The Red Lotus with the Blue Leaves


It’s 5.08 on the dashboard clock. Bunty is purring along quite contentedly. She has just had a drink at the Shell resto-bar at the corner of Perrot and Grand. 87 octane, Bunty isn’t finicky. She appreciates the fact that I froze my butt off filling her up.

Bunty is my Corolla. Cars are female. Trucks are male. Yeah.

I didn’t have to pick up Pierre, my carpool partner. He is vacationing in Punta Cana, the sumbitch, while my tootsies are below zero.

I’m a little ahead of time and therefore I probably won’t be seeing Tommy this morning. When I’m on regular schedule, Tommy usually appears out of the gloom, running so close that it feels as if I could touch him if I reached out. Of course it only seems that way.

After keeping pace for a while, Tommy speeds up and heaves himself onto the Mercier rail-road bridge with his kids, the cylindrical tanker railcars, ‘PROCOR’ emblazoned on them between the image of two tilted barrels of oil. They sway and nod at me as they follow Dad onto the upper tier of the bridge.

Up ahead, the sun is just beginning to play hide and seek through the lattice work of the bridge girders as it starts peeping over snow-bound pine forests of the Kanawake Indian Reserve on the south shore of the St. Lawrence.

It is white everywhere, as far as the eyes can see and the temperature on the dashboard says -22°C and that’s without windchill. The blazing tunnel of Bunty’s headlights is losing its stark contrast as the gold of the early sun bounces off six undulating lanes that reach into eternity.

At this point, others would start thinking of stuff that they have planned for the day – the meetings that are scheduled, assholes to sweet talk to, bosses to badger, what’s in the menu for lunch at the cafeteria, how low Pierrette, it’s big chested counter-girl, will be slung, etc.

Me, I’m not made that way. I slip into a reverie, this time my mind traveling back to engineering school, studying for my Bachelors, 1976…….

“Take the No.170 bus from the Shyambazar crossing. If you tell the conductor ‘matri asram’, he’ll drop you off right there at our doorstep. They know. Keep an eye on your bag. Hold it on your lap. Don’t get off to stretch your legs when the bus stops on the way, ok?”

It was Ma, her tone conversational, her directions written on the postcard I received that Friday morning, the week before my engineering school closed for summer. I remember the postcard clearly. The lotus that she always drew on the back of her postcards, on the side that had the space for the address. Postcards are defunct now. No one writes postcards anymore.

The leaves on the lotus on Ma’s postcards were always blue ‘sulekha’ ink and the lotus itself, red. She didn’t have green ink and she liked blue, she once said. Below the lotus, in her dear flowing handwriting, calm and assured, as if the wisdom of centuries was bestowed on her, were the words,” Amar Jobbu shona ke” (to my darling Jobbu).

I remember that summer in 1976. I was going to stay back in my engineering school dorm. Like all the other summers. Going home, if I could define what really was home, was just too much of a hassle. There was my father with his family. And there was Ma, by then a sanyasini (Hindu nun), in her asram. Dada (eldest bro) was struggling to settle down in his first job and Chorda (bro number 2) was tucked away in a dinghy hostel in central Kolkata, because his father couldn’t stand the sight of him.

It was one late evening a month earlier, very late, maybe around 2am. We had Turbomachines finals the next morning and all the guys in the dorm had their doors shut, desperately trying to cram up as much as they could. I was trying to focus on a grainy black and white photo in my text book, of the vortex at the exit of a turbine and my eyes fell on the family photo on the shelf right next. I remember suddenly feeling the urge to go see Ma that summer, instead of just sitting on my ass in my dorm room. I had never been to her asram.

A month of correspondence followed and here I was, holding her postcard with the detailed directions and the lotus.

Earlier, Subbu from Metallurgy had lost the toss and made the trip to the Madras Central Station to get the reservations (he had to be persuaded with a Len Deighton from Higginbothams’, I think it was ‘Bomber’. Subbu loved Deighton. I couldn’t stand Deighton.

I won’t bore you with the trials and tribulations of travel in the searing heat of 1970s India. Ma’s directions however had been platinum plated. The Uttamananda Matri Asram (Uttamananda Convent for women) was set in a leafy patch at a spot where the GT Road runs parallel and just yards away from the banks of the Hooghly, the asram itself nestled in between. As the bus no.170 slowed to a stop, I made out the solitary figure leaning over and peering to read the number board of the bus. She was swathed in a ‘thane’ (no-frills saree), dyed saffron, and a coarse cotton blouse, also dyed saffron. She looked frail.

As we walked into the waiting hall of the asram, I noticed the slight limp. Turns out, she’d just returned from ‘mushthi bhikhkha’. She and a few other inmates were helping run a girls’ orphanage where she managed the administration and taught English, Maths and History. To raise funds, she would cover the surrounding towns and villages, collecting alms for the orphanage. Non-perishable stuff like grain and clothes.

The Marwari grocers were the most generous, she said. “Aao Maji, Aao, baitho tho thori der. Itna garmi. Chai piyogi, thanda? Arey o Kanhaiya, zara ek glass pani la idhar, Maji ayen hain.” They’d hand her a small basta(bag) of rice or atta(flour). She’d sit a while catching her breath and be on her way, the bag slung over her frail shoulders. The travel was almost entirely on foot, on Hawaii slippers (flip-flops). She’d twisted her ankle on her last jaunt. It was now better, she said, dismissively.

I strain to remember that day. Time flew. Ma had prepared alu posto, kacha lonka diye, korayer dal and fulko rooti, on the small kerosene stove she had in her tiny ground floor room. I’d love to translate the menu for you into English, but right now the words are coming out in a gush and somehow I don’t think it matters.

Afterwards, we sat at the riverside on some stone steps that led into the river and watched as a small freighter made its way up the river. We were quiet. We both sensed that the time had come for me to leave. Ma reached across and hugged me and it felt the same as it did when I was little and came back home from the soccer field in Allahabad after school.

Then, very quickly she released me. The first step in being a Sanyasini is shedding all attachments, even personal ones. It had been, what, 10 years? She was still trying , I guess. It is hard not to hold and hug your own son, especially when you meet him approximately once in a year.

Ma stared across the dark waves at the freighter just when it sounded its Klaxon. “Gaye ki lekha bol tho, Jobbu?” (Can you read the name of the ship, Jobbu?).

I turned and took her frail body in my arms and hugged her. She tried to resist but gave up and sank into my arms. And there we sat, mother and son, and let our sobs mingle with each other. Mine demanded ‘why? why couldn’t I have had a childhood like everyone else?’ but of course, I left them unspoken. Over the years I have come to terms with it. I have realized I have it better than most. But at that moment it was all that came to my mind.

And Ma, what was she thinking as she hugged me? I have no idea what her sobs actually meant. Guilt? At having left us? I had always resented her leaving us. I had chosen not to see what my father had done to her over the twenty five years that they had been together.

Was it despair that I saw in her eyes as she wrapped her frail arms round me? Despair, that perhaps she wasn’t going to achieve what she had set out to achieve? Those questions popped in my mind then but over the years, as I have matured I have that realized Ma had achieved more than I shall ever achieve. She had led her life by the book. The way the Amish live theirs’. True to her faith. True to the innermost voices of her conscience.

The bus back was not due for another hour. At the point of parting, the conversation always turns inane. The closer you are, to the one you are leaving behind, the more meaningless the words get. I have had meaningless words spoken to me ever since I went into boarding school at 12.

The freighter suddenly blew its Klaxon twice, don’t know why, there was no traffic on the river. Maybe it just wanted to say,”Phew! Home at last”.

“I’m not sure…… I can’t read so clear”, I said in reply Ma’s question about the name on the ship’s hull. Reading anything through tears can be dicy.

We sat there till the sun dipped over the sal forests on the opposite bank.

Ikeya Seki

The boy had been sitting on the man’s lap in the front porch, his eyes listless, unseeing. The man he called Naw-Mesho was trying hard, to cheer him up.

The man pointed up at the sky. “Look, there, can you see it now? No? OK, try this. Pucker your eyes till they’re slits and now look. Do you see? Well?” Naw-Mesho gently lifted the boy’s chin up to the heavens.

The boy hesitated and then shook his head. Naw-Mesho took the little boy’s tiny hand in his, stretched the index finger out and pointed it up at the heavens. Around them, the clear night sparkled with fireflies while a constant background drone of crickets kept on their clamor. Everywhere, all was still.

Naw-Mesho scared the boy, he was so huge. In reality, he was a real cool guy. ‘Mesho’ in Bengali is your mother’s sister’s husband. The ‘Naw-‘ ahead of Mesho is a curious thing. Its like the ‘Additional’ in ‘Additional Secretary’. 

Let me explain how it works in Bengal. Suppose your mother has two elder sisters. To her, the eldest is ‘Bordi’ or simply ‘Didi’ and the one in between your mum and Didi is ‘Chordi’. Now if your mother has three elder sisters instead of two (like if your Gramps was catholic about birth control), then the sister between Didi and Chordi is your mother’s Naw-di and to you, she’d be Naw-Mashi and her husband, Naw-Mesho.

Even though he was a sweetheart, Naw-Mesho scared the boy all the same. The boy couldn’t see the bright object his uncle was pointing at. He shook his head and stammered,” I..I can’t..”

Naw-Mesho was an infinitely patient man. “Okay, here’s what you do. Don’t look directly at it. Look slightly to the left or right….”

The boy looked slightly to the left at a pitch dark region devoid of stars and there it was! It looked like a broom of the kind that was used in Indian households, a bunch of thin long sal bristles held together by a hemp band. Only, this one was shining white, coated with glittering diamonds. The open end of the bristles seemed slightly curved and pointed at an angle up beyond the horizon.

The boy began nodding his head in excitement,” I see it! I see it!” He started bobbing up and down on his uncle’s lap in the joy of discovery. He looked up at the large man’s face and saw him break into a broad grin.

Suddenly the boy stopped short and as Naw-Mesho’s hands gently gripped his shoulders, the boy’s eyes filled and he had a hard time controlling the tears.

The boy had been crying the past three days. Off and on, more on than off. Dada and Chorda (his elder brothers) seemed to be doing much better. They were quieter and more withdrawn. A doctor had dropped by to check on them, taking them aside one by one and speaking to them in low tones.

The boy dared not ask either brother what the doc had wanted. These were not normal older brothers. They were homicidal bullies. If you messed with Dada and Chorda, you stood a good chance of getting a thappor (open-palmed slap on the cheek) or a gatta (bare-knuckled klunk on your shiner). Theirs was one team sport you just couldn’t fix in your favor.

The past two days however, the boy could hardly recognize his two elder brothers. They held him in turns and comforted him every chance they got. The frowns of irritation, the murderous looks, the punches, they seemed as if they had never existed. Now they smiled gentle reassuring smiles through reddened eyes, smiles that the boy had always craved to see but had never known they existed.

“She’ll be back, you’ll see,” Naw-Mesho was saying,” Your Ma has just gone away for a while. Don’t you sometimes wish you ran away and became a fighter pilot? It’s something like that”. (The Indo-Pak War was on and those days every kid the boy knew wanted to be Flt. Lt. Trevor Keelor). Naw-Mesho reached in his pocket and began to dab at the boy’s eyes softly with a kerchief.

The object in the sky was the comet, Ikeya-Seki. At the moment when the boy caught sight of it, it was still a million miles from the surface of the sun. In the next two months it would gradually grow in luminescence until it would come to be known as the “Great Comet”, the brightest in a thousand years to ever have lit up the sky.

The year was 1965.

And the boy….me.



“It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man

You take away all he’s got

And all he’ll ever have”

⁃ Clint Eastwood (as William Munny), in “Unforgiven”


If you have traveled in Eastern India, you might have had the chance to drive through a sal forest. The sal is a green leafy tree found in great abundance in the Bengal, Bihar, Orissa region of India. It’s the Indian version of Canada’s maple tree, England’s oak. And boy, does it grow fast. If you cut a path through a sal forest, come back after two weeks and you’ll have difficulty finding that path.

Back in those days if you were taking the train, the Jamshedpur-Rourkela four hour run would take you through some of the densest sal woods of the Chattisgarh countryside. So dense were the forests that the train would swat aside overhanging sal branches at breakneck speed. If you had a window open and an elbow out, it could get a painful thwak. If that branch was a thick one, you might even have had to plan on a life without a lower arm. Then whom would you sue? The Indian Railways? Hah!

My seat was in a tiny two-berth compartment that was generally known as a ‘phast class coupay’ and I was the lone occupant. Till now at least. Maybe someone would get on at Seraikela or Chakradharpur or any of the other wayside stops. I was on my way to Rourkela. I had work at the huge steel mill there.

I sighed. There was zero chance of a single young lady travelling alone, getting on. Women didn’t travel alone on overnight Indian trains. You’ll have to excuse me for imagining a broad as the other passenger. I was 27. At a conservative estimate, 85% of me was just one single hormone – testosterone. Like dark matter, it was everywhere within me. But this is not about my sex life so don’t get me started on it.

Stowing my overnighter on the rack above, I settled down by the window. The express heaved, there was a hiss of air rushing through the master cylinders. The cast iron brake pads disengaged and the wheels started rolling, letting out a cacophony of squeals as the train clattered its way through multiple track changes and began picking up speed, first stop – Seraikela.

The sun was dipping over the sal forests when the train pulled out of Seraikela and plunged into a sal forest and suddenly day turned to night. I switched on the reading lights above my head. This time I hadn’t hurriedly purchased a Perry Mason or Hadley Chase from the A.H.Wheeler on the platform. I had brought Cosmos by Carl Sagan, to keep me company.

It was 1982. Cosmos had just been published. A veritable page turner, Cosmos is a vivid account of what a voyage to the stars could look like. I was at the page where the two suitcase-sized Voyager spacecrafts, launched within a month of each other in 1977, were now on opposite sides of the orbital plane of the solar system, speeding outward on vastly different trajectories. They would skim away from the Kuiper belt, a flat circumstellar belt of asteroids 20Au wide that lay just beyond the orbit of Neptune. In case you aren’t as enlightened as I obviously am, 1Au(Astronomical Unit) is the average distance of the Earth from the Sun. There, doesn’t reading my blog enrich you?

At Seraikela, Voyager-1 had swung by Jupitar. It wouldn’t be paying a visit to the other planets. It would instead dart out of the Solar System without further ado. Voyager-2 on the other hand had just begun the Jupiter swing-by and would be saying hello to Saturn and Neptune before bidding us all goodbye forever.


That’s when there was a discreet knock on the door. It was the TT (Travelling Ticket Checker). I smiled when I saw it was Hanuman Singh. Yeah, I knew all the TTs by name. Hanuman was an amiable, thoroughly corrupt hulk with seven mouths to feed back home, whom he met once a month. He had this ingratiating smile TTs have. If you have an ingratiating smile and aren’t a TT, chances are that someone among your ancestors was, no question about it.

Half of a TT’s monthly earnings came from tips from passengers like me who didn’t have reservation. I was a short-notice, frequent traveler and TTs on this line had me down as a better than average tipper. It was a huge deal and win-win situation. The TT, I enriched at double the going rate and in return, I never had to reserve my seat in advance.

I would simply get my ass to the station before the train arrived. As the train approached and the first class compartment sighed to a crawl and the TT appeared in the doorway, there would usually be a huge gaggle of passengers clamoring for his attention. I’d position myself a few yards back, away from the bunch, so that the TT could catch sight of me clearly, from his elevated standpoint on the gradually slowing coach. Having sighted me, he’d give me an imperceptible nod of recognition.

While the others stood on the platform and clamored for the TT’s attention, I’d get in through another door and make my way to him from the inside. I’d barely pause when he hissed through the corner of his mouth,” Phour Dee may jake baitho, Sahab. Mai ata, in chutiyo ko sambhal ke….” (Go sit in 4D, Sir, I’ll come as soon as I’m done with these assholes).

Getting yourself a seat was that simple those days. I might write a book on how to always travel first class on an Indian train, without prior reservation or even a ticket, but I won’t get into the details here. You might be on the vigilance squad.

Oh, I forgot to tell you about the get-on-without-even-a-ticket bit. There were some sales and service regulars like me who had it down pat. It was so simple and the MO was as follows…..

Those days it was perfectly legal to board a train with just a fifty-paisa platform ticket as long as you went up to the TT and got him to issue you a regular ticket within a reasonably short period of time from the moment you boarded. Assuming you had developed a ‘rapport’ with the TT, you gave him the full first class fare in hard cash and he kept the cash in his breast pocket. If the vigilance squad guys made a sudden visit, you could show them the platform ticket and say you had just boarded and the TT would produce the cash from his breast pocket to corroborate your story that he was about to issue the ticket. He would even have the ticket slip ready, your name and the date scrawled so illegibly that you could have been anybody.

When you were about to get off at the destination, the TT magically reappeared and handed you your cash back, keeping a twenty for himself. That still left you with the challenge of getting through the ticket checker at the exit gate of the disembarking station. Simple, you slipped him a fiver, the going rate being just a tooney.

So, for Rs300 ticket, you paid just Rs25.50, less than a tenth. Brilliant, wasn’t it? I hasten to add that I never attempted to travel without a ticket myself. I restricted my corrupting to generous tips.


The Bombay Express was a low-priority express train with a lone A/C First Class coach at the back. Tonight it was empty, it’s attendant the only passenger. Not unusual. On this route passengers shunned the first class and the A/C coaches on overnight trains. This was dangerous dacoit country and dacoit gangs on horseback targeted the upper class coaches first. If the train had a steam engine and there was sage brush tumbling along the side of the tracks, you might as well have been on the 3-10 to Yuma. Believe me, those Sholay scenes were real.

A couple of hours went by, the train hurtling through pitch darkness now. Carl Sagan had taken a break from the Voyagers and was in the midst of telling me all about Tycho Brahe, the 16th century Danish astronomer, cartographer for the heavens. The last of the naked-eye astronomers, Brahe had painstakingly charted thousands of stars in his time. I felt just great, the way I felt when I was reading something very interesting but I retained that feeling only till we pulled into Chakradharpur, a small wayside stop approximately half-way to my destination. A group of four youths, who looked like hooligans, got on and immediately filled the compartment I was in.

It is difficult to read anything when drunk low-lifes are sitting around you and raucously laughing and swearing, mouthing slanted oblique comments on you and generally trying to be intimidating. It was a matter of time before one of them brought out a half bottle that had a cloudy colorless liquid sloshing inside. He raised it to his lips and took a long swig and then held it out to me,” Lo sahab zara hamara arak bhi to pee ke dekho, maja aa jayega.” (Here, have some arak, you’ll feel real good”. I shook my head and mumbled “no thanks” in Hindi and it just got worse from there. Ugh! There I was an hour back dreaming of having a single lovely lady in the coach with me.

A seasoned traveler like me quickly recognized the ploy – get the fellow passenger drunk, rob him off his valuables, slip the TT a few bucks and split. I had to do something about it right away. As the train bumped and ground, I staggered to my feet and went off to find Hanuman Singh. He was dozing by an open window but came with me immediately. The youths had legitimate tickets and therefore the right to be on the train, but they were ordinary class tickets.

Hanuman was a hulking guy who bore a striking resemblance to Luca Brassi. He had the look of someone you didn’t want to fuck with. He herded the hoodlums out at the next stop. I assume they got into an ordinary class compartment a few cars down. The last I saw of them, they were on the platform howling their protest at being thrown out. One of them was trying to shove a few bills into Hanuman’s shirt pocket but he swatted the hand away, placed his huge fingers on the guy’s chest and gave him a shove, sending him reeling back. Wow! The big one, the guy with the vermillion on his forehead and the huge ear ring, the one who had offered me the hooch, he scowled at me.

Hanuman was back in a jiffy. “Salon ko gand pe lath mar ke nikal diya, Sahab. Ab aap aram karein.” (Threw the mother fuckers out, Sir, now you can relax). I made a mental note to double my usual tip when I was leaving.

I settled down once again with Carl Sagan. Voyager-2 was now going to use the gravitational field of Neptune as a sling-shot to propel itself, which in space travel parlance, is known as ‘gravity assist’. It would fling the tiny spacecraft out of the solar system and into inter-stellar space.

Space travel bores you? Hope not. I am busting my ass telling you a story and therefore you have no right to be bored.


Outside my window, darkness blanketed the countryside. There was that constant grating and thumping sound of branches hitting the car on both sides when the train lurched and swayed too far, so thick was the forest we were cutting through. The incessant clickety clack of the wheels had long receded from the active sounds, as they normally do after you’ve been on a running train for a while.

I decided it was time to take a break from Carl Sagan and stretch my legs a bit. I walked out into the vestibule and then on to the toilet where I threw some water on my face. Freshened up, I came out and stood by the open doorway and leaned out a bit, letting the slipstream hit me. The air had cooled by then and when it hit my wet face it felt exhilarating. I stood this way, gazing out at the darkness rushing by, my hands gripping the vertical handrails on both sides of the doorway.

Yeah, that’s one of the things you can do in India – simply turn a latch and open the door of a speeding train and lean out, even jump off if you so desire. Trust me, you won’t even make page-10 of the local daily.

Intuition? Not sure, but I thought I sensed movement just behind.

At that very moment, two things happened. The first one was by reflex. My right hand left the right handrail and I turned and pressed flat against the wall, just in time to catch the flash of something moving at me in a rush. Even though I caught only a glimpse of him in that second, I recognized the huge right ear ring, the tight stained undershirt and the vermillion on his forehead. He had been the loudest and the most obnoxious of the youths, the one who had held out the bottle of arak. I remembered that terrifying look in his eyes when he stood on the platform and stared back at me with raw hatred. And now he was charging me, arms outstretched.

That’s when the second thing happened. The train had entered a curve, centrifugal force making it suddenly lurch and sway outward violently. The fellow hadn’t counted on my turning so suddenly, nor was he ready for the violence of the lurch. He charged right past me and as he hurtled by, unable to check his momentum, he tried desperately to grab onto anything he could – my throat, my arm, my hair – everything except the handrail. As I brought my right hand up to join my left hand on the other hand rail and hung on for dear life, he sailed past me, arms flailing, out into the black void, his startled scream instantaneously cut off by the brutal slipstream.

The whole thing must have happened in a split second, but to me it unfolded in a Matrix-like slow motion. Me, sensing movement behind – letting go of one handrail – turning – a flash of dirty ruffled black hair and dark T-shirt – the train lurching – the guy’s hands, first outstretched and then flailing, trying to get a hold – my instantaneous spark of recognition as he hurtled by and then, nothing. Just the rush of the wind.

I noted that by now the curve in the tracks had straightened out. The sway had been replaced by the usual bump and grind. I let go of the handrail, stepped back and heaved the door shut. My eardrums gradually began discerning other sounds – passengers milling around the corridor, lighting cigarettes, speaking in low tones, a stray peal of laughter here, a child’s squeal there. That deafening khatak-khatak-khatak-khatak of the wheels hitting the track joints was now muffled. I retreated inside the vestibule and nearly bumped into a caterer from the earlier stop who was knocking on doors and bringing in thalis heaped with supper, his face dead pan. He hadn’t noticed. Nobody had noticed.


Maybe he survived the fall. I remember reading about an airline stewardess falling out of a plane at 15000 ft onto a deep snow bank and surviving. In comparison the fall back there must have been just 15 feet. But this was a head first tumble at 120kmph onto hard uneven ground. The man’s head must have smashed into the prismoids of sharp pebbles that are laid to bolster the tracks. Add to that the shock of the slipstream and that fall could hardly have been survivable. A horrible despair spread over me. For all I knew, he might lie there on the side of the tracks until the vultures picked his bones clean. No one deserved to die that way, unnoticed, unsung. Not even an asshole.

In a daze, I staggered back to my compartment and collapsed on my seat. My chest still heaving, I groped around inside my overnighter for the bottle of Blue Riband I was saving for the trip. Barely able to keep my hands still, I poured myself a stiff one and swigged it with one gulp.

Then again, I could have had it all wrong. He may not have been the guy I thought he was. After all I saw only a brief flash of him. He might have been just another passenger who wanted to go over to the doorway and maybe spit out his betel juice or tobacco wad, a practice quiet common in that region. Perhaps the lurching of the train merely made him stretch out his arms for balance. Vermillion on the forehead, ear ring, dirty undershirt – all those were du jour in this region.

Either way, I should have raised an alarm, summoned Hanuman Singh and reported it. I did none of those. The guy hadn’t looked the type who might have matured into a rocket scientist in later life, but he had been a person, a human being who must have had folks who cared about him. I hadn’t given those folks any closure. That guilt has stayed with me.

What had made me turn? I’ll never know the answer to that one. I am certain I wouldn’t be around today if I hadn’t turned. Even if the guy had been just another paan chewing passenger, he would have taken me with him when he lost his balance, no question about it.

Was it “sixth sense”? The great hunter-naturalist, Jim Corbett, recounted an incident in his “Man-eaters of Kumaon” where he sought refuge behind a large boulder and waited with his .275 Rigby bolt-action rifle for the man eating Champawat tigress to appear.

Corbett was sitting still under that rock, expecting the beast to appear out of the underbrush in front of him, when he sensed a presence and raised his eyes. The tiger was right there, crouched on top of the rock inches above his head, poised to jump. Corbett swiveled and shot the predator but it had already jumped. It landed it’s 300lb weight on him, fortunately already dead from the heavy slug. Do read “Maneaters of Kumaon” if you get the chance.

I picked up Carl Sagan but my heart wasn’t in it. I looked out the window and far in the distance, the string of klieg lights around the huge blast furnace stacks of the Rourkela Steel Plant were now visible in the haze. In another five minutes, I would be in Rourkela and in a further twenty, nursing a whisky and soda at the Delhi Bar, waiting for my naan and boneless butter chicken. I tucked Cosmos back in the side pocket of the overnighter.

I couldn’t remember if Voyager-2 got to take some nice pics of methane-blue Neptune before it stepped out into the void.

Turning the Corner

The wind picked up, making the sidewalk litter tumble along. The digital clock on the cash counter of the cafe said 4:00 AM, 02 Fevrier 2003.

This part of downtown Montreal is called “The Main” – Blvd St. Laurent, the heart of the heart of downtown – littered and filthy, but exhilarating and lively. No one sleeps on The Main.

I remember every millisecond of the night of the 2nd February, like it happened yesterday……….

Slung high up on the rear wall of the cafe was a large flat screen TV that was on 24/7. It had a weather bubble in a corner that said “-27°C / -42°C”. Which meant that although it actually was -27, it ‘felt’ more like -42, a concept called “windchill”. (The windier it is, the lower is the windchill factor). If you were to be outside the plate glass right now, your body would experience all the effects of a -42° ambient, like frostbite, hypothermia, etc. You’d have 30 minutes with adequate clothing and 30 seconds without.


After a while, the litter settled back and there was a brief lull before the wind picked up again and the sidewalk outside turned white with those tiny balls of ice. Beyond the glass, it was now just a white swirl. The pole with the placard right outside the front entrance, that read Autobus-51(Des Pins-Atwater), was now barely visible.

“Wish I could split”, I said out loud, to the TV on the wall. Of course, I couldn’t. I worked here and tonight my nightshift partner, a 19-year old Salvadoran student named Hector, hadn’t turned up. I was by myself, manning the joint alone. Earlier Ben, the owner, had made noises about coming over and giving me a hand but it was the middle of the week and there was no rush.

No, I couldn’t split. I needed this job and the graveyard shift, 10 to 6, was the only one possible, what with the Immigration Quebec’s French course running till 9.15.

My eyes fell on those yummy falafels under the counter. I took two out, heated them in the microwave, slapped a dollop of humus on the side and sat down in a corner with a plastic fork.

It was now 4.30am. The drunks had staggered in after the bars had closed, gorged and long gone. The drug-addled fences trying to hawk GPSs and cameras to those drunks were gone too. This was the downest part of downtown. Any downer and you might poke through into China. You could get anything you wanted here at a price.

The slick, sharp suited gents were always the last to arrive, sometimes with flashily dressed women. They would sit in the shadows in the corner and speak in whispers, at times bursting out in laughter. A couple of them invariably pealed off and took another table, closer to the door. Ben had pointed them out earlier, whispering, “Rizzutos…” and told me to make sure they had whatever they wanted, it was all on the house. It didn’t bother me none. They treated me with a kind of old fashioned respect and thanked me whenever I set the tables for ‘em.

What I loved the most about those thugs was their seeming readiness to pay. At the end of the meal they always asked politely for the bill and when I shook my head and said,”It is a pleasure”, they would thank me. They knew I was just a waiter, I was nothing but a piece of say, lint, or a doorknob or some other inane, valueless object to them but they never took anyone for granted. It was this gesture, this little pantomime that I appreciated.

One time some drunks were crowding me at the till, getting belligerent, making me real jittery, when one of the two goons by the door came over and led the bunch out the door, wordlessly and sat back on his seat, giving me a nod.

Maybe Ben passed them weekly packets of cash, I don’t know. If these were indeed members of the Rizzuto Organization, then I can confirm I have actually met the Bonnano Crime Family of New York. Wow.


An elderly woman in a smart dress came in with a scrawny homeless guy in tow. She held out a twennie and said,” Please, can you prepare a full plate for this man here? I found him sitting outside the metro. I have to rush, thanks. And do let him stay in here until that blows over.” She pointed toward the now full blown blizzard outside, flashed a smile and made an immediate exit.

Soon as the lady left, the guy stepped forward and said, “I don’t want no chow, man, just gimme the dough she gave you, okay?”

“No skin off my back,” I said to the guy and I passed the twennie back to him and he shuffled out. I rose and locked the front entrance doors after him and made myself a coffee.

We always locked up after 4.30am for security reasons. The restaurant would still be open for business, but you would have to pass my scrutiny, to be able to enter. This was an all-night joint in a scary part of town, closing only from 6am to 7am for a thorough clean-up, which meant doing the dishes, cleaning, sweeping, mopping and cleaning out the toilets (you should have seen the state that the drunks left the toilets in). With Hector absent, all this would be accomplished by yours truly in the morning before I closed up and left.

I was sitting well back in the shadows of a recess next to the cash register and as I sipped from my mug a wave of melancholy swept over me. Last week, the money we had brought along with us had run out and there was still no decent job in sight. We had been forced to down-size to a tiny one-room cubbyhole. When you folded down the bed, your nose bumped against the kitchen counter. On Fridays, our neighbors, a Pakistani family, cooked biryani. Fridays smelt good. Better than the tinned stuff we opened day after day.

Everything pointed to only one thing – this mad adventure known as migration had probably failed. Land of opportunity my ass. Was this it? Was this going to be the way the rest of my life would slip by? Was that cubbyhole going to be home from now?


I must have dozed off, I don’t know for how long. But as I sat in the shadows, my eyes began to notice this hooded form of a person. He was leaning against the locked glass doors, while around him the blizzard had turned into raw mayhem.

The figure outside the glass was rocking back and forth. I couldn’t trust my eyes but he appeared to be in just a T-shirt. Hands outstretched, he was trying to tap on the glass and steady himself at the same time, against the howling wind. The moment I started toward the door, a voice inside me began telling me I was being a schmuck. This could be a hold-up and I shouldn’t be opening the door to this creep. I should be calling 911 instead. There must have been more than two grand in the till. On The Main, restaurant servers got shot for much less.

As I approached the door, a sudden gust sent the man sprawling on the sidewalk. His cap went flying and his hood came off and a mass of auburn hair cascaded out. It was not a he, it was a she and as she lurched back up to the glass, I noted that she had only socks on.

Scrambling desperately I unlocked the doors and they swung open with such force that I was knocked clean off my feet. I got up, ran across and helped her in from the blizzard. And then, pushing my whole weight against the doors, I slammed them shut.

She was cold, real cold and as I held her, she shivered uncontrollably. I sat her down and brought in the spare hooded parka from the employees’ closet and draped it round her. She smelt awful but I somehow managed to hold her tight allowing her body to get warm. Gradually the shivering passed.

I moved her to a corner table and reached for the phone, “I’ll call 911, hang on” and the next thing I knew, she had her hand clamped tightly over my wrist. “No, please,” she whispered. That was when I noticed the multiple puncture marks running down the sides of both her arms.

“OK, relax, take it easy, are you hungry?” She nodded and after a while, I had a nice heaped plate of shish tauk, humus, fries and salad laid out in front of her. And a steaming glass of coffee. As she wolfed the food down, I couldn’t help noticing how pretty she was. She couldn’t have been more than 14, maybe 15. The eyes guileless, the bluest I’d seen. The hair, all messed up. Auburn- brown.

The hood of my parka encased an angel.

When she was done eating, she looked much better. “I don’t have any….cash”, she said, “but if you want…we can…I can…you know…I’m good, really good.”

I tried not to show the consternation I felt, at what I’d just heard. I simply shook my head. “It’s on the house, relax. Try to get some sleep” is all that I could manage. She laid her head on the table surface and was out like a light in no time. I balled up a couple of clean aprons, lifted her sleeping head gently and slipped the makeshift pillow under.


It was just past six and I was cleaning the serving counters and getting ready to close up and go home, when the girl stirred. She padded up to me in her socks and kissed me on my grey bearded cheek. Even though she smelt yucky as hell, it was hard for me not to smile.

“Can I use the loo?”

“Sure, it’s that way, to your right”, I nodded toward the back. I hoped she would be done and ready to move out soon. Ben, the owner, would be in any minute, to start the daily ritual of getting the restaurant ready for the first customers. I didn’t want to have a lot of explaining to do.

She didn’t take long and I couldn’t help stealing a glance when she emerged from the washroom. The grubby face was creamy and radiant now, the curls luxurious and the eyes the most beautiful I had seen in a while. If I had the means I would adopt you, I thought.

She didn’t mind waiting as I closed up and soon we were both on the sidewalk. The wind had subsided, but it was still bitterly cold. She looked comical, a pixie, in the large shaggy parka and those huge old snow boots an ex-employee had left behind a long time back and never returned to collect. In one hand, she held a brown paper bag filled with shish tauk and fries that I had prepared for her to take along. In the other, she clutched a 5 dollar bill I’d given her.

We stood there, at the bus stop, not saying a word. After a while, the 51 came up Des Pins, grunted to a stop and the doors sighed open. She was about to get in, when she hesitated, as if she wanted to say something. Then she turned and with a brief wave, disappeared into the bus.

I stepped off the curb to cross over to the metro entrance and as I did, I caught one last glimpse of the bus as it turned the corner. And I wondered, if she would turn hers.

I hoped I would turn mine. Some day soon.

Is that you, darling, are you home?

It’s five and already there’s a chill in the air. The ANRAD building is still humming with activity, but for you there is not going to be any more late evening meetings. No one is going to be calling you up.

You rise and drape the Kanuk overcoat over your shoulders and step outside, closing the door of your tiny office behind you. The corridor is swarming with eager young faces rushing about, files and folders in hand, balancing cell phones with their chins. You make your way to the bank of elevators and wait. Unlike the executive elevator which you once rode non-stop down to the reserved parking every day, this one stops at each floor before it opens up finally in the lobby, 60 floors down. That’s okay by you.

You step inside the elevator and as you shrink back into a corner your thoughts go to your house. It seems a bit too large now. Something smaller in Pointe Claire by the river should do just fine. A cottage with a couple of extra rooms for Arnav and Tina and the kids, when they visit. “I’ll call the Remax lady first thing tomorrow,” you resolve in your mind as you stare at the floor numbers tumble.

As the elevator stops at each floor and the crowd ebbs and flows, your gaze falls on the logo over the door. It says ‘ANRAD – Always building strength- in your defense’. The words are spread over a jagged imprint of a single lightning bolt. You’re transported back to the first time you saw the logo. Your first day at work and how it had all begun, a long time ago.


First there was the adrenalin rush of the final interview and then the euphoria of the call from someone called Kristie ‘suggesting’ that the CEO would like you to join the team. That you’ve been shortlisted to spearhead a new initiative. To develop a game-changing new recoilless pulse rifle from green field to commercial production.

And finally, the lunch with the CEO in one of those exclusive golf clubs. Rear Admiral Patrick H. Hansen(Retd.), is a great one at massaging egos. He makes you feel like only you could have filled that job opening. Like as if they’d been searching all over for someone just like you and then you appeared and accepted the job through some divine intervention.

“You can call me Pat,” says Hansen, arms widespread and a broad smile, as he guides you to a sofa and leans back into the cushions right opposite. He makes it sound like it’s a done deal. You feel like the keys to the kingdom have just been bestowed upon you. Hansen is a real smooth talker. Relocation expenses, no problem, the sky is too limiting.

“Kristie has briefed you on the joining bonus, yes? Let me know if it meets your expectations. We can always work around it if necessary,” he’s patting down the icing now, “A suite is reserved for you and your family at the Queen Elizabeth. Till you find a home. I’d suggest Westmount. Bill and Doug have their cottages there. Peaceful and quiet but still a stone’s throw from downtown. The Sacred Heart Convent is practically next door. Our Annie went there. I’ll get Kristie to have a word with the principal, Gwen Arnold, no problem.”

He is referring to the exclusive $39000 tuition per year girls’ school for your daughter, Tina. North American senior executives get personal real fast. If they sound like that law firm in the John Grisham thriller The Firm, believe me, they actually are that intrusive at the higher levels. They’ll open up their homes to you, have their kids play with yours, insist on driving you to Sunday golf. Insist that you address them by their first names. At the weekend charity gala, his wife will ensure your wife and she have matching outfits. You’ll be ‘family’.

Pat Hansen knows all about you, every wart, make no mistake of it. And so do you, about him. You’ve taken the time to do some research of your own on your future boss. American, heavily built, ex-Navy aviator, he drove F4s for six years in the 60s. Approximately 240 sorties from the 93000ton Kitty Hawk, Carrier Task Force-3, 7th fleet, Gulf of Tonkin 1963-68. Legion of Merit and DFC awardee, twice recommended for the Medal of Honor.

The Medal of Honor recommendations were for conspicuous display of extraordinary bravery. That those recommendations didn’t actually result in an award had nothing to do with his sense of valor, sacrifice or patriotism and everything to do with politics at the Pentagon. His abrasive demeanor did him in. Once, in a meeting presided by the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Hansen, then just a Lt. Commander, told a four-star general to go f–k his mother no less than five times. That he was never courtmartialed speaks for the respect he commanded over the rank and file.

One of the two MOH recommendations came from an incident where Hansen risked his life to save an A-10 pilot on the Kitty Hawk. The crippled Warthog was making an attempt to touch down on the heaving carrier deck in pitch darkness and very choppy seas. The pilot tried his best but made a mess of it. The jet weaved in drunkenly at 150knots, hit something on the deck, turned turtle, hurtling and skidding to a halt, precariously close to the edge, 200ft above the churning waters.

As the massive carrier pitched and yawed in the swells, the Warthog slowly slipped and slid toward the tipping point. Meanwhile, jet fuel gushed from the ruptured wing tanks and slowly spread over the carrier deck as flames began to sizzle up from somewhere behind the cockpit.

Lieut Commander Pat Hansen of the 25th Pathfinder Squadron, stepped out of the shelter of the rear 12inch gun turrets and walked briskly to the upturned jet, unmindful of his boots sloshing through the spreading jet fuel. He had a crowbar in his hand. He smashed a hole in the already cracked canopy and yanked the pilot, a Capt Joe Schwartz, from the cockpit. Capt Schwartz reported later that as he was being pulled out, Hansen looked at him and said in mock severity, “What the f—‘s takin’ you so long, Schwarz, there’s turkey for dinner, f’Christ’s sakes. Now go clean up and get yore ass to the mess hall on the double.”

The Warthog exploded as they reached the base of the flag bridge.

Retiring from the navy, now a Rear Admiral, Hansen joined the private sector and he’s been kicking asses since. A ruthless administrator, he doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. And right now, he isn’t done yet.

“We want you to be at home, feel comfortable, grow old with us. What’s your wife’s name again? Rani, what a charming name. And don’t forget to call Kristie, if you need anything at all”. The icing is a bit overdone but you’re not complaining. And he still isn’t done yet.

He leans back, his arms raised, elbows bent, hands joined, pudgy fingers locked behind, supporting the bullet head. “After you set this thing up and get it going, Arch (he’s already anglicized your name, from Arjun), I want you to go down and expand our Indian operations. India is where the future is. I believe it. The board believes it. We’ve got to get in there and now.” He settles back on the cushions. It looks like he’s finally done.

“Another brandy before we part? You must be tired”. You know a dismissal when you see one. You make polite noises and take your leave.

You catch a cab and come home in a daze. You’ve just signed up to join one of the world’s largest defense contractors. You look at the rusty 10yr old Mazda3 in your driveway. It has served you well but now it’ll have to go. ANRAD Vice Presidents are given fully loaded Cadillac Escalades by the company and you’ll have one too. Plus, a luxury sedan can be had for your wife, with a generous loan, advanced at zero percent payable over 15 years. You make a mental note to check out the Jaguar dealership sometime this week. It’s all unreal and suddenly happening very fast.

Soon as you are through the front door, Rani rushes up and springs into your arms. Like you, she’s beside herself. She keeps hugging and kissing you and cooing and gurgling, “I love you so, darling. Congratulations! I knew you’d make it!” she whispers.

You gaze at Rani. She’s beautiful. Has been, ever since you first spotted her at a ‘bhaiphota’ at your friend, Shibu’s house in Sewri. When you married her, it had to be a simple registered marriage as you couldn’t afford a fancy ceremony. And besides, her prosperous parents had refused to attend since you were a Kayastha and she a Brahmin.

The first home you two moved into, with your worldly possessions inside a weather-beaten suitcase, had been a tiny one-room apartment that Rani had tastefully furnished, with the little things that you could manage to buy. And when you used to come home from work, you’d find Rani on her haunches, leaning over the coal burning chullah, flipping phulko rotis (Bengali nan bread) for dinner, her soft hands singed repeatedly by the flying embers.

Hearing the front door open, she’d look up with unconcealed delight and call out, “Is that you, darling, are you home?” You’d step forward and try to take her hands in yours but she’d hide them behind her back. You’d reach around her, puzzled, find them and lift them up to kiss them. It’s then that you’d notice the tiny burn marks from the stove.

The years have flown fairly quickly after that. After moving to the west, Rani and you had one more child, a son, Arnav. He is going to Stanford since last August. Tina lives with her husband Dieter, in Schwedt. They have a cottage by the Elbe.

And Rani. It’s now a year since the very light of your life, your Rani, passed away, consumed by the cancer which had galloped unchecked through her thyroids.


And now back to you. The new product line was a huge success. It’s now one of the main revenue earners. The Indian stint saw ANRAD blossom into a major player in India, employing over 3000 engineers and staff. You’re still with ANRAD, though not in the ‘Penthouse’ any more. A few months after Rani was gone, it began to show.

They would never let you go. You had been a pillar, a star. You were ANRAD history. You were an ANRAD institution. Like in the case of Steve Wozniak, who keeps receiving a stipend from Apple, there is a tacit understanding that you will be there, drawing a salary, till the day you by yourself choose to leave.

You finally got gently eased out and moved into a tiny office four floors down. VP-Communications Strategy is what the plaque on your office reads. You have your own fresh-faced, temporary intern for an assistant. All your personal volumes and knick-knacks have had to be carted home as there’s no space inside your new office. You have only one photo standing on your desk. A tiny framed picture of Rani, a baby Arnav in her arms, with Tina standing by, clutching her sari and leaning against the Mazda3.

And Pat Hansen? The Rear Admiral had made landing on pitching carrier decks an art. But last summer, one balmy Sunday, his personal Embraer Phenom-100 cartwheeled and blew up in the middle of the Teterboro strip as he was coming in to land. He was killed instantly. The accident is still being investigated.

The elevator sighs to a final stop in the lobby. You jerk back from your little reverie, straighten and walk slowly out, buttoning your coat as you approach the plate glass doors leading to the sprawling basement parking lot. It seems an effort today, you don’t know why. Home and a shower is what I need, you say to yourself. A ‘geeta path’ (group reading of holy Hindu scriptures) is organized at Shankar Mullicks’, later in the evening. Today is Janmashtami, the day Lord Krishna was born. And Shankar’s wife, Sumona, won’t let you leave without eating, afterwards.

The walk to your tidy little BMW hatchback is an unusually long one today. You regret your habit of parking it way behind, in that dark secluded corner next to the emergency exit. As you walk, the rows and rows of cars seem endless. You never realized how huge this place really is.

You can see the car now. The silver grey seems to stand out, even in the gloom. You’re tired and you decide to rest for just a while on the bonnet of the Buick standing a few cars away. The Buick has been standing there for the past few days, it’s owner, Bill Mullholand, being gone on an overseas sales trip.

As you lean against the bonnet and try to turn your head, you keel over slowly and spill onto the garage floor, your head coming to rest next to the Buick’s front tyre. You gaze up through the mist and then you hear it clearly – a voice you’ve heard a million times before, a voice you’d come to love more than yourself…….

“Is that you, darling, are you home?”


At 9.45am, the waiting hall at the Brunswick Family Clinic was filling up quick.

I was here for my annual check-up. The tests were done and I was waiting to see the doc. Everything seemed in prefect order. Various body parts humming along normally. Like the PW800 turbofan. If you’re getting a business jet, insist on Pratt and Whitney engines. The other guys distribute bibles free, with their engines.

There was an old couple sitting across, a low hum of conversation coming from their direction…”Did you hear from Caroline?”…..”No, she hasn’t written in years, ever since she moved to Burnaby. I wrote about my prostrate. She never replied.”….

A plump black woman brought in a stroller and, from it she picked up a frail child, a curly haired white girl. She deposited the kid gently right next to me and sat down next to her on the other side.

“Do you wanna peepee, Katie, it’ll take a while”, said the woman. The girl’s head constantly jerked about in a frenzied, panicky sort of manner. Her eyes blazing, she tried hard to hold their focus on the woman, as they rolled around. And all the while, her face twitched and her whole upper torso swayed back and forth.

I went back to my paperback.

Now, let me tell you something about reading in a doctor’s waiting room. I try to bring with me a page turner. But here’s the thing – never bring anything that’s too racy, or else you won’t hear your name being called and you’ll find yourself being escorted out, late in the evening by the janitor. This time I had with me a John Le Carre paperback, ‘The spy who came in from the cold’. The last time, I had with me a Jackie Collins and the doctor said I had BP. Nevil Shute and he told me I needed more nutrition.

I had just gotten into the main plot around page 50, when I felt a rhythmic nudge on my right arm. The girl, head lolling around, was now trying to concentrate on what I was reading, swaying back and forth. When she saw me take notice, her face broke into a smile. A smile which was on one hand the most beautiful and on another, the most pathetic. And on a purely superficial level, hideous.

As I went back to Le Carre, she broke into a burbling hum. The black woman looked up from her knitting, her deep eyes as loving as I had ever seen.

“She’s singin'”, the woman said, “She likes you.”

“Do you want me to read to you?” I asked the little girl and she immediately became a mass of wobbles, nods and shakes, her face pushing up against my arm as she shifted her frail weight closer. After a while, it seemed not to matter, that her saliva had soaked through my sleeve completely.

I started reading where I’d left off, this time the words loud enough for the little girl to hear, “A black cab goes past but it has its lights on. Not a spy cab then. A normal cab. Driven by a brutish man, with Slavic features. I say to myself, ‘What are you waiting for, Leamas, this is your last chance….’

I read on and on, my voice practiced and well-modulated. And as my words settled into a steady drone, I realized that her movements had gradually ceased and her little curly head was now resting on my arm, completely still. I turned carefully just a fraction, to look. She’d fallen asleep. The overworked muscles had fallen silent. The face was angelic, at peace.

The nurse called out my name and I gently lifted the kid’s head from my arm. The black woman put her knitting back in her bag and carefully rested the little head on her lap. Her huge ebony black fingers ran gently through the flaxen hair.

I rose, to follow the nurse in.

The Day I met the Mahatma


“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, And then they fight you and that’s when you win….” – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi


They gave me a white cotton shirt to wear over my t-shirt and told me not to tuck it into my jeans. That way the jeans wouldn’t be noticed. They said I could take the shirt home as a memento if I liked and I did. I’d have preferred to take Candice Bergen home with me instead. She had played the role of the beautiful blonde prize-winning photographer for Life Magazine, Margaret Bourke-White.

It was Pune, 1982 and I am referring to the filming of a scene from Sir Richard Attenborough’s ‘Gandhi’ in which I had the privilege of working as an extra. The scene was the part of the story that depicted his time in South Africa.

The set was the N.M.Wadia amphitheater of the 100-year old Ferguson College in Pune – a massive wood paneled hall with tiered seats. I was 26 and my vivacious girlfriend, Meghna Kulkarni, was also an extra. A petite BA (performing arts) student, Meghna was a gifted actress herself and a member of Dr Mohan Agashe’s theater group. The producers had approached Dr Agashe for a bit part as well as help in organizing crowds of extras for the filming and he had in turn ‘sub-contracted’ the crowd gathering chore to Meghna and her friends.

So there was I. For two days, I was in the thick of it, watching the Mahatma (Ben Kingsley) deliver a rousing speech, exhorting Indians in South Africa to resist being treated as second class citizens. It was a master class in acting.

In the shot, Kingsley says, “Let us be clear about General Smuts’ new law : that all Indians must now be fingerprinted like criminals. That no marriage, other than a Christian marriage, is valid. That under this act, our wives and mothers are whores and every man here is a bastard. That policemen may enter our dwellings and demand our identity documents. Understand, they do not have to wait at the door. They may enter.”

At that point, an audience member in the front row, ‘Khan’ (Amrish Puri), springs to his feet in rage and swears he’ll kill the first cop who walks through his doorstep uninvited.

Puri’s timing was impeccable and so was Kingsley’s dialogue delivery. It was obvious that that Kingsley had practiced painstakingly. I got to know the extent of his prep for the role only later on, when filming broke for lunch.

Attenborough had this quaint way of wrapping up a shot. He never said, “Cut!!” He simply stood up, came around the camera and said in a quiet hoarse tone, “That’ll be enough of that.” Similarly, I never heard him say, “All ready..3..2..1..Action!!!” In that same hoarse tone, he would simply say,”Ready when you are…..”

Candice Bergen was not in the scene being shot but she was present on the set, watching the filming. Bergen wasn’t a very well-known actress, at least not in India, so no one took any notice of her, beyond the usual gawking at a pretty gora woman. In fact, most of the actors on the set were not well known, so there were no stampedes for autographs or hordes of awestruck fans. The only recognizable face was Amrish Puri’s and he sat through the whole thing with poise.

Every time Gandhi/Kingsley spoke, Meghna would be overcome with emotion and vigorously wipe her tearful face on my shirt. My repeatedly whispered ‘take it easy, this is just a movie, yaar’ did nothing to stop her. Other extras standing next to us began turning their heads to stare at Meghna and all this while the camera was rolling.

It got so bad that, at one point, while Kingsley was speaking the lines, “They can break my bones but they cannot break my will…..” Attenborough said, “A minute, Ben” and walked up the tiers of seats to where we were standing and confronted Meghna. Both of us thought this is it. We were going to be chucked out on our tushes.

Instead, the director’s face, ruddy from the heat and glistening with sweat, softened and he said words to the effect,” You know, I have been crying ever since I started reading up on the Mahatma. Cry all you want, just keep it down”. He gave Meghna a quick pat on the shoulder and his eyes twinkled mischievously as he added,” Or I’ll have to send you the bill for the delay”.

The unit had broken for lunch and everyone had dispersed. Meghna and I had nowhere to go so we hung around the set, tripping over wires and stuff, till we set ourselves down on the ground and leaned back against a large box filled with sound equipment. Silence had fallen over the set. Those days there were no hulking security guys with wires coming out of their ears to manhandle you, so no one asked us to leave.

As we sat by the box, I heard a shuffle and looked over my shoulder. Seated cross-legged alone, barely an arm’s length away, next to a bunch of dormant klieg lights, on the dirt floor was a barefoot Ben Kingsley. For the shot, he had been wearing a coat and pants but now he had on just a kurta. He sat there soaked in sweat. There was a thali (ordered from the nearby Roopali restaurant) perched on his lap and on the floor by him stood a glass of mango lassi.

As Meghna and I gawked, Kingsley noticed us staring. He smiled and cleared his throat. Almost instantaneously, a whispered hum rose from his lips, exquisite in its melody and so soft that we could just barely hear him….

“Raghupati raghava rajaram patita pavana seeta ram (Hail Rama, lord and master. Hail Seeta and Rama, who make even the fallen, pure)”

He paused and looked at us gaping at him dumbstruck. Meghna shivered and clung on to me. Kingsley’s diction and tone was pitch perfect. He dropped the chapati on the thali and raised his palms together in Hindu supplication, his eyes drawn shut and his head swaying from side to side. Very softly, as if setting free something very fragile, he let out the rest of the words…

“Ishwar e allah tero naam, Sab ko sanmati de Bhagwan” (You can be Ishwar or you can be Allah, but your benevolence is toward all)

What Kingsley hummed so beautifully was a Bhajan (Hindu devotional song) that used to be Mahatma Gandhi’s favorite. That bhajan appears multiple times in the movie.

Kinglsey paused and opened his eyes and gave us another terrific smile. The spell broke and he resumed devouring his chapatis and veg pulao. And he chewed and chatted. He told us that he had been walking around barefoot for the past year or so. At first he had blisters but now he didn’t feel anything. In his Blue Diamond Hotel suite, the A/C knob was left at zero and he had thrown the sliding widows open. Instead of ordering room service, he was subsisting on the fruit basket that room service had left on a side table.

Shortly after being told that he’d been picked to play the role of Gandhi, Kingsley turned a teetotaler and he intended staying that way for the rest of his life. At night in his hotel room, he read from a paperback concise translation of the Bhagwad Gita and after a while, he curled up on the floor and slept. “I’m trying to get them to remove the carpet… can make do with so little actually……,” he told us, breaking into that Gandhi smile every now and then.

There was no question about it – the actor had been touched by the greatness of the Mahatma.


Later that afternoon, they shot the pass-burning scene at the playground outside the amphitheater. It was getting late and Meghna had a mid-term exam the next morning, so we split. We stopped by the Vaishali snack restaurant where I had a dosa and she a plate of idlis and then I walked her home on Tilak Road, across the Mutha River.

As we walked hand-in-hand, not a word passed between us. I tried to make light of it by saying, hey, we forgot to take autographs, but I gave up and fell silent. Usually there was a fixed pattern by which our evenings together seemed always to end – with a long canoodle. That evening it was going to be a nocandoodle, looked like.

We had just witnessed something very special. For a brief moment, through a roundabout route, across a canyon of decades, our lives had been touched by the Mahatma.


She was cute, I’ll hand you that.

Slightly built, she sat at the edge of the bed, her hands clasped on her lap, like they had nowhere to go. She slipped her ghunghat (veil) off, reached up and carefully undid the pins holding up her slightly messed up hair. It cascaded down in curls, over her shoulders.

Her gaze went back toward the floor, unsure of what she must do next. The bed covers were strewn with rose petals but she seemed oblivious to them.

For the moment, she was trying not to pass out, under all that bridal finery and the oppressive heat. Slim jhumkas (traditional Hindu ear rings) peeked out from under the curls. She had on, the bridal ‘mangal sutra’ that I’d tied round her neck an hour or so back, at the ceremony – a yellow braided string, coated with turmeric, with a tiny gold pendant, flanked on either side by black beads.

I recalled the wedding. The mangal sutra had been handed to me open ended, with knots on both ends, so the beads wouldn’t escape. As I had slipped my fingers behind her neck to tie the two ends together, she repeated after the priest, in a soft but distinct whisper, “You are the reason of my existence. With this thread around my neck, I shall pray that may you live long.”

As her lips formed the words, for a brief moment, she lifted her eyes to search into mine, “Who are you, Robindranath Dey?” they seemed to enquire.

The 3-day ceremony was now over and here I was, my butt on the opposite edge of the bed, still in my sherwani, kurta and churidar, the air conditioning hardly able to drive away my discomfort at the May humidity. Goddamn, why the heck does May have to be the auspicious month for marriages. Wish I had my bermuda shorts on.


Bermuda shorts reminded me of the last time I wore them, the Saturday before I left for India. It was at the ball game, NY State vs Ohio. Vicky Tannenbaum had come along and as she sat next, her left arm loosely draped over my bare thigh, her hand had snuck further in, unnoticed. While 10000 guys cheered the NYS team on, she’d suddenly dug her nails in playfully.

“Ouch, watch it, will you? I only have two of those” I’d shouted out, with pain mixed with sudden pleasure. She’d giggled, nuzzling her red head against my chest.

“Take me to your dorm, Robby” she’d whispered into my ear. Back in my room, we’d torn at each other for the rest of the day. That night had been our last together and Vicky knew it. It didn’t bother her even a bit. She was attractive, on her way through med school with a straight-A average. Her parents had an already well established medical practice which she would simply walk into, after she got her MD. And she was cute as a button. There were lots of other fish in her pond.

When we were finally done, she lay across my chest, her red curls tickling my nose and me on my back. And as she slowly wrapped her legs round my thigh and lazily rocked herself back and forth, her wetness rubbing up against me, she mused, “You’re off to be married, to a Bengali country girl in a saree and my Dad will probably like to see me wed one of those orthodox toads in a Yarmulke, with those payots hanging from either side of his head. Well, I’ll teach Mr. Yarmulke a thing or two about putting those two side locks where they tickle,” she’d giggled.


And now once again back in the present, the thought of Vicky started up a stirring within, as I found myself facing that almirah with mirrored doors, by the wall. From where I sat, perched on the opposite edge of the bed, I could see my bride in the mirror clearly, facing away, at an angle.

Her anchal (the end of the saree that’s slung over the left shoulder) had fallen and lay like a wreath round her, on the bed. She had a ‘nath’ (nose ring) on one nostril and a bala (wrist band) on each soft hand. They looked like they’d been handed down, from her mother . Her hair was still flecked with all that sprinkly, shiny stuff they chuck at you in a wedding. Her feet were beautiful. Pink, bordered by ‘alta’, a vermillion dye that Hindu women have on, after marriage. Pretty toes, some with rings on them, peeped through her slippers. Payals, probably of imitation silver, transformed her ankles into the loveliest I’d seen. Yellowish-brown mehndi lines adorned both feet as well as her hands.

Don’t know how long we just sat there, facing away from each other, on either side of the bed but it was she who broke the ice first. She brought her gaze up to me, “Shunoon, ei biye ki aapnar moter birudhdhey hoyeche?” (Did this marriage happen without your acquiescence?)

I straightened and walked to the barred window that looked out on Hazra Rd. An ice-cream wallah was pushing his cart down the sun baked lane, his head covered by a wet gamcha (wash cloth made from a thin cotton fabric), knarled feet in torn flip-flops. “Kwaliteee!” he cried plaintively.

I turned back toward her and lifted my eyes to hers’, in a slow and excruciatingly painful effort. “No,” I replied and I quickly turned back to stare out the window. The ice-cream wallah was gone, but I could still hear his cries faintly in the distance, “Kwaliteee!” By now a bunch of stray mongrel dogs had decided to give him harmony. Every time he cried out, they barked and bayed at him, shuffling a few paces behind.

Just a minute had passed, when I felt her soft hands on my shoulders. She’d risen and come round the bed, to stand by my side, a little behind, away from the window. I shivered at her touch. I didn’t turn but continued to stare blindly at the scorching pavement below.

“Then why don’t you speak with me?” she reached up and held my cheeks in her palms and turned it so I was looking down at her beautiful face, “I left my home, my parents, my sisters and my little brother. And I have made this my home…..” her voice caught and I noticed that those long eyelashes were brimming with tears.

I gently grasped her two wrists and lowered her palms from my cheeks, till her hands were by her side. And I moved away just a bit. Don’t know why, but her touch was electric. I felt safer a couple of inches away. I was more comfortable with English. But she didn’t know a word of it. So Bengali it had to be, “And you? Was this with your approval?”

She nodded, dabbing her eyes with her anchal. “My father’s decision is my decision,” she said simply, “And now, your wish is mine. Forever”. QED- Theorem and corollary, I thought. With that simple statement, she leaned against me, and broke down into silent sobs.

I reached out and pulled her to me, gently holding her fragile body in my arms. After a while her sobbing subsided and I could feel her even breath on my chest, when all of a sudden, she wriggled out of my grasp, saying, “Wait, I’ll show you something.” She went up to the whatnot in the far corner and took out an ornate box made of brass. It was a ‘paaner dibey’, a small container normally used for betel leaves, nuts and zarda (chewing tobacco).

She ran her fingers lightly over the box. “My grandma used it when she was alive. Now, it’s mine.” She opened it carefully. Inside was just one photo. It was me, striking a pose in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The one I’d sent through Baren when he came to India on his match-making expedition. “I spoke with you every day, ever since Barenda left it with us. I said to God, “Dear God, keep him safe”.

She left the box standing on the whatnot and turned, her young breasts squeezed up against my chest. An incredible warmth spread through us like wild fire, as I gently tilted her face up by her chin and said in mock severity, “My wish is yours. hmmmm. Do you have any idea what my first wish is?”

She smiled at that, feeling me harden against the pit of her stomach. Then, with mock helplessness, she said in a whisper, “No, why don’t you show me?”


It is 48 years now, since that first magical night. Madhu still has that box. She likes to call it her ‘treasure chest’. It has a few additions in it. Pictures of a young man, his American wife, Betty and daughter, Sona. And a young woman, with her banker husband, Tod and journalist son Michael. And one more picture. A very young guy, much slimmer then but still recognizable now, posing in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

The Hayflick Limit

If lobsters and turtles could talk they would give fascinating history lessons. Imagine that you are a doddering old turtle off Caen, in Northern France, scoping the shallows for algae, sponges or whatever the fuck turtles eat.

The chances are good that in 1588, as a kid swimming alongside your mommy, you saw Sir Francis Drake on his man-o-war, The Revenge, racing with the wind, engaging the Spanish Armada. You got singed when the San Lorenzo caught fire from a broadside from the Revenge and a stray log from it’s bulkhead flew through the air and hit you, but you healed. You are one hardy mother fucker, aintcha now.

And then you clearly remember 1944. You were 165 and just breaking into your teens. You were courting Shiela-Sue Shell, your girlfriend for more than a century. You were trying ta grab her from behind so you could get on top of her and she wouldn’t letcha. This had been going on for six months and you were getting tired of it.

“Come on, Shiela-Sue, its fucking six months, I can’t take it anymore. How ‘bout it?” You said to her. You were just this one big blub of testosterone, you were. It’s no wonder biologists two centuries on would classify you as a testudine.

Back to 1944 and you and Shiela-Sue frolicking on the beach close to the cute little French village of Saint-Aubain, named Juno Beach by invasion planners. Suddenly Shiela-Sue gestured with her flappers along the coastline to the east. You forgot about shtupping her and waddled onto a rock and you gaped. As far as your beady eyes could see, huge landing crafts were disgorging men with funny sticks in their hands, charging up the surf while the other side threw magic pellets which punctured the surf at 2800 feet per second. Shiela-Sue took a stray round on her shell, didn’t do nothin’ to her.

Mating season was delayed a bit that year but Shiela-Sue and you made up for it in the fall.

Turtles habitually live a healthy 400-plus years. Lobsters live even longer, almost forever. So, imagine you’re a lobster instead and it is 43AD. Instead of the Allied Forces’ Second Front, you might actually have seen traffic in the opposite direction – Roman Emperor Claudius’s fleet spread out horizon to horizon, two-tiered arrays of oars rising and falling, chopping up the waters as the galleys crossed over to vanquish the barbarian war-lord Caractacus and annex Britain.


There are some among us who dream of longevity. There are a host of others who are conducting advanced research on immortality. The question on their minds – Why can’t we be like lobsters or turtles or those giant sequoias and live hundreds of years without growing old and infirm???

Longevity used to be a fantasy until 1961, when a young researcher at the UCSF School of Medicine, Leonard Hayflick, found out the exact reason why we don’t live longer.

For his research, Hayflick contracted with nearby abortion clinics to deliver dead fetuses to him, from which he extracted cells. He chose fetuses because their cells were pristine and the least likely to have viruses in them which might blur the study results.

Hayflick found that the cells from his fetal tissue samples multiplied only a finite number of times, before they stopped dividing altogether. Now a well-established fact, the number of cell divisions in the case of humans is 50, while for lobsters and turtles it is far higher. He propounded that, if the gene that limits the number of cell divisions can be isolated and modified, then that 50-division limit can be extended, enabling humans to live longer.

Leonard Hayflick, getting off on cells, 1982 (Photo courtesy:

Hayflick made another even more remarkable discovery – that if a human cell is frozen below -250˚C after it has already gone through a number of divisions (say, 25), the divisions slow down and as soon as the temperature is raised once again, the multiplication begins where it left off.

In fact, if you increase or decrease the cell temperature with a regulator, you can speed up or slow down the division. Surviving inter-planetary travel through deep freezes is no longer merely science fiction, but a reality waiting to happen.

The Nostromo crew in ‘Alien’ awakening from deep-frozen hibernation, as they near their destination, a planet that is 11 months of spaceflight away. Saves on food, water and sanitation. And canoodles. What would you do if you were stuck on a spaceship for 11 months with Sigorney Weaver walking around in panties? (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia)

Science textbooks now refer to that limiting number of cell divisions as the Hayflick limit.

Who or What was responsible for fixing the Hayflick Limit at 50 for humans, God? But if that were so, if God really did decide that human cells should stop after 50 divisions, surely He must have wanted the number to remain sacrosanct. Why then did He give us the ability to figure out how to extend it beyond 50? (But then who can understand God? He’s the same guy who gave us a dick and a hard-on and then turned around and told us not to fuck out of wedlock).

The one thing that definitely is not fixed is our ideas and questions. They seem to grow with every new scientific revelation, drawing us further and further away from the fantasy concept of God. We are already at a stage where Adam and Eve and the serpent and the apple and the jet setting Angel Gabriel have begun to seem absurd. We are now living through an era when we won’t even get a ticket for breaking nine out of the Ten Commandments. Go ahead and check the penal codes of most modern nations if you don’t believe me.

Immortality has it’s pros and cons. Among the pros is the exhilarating feeling that you are never going to die. In 3 billion years you’ll watch the Sun bloat so large and red that you could actually reach out and touch it. You would of course be burnt to a crisp but let’s hope immortality brings with it the guarantee of a life free of pain. A trillion years and you’d be part of a dimensionless dot, the universe having collapsed back into a singularity.

Immortality will give you a cast iron immune system but it won’t save you from accidental harm, like if you step off the sidewalk and get run over by a drunk driver or get crushed under an industrial press like the Terminator. So, whether you are immortal or not, you still have to try not to be a schmuck.

I’ll be 66 in five months. According to the Canadian Census Bureau, I am expected to live another 20.6 years. With my Spartan lifestyle and frequent sex, it could even be 25 years. That is enough time for the Human Genome Project, stem cell research and nanotechnology to detect my Alzheimer’s or blocked heart valve early and prevent it. So I am going to keep on drinking wine excessively.

And I don’t give a fuck about immortality or the Hayflick Limit. I just need my “Haytumble Limit” extended…

La Sexie Folie

There’s a sex store in Saint Constant on the 132 that I drive by every day on my way home from work. Saint Constant is a hick town, a Canadian version of Jhumritalayia.

Dildos, BDSM stuff, porn mags like Oui and Hustler, thin little 5×7 paperbacks, leather paraphernalia, heels, lingerie, condoms with ribs that resemble the backs of triceratops. And lubricants, all kindsa lubricants – lubricants ta ream the asshole, peppermint-coated lubricants ta make a blow job nice and tasty, lubricants ta… you get the hang.

You name it and La Sexie Folie has it. La Sexie Folie is French for ‘sex madness’. There it is. You can see it in the pic up there. The store used to have DVDs but who watches DVDs anymore, when Pornhub is around.

Sex stores are legal in Canada. Situated in perfectly respectable neighborhoods, they are looked at the same way you’d see a liquor store or a tobacconist. You walk in, browse the shelves, purchase a dildo for your lady that you can stick up her ass while your fingers are playing Dr. Livingstone with her pu…that cat word. I can’t say it, I am too straight-laced. Pick up a 12-pack of those triceratops condoms and you walk out. Its just like you went in and bought cigarettes. No furtive embarrassed glances to see if anyone recognizes you. No darting behind the back shelves when someone you recognize walks in.

In fact, the whole subject of sex is so matter of fact in the west. At the same time, sex is a very important portion of daily life. Relationships break up because “the sex wasn’t fun”. Friendships are made purely to engage in sex. The word “fuck friend” is common. It denotes a relationship that, by mutual consent, will never progress beyond sex. Over here, great sex does not require an emotional attachment. And vice versa.

It is so easy to find a sexual partner here. As long as you dress decently and don’t behave creepily, you can literally walk up to a woman and tell her you are interested in her and “is she free this evening? Trust me, she won’t consider the approach inappropriate at all. If she is in the mood she’ll go right along with you and leave the next morning and you’ll never hear from her again. Period.

At work, it is normal to hear a female colleague say things like, “ugh, he is such a fucking pussy. I bet he has a peanut for a dick”. Or if its a Friday afternoon, “God, am I waiting ta get laid tonight …”. No one will bat an eyelid to that. When Kayla, over in HR, threw an engagement party, she made us all pause because she wanted to say a few words and she said, “I love Gaetan and I am excited about getting married to him, but…. his is the last penis I’ll ever touch again and that’s scary…” and everyone burst out laughing.

Here’s the thing. Even though developed western nations are open and unhindered by tradition or taboo, not a single one of them figures in the top ten list of countries that view pornographic content on the net. A 2015 PEW study had Qatar, Kuwait, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, China and India in the top ten.

Here’s the other thing. Believe it or not, the nations that view adult sites the most also happen to be the most culturally and sexually repressed, with the highest instances of sexual assault per capita. In countries like Bangladesh, India and Pakistan that treat porn as taboo, a little girl has nearly a 50% chance of being molested before she reaches her teens, as per PEW. Which means that one in two girls there has a story to tell – of an uncle, a grandfather or even a father who reached under her dress and played with her or put her hand on his genitals. At the same time, these gents would consider establishments such as La Sexie Folie to be decadent, sinful and immoral.


My first time in a sex shop was right there at La Sexie Folie. Freshly arrived from conservative hyper-hypocritical India, I was so embarrassed to be seen inside, I felt as if all eyes were on me and I wanted to just melt into the floor. As I slunk around the aisles, I noticed that it had just about everything that had anything to do with sex, in it. The range of dildos amazed me. There was a long double-ended dildo that could…. ah forget it. Just know that there are double ended dildos on this planet and leave it at that.

I gradually loosened up when I noticed folk walking in and out as though it was just another store. The store was manned by just one person at the counter – a fetching young brunette. She was dressed in a revealing but not overtly vulgar dress. It was the sort of attire that might help create the atmosphere and make customers want to buy sex stuff.

At the check-out I got to know the girl a bit. Lisa works here part-time. Curiosity got the better of me and I struck up a conversation with her after I overheard her advising a male shopper on the right kind of vibrator to pick for his wife as a birthday gift.

“Is she tight?” Lisa was asking the guy, a 60-ish man in a baseball cap and jeans.

“Nah, my Stephanie is big as a barn. By that I don’t mean she ever let a horse in there,” the man said and they both, Lisa and the man, dissolved into peals of laughter.

The brief exchange made me feel sort of exhilarated. This was not some shady joint, tucked away in Kolkata’s Free School Street, a back street maze of shops that survive by paying off the neighborhood constable and specialize in raunchy stuff that are considered taboo. This was a regular commercial establishment, freely engaged unhindered, in the sales of pornographic merchandise, protected by the law. As in any store, like a clothing store, the manager was simply serving a customer. It blew my mind. It was the moment in time that I first realized I would love living in my adopted country, unburdened by bullshit hypocrisy and faux correctness.

Lisa is pursuing her Masters in Criminal Psychology at McGill and intends to join law enforcement, probably the RCMP’s Behavioral Sciences unit, the one responsible for investigating serial killings and violent, random crimes.

She told me she has never ever experienced being bothered by any customer. Just some giggly pre-teen boys and girls during the summer break. They left after she firmly asked them to. Entrance is restricted to 18plus, by law.

Here, as elsewhere in the west, sex is something that is normal, matter-of-fact and considered an inherent and necessary part of daily life, certainly nothing to be hidden away. It is normal to find couples browsing through the DVD shelves together or picking up and feeling the skin of a dildo or trying on lingerie. There is no bouncer keeping an eye on customers or looking out for the counter girl. The atmosphere is genial and open and the thought of misbehaving just doesn’t cross anyone’s mind.


We had been chatting for a while when I realized it was almost 5, closing time. I picked up my purchase, an orgy DVD, from the counter and made to leave. The DVD was titled ‘Man maid’ and the cover had a beautiful woman dressed in a maid’s uniform that was unable to hide a richard peeking from under her skimpy skirt, that looked like a giant anaconda. (I chose it because have this recurring fantasy about having sex with gorgeous girls with massive richards).

As I was leaving, I saw a tall young man in a suit and crew cut, rapping against the plate glass show window, from the outside. He had a toddler by the hand and the kid had his arm wrapped round the man’s thigh.

“Someone is trying to draw your attention,” I said to the girl, gesturing toward the window.

“Oh, that’s Kyle, my boyfriend and our little Jeremy. We’re taking him to Kung-Fu Panda-4.” She smiled as she blew a kiss in the general direction of the window. Matter of fact, mundane, another day in the life of a law-abiding female blue-collar worker who is simply looking out for her family.

Can La Sexie Folie open up a branch in Jhumritalaiya anytime soon? I doubt that.