The Savage

German alpinist, Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, at the Death Zone, on K2 (Photo courtesy National Geographic Magazine, April 2012)

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There is nothing romantic about the way it is named – K2. But it is easy to understand why.

Situated in the Karakorum ranges, straddling the border between Pakistan and China, K2 is etched in the annals of infamy as the mountain where one in every four climbers has died, attempting either to scale the near vertical faces or during descent.

If you are trying to break trail at 20000 ft on the K2, the terrain over which you are moving is so smooth and so steep that a sudden gust can simply blow you off the face in an instant. No wonder that experienced Alpiners have for long taken to calling K2 ‘The Savage’.

You don’t conquer the K2. She simply decides to tolerate you and if you don’t promise to make your stay a short one, she makes you a permanent house guest.

K2 was so named by TG Montgomery of the Geological Survey of India around 1856, as he logged peaks in the Karakorum Range as ‘K1, K2, K2…’ and so on.

No one knows why it never got a decent name after that. Maybe it was because it was not prominently visible from any of the trading routes in the Indian side. The Chinese had however noted it’s presence and began calling it “Qogiri” (pronounced “Chogori”), which means “Great Mountain.”

At 28250ft, the K2 is just 750ft lower than the world’s tallest peak, the distant Chomolungma, better known as Mount Everest. K2 is actually a longer and steeper climb than Everest, if the base-to-peak distance is taken, since the Chomolungma has a far smaller b-to-p height. K2 is also the second highest of the 14 ‘sisters’, the fourteen tallest mountains in the world, that are above 8000 meters (26000ft).

Easy to sketch for even a six year old, because of it’s near perfect Euclidian isoceles shape, K2 is a quintessential mountain. Alpine high altitude mountaineers would prefer to die on it, if given a choice of mountains to die on. On the other peaks, an accidental fall is short – maybe you’ll come to rest on a crag or a ridge a few hundred meters below, crushed but still breathing. Death will be a slow one, knowing there’s no hope, not a soul within miles and no hope of ever being found. The incessantly howling wind will smother you slowly, while the excruciating pain of shattered limbs courses through your body for hours before you lose consciousness.

That won’t happen on the K2, where your ultimate ride is a long, brief and painless drop, all the way down to the Qogir Glacier. You’ll hit a bunch of craggy blocks of ice on the glacier that had been moving along at a snail’s pace. Of course, you’ll probably already be dead long before you go ‘splat!’, choked by wind rushing past at terminal velocity.

K2, the near perfect triangle (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia)

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Picture this……

You have reached the ‘Death Zone’, the term Alpiners use for heights above 8000 metres.

The snow under your boots is frozen so solid that driving your front pointed crampons in requires real effort and you can slip from the recoil. A -60 windchill and the 80 kmph wind can easily pick you off the slope if you’re not tethered adequately.

You are breaking trail, so you’re around 15 metres above and to the left of the others in your team of three. To lessen the weight, your team is climbing without oxygen and tents. You have packed bivouacs which are special lightweight sleeping bags that you can breath through without accumulating moisture. Trust me, at that altitude you wouldn’t want moisture.

The incline is approximately 60 degrees and it is a straight, uninterrupted 15000 ft drop from the narrow ice ledge over which you are inching forward.

You stop to drive a piton into the ice a few inches above your head, feeling your left crampon slowly sink into the hard snow under foot. The snow closes around the sharp spikes of your crampon tightly. Meanwhile, you snake your rope in through the eye of the piton you just drove in and snag it to your waist. You tug the rope to let the others know you’re secure. The Pakistani guide, Mohammed Arif Khan, tugs back in acknowledgement.

You begin to lift your left boot to inch forward. It won’t budge. The crampon is set solid in the ice. You wriggle your boot a bit and give it a second tug and there’s a clear ‘snap!’ as the crampon comes loose and remains in the snow when your boot lifts up. All your weight is on your right foot now.

You take a deep breath, steady yourself and move your chin down to take a look. The crampon is set into the ice and there’s no way you can bend down to prise it loose. Even if you did, it’d be impossible to slip it on again. You turn your torso slightly to look down at the others.

The Pakistani has noted your situation and probably understood what has happened. With four previous summit attempts on the K2 and six of the fourteen sisters under his belt, he knows you are doomed. He gestures to the third member of the team, Jaegar, to halt.

That’s when you feel the snow beneath your right boot begin to give. You desperately try to grapple around in that narrow space trying to locate even a tiny hand-hold, but the ice face is too slippery and smooth. The ledge beneath suddenly disappears and you plunge.

You fall 20 feet before the slack is taken and the rope is taught, straining at the piton you just installed. The wind is picking up and blowing snow off the rock face and right into your eyes as you swing free, 20620ft above the Godwin-Austen Glacier.

This is the last of the fourteen sisters, the 8000+ metre peaks, that still challenges you. You’re no sissy. You survey the ice face as you continue swinging, trying not to dwell on the possibility that that piton you drove in may not take your weight for too long.

A little over six metres to the left and above, you see a niche-like cavity around four feet wide and as deep. It’s on the far side of the others but you have no other option. You start widening the swing of the rope, feeling it abrade against the rough surface and soon you are swinging in 60 degree arcs. Your next swing brings you close enough for you to grip the ledge of the cornice and you pull yourself up into the niche.

You push yourself as far back into the little dugout space as possible and are relieved not to feel the pinpricks of the blowing snow anymore.

Sometime during the afternoon, you peek over the edge of the niche. The base is obscured by a thick layer of clouds, like cushions strewn haphazardly around. You peer to the right. The Pakistani and Jaegar are out of your field of vision.

They did right. They moved on, since there was absolutely no possibility of success of any rescue attempt. A helicopter extraction in the Death Zone is unheard of and has never been attempted. The niche is virtually inaccessible to climbing, the faces on either side nearly vertical and solid ice.

You know that your time is up. Your eyes stray to the luminous dial of your watch. It’s getting to 2pm. By the time the dial reaches that position in twelve hours, you will be dead. You smile grimly. Funny how one’s destiny changes in an instant.

During the afternoon another expedition passes within 50 meters of your shelter, so close you can see their faces. You watch and weakly wave as the trail breaking lead trains his glasses at you and waves back. He has obviously been notified about you over the satellite radio.

The expedition moves on and disappears from your line of vision after a while. You don’t hold it against them. There is simply no way that they can come to your aid, so inaccessible is your perch. Besides, you say to yourself, this is the life you chose. Above the Death Zone, immobility means death and they had to keep going.

Before the sun has dipped over the the 24100 ft Skil Brum, to the west, two more expeditions pass you by. They too spend a brief while peering at you. You smile a drunken lightheaded smile. You have become something of a spectacle. You try to wave back at them but your hands can’t seem to be able to move up from where they are, on your lap.

You shake out of your stupor and see that the sky is clear, a deeper, darker blue. The wind has stalled. To your left, on the ice face, the trail along which you had seen the three expeditions pass you by, is no longer visible, having been overtaken by the lengthening shadows.

You stare out into the void. The view makes you catch your breath. Over to your right, around 10kms as the crow flies, seeming so near that you could reach out and touch it, is another one of the fourteen sisters, the 26100 ft Broad Peak. You note a wisp of what looks like smoke from a chimney but is in fact snow being blown off the peak by 100 kmph winds.

You remember losing Kurt on Broad Peak last August. Over the years you have lost many partners on the thirteen sisters that you have summited. This was to be your fourteenth and last.

You think of the Vienna University position you wanted to take after this. And the Vienna University history scholar you’d spent the winter with. Ralf was right now waiting anxiously at the Rawalpindi hotel for word from your team leader. Maybe he already knew by now, thanks to modern technology, a.k.a. satellite phones.

It is dark now, still clear, the wind velocity almost zero, the entire vista bathed in diffused moonlight reflecting off the snows. You are a headstrong woman and you will choose even the way you die. You stretch and start moving on your belly toward the edge, the lip of the niche. Your head clears the edge and you stare into the void below. The view is obscured by the cloud tops at 15000 feet. You swing your legs over the edge of the niche and pause for a moment as you hang.

At that moment everything suddenly clears. Like as if a veil has lifted from your mind and your heart and you clearly hear the voice. You are fourteen and it’s your father, Hans Gunther and he’s looking up at you, his face calm and composed, while you hang precariously from the lip of that recess a thousand metres from the base of the Eiger.

“It’s OK, Gerlinde, I have you. You can let go now….. Geree, let go, the rope won’t hold…… Let go, Geree. Now”

You crane your neck one last time to look down at the cloud tops far below. Hans is a tiny dot down there but you can make out his broad smile. You let go.

You don’t come to rest a 100 metres below in a crag, a gulley or an out crop and writhe in pain for hours before you die. There are no crags or outcrops on this baby. You sail through the rarefied air, swiftly attaining terminal velocity and you keep descending at a steady 200kmph, until you hit a ridge at 11000ft, bounce off it and come to rest on the Qogir Glacier, a full 20000ft below where you lost your crampon.

In all, the fall has taken approximately two minutes, give or take, not enough time to see your past flash by, the -50 windchill ensuring that you’re dead long before you hit the glacier and disappear into one of it’s many crevasses.

High above the inching Qogir, sudden streaks of lightning blaze through the dusk. It starts snowing, the wind picking up speed till the snow is gusting horizontally. In minutes, the world turns into a wall of thick white.

The Savage is celebrating. The Savage doesn’t like you. And by the time the night is done, the Savage won’t leave any traces.

PS:

The other day I was leafing through the National Geographic Magazine’s April 2012 issue and chanced upon a spine tingling account of the ascent of K2. The climber in the photo above is ace alpinist, Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, the only woman to conquer all the fourteen sisters, seen here negotiating a ledge on the K2, at 26500ft. Gerlinde scaled the peak without supplemental oxygen. You’ll find the gripping account of her ascent in the National Geographic Magazine, at the following link :-

Nat Geo : Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner’s K2 assault

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Acquiescence

Acquiesence

She looked 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 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 my face 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 small 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?”

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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.

Ale, Malamud and the Hadzas

Bigotry and the search for morality …… and decadence. That’s Malamud’s ‘The fixer’ and the pint of Rickard’s Red.

Red ale is decadent, specially when a plump, pink-cheeked Quebecois girl – with a cleavage you could ski down – serves it to you with a twinkle.

And Malamud’s Yakov Bok is actually me. Jeez, how did Malamud know I would grow into a Yakov Bok?

But wait, that’s a kinda first impression. I have just started on the book. I am on page 45 of 271 pages. Maybe by the time I reach page 271, Bok will be a stranger. The reviews say he redeems himself in the end.

I don’t see me redeeming myself ever.

I bought the book at Nova, the 2nd hand book store by the riverside, because it had that old Penguin paperback smell that reminded me of once being young.

I really need a refill and have ta walk up to the bar since Miss Chubby TwinkleEyes isn’t looking in this direction. And why would she? There’s a hunk in a soiled paint-spattered construction worker outfit chatting her up.

I wish I was sweaty and hunky. Dear female readers, are women turned on by sweaty, smelly men? The Hadza women are. Hadza men don’t bathe for weeks in order ta smell desirable. Read this if you don’t want ta believe me……

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2009/12/hadza/

But hey, wait a second. I might have got it the other way round. Maybe its the Hadza men who insist that their women go without a wash for two weeks before they can consider having sex with them.

Heck, what’s the difference? If men are able ta get a hard-on only with stinky women, obviously women like their men to be stinky too. The two cannot be mutually exclusive.

Dear readers, do answer this poll, though. I’ll decide ta stop bathing on it’s basis.

There, see what you did to me? I was talking about this amazing book by Bernard Malamud and you waylaid my thoughts. So, toodle-oo!

Is that you, darling? Are you home?

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

You rise, drape the Kanuk overcoat over your shoulders and step outside, closing the door of your tiny office. You walk slowly down the corridor, swarming with eager young faces rushing about, files and folders in hand, balancing cell phones with their chins.

You walk to the bank of elevators 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 ok 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. Something smaller in Vaudrueuil-Dorion, will do just fine. With enough room for Arnav and Tina and their families to come and stay in, when they visit. You’ll call your real estate agent, first thing tomorrow.

As the elevator stops at each floor and the crowd ebbs and flows, your gaze falls on the logo by 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 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. The CEO 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,” Patrick Hansen, CEO, 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 goes there. I’ll get Kristie to have a word with the principal, Gwen Arnold, no problem.” He is referring to the exclusive $21000 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 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. 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 Joint Chief of Staff, Pat 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 for it speaks for the respect he commanded over the rank and file.

One of the two MOH recommendations came from an incident where he 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 tarmac as flames began to sizzle up from somewhere behind the cockpit.

Lt Cdr 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. 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 A-10 exploded as they reached the base of the flag bridge.

Retiring from the navy, Rear Admiral Pat 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, 46 years back. 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 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 two years back, this one balmy Sunday his personal Embraer Phenom100 jet 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 Mercedes B-series 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 lying there for the past few days, it’s owner, Bill Mullholand, having 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 above 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?”

A.O.G

It seems like a hundred years have passed since that night.

The kid’s room, 9pm, I’m done reading to him. He’s tucked in, barely awake, breathing settling down. I switch off the bed lamp and start to rise, when I feel his little paw on my arm.

“ChooChoo.” (don’t know how he started calling me that).

“Yes?”

“I want you to take me to your work. I wanna see what you do.”

“Geezers, that’s exactly what I had in mind. I need yore help.”

“Really?”

“We have an ‘AOG’ situation and I sure could use your expertise.” My voice has dropped to an urgent whisper.

“What’s an ‘AOG sichwashun?” wide awake, on his elbows now, big eyelashes fluttering and making it a bit windy in there.

“Aircraft On Ground.”

“No kidding!” mouth agape now. I gently shut his lips lest a fly should do a low level sortie.

“We have a rotor, taken off a crashed F-117 turbine. We did a PPDP on it at 250 cycles. Found a .30 positive indication with some sticky pink FOD at the bottom.”

“What’s an effohdee?”

Foreign Object Damage. Jet engines sometimes stop workin’ because stuff get’s inside the rotor blades, y’know. Highly dangerous, life-and-death sichwashun….”

“How’d the effohdee get there?”

“Oh, it was a Tomcat, coming in to land on the Abraham Lincoln. The pilot was a rookie – he had the FOD in his mouth, against regoolashuns. He opened his canopy to spit it out and it went in through the intake.”

“What do you want me ta do?”

“Thought we could bring you in, deputize you and you could run a sample thru’ your extensive bubble gum database.”

“ChooChoo!” exasperation, realizes I’m kidding. Giggles anyway. I tuck him in again.

A shadow suddenly looms across the doorway. It feels like one of those huge alien ships gradually blanketing the earth in ‘Independence Day’. The room is suddenly cold and I distinctly hear a wolf’s baleful howl… oooouuuuuh! I shiver. Seems like Halloween is a bit early.

The shadow belongs to the Persian woman who lives in my house. She looks cross at my keeping the kid past his bedtime.

I beat it quick. Phew!

A love story

Summer, you bastard, you’re here and no thanks for it. If you had a butt I I would be kickin’ it right about now. For bein’ so so so late.

And it’s just 10 fookin degrees C.

I never wanted ta be rude to you, summer, but fook you, I decided I’m going ta have a beer anyway.

I’m having an ale actually. Ales and beers are the same, except ales make it seem like you’re Robin Hood. And Robin Hood could fuck anybody.

But relax, summer, I love ya. You have no idea how much I like ta see you comin’ around. Right now, if I had ta choose between Scarlett Johanssen and you, I’d choose you. And that’s saying a lot, trust me. I am one horny bastard.

Imagine, I seen you come around like this for 63 fookin years, but it’s only in the last 16 (after I came to Canada) that I’ve grown ta appreciate you. The broads here have better legs and they wear less clothes during you.

So a big “hi” at last, you son of a bitch.

My first smoocherooney

I have written of just about anything in this blog, except my first kiss which happened with a girl named Rashmi Bhagwat.

It was 1967, in a small town called Durgapur, in the Indian province of West Bengal. I was 12 then and I am 63 now, but listen, you’ll never ever forget your first smoocherooney, trust me.

I still remember that day vividly. The rest of the school was out at the stadium race-track for the annual parade march-past dress rehearsal.

The morning had gone by playing the fool, leaving corny notes on each other’s desks, hiding our compass boxes from each other and generally poking good-natured fun at one another.

This thing between Rashmi and me had been going on for a while and we were beginning ta feel like it  was all sort of building up to something but we didn’t realize what that was.

In fact my lips had brushed against her ear on an occasion that week and I had managed to say, “Surprise attack!” and grinned. She had expressed mock shock and given me a playful slap and run off to the other girls.

That day, the bell rang for the parade rehearsal and everyone began trooping down to the stadium – except Rashmi, who had been loitering behind. Instead of following the crowd, she gave me a glance to ensure she had my attention and she slipped away and disappeared inside the chemistry lab.

I followed her in. The Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortés, would have been proud of me.

I found her at the far corner, behind a cupboard filled with the burettes and pipettes. She wasn’t doing any chemistry experiments or anything – she just stood there. The moment I swung into her field of vision, her hands flew to her face and covered her eyes, her middle and forefingers parting a crack to see if i was making any progress toward her.

In a few strides I was on her and as I held her tight, she kept trying to wriggle free, though not with any genuine conviction. She kept real quiet though and that should have told me something but it didn’t. In fact I kinda lost my balance holding her and she thought I was stepping back. Her hands snaked up my back and yanked me back to her tight.

Now that should definitely have told me something, no? This time it did. It emboldened me. I stared at her beautiful lips and said,“What would you do if I kissed you right now?” Her beautiful face took on a devilish twist. She seemed like she wanted nothing else.

“I would kiss you right back,” she whispered and before her palms could fly right back up to her face, I had them in mine.

Rashmi was a head shorter and had her face buried in my chest so I wouldn’t be able to reach her lips with mine. Still, I tried. I crouched low, not letting go of my grip on her shoulders for even a moment, as I tried to reach down with my lips, but they barely came till her pretty nose.

About to give up, I sighed and gently gave the tip of her nose a peck and started to move away, when she stopped struggling and went slack in my arms. She brought her face up to mine, her bright beautiful eyes an inch away from mine, so close that I had only her eyes in my vision. Suddenly their texture changed, the pupils widened and the corners crinkled. Though I couldn’t see her full face from up that close, I knew she was smiling.

Taking this as a cue, I plunged my lips down but instead, I felt her knee come up and connect with my adolescent testicles with a crunch and I let go with a yelp. She sprang free and ran, coming to a stop a few yards away.

Then she did a funny thing. She stopped and turned. It wasn’t over yet, I rejoiced silently. Pretending to be really seriously hurt, I fell on the floor and gasped, my face screwed up in mock agony. Taking hesitant steps, she inched back toward me, the devilishly naughty look replaced by one that was puckered in genuine concern – the look that had bowled me over in the first place.

I lay curled up in a ball, gasping for breath and I let her come within reach until she stooped to take a closer look. That is when she noticed the look in my eyes but it was too late by then. I uncoiled in a speedy blurr, reached out and grabbed her as she let out a high-pitched squeal, more in excitement mixed with delight, than fright.

“They’ll look for us!” said Rashmi and shivered,” Hurry!”

Now, dear readers, please – take it easy. Between the 1967 ‘hurry’, and the 2018 ‘hurry’, there have been genuine advances. Bras and panties became passé, folks have streaked naked over open ground and the word ‘f–k’ entered the lexicons of the world. The 1967 ‘hurry’ meant just a kiss, not even a French kiss.

I took her soft hands in mine and my lips skimmed over her forehead, her eyes, her ears and her nose just grazing against each while her breath clouded my specs. Finally I found her lips and remained there a while. It was the first time my lips had been on a girl’s and I explored the tiny ridges that run vertically along lips that are maiden and form when the weather is dry. I didn’t know it was dry out there, Jeeze, I was sweating like crazy. For a brief instant, I felt those ridges with my tongue but she recoiled in horror, so I hurriedly put my tongue back in. I have always been quite an explorer. If Capt. James Cook was hiring, he would have offered me a signing bonus.

We remained that way, giving each other tiny pecks and kisses, for what seemed like an eternity. Nothing was said, the words pouring out through our lips, google-translated into kisses. The Almighty created lips for communication  but I am sure even He didn’t figure how well kisses can articulate.

In the middle of our kiss, her lips stretched, her teeth made contact with mine and her eyes crinkled and  a sweet baby breath with an Amul butter tinge in it, lingered out and engaged my nostrils and I knew she was smiling again. If she had demanded that I walk off a cliff then, I woulda.

That’s when we heard the kids coming back in. She pushed me back against the burette/pipette shelf, making it jangle and almost tipping over some the pipettes that were near the edge.

And then she ran away, blowing a kiss at me as she turned the corner and disappeared.

After that first time, the back of the chemistry lab served us well on our canoodling, being empty most of the time. Our chemistry teacher sucked and no one liked chemistry. There we would crouch – not speaking, just kissing interminably long kisses. 1967 kisses were just kisses and didn’t come with any feeling up or squeezing you-know-whats.

About a year later, Rashmi moved away with her family, to Asansol, another small town like Durgapur where nothing really went on. Rashmi had lovely feet and wore nupurs that jingled just a wee bit and drove me nuts. The day before she left we had one last marathon canoodle behind a rack of bunsen burners. She cried a little and knowing how much her nupurs turned me on, she left me a pair of faux silver ones.

Actually I am not sure how much of this anecdote really happened – all those years and all, y’know – things get a bit hazy. Did I find her behind the cupboard in the chemistry lab or was it in the library? Did we have a chemistry lab at all, or was the lab from my memories of my next school, La Martiniere, where a few years later, I ….. oh, forget it, you won’t believe what happened in La Marts anyway.

But, listen, if you haven’t yet kissed anyone and want ta, prepare yourself for a very surreal roller-coaster ride. As your lips meet, every nerve ending shall twang, every hair stand on it’s end. Your eyes shall swim, finding it nigh impossible ta focus. It isn’t a sexual thing. Guys, you won’t even get a hard-on even if you are old enough to have one, but the excitement shall be so intense as to make you feel faint. At that moment you’ll be ready ta do anything for this girl. If her lips are slightly parted and she uses a breath freshener, the sensation of slipping your lower lip in will simply blow your mind.

Those days, Indian girls were very passive and demure. They made no moves, but just sat back and loved being kissed all over. I would say Rashmi was a bit more precocious than most other girls of that era. Rashmi’s face would take on a flushed glow when we kissed, I swear to ya.

And me – I was flushed too but suffice it to say that those days I was innocent. I believed that a stiff dick was just another term for an obstinate 12th century English King with a backache and a lion heart and baobabs were really African fruits that just enjoyed existing in pairs.

I know I shall never be able to go back and stand there in that school in that tiny town in India, without feeling the taste of Amul butter in my lips.

 

Comeuppance

The old woman with the walking stick had a weathered look. She and I had been the only two passengers on the 354, all the way from St. Anne. At 4:30am an empty bus is not unusual. That’s when I leave for work. I am a regular but I hadn’t seen her before.

I wondered what compelled her to make the trip so early in the morning. “Must be a nanny, catching an early shift,” I surmised. She’s a Phillipino. QED – stereotyped with the flick of an eyelid. For all I knew she might have been a McGill Professor, early because she was going to chair a seminar on space medicine that afternoon.

At the Atwater Terminus, she waited for the bus to come to a complete stop, before she clutched the stick with both hands for leverage and rose unsteadily. At the doorway, the gap between the edge of the running board and the sidewalk was wide, filled with a dirty grunge of slush and melting snow. She hesitated. I glanced at the driver who recognized the problem and activated the hydraulic platform that extended and slid onto the sidewalk. The hydraulic platform is used for folks on wheel chairs.

The woman turned to the driver and smiled a wan smile, forming the word “Mèrci” on her lips, before she stepped off.

This early in the morning, downtown Montreal bears the haunted look of a weary drunk. The ground zero of bustle – Atwater – is totally deserted, the bars having closed at 3:30, the homeless having found their bus stops and their shopping mall awnings to find some space where the chill -6C wind can’t get at them.

When I stepped off the bus, I peered into the darkness. She had disappeared. There’s a neighbourhood for rich folks nearby – Westmount. Her nanny job probably takes her there, I thought.

I made my way to the massive Alexis Nihon Mall, which stays open because it has a McDonalds inside and McDonalds are 24-hour joints. I usually park my ass on a bench there because the mall has a direct access to the Atwater Metro Station and I can sit there with a cappuccino and wait for the Metro Station doors to open.

The 5:42 to Berri Uqam was on time. I got on. Usually I don’t sit down. I always prefer to stand because I have my back pack on – it has my lunch, my Bose headphone case, my Nikon, my pills, kleenex and paperback. I usually get on the train, hook my arm round one of those vertical shiny stainless steel rods, stand facing the door inches away and tune into morning NYT “The Daily” podcast.

Metro doors have a fail safe system that ensures a passenger doesn’t get stuck between closing doors. It allows someone inside to step up and bar the doors from closing. The doors say “Oops” and spring back open. And as long as the doors are open, the failsafe system prevents the train from moving. This ensures that you don’t get accidentally stuck half in and half out and the train starts rolling.

The clinging chimes signal sounds 10 seconds before the doors start closing and it had already gone off when there she was – the nanny with the stick. She had stepped off the escalator and was desperately trying to bridge that gap before the doors closed, infirmity preventing her from running the few yards in.

She didn’t make it. The doors closed with a hydraulic sigh and the high-torque Siemens electric motors propelled the carriage forward with a swoosh.

My last glimpse of her as she flashed by remains till this day – the same wan resigned smile, accepting what life has dealt her, unquestioningly. I could have stepped up and prevented the doors from closing so she could get on. The next train was 45 minutes away and a Metro station so early isn’t the safest place for an old woman.

But I didn’t. I stood there rooted, inches away from that door, oblivious to everything as I listened to BBC Analysis blaring through my headphones, on the Syrian refugee crisis, only a fraction of my consciousness noting that the woman couldn’t get in.

I believe in comeuppance. I hope that I get mine while I am still alive.

Spring arriveth

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That’s as close ta spring as I can get.

See how the ice has broken up into little bobbing floes. And the trees, still gaspin’ ta get back into shape. Yonder, a few ring-billed gulls are sun bathin’.

This foto is from last spring. I figured you won’t know the difference, so overwhelmed you’ll be, at my fotografic brilliance.

I mean, if you take a second look at the janam patri (horoscope) that your mom had prepared upon your birth, there’s a tiny section there that says you’d meet this amazing guy on social media by the name of Spunkybong and he’d sweep you off yore feet.

It’s there, find that paper with all those weird circles and the Sanskrit mumbo jumbo and I’ll be there in the cawnah that’s reserved for miracles.

To my non-Indian friends who are reading this, a ‘janam patri’ is a stiff sheet of what is made to look and feel like ancient parchment. It is prepared in the immediate aftermath of your birth by your friendly neighborhood Hindu sage, once your mom feeds him with the date and exact time of your birth and pays him a hundred smackeroos.

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An example of a simpler janam patri. Janam patris are usually way more complicated than this one. You should see mine. It screams at you. Looks like this one was prepared for a hill billy who would have very little to look forward to, in life.

———————————

You and I wouldn’t be able to read the janam patri, since it is all in the ancient Indian language, Sanskrit. It is very colorful, with tightly packed circles, arrows, criss-crossing lines and script, the characters written in ochre, laying out in minute detail the course your life will take, whether you’ll turn out to be a shit-face jerk or you’ll be a world famous movie star.

If you’re a follower of one of the abrahamic faiths, I was the 11th Commandment, on the bottom right hand corner of the stone tablet. It said, “Thou shall let Spunky covet anything he wants ta covet.” Unfortunately old Moe tried ta grab it right after the good Lord had carved it out with his bolts of lightning, when it was still smouldering and sizzling hot. Add to that his arthritis and all and Moe dropped the tablet and that corner got chipped off, so nobody got ta read it.

Listen, you’ll just have ta trust me on this. Have I ever lied to ya?

Stop the Drama

Have you ever watched those YouTube video compilations of American soldiers coming home and surprising their family?

I accidentally clicked on a compilation video. At one level, it was heartwarming. The bride at a wedding and her brother walks in from Iraq. The daughter at her high school graduation and her fighter pilot father steps out from behind all those robes and turns out to be the one handing her the diploma. The middle-aged primary school teacher mom, helping the kids prepare cards to give their moms since its Mother’s Day and in walks her Navy Seal son, back from Afghanistan, holding a bunch of flowers in his hand. The German shepherd moping around the backyard, bored and suddenly he goes berserk when he hears his army medic ‘daddy’ say, “Hey, Brutus, cumere you!” And he leaps into his arms with a series of loud whining barks and yelps of ecstasy.

I haven’t seen one from other countries or groups. Maybe there just aren’t that many going off to fight wars in distant lands, trying to “make the world a safer place”.

Or maybe there aren’t that many coming out alive. Perhaps the concept of family is a different one in places other than America. Or maybe serving in the military just isn’t such a big deal in other nations. I know for a fact it isn’t, in my country of birth, India. And yet, Indian soldiers are among the fiercest and most dedicated. Have you seen any similar videos of Israeli soldiers? I haven’t.

Do only American soldiers have family or does the American military actually stage these as “surprise homecomings” and then flood YouTube with the videos, as a PR exercise? Don’t believe me? Just enter “American soldier surprises family…” on the search box and you’ll have hours and hours of those tear-jerkers, non-stop, every last one of them an American soldier.

Of all of them only the German shepherd would freak out with exactly the same intensity, even if it was only the corner store that you were coming home from. He won’t give a flying eff if you were a soldier or you were not.

Stop the drama, America.