole journey. I climbed up to my sideupper and waited for the coach to go up in purple Dakshin-Railway smoke and a bubbly vatful of stuff of questionable pedigree to appear any minute while the last of the MealsOnWheels guys peddled leftover dinners and overpriced tapwater in classy plastic bottles. I couldn't tell when my disappointment segued into much undeserved sleep and it was morning already and the toilets were appropriately flooded and the miniaturised trashcannots.

The old ladies retained their highvolume laughter and what appeared to be inside jokes from the outside and mercilessly ignored yourstruly all the way till Panvel where two of them get down and the third go wait at the door for an illicit stop at Diva. Then the last of them tell me they are old schoolmates and Kalupur has a shrine where they go once in a while and I should get married and they do these trips often and have been to places I have not been to and why am I not settled yet and they had gone to Munnar and the weather was nice and sorry for laughing so loud all the way and especially inside tunnels and I should probably go wait at the door for the stop at Thane because the crowd is insane and one should not jump off moving trains on account of old ladies apologising for laughter and having a good time.

I tell her it is hard to imagine myself doing the things they are doing at their age and she smiles that comment away and laughs and looks out the window into the sunset behind tall buildings and flyovers and hoardings for jet black phones and unlimited storage space for all your memories at very low EMIs.